Residential Tenancies Bill 2003: Second Stage (Resumed).

Thursday, 2 October 2003

Dáil Eireann Debate
Vol. 571 No. 3

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Question again proposed: “That the Bill be now read a Second Time.”

Mr. Haughey: Information on Seán Haughey  Zoom on Seán Haughey  I welcome the Bill, which arises out of the report of the commission on the private rented sector. Widespread consultation took [1197] place regarding the formulation of the Bill, which aims to ensure tenants are treated fairly. I hope the legislation has a speedy passage through the Houses of the Oireachtas. Housing is a major issue. High levels of economic growth have resulted in both the return of emigrants and immigration while growth in the population generally has led to an increased demand for housing. This combined with low interest rates has ensured house prices have increased substantially.

Major efforts have been made, therefore, to increase the supply of housing. Approximately 57,000 units have been constructed annually for the past few years and this has helped. The Government has rightly prioritised social and affordable housing. Local authorities and voluntary and co-operative housing organisations continue to provide first class accommodation. Groups such as Respond, Hail, Summit, Aoibhneas and NABCO have constructed fine housing schemes and tenants have fully integrated into the local community.

The aspiration to home ownership is important in our society and that is positive. The State helps those on lower incomes to achieve home ownership through the affordable housing and shared ownership loan schemes. However, these schemes should be constantly reviewed. The high price of housing in Dublin has meant the shared ownership loan scheme has not been as successful as expected and that is appreciated by the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Noel Ahern. In addition, progress on the supply of affordable housing units has been slow in my constituency, for example, but there are signs of an improvement in this regard. Many young couples are not sufficiently aware of these schemes and the Department and local authorities should do more to publicise the help that is available for those who need it.

The Bill confirms the Government's view that a stable rental sector is a vital part of the housing market. A sufficient supply of rented accommodation is important generally. While the measures taken on foot of the Bacon reports to take the investor out of the housing market in recent years might have led to a temporary improvement for first-time buyers, it worsened the position of those in the private rented sector, as evidenced by a shortage in supply and escalating rents. Escalating rents resulted in significant payments in rent supplements by health boards at a major cost to the taxpayer. Thankfully, rent increases have moderated and balance has been restored to the market. The question arises as to whether Government can buck the market trend. It does not look like it, on the basis of our recent experience in this regard, but I suggest that is a question for another day.

It is generally accepted that the percentage of the Irish population living in rented accommodation is out of sync with the rest of Europe. That is likely to change, however, despite our attach[1198] ment to home ownership. It is likely that renting will become a real medium to long-term option. Tenants deserve more rights, therefore, and such rights are being provided in this Bill. The law has tended to favour the property rights of landlords, but this Bill will bring about a balance in that regard.

Part 2 of the Bill deals with the tenancy obligations of landlords and tenants. The maintenance of rented accommodation by landlords has been an issue for my constituents in the past. This Bill imposes an explicit requirement on landlords to maintain the structure and the interior of a rented property to the standard that applied at the commencement of the letting. I hope this will work in practice. The housing regulations in this regard did not work as expected in the past. Tenants felt unable, for many reasons, to report landlords to local authorities and environmental health officers in many cases. It is clear for all to see that the difficulties in obtaining private rented accommodation, in the first instance, mean that a tenant is unlikely to go to an environmental health officer to report inadequate conditions. Tenants are likely to bring many problems on themselves if they decide to make such a report. Enforcement of regulations and standards was also an issue when there were inadequate staff levels at local authority level. All Deputies who are honest will say they are aware of poor quality rented accommodation in their constituencies. I hope this Bill's provisions will bring about change in that regard for once and for all.

Part 2 of the Bill obliges tenants not to engage in anti-social behaviour. This is an important initiative, as such behaviour by tenants in private rented accommodation is a real problem in many housing estates. My experience indicates that young people, in particular, are sometimes involved in drunken behaviour, playing loud music and all-night partying. I do not suggest that such behaviour is exclusively confined to young people, such as students who are renting accommodation. The complaints I receive often relate to such people, however. As a public representative, I often feel helpless in tackling such problems when they are brought to my attention by neighbours. I may be unable to track down the landlord in question. When I am able to contact a landlord, he or she is often unwilling to respond to a letter highlighting a problem. The Garda Síochána can be contacted, but gardaí often have enough to do. The Garda does not have enough legal provisions at its disposal to deal with the problems I have mentioned. The enforcement of laws relating to noise pollution, for example, may involve contacting the noise control unit of a local authority or the EPA. None of the solutions I have mentioned has worked in the past, but I hope this Bill's provisions will help to tackle this big problem in our communities.

Part 7 of the Bill relates to the registration of tenancies. New registration requirements will replace the 1996 registration regulations. There have been real problems in the past in getting [1199] landlords to register with local authorities. I do not have the relevant statistics, but my experience suggests that as few as 20% of landlords registered in the past. I appreciate that certain court cases have not helped this problem, but I believe the time has come to make an all-out effort to enforce the law, to ensure that landlords are registered with local authorities and to ensure that this Bill is implemented in full. I hope the Bill will lead to improvements. There has been no enforcement of the registration laws. There is a great deal of private rented accommodation in the district of Fairview in Dublin 3, which is in my constituency. My experience is that when one tries to determine whether certain properties are registered, one is invariably told that they are not. I hope the Bill will deal with the real problem that exists in this regard. I would welcome the Minister's views on the enforcement of the new provisions.

Landlords who have contacted me about this legislation have raised concerns about its provisions in respect of security of tenure, which are contained in Part 4. Security of tenure is provided for in the Bill on the basis of four-year cycles. Tenancies will be deemed terminated at the end of each four-year period, when a new tenancy will come into being, assuming the dwelling continues to be let to the same person or persons. A landlord will be free to terminate a tenancy without giving a reason in the first six months of a tenancy. Termination will only be possible in the remaining three and a half years where one of the grounds specified in the Bill applies. These grounds include failure by the tenant to comply with his or her obligations, the proposed sale of the dwelling, the proposed occupation of the dwelling by the owner or a family member, a proposed change in the use of the dwelling or the proposed major renovation of the dwelling. The proposed permissible reasons for the termination of a tenancy are quite extensive and flexible.

I have said to landlords who have contacted me about the provisions in respect of security of tenure that I consider the provisions to be reasonable and fair. Various groups and organisations representing property owners have circulated misinformation. When I explain the provisions to property owners they accept that they are fair and balanced and are generally satisfied with the Bill.

Public representatives, particularly in the Dublin area, need to be conscious of the strategic planning guidelines for high density developments. Planning applications are being made for high density, and often poor quality, apartment developments. It has been my experience that this has the potential to destroy some of our traditional neighbourhoods. Very often a planning application will involve the destruction of an old house and its replacement with a huge apartment block, which may be of poor quality. Many of the units in these apartment blocks are rented, although my concern does not arise from this fact. We need to plan our areas properly and not [1200] destroy old traditional neighbourhoods. Where we give permission for such developments we must be conscious of the areas in which they are taking place, be very selective and ensure that the necessary infrastructure is in place. This issue is of concern to my constituents and local planning authorities must be conscious of it in the future.

The Bill provides for the legislative reforms of the private rented sector recommended by the Commission on the Private Rented Sector, which published its report in July 2000. The Bill has been a long time in the pipeline. However, I accept that the Minister and the Department needed to consult widely on the report as published. I am happy that the Government is implementing the recommendations of the commission and this Bill is another step in that process.

Various groups and organisations have lobbied on the Bill. Lobbying has taken place on behalf of property owners and of Threshold, which works in the interest of tenants. I pay tribute to Threshold for the great work it does in preparing policies for the private rented sector and in giving practical help to tenants who are faced with pressing problems concerning notices to quit or evictions and who are not familiar with the law. Threshold provides a first class service and deserves Government support, particularly financial support.

The Bill introduces a significant measure of security of tenure for tenants. It specifies minimum obligations applying to landlords and tenants and provides for the establishment of a private residential tenancies board to resolve disputes arising in this sector. I welcome the establishment of the private residential tenancies board. It will have a big workload and will provide a useful and invaluable service. The Bill which is overdue will revolutionise the private rented sector and is extremely welcome.

Mr. Penrose: Information on Willie Penrose  Zoom on Willie Penrose  I wish to share my time with Deputy Costello.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Rory O'Hanlon  Zoom on Rory O'Hanlon  Is that agreed? Agreed.

Mr. Penrose: Information on Willie Penrose  Zoom on Willie Penrose  I am glad to have the opportunity to contribute to the debate on this important legislation, which emanates from the proposals of the Commission on the Private Rented Sector. The commission made its recommendations as long ago as July 2000. If anything epitomises the lethargy and failure of the Government it is its tardiness in bringing forward this important legislation. All public representatives know how important this legislation is. We know that many people have been living in sub-standard accommodation.

I welcome the requirement that landlords register lettings. I agree with Deputy Haughey that the percentage of landlords who register is low. The 1996 regulations imposed a registration charge of €40 but only an infinitesimal number registered. The registration fee could have been [1201] a source of revenue for local authorities to enable them to carry out their statutory duty to provide accommodation for the thousands of young people who cannot afford to own their own home. The enforcement by local authorities of the requirement to register has left much to be desired. I hope the board will tackle this problem with strength and vigour and that the full rigour of the law will be brought to bear on landlords who fail to register. This is an important protection for people who are obliged to pay exorbitant rents.

I will return later to the question of rents. Some of the rent provisions are reasonable. However, as Labour Party spokesperson for social and family affairs I am aware of an inherent contradiction between what is set out in the Bill and the capping of rent allowances. I will offer constructive criticism and advice and I hope the Minister will take cognisance of it and accept it in the spirit in which it is offered.

In the late 1950s my family was lucky to secure a local authority house. It has been the ethos of the Labour Party to ensure that people have a decent house. In our periods of government we always tried to provide the maximum number of local authority houses because we are committed to doing so. Failure to provide the necessary local authority accommodation is an indictment of the Government.

No subject can more accurately encapsulate the dilemma of the Celtic tiger than that of housing. Paradoxically, as we got richer the ability of people to secure their own homes declined. We have to focus on housing as an instrument of social policy. Some will say we focus on it in different ways and that is why the Labour Party has a very different view on this matter from that held by others at the centre right in terms of their political philosophy. If we have to pay a little extra tax to ensure the less well-off have the opportunity to have a decent roof over their heads, so be it. Ultimately, if the common good is to be anything other than a constitutional aspiration, we have an obligation to provide the necessary shelter and accommodation for the 6,000 or 7,000 homeless people lying in doorways in various towns and cities. This level of homelessness is an indictment of us all. It is not easy to address but we must tackle it in a meaningful and positive way.

The aspiration of owning one's house or having access to public housing of a decent or high quality has become a far-fetched dream for many young people. Under the PPF the unions secured a commitment to provide 25,000 houses. Under Sustaining Progress, I believe there was a commitment to provide a further 10,000 units of affordable housing. These are very laudable commitments and they give people heart. It is easy for us to crib and in a time of restricted resources the Minister might say these commitments are the best the Government can make, but only 13,000 local authority houses were completed between 1999 and 2002. That is only slightly over half the [1202] number the Government committed itself to providing.

The Minister might say that the Government has introduced certain measures to address the problem, but the changes made in the affordable housing area at the end of 2002 emasculated him in terms of his ability to provide affordable housing because the amending legislation regarding the environment served as a capitulation to house builders and developers. We should be clear about that. They won the battle.

The social housing budget decreased last year by 5%. When all such factors are considered, it is no wonder that the queues for housing are forever growing longer. In my constituency, which is at a good remove of 60 miles from Dublin, a couple with two reasonable jobs can no longer afford to purchase a house. Such people, when growing up as children, would have aspired to owning one. The Minister may retort that we are hung up on house ownership in Ireland and that ownership is not the key issue abroad. The key issue abroad is accommodation with rights to ensure people are not turfed out at the whim of individuals and that proper leasing structures are in place to protect them from this. However, our Constitution establishes a very strong, fundamental base in respect of property rights. We subscribe to the philosophy that what we have we hold.

In the early 1990s we were building about 20,000 new houses per year but we needed to build about 50,000 to keep pace with the ever-increasing demand. The Minister might argue that the Government maintained inflation at a reasonably low level in the longer term. It did, although we argue that it contributed to inflation in the past 12 months. However, let us consider building inflation and the associated costs. The Minister and I will probably disagree regarding the cost of building land, which is central to the problem of escalating house prices. We should be clear that this is a sine qua non of the cost of housing.

If one examines the industrial building index pertaining to the early 1990s, just prior to the boom, the cost of a site contributed to about 14% or 15% of the cost of a house. Now this figure has increased to approximately 40% and is increasing towards 50% in Dublin. This is because a few people monopolise and control land banks. It is a speculators' charter. They release the land into the market in such a way that demand is always greater than supply and therefore they win.

Capital gains tax was decreased. The Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy, made great play of this and he had an argument for doing so. However, it did not do much for the holders of Eircom shares because they all lost out, but that is another matter. The very reason the Minister argued – it was a reasonable argument – in favour of decreasing capital gains tax from 40% to 20% was so the owners of the land banks would release their land and halve their capital gains tax liability, thus resulting in lower prices for our siblings. This never happened and the opposite [1203] occurred. The owners of the land banks became greedier and this is why the Minister must take action.

One cannot leave the market unregulated and this is why my colleague, Deputy Gilmore, will introduce relevant legislation at the first available opportunity. The free market in this case has afforded absolutely no favourable opportunity to house buyers. If the Constitution means anything when referring to the common good, we should not be afraid to try to help people who cannot afford housing. This is what we are about as legislators.

The Kenny report has provided the backbone of our argument and I realise the Taoiseach said the problem needs to be addressed. The report gave us something to play on. As a lawyer, I believe we have something to work with and we can introduce measures that are consistent with the Constitution. Capping the price of building land will be important in ensuring that ordinary people are afforded an opportunity to secure a dwelling house.

Mr. Costello: Information on Joe Costello  Zoom on Joe Costello  It is with a sense of déjà vu that we consider the Residential Tenancies Bill 2003. Those who remember their history classes at second level will recall the agitation that took place throughout the country in the 19th century regarding fair rent and security of tenure in terms of land. This mirrors present circumstances when we consider the laws that apply to private rented accommodation in urban settings in particular. We still live largely in a Victorian era. There is no fair rent or fixity of tenure. Anybody can be evicted with 28 days notice – families, children, etc. – without any comeback. There is no regulation in this respect and measures with which to deal with this are long overdue. We are the last country in the European Union to introduce them. The small measures in the Bill are certainly welcome and I would like to see us go a lot further in terms of the implementation of the report of the Commission on the Private Rented Sector. It is a shame that it has taken us so long to get this far.

One of the major issues that concerns me in recent years is the failure of local authorities to register landlords. When we introduced the legislation in the mid-1990s we had expected that all landlords would register, as they are obliged to do by law. We gave the local authorities the responsibility to register them. The registration was to be self-financing because the local authorities were entitled at the time to impose a levy of £40 per unit of accommodation. They simply did not exercise their duty regarding the implementation of the law. Approximately 80% of the landlords in this city are not registered, therefore we do not know the quality of accommodation in use or whether those people are paying tax. It means that a valuable source of income to local authorities has been foregone.

[1204]Local authorities throughout the country have behaved scandalously on this issue. It compares poorly with the alacrity with which they began to implement the legislation on waste management, when action was taken scarcely a month after the ministerial order was signed. A politician from this House was sent to prison for a month, yet in a display of double standards, local authorities have made no effort to implement the existing legislation in this area which, over the past eight or nine years, would have provided them with a revenue stream. They have failed to collect the levy from landlords and to ensure they were registered and compliant with the law. I never thought I would say I am glad that under this legislation, the function will be removed from the local authorities and given to the Private Residential Tenancy Board to ensure that registration takes place. It must be ensured that the board has adequate resources and personnel to enable it fulfil its mandate on a nationwide basis.

I have always been in favour of landlordism being considered as a commercial business. Landlords are in the business for profit. Their activities should be run like a business, which should be well regulated according to best practice and with high standards prevailing. Every unit of accommodation should be amenable to the Revenue Commissioners, another aspect of where the law has been more honoured in the breach than the implementation. I hope the requirement to register with the new board will ensure that those involved in this business will be tax compliant.

Another valuable stream of income could accrue to local authorities if landlordism was recognised as a commercial business subject to the imposition of a commercial rate, in the same way as retail outlets or businesses. Why should it not be regarded as a commercial business and why should a rate not be struck to cover landlords throughout this city who, at present, pay nothing to the local authorities even when these provide services that benefit them in the conduct of their business? An amendment to the Valuation Acts should be introduced that will allow for a valuation on a commercial basis of landlord accommodation to ensure they make a contribution to their local authorities and the running of the various urban areas in which they operate. Such a revenue stream would be far in excess of what is expected to accrue from the waste management charges applying in Dublin city. If the same tough action was taken against non-compliant landlords who have not bothered to obey the law and register their activity as has been applied in the area of waste collection, it would not be long before a couple of them were imprisoned and they all obeyed the law. The local authorities should be far more active in ensuring this happens.

I share the concerns expressed by Deputy Haughey about some of the developments in the city and that an element of ghettoisation could result because some accommodation was built to inadequate standards. There has been tremendous developments in what were previously der[1205] elict areas in the city, much of it in my constituency and that of Deputy Eoin Ryan. However, the area integrated development plans, which allow for planned development, have not been granted planning authority. By contrast, the Dublin docklands comprises the only area in the city which, under the Dublin Docklands Development Authority, has a planning authority dealing with development. The authority has the responsibility to draw up a master plan for the development of the area and the authority to grant planning permission, giving it equal powers to the local authorities. The same powers should have been granted in terms of the integrated area plans on the north and south sides of the city. This would have ensured control over developments. There is now a danger of over-development in certain areas, where some of the residential accommodation, with units comprising of one or two bedrooms, have been built to inadequate standards. There is a danger that accommodation will be constantly mobile with the result that people will not set down roots in their local communities, which is a cause of major concern.

I welcome the legislation, especially those provisions dealing with securing a market and a fair rent and the establishment of security of tenure. I hope the probationary period will be reduced and that a second such period will not be necessary after the first four years have elapsed. The legislation is long overdue and it should be fully implemented as quickly as possible.

Mr. Eoin Ryan: Information on Eoin Ryan  Zoom on Eoin Ryan  I wish to share my time with Deputy Ellis.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:  Is that agreed? Agreed.

Mr. Eoin Ryan: Information on Eoin Ryan  Zoom on Eoin Ryan  I welcome the Bill, which is long overdue. It should have been enacted a number of years ago. Nevertheless, I congratulate the Minister of State on bringing it before the House. Deputy Penrose referred to the price of houses and land. All public representatives are concerned about rising house prices. A few years ago, nobody would have foreseen the scale of the increases that have taken place. Many reports and initiatives, such as the Bacon report, have been produced in an attempt to restrict price increases but, unfortunately, they have not worked.

While I would like to think the Labour Party's views are correct, the reality is that there is no simple solution to this problem. Although more houses per head of population are being built here than is the case in other European countries, supply is not meeting demand. Unfortunately, until a balance is reached between demand and supply, prices will continue to rise. A recent television programme dealt with the housing market in England which, while is has not slumped has levelled off. All the experts on the programme said that prices will only rise again when the first-time buyers return to the market. By contrast, in Ireland the huge demand by first-time buyers [1206] continues to push up prices at the lower end of the market with the inevitable ripple effect upwards. Members from all sides of the House would enact whatever legislation or measures they considered necessary if they thought it would result in a stabilisation of prices, but unfortunately the demand is too high. That the pressure still exists is a demonstration of the buoyancy and strength of the economy. It is a serious problem, especially for first-time buyers, and needs to be addressed. It is to be hoped that, once supply meets demand, we will begin to see that turn around.

The Bill is long overdue. I represent Dublin South-East which has had a long tradition of rented accommodation. Rathmines and other parts of the constituency were famous for many years for rented accommodation. Fortunately much of the old period houses that were full of bed sits have reverted to single occupier ownership and modern accommodation of superior quality is available for tenants. That must be welcomed. Obviously not all the old-style accommodation has been removed and some people still live in poor conditions, but accommodation overall has improved.

Many complaints are made to the effect that people buy this new accommodation to rent it out and avail of the tax relief attached to it with the result that those who wish to buy it to live in it cannot afford it. The fact is that Dublin has grown as a city and its needs have changed. There is a larger transient population and good modern accommodation is needed for it. Many of these new apartments have met a demand. People should not criticise that fact. It is good to have such modern accommodation in the city.

That said, one of the downsides to the Celtic tiger which I witnessed in my constituency was the appalling rent increases some people in the private rented sector had to bear in recent years. Rents were increased willy nilly and some increases were incredible. I complained publicly at the time and am glad to see that rents have levelled off and, in some cases, are beginning to decline because, in certain parts of my constituency, it is not as easy to let out accommodation as before. It is good that rents have stabilised and I hope that they will decline to make accommodation more accessible to people trying to rent privately.

One of the reasons I welcome the Bill is the security of tenure it provides. My constituency is not unique in the fact that it has elderly people living in it, but I understand it has the highest proportion of them. They have been especially badly hit with rent increases. They are on a fixed income in the form of a pension, and some were living in apartments or flats for a number of years when rents went sky high.

Everyone remembers what happened in the Mespil flats. People had lovely apartments and had security of tenure because Irish Life owned the accommodation. It sold it off suddenly and the tenants were subject to the market rate for [1207] rents. Deputy Quinn, the former Deputy, Frances Fitzgerald, Deputy Michael McDowell, now Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, and I established a scheme with Irish Life to try to protect some of the elderly tenants. It worked to a certain degree in that it assisted them with these huge rent increases. We had to twist the arm of Irish Life to get it to do it but, in fairness, it put in place a pool of money to minimise the strain the rent increases had on the budget of these elderly people.

The legislation is important because of what it does in the area of rent or rent reviews. I am delighted to see that there is a hold on these which means that, if we ever return to a time when rents increase dramatically and suddenly, there will be some type of break on it and people will not have to pay hundreds of euro extra per month to landlords.

This legislation is long overdue. It will go a long way towards giving security, especially to older people who are vulnerable. They are on a fixed income in the form of a pension and need to be shown respect and feel secure in their homes. Not all of them can obtain local authority accommodation which means they need security. It is important, therefore, that we go out of our way to ensure that rent and rent reviews are controlled and that elderly people can appeal to an independent body to ensure their rent does not increase suddenly.

I congratulate the Minister on bringing the Bill before the House. I welcome it and, when it is in place, it can be strengthened in future as we see fit. It is a good beginning. I would like to see the introduction here of a concierge who lives in an apartment block and ensures it is run properly and that there is no anti-social behaviour. They exist in other European cities. Many of the problems, as Deputy Haughey said, arise from the fact that no one knows the landlord and anything can happen in apartments. This results in people living in poor conditions with a great deal of anti-social behaviour. It is unacceptable.

This Bill is good legislation for tenants and landlords. There are occasions when landlords are badly treated by tenants. They do not happen anywhere near as often as the occasions when tenants are badly treated by landlords, but they happen. The Bill gives powers and a mechanism to landlords to make an appeal to try to improve the behaviour of their tenants. That must be welcomed. Some landlords have been misled about the contents of the legislation, as Deputy Haughey said, but most will welcome it because it places on a statutory footing the regulation of this market and gives security for tenants and landlords.

Mr. Ellis: Information on John Ellis  Zoom on John Ellis  It is imperative that I declare an interest as a landlord of some properties. As a landlord, I welcome the Bill because it gives an opportunity to implement the report on the private rented sector. This is a sector that has for [1208] some time been a source of problems, mainly for tenants but also for landlords. In many cases, as Deputy Eoin Ryan said, tenants found that rents increased, in some cases on a monthly basis. That was terrible. They also had a problem with fixity of tenure. This is dealt with in the report.

Some previous speakers referred to the Bacon report. That did untold damage to the private rented sector, especially in Dublin. Many involved in the business left the market. Had some of the Bacon report recommendations continued in force, it would have resulted in rents for accommodation in Dublin being twice what they are today.

Thankfully, changes introduced by the Minister in recent years have resulted in many of those who had left the rental market to invest abroad returning to the market. This benefits tenants and the wider population of Dublin.

The right of tenants to protection is generally accepted. Fixity of tenure is a very old concept in Ireland. Many people in rural areas fought for it to be introduced for land. There should be no difference with regard to the roof over one's head.

It is a sad fact that many people will never be able to aspire to own accommodation. Whether by choice or due to economic circumstances, such people will be forced to remain in the rental sector. However, many people now believe that investing in a house is not as wise as it may appear and, rather than entering the housing market, would consider renting accommodation provided it is on a long-term secure basis. This would give them more disposable cash and allow them to lead a different lifestyle. Many have already made this choice and more will do so in the future. I wonder which group, tenants or buyers, will be proved right. This legislation helps to protect those who want to remain long-term tenants.

The Bill defines the rights of landlords which is important in light of the many horror stories about tenants who have damaged accommodation or left it in a shambles. Equally, however, it is unacceptable that certain landlords expect people to live in squalor. Local authorities should carry out an annual inspection of all rental accommodation, paid for by the registration fees they receive from landlords. This would help maintain standards and benefit everyone involved in the sector.

Students trying to rent accommodation in cities and towns with universities or third level institutions are another group which has faced major problems. They have often ended up living in extremely cramped conditions, which were detrimental to their person and their education. Recent decisions by the Government on funding and tax breaks for student rental accommodation are welcome. Landlords providing student accommodation do not have a right to impose on student tenants excessive restrictions or conditions, for example, in the area of down payments, which has been a problem in some cases.

[1209]The situation as regards local authority housing has been helped by the rural renewal scheme, particularly in the region in which I live. The scheme has encouraged people to invest in rural areas and resulted in a substantial increase in rental accommodation. Deputy Crawford is envious of what we have in County Leitrim. In Carrick-on-Shannon, for instance, many of the people who work in companies such as MBNA and Masonite Ireland would not have been able to find accommodation without the incentives available for investing in rental accommodation. While it could be argued that some of the tax breaks introduced in recent years have not been in the best interests of rural communities, this is not the case with regard to the rural renewal scheme.

People trying to provide for their accommodation needs in rural areas have encountered problems as a result of objections to one-off housing. Building a house in a rural area is often the only way to get on the property ladder. In many cases, outside groups and individuals have objected to one-off housing which is often wrong. Many of the objectors are people who have no significant involvement in the local community. Some of them have come to the local community from outside and decided they want the local area to be kept like a national park, while others have even suggested rural Ireland should be free of one-off housing. One should have the right to live wherever one wants within reason. In particular, anybody employed in an area or with family living in it should be entitled to receive planning permission, provided he or she does not want to erect a monstrosity, build on a corner or do something out of sync with the community in which he or she wishes to live.

This Bill is necessary and has been a long time coming. It will offer tenants and landlords an opportunity to settle disputes in a much more orderly fashion and will ensure they no longer have to incur the extreme expense of litigation when disputes arise. The absence of guidelines has been a bone of contention for both tenants and landlords for some time. If one had a problem tenant or landlord, one ended up having to bring a case before the courts, which is not a cheap option, particularly for tenants, many of whom do not have the resources needed to defend their rights. The Bill will give such people an opportunity to defend their rights without having to incur enormous costs.

The proposed private residential tenancies board will be busy in its early days, but I expect its workload will gradually reduce. People will realise it is a new forum for arbitration and settling tenancy disputes between tenants and landlords.

We have all been elected to protect the rights of each individual citizen, including tenants and landlords. I compliment the Minister on introducing this Bill which will help create a more organised rental sector. I hope changes made with regard to taxation will never again lead to people [1210] leaving the accommodation market, as occurred following some of the decisions taken on foot of the Bacon reports. The recent return to the market of investors is helping to stabilise rents and make rental accommodation more affordable.

Mr. Eamon Ryan: Information on Eamon Ryan  Zoom on Eamon Ryan  I wish to share time with Deputy Crowe.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:  Is that agreed? Agreed.

Mr. Eamon Ryan: Information on Eamon Ryan  Zoom on Eamon Ryan  Our society is becoming increasingly divided and one of the biggest divides is between those who own property and those who do not. This is not inevitable. I reject the widespread belief that if one does not own one's home or is not part of the property owning class, one is not a fully paid up citizen, is unfortunate or in a terrible position. This focus on property ownership is absent in many other countries and was absent even here in the past. The great red brick houses which have sold for millions in recent years were largely rented in the past. There is nothing in our human psyche to indicate we have to own a house and nothing wrong with people deciding to rent instead of buying. It is important we get this message across.

The reason the rented sector has such a poor image and tenants are experiencing such difficulty is that we, in this House, have legislated consistently in favour of the property owner as opposed to the tenant. I welcome the Bill inasmuch as it marks the beginning of efforts to redress this imbalance by recognising the rights of tenants as well as property owners.

We tend to assume that property prices will continue to rise forever and that once one owns a house one is in nirvana and will relentlessly climb a ladder of wealth accumulation. This assumption may be proved wrong and the market may catch many people out. I hope tenancy, renting in the private sector, will come to be regarded as the intelligent, clever option. We should work towards this goal and give people a range of options as to how they lead their lives. We should also provide protection to people in tenancy arrangements, some of whom are in difficult circumstances.

I welcome the main provisions of the Bill but I agree with Deputy Eoin Ryan that security of tenure is one of the key issues. We are seeking to provide rights for tenants and the key area in which that must be done and in which tenants must be protected is with regard to security of tenure. Unfortunately, the solution arrived at in this Bill does not provide proper rights and, in a way, will not work. It will lead to a mire of confusion and possibly litigation, despite what Deputy Ellis said.

Section 34 sets out the grounds for breaking a Part 4 tenancy agreement. The landlord can break the contract where a member of his family might wish to move into the property or if he is thinking of selling the property. That is a large [1211] loophole which a landlord who is seeking to break an agreement will use with consummate ease. The Minister should give serious consideration to that section and to amendments that might be put forward to strengthen the provisions and ensure the tenant is given further protection in this area. A landlord could drive a coach and four through that section.

Mr. N. Ahern: Information on Noel Ahern  Zoom on Noel Ahern  Why would he want to do it?

Mr. Eamon Ryan: Information on Eamon Ryan  Zoom on Eamon Ryan  Why would any landlord wish to evict a tenant? Why do we wish to provide security of tenure? The problem is that the tenant has no protection. If a landlord wanted to do it, for whatever reason, the security of tenure we are trying to provide would not have strength. The landlord could easily claim that his nephew or son-in-law wished to move into the property.

Mr. N. Ahern: Information on Noel Ahern  Zoom on Noel Ahern  He has to prove it. He would have to do it and if he does not do so, the board can take action.

Mr. Eamon Ryan: Information on Eamon Ryan  Zoom on Eamon Ryan  I cannot see where the Bill provides for proof or where the tenant can see that justice will be done and that there will be proof. I cannot see where it provides that the tenant can come back in three or six months and see that the property is sold. That is where the Bill requires strengthening. I will discuss later how that might be done.

The Green Party made a submission containing an alternative solution. While I hope the Minister will be able to amend the Bill as I have suggested, he might not be willing to accept the suggestion I am about to make although it would be a more intelligent solution. We should not set a limit of four years. It is an arbitrary period. One is providing that after that period the security of tenure no longer applies and that the tenant is back at the starting blocks again. That is not security of tenure, it is a four year contract that does not provide proper long-term security.

I prefer a solution whereby a tenant is given a right of security of tenure in proportion to the length of time they have the tenancy agreement. One could provide, for example, that for every year in tenancy occupancy, one would be entitled by law to eight weeks notice. That means an entitlement to eight weeks security of tenure in terms of notice. If the tenant is in occupancy for six months, only four weeks notice would be required. Both the tenant and the landlord would have to give the same notice. The obligation would be the same on either side because it is important that there is balance. We need to encourage people to provide good quality private rented accommodation. My suggestion would give the landlord security as well. He or she would know that they would be paid rent for a certain period of time. The Minister could provide for a longer or shorter period than eight [1212] weeks, depending on how much security of tenure he wishes to supply.

If somebody is in the same tenancy for ten years, he or she will get eight weeks notice for each of the years. Many people are in that position and they deserve that length of notice. One cannot turf out a tenant who has been in an apartment for ten years. Let us say the tenant has been in the property for eight years and is coming to the end of his or her second four year contract. We cannot tell the person that the landlord can evict him or her within a month or give one month's notice. That is unjust. It would be preferable to give—

Mr. N. Ahern: Information on Noel Ahern  Zoom on Noel Ahern  That is not in the Bill.

Mr. Eamon Ryan: Information on Eamon Ryan  Zoom on Eamon Ryan  At the end of a second four year period the landlord can terminate the Part 4 tenancy and one month's notice would apply.

Mr. N. Ahern: Information on Noel Ahern  Zoom on Noel Ahern  There is a longer period.

Mr. Eamon Ryan: Information on Eamon Ryan  Zoom on Eamon Ryan  How long?

Mr. N. Ahern: Information on Noel Ahern  Zoom on Noel Ahern  It is related to how long the tenant is there but it is not as long as the Deputy suggests.

Mr. Eamon Ryan: Information on Eamon Ryan  Zoom on Eamon Ryan  An eight week period per year is the best length of time. Somebody in a property for that period of time deserves notice, even if it is a year, to change his or her arrangements. After all, one is changing that person's life. That type of predictable security of tenure would work best. The simplicity of it, which reduces the amount of confusion and complexity, makes it a good solution to this problem. It provides rights not only for the tenant but also for the landlord. If somebody is in a tenancy for that length of time and suddenly decides to leave, the tenant would be obliged to secure an alternative tenant to ensure the landlord has security of rent over that period. This would encourage the private rented sector from both the landlord's and the tenant's points of view.

I did not see a provision in the Bill that the length of notice varies depending on the length of the tenancy. However, I will take the Minister's point. I have not read it in the Bill but I will analyse what the variable length of notice is. If the Minister is willing to accept the point that the length of stay should be recognised in terms of the length of notice to which one is entitled, I am encouraged. Has the Minister details about the length of time?

Mr. N. Ahern: Information on Noel Ahern  Zoom on Noel Ahern  It varies. It is over 112 days after four years.

Mr. Eamon Ryan: Information on Eamon Ryan  Zoom on Eamon Ryan  Does the Minister agree that some degree of variability would be recognition that somebody who is in a tenancy for a long period of time deserves longer notice? Perhaps we will discuss this further on Committee Stage and ensure that the Bill provides that level of flexi[1213] bility. If the Minister accepted an amendment to encompass that suggestion, it would be a major improvement of the Bill.

I also wish to see some proof being required in section 34 to ensure that the landlord cannot simply say he is thinking of selling the property and thereby be allowed to terminate the tenancy. It would strengthen the Bill if some arrangement could be provided for in that regard. It could be an extra deposit being required from the landlord so that if he does not complete the transaction by a certain time or if it was not clear within a six month period that a relative was living in the property, he would forfeit the deposit. A simple enforcement measure is needed in this section to ensure the tenant has the security of knowing he is not being evicted for another reason. If the Minister is willing to consider two such amendments, it would make this welcome Bill better.

Mr. Crowe: Information on Sean Crowe  Zoom on Sean Crowe  During this debate numbers and statistics will be used to discuss the housing crisis in this State. According to Government figures, widely accepted as greatly underestimating the problem, there are 4,060 homeless people in the Dublin area. There are 48,000 families on housing waiting lists across the State, 85% of whom have an income of less than €15,000 per annum. All local authorities report longer waiting lists. The average cost of a house in Dublin is now over €300,000 and across the State it is almost €250,000. According to the latest report by Dr. Peter Bacon, more than 20,000 new homes will be needed in Dublin city centre over the next nine years if population trends continue.

Figures give us an overview of the housing problem but do not give us the full picture. They do not tell us what it is like to sleep in a doorway as autumn turns into winter and nights get colder, explain the stress experienced by a mother trying to raise her children in bed and breakfast accommodation while waiting years for a house or what it is like for a young mother to try to boil a baby's bottle in such accommodation. They cannot tell of the frustration experienced by young couples starting out in life with a mountain to climb if they are ever to own a home.

I am participating in this debate not as somebody who has no experience in this area. I am a local representative but I have also been a tenant in the past. I have stayed in rented accommodation. I am aware that younger people accept places when they have no choice, and all Deputies will have had some experience of less than adequate accommodation. Recently the case of a young single mother of one living in the Ballyfermot area came to my attention. She is expecting another child in September. She currently lives in the private rented sector, sharing a two-bedroom house with seven other adults and two other children. In all there are 11 people, three of them mothers, in a two-bedroom house. I am beginning to wonder whether the pictures of tenement living seen in “Strumpet City” over the [1214] last few Sunday nights are more documentary than drama.

In such a bleak situation, any move from the Government to deal with housing problems is positive, and while this Bill has more than its fair share of flaws, Sinn Féin welcomes it as a small sign that the Government might be seriously considering tackling the housing crisis. It certainly makes a pleasant change from the Government introducing legislation to exacerbate the housing crisis, such as the shameful removal of section 5 of the Planning and Development Bill. I will refer to difficulties with one or two specific sections of the legislation.

Section 14 deals with the possibility of landlords taking some sort of action against their tenants if they attempt to exercise their rights. That is an extremely important part of the Bill and it is vital that we get it right. In the past unscrupulous landlords have used every trick in the book to get rid of tenants whom they considered troublesome. Tenants from vulnerable sections of society often choose to put up with the landlord breaching their agreement, including delays in repairs or no repairs at all, since they fear that if they make any complaint they will be without protection against the landlord. I recently dealt with a case in Tallaght where a young mother was living in rented accommodation with rats in the cellar. The vacuum cleaner did not work, and nine times out of ten the heater did not work. That woman ended up being turfed out by the landlord.

Though the intention of section 14 is worthy, it must be strengthened. There are many methods, some very subtle, that a landlord can use to retaliate against a tenant. I am not convinced that they were fully understood by those who drafted the Bill. A landlord can turn off the heat, increase the rent – a significant threat in the light of the Government's failure to index-link rent increases or look seriously at rent regulation in this Bill – or refuse to carry out repairs promptly. Those could be ways for a landlord to get at tenants for standing up for their rights and complaining to the board. Are such actions covered by section 14(2) of the Bill? Not only are they harder to prove, they might not necessarily be said to affect what the legislation refers to as the tenant “enjoying” occupation of the dwelling concerned. I ask the Minister to clarify that point in his reply and state whether he believes that section 14 should apply not just to landlords but to their appointed agents. As it stands, it does not seem to cover them.

The refunding of deposits is also an area where disputes often arise. I ask that consideration be given to changing section 12(1)(d) to set a specific time by which the landlord should return the deposit or whatever amount to which the tenant is entitled. Landlords are well used to being given money by tenants. They are far less used to giving it back, and that can result in delays for tenants in getting the money they are owed. That problem can be especially acute when the tenant is [1215] relying on that money to be used as a deposit on new accommodation to which he or she is moving or is otherwise counting on it. In such cases, there is intense pressure on the tenant to find money to make ends meet. In some cases that can lead to the tenant accepting a reduced deposit back from the landlord in return for getting it promptly. Threshold has called for the board to hold deposits during tenancies. On the face of it that seems a good suggestion and it would be similar to procedures in other countries. While it might add to the board's administrative burden, it would ensure a transparent, swift and fair system was in place for the handling of deposits.

Deputy Gilmore referred last year to section 16(m) of the Bill and laid out some concerns regarding the tenant's requirement to notify the landlord of each person residing in the house. I recall that in times past a hallmark of totalitarian states was that a list of those resident in a house had to be posted outside the door every night for checking at will by the police. While I do not see this section as an attempt by the Minister to introduce a Fascist state, it seems a bizarre addition to the legislation, calling into question a tenant's right to have visitors, possibly even visitors who might stay over. I would much appreciate the Minister explaining the thinking behind that in his response.

I would like the Minister to clarify whether the board will be open to queries under the Freedom of Information Act 1997 and whether Deputies will have the opportunity to put parliamentary questions to it. I regularly see my parliamentary questions ruled out of order by the office of the Ceann Comhairle on the grounds that such matters are no longer the Minister's statutory responsibility. That can make both getting an answer and holding State bodies accountable all the more difficult.

References have been made to Michael Davitt and the Irish Land League. Regarding the private rented sector, I am reminded more of the thoughts of James Connolly, who warned Irish workers that such constitutional Nationalists as Redmond would use them as cannon fodder to obtain a small measure of independence without any social or economic change. As Connolly put it, followers of the Irish Parliamentary Party were fighting so that when they were evicted from their homes, they would be evicted by Irish-speaking officers with harps on their hats.

Eighty years after partition, we have a chance fundamentally to reform the private rented sector and take on corrupt and often profit-hungry landlords. While Sinn Féin supports this Bill, its numerous flaws lead me to wonder whether the Government might not be missing another opportunity.

Mr. Carty: Information on John Carty  Zoom on John Carty  I wish to share time with Deputy Fiona O'Malley.

[1216]An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:  Is that agreed? Agreed.

Mr. Carty: Information on John Carty  Zoom on John Carty  I am glad to be able to contribute to the debate on this important Bill. Introducing it, the Minister referred to it as flagship legislation. He is correct to describe it as such. The Bill introduces for the first time comprehensive protection for tenants. We are all too familiar with media reports of exorbitant rents being charged for inferior accommodation, rents increasing frequently and tenants being evicted with little notice. This Bill sets out to bring some balance to the relationship between landlord and tenant by providing new legal protection to the latter without over-regulating the sector or driving out investment. Good landlords have nothing to fear from this legislation.

Before dealing with some of the specific provisions of the Bill, it is important to consider how the private rented sector interacts with the broader housing market and the measures that have been taken in recent years to develop and expand it. The availability of rented accommodation is subject to the availability of new houses generally. Equally, pricing is a reflection of overall housing supply. When demand is in excess of supply, rent charges increase accordingly. Thus, in recent years, many first-time buyers felt obliged to buy homes earlier than they might otherwise have done because of the ever-increasing cost of rent. That, of course, added further fuel to the housing market and house price escalation. For others, such high rent levels prevented their saving to purchase their own properties and pushed the prospect of ownership further away. However, the Government's actions in addressing the demand for housing have been successful.

Record-breaking output levels have been achieved. A phenomenal 58,000 units were constructed last year alone. Such high output levels have resulted in a significant slowdown in the rate of increase in house prices. Action has also been taken to address the supply deficit in the private rented sector. Taxation changes introduced in 2001 and 2002, particularly the reintroduction of investor mortgage interest rate deductibility, along with increased house completions, have led to a substantial increase in the supply of rental accommodation and a moderation in rents. In some segments of the market there has been a drop in rent levels for new lettings. For the first time in many years there is rental stability which is in everybody's interest. It is good for the economy, inflation, inward investment and, most importantly, tenants.

I wish to address a few remarks to some of the specific provisions of the Bill. Landlords will be precluded from charging in excess of the open market rate. I consider this a balanced response to the charging, albeit by a minority of landlords, of excessive rent. This measure will prevent such unscrupulous activities in the future. At present, a landlord can charge whatever rent he or she [1217] wants and the tenant has no choice except to pay it or seek alternative accommodation.

Under the provisions of this new legislation, tenants will have the certainty that they will be charged only the going rate for accommodation. If they consider they are being charged too much they can refer the matter to the new tenancies board for determination. The measure is fair also to landlords as they will be entitled to earn the going rate of return for the investment they have made as accommodation providers. I am equally pleased to see a significant improvement in the security of tenure provision for tenants. After an initial six-month period, a tenant will be entitled to remain for a further three and a half years. I am aware some would like this provision extended even further and the landlord, perhaps, would prefer if the period was shorter. It is a workable compromise to start with and as the sector becomes more professional, landlords will be happy to have good tenants remain for far greater periods.

The proposed graduated notice period is certainly a major contrast with the current situation for most tenants on a periodic lease. At present, the landlord has to give the tenant only 28 days to quit. This may not pose a problem for some tenants but for many others it represents a severe hardship. Let us try to imagine a single mother with two schoolgoing children who has been renting her flat for a few years. While the children are at school she has a part-time job. Some 28 days notice for this tenant may prove disastrous. In such a short time she may not be able to find suitable accommodation, locally, at a price she can afford. As a result she may have to move out of the area. This may necessitate having to move the children to a different school and possibly the loss of her part-time job. That scenario is unacceptable in any caring society. The enhanced security of tenure provisions will go a long way to eliminate difficulties of this kind for tenants.

An issue that arises constantly in the rented residential sector is that of standards. It is difficult to estimate the number of substandard rental properties around the country. I am pleased that as a result of the massive increase in new house completions in recent years, along with refurbishment tax relief, standards within the overall sector have improved. Nevertheless, some properties remain below the minimum legal standard for which there is no excuse. Part of the problem has been the lack of a cohesive approach to enforcing standards across the local authorities. Some local authorities have been pro-active in this area but many others have done little to respond to complaints from tenants. In this regard, I agree with Deputy Ellis who called for an annual inspection.

With the advent of the tenancies board I am hopeful that there will be a significant improvement in the enforcement of minimum legal standards. The board's registration data, which will help identify rented properties throughout the country, will be provided to local authorities to [1218] underpin their enforcement activities. Given the new security of tenure provisions and the prohibition on the penalisation of tenants, it is likely that tenants will refer disputes relating to standards to the board. In the past there was a fear that if a tenant raised concerns about standards he or she was liable to be served with a notice to quit within 28 days.

The Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government will, in consultation with local authorities, consider proposals for a strategic approach to the enforcement of standards. This is appropriate. However, it is important in developing a strategy, that the board, the Department and the local authorities, resolve that a firm line be taken with those in breach of the minimum legal obligations. To do otherwise, would be to risk undermining the confidence of tenants and compliant landlords in the legislation.

Until now the system has weighed heavily in favour of landlords. The reality is that the Minister, Deputy Cullen, and the Minister of State, Deputy Noel Ahern, have performed the most radical overhaul of tenants' rights since the days of Michael Davitt, a fellow Mayo man. As the Minister said, “It is an irony of Irish history that the rights of tenants on the land which were well-established over 100 years ago have never been properly established in the law in relation to housing. Today I am righting that wrong.”

The Bill introduces much needed protection for tenants. It provides for the fair regulation of the sector in a balanced way. An extract from an article by a leading auctioneer in The Sunday Business Post of 28 September 2003 states:

This legislation is to be welcomed as it brings certainty, discipline and regulation to a vital sector of the economy, in an area which affects the lives of many people. It is a victory for common sense and provides a sound footing for improvements for tenants while at the same time posing no threat to the professional and responsible property owner.

These comments were backed up by a thorough analysis of the main features of the Bill in which the writer cautioned against taking on board arguments made in a vocal campaign against various parts of the legislation which had already been fully considered by the Commission on the Private Rented Sector. I can only endorse those views wholeheartedly.

Ms F. O'Malley: Information on Fiona O'Malley  Zoom on Fiona O'Malley  I hate to start my contribution by having a go at my colleagues. I spent some time researching and reading in preparation for this debate. I have not listened to many contributions but since I came in I have been appalled that clearly other Members have not read the Bill. I refer Deputy Eamon Ryan to section 65 which deals with his concerns about a sliding scale and he will not need to table an amendment. There are measures in the Bill that will deal with his concerns if landlords do not sell a house hav[1219] ing evicted a tenant. I suggest the Deputy take a good look at it before he comes back.

In Deputy Crowe's contribution we get a glimpse of what he would like society to be like and how he would make the functioning of vacuum cleaners the responsibility of landlords. This gives us an idea of how deep the role of the State would get into our lives if Sinn Féin ever got into power. He has the gall to call the measures in the Bill “Stalinist”. That is ridiculous.

This is one Bill I am happy to welcome to the House. I pay tribute to the Minister, the members of and contributors to the commission and, more particularly, to the former Minister of State, Bobby Molloy, who throughout his long and distinguished career in the Dáil and local government sought to bring regulation to the housing market. I am sure he is happy the Bill has finally come before the House. It is radical legislation and is long overdue. Throughout our history, the question of home ownership has probably led to neglect of regulation in this area but the situation is being remedied. The measures proposed in the Bill will bring security of tenure and set minimum standards. In short, it will clean up and regulate the sector and there is no doubt this is needed.

Part of the research I did showed the demand for housing. An interesting statistic I came across was the pressure on housing units in Ireland and the rate of construction. For example, last year the UK constructed 150,000 houses while we constructed in the region of 45,000. We cannot keep pace with the demand, with the result that renting privately will be the only option for some people. That is why regulation is long overdue. It will bring professionalism to the sector. To date oral tenancy agreements, under which either party can abscond, have been the general experience.

The beauty of this Bill is that it clarifies the roles, functions and demands of landlords and tenants and also offers a basic standard agreement. It is estimated that there are 150,000 residential tenancies in the country but we cannot be accurate in our figures because there has not been compliance with the existing regulations on registration. The figure given for residential tenancies is a ‘guesstimate'. The Bill's provisions will create a database which will not only give us an accurate figure for the amount of residential tenancies but, more importantly, will give information on the standards within that accommodation.

I will refer to two specific aspects of the Bill. Compliance is vital to its success, but is the €70 registration fee prohibitive? I would prefer a nominal fee of €20. If one reduces a fee to an acceptable rate, then compliance soars. For example, the last Progressive Democrats-Fianna Fáil Government lowered corporation tax and compliance increased enormously. We should think of that and consider reducing the fee so that it does not become a reason for non-compliance.

The other key to the Bill's success is resourcing and “tús maith leath na hoibre” is an old Irish saying we would do well to remember here. If this [1220] area is properly resourced and operates swiftly then people will have confidence and will be delighted to comply with the Bill. Both landlords and tenants need to know that the provisions for dispute resolution will come in swiftly, as that is the radical change which is to take place. In order for that to happen, we must ensure there are no logjams in the system and that will happen if the implementation of the Bill is properly resourced.

Section 176 prohibits the institution of proceedings in a court in respect of a dispute that may be referred to by the board for resolution unless the amount claimed by way of damages, arrears or other causes exceeds €20,000. It is not a good idea to include this figure because any such figure remains frozen in time. It would be much better to include a multiple of an annual rent, as some properties can be quite expensive and one would not be long arriving at arrears of €20,000. This provision undermines the purpose of the Bill, which is about swift resolution and not having to go to court. This matter should be examined and I may table an amendment to remove this sense of undermining the thrust of the Bill and of Government policy. Subsection (d) should also be removed in its entirety because it does not need to be there, but that is a matter for Committee Stage. The total effect of section 176, as initiated, would run counter to Government policy and would have people going to the courts very quickly; this should be dealt with.

I reject the notion expressed by those outside the House that rights are being taken away by the Bill. They are merely being regulated, and necessarily so. As I said, this is a revolutionary Bill and proper resourcing and compliance will deliver real results. I commend the Bill to the House.

Mr. Crawford: Information on Seymour Crawford  Zoom on Seymour Crawford  I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill. I emphasise that our party spokesman, Deputy Allen, has gone through the Bill in detail and I do not suggest I have read every detail. I will address the broader aspects.

Deputy Ellis referred to my reaction to his comments about tax relief in the Shannon basin. I welcome that kind of initiative for rural Ireland and it has been great for Leitrim and also for west Cavan, the area I represent. It caused some problems in my area because when the scheme was referred to in the media on Shannonside Northern Sound, people in the rest of Cavan and in Monaghan felt they were entitled to it also. I know a lot about the scheme because there were so many queries about it. It shows what could be done if the Government looked at the restoration of older houses in rural areas. The tax incentives in the towns lucky enough to get them played a major role not just in improving business premises, but in making high quality flats available to people, which eased the housing situation to some degree.

Deputy Ellis also mentioned one-off housing. Given that we are discussing people's living accommodation, I am angry and annoyed with the comments made by the Taoiseach in the west [1221] of Ireland when he indicated that there was some new bright hope for those people seeking one-off housing in rural Ireland. Many people want to live in rural parishes where services, churches and schools are already in place, which have cost the State significant money. The position was made very clear by the Taoiseach when he answered my party leader in the House the other day, saying the only people to get one-off housing in the situations to which he referred were the siblings of farmers, people who owned their own land. That is on the record of the House.

I was born and reared in rural Ireland in a parish called Aghabog which was almost dead 35 to 40 years ago. If it were not for returned emigrants and others reared on small housing plots coming back to build in the area and becoming part of the parish, then it would be a much poorer area today. The House should ensure that depopulated areas work under different regulations from those in areas in County Dublin, for instance, which are in the hinterland of the city, Meath, or the Ceann Comhairle's native county, Louth, as well as Galway or Cork. Different regulations should apply to areas of depopulation, such as those covered under CLÁR where extra funds are provided by the Government because it recognises the need to ensure such areas are populated. Those regulations must be clear in order that people know where they stand. I can see no reason somebody who worked in the local flax mill in my parish in the 1950s, whose family has come back to live in this country but never owned land in the parish, should not be allowed to come back and live in the parish on someone else's land. We must have clearer criteria in this area.

The Minister said this was one of the most important Bills to come before us. I agree but I heard this about other Bills from his Department and I think of what has happened over the years since this Fianna Fáil-PD Government came into power. We had changes in the tax regime in regard to rented property and property in general which forced many people to stop becoming involved in the business here. They continued to get involved but unfortunately it was in Spain or elsewhere which created a loss of millions of euro for this country. I am glad conditions were changed so that they could become reinvolved with the market here. It is important to be able to change.

Deputy Ellis referred to the Bacon report. I wonder about some of the things proposed in that report but people still seem to believe he is the top man as far as ideas on housing are concerned. I wonder about changes that were made to planning laws and the section 5 referred to earlier. Planning laws curtailed planning permissions and reduced the period permission on land could be retained from five years down to two years. This had major effects, especially on small builders in rural areas who wanted to plan the structure of a small housing estate but there was not a demand for all the houses in the first two years. Thank[1222] fully that retrograde step has been changed. The social housing clause was also changed because it did not suit some big builders. I welcome change. It shows the importance of discussion in this House and the willingness to change, if necessary. I received many representations concerning planning laws which needed to be changed and I welcome these changes.

I also welcome the setting up of the new tenancy board. Part 8 of the Bill states that the board will have a key role of providing a statutory dispute resolution service and will also have responsibility for tenancy registration. This is important. In the context of an ongoing problem in Carrickmacross in my constituency, the Shirley Arms estate has been the cause of long litigation. I am not in a position to say too much about it because the issue is still before the court. As one drives into the main street of Carrickmacross, all the properties on the left side from the first set of traffic lights up to the courthouse are part and parcel of that tenancy. There are a few exceptions, such as the SuperValu premises. The problem has caused enormous anxiety amongst business people and householders. Parnell Street is off the main street and there it is all private tenancies, some of which go as far as 99 years. This debacle has been going on for years.

The reason I welcome this Bill so strongly is that it will create a board which will try to resolve such problems between tenants and landlords. A huge amount of money has been wasted on the problem through the legal system but as yet it has not been settled. It is three years since a case went through the High Court but those involved are still waiting for it to go to the Supreme Court. That gives some indication of the delay factor in this sort of situation. Many business people do up their business premises or extend them two or three times but they do not have security of tenure. It is a major issue with which I am not sure this Bill can deal because it is a private residential tenant Bill and does not deal with the business sector. However, I must use this opportunity to highlight this particularly difficult situation.

I am not saying that the landlord is totally wrong or that the tenants are totally right but there is an enormous gap between them which is being filled by legal people who are making a lot of money from the situation. I am not sure who will be the winner at the end of the day. I hope this Bill will give some security to the people of Parnell Street and perhaps give them the opportunity of owning their houses. From what I knew of councils in the mid-1980s they made every effort to allow people to become owners of their houses. However, it seems strange that where these people have had to take responsibility for the upkeep of the houses, they can be evicted if they are not properly maintained. That is part of the regulations, as I understand them, that cover the houses in Parnell Street and similar houses; the tenants have no rights whatsoever. I welcome the element of this Bill which will allow the board to provide that they will have rights and privil[1223] eges. Deputy O' Malley said that the €20,000 should not be part of the structure in section 176. The more that can be dealt with through a board such as this the better for everybody.

Another major problem for the Border region relates to areas where there are not proper third level institutions. About 90% of students from these areas must live in rented accommodation. Every summer public representatives receive queries about application forms to local authorities for grants. When the students actually head for Dublin or anywhere else the main issue is how they can afford to pay such exorbitant rents. We need to have another look at this situation if rural people are to have access to property. There should be more campus accommodation available and this would relieve some of the pressure.

Some individuals live in big family homes in this city – their children have left home and their spouse has passed on to their eternal reward – and they do not want to leave. We should introduce some regulation so that those people do not lose their allowances – such as the living alone allowance – if they let part of their house. This could help ease the housing crisis, not just for students but for people in general. It is a shame to see big houses in old housing estates with only one lonely person in them. I would like the Minister to look at the enormous potential there which could be better utilised.

Deputy Ellis has already mentioned the down payments parents must find, which is a particularly serious problem for those on social welfare or low incomes. This year, more than ever, students renting accommodation have had to begin paying immediately. They have not had the opportunity to rent from 1 October or mid-September. Therefore, they have had to cover the cost from August or September. This is a significant added cost which many families cannot afford since the rent must be paid for the full year rather than the academic year.

Overcrowding of student accommodation also affects the quality of students' off-campus study. A survey in one of the Sunday newspapers showed that a large percentage of student flats are sub standard in that they do not meet buildings and fire regulations, have high rents and are of a low standard, subject to little or no enforcement. In that context, this Bill is urgent.

There has been a great deal of discussion about people not paying their tax. A regulation should be inserted into the Bill in order that people who rent accommodation are registered. Unlike Deputy O'Malley, who suggested that the tax rates on rental income be reduced, I suggest that landlords are less concerned with the rates but rather want to rent their property outside the tax regime. Therfore, in this regard, tax avoidance is the main issue and it is an important issue which must be addressed.

The ethos of this Bill is welcome in general. My [1224] colleagues will study it in greater detail because it is important that the technicalities are correct and do not impinge on people's rights beyond common sense. There must be some degree of reasonable rent structure and the Bill is welcome in this respect too. However, anyone who suggests this will solve the housing crisis is living in cloud cuckoo land.

There has been much talk recently about the different housing schemes available to people – social and affordable housing and private rented accommodation, as well as new housing – some of which has been built by the private sector and some by local authorities. However a garda married to a nurse will still find it difficult to get a loan to buy a house.

Mr. Broughan: Information on Thomas P. Broughan  Zoom on Thomas P. Broughan  The Deputy should have voted in favour of benchmarking in order that they would have a few extra bob.

Mr. Crawford: Information on Seymour Crawford  Zoom on Seymour Crawford  I can assure the Deputy that they will need more than that.

The day before the last budget, an amount of money was available to first time buyers and on budget day it was gone. There was also an increase in VAT which added €4,000 to €5,000 to the price of an average house. I now understand that some local authorities are considering adding a housing charge of between €4,000 and €7,000 in one county. This will have major implications for young people buying houses. Many applicants for affordable housing cannot meet the criteria because of all sorts of technicalities. I would like these issues examined further. It is the wish of most people to have the right to own their own house at some stage and we must make sure that if we advertise affordable housing, it actually is affordable and people can get into it. We are dealing with the first houses under that scheme in County Monaghan at the moment and many people have been refused.

I wish the Bill well and hope it works. However, we have a long way to go to ensure that people on the streets in Dublin will get into houses and that people who want houses in rural Ireland or Dublin City have the right to rent or own their own house.

Mr. Kelly: Information on Peter Kelly  Zoom on Peter Kelly  I wish to share time with Deputy Andrews.

The Residential Tenancies Bill 2003 is a long-overdue move to provide consumer protection for private tenants. The Bill, which outlines the minimum legal obligations of landlords and tenants, incorporates measures to improve security of tenure and limits rent to market level and annual reviews at the most. The legislation also provides for the establishment of a statutory private residential tenancies board and a new tenancy registration system. Landlords will be obliged to register all tenancies with the board. There will be a fee of €70 per registration and landlords must lodge with the board their PPS or [1225] company registration number as well as details in respect of tenants.

The Bill states that rent reviews should take place once per year, except when the property has been substantially changed. It also states that rents can be reviewed upwards or downwards. Despite recent advances in consumer rights, tenants' rights have lagged behind. Huge profits are made from property and the tenants who generate these profits are fully deserving of rights as consumers.

A more professional approach to the rental market is good for investment and tenants and will lead to enhanced property standards, improved management and an increase in quality supply. The Bill will finally establish in law the rights of tenants which were established more than 100 years ago. The place where one lives should have a genuine sense of home, regardless of whether it is rented or purchased.

For too long, Ireland has adopted a Victorian approach to property rights. The system was weighed heavily in favour of the landlord and tenants had to clock up 21 years in a property before they gained security of tenure. As a consequence of tenants having few rights and no security, Ireland has been out of step with the rest of Europe. Across Europe, renting is seen as a real medium to long-term option. An effective and law-based rental sector must be part of a modern economy.

I was glad to hear that the national housing organisation, Threshold, broadly welcomed the measures proposed in the Bill, as announced by the then Minister of State with responsibility for housing, Deputy Noel Dempsey, and Minister for the Environment and Local Government, Deputy Cullen. One's legal rights derive from landlord-tenant law as well as any written or verbal tenancy agreement between one and one's landlord. One is entitled to quiet and peaceful enjoyment in one's own home and the landlord may only enter with one's permission. If the landlord needs to carry out repairs or inspect the premises, it should be done by prior arrangement. If the property is put up for sale one should ask the landlord to agree viewing times.

The landlord must by law ensure that the premises comply with certain minimum standards. For example, it must be free from damp, be in good structural repair, have hot and cold water and adequate heating and ventilation. Appliances must be in good working order and electrical wiring and gas pipes must be in good repair. If the accommodation does not comply with these standards one should report it to one's local authority. An inspection will be carried out and the landlord ordered to do any necessary repairs. One is entitled to have friends to stay overnight, unless specifically forbidden in the tenancy agreement. An extra person moving in would be a different matter. If noise from other tenants or neighbours is causing a nuisance one should tell the landlord. One may also complain to the local authority and one is entitled to a rent book.

[1226]Up to now the system has weighed heavily in favour of landlords. The reality is that the Minister, Deputy Cullen, has performed the most radical overhaul of tenants' rights since the days of Michael Davitt. He said, “It is an irony of Irish history that the rights of tenants on the land, which were well established over 100 years ago, have never been properly established in law in relation to housing and today I am righting that wrong.”

The usual suspects on the Opposition side say the Bill does not go far enough. They moan about everything. Sometimes I wonder if they have ever been happy in their entire lives.

Mr. Broughan: Information on Thomas P. Broughan  Zoom on Thomas P. Broughan  Some of us were tenants. That is why.

Mr. Kelly: Information on Peter Kelly  Zoom on Peter Kelly  Surely it is not good for their health to be so cynical and negative about everything.

Mr. Broughan: Information on Thomas P. Broughan  Zoom on Thomas P. Broughan  The Deputy is too positive.

Mr. Kelly: Information on Peter Kelly  Zoom on Peter Kelly  While the Opposition keeps on whinging, we in Fianna Fáil will keep on delivering.

Mr. Broughan: Information on Thomas P. Broughan  Zoom on Thomas P. Broughan  For whom?

Mr. Kelly: Information on Peter Kelly  Zoom on Peter Kelly  The people we represent. I welcome the introduction of the Residential Tenancies Bill. It represents a major and overdue advancement in tenants' rights. Most of us are familiar with the concept that our home is not just the biggest single purchase we make but it is also the most important and it is no less important an expenditure for tenants. Rented property represents the tenant's home and tenants are entitled to a sense of home. The Bill vindicates that right and gives long overdue protection to tenants.

I welcome in particular the establishment of a statutory private residential tenancy board. The board will be charged with a number of key functions. It will operate a national registration system for tenancies. Overall, I believe the Bill will bring fairness, certainty and professionalism to the rental sector. It is balanced in its report and provides benefits to both landlords and tenants. I congratulate the Minister on bringing the Bill to fruition and I look forward to its enactment.

Mr. Andrews: Information on Barry Andrews  Zoom on Barry Andrews  I will begin by referring to Michael Davitt. As someone who has been misquoted, I wonder what he would think of all this if he were alive today.

Mr. Broughan: Information on Thomas P. Broughan  Zoom on Thomas P. Broughan  He must be turning in his grave.

Mr. Andrews: Information on Barry Andrews  Zoom on Barry Andrews  He would not be interested in private tenancy. As Deputy Broughan may be aware, his attitude was that he preferred land nationalisation.

Mr. Broughan: Information on Thomas P. Broughan  Zoom on Thomas P. Broughan  We are talking about housing.

Mr. Andrews: Information on Barry Andrews  Zoom on Barry Andrews  This was his view at the time. [1227] The historical reality is blurred a little bit by people's current political outlook. This is natural enough but it is not fair to Michael Davitt. When we reach the centenary of his death in a few years' time, it will be difficult for Deputy Broughan to have to swallow the reality. It does not suit his outlook at the moment. He had a different view at the time to what the Deputy is currently promoting.

On the Bill, many Deputies have discussed issues to which I wanted to refer. I would just make the observation that according to the 1991 census there were 5,000 private rented dwellings in the Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council area which I represented up until recently. By 2002 there were just 2,500 registered private rented dwellings under the 1996 regulations. It bears out what other Deputies have said that there is just a fraction of the registration which should be taking place. A figure of 20% registration was suggested by other Deputies. This is definitely the case in Dún Laoghaire where there has been a huge proliferation of private rented dwellings in the last few years. There is a big problem with enforcement and compliance with basic regulations and basic standards to which many Deputies have referred. The problem rears its head most seriously in September when students are seeking accommodation. The standards to which some tenants must submit themselves are so low that it is a disgrace to us as legislators. I hope the Bill will go some way towards remedying that.

Having read through some of it, the Bill needs improvement in certain areas. I would like to bring these points to the attention of Members. The fact that the board can only deal with certain problems where there is a registered tenancy is a bit of a loophole. The tenant can complain but I wonder if a notice to quit, which can be served on the making of the complaint, can be impugned on the basis that there is no registration of the tenancy. I hope when the Bill reaches Committee Stage this loophole will be closed.

What has been laid down about referral of disputes is laudable. However, one gaping problem is that while there is a time limit for the referral of a dispute from the time of a complaint, there is no time limit on a decision being made by the tribunal. Section 107 simply says that it must make a decision; it does not say when it must make it. I have seen this problem with the Employment Appeals Tribunal and everyone is aware of the problem with An Bord Pleanála. This costs people money and uncertainty when trying to have something as basic as accommodation settled and plans made for the future. If people are in a dispute they are entitled to a speedy decision. Therefore, section 107 should be amended. The reason this is not a requirement is that the board will need sufficient resources to deliver quick decisions. The fear expressed in the House is that sufficient resources will not be pro[1228] vided and we will still have the same problem of lack of registration and so on.

Another area I hope the Minister might consider for amendment relates to the exemption for public authorities. This should be amended to apply to housing authorities, as understood under the housing Acts, so that other State agencies that provide tenancies will not be able to avoid the application of the Act.

Some of the obligations on tenants in section 16 are not realistic. The fact, for example, that one cannot improve or alter a place without the written consent of the landlord appears far too onerous and requiring far too much administration. Section 17 explains what is altering and improving. Attempts are being made to make drafting easier but the section states, “altering and improving does not include carrying out any works consisting only of repairing, painting or decorating or any of those things”. What does that mean? It needs to be amended because it is not clear. The final obligation on a tenant is to notify the landlord “of the identity of each person residing for the time being in the dwelling”. Is the tenant required to tell the landlord who is staying there all the time? If one is a student and has a relative or friend staying over, must the landlord be notified? Is failure to notify an offence that could lead to the termination of the tenancy? That is ridiculous but perhaps I do not understand the legislation fully.

Everyone is aware of the three Fs, one of which is fixity of tenure. Michael Davitt campaigned on tenancy issues and it is sad that it has taken this long to address them. The six month tenure has been criticised as too long but it will work well, as it is not in the interest of good landlords to change their tenants every six months. That does not provide for good management or planning. The four year term strikes a good balance between the rights of landlords and tenants and that will not cause difficulty.

The issue of the constitutionality of the legislation has been raised. Part 5 of the Planning and Development Act 2000 was approved by the Supreme Court, which suggested there is enough flexibility in the Constitution for us, as legislators, to make laws that will improve the rights of tenants without having to worry about constitutional amendments. I hope Ministers will have the courage to bring such reforming zeal to issues such as property prices and a cap on the value of land. There is enough flexibility in the Constitution to address those issues. Although previous rulings of the Supreme Court considered attacks on property rights to be unconstitutional, the decision on Part 5 of the Planning and Development Act 2000 suggests the Constitution is sufficiently flexible for the Oireachtas to pass laws that will improve people's lives.

The commission made a proposal that landlords should carry the burden of proof where an eviction is sought in the courts on the ground that it might be an act of revenge where a tenant has sought to enforce his or her rights. This has not [1229] been provided for in the legislation but it should be considered in the specific circumstance where the tenant has made a complaint to the board. This would improve the position of tenants and no law abiding landlord would have anything to fear from such a provision. It is a matter of balancing the rights between tenants and landlords and this provision would improve the legislation.

I do not share the view that landlords will clear tenants out every six months, as few landlords are unscrupulous. I rented happily for 14 years without bother from the various landlords from whom I rented. We should not try to overegg the pudding and say the problem is much greater than it is or vilify landlords when many of them are perfectly fair and organise their affairs appropriately. If anything, there has been a failure on the part of the State to make sure existing laws are enforced. I hope the Bill, which I commend to the House, will remedy the current position.

Mr. Broughan: Information on Thomas P. Broughan  Zoom on Thomas P. Broughan  I welcome the Bill, the appearance of which is incredibly belated. It could have been introduced at least three years ago when the Commission on the Private Rented Sector began to compile its report. My colleague, Deputy Gilmore, repeatedly asked on the Order of Business over the past number of years when the legislation would be introduced. It will be implemented, as usual, on a piecemeal basis, through regulation, by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. That will mean tenants who are in grave difficulty will not experience an improvement in their position for at least another year.

I welcome the establishment of the private residential tenancies board, the mediation and determination process through the tenancy tribunal and, at long last, the registration of tenancies. Fianna Fáil colleagues have referred on a number of occasions to Michael Davitt, the great man from Straide in east Mayo where there is an impressive memorial to him. He favoured the nationalisation of all land in the great struggle he led along with Charles Stewart Parnell in Parliament in pursuit of the three Fs so that our ancestors could become the proprietors of land that had been taken over by the descendants of the great planters who had seized it a few centuries previously.

Of the three Fs, free sale does not apply under the legislation but fixity of tenure and fair rent are not addressed. “Market rent” is the only reference to rent and it is considered to be the amount a tenant would willingly pay or a landlord would willingly seek. However, rents have doubled and trebled while the Government parties have been in power. It is similar to the straw breaking the camel's back for many young individuals and couples. They are on a knife edge in my constituency as rents exceed €1,600 per month, an incredible rate of return, even given the escalation in house prices. The Bill does not address that problem.

Who decides market rent? The tribunal will [1230] refer to the rent that applies in the housing market. I respect the thoughtful contributions of Deputies Andrews and Kelly but it is completely and utterly ludicrous for them to invoke the ghost of the great Michael Davitt in approving the Bill because it does not address fair rent.

The legislation contains “a measure of security of tenure for tenants”. However, it is a tiny measure and a series of cop-outs is provided for landlords under section 34, including significant refurbishment of the house or apartment, sale of the building or transfer of same to relatives. The list of grounds goes on and on whereby the contract may be terminated between the six month and four year review period. Let us not invoke the spirit of Michael Davitt, my great socialist predecessor. He would turn in his grave that 80 years after independence, this State has not yet established a fair and decent system of renting for tenants in cities, towns and rural areas. We have not even sought to address this area. This feeble Bill is another example of the Government's willingness to make a few small gestures for the poorest section of our population before continuing merrily on its way.

A number of Deputies have mentioned that our policies in this area are completely out of step with those of our European colleagues. Countries such as the Netherlands have had a system for a long time that provides fairness and security for tenants. Such a system was introduced in countries that were not afraid to challenge the rights of the landlord and developer classes, which dominate the conservative parties in this House, particularly Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats. The revelations of the last five years have clarified again and again that certain people, ten or 12 of whom are to be found in my area of Fingal, control all the development land. Such people deliberately release land drip by drip so that the ultimate price they will receive in respect of new houses will be maximised.

Three developers in my constituency are scheduled to reap profits of about €1 billion each from the development of about 4,000 accommodation units, most of which are high rise apartments, on the northern fringe of Dublin city. Nothing has been done to ensure that the billions of euro will be used for the benefit of the community. One should not be allowed to take money from young people and families who will be living in or renting the houses in question. One should not be allowed to expropriate other people's money for one's private monetary gain. This serious problem has never been addressed in this country and I regret that this Bill, which contains some small benefits, fails to address it today.

The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government does not have a clue how many tenants there are in this country. Why do we not even know this simple fact? Deputy Crawford indicated that the real reason is that the private rented sector has been used as an avenue of tax evasion through the years. Regulations were introduced in 1996 stating that tenancies [1231] were to be registered with local authorities. Those of us living in Dublin know that tens of thousands of landlords have ignored the regulations. As we do not have a picture of what the sector is like – we do not know how many families are involved – we do not know what policies to bring forward. It is an appalling state of affairs.

My colleague has pointed out that the private residential tenancies board which is to be established under this Bill, will have a very small staff and limited resources but it will be the start, at least, of the process of trying to find information in this area.

Part 7 of the Bill provides for the registration of tenancies. I notice that the relevant section does not seem to specify significant penalties for a failure to register. It says in one of the latter sections that there will be enforcement but I wonder what form it will take. Will it be as feeble as the enforcement of the regulations introduced in 1996? I have mentioned that landlords were able to carry on regardless after regulations were introduced in that year. This Bill represents a tiny step forward in the effort to address a huge problem.

We do not know who landlords are because they do not register. I have mentioned that this is partly because they wish to engage in tax evasion. One aspect of this evasion is a refusal to accept rent supplement. Acceptance of rent supplement on the part of a landlord would mean that the tenancy in question would be known to at least one Department, to a health board and perhaps ultimately to the Department of Social and Family Affairs.

This feeble Bill contains a number of significant cop-outs. It is appalling that the Government has not sought to address, over the last six and a half years, the key problems illustrated by this Bill. It is shameful that the most recent assessment of housing needs demonstrated that there are about 50,000 on housing waiting lists or are homeless. As the study was conducted last year, the figure may be over 50,000 by now. Such people are desperately seeking accommodation.

Politicians in this Chamber and in local authorities are perhaps more aware than most of the housing problem as we encounter examples of it every week. It was brought to my attention yesterday that a number of homeless men are living in a disused barn in my constituency. As the nights are getting colder, four or five men are trying to seek shelter on the edge of a site where a major apartment block is being built on the northern fringe of Dublin city. If one walks along a few streets near Leinster House tonight, which may be a cold night, one will see some of the 5,000 or 6,000 homeless people in Dublin city. One will see old men and women huddling in doorways trying desperately to get through the night with the help of local authority staff and workers from the homeless agencies and other voluntary bodies. It is an appalling state of affairs [1232] in a country that will hold the Presidency of the European Union in a few months' time.

We have failed to grapple with reality in a huge area of policy. It has to be said that the Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey, came up with every scheme known to man when he was responsible for this area in the previous Administration. He advocated all kinds of esoterica, such as electronic voting and the abolition of the dual mandate. His attempts to reform Irish government were of the kind that are popular with journalists such as Mr. Stephen Collins. His task, however, was to deal with his Department's central problem – the housing crisis. As the responsible Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey did not address the fact that 50,000 people have no home and the 7,000 or 8,000 people have to live on the streets. Mr. Peter Bacon and others were shoved forward to produce useless reports about investors and the management of housing supply. Reports were produced and placed on shelves while house prices doubled or trebled year after year. The housing list grew and the number of homeless persons increased and the consequence is that people in our cities and around the country will have to huddle together in disused barns.

The problems I have mentioned are the legacy of this Government which I hope will be punished by the people next June and in two or three years time when it will be sitting on this side of the House. I have stated that this area has not been dealt with. More than most people in the country, the Government's 88 Deputies are familiar with the reality of this problem from their weekly perambulations around their constituencies. I am also familiar with it, but the Government Deputies have the power to do something about it and I do not.

As the father of the House, the Leas-Cheann Comhairle will remember a great politician who served the Labour Party when it was in power. I refer to the great Mr. James Tully from County Meath who is often looked up to as a Minister for Local Government who did his job well. He was a great trade union leader and a great Minister. He saw that the housing list was very long when he took office in 1973 and he decided to address the problem. He built between 25,000 and 30,000 houses for people who were homeless or on the housing list. Year after year he turned out that kind of output. He did not turn out 50,000 housing units, mostly apartments, for investors. He turned them out for the people. He is the template by which Ministers such as Deputies Noel Dempsey and Cullen should be judged. Those Ministers failed, and after 1987 their party abandoned the concept of social housing.

When I had been a member of Dublin Corporation only a few weeks I attended a housing seminar presided over by Deputy Michael Smith, who was then Minister for the Environment. He could not tell us how he was going to increase housing supply. At that time almost no houses were coming on stream in Dublin when between 4,000 and 5,000 families were on the housing list. I told the [1233] Minister what I thought of him and led the Labour Party and Sinn Féin councillors out.

In the 20 years since the disastrous Government of 1987 we have seen a complete squeeze on social and affordable housing. Things have become more and more difficult for young couples. In the past couple of weeks I have made representations on behalf of a young self-employed person who is having difficulty showing his local authority that his income is below the €80,000 limit for a couple applying for a local authority house.

We thought that Part 5 of the Planning and Development Act 2000 – an initiative taken by the then Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey – would be a turning point and that 20% of all housing developments would consist of social and affordable housing. What happened? The developers, who are the backers of the Fianna Fáil Party, squealed and said this could not happen. They froze their developments and refused to increase the supply of houses. A few months ago a new planning Bill was dragged into the House to remove the onus from developers and allow them to give a sum of money or to move their social and affordable housing developments to a different place away from the part of the county where accommodation was needed. The slight improvement which Deputy Noel Dempsey planned was abandoned by his successor, Deputy Cullen.

Public representatives try, week in and week out, to advise and give information to our constituents on the availability of social and affordable housing. Our constituents find themselves on a knife edge. Even with a shared ownership mortgage, a young couple can barely afford to take an affordable mortgage. Where will this end? I hope it will end with a new Government. Throughout this period taxation policies have favoured investors at the expense of young couples and families.

We have not attempted to come to grips with the situation produced by this poisonous alliance of an incompetent Government with its 20 years failure on housing and powerful developers who have held it to ransom. The people who pay the piper are calling the tune.

If the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government was serious this Bill would be one of a series of Bills. We would see a major housing Bill. While I welcome the Bill's reference to anti-social behaviour and the attempt to define what that might be, the wider problem of anti-social behaviour in many urban estates has never been addressed in legislation. There is a need for such legislation. There is a need for the Bill announced by Deputy Gilmore this morning to take control of what developers have been doing to our country.

The Bill is a damp squib. It is a feeble response to a problem the Minister of State, Deputy Noel Ahern, knows exists. Homeless people are counting on him and, once again, he and his Government have failed them.

[1234]Mr. Gormley: Information on John Gormley  Zoom on John Gormley  I welcome the limited progress on tenants' rights made in this Bill. Where does the Government stand on this legislation? We know that Fianna Fáil probably supports it but do the Progressive Democrats? We saw an example this morning of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform having one position on the deal with the religious orders and the Tánaiste having a different one. They appear to be at loggerheads. If we are to have stability in the Government it is vital that the junior partner has a clear position on legislation. It is clear that Deputy McDowell has a skewed idea of collective Cabinet responsibility. His out of control ego prevents him from understanding this. He is not a team player. He has had more solo runs than Mick O'Connell in his heyday. I hope we will have clarity on this issue. It is vital.

Like Deputy Broughan, I have had to deal with people living in private rented accommodation who want Dublin City Council to provide them with accommodation. Every Friday afternoon, when I deal with this problem, the queue is longer. In many cases people are mistreated by landlords. This is happening with greater frequency.

Does this House stand on the side of landlords or of tenants? The Green Party is, unashamedly, on the side of tenants. This legislation does not go far enough in helping tenants in this city. Many of them are living in dreadful conditions, are being overcharged and have no security of tenure. They can be told, and are being told with regularity, that they must leave within a month or that their rents will be doubled overnight.

This legislation seeks to deal with this problem but we are far behind other countries. I recently visited a colleague in Berlin. He showed me around his beautiful three-bedroomed flat in Schoneberg in Berlin, for which he pays €600. When one contrasts the conditions enjoyed by tenants in Berlin with those of tenants in Ireland one begins to realise how bad things are in this country. In Germany, as long as tenants respect things they will have security of tenure, will not be overcharged and can make additions to the premises that will make it a home. That does not happen in this country.

Mr. N. Ahern: Information on Noel Ahern  Zoom on Noel Ahern  It is about supply and demand. There is a surplus of supply.

Mr. Gormley: Information on John Gormley  Zoom on John Gormley  That is why the Green Party introduced legislation to increase supply. The Government voted against it. Who does a shortage of supply favour? It favours the Minister of State's friends, namely, the landlords and speculators. Therefore, he is happy for the shortage of supply to continue so they can continue to charge exorbitant rents.

The legislation seeks to introduce the new concept of a Part 4 tenancy. This concept, in itself, is a good idea, but if one reads the legislation one will see that there are many loopholes. If one considers the idea of the controlled tenancy one will [1235] realise that it was a way of ensuring that tenants could not be kicked out. However, as an elected representative, I became familiar in recent years with the ways landlords got around this. They went to court and actually managed to get tenants out of controlled tenancies. If they could do so, how much easier will it be for them to do so under this legislation? Landlords will drive a coach and four through this legislation. They will go through it piece by piece and those who feel secure with the Part 4 tenancy may not be as secure as they think.

Threshold has issued some press releases about the Bill and has expressed concerns. Its point on the registration of landlords is absolutely valid. The penalty for failing to register is €140. This is ludicrous and does not serve as a deterrent to any landlord. We need to ensure that landlords are registered and that they comply with all the stipulations. This could be done if the political will existed.

Mr. N. Ahern: Information on Noel Ahern  Zoom on Noel Ahern  That penalty is just for late registration. If the landlords are taken to court, they could incur a penalty of a couple of thousand euro.

Mr. Gormley: Information on John Gormley  Zoom on John Gormley  The Minister will have to adopt a much tougher attitude. On late registration, a fine of €140 does not act as a deterrent.

On 3 June The Irish Times termed as “outrageous” the commitment in the Bill to keep information on rents and rented accommodation away from the Revenue Commissioners. In a sense, we were enshrining law breaking into law, which is completely unacceptable. We need to examine the Bill in detail and understand that it has deficiencies, which I hope we can address in detail on Committee Stage.

The Irish Property Owners Association obviously believes that the Bill is biased against landlords and interferes excessively with its members' traditional rights. It objects to the establishment of a new system of registering rented properties with a new private rented tenancies board and regards it as a bureaucratic nightmare. Until now, the association's members have had a charmed life. Any small bit of progress is seen by them as interference. I believe the Bill is absolutely necessary and that we are not going far enough. It seems that we are still back in the 19th century given the way that we kowtow to landlords.

Other issues have to be considered, some of which were referred to by Deputy Cuffe. He referred to them as the escape clauses for landlords. The first can be exploited in circumstances where the landlord lives in one half of the rented house and there are more than two units in the house. I refer to the loophole in respect of the Part 4 tenancy.

Will the Minister elaborate on how one judges the failure of the tenant to comply with the tenancy contract? If a tenant does not comply with [1236] one small aspect of a contract with many clauses, does that mean that he can be evicted? I can understand why an eviction could take place when the tenant engages in “serious anti-social behaviour”. However, it must be defined clearly. Does “anti-social behaviour” mean having a party occasionally? I suppose a judge would have to examine this at a future date.

Loopholes exist where the dwelling is no longer suited to the accommodation needs of the household in terms of the number of bed spaces, where the landlord has contract to sell property in three months and where the landlord requires property for occupation by family members. These will be used by landlords to get out of their contracts and to the disadvantage of their sitting tenants.

We have made a start by introducing the four year rule although tenants can be kicked out in the first six months of those four years. Four years is a short period in one's life. It is shorter than a Government's normal term in office. Some Members have been kicked out after five years. When one's livelihood and family depend on a tenancy, it is a different matter. The problem is that we have not developed a culture of apartment living. It is the norm in Europe for families to live in apartments. I tabled a question in the early 1990s—

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:  Did the Deputy say he was sharing his time?

Mr. Gormley: Information on John Gormley  Zoom on John Gormley  I did.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:  There are just eight minutes left.

Mr. Gormley: Information on John Gormley  Zoom on John Gormley  I will make one last point. When I tabled a question in Dublin Corporation in the early 1990s, I discovered that there were very few families living in new apartment blocks in the inner city because they were not designed properly for families. One will realise this when one sees how steep the stairs are. If we are to encourage people to live in apartments, we must build apartments that are suitable for families. We are failing to attract more people into the city and to provide more playgrounds and therefore we need to state in legislation that dwellings have to be family friendly. We have not done so, resulting in one more deficiency in the Bill.

Aengus Ó Snodaigh: Information on Aengus O Snodaigh  Zoom on Aengus O Snodaigh  Molaim go bhfuil a leithéid de Bhille os ár gcomhair. Táimid ag fanacht leis ó bunaíodh an Stát. Roimhe sin, fiú, bhí na ceisteanna céana ag déanamh buartha do dhaoine mar Michael Davitt, a luadh roimhe. Is cuimhin linn ar fad gur fhoghlaim muid ar scoil mar gheall ar chogadh na talún nuair a throid daoine ar son na three Fs. Is trua go raibh orainn fanacht chomh fada seo. Is trua go raibh an Teachta Kelly ag rá gur whingers a bhí ar an dtaobh seo den Teach, gur Bille maith é agus gur chóir dúinn glacadh leis. Nílim sásta glacadh le haon rud díreach toisc go ndeireann duine amháin gur rud maith é. [1237] Fiú laistigh dá pháirtí féin, mar a léirigh an Teachta Andrews, feictear deacrachtaí ins an mBille seo. Is trua, tar éis an fhad a bhíomar ag fanacht ar an mBille seo, nach bhfuil sé foirfe. Nuair atáimid ag déileáil le Bille chomh mór leis an gceann seo tá sé tábhachtach go mbeadh sé foirfe, go mbeadh éifeacht leis agus go gcuirfeadh sé athrú iomlán ar an Stát, ó thaobh tionóntaithe de ach go háirithe.

Tá ceisteanna fós ann nach bhfuil an Bille tar éis tabhairt fúthu. Nuair a dhéanann an Bille a bhealach tríd an Teach, tá súil agam go ndéanfar leasaithe air a dhéanfaidh níos foirfe é, a dhéanfaidh sé níos éasca don phobal déileáil leis agus go mbeidh cearta ann a bhéadh ina bhuntáistí don phobal.

Some of the problems with housing in Ireland are related to bad planning. Other factors include the baby boom in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, the end of emigration and the failure to address the problem of student accommodation and the need for social housing. Since the foundation of the State, successive Governments have failed to tackle the vested interest of landlordism. This is because so many landlords have had friends in the main political parties, which have been vested with control and the enactment of legislation in this State. The result has been a haphazard approach to this issue and an acceptance by Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Progressive Democrats of tax avoidance by landlords as a class.

Income from rent should be taxable, but nothing in the Bill will ensure this. It is no excuse to plead that it is impossible to identify landlords or the number of dwellings in the private rented sector. Nevertheless, I hope the legislation will begin to address these aspects and that, in time, the Exchequer will benefit from the money currently going into the black economy. Landlords who are not tax compliant have not availed of the opportunity to register their property or their interests. They are running a business, which does not give them a licence to print money. They have obligations, not only to their tenants, but to their neighbours, the local authorities, the State and the Exchequer.

By suggesting that the minimal registration fee of €70 should be reduced to €20 in an attempt to encourage landlords to register, Deputy O'Malley has effectively said that landlords should be rewarded for non-compliance. It is a crazy suggestion and it would encourage tax avoidance by rewarding those who, over the years, have been non-compliant.

There is nothing in the legislation to ensure that the ongoing quiet forms of discrimination will not continue. Landlords in this city have been guilty of discrimination against immigrants, those in receipt of rent allowance, single parents and those who have children. Similarly, the Bill makes no mention of minimum standards. People in this city are living in cramped, damp accommodation which is unfit for human habitation. In most cases the health board pays the rent, which means the [1238] State is paying landlords to allow people to live in unfit accommodation. The Bill contains no provisions dealing with minimum accommodation standards, such as size of dwelling, the maximum number that should be allowed live in, say, three bedroom houses or one bedroom apartments, whether bedsits should have hot and cold running water, a shower, bath or indoor toilet, provisions regarding the disposal of sewage and waste and the condition of fire escapes.

While some provisions cover insurance aspects, what is the position regarding public liability insurance? Who is to enforce these provisions? Will it fall to the Private Residential Tenancies Board?

The legislation will encourage landlords to offer tenancies for periods of either less than six months or up to four years. There is no attempt to move towards the European norm, where long tenancies apply, of ten, 20 and 30 years. While notices to quit must provide reasons, there is no reason why the legislation should not ensure that tenancies should be of a longer duration. Landlords should be encouraged to move towards that situation.

While the Bill includes many good provisions, it does not address the question of affordability. There is a need to change the current position where, in this city, it is cheaper to have a mortgage than to rent, even given the ridiculous prices at which houses are being sold. People find they must take the mortgage option rather than, as they see it, squander dead money on rented accommodation.

Deputy Eoin Ryan said that rents in the city have stabilised. I do not know where he lives, because in the constituency of Dublin South-Central prices continue to rise, especially for those who are dependent on health board rent allowances. They are being forced out. The landlords know the limit at which health boards are willing to pay and they are setting their rents at that amount or above. They are then asking tenants to make underhand payments to ensure they can stay.

I hope to address many other issues on Committee and later Stages. It is good to see that the legislation will impose obligations on tenants and landlords with regard to anti-social behaviour. However, that will not solve the major problems in this area. Aspects such as the role of the Garda Síochána and questions of proof need to be addressed. While the Bill does not fully address this issue nor the underlying causes, it is a step in the right direction.

I appeal to the Minister of State to ensure that minimum standards prevail so that we do not have slums emerging again in Dublin. That happened in the last century and it should never be repeated. The imposition of minimum standards will help to ensure that people do not live in unfit accommodation.

Mr. Ring: Information on Michael Ring  Zoom on Michael Ring  I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak on this Bill. The Minister of State is cor[1239] rect that the housing problem is related to the balance between demand and supply. At present there is insufficient supply.

The Bill is concerned with regulating the private sector with regard to rented accommodation. The Minister of State has responsibility for those living in the public housing sector. I am aware of a person who is a chronic alcoholic and who has encountered many health problems. He also had many difficulties and did not pay his rent. He received a notice to quit from the council. Eventually he wound up in court. I was disappointed that the court did not see fit to grant him representation.

Will the Minister of State ensure either through legislation or ministerial order that, in future, when local authorities evict people from their homes, be they mothers with three children, single people with drink problems or people in difficulties with their rent, the authorities ensure these people have representation, because they cannot afford to employ a solicitor? At least in that case they will have the right to put their side of the story before the court.

It annoys me that, in such court cases, there are three or four council officials and the State or council solicitor, all paid for by the taxpayer, and that includes their travel expenses, while the poor creature in court has no one to represent him or her. I hope the Minister of State does something about this. I have raised it at the Committee on Social and Family Affairs and with all the voluntary organisations that deal with the weak, poor and homeless. Legislation such as this Bill to protect the private sector should not be enacted when the Minister of State will not protect people for whom he is responsible, namely, those in council housing.

The Bill does not go far enough but is a beginning and a step in the right direction on the basis that we will now try to protect people in rented accommodation. Under this legislation, landlords are not required to give a tenant a contract for the first six months, after which they must give him or her a four-year lease. Landlords being who they are will, if a prospective tenant offers a higher rent within six months, evict the sitting tenant, and they will not have to give a reason for so doing. This should be examined immediately. If a tenant pays his or her landlord and does not do anything wrong for the first six months, he or she should be protected. This works both ways.

There is nothing wrong with owning property or being a landlord, but there is something wrong with landlords who do not provide proper accommodation, care for their tenants and, because there is such a demand for rented accommodation, feel they can do as they wish. I welcome the attempt in the Bill to try to regulate these people. I am not enthusiastic about regulation because we are regulated too much and the country is turning into a police state. Increasing amounts of money are spent on hiring more council staff to oversee these regulations. I hope exist[1240] ing council staff can enforce this legislation and that additional staff do not have to be hired. If not, it will create more problems.

The Minister of State has a responsibility to the 50,000 families seeking housing. We have a serious housing problem, part of which could be resolved tomorrow and I will give an example as to how. I speak as a former auctioneer. I often wish I had remained in the business because the property market was very good in recent years. I left at the wrong time. That said, I believe in one job for one person and that one cannot do two jobs. I am a full-time politician now. I have experience of the rented sector, although I wish to record that I do not own rented property.

The seaside resort scheme gives a tax break to people for ten years. I see accommodation built under this scheme in my town and in Achill and elsewhere which must be available to rent from April to October or vice versa and which in some cases is vacant for nine months of the year. I know of an estate of 300 houses where, at Christmas, there is not one light in any of the houses. The Government should abolish this tax break and strike a deal with those who availed of it if they sell their houses to people who want to buy it at an affordable price. It would release a few thousand houses in the short term. Many people are tied into the scheme because of the tax break. They would sell their properties within ten years if they could get out of the tax break without being penalised. I hope the Minister of State can examine that.

A previous speaker referred to people on the housing waiting list. While a points system for the list is operated in Dublin, it is not in place in Mayo. When social housing becomes available there, people's needs are assessed. It has happened that, if a person rents accommodation near where social housing is being built and perhaps six months before it is allocated, he or she is almost guaranteed a house. I hope the Bill deals with this. Legislation is also in place which requires that, when such people are housed, their former accommodation be either closed or made habitable. That is not being enforced by local authorities and it should be.

There was a time when, if a person was on a local authority list, he or she was housed only once. I know of people who have two or three such houses. Some were renting accommodation, got into difficulty and went back on the housing list and were housed. Some live with partners in three or four bedroom houses for about two years, have a row with the partner and move out with the children leaving the partner alone in a three or four bedroom house. The Minister of State and his Department must examine this because it is not right if a woman and her children leave such a house, the partner remains in it because the rent is being paid, and she goes into rented accommodation and takes someone else's place on the housing waiting list. This should be examined promptly.

Another scenario is where people are accom[1241] modated in houses that cost €120,000 to €130,000 of taxpayers' money to build. After two to three years, they can obtain a mortgage to buy the house. They then build a massive house on a site and sell the local authority house for a huge profit. If I was Minister of State with responsibility for housing, the first action I would take would be to order that people who have bought their houses from a local authority and want to sell them before they have lived there for ten years must sell them to the council for whatever price they bought them or a percentage of the sale price.

Mr. N. Ahern: Information on Noel Ahern  Zoom on Noel Ahern  Is the council giving the authority?

Mr. Ring: Information on Michael Ring  Zoom on Michael Ring  It is, and that is the sad thing about it.

Mr. N. Ahern: Information on Noel Ahern  Zoom on Noel Ahern  They do not in Dublin.

Mr. Ring: Information on Michael Ring  Zoom on Michael Ring  It does in my constituency. Builders are buying local authority houses, refurbishing them and renting them out. I will give the Minister of State examples if he wants.

Mr. N. Ahern: Information on Noel Ahern  Zoom on Noel Ahern  Please do.

Mr. Ring: Information on Michael Ring  Zoom on Michael Ring  I am in a dispute at present where a local authority house is being sold to a constituent who wants to live in it. At the same time, I see from the local newspaper that a developer has applied for planning permission to refurbish a local authority house. The council will not give consent to the person who wants to live in the house while the builder has consent because he already has a pub in the town and has also applied for planning permission for a restaurant. This is not good enough. We must deal with it and not allow it to continue. It is no wonder we have a housing problem. I appeal to the Minister of State and his officials to examine this to try to tighten it up.

Mr. N. Ahern: Information on Noel Ahern  Zoom on Noel Ahern  I will do so. I will contact the councils. Perhaps the Deputy would give me the details.

Mr. Ring: Information on Michael Ring  Zoom on Michael Ring  I will, along with the notice in the newspaper. I will also give the Minister of State a few more examples of local authority houses being rented out in this fashion. It must be dealt with once and for all. We cannot have a situation where taxpayers subsidise builders. It must stop. People are entitled to social housing, but they are not entitled to abuse the system. The rights of tenants renting accommodation must be protected but those living in social housing must respect it. Local authorities are not enforcing the law as regards the condition in which some social housing tenants keep their houses, and they need to do so.

A welcome aspect of the Bill is that it will allow us at least to register those people we know to be landlords and ensure they provide proper accom[1242] modation to a standard to which people are entitled. It is wrong that young people and families are living in substandard accommodation for which they are charged the top rate, simply because there is a shortage of housing and rented accommodation.

The Minister of State's party has been in office for almost 17 of the past 20 years. The time has come to introduce legislation – the will is there – to get rid of vested interests, by which I mean builders. Builders have controlled too many political parties, in particular the Fianna Fáil Party, for the past 50 years. They appear to be dictating housing policy. If the Government were to give local authorities the necessary resources to buy green field sites tomorrow, they could install sewerage and water systems, make sites available at affordable prices and build social housing. The builders would then have to compete.

All business revolves around competition. One has problems where one has a monopoly. This is the case with the ESB and was the case for a long time with Iarnród Éireann and Bus Éireann. We will have to compete with builders who now control the land and are buying it up in every town and village. They are even buying fields set well behind main roads with future opportunities in mind. Now that they own the land, they will control events into the future. This is wrong and, as legislators, we must do something about it. We cannot allow honest young people who decide to marry or live together and try to build or buy houses to have to compete with builders. In my town, young people have to compete with a man in America who wants to buy a house and leave it vacant for perhaps ten years.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:  I warn the Deputy not to mention—

Mr. Ring: Information on Michael Ring  Zoom on Michael Ring  Am I not to mention America?

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:  No, people should not be identifiable from the Deputy's comments.

Mr. Ring: Information on Michael Ring  Zoom on Michael Ring  I did not identify anybody.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:  The Deputy gave a description which might allow local people to identify the person to whom he refers.

Mr. Ring: Information on Michael Ring  Zoom on Michael Ring  I would not care if that were the case because everything I say is true.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:  It should not happen.

Mr. Ring: Information on Michael Ring  Zoom on Michael Ring  I will stand over everything I say.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:  It is against the rules of the House.

Mr. Ring: Information on Michael Ring  Zoom on Michael Ring  As I do not wish to fall out with the Leas-Cheann Comhairle, I will try to be a little more reserved. That is not something I find easy [1243] but I will do my best. We have a serious problem which we must address, namely, young people trying to compete with others who are buying holiday homes which they leave empty for ten or 11 months each year.

We also have the question of the planning process which we have discussed in the House on previous occasions. I am glad the Taoiseach has given a commitment on the matter and hope he will honour it. Having listened to him during the week, however, I doubt he will. If sons or daughters, brothers or sisters, uncles or aunts want to build on their family's land, they should be accommodated where possible. I hope the necessary legislation will be laid before the House to ensure this occurs.

The Minister of State has a difficult job in the area of housing, the single biggest issue facing the country. The issue of young people trying to get a place to build their future with their families is creating major problems. One of my constituents visited me the other day. Both she and her husband have jobs which would have been regarded as excellent a few years ago. They are searching for a site on which to build and the cheapest they can find in my town costs €140,000 to €150,000. While they can afford to buy the site, they cannot afford to build a house on it.

The affordable housing scheme, one of the greatest schemes introduced in recent years, is now beginning to work. The Minister of State and the Department should push it more. It involves local authorities building and selling houses and completing all the necessary paperwork on behalf of the buyers. I ask the Minister of State to encourage local authorities to promote the scheme and to provide them with the resources needed to buy land and build more houses in order that more people will be able to buy their own homes. People are prepared to buy a home when they receive a little help. The abolition of the first-time buyer's grant was not helpful and put further pressure on those who needed it, namely, people building moderately sized houses under 1,360 sq. ft. This group needed a little assistance.

While many people are concerned about certain aspects of the Bill, it marks a step in the right direction. There appears, for example, to be concern about the issue of registration. The Minister of State will be in a position to introduce further legislation on the housing issue in the future. I ask him to address the anomalies in the legislation on Committee Stage.

People who are prepared to be up-front and provide good rented accommodation should not be slammed. I have nothing against those who rent out accommodation openly and honestly. They are needed because the State has failed. There is nothing wrong with owning property and I have nothing against property owners. They did not rob banks but had to borrow and take risks. It is a business for them. A common and positive feature of people is that we all want to own our [1244] homes. We should try to make it easier for people to obtain sites, build homes and find accommodation.

I ask the Minister of State to address some of the points I have raised, particularly with regard to seaside resorts and council schemes. We need a completely new qualification system for council housing. People should be housed only once unless very serious circumstances arise. As a public representative, an issue that causes great upset among my constituents is when they wait on a housing list for years, only to be pushed off it when a crisis arises elsewhere. Some people are proper and honest when they put their names on a housing list and describe their circumstances. They are not prepared to accept bad accommodation and want to do the best they can for their families. These people need help, support and protection.

Mr. N. Ahern: Information on Noel Ahern  Zoom on Noel Ahern  Why does Mayo County Council not use the points system?

Mr. Ring: Information on Michael Ring  Zoom on Michael Ring  I am in favour of the points system. For one reason or another, my council appears to favour its current system. I have spoken on the issue at council level and intend to take it up when we re-examine our letting priorities. The points system would be fairer than the current system. It is terrible when people move into a town because they know council houses are being built and accommodation will become available within a short time. This happens regularly. Our letting priorities mean these people are given priority. This is wrong and I intend to address the matter at local level. I ask the Minister of State to address the other issues I have raised.

Mr. Kehoe: Information on Paul Kehoe  Zoom on Paul Kehoe  I agree with many of the points made by my colleague, Deputy Ring. At a time when we have more than 50,000 people on housing waiting lists, it is disheartening that some people who deserve housing, including some in my county, are waiting to be allocated council housing. In County Wexford we use the points system and it works well. Some councillors have told me the council waiting list for housing has not been so large since they were elected. I call on the Minister of State to ensure that every county is allocated additional funds to build more local authority housing, of which there is never enough. He will no doubt argue he has allocated a certain amount to County Wexford, County Mayo and elsewhere but funding for local authority housing is never sufficient.

There is a large number of gangsters – perhaps I should not use that term – involved in the provision of student accommodation. There are good and bad landlords and the latter are easy to find. Students who move to Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Waterford, Carlow or other towns to attend regional technical colleges or other third level institutions have to seek accommodation.

There is plenty of student accommodation but much of it is in bad condition. We saw some [1245] sights, especially in Dublin. I went to visit one student's flat because I did not believe the story his parent told me. All he had was a bedroom with a shower in the corner and a small room off it which contained a cooker and a sink. He had to share the toilet with four other tenants. The prices these students are charged are also unbelievable. Paying for this accommodation puts the students' parents under great pressure, particularly if the student does not qualify for a grant. No parent wants to see their son or daughter having to live in bad conditions when they go to study in Dublin or elsewhere, particularly when they are paying high rents.

I am glad all landlords will have to be registered. That is only right because they are getting away with blue murder. I am aware of one student who paid a deposit of €1,000 last year for his accommodation. His landlord was in England and had put a caretaker in charge of the apartment. When the student sought the return of his deposit in May this year, the caretaker would not return it. She said she wanted to inspect the apartment and check it for damage. There was an outstanding ESB bill of €300 and the caretaker said she would take that amount from the deposit and pay the bill. She promised to return whatever money was left. The student only got €250 back from his €1,000. The landlord had spent €750. He spent €300 on the ESB bill and the rest on paint and so forth.

The student was not happy to get only €250 back but he was delighted the ESB bill had been paid. However, he soon received a solicitor's letter in the post on behalf of the ESB. That is when he came to me with his story. I contacted the ESB and explained what had happened. I was told the ESB could do nothing because the bill was in his name. When I told of how the landlord took the money for the bill out of the deposit, the people in the ESB did not want to hear. Hopefully, this legislation will prevent this type of occurrence. That is just one story I know but I am sure other public representatives know hundreds more.

Deputy Broughan spoke about the thousands of homeless people on our streets. It is terrible to see them. When I leave the Dáil at night for my accommodation, I see people lying in doorways, laneways and on the sides of the street. They have no place to go. There is no accommodation and no houses or hostels available. Members of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and others come around with soup and sandwiches for these people. They are to be complimented for looking after the homeless. The Government is not looking after them. Numerous reports have been compiled which claim that the Government is doing a number of things for the homeless but it is doing nothing.

The Minister of State is only a year in office and I know he is doing his best but some of his predecessors or perhaps his brother, the Taoi[1246] seach, should go out on the streets at night and see the homeless people there. Let the homeless tell how they have to live. It is a crying shame. We have had the Celtic tiger economy but there are still homeless people on the streets. There are probably more homeless people now than ever before. The number is certainly not dropping.

One sees homeless people on the streets of Wexford, a small rural town, and towns throughout the country. Deputy Broughan spoke about people he knew who are living in a type of barn. I am aware of somebody in my constituency who is living alone in a back shed in an old housing estate. What future has he? He is on the housing list but he does not have the points to get to the top of the list to ensure he gets a house. There is much work to be done on this issue.

The provisions regarding anti-social behaviour are not strong enough in the Bill. I can give an example of such behaviour in a council estate in Wexford. This family has pulled down the stairs, doors and skirting boards to burn them. The council has to wait on court injunctions and other legal proceedings to have this family removed. Generally, the council has extremely good tenants. A family has bought the house next door to the tenants I mentioned. This family is in dire straits as a result of the anti-social behaviour of the family next door. What is happening is unbelievable. These people throw their rubbish out the back door and might leave it there for three or four months. The council is doing its best but anti-social behaviour has to be dealt with more strongly in the Bill. It is a serious matter and it is frustrating for families who are paying their rent and so forth.

I feel strongly about this issue. I did not see anti-social behaviour until I became involved in public life. I live in the country and I do not know what it is to have bad neighbours. My neighbours are good and I hope they will remain that way. I hate to see good, honest, decent people having to live with anti-social behaviour next door.

Only one in five landlords is on the register. This register is most important. There are thousands of landlords in Dublin alone but only one in five is registered. I do not know how the Minister will trace all the landlords in this city. Many landlords will not wish to come forward and declare their rented accommodation because they have been getting away with blue murder over the last number of years. They will wish to remain unregistered and continue as they are. The Minister should ask the colleges to encourage students to go into registered accommodation. This will have to be done to ensure all landlords are registered. If they are not registered, the situation will not change.

I welcome this Bill but it could have been more wide ranging. I read the submission on the Bill from Threshold and I am sure our spokesperson, Deputy Allen, will deal with those points on [1247] Committee Stage. Deputy Ring spoke about planning permission. It is a major problem in every county in the country, especially in Wexford where people cannot build a home in their local town or village. People come down from Dublin and get planning permission to build houses. They might stay in those houses for one or two months in the year and after a couple of years or so sell them for exorbitant prices. It is terrible.

Every day I receive representations from people who are unable to get planning permission to build on their own or a relative's land. It is sad that these people are unable to live in their locality. I was delighted when the Taoiseach said that in certain circumstances people should be allowed to build where they want.

Mr. N. Ahern: Information on Noel Ahern  Zoom on Noel Ahern  It depends on where they work.

Mr. Kehoe: Information on Paul Kehoe  Zoom on Paul Kehoe  Exactly. Changes are being made to the County Wexford development plan at present to alleviate the planning permission problem. It is a major problem in every county. I have spoken to local representatives from all parties and especially to those representing rural areas in Wexford, Mayo, Galway, Waterford, Cork and Kerry. Every day they are being hounded with planning permission problems. It is terrible to have to visit a planner to sort out two or three points. Two planning permission applicants have already been in contact with me today looking for things such as a landscape plan. It is an important item but it should be possible to grant planning permission and ensure that people carry out the work, although some of them might not do it after getting the permission.

Housing is a little like the health system in terms of the number of reports that have been carried out on it. The Bacon report was published and nothing has been done since. Mortgage interest relief was scrapped and the demand for rental accommodation went absolutely through the roof, as did prices. In county Wexford we see single parents paying exorbitant prices for rented accommodation. They receive money from the health board –€50 or €60, perhaps €70 if they are lucky – to pay the rented accommodation, which may cost €150 or €160 per week. It is absolutely terrible what landlords are getting away with. Deputy Seán Crowe spoke earlier about three or four parents and an awful number of children living in a two-bedroom apartment. That is happening everywhere – not just in Dublin but in every county. I only saw it when I was canvassing for last year's general election. I saw the accommodation people are renting out and the people who have to put up with it because they do not have enough points to get on the housing list.

I have one or two other things to say before I [1248] finish. I was very disappointed that the Government scrapped the first-time buyers' grant because it helped people. I know it was not very high – perhaps €3,000 or €4,000 – but it helped people to furnish their houses or put in a kitchen; it gave them an incentive. Since the first-time buyers' grant was abolished, many additional people have gone on the housing list. It is very hard to get a mortgage if one cannot fulfil specific criteria. People are unable to keep up with the payments on a mortgage. If they are unable to get housing or accommodation, they could rent a house from the council and, after three or four years, if their circumstances change, they should be able to buy the house from it.

One other thing is very important, and I feel very strongly about it – housing for the elderly. In my own town of Enniscorthy, sheltered accommodation was built with Government grant aid for elderly people. That initiative should be encouraged more. They were one – or two-bedroom houses in the town close to the church and shops. The old people could go into the town centre even if they were unable to drive. It was great to see those old people living in these houses with a nurse on site and a doctor calling every so often. They get meals on wheels or can go to the hall where there is entertainment every night. It is a great initiative, and I encourage it. Many people would do the same thing in parishes and towns across the country if the Government could give them some grant aid. I know that the Minister has given it over the years—

Mr. N. Ahern: Information on Noel Ahern  Zoom on Noel Ahern  It is set at 95%.

Mr. Kehoe: Information on Paul Kehoe  Zoom on Paul Kehoe  I know, and I would love to see it increased, for I know that in my own parish of Bree we are just about to launch plans for sheltered accommodation for the elderly where they are near the shops and the church. At present they may be living alone, perhaps afraid, out in country areas but they can now come in and live independently and make plenty of new friends. I would encourage the Government and the Minister to give increased grant aid to such people. He mentioned a percentage, but—

Mr. N. Ahern: Information on Noel Ahern  Zoom on Noel Ahern  It was 95%.

Mr. Kehoe: Information on Paul Kehoe  Zoom on Paul Kehoe  —those people do not have much money, so if the figure was 95% when we put in our grant application, perhaps the Minister will look on us favourably. Since he has said that, perhaps he could give us a commitment right now.

I am delighted to see this Bill coming through the House and I hope it will make landlords maintain properties to proper standards and that when students or whoever go into the private rented sector, they will not be living in squalor and I hope they will not be paying exorbitant prices. There are many other things I would like [1249] to change in the Bill and I know that our spokesperson on the environment, Deputy Bernard Allen, will be doing so. I compliment the Minister on his past work and I hope he keeps it up. That reminds me of his election slogan “A lot done. More to do.” There is more in the latter category.

Ms Harkin: Information on Marian Harkin  Zoom on Marian Harkin  I wish to share my time with Deputy Finian McGrath.

I am delighted to have an opportunity to speak on this important legislation. Given that approximately 12%, or one in ten households, are in the private rented sector, this legislation is long overdue. This Bill, among other things, introduces a measure of security of tenure for tenants. Unlike many of our European neighbours, that right was not enshrined in legislation and I am pleased to see that, when this Bill is passed, that will no longer be the case in Ireland.

I might also add that I am particularly pleased to see the establishment of a private residential tenancies board in Part 6 of the Bill under the heading “Dispute Resolution”. Like many other Deputies, I have received very many representations on the issue of anti-social behaviour – noise, etc. For someone living in the vicinity whose sleep is disturbed on a regular – or even irregular – basis, that constitutes not only a serious nuisance but it can make life unbearable. If one adds to that the circumstances where there might be young children or someone is ill, the situation becomes untenable. While this Bill will not solve all the problems, at least it provides a mechanism for dispute resolution in one form or another.

I am pleased to see that the enforcement of determination orders of the board that are not complied with will be through the Circuit Court. I am also pleased to see that in Part 2 of the Bill there is an explicit onus on landlords to enforce tenant obligations, and one of those specified obligations on tenants is not to engage in or allow anti-social behaviour. Failure to do so will allow another person, for example, a neighbour, who can show that he or she is adversely affected by the tenant's non-compliance with the tenancy obligations to refer the complaint to the board concerning the landlord's failure to enforce. As I said, the enforcement of such orders not complied with will be through the Circuit Court. It will not solve all our problems with anti-social behaviour, and I agree with Deputy Paul Kehoe that it is a huge issue. There is an onus on us all as legislators to deal with it. At least this Bill is a start, and I know many people will welcome that section of the Bill.

In the context of the widespread tax evasion we have seen in recent times, there must be protection for any tenant subjected to unfair treatment, including cessation of tenancy, following his or her insistence on measures which would conflict with the landlord's non-compliant attitude to income deriving from the tenancy. In that [1250] and other respects, it is difficult to understand the inclusion of a six-month period during which a tenancy can be terminated without giving any reason. It seems obvious that any tenant who would wish to pursue rights under this Bill and who is not prepared to co-operate with the tax dodging landlord, could find it very difficult to secure the four year tenancy referred to in the Bill. A method of penalising such landlords, including reference to the Revenue Commissioners, should be included in the Bill.

Another issue often spoken about in Deputies' clinics and not, I believe, addressed in this Bill, is the situation where rent supplements have been capped. That means that a rent supplement will not be payable where the amount of rent exceeds the appropriate maximum. Various health boards have set definitions of reasonable rent but in some cases they are too low. For example, in the North Western Health Board area the cap for a single person is €77 per week. Yet in the Western Health Board Area, just across the County Mayo border, the cap is €115 per week, a difference of €30. For a couple with one child or a one-parent family, the cap in the North-Western Health Board area is €115 per week. In the Western Health Board Area it is €175 per week.

Mr. N. Ahern: Information on Noel Ahern  Zoom on Noel Ahern  That is local democracy. Would the Deputy like me to do it centrally?

Ms Harkin: Information on Marian Harkin  Zoom on Marian Harkin  I would like the Minister to issue a directive to the health boards to set the cap at a fair rate and something that reflects what is happening locally. The upshot is that tenants simply pay the higher rent—

Mr. N. Ahern: Information on Noel Ahern  Zoom on Noel Ahern  I do, but I do not want to give more money to the landlords, as the Deputy seems to wish.

Ms Harkin: Information on Marian Harkin  Zoom on Marian Harkin  I agree there is a problem but tenants pay the higher rent and pretend they are simply paying the maximum amount allowed. For example, for a couple with one child in Sligo, the average going rate for a two-bedroom apartment is about €170, yet they only get €115 rent supplement. That means that the couple has to pay the extra €55 out of their own pocket. If a person is in receipt of rent supplement he or she does not have an extra €55 to throw around. Given that the rent is supposed to be €115, €55 is floating around which is not taxable. It is not accounted for and as legislators we are colluding in this. Something needs to be done.

A realistic cap on rent supplement must be set because major difficulties are being created. If the Bill deals with the issue of market rent where landlords are setting or reviewing rent, similar parameters should be set when capping rent allowance. A number of Deputies have expressed concern at this concept of market rent and I share their concern. If it was linked [1251] to the cap on rent or if those whose job it is to determine market rent could take account of the figures produced by the health board, perhaps it would help in some way. Those two issues, market rent and the capping of rent supplement, could be linked.

Like Deputy Crawford and many other Deputies, I express my disappointment at the comments of the Taoiseach in this House on Wednesday regarding the position of one-off housing. When the Fianna Fáil Party came to Sligo, comments by the Taoiseach indicated the need for a change of heart by planners on the issue of rural housing. He told us this was the single most important issue raised by Deputies and Senators. All of us were led to believe we could look forward to a somewhat more liberal regime than heretofore. He signalled a radical shift in Government policy in relation to one-off housing when he said that current restrictions were too severe. Yet, in the House last Wednesday the Taoiseach said: “The means through which this can be done is by setting down guidelines under the spatial strategy for the limited areas where I and the Minister indicated it should be done to enable people who are siblings of landowners to build their houses on their own family farm.” Again, he said: “This was the limited area I mentioned.” He finished off his comments by saying:

If the guidelines are set down, local authorities will co-operate with the Minister. That should be possible in this limited area.

That comment is very strange because if one looks at the spatial strategy, launched by the Government recently, the section on rural generated housing states that rural generated housing needs arise for people who make up an intrinsic part of the rural community by way of background or the fact that they were full or part time in rural areas.

That statement is much broader than the phrase “siblings of landowners”. Nowhere in the Bill is it stated that they have to build on their own family farm. Did somebody get to the Taoiseach? What has happened in the meantime, because he appears to have narrowed down what is contained in the spatial strategy? The waters are muddied on the issue of rural housing. We need a definitive statement from Government on what are the issues because one Minister is saying one thing and the Taoiseach is saying another and rowing back on it. A legislative framework is needed to implement the spatial strategy.

The Taoiseach spoke about guidelines. We are all familiar with the fact that various local authorities have not adhered to the strategic planning guidelines for the greater Dublin area. The same can happen with the spatial strategy. If the Government is sincere about implementing the [1252] strategy a legislative framework will have to be put in place. We are aware from a case in the High Court involving Meath County Council that the judge stated that even though it had not followed the planning guidelines, the fact that it had merely looked at the document was enough to say they were being referred to. In other words, the spatial strategy, without a legislative framework, does not need to be implemented.

It is unfair of the Taoiseach to give the impression to many in rural Ireland who wish to live and work there that they will be able to do so and a few weeks later to pull the rug out from under them.

Mr. F. McGrath: Information on Finian McGrath  Zoom on Finian McGrath  I welcome the opportunity to speak to the Residential Tenancies Bill 2003. I give a broad welcome to the thrust of the Bill as we need to assist tenants in the wider society. My agenda in this debate is the advancement of tenants' rights. Given our history, the Irish will always want to put people's rights first, even though in the new consumer and materialistic society we seem to be losing respect for the valuable caring traditions of the past and the vision for equality. It is time to revisit the principles of people such as Michael Davitt which are still relevant. Perhaps we need to bring these compassionate principles into the debate. I intend to do so when dealing with the weaknesses in this legislation.

The private rented sector is an important source of housing. Over 150,000 households are estimated to live in this sector. The long-term decline of the sector reversed during the 1990s, with 8% of all households housed in private rental accommodation at mid-decade, climbing to 12% of all households in more recent estimates. This dramatic shift reflects housing demands stemming from both population growth and the increase in household formation, neither of which is likely to abate soon. The issue of housing poverty is very real. Of those living in private rented accommodation, at least one third are in receipt of social welfare rent supplement and are living in the poorest quality accommodation, subjected to rent increases at will and liable to be evicted with only 28 days' notice for no cause. Although the conditions recall the Victorian era, it is reality for more than 100,000 people living on rent supplements and the countless others on the minimum wage of just under €13,000 per annum. This is their real world.

Landlords who rent to those on low incomes know their tenants are unlikely to find alternative accommodation. Shopping around and voting with one's feet are not relevant options. Such landlords can, if they wish, exploit matters by ignoring the legitimate expectations of their tenants, such as meeting the minimum legal dwelling standards.

The landlord's right to terminate a periodic [1253] tenancy arbitrarily with only 28 days' notice and to raise the rent at will undermines the tenant's attempt to make a home for himself and his family. Effective regulation of landlord practices can help to protect these vulnerable tenants. I have strong views on this issue. The fact that contractual relations can reflect an equal power basis and, therefore, result in an unfair deal for one side is recognised in other policy areas. For example, workers are protected in many ways from exploitative treatment by employers. Consumers are protected by law from misleading or unfair conduct by suppliers. Surely it is time to protect tenants from the unfair practices used by a minority of landlords – I stress a minority of landlords because I have many positive stories from tenants about compassionate landlords in the trade.

There is a real concern that the exclusion of licences, a non-exclusive right to occupy, from the scope of the Bill will lead to landlords using licence arrangements to avoid the Bill's requirements. I am concerned about abuses of the licensing system as it currently operates. I call on the Government to address this issue in legislative terms but, more specifically, I ask that the Residential Tenancies Bill be amended to enable the board to determine whether a licence arrangement is bone fide or designed to defeat a tenant's rights.

The amount of money payable as a deposit has increased significantly in recent years. For many tenants, failure to get their deposit back speedily means real hardship and can prevent them from getting alternative accommodation. The Bill does not do enough to deal with this situation. As drafted, the Bill allows a landlord to retain the deposit if there are arrears of rent, even if the deposit amounts to significantly more money. It does not put an onus on the landlord to return a tenant's deposit promptly. While a tenant may go to the board for redress if the landlord withholds the deposit, unless the money is refunded quickly, homelessness is a real possibility. I call on the Government to increase the powers of the board to hold all tenant deposits and, therefore, avoid these hardships.

For the first six months of a tenancy the landlord can give a 28 day notice to quit without cause. I consider this probationary period unduly long and recommend three months instead. Landlords should not be enabled unreasonably to refuse a sub-let or an assignment of a tenancy. Given the extended notice period required of tenants in the Bill, the ability to submit or assign would give some room to manoeuvre to tenants who have to vacate earlier than anticipated.

The Bill should make it clear that its provisions cover bedsit dwelling units. Section 4, the interpretation section, defines a dwelling as a self-contained residential unit but Threshold is regularly [1254] contacted by people living in bedsit accommodation who have landlord or tenant problems. The legislation should be amended to make clear that bedsits are covered by including a provision referring to units where bathrooms may be shared by occupants of different tenancies within a building. Otherwise people in bedsits would not have recourse to the private residential tenancies board for dispute resolution.

Section 6, which deals with service of notices, provides that one means of service is by way of post. In my experience talking to tenants, ordinary prepaid post creates difficulties in terms of proof of receiving notices. The Bill should stipulate registered post, even though this imposes an extra cost, but the surest means of giving notice is by personal service, which I strongly support.

Section 9 sets out the consequences of committing an offence. It provides a key incentive for landlords to comply with the Bill's registration requirements, which in turn is crucial to the effective implementation of many of the Bill's provisions. Section 9(2) sets a daily fine of €250 for each offence relating to continued contravention. This is less than the level set in other legislative measures such as the per diem in the Licensing of Indoor Events Act, 2003, which is €500. The daily fine in this Bill should be amended to at least €500.

I am concerned that although the determination orders under this legislation essentially relate to civil disputes, the Bill provides in section 9 for criminal remedies, notably imprisonment, should the court find that an order has not been properly complied with. While section 123 exempts offenders of limited financial means from jail sentences, the issue of appropriate remedies still merits further consideration.

Section 12 spells out the obligations of landlords and section 12(1) provides that the obligations created in section 12 are in addition to the obligations arising under any other enactment. However, the inference that section 18 of the 1992 Act and the 1993 standards regulations are part of a landlord's obligation will not be recognised by all those concerned. Compliance with minimum legal dwelling standards at the low price end of the rental market has been problematic and an express obligation in the Bill should help to improve matters. An amendment should make explicit the landlord's obligation to ensure that rental property complies with the minimum standards legislation as currently enacted, or as amended from time to time.

There is no doubt that from the outside, the private rented sector does not have a very positive image. Research carried out by Threshold indicates that the negative perception of the sector is a significant deterrent to investment, particularly from financial institutions. A survey of landlords carried out by Threshold found that landlords themselves considered the perception [1255] of the sector to be poor. I recognise that the reforms proposed in the Bill will bring about real change by improving the position of tenants and promoting greater professionalism within the sector. The Bill offers the prospect of a private rented sector where good practice is standard across the board and that is the key – it is good practice for the landlord and protection for the tenant. Proper regulation of the sector, together with enforcement of standards, will be in everyone's interest. An earlier speaker mentioned 150,000 people in the private rented sector, while 50,000 people are on the housing lists. That means in our society there are some people with a number of homes while other families have no homes at all. Something is wrong here which needs to be examined within our broader society. There were also challenges in less economically difficult times when past Governments had the ability to go out and look after those people. I hope the Government will take my views on board to enhance the Bill.

Mr. Connolly: Information on Paudge Connolly  Zoom on Paudge Connolly  The necessity for a Bill such as this stems from the fact that private tenants in rented accommodation have long been at the mercy of unscrupulous landlords while having little or no redress. Reform of this sector is long overdue since the private renting population is in excess of 110,000, a sizeable constituency for any Government. The provision of adequate resources to educate tenants about their rights and obligations under the new legislation is vitally important, as well as ensuring the Bill's broad implementation. Until now it was difficult for local authorities to ensure enforcement due to a lack of resources, so sufficient resources should be provided to protect vulnerable students and other tenants and to prevent their exploitation.

Registration of landlords is something the Bill has failed to grapple with. A minimum of landlords are registered – the figure is less than 25%, which shows that 75% of landlords are not registered, and I am sure it is the bigger landlords who are ignoring the registration system. While the Bill puts a legal onus on all landlords for the first time to register with the new private residential tenancies board, they are given an assurance of anonymity and a guarantee that they will not be registered with the Revenue Commissioners for tax purposes. This amounts to a significant carrot to persuade landlords to co-operate. That board is a welcome development, principally due to its function as an independent dispute resolution body between landlords and tenants.

In the past, student accommodation was fairly consistently substandard, with apparently scant regard for building or health and safety regulations, high inflated rents and no policing by any authority. In the past, security of tenure could only be obtained by tenants after spending 21 [1256] years in a property but this Bill means they will have achieved that after six months. However, that initial six months will make such tenants extremely vulnerable to unscrupulous landlords. Tenants have hitherto been subject to eviction after a mere four weeks' notice and their rights need to be copperfastened. Tenants are still subject to possible eviction by landlords. In effect, a loophole permits their eviction if a landlord expresses an intention to refurbish or sell the premises or to requisition the premises for the purposes of moving a family member into it. A block of apartments could be requisitioned by a landlord in this manner, which would still amount to blatant exploitation of his or her tenants. The tenants' rights need to be addressed in the legislation.

The introduction of a once a year rent review limited to existing market rates is a further welcome development to protect tenants from excessive and unfair rent increases. However, certain criteria should be taken into account when sanctioning rent increases which should include the amount of the last increase, the landlord's costs in relation to the premises, the value and nature of any fixtures, appliances, etc., the state of repair of the premises and the value of work carried out by the tenant – at times the tenant takes a little pride in the rented premises, painting it or keeping the grass mown but he or she is charged what is almost a surtax by the landlord for keeping the premises in such excellent shape. We should also consider the hardship caused by a possible rent increase and the amount of time the tenant has occupied the premises. These issues should be considered in the annual review of rents.

The stipulation that landlords will only be able to evict on limited grounds after six months and that tenants will have statutory protection for the following three and a half years is very welcome. However, I have a reservation regarding the possible compromising of the tenant's security of tenure by the suggestion by a landlord of anti-social behaviour and how this could be misused as an excuse for evicting a tenant. Ensuring the full registration of landlords will be a major task and non-registration of landlords would seriously undermine the effectiveness of the private residential tenancies board, which would only consider disputes involving registered tenants.

This Bill is to be welcomed because it consolidates the rights of tenants and the capacity to have their rights enforced. Prior to this their rights were of little consequence. This Bill will go a long way towards improving their position by bringing about vastly improved standards in the private residential tenancy sector.

Mr. Naughten: Information on Denis Naughten  Zoom on Denis Naughten  I welcome the opportunity to speak on this important Bill which for the first time gives some element of security of tenure to [1257] tenants. The legislation provides for a four-year renewable tenancy. The principle behind the legislation is positive and I hope that when it reaches Committee Stage the Minister will iron out some of the difficulties that have been raised in the House. The Bill is a positive development and it is imperative it is passed because there is an estimated 150,000 households living in this sector. The reason there are so many households in the sector – the number is increasing on an annual basis – is the huge demand for accommodation. A big shift or change in the family structure in the past ten or 15 years has led to the increased demand for housing units and accommodation. The Government must take some of the blame in this regard because we do not facilitate home ownership. In Dublin city the cost of purchasing even an apartment has gone beyond the reach of many families. They cannot even save enough for a deposit.

The change has also led to huge problems in rural Ireland. I know the Minister of State's brother has tipped his hat to the idea of rural housing but in practice little has been done to address the rural housing issue. If the Minister wants an example of what should be done in regard to rural housing he should visit County Roscommon where there is no difficulty in regard to this issue. Under its county development plan it has a well balanced proposal which appears to work effectively.

However, County Roscommon has other challenges leading to pressures in the private rented sector. This is because in the fastest growing area in rural Ireland, south County Roscommon, there is no sewerage scheme. Other than in the village of Monksland, bordering Athlone, there is no sewerage scheme in any of the villages in south County Roscommon. This places huge pressure on demands for rural housing and on private rented accommodation in Athlone, Ballinasloe and the other towns servicing the area. If the Government put sewerage facilities into villages it would help to reduce the demand for private rented accommodation and increase the availability of housing, thereby reducing the overall cost for many young couples who want to purchase their own houses, to which everyone aspires.

The issue of development charges will arise in many of our local authorities in the coming months. My difficulty with these charges is that they are being passed on to house buyers, and in many cases this means young couples. Where a local authority adds development charges, ranging from a couple of thousand euro to €10,000 depending on the location and the type of house involved, the developer passes on the charge to the young couple purchasing the house. This makes accommodation even less affordable for this sector of the market. This is the reason we have had such an increase in private sector rented [1258] accommodation in the 1990s and into the new millennium. There is an urgent need for this legislation so that people will have their basic rights protected.

Part 3 of the Bill looks at rent and rent reviews. This is a step in the right direction and is a positive development. The Bill provides that the initial rent must be fixed at the market rate and for the first time a person will have a mechanism to appeal the rate when, subsequently, the tenancy is being renewed. We have seen that rent has gone down in some sectors, perhaps for a short period, but when a tenant looks for a review of his rent the landlord says he must either pay the rate charged or get out of the accommodation. Some element of flexibility must be built into the system and I am glad to see this being addressed in the legislation.

The main reason I wanted to speak on the legislation concerns the registration of properties. As the Minister is aware, there are thousands of units of unregistered private rented accommodation. I am not so much concerned with the unregistered high quality units but with the large number of units that are let in which one would not house an animal. From experience of dealing with my local authority housing list I know there is competition to get that accommodation. It is like a merry-go-round. Tenants take this accommodation and then apply for rehousing to the local authority. The tenants spend 12 or 18 months in the accommodation, the local authority completes new housing stock lists, the housing officer looks at the accommodation, sees it is in atrocious condition and allocates a house to the tenants.

Mr. N. Ahern: Information on Noel Ahern  Zoom on Noel Ahern  Why are the councils not chasing the landowner?

Mr. Naughten: Information on Denis Naughten  Zoom on Denis Naughten  I will come back to that in a minute.

Mr. N. Ahern: Information on Noel Ahern  Zoom on Noel Ahern  They are contacting the Department looking for money every day.

Mr. Naughten: Information on Denis Naughten  Zoom on Denis Naughten  It is a huge issue and I will come back to it. The person is allocated a house and I guarantee that within two months another tenant moves into the same accommodation and the merry-go-round starts again. It is soul destroying from a public representative point of view. Someone living in atrocious housing conditions is housed, yet people are back in the same situation again. I have raised this many times with my local authority. This happens not just in County Roscommon but throughout the country. The local authorities do not have the resources available to them to enforce the regulations.

We see this in regard to our planning laws. In talking to some enforcement officers over the past few days I heard that the first area the staffing cutbacks affected this year was the [1259] planning enforcement section of local authorities. We know from the proposals regarding benchmarking that the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government is not prepared to make funding available through the local authority sector. More staff will be laid off and again the enforcement area will be the first to be cut. It is hugely frustrating to see what is going on in regard to poor quality housing and to see people competing for it to get a higher priority on the local authority housing list.

There is another problem which the Minister has a responsibility to address. People have come from Dublin to rural Ireland under rural resettlement schemes, other schemes or on their own. Apart from a rare exception, most of those people have settled well into their new communities and caused no difficulty. They have become an integral part of the community. We have no difficulty with people coming from any part of the country or the world. County Roscommon has one of the most multi-ethnic populations and there have never been any problems in regard to racism, which we hear about in other parts of the country.

Another huge problem I come across is people coming from Dublin and buying houses in rural areas. Some of them have released the mortgage on their properties and have cash to invest in their new purchase. Others are facilitated by means of loans from credit unions or family members. In some cases, such people have bought houses only to find out them uninhabitable.

For example, a couple from Dublin bought a house in the country but the previous tenant had been rehoused by Roscommon County Council because the house had been declared unfit for human habitation due to its being prone to flooding. Four years later, the couple awoke on Christmas morning to discover four inches of water in the house after the River Shannon burst its banks. On two occasions the couple raised the floor level of the house but it has still been flooded. In another case, a person bought a house with nothing but a galvanised sheet over a hole as a septic tank.

In these cases, people subsequently fall back on the local authority housing list. Since the money for the purchases of these houses is, in many cases, not being sourced through a bank, the purchasers do not have the benefit of the bank's insistence on a engineer's assessment which would normally highlight many of these issues. In one of the cases to which I referred, no engineer was involved because the purchasers had cash and, in the other case, a broker in a financial institution facilitated the mortgage, although no proper assessment was carried out.

[1260]It is extremely frustrating to see these people return to local authority housing lists. We have enough difficulty housing people who are in genuinely poor conditions, particularly in a county like Roscommon where there is a high dependency ratio. However, people are coming into the county, purchasing houses in good faith and ending up in this situation. Mechanisms and facilities should be put in place to ensure this does not happen, whether through Rural Resettlement Ireland or some other agency of the Department. We do not want people going back into the private rented sector or coming back on the local authority housing lists. Many people are trying to buy rural property to get out of Dublin, which in turn releases housing stock in Dublin, all of which the Minister of State must see as a positive step, yet those people are coming back on the housing lists.

A facility to ensure such individuals do not buy a pig in a poke would not require a great deal of resources and should be seriously considered, either through funding an independent agency or providing resources within the Minister of State's Department.

Mr. N. Ahern: Information on Noel Ahern  Zoom on Noel Ahern  It is sad to hear that people are ripping off Dubliners in that manner.

Mr. Durkan: Information on Bernard Durkan  Zoom on Bernard Durkan  The Minister of State should worry about the housing crisis and keep himself occupied.

Mr. Naughten: Information on Denis Naughten  Zoom on Denis Naughten  Registration is crucially important. I have serious concerns about the level of enforcement in that regard. I agree with the general thrust of this Bill in principle, although there may be some technical issues about which we could argue. However, it is pointless bringing forward this or any other Bill and our spending time debating it in the House, on Committee Stage and through the Seanad, if we do not ensure that resources are committed to its enforcement. I have given a number of examples where the sector is being abused and I hope the Minister will ensure such resources are put in place.

According to Part 6 of the Bill, during the initial six months of the tenancy the landlord is free to terminate it without giving a reason. This is extremely harsh and the protection should be strengthened. A landlord should say why he or she proposes to terminate an agreement or tenancy. It is pointless to introduce legislation, the objective of which is to provide security of tenancy over a period up to four years, and then introduce so many conditions that someone who wants to abuse the system will find enough loopholes to get out.

The provision allowing the landlord to reclaim a property for justifiable reasons such as for their [1261] own or family occupation, sale, change of use or major refurbishment, basically gives the landlord the opportunity to get out of the tenancy at any time because the reason will be impossible to verify. The landlord could tell the tenant that his daughter is starting college and he wants to refurbish the apartment so that she can reside there for the next four years. The tenant may be given notice to quit and leave on this basis only to find that the landlord has the property advertised for rental again. Will the Minister of State elaborate on how he sees this being secured so that it will not be abused? I have concerns that it will be abused and we will not have the necessary resources for enforcement.

A fine of €3,000 and/or imprisonment of up to six months is provided for but this is pointless unless there is enforcement. For far too long I have seen legislation go through this House from the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and others, the key elements of which are enforcement, and the opposite happens, as is the case with the penalty points system.

The Minister of State received a weighty submission from Threshold, which I do not intend to read out since the Minister of State has already heard it a number of times today. The definition of “anti-social behaviour” seems to be unclear. I ask that the Government examines it on Committee Stage to see if it could be strengthened in order that specifics will be spelled out. It can be difficult for landlords since there are plenty of cases in where the landlord needs more protection than the tenant, particularly where tenants are abusing the properties they are occupying.

For example, a group of students was living in a semi-detached house whose friends were in the house next door and they decided to bore a hole in the wall between the properties. In that case, the landlord had no contact name and address for the students when they left and was left, with his neighbour, to foot the bill. That notwithstanding, we do not want to see the landlords abusing the provisions either. Strict criteria need to be applied.

It is important also that we lay down specific standards which should apply to different types of accommodation to ensure that, for example, landlords do not paint over damp walls and the wallpaper falls off two weeks after the tenants have signed a lease and are left in deplorable conditions, even if they are not looking for that type of accommodation. There is a big demand for accommodation because we are not addressing the housing waiting list. I ask the Minister to consider new measures to address this issue.

Debate adjourned.

[1262]


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