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COMMITTEE OF PUBLIC ACCOUNTS debate -
Thursday, 24 Feb 2022

Residential Tenancies Board - Financial Statements 2020

Mr. Tom Dunne (Chairperson, Residential Tenancies Board) called and examined.

Apologies have been received from Deputy Sherlock. Deputies Dillon and Carroll MacNeill will be a bit late because of parliamentary duties and other engagements.

I welcome everyone to the meeting. While Covid-19 restrictions are receding and it is open to members and witnesses to attend meetings in person, please continue to wear face coverings when not addressing the meeting.

Members of the committee attending remotely must continue to do so from within the precincts of Leinster House. This is due to the constitutional requirement that, in order to participate in public meetings, Members must be physically present within the confines of the place where Parliament has chosen to sit.

The Comptroller and Auditor General, Mr. Seamus McCarthy, is a permanent witness to the committee. He is accompanied by Ms Paula O’Connor, deputy director of audit.

This morning we engage with officials from the Residential Tenancies Board, RTB, to examine its 2020 financial statements. The RTB has been advised that the committee may also wish to examine the following matters during the course of the engagement: the landlord registration system, including the number of prosecutions; compliance of landlords with the Revenue Commissioners; inspections of housing assistance payment, HAP, properties; the RTB’s dispute-resolution mechanism; staffing levels and retention; the RTB’s preferred model for tenant deposits, adjudications, and European best practice; and the number of landlords leaving the market.

We are joined in the committee room by the following officials from the RTB: Mr. Tom Dunne, chairperson; Mr. Niall Byrne, director; Mr. Bryan Kelly, head of finance, governance and risk management; and Ms Caren Gallagher, head of communications and research. They are all very welcome.

When we begin to engage, I ask those attending remotely to mute themselves when not contributing so that we do not pick up any background noise or feedback and, as usual, I remind all those in attendance to ensure their mobile phones are switched off or on silent mode.

I wish to explain some limitations to parliamentary privilege, and the practice of the Houses in respect of reference witnesses may make to other persons in their evidence. As they are within the precincts of the Parliament, they are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the presentation they make to the committee. This means that they have an absolute defence against any defamation action for anything they may say at the meeting. However, they are expected not to abuse this privilege and it is my duty as Cathaoirleach to ensure that it is not abused. Therefore, if their statements are potentially defamatory in respect of an identifiable person or entity, they will be directed to discontinue and it is imperative that they comply with that.

Members are reminded of the provisions within Standing Order 218 that the committee shall refrain from inquiring into the merits of a policy or policies of the Government, or a Minister of the Government, or the merits of the objectives of such policies. Members are also reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

I now call on the Comptroller and Auditor General, Mr. Seamus McCarthy, to make his opening statement.

Mr. Seamus McCarthy

The Residential Tenancies Board, formerly the Private Residential Tenancies Board, was established in 2004 to regulate the private rental housing sector. It has evolved since then to include the private rental, approved housing bodies and student-specific accommodation sectors.

The board’s income in 2020 amounted to €18.3 million, down from €19 million in 2019. The majority of the income comes from fees for the registration of new tenancies, which amounted to just under €11.7 million, or over 60% of income in 2020. The fees are based on flat rates per registration, and legislation provides for the board to determine the amount charged, subject to the consent of the Minister.

Exchequer funding is provided to the board to cover the shortfall between income and expenditure. Funding totalling just under €6.7 million was provided to the board in respect of 2020. This was sourced from the Vote for Housing, Local Government and Heritage. The board’s expenditure in 2020 amounted to €18 million.

I certified the 2020 financial statements on 15 June 2021 and issued a clear audit opinion.

One of the key functions of the board is the maintenance of a publicly searchable database of registered tenancies, which the board also relies on to underpin analysis of trends in the private rental market. The statement on internal control presented with the financial statements discloses that difficulties had emerged with a project being undertaken by the board to develop a new management system for tenancy registrations and disputes. Significant delays in project delivery had occurred, and there was an increase in the expected cost. The total cost of the project was then expected to be €5.2 million, approximately €1.9 million or 58% higher than originally budgeted. The board undertook a review of the project and subsequently enhanced its project oversight.

When I was signing off on the audit in June 2021, the statement on internal control stated that the board expected to bring the new case management system into use during the summer of 2021. However, I note that the sentence about the expected project completion date does not appear in the English language version that was presented to the Houses of the Oireachtas. It does appear in the Irish language version. As a matter of principle, financial statements and accompanying documents should always be presented to the Houses of the Oireachtas in the form settled at the date of certification, except for tidying up of any typos and so on. Therefore, the sentence should not have been removed. We have this week received assurances from the board that no other material post-certification changes were made to the financial statements. The representatives of the board will be in a position to provide an update on the progress made since last summer regarding the new case management system, including an update on final project cost.

Mr. Dunne is very welcome. As detailed in the letter of invitation, he will have five minutes for his opening statement. I know the statement will take a bit longer than that. It has been circulated to members. I ask him to keep to within five minutes.

Mr. Tom Dunne

I have five minutes to go through this. I ask the Chairman to tell me if I am getting too close to the end of that.

I thank the Chairman and members, for the invitation to attend the committee today. My name is Tom Dunne and I am the chair of the Residential Tenancies Board. I understand that the focus of the meeting today is on the audited financial statements and on some specific aspects of the work of the Residential Tenancies Board that have been raised in advance by the committee.

I am accompanied today by Mr. Niall Byrne, who was recently appointed as director and commenced his role at the end of January. I would also like to introduce Ms Caren Gallagher, head of communications and research and Mr. Bryan Kelly, head of finance, governance and risk management.

In advance of the committee meeting today, we provided detailed briefing material for committee members, as well as our 2020 annual report, and an advance copy of our opening statement. I hope this information was of assistance to the members.

The Residential Tenancies Board is a public body, established in 2004 under the Residential Tenancies Act 2004. The role of the board is to support, develop and promote a well-functioning rental housing sector in Ireland.

I will just list these items briefly; they can be expanded on in the opening statement members have to hand. Under the relevant statutes, the RTB is responsible for: the operation of the national registration system; provision of an efficient and cost-effective dispute-resolution service to tenants, landlords and related third parties in these sectors; the active investigation of non-compliance with residential tenancies legislation and for the issuing of administrative sanctions, where those are justified; publishing the quarterly rent index for private rented accommodation and conducting research into the sector; providing information to landlords, tenants and the broad public on the rights and responsibilities of all parties under the Residential Tenancies Act 2004.

We are acutely aware that the last number of years have posed significant challenges for both landlords and tenants. The Covid-19 pandemic has created further difficulties for people in the sector, as well as for the RTB. To inform the sector, policymakers and the general public, the RTB published detailed research reports on the rental sector during 2021, which offer a comprehensive insight into the experiences and perspectives of landlords, tenants and agents. Among other insights, the research shows that, notwithstanding the very real challenges in the sector, 79% of tenants said their renting experience was positive and 88% of smaller landlords indicated that their experience with their current tenants was positive. We believe this is an important fact that reflects positively on the rental sector in Ireland. This research also showed that affordability is the key issue for tenants and that a proportion of smaller landlords, which is 26%, intend to sell a property within the next five years.

During 2020, the work of the RTB, was focused primarily on ensuring continuity of critical regulatory services during the pandemic and on the effective implementation of an unprecedented series of legislative measures, which continued into 2021. One notable feature in the rental sector in 2020 was the introduction of three Acts in response to Covid-19. The Government’s intention with these measures was to minimise the movement of people caused by the cessation of tenancies and thereby curtail the spread of disease, while also providing protections for tenants who were financially impacted by the pandemic. We set out details of the legislation in the opening statement. I will not go through it again. I am sure members are familiar with it.

An immediate priority for RTB was operationalising these legislative measures to ensure they worked smoothly and effectively for all. It was imperative to ensure that landlords, tenants and wider stakeholders understood the new measures and the resulting requirements of the regulatory framework and that they were made aware of the enhanced supports and services that were made available through the RTB to assist them. Due to the evolving nature of the pandemic and the need for supports for the rental sector, six Acts affecting the RTB were passed between 2020 and 2021. During this unprecedented time, the RTB maintained services across all contact and communication channels despite the rapid move to remote working. There was no disruption to the RTB’s registration compliance capability in terms of landlords or agents registering tenancies. Of necessity, the RTB had to postpone in-person dispute hearings but quickly established replacement mechanisms to allow hearings to resume. Backlogs in the processing of these cases were stabilised and we are currently focussed on the recovery of our timelines. During 2020, there were nearly 270,000 customer service contacts, more than 2,700 mediation and adjudication hearings, and more than 200 tribunal hearings. More than 130,000 registration applications were processed.

As mentioned earlier by the Comptroller and Auditor General about the financial statements, I confirm an error of omission of a single sentence on page 100 of the English version of the published 2020 report. The relevant sentence was included in the Irish language version. This was an oversight on our part for which we apologise. The text has now been corrected on the report as published on the RTB website and we are making arrangements to have the corrected version laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas.

The committee will note from the accounts that the RTB has two primary sources of operating income, as noted by the Comptroller and Auditor General. The funding enables the RTB to carry out its core functions and to develop the organisation as a capable and effective public interest regulator of the sector. Tenancy registration income in 2020 was nearly €11.7 million, which represented approximately 63% of the total.

Would Mr. Dunne like to conclude? He is running over time.

Mr. Tom Dunne

I will say a little about RTB 360. The new technology and platform for the management of tenancies went live on 15 November last year. This phase of the new platform provides a wide range of enhancements for landlords who are registering, renewing and updating tenancies with the RTB. We are also preparing for a further release of the system in April 2020, which will support the annual registration of tenancies. This new release will accommodate a significant uplift in registration activity, as well as requiring tenancies to be registered on the anniversary of the commencement of the tenancy. The committee can probably elucidate the rest of the statement by asking questions. Members have the document. I thank the committee for the time.

I begin with the comments from the Comptroller and Auditor General regarding the discrepancy in the documents laid before the House and the removal of the clarifying line about the outcome or expected timeline of the project. I apologise if I missed a comment on it during the witnesses' opening statement while coming from my office to here. Why was that sentence removed?

Mr. Niall Byrne

To clarify the circumstances, we do not think it is correct to say the sentence was removed, as such. It was an error in the production of the English language version. A single sentence at the end of a column of text was inadvertently dropped from the text in the production process. It was not the case that I or any of my colleagues took steps to remove the sentence. Unfortunately, it was dropped during production and it was not picked up.

For the record of the House, will Mr. Byrne describe the details of that sentence?

Mr. Niall Byrne

I am happy to do so. As the chair of the RTB has confirmed, the sentence is now in the English language version as published on the RTB website. That version will be laid before the Houses and will be with the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage. The sentence reads, "The project is now expected to ‘go live’ during the summer of 2021, which is eighteen months later than originally planned when the project commenced in March 2018."

I can only take Mr. Byrne at his word on the evidence he has put before us. I would not detract from his good name in any way by saying that he is misleading us. Many sceptical people may view the removal of this line as not being accidental but as an attempt not to outline the direction of the project as clearly as it was done in 2020. To help Mr. Byrne to address that, what should I say to a constituent who asks me that? It is easy to say that it dropped off the bottom. It has happened to all of us, but many of us are not laying documents before the Oireachtas. Given that there is an Irish language and an English language version, many people might believe it was removed deliberately. I am going into the minute details of a word processing problem because it strikes at the credibility of the documents that the witnesses lay before the Comptroller and Auditor General.

Mr. Niall Byrne

We take this seriously. It should not have happened. We will definitely be at pains never to allow this to happen again, by double-checking versions before they are finalised, published and laid. I have been director since 24 January. I can say definitively that I am confident, speaking as director, that neither my colleagues in the RTB, who are all public servants themselves and work to high standards, relevant codes of conduct etc., nor I would have deliberately taken any steps to remove a sentence from a document that had been finalised.

It is important for Mr. Byrne to outline that here. That is not in any way to take from his good name. It is important for the record of the House for that to be reflected, because the work of the Comptroller and Auditor General is so important both for the RTB and the House.

Mr. Niall Byrne

Absolutely.

I refer to the data collected by the system. What kind of analysis is conducted by the RTB to identify landlords who have unregistered tenancies?

Mr. Niall Byrne

I might defer to my colleagues, given that I am not as au fait with all of the details as I would be if I had been in the job for longer.

Suffice to say, from my point of view as incoming director, I am very clear that the RTB needs to be a responsive regulator. We need to take all appropriate steps to fully carry out our functions in the public interest. As a regulator that maintains a registration database, it is very important that everything that is registerable is registered, that the registers are maintained to a high standard and updated regularly and that there are ongoing efforts to maintain the integrity of the registers. That is absolutely the intent. The maintenance of registers in practice can be a complex matter. It is not an easy thing to do. To give a kind of categorical declaration with regard to a register at any point in time is probably not something I would ever be in a position to do. Putting in place all the necessary steps, arrangements, processes and assurances to give the very highest level of assurance we can, however, is something to which I am personally very committed as the incoming director.

We have programmes to update the register. At each renewal date, we write to landlords, remind them of their registration requirements and prompt them to register their properties. If anybody out there is not registering their properties, we should be taking steps in relation to that. We have investigative and enforcement powers in this regard. Failure to register is a criminal offence. We also have powers to sanction landlords for improper behaviour, and failure to register is an improper behaviour. Some of those powers are relatively new and still being tested by the RTB but we have powers in that regard. It is very important that we use them to the full extent possible.

I apologise for interrupting Mr. Byrne but having used up some of my time addressing the omission of a sentence, I want to move on. I apologise if that butchers Mr. Byrne's answers.

I want to turn to the issue of those tenants who may be the subject of a licence rather than a tenancy. As Mr. Byrne knows, most licence arrangements do not come under the remit of the RTB, which means that any tenant in a licensed property does not have the same protections. I am particularly conscious of reports we are receiving in respect of rents in exchange for sexual favours. I raise this issue because there has been coverage of it. Many tenants are very vulnerable in the market. Where there is no exchange of financial consideration in contractual terms, that leaves a tenant incredibly exposed. This should not be happening. What measures is the RTB taking? Technically, that could be a licence arrangement; it is not a tenancy. What steps is the RTB taking to move that from those de facto tenancies? They often last longer than the recommended licence periods. What steps is the RTB taking on that issue, particularly sex for rent, and also the issue of vulnerable tenants who are in a licence arrangement that morphs into a tenancy?

Mr. Niall Byrne

There are two parts to the Deputy's question. On the issue in the public domain of persons allegedly offering rooms in exchange for sexual favours, etc., any right-thinking person sees that for what it is - entirely unacceptable behaviour. My understanding is that by way of response, that is being looked at through a justice measure and will be dealt with through criminal provisions separate from those of the RTB. If such a thing were to arise in relation to a tenancy registered with the RTB then, absolutely, we would look to see what action the RTB could take in that regard. My understanding is that generally those kinds of arrangements relate to rent-a-room type provisions, which do not fall within the registration requirements of the RTB and, as such, do not directly fall to us.

Licences are a technical matter and different from tenancy. I will ask my colleague to comment on that.

Mr. Tom Dunne

It is worth making the point that there has always been a difficulty between the interpretation of what is a licence and what is a tenancy. This goes back to the 1930s before the RTB was even created and before the Residential Tenancies Act. When the original Landlord and Tenant Acts were brought in, obviously, there were an awful lot of attempts to get outside the Landlord and Tenant Acts by creating licences rather than leases. The courts look very unfavourably on any attempt to try to construct an arrangement between two parties that would ordinarily be a lease or tenancy but which is purported to be a licence. The RTB follows the courts' findings. The disposition of adjudicators and decision makers in the RTB would be to look very closely at anything like that and conclude that a duck is a duck. If it is a tenancy, therefore, it is a tenancy and if it is a licence, it is a licence.

To conclude, we have traditionally seen licences used in the commercial sector for the avoidance of the accrual of tenancy rights for commercial tenants. As we have increased the rights of tenants in the residential sector, this will increasingly become an issue. I ask the RTB to do everything in its power, from an education perspective, to inform people that licences are not an appropriate format for long-term residential tenancies.

Mr. Tom Dunne

I thank Deputy McAuliffe. That is a very good point. We can give him an assurance on that.

I thank the witnesses for joining us and for their time. My first question is with regard to the self-funding of the RTB and the implementation of the new annual registration system of tenancies, which is due in June 2022. Will the RTB be 100% self-funded as a result of this new change?

Mr. Niall Byrne

I will ask my colleague, Mr. Kelly, to reply to that question.

Mr. Bryan Kelly

I thank the Deputy. I am head of finance in the RTB. It is a very good question. As the Deputy knows, the nature of annual registration is that landlords will have to register tenancies every year and there is a much higher throughput of volume. Whereas the annual registration fee for a private tenancy will be €40 compared with €90 currently, our sense is that we will probably triple our volume. Simple mathematics say that should generate more income for us. It will not allow us to be self-funding based on our current projections. If we had a full year of annual registrations, the high-water mark might be an increase of maybe €2 million in our private residential income. As the Deputy can see from our accounts, however, we spend not too shy of €20 million or €21 million per year. In the reference year, 2020, it is €18 million. We will, therefore, continue to need to draw down Exchequer funding but our anticipation is that when annual registration gets bedded in, it will increase our private income.

I will make one more remark, which is really a comment on nuance. One thing on which we do not have a good handle will be the customer behavioural aspects associated, first, with the requirement to register annually but also the fact that the price has come from €90 down to €40. There is in the Act a very aggressive late fee mechanism to incentivise or encourage landlords to register promptly. There is a risk, however, that somebody will say it is only €40 and let it slip. That is a thing we will probably need to monitor in the first year of annual registration.

That leads to my next question. What is the RTB doing to reduce its reliance on funding provided by the Exchequer? I know from the RTB's briefing documents, which I thank it for providing, that the average tenancies will increase from €6,000 to €7,000 per month to up to €20,000 per month. How will the RTB utilise its systems in order to ensure it is less reliant on Exchequer funding?

Mr. Bryan Kelly

I suppose the toggle factor there is the rate or fee. The fee is set in legislation at €40. As the Deputy will understand, the fee is not set by us but is set on our behalf. As in the case of any entity that is providing a service and levying a price for the service, the ultimate hope of the RTB reducing its amount of Exchequer funding would be around the possibility of that fee being increased over time.

I point out to the Deputy that, as is noted in our briefing documents, the RTB was entirely self-funded until 2015 but its mandate has increased very significantly since then. We have had lots of new legislation. Our chair made reference to six pieces of new legislation, with three each in 2021 and 2020. The public, if you like, and ultimately the State asks a lot of us and has facilitated that with incremental funding. As long as the mandate stays as broad as it is, and it probably even needs to broaden in other areas, I anticipate we will continue to rely on State funding for several years to come. It will probably be many years to come, absent a change in that annual registration fee.

Okay. I thank Mr. Kelly. I move on to the dispute resolution cases. The board has outlined there were more than 753 as of the end of 2020. How many of these have been resolved? I ask that the board give an overview of the unresolved cases.

Mr. Niall Byrne

I will ask my colleague Ms Gallagher to see if we can answer that question for the Deputy. I am not sure if the data we have in our tables give us the actual answer to the question he is asking. Obviously, we are very happy to send him the data after this morning's meeting. Ms Gallagher might have them or be able to give some helpful answer.

Maybe the board representatives can provide, just in terms of the timeline, the average processing time for a dispute resolution case to be heard. I am aware there is a backlog of 753. How many of these have been resolved?

Mr. Niall Byrne

The data we sent set out the position with case processing times during the course of 2020 and 2021. We have two types of dispute resolution, that is, two processes. We have mediation. The average time for resolution there is just under nine weeks as of the end of 2021. During 2020 that had gone up to slightly more than nine weeks, so it has been fairly stable. It rose dramatically at the start of 2021, but some of these figures are a result of the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Our other strand of dispute resolution is adjudication. It is a more formal process than mediation. Coming in to 2020, the average turnaround time was around 20 weeks. It rose somewhat at the start of 2021, but by the end of that year we were back down to around 16 weeks. I think our best endeavours around timeframes have it down to around 12 weeks. We regard that as highly desirable and achievable. At the moment we are ahead of that or above that.

Is that target in line with, or benchmarked with, EU counterparts?

Mr. Niall Byrne

I am not sure if it is benchmarked. Ms Gallagher might know more about that. Certainly, our own performance index over the years was that 12 weeks was a good turnaround time and a satisfactory one within which to do all the steps involved in a quasi-judicial process.

Ms Caren Gallagher

To add one point on the benchmarking and the role of the board in the sector, in other jurisdictions there is not this type of regulator for the rental sector. It is very difficult sometimes to compare because we are unique across the EU. As Mr. Kelly said, 12 weeks is probably the best for a start-to-finish process. We are working towards going back to achieving that.

I thank Ms Gallagher. I move to the board's interactions with the different Departments, such as Social Protection, and bodies such as the Revenue Commissioners. How many of the private tenancies registered with the RTB relate to households in receipt of the housing assistance payment, HAP, and how many are in receipt of the rental accommodation scheme, RAS? Do the officials have that to hand? They would be very useful for my next line of questioning.

Ms Caren Gallagher

The RTB shares data with the Revenue Commissioners but we do not currently have a data exchange back in that regard. I do not have the figures to hand. There are two pieces of information I can provide to the committee. One was a recent report carried out by the Central Statistics Office, CSO. We provided data to the CSO and worked with it on that report on the private rental sector last year. It had some cross-data comparisons, so I can pull those figures for the Deputy. Also, an aspect of that was covered in our survey information last year, which was a nationally representative survey of landlords, tenants and letting agents, and we asked that of the tenants. I can pull that figure and update the committee. I will just get it out of the report. We captured it and asked for some information on the percentage of tenants and if they were receiving rental subsidies, including HAP and RAS, as mentioned by the Deputy.

What enforcement powers does the residential tenancies legislation afford the board with regard to people who are receipt of HAP? What work does the RTB do on their behalf?

Mr. Niall Byrne

The same protections apply to all tenants who have the benefit of being within the scheme of regulated tenancies. There is no discrimination or difference between tenants. The RTB does not take any of that into account, nor should we. Any tenant who believes they have a dispute in relation to a landlord, be they a private tenant, a HAP-supported tenant or a tenant of an approved housing body, AHB, has the same right to raise a dispute with the RTB and then we carry out our functions with that, across the board.

Does the board check to see if any landlord in receipt of HAP is registered through the local authority or the Department?

Mr. Niall Byrne

Yes. We receive information from local authorities on that.

What of compliance and any issues in this regard? Has the board dealt with many cases of landlords who are unregistered but in receipt of HAP?

Mr. Niall Byrne

My information on it is that registration compliance by HAP landlords, that is, being registered with the RTB, is very high. It is not an area we see as a problem in terms of compliance with the requirements.

Is that reconciliation done annually? How does the board reconcile, through the Department, people who are registered for receipt of RAS or HAP with the local authorities to ensure there is compliance across the board?

Ms Caren Gallagher

My understanding is we receive a quarterly data set from the Department of Social Protection into our registration and enforcement section and the appropriate checks are undertaken in that space. I believe it is a quarterly data cut we get from that and that is followed through in registration and enforcement.

Has the board numbers or data on what sort of providers-----

Ms Caren Gallagher

We can certainly provide that.

Mr. Niall Byrne

We can provide the numbers on it and some more information about the process concerning the question the Deputy was asking us.

Ms Caren Gallagher

I have both figures on the rental supports but I will not take up the Deputy's time. I will send them on.

I thank Ms Gallagher. Is there a current timeline for when the new system the board is implementing, RTB 360, will go live? Have there been any issues with its deployment?

Mr. Niall Byrne

As I think Mr. Dunne mentioned in his opening statement, the system went live in November of last year. So far, we are very satisfied with the performance of the system. Its stability and technical performance is very satisfactory. It is the platform on which we will extend our registration system to encompass annual registration.

It is a critical component of how we will administer the extension to our current functions and it will support us in the data analysis because annual registration will give us access to significantly increased amounts of information over what we have now. That will inform our future published rent indexes, for example, in terms of the quality of the information that underpins the index. We are quite satisfied at the moment. We have done a number of releases and they have gone well. The next issue for the RTB will be further phases of that developmental programme for that technical platform in order that we can potentially extend it out into other areas of our business including how we manage disputes and our tribunal functions.

The RTB has increased its staff complement from 45 to 91. There was an expanded remit. Is that the absolute upper limit? Are there still vacancies? Has the RTB sought additional staff or sanction for that from the Department?

Mr. Niall Byrne

Currently, the number of sanctioned posts for the RTB is 106.4. At the moment we have 92 staff in post and have 14 vacancies. The majority of those vacancies are being covered by temporary staff while we run recruitment competitions.

What kind of vacancies are there?

Mr. Niall Byrne

At the moment it is six clerical officer vacancies, six executive officers and early in 2020, we got sanction for two principal officer posts.

Therefore the RTB is below complement and covering with temporary staff.

Mr. Niall Byrne

That is a temporary measure. We have a plan to run a competition for executive and clerical officers and the principal officer posts will be advertised very shortly.

Is that the optimum or is the RTB seeking further expansion?

Mr. Niall Byrne

The RTB carried out a workforce planning exercise in 2018. I have been looking at that during my time in post over the last four weeks. From the perspective of how it fits with our current functions, because functions have expanded over the past four years, my view is that the 106 figure is very satisfactory ------

Okay. I will leave it at that. I just wanted to see if the board had the people to do the job.

There are a couple of areas I want to focus on. The Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage was before the committee last week. The officials told us they had done a survey or report in 2017 or 2018, I cannot recall the year, and 28% of people in receipt of housing assistance payments were topping up then. Rents will have increased in the meantime. Anecdotally, I hear that is a common phenomenon. It is not unusual. When RTB gives its analysis on rent, does it take that into consideration? How would that be captured? Has it done surveys? Would people even tell?

Mr. Niall Byrne

I will ask my colleague who is head of research to respond.

Ms Caren Gallagher

The analysis that we do on rents is based on the rents reported in by the landlord. The rent index covers new tenancies in existing properties, tenancies that have not been let in the last two years -----

I do not want to go into that kind of detail. I do not have the time.

Ms Caren Gallagher

Apologies. Top-ups are not caught in the data that come in to us -----

In other words, when it comes to the data that the RTB has and on which we are supposed to rely, if a significant number are topping up, then the RTB data are not reliable. Would Ms Gallagher accept that is potentially the case?

Ms Caren Gallagher

I take the point on the survey that was carried out. The landlord reports the data to us. I accept that there may be arrangements in tenancies outside those data. At the moment those data -----

The Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage last week gave us a figure of 28% in 2017 or 2018. There is no reason to think that practice has discontinued. If anything it has increased. There is an unreliability about the data on the rents being paid. The RTB is not able to capture that because it is relying on the landlord to provide it with the information.

Mr. Tom Dunne

What the RTB captures is what is specified as the rent for the tenancy. That rent maybe made up of the HAP and a top-up but the landlord should not just put in the HAP payment as the rent.

I understand this from a tenant's perspective because I deal with them day in, day out. The thing is that it does not get declared.

Mr. Tom Dunne

If it does not and then the landlord wants to claim arrears, the arrears calculation will be based on what the register of rent is.

What I am looking at is the reliability of the rents. We are told that the RTB is the most reliable source because they are the actual rents paid but in fact they are not the rents paid in many cases where people are topping up and that is not being declared.

My next question is on rent pressure zones and the RTB's function. I noted there was a high level of satisfaction with tenants but that does not extend to affordability. There were huge increases last year. In Dublin, the average monthly rent is now approximately €2,000. That is completely unsustainable. How does the RTB police rent pressure zones? I know that if something is vacant for a couple of years, then if someone comes back in, it is deemed to be a new tenancy and so on. However the turnover does not explain those increases. How does RTB police it?

Mr. Tom Dunne

The RTB's rental index is really an index of new rents.

Mr. Tom Dunne

It is not an index of existing rents. That is a bit misleading in the sense that the headline rents in the papers may not be the rent passing between the vast majority of tenants in situ in accommodation and their landlords. It is a good question. I do not want to take up too much of the Deputy's time but if she rings me I will try and explain it in a bit more detail.

Maybe the RTB could give us a paper or some notes on that.

Mr. Tom Dunne

I think that Davy has done some work on this recently. It looked at what would have been possible for a landlord to increase the rent by legally. I think that came out at about 16% or 17%, which is roughly the same increase in earnings in the economy, whereas rents, as measured by the rental index, have gone up by about 27%. There is a piece of research that needs to be done there and it would be very interesting.

The new database that the RTB will use will be of much value in the information that we will be able to extract from it. What is the primary reason for the increase in cost and it taking longer than anticipated?

Mr. Niall Byrne

The system has taken longer to deliver and has cost more than was originally planned.

That is a fact. We know that. Can Mr. Byrne tell us why?

Mr. Niall Byrne

I am relying on the information I have gathered from my colleagues on this as I was not in the RTB at the time although I am now responsible for the system and its future development. The history of it is of complex development-----

Mr. Byrne has taken a minute of my time, or nearly, and I have not got an answer.

Mr. Niall Byrne

Okay.

Just cut to the answer.

Mr. Niall Byrne

Technical complexity, scale of development, the need for extensive work on security in light of the data breaches last year-----

Was it under spec, therefore?

Mr. Niall Byrne

No, it was very well specced for the purpose. What happened was that the design and delivery took longer because there were technical challenges that were not anticipated when the system was being specced, and that led to additional costs. That is not an acceptable outturn but it is an outturn that happens relatively commonly with large, technical projects.

Does the board have any role in controlling rents?

Mr. Tom Dunne

Clearly, if a landlord breaches the rent pressure zone system, a tenant can take an action against the landlord and we can adjudicate in those cases. Moreover, under the sanctions and investigations unit, we can look at that-----

How many cases have there been where tenants have taken a case to the RTB?

Mr. Tom Dunne

Ms Gallagher might have the figure for that.

Ms Caren Gallagher

In the final quarter of 2021, 4% of our cases involved increases in rental fees that were not in line with the rent pressure zone caps. We can provide further detail for the Deputy.

I thank Ms Gallagher.

To follow on from what Deputies Catherine Murphy and Dillon asked regarding the RTB's tenancy management system, Mr. Byrne stated it has cost more than was initially outlined. How much more has it cost? The figure that was stated was €1.9 million.

Mr. Niall Byrne

That figure refers to 2020. My colleague, Mr. Kelly, can give more detail on that.

Mr. Bryan Kelly

As the Deputy will be aware, the system went live in November. The full cost, from start to finish, will be something of the order of €6.9 million when it has all been reconciled and added up.

When the system was being specced, how did such a huge deficit arise?

Mr. Bryan Kelly

It is a huge overrun.

Did the RTB not know what it was asking for or what the requirements were? Did it not ask the right people?

Mr. Bryan Kelly

I refer back to Mr. Byrne's earlier answer. The speccing of the project was done quite well. There were lots of technical complexities that were not anticipated. There absolutely was-----

Such as? Mr. Kelly stated they were not anticipated, but the idea of speccing something is to cover everything. Will he explain what he means by "technical complexities"?

Mr. Bryan Kelly

Our old system was built on very old technology, although that was a known known, which I am not denying. It was redundant, defunct technology. There were issues with extracting data from that system and carrying out data migration to the new system that were not anticipated. There was also-----

Was it not anticipated that data would have to be transferred to the new system?

Mr. Bryan Kelly

We anticipated doing that but it was deemed or reckoned to be easier-----

We do not have much time, so Mr. Kelly might send a detailed note on what the additional cost entailed, over and above the initial tender or spec. He might submit that to the committee.

Mr. Tom Dunne

If I could interject, we are looking at this. The board is very concerned about it, as the Deputy might imagine, and has commissioned a study to be done by Mazars, so-----

It is all at a cost, however. The taxpayer is paying all the time, and there are people who cannot eat because they are trying to pay exorbitant rents. That is a fact of life. We are all sitting here in a dry, comfortable space while the anxiety among people in respect of what is happening in the real world is mind-boggling. I do not want to sit here discussing millions of euro as if they do not matter; they do matter. Having the system up and running is very important but it has to be done soon.

Deputy Catherine Murphy asked how the board views its role in regard to rent controls. My understanding is the data compiled by people such as Ms Gallagher are intended to assist the Government in providing legislation to implement rent control systems. Am I correct in that regard?

Ms Caren Gallagher

The data that come in on tenancy registrations do inform policy and we actively undertake research. That-----

That answers that question. Rents in County Wexford in the final quarter of 2021 alone increased by 15%. Was that anticipated? Did any research take place to say there were only so many houses available in Wexford and to take account of the fact rents would increase? One tenant who has approached me was paying €800 in rent and the landlord increased that by €175 within two years of the tenancy, which we have all acknowledged is not legal. His rent increased to €975, therefore, which the landlord was not entitled to do, although we staved off the increase until the two-year period had elapsed. How does the RTB anticipate that and advise the Government on matters such as that in Wexford?

Ms Caren Gallagher

I think that goes back to the point Mr. Dunne raised earlier. The rent index at the moment is reflective of the new tenancies that have been registered in the quarter. The data we will have as a result of annual registration, which is due to commence in the coming months, will reflect the rents paid across the sector. There are some-----

I asked how the RTB advises the Government. This is a crisis because we are not building houses to alleviate the problem, so we have to do something about the rental market. Mr. Dunne stated that the rent increases were the same as increases in earnings. I would understand an increase in earnings of 15% if somebody was working for Davy but not if he or she worked for a supermarket or a newsagent's-----

Mr. Tom Dunne

That is a misunderstanding of what I said.

I am concerned about the level of interpretation here as regards how we are managing this and what advice the Government is getting. The Taoiseach made a statement about how the Berlin system of rent controls has not worked; I beg to differ, but not in this forum. I want to know how the RTB, as an organisation paid for solely out of taxpayers' money, advises the Government on what actions and legislation should be brought to bear.

Mr. Tom Dunne

Our function is to provide-----

I know what the RTB's function is. I am asking Mr. Dunne what information the board has provided.

Mr. Tom Dunne

The rental index. We-----

How does the RTB prevent an increase of 15% in a county such as Wexford?

Mr. Tom Dunne

We cannot predict the future. I do not know what rents in Wexford are going to be in six months' or two years' time. I could make some estimates or guesses about that-----

How does the RTB advise the Government, in that case?

Mr. Tom Dunne

We provide the information the Government needs to make those sorts of judgments. I do not think it would be appropriate for the board to speculate about what the rises in rents might be unless it had good-quality information on which to do that. Otherwise, it would just be pure speculation on behalf of the board. The board is intent on giving quality information to the Government, and if there are political judgments to be made, it is up to Members of the House and the Government-----

Does the board know how many houses are available to rent in Wexford?

Mr. Tom Dunne

No.

That does not concern the board.

Mr. Tom Dunne

We would have the same access to information like that as members of the public. In other words, to find out how many properties are available to rent in Wexford, we would look at daft.ie or whatever. We do not have particular information about the intentions of landlords to rent property. How would we?

That is what I am trying to get to the nub of. How much information does the RTB have to corroborate the advice it gives to the Government? If we are not building houses, rents will continue to increase. If we are not able to curb supply-and-demand issues, we will continue to have a serious problem with rent, as we do currently.

I acknowledge this is not our guests' area, but last week representatives from the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage appeared before the committee. HAP tenants come under the RTB's remit.

Mr. Tom Dunne

Yes, all tenants do.

This might not be a matter for this forum, but I have encountered an issue where a HAP tenant has been trying to be released from HAP for four months and he has not yet got a call back from the Department. Is that not unbelievable? This is at a time when we are under such severe constrains regarding money, housing and everything else.

I return to the issue in Wexford.

It is an exorbitant increase at 15% and I do not know the answer. To be honest, I do not have many complaints about landlords in Wexford in terms of tenants but any tenant information or complaints that I do get I refer to the board. I would be slightly disappointed at the length of time it takes for the RTB to come back to a public representative on issues, and to get an answer either by email or phone is very delayed. As has been said, the board has personnel. I do not know whether the board has staffing issues but there is an issue in the response times in terms of dealing with public representatives.

Mr. Niall Byrne

We do, like all public bodies, have a direct channel for queries from Members of the Oireachtas. I will certainly check with my colleagues as regards the performance around that because, certainly, that is an important part of our function.

Mr. Niall Byrne

It is to support and assist Members of the Oireachtas with their duties in the public interest. So I will certainly look at that.

It is not just Oireachtas Members. The most frequent complaint that I hear from landlords is about response times or getting phone calls answered. Their main complaint is that if a tenant makes a complaint one can ring landlords instantly, although that is their analogy, but if landlords have a problem with a tenant and need advice then they cannot even get a callback and in that case I would move on their query but I have found it difficult to get a callback. I want the board to understand that.

Mr. Niall Byrne

Our position is that all members of the public who contact us are treated equally. We treat everybody equally and we do not have different channels for different kinds of customers coming to us.

On the issue of the role and function of the RTB and the question that the Deputy asked about Wexford, to be clear we are not the national rent control agency. We do not manage the market. We are not a market regulator. So we, therefore, do not have functions in the areas to which the Deputy referred in terms of the number of properties that are available in Wexford.

I appreciate that but I would have thought that that was an important piece of data necessary for compiling advice on rent controls. Obviously the board knows where the pressure zones are going to be and it is how that data is compiled, and how the board provides that.

Mr. Niall Byrne

It is probably to do with what kind of research is commissioned on what particular areas of the market in order to under the market better.

Mr. Niall Byrne

I think that is what the Deputy is pointing to in her question.

Does the RTB commission the information or is it told what to commission?

Mr. Niall Byrne

Part of our job is to research and to provide information. The question we ask determines what we learn back. We take the point that the Deputy has made about those areas.

I apologise as I had to attend questions in Dáil Éireann. I welcome the witnesses from the Residential Tenancies Board who are before the committee and I have a couple of questions for them.

Is it correct to say that the RTB is responsible for advising the Government and giving it advice on the conditions for renters in Ireland? Am I right in saying that?

Mr. Niall Byrne

Yes.

Does Mr. Byrne know what a residential agreement is in terms of a licence to reside?

Mr. Niall Byrne

One of the Deputy's colleagues asked us about licences earlier. We do understand the difference but our job and our role is in relation to the registration of-----

What does Mr. Byrne consider is meant by a licence to reside?

Mr. Niall Byrne

Just for me to be clear, our function is in relation to the registration of tenancies as opposed to licences.

The function of the board is also to advise the Government.

Mr. Niall Byrne

Yes.

It is important to set that in stone. What does Mr. Byrne consider is meant by a licence to reside?

Mr. Niall Byrne

A licence is a form of agreement. I do not have the technical terminology and the chair can speak to the technical terminology of this. I am slightly struggling with what the question is.

The premise of my question is as follows. In this country there are two classes of people who rent. There are vulnerable people like students in universities around the country and students in third level institutions, and I was one of them once. When it comes to a licence to reside one is left with almost no protection in the event that when the person from whom one rents a place wants to take any particular course of action one is not entitled to go to the RTB. Am I correct in saying that?

Mr. Niall Byrne

I think it depends, but I will let the chair come in on the technicality.

Mr. Tom Dunne

I am not sure I understand the question. The whole question of licences is very fraught and has been fraught for donkey's years in this country. What the RTB will do, and adjudicate with the RTB in any particular case brought before it, is it will make a decision about whether what purports to be a licence is or is not a legal licence based on legal precedent. That decision is made in particular circumstances in the event of a dispute.

What one would be very reluctant to do, and I think that there is information carried on the website about the distinctions that might be drawn there between licences and tenancies, and I would advise everybody who is concerned about that to have a look at that guidance, which is on the website. All that I can say is that in any particular case that is brought before the board, whether it is a licence or a tenancy, is-----

Can I ask a question on that?

Mr. Tom Dunne

Yes.

In terms of any direct purpose-built student accommodation, has the RTB got involved over any disputes?

Mr. Tom Dunne

Yes.

Can Mr. Dunne tell me the outcome?

Mr. Tom Dunne

Not off the top of my head.

Please do not give me individual specifications or the location.

Mr. Niall Byrne

In terms of outcome, the student-specific accommodation is registered with the RTB and students then have rights, under the legislation, to bring disputes to the RTB if they are not satisfied or believe that their rights are being infringed in some way by the operator of that accommodation. That register is on our website. That provides protections for students in their particular kind of circumstance, which is somewhat different from people who might be renting more long term as opposed to student-specific accommodation. That is all in place under the legislation and the protections are there.

My view of it is very simple. Obviously what we have seen in Ireland, and the RTB cannot dispute this, it is commonsense, and it is a fact that wherever one goes in Dublin one sees it going on, there is construction now of major student accommodation complexes. That is something that was not a part of higher education in Ireland 20 years ago although there was limited residential facilities that were predominantly university owned or run.

Mr. Niall Byrne

Yes.

One now has major pension funds coming in funding the construction of purpose-built student accommodation on a scale that has never been seen before in the State. All of those operate under licence to reside. I raise this matter because I was a student in one of those situations before where there was a dispute over the conditions of the tenancy in terms of construction work that was going on underneath the premises that we were renting about which we were not informed. As we were under a licence to reside there was almost no grounds for protection in the same way that one might have if one had a private lease and that is something that I have experienced. I am worried and concerned about where this will go over the course of the next ten years because we will see thousands of more units of direct student built accommodation being built by private entities and pension funds. Is the RTB concerned about the direction in which this is going? I welcome that the accommodation is being built. However, when it comes to the protections for students living within those facilities, is there anything that the RTB thinks can be done to improve the situation?

Mr. Niall Byrne

I will ask my colleague to respond to the Deputy. This is an area that we do research on and are quite active on.

Ms Caren Gallagher

As my colleague said, the higher education institutions, the universities and colleges, as well as the purpose-built student accommodation, since July 2019 that has to be registered with the RTB. We have proactively identified a lot of the student accommodation that was already there and, as we said, we publish that register.

I think that it is an important point to note that even if students are in one of these types of accommodation and they are being told that they are operating under a licence, they can bring a case to us and, regardless of what it says on the piece of paper, a decision will be made. If it is looking like a tenancy and acting like a tenancy then it is a tenancy. That decision will be made at the point of our dispute resolution.

There are developments in these areas in the purpose-built student accommodation. They are under our remit. The dwellings and the students within those dwellings are afforded all the protections under the Act.

I appreciate that. My next question concerns old-age homelessness. I have seen a particular rise in people over the age of 75 becoming homeless. A gentleman came into my office the other day who was 81, single and living alone. In the three years that I have been in politics as a councillor and now as a Deputy, I have come across increasing and more frequent situations where landlords want to sell their properties. Of course, the people living in those properties are given their notice. Have the witnesses seen a rise in those statistics? Is it just something that I am seeing in my own area or is there a noticeable increase in the issue? As the witnesses can appreciate, for all of us here, it is something that is deeply disturbing on humanitarian grounds.

Mr. Niall Byrne

Yes, we have research and we have looked at this issue specifically.

Ms Caren Gallagher

We have undertaken research that was published in July of last year. An aspect of that research specifically looked at landlords who had recently left the sector. We asked them a series of questions to ascertain why they exited the sector, trying to get some information on the motivation to sell. We can send some details of that research to the committee. We can see a decline in the number of tenancies registered with the RTB. That is reflected in our figures. The other aspect that the Deputy mentioned, which is an area that we were particularly interested in, is that of older renters. As we know, tenancies are lasting longer and the number of people in the rental sector has increased in size over the last number of years. Many people who are in the rental sector because of their circumstances will not be in a position to buy or move out of the sector. There is also a piece of research within the survey of tenants that specifically outlines the experience of older renters. We can send that information to the committee.

When a people are living in rental accommodation or they are receiving HAP, my understanding is that when they receive the HAP payment, they are given a contribution towards the deposit. I am sure that is the case in all local authority areas. I think I am right in saying that that is only given once, though I stand to be corrected. Can that be given again?

Mr. Tom Dunne

That is a matter for local authorities. It is not something that we capture.

So it is on an individual basis?

Mr. Tom Dunne

I imagine the community welfare officer would be the person who would pay if the-----

Obviously, it should be means tested. Of course, any person who is approved for HAP is an approved social housing applicant as well. When it comes to the provision of the deposit, in the case of a person who is elderly and who may not be in a position to work, particularly those who are over the age of 75 and 80, it is deeply concerning. I ask that the board looks at that issue specifically to see if it is something that could allow a person to move accommodation more easily in a situation where he or she is being removed. Of course, there is the caveat that we are in a situation where there is a serious lack of supply. I think it would greatly help if county council staff who are working within housing departments could try to find solutions, particularly in the area of old-age homelessness. I thank the witnesses for their time.

Mr. Niall Byrne

I thank the Deputy. We will take that forward.

I want to touch on renting and the retrofit schemes in general. Do the witnesses think the retrofit scheme will appeal to landlords as a method to circumvent rent pressure zone regulations?

Mr. Tom Dunne

That is a very good question. Clearly, one of the reasons that a tenant can be asked to leave the accommodation is if the accommodation is in need of refurbishment. If we give incentives to people who own property to bring the standards of insulation etc. up, clearly a number of landlords may choose to undertake that work. In order to undertake it, they may need to get the tenant out of the property. That is one of the issues that might arise because of that.

I see it as something that may end up contributing to the rent crisis, whereby the Government is going to be incentivising and facilitating increased rents. Is it something that the RTB has come across before with previous schemes? Does the board expect to hear more about it arising from this particular scheme?

Mr. Tom Dunne

We have not researched it. I do not think there has been a scheme as extensive as this. There were always incentives from the sustainability organisations to incentivise people to insulate their houses, but we have never discerned it or come across it being a problem, even anecdotally. What I am saying is that it might become a problem now. That is a very good question.

I think there is a real risk there. It is something to be well aware of.

Mr. Tom Dunne

It is.

I would imagine that many will take advantage of it.

Mr. Tom Dunne

We met the Minister recently and this issue came up. It is something that one needs to be thinking about.

I understand that 28 landlords reportedly received written or monetary fines or both for breach of rent pressure zone regulations in 2021. Can the witnesses outline what "written" refers to, and confirm how many landlords received a monetary fine?

Mr. Niall Byrne

Is the Deputy referring to 2021 rather than 2020?

Mr. Niall Byrne

That was towards the end of last year. I am not sure that we have the data relating to 2021 with us today. We will have a quick look. I do not want to hold the Deputy up. We can send the information to the Deputy or we can look the information up and come back to the Deputy in a few minutes, if that is helpful.

On the same issue, in the case of those 28 landlords, for example, did the RTB audit any other properties they rent to confirm that they had not exploited any other tenants?

Mr. Niall Byrne

It would depend on the nature of the complaints that came to us. Our approach as a regulator is to be proactive and to take proactive rather than reactive steps. If we have reason to believe that a landlord is engaged in improper behaviour in relation to one tenancy, obviously, we are concerned to know whether that might be happening in other properties which that landlord owns or operates. We look across other properties when we receive complaints in relation to any particular landlord.

Just for my own information, what information does the RTB have on landlords? Does it have a list of all the houses that are rented?

Mr. Niall Byrne

We are the Residential Tenancies Board, so we are focused on tenancies. By implication, we obviously have information on landlords. However, I would make the point that, primarily, we are the tenancies board as opposed to the landlord regulation board. We do not proactively register landlords other than in relation to existing tenancies. Landlords can leave the market. They might come back to the market. Our focus is on the actual tenancies. We look at who is operating a particular tenancy and who the landlord is in a particular case. This is partly to do with the earlier questions about our new technology platform. That platform is about building and supporting a much more developed capability in relation to regulation than we would have had on our previous technology platforms. That gives us capacity to look at the rental sector in a much more holistic way. Therefore, it allows us to be more proactive in how we use our powers in the public interest to intervene in circumstances where some landlords might perhaps be engaged in ongoing forms of improper behaviour and non-compliance with the various rules and regulations.

Is the RTB aware of the rents that are charged?

Mr. Niall Byrne

Of the rents?

Mr. Niall Byrne

Yes.

Does the RTB know what percentage of landlords are registered with the board? How does that equate to the figures the Central Statistics Office provides on how many people are renting?

Mr. Niall Byrne

I might defer to my colleague here, who is our head of research, on the detail of that one.

Ms Caren Gallagher

On that cross-comparison, the number of registered tenancies, the last figure that we have is just shy of 300,000 tenancies. When that is compared with the CSO figures - obviously they go back to the last census - there is a broad alignment in the figure across both. They are aligned. Obviously, we will be watching the output of the next census on that.

For my own knowledge, if I were to leave a tenancy tomorrow and the landlord advertised it online, would a prospective tenant be able to access the information as to what the previous rent was?

Ms Caren Gallagher

My understanding is the landlord is obliged to inform the tenant of the rent paid in the previous tenancy.

But if someone was to contact the Residential Tenancies Board, am I correct in saying that the board would not be able to tell him or her, or am I picking it up wrong?

Ms Caren Gallagher

Deputy Munster is correct. In terms of whether there is a rent register, let us say, we would not provide specific information to specific tenants on specific rental dwellings, if I am answering that right.

Therefore, someone is solely reliant on the landlord to tell him or her what the previous rent was. Does that create a gap in the Residential Tenancies Board's data?

Mr. Niall Byrne

I suppose we are balancing different kinds of considerations there, are we not, in terms of the data, why it is shared, how it is shared and for what purposes? What we are outlining there is the current position. Should it be different? Could it be different? That is a consideration and there is a policy aspect to that which would be more for the Department than for ourselves.

As my colleague says, we do not operate a rent register as such that is in the public domain. That is the situation at the moment. We are constrained by that.

Mr. Byrne would agree it leaves gaps. For example, if the landlord is to advertise, is he compelled to advertise what the previous rent was?

Mr. Niall Byrne

I do not believe so, no.

Is someone solely having to rely on the landlord to tell him or her what the rent was?

Mr. Niall Byrne

That is the current scheme.

Mr. Tom Dunne

One of the great benefits of annual registration is we might be able to - it will take a year for this stuff to come through but when it does comes through - discern the extent to which that is happening in the marketplace. Right now, a landlord advertises a property for rent and gives an indication of the rent that he or she intends to charge. If it is in a rent pressure zone, RPZ, that rent should be the same as the rent charged to the previous tenant, assuming nothing has changed. We do not know what happens there at the moment but with annual registration, we should be in a position to discern from the information we have the extent to which landlords are exceeding RPZs.

Did Mr. Dunne ever flag up with anybody that the Residential Tenancies Board did not have that information and, therefore, it is-----

Mr. Tom Dunne

It is well known. As Mr. Byrne said, that is not what we have been legislated to do. That decision was taken many years ago. There is an argument that all this information should be in the public domain just as the price of houses is now in the public domain. The question is often asked, if the price of houses is in the public domain, why cannot the legislation provide that rents should be in the public domain? That is a matter, as Mr. Byrne said, of policy. It is a matter for this House.

I call Deputy Carthy.

I call Deputy Carthy. Deputy Munster has gone over time.

Deputy Carthy has ten minutes. We will break after that.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Chathaoirleach. I wish our guests "good morning" and thank them for being here.

Is it correct that there are currently 300,000 properties registered with the Residential Tenancies Board?

Mr. Niall Byrne

There are 300,000 tenancies.

What would be the breakdown between private tenancies and approved housing bodies?

Mr. Niall Byrne

We have that here. It was in the briefing information that we sent over to the committee. It is just for us to find it here now.

Even a percentage would do.

Ms Caren Gallagher

There are approximately 36,000 or 40,000 approved housing body tenancies registered with us. I will double-check that exact figure.

How many rented tenancies are not registered with the Residential Tenancies Board?

Mr. Niall Byrne

As a regulator, it is not really possible for us to say how many are not registered with us. If we knew how many were not registered with us, we should be taking steps to register them all. It is not a piece of information that is available to us. If people tell us about unregistered tenancies or properties where they think there are unregistered tenancies operating, then we follow up on those referrals.

Let me ask the question in a different way. Is Mr. Byrne concerned that there may be substantial numbers of unregistered tenancies?

Mr. Niall Byrne

Being a regulatory body, you are always concerned as to whether the registers are fully comprehensive and fully up to date, and if everything that is registerable on the register in the way that it is required to be. We can never definitively know.

I suppose I am trying to get a sense of whether Mr. Byrne believes this is a particular problem. Does Mr. Byrne have a sense or evidence that there is-----

Mr. Niall Byrne

I suppose we have to be a little bit careful about speculating too much. As to whether there is evidence to suggest that there is widespread non-compliance with the regulatory requirements, we do not have a basis on which to say that is the case. Nor do we have the exact basis on which to say there is no problem whatsoever. We obviously have to keep a close eye on this. We have to be clever and smart about how we regulate. We have to be good at gathering in all relevant data to inform ourselves about what might be happening in the rental sector, that is not known to us and that should be known to us. As I say, we act where information comes to our attention.

Can a tenant make a complaint to the Residential Tenancies Board regardless of whether his or her landlord is registered?

Mr. Niall Byrne

Yes.

How many of those type of complaints would the Residential Tenancies Board have received in the past number of years?

Mr. Niall Byrne

That is not a figure that I saw in our data, unless my colleague knows it.

Ms Caren Gallagher

I do not know it off the top of my head. As Mr. Byrne said, when a dispute is raised through the dispute resolution service, the first action that is taken is to ascertain if that tenancy is registered or not. We can definitely extract the percentage out of the disputes that came to us.

Is it fair to say that there have been some?

Mr. Niall Byrne

Yes.

Ms Caren Gallagher

Yes.

Mr. Tom Dunne

I thank Deputy Carthy for raising this because it is a very important issue. Landlords have got to understand that if they do not register their tenancy, they will have a problem if they have an issue with a tenant because they have to come to the board to have that issue resolved. If they cannot come to the board because they are not registered, they then have to go to court. The court has to say to them, "Why are you not registered?", and they will effectively have to register and bring the dispute to the board. The courts will just refer them back to the board. Then they will have a problem because they will not have registered and there will be, as Mr. Byrne said, an offence there.

Is there a pattern of those that are not registered? My assumption is that there would be a proportion that would be on so-called "mate's rates" or friendly arrangements where it is a family member or somebody who they know fairly well where the prospects of a complaint being made to the Residential Tenancies Board are slim in that regard. Alternatively, you are dealing with particularly vulnerable tenants who would be afraid or would not be aware of their rights that the property should be registered and, therefore, are also unlikely to make complaints. If we have a level at all of complaints being made in respect of this, it would suggest that perhaps the problem is more widespread than is acknowledged.

Mr. Tom Dunne

It could be. Where tenants might feel that if they take an action against an unregistered landlord, they may end up losing their accommodation for some reason, that is obviously a concern. We simply do not know the extent to which this is a concern. It is something that would be worth doing some bit of research around.

I would suggest so. I want to follow up on the scenario Deputy Munster raised whereby tenant A, who has been paying a level of rent, moves out. The Residential Tenancies Board knows what they rent was.

Tenant B moves in and has no access to the information but the RTB knows what that rent is. Does the RTB as a matter of course compare and contrast to assert whether the requirements of the rent-pressure zones are being breached?

Mr. Niall Byrne

In the context where someone would raise a complaint, as it were, with us-----

No, I am asking if the RTB does it as a matter of course.

Mr. Niall Byrne

As a matter of course-----

If I am tenant B, I cannot make a complaint saying that my rent is in breach of the rent-pressure zones because I do not know what tenant A was paying. However, the RTB has that information. I imagine it would be fairly simple for its software to flag it in terms of a rent-pressure zone here. We have a tenancy where the rent has increased by 10% or 11% within the last 12 months and therefore is in breach. Is the RTB proactive on those types of matters?

Mr. Niall Byrne

That is something that our technology platform can support us to us to do. I am not sure if my colleague, Mr. Kelly, knows the answer to this in terms of the current functionality and whether we are doing that at the moment.

I am guessing that if Mr. Byrne does not have a quick answer, the answer is that it does not happen as a matter of course.

Mr. Niall Byrne

I will not hazard a guess. I will say it is "No", but I will follow up on some of these details. These are things I just do not know because I have only been in the job for four weeks. I am rapidly learning and committed to learning.

I wish Mr. Byrne the best of luck in his new role.

I wish to follow up on something Deputy Munster said about tenants making a complaint. Their landlord might have been found to have been in breach of the RTB's regulations. That landlord may have multiple properties. Again, as a matter of course does the RTB then look at the other properties under that landlord's control to see if similar breaches are happening or does it wait for those tenants to make a complaint?

Mr. Niall Byrne

My understanding on that one is that we do. If, as a regulator, we find non-compliance or improper behaviour in relation to one area, in this instance tenancies, obviously it begs the question as to whether we will see that elsewhere. We in the RTB have a protective role in terms of protecting the public from improper behaviour. It is very important that we are proactive on those and take the necessary steps if we think we are looking at-----

I am glad to hear that.

I have just one question left and it is a big one based on the issues that come to us. Going back to tenant A who has moved out, what protections are in place for them to be able to have their full deposit returned?

Mr. Niall Byrne

If they raise a dispute with us that their deposit has being improperly withheld, that is something that the RTB has very clear powers in relation to. We receive disputes-----

I know the Minister has previously said that the legislation regarding deposit retention is no longer workable essentially. While I take it that interest does not really apply anymore, is Mr. Byrne satisfied that if tenant A makes a complaint to the RTB because they have not received their deposit back in full, it will be in a position to ensure that will happen?

Mr. Niall Byrne

We process those disputes all the way through, including all the way through to court, to secure an order in relation to organising the return of deposits. The Deputy may also be referring to the subject of a deposit-retention scheme, which is a separate matter. It was included in the legislation in 2015, but not commenced.

Does Mr. Byrne believe it would be useful if there was a deposit-retention scheme to alleviate the issues that have arisen?

Mr. Niall Byrne

It could be. It is a complex enough area to operate in practice and it is done differently in other jurisdictions.

Has the RTB analysed other jurisdictions-----

Mr. Niall Byrne

No, we have not analysed in detail

-----to ascertain best practice?

Mr. Niall Byrne

Our view on it would be that if there was a proposal to activate or commence those provisions, what we would be advising the Minister to do would be that we need to look at it again because some of those provisions are based, I believe, on research and evidence that goes back to 2012. The world is quite different at this stage.

I wish to make a final comment as a small piece of advice. While there are particular issues at the moment, the biggest issue regarding tendencies I have come across over a long period is the difficulties with tenants having their deposits returned. Something needs to be done and we can only look at it for so long before we put in place measures to address it.

Mr. Niall Byrne

We see it in the data. I think it is the biggest dispute area tenants raise with the RTB.

We will now break and resume in ten minutes sharp.

Sitting suspended at 11.05 a.m. and resumed at 11.19 a.m.

I thank our guests for their presentation. I wish to discuss an issue I have raised previously, that being, student accommodation near third level institutions and residents groups being unable to file complaints about a large number of unregistered properties that they have surveyed. A complaint about each property has to be filed individually. My point has to do with making efficient use of an organisation and getting work done. The area I am talking about is around University College Cork, where a survey conducted in 2021 showed that up to 50% of properties let to students were not still registered even though complaints had been filed with the RTB after a survey in 2017. I understand that a similar survey was conducted in the area around University of Limerick, where less than 50% of properties let to students were registered. With a view to making the operation more efficient, is there any proposal to change the current system of receiving complaints from a group of people who are interested in having supervision in their area and having legislation complied with?

Mr. Niall Byrne

I am familiar with some of the circumstances around a particular residents group in Cork, which I believe the Deputy referred to in his question.

That group wrote to me on 12 February this year on concerns about possibly unregistered tenancies in its locality. We take this and all such information seriously when it comes into the RTB. We are the regulator so are responsible for ensuring that everything that should be registered is registered. If we have reason to believe there are unregistered tenancies, we act on that.

We follow up on all the information. We do not require members of the public to make formal complaints to us. They can if they wish and there are provisions in the law to allow that, but we can also proactively undertake investigations where we believe there is non-compliance. We are committed to doing that and have followed up on every case referred to us in relation to properties in the vicinity of UCC. We know the position in relation to each of those properties where potentially unregistered tenancies may be happening and are following up on them all. I can give the Deputy that assurance.

The letter I received from them is dated Tuesday, 22 February of this year and states that properties surveyed in 2017 which were not registered and had tenants still have tenants and are still not registered. That is a large number of properties in the immediate area of University College Cork. Why has nothing happened in the past four years? It raises questions about the effectiveness of the RTB in dealing with complaints.

Mr. Niall Byrne

I am looking at those circumstances that came to our attention in May 2021. I was not with the RTB then but have been reviewing the records of those concerns raised with us concerning potentially unregistered tenancies. We have looked at all 142 that were conveyed to us and established that we are down to 56 tenancies, of which we think about 40 are lapsed tenancies that were previously registered. There are 17 where we do not know the current situation and are working to determine the position. We have followed through on them all. This tells us the situation is not as bad as the residents thought it was. There are registered tenancies in a number of those properties. Some were not required to be registered and are outside the regulatory framework and a number that were unregistered have since registered.

In what circumstances would they not require to be registered?

Mr. Niall Byrne

There are exempted categories under the legislation. If a tenant lives with the landlord, if a room to rent scheme is in operation or if parents own a house which is lived in by their adult children without a tenancy arrangement, such cases do not require registration. We have worked through each of the concerns referred to us to establish the situation as regards the registrability of the tenancies. Our commitment is to work through that detail.

Is Mr. Byrne saying we are down to 17 properties that are not registered and the rest of the 142 are registered?

Mr. Niall Byrne

No, I am saying we are working to determine the situation with each of the properties where people have told us there could be unregistered tenancies. At this stage, we have 56 that possibly should be registered but are not. Of those, we think 39 were previously registered and the registrations, for some reason, have lapsed. That is not okay and I am not saying any of this is okay but I am giving the facts as we work through the detail to determine the situation in terms of the law.

What is the timeframe for resolving the issue? It has been ongoing for some time. I understand there is a similar problem in Limerick. What action has been taken on that?

Mr. Niall Byrne

I cannot answer here and now on Limerick, unfortunately, but I will follow up on it after the meeting. Our commitment is to be the effective regulator, which means having a timely response. I do not want to be critical in circumstances where I do not necessarily have all the information, not having been with the RTB at the time this originally came to the board. Some of this is complex and takes time and there have been many other pressures on the RTB in recent years. That is not an excuse or to say we do not take it seriously but to reflect realities.

My commitment is to make sure the RTB is the effective regulator and that means being timely and rigorous in our response and not being seen to tolerate non-compliance. I do not think the RTB has tolerated non-compliance but if the public thinks it has, that is not a good situation so it is important to demonstrate through our actions that we are a timely, effective and relevant regulator.

I will touch on regulation in relation to the role of the RTB. Much good work is being done on registrations but another issue is arising with regard to student accommodation. I got an email from seven students, dated 16 February this year. They are all staying in one apartment or house. The landlord is looking for a €1,500 deposit to be paid by each student if they want the property from August on and for the first half of the rent, which is €3,500 per student, to be paid in August. That is in total breach of regulation. What action can the RTB take if a complaint is filed on this matter?

Mr. Niall Byrne

If information on the property location and landlord involved is referred to us, we will follow up. There are controls on deposits and requirements around deposit-taking and fair procedures. Tenants are not supposed to be put under that kind of pressure, whether students or non-students. That is not supposed to happen.

Is the fact that this has been set out to seven individuals not an indication that the landlord does not believe any action will be taken against him by the RTB? I am sure this is not the only case around. This is just a group that contacted me. I am concerned that in the forthcoming academic year, we could have this happen across the board.

Mr. Niall Byrne

If the landlord believes there will be no consequences, the landlord is entirely wrong. If that information is referred to us by the Deputy or the students, we will follow it up as a matter of urgency. We encourage the students to come to us because we want students and all tenants to feel free and able to come to the RTB.

Okay. Can I just move on to another area-----

No, I will let the Deputy in for a second round if time allows. He has gone way over time.

I thank the witnesses for coming in. It is lovely to have them here. I will follow up on some points raised by colleagues. Deputy O'Connor raised the licence to reside. Will the witnesses give the scale of the number of those issued?

Mr. Niall Byrne

In what context does the Deputy refer to licences to occupy? Is it those that are unregistered?

Yes. Does Mr. Byrne have any sense of what that number is?

Mr. Niall Byrne

No. If I follow the Deputy right, we do not know.

What steps have been taken to try to identify the number?

Mr. Niall Byrne

Does the Deputy mean tenancies rather than licences?

No, I mean licences to reside.

Mr. Niall Byrne

Strictly speaking, licences are not within our remit. It can be a complex area in terms of what is a licence and what is a tenancy. People can claim that a licence is not a tenancy but we would not necessarily agree. In any dispute raised regarding that, the RTB will determine what the situation regarding any particular tenancy arrangement is. We do not know, however, what is not registered with us.

Naturally. What steps has the RTB taken to identify those that should be but are not registered?

Mr. Niall Byrne

Some of that has to do with enhanced forms of data sharing between different kinds of public bodies. There is an action in Housing for All that concerns the RTB and the Revenue Commissioners developing an enhanced data sharing arrangement. The RTB currently sends information to the Revenue Commissioners about tenancy arrangements to assist them with administration of tax law but we do not receive information from the Revenue about numbers of taxpayers who are claiming various kinds of reliefs relating to rent that might indicate they are landlords. Under Housing for All, there is a commitment to developing those data sharing arrangements, which would mean that we would be proactively informed of circumstances where there might be unregistered tenancies. Local authorities sometimes come to us as well as members of the public but to be clear, we do not-----

Correct me if I am wrong but what I am hearing is that if a local authority or a member of the public has mentioned it to the RTB, it may be able to establish it. However, it is not clear to me what proactive steps the RTB has taken to date to try to identify the scale of that or ensure they become registered. I may be wrong but that is what I am hearing.

Mr. Niall Byrne

The role of the RTB is to register the tenancies that are brought to us by landlords. It is landlords' responsibility to bring their tenancies to the RTB and have them registered in accordance with the law.

Does Mr. Byrne think the RTB should have any powers beyond that to try to identify unregistered tenancies?

Mr. Niall Byrne

I am very much in favour of proactive approaches to regulation. It is very important that regulators have all the powers they need to carry out their functions fully and completely in the public interest.

Has the RTB written to the Department to look for those powers?

Mr. Niall Byrne

In my short time with the RTB, I cannot say definitively what we raised with the Department previously regarding this kind of proactive approach. Sometimes people will talk about this in terms of policing the sector but in practice, that could be a very time-consuming, expensive and potentially not very successful enterprise.

I understand but what I am asking about is what steps the management of the RTB has taken to remedy the fact that there are unregistered tenancies out there that should be registered and what the RTB's role in that is. I appreciate its current remit. I am asking what it has done about it and if it has looked for additional powers that might give it more. If it is somebody else's responsibility, has the RTB identified whose responsibility it is and how that can be followed up? What is the RTB's role in that? I might move on to another issue unless there is anything else Mr. Byrne wants to add to that.

Mr. Niall Byrne

That is fine. I understand the Deputy's concern, which we share. I am probably not giving her the right answer here.

My question concerns who is going to follow this up.

Mr. Niall Byrne

That is for us to follow up. If there is non-compliance that is not being addressed, we should be in a position to address it if it falls under our remit.

I agree. It is this dynamism about which I am asking. What is the dynamic follow-up to try to identify and redress these different issues that are identifiable?

Mr. Niall Byrne

The RTB is in a process of development and that is very much part of our agenda. We will be developing a new strategy this year of which that will be a part.

I heard Mr. Byrne say earlier that HAP tenancies are not necessarily being given to the RTB. What has the RTB done about this?

Mr. Niall Byrne

The position is that HAP tenancies are very compliant now so-----

Mr. Tom Dunne

HAP tenancies are tenancies.

Mr. Niall Byrne

There is a high level of compliance in terms of registration. We do not think there is a difficulty in that area. We have very good liaison with local authorities and the Department of Social Protection regarding this.

Are they being registered by the landlord or is the RTB becoming aware of them through the local authorities?

Mr. Niall Byrne

My understanding is that tenancies are registered by the landlords - proactively and correctly.

Is compliance higher or lower than in other parts of this sector or is there any difference?

Mr. Niall Byrne

We do not know definitively what the non-compliance level across the entire sector is so we cannot really compare. All we can say is that it appears to us as though the vast majority is compliant. I think we know that 98% of HAP tenancies are registered, which is very satisfactory. We will find the other 2% and make sure they are registered as well.

I have a question about the completeness of the registry generally. I appreciate that it is difficult, which is why I am asking about the steps that can be taken to follow up and identify what is not there. I also have a question about the number of landlords leaving the market and the RTB's data on that. I might leave that with Mr. Byrne and come back to it. We have heard media reports about funds that have invested in rental properties keeping apartments empty for a long time - apparently to keep up rent prices. Is the RTB aware of that? Does the RTB think it is happening? Does the RTB think it is in a fund's economic interest to do that? What would be the scale of the vacancy rate? What are the RTB's data on that?

Mr. Niall Byrne

I will ask my colleague whether we have any data on that. If a fund chooses to do that for its own commercial reasons, whatever they may be, it is not necessarily an issue for us because until there is a tenancy, there is really no regulatory requirement. We do not come into the equation until the tenancy actually exists.

What I am asking about is this dynamism. Regarding whether there is a vacancy is identified within the market, whether by media or through other ways, this goes back to my question about landlords leaving the market. We have extraordinary rental pressure. We are hearing reports of landlords leaving and reports of vacancy. I appreciate the regulatory function of the RTB. What steps has it taken beyond that to be dynamic and identify problems that I and other Deputies are raising to bring more into the market and to get a better functional rental market?

Mr. Niall Byrne

To repeat what I said earlier, we are not the market regulator. We are the tenancies regulator. This is not to avoid the Deputy's question. I just want to be clear in terms of role and remit. We do not control or manage the market per se.

Mr. Niall Byrne

I will ask my colleague to come back on the point about the data because we do conduct research on this to provide insights.

The RTB also provides that to help advise the Government and has a strong interest in this sector working very well. For all those reasons, while I appreciate the RTB's statutory remit, it is still a reasonable question.

Mr. Niall Byrne

Entirely.

Ms Caren Gallagher

In terms of that fall in tenancies, we have seen that drop from 300,000 quarter on quarter. We are now at 293,000 tenancies.

Three hundred thousand when?

Ms Caren Gallagher

At the end of quarter 4 of 2018, there were 307,000 private rental tenancies-----

Three hundred and seventy thousand-----

Ms Caren Gallagher

Three hundred and seven thousand. By the end of quarter 4 of 2020, this figure had dropped to 297,837 so we can see the contraction in the number of tenancies. We looked at landlord exits in the survey we carried out and spoke to a number of former landlords to establish their reasons for leaving the sector. We set out the number of reasons, which is picked up in a further study we are undertaking this year to inform policy-----

Ms Caren Gallagher

As for the reasons, 72% said they had sold the properties, 23% said they were recovered for use by themselves or a family member and 9% said the property was in the process of being refurbished. We are following that up this year with research. On another piece of data we publish, when a landlord issues a notice of termination, that must be copied to the RTB.

If the RTB has been told that the tenancy is being ended because the property is being sold, does it ever check that?

Ms Caren Gallagher

We do.

Does it find non-compliance?

Ms Caren Gallagher

I do not have those figures. The landlord has a nine-month period after the tenancy ends in which to sell the property so we would check the property price register. We have identified some elements of non-compliance but I will get the exact figures and come back to the Deputy.

I will let the Deputy come back in for a second round.

If Ms Gallagher could come back to us, that would be appreciated.

I welcome all of our witnesses. I listened carefully to the opening statements, particularly from the Comptroller and Auditor General. Colleagues have already raised the searchable database and the 60% increase in its cost. Why was there no oversight group within the RTB to manage such a system given the level of expenditure involved?

Mr. Niall Byrne

A project management approach was taken to managing the project, put in place by the RTB with consultancy support. It was not that it was not set up properly. It was set up in an appropriate manner. Unfortunately, and for various reasons, the project ran for longer and has cost more than was planned.

Given the outside consultancy and the internal project management arrangements that were put in place, was it not seen at some point that the costs were going to balloon?

Mr. Tom Dunne

It certainly was and this was a matter of concern for the board. The board created a subcommittee to do precisely what the Deputy is suggesting should have been done. That has been in operation for a number of years. We also engaged an external project manager to have a look at these issues. I share the Deputy's concerns and the board certainly shares them.

In the context of similar ventures and projects that the RTB is going to undertake, can I presume lessons have been learned on how to manage such large scale projects?

Mr. Tom Dunne

It is an understatement to say that lessons have been learned. We have certainly learned lessons and one of the biggest lessons is that big IT projects are troublesome, to say the very least. The board has had a very interesting experience with them and the lesson I have learned, personally, is that they are a problem.

Yes, and a costly one.

Mr. Tom Dunne

Just to add, we are looking into this. We have commissioned a research project on this so that when this happens again next year or the year after, we will have a fuller report on it.

Let us keep an eye on that cost as well.

Mr. Tom Dunne

Yes.

In terms of the RTB and the database, what analysis has been conducted to identify landlords who have unregistered tenancies? Has there been any analysis done to identify landlords who are no longer registered with the RTB? Ms Gallagher made reference to the quarterly reports undertaken by the RTB. Does that body of work include an analysis of landlords who are not registered or who are no longer registered with the RTB?

Ms Caren Gallagher

In terms of the number of registrations and the landlords associated with those tenancies in the system, we track that quarter on quarter. The Deputy's question refers to our ability to deep dive into the data. The new system that we have just been talking about allows us to manage, extract and analyse data in a way that we cannot do with the current system. That will feed into our regulatory functions in registration enforcement and tracking some of those landlords that come in and out of the system. We undertake monitoring of tenancies that have ended and sometimes when they come back into the system as well.

From my experience, there is a bit of a lacuna here although it is not a policy issue that the RTB can address. If a legal entity is managing or letting properties, there does not seem to be the same ability in the RTB to pursue, monitor or enforce rules. Legal entities may change their names and continue trading under different names but are not in keeping with the spirit of the legislation that is meant to manage tenancies in a proper fashion. I know I am being vague here but I have written to the RTB about it, as has a concerned constituent of mine. My colleague in the constituency will be aware of a certain case. We need to analyse all types of tenancies to ensure that they can come under the remit of the RTB.

I also want to ask about the extent of knowledge of tenancies and the sharing of information with the Revenue Commissioners under section 148. To what extent is that information being shared by the RTB? Is that updated regularly through the database or how is it done?

Mr. Niall Byrne

My understanding of the arrangement is that information goes from the RTB to the Revenue Commissioners to assist the latter with its functions in relation to tax compliance. Strategically this is a very important issue for the RTB and we will be developing a new corporate strategy this year for 2023 out to 2025. I am hearing quite a number of suggestions here today about important issues that we need to consider in the context of that and which we will need to translate into operational performance and results.

I am very interested in the two-way flow of information with other State bodies and there is also an action in Housing for All which relates to this. I will be taking the matter up with the Revenue Commissioners to see what we can do on an administrative basis and in terms of the extent to which this might need a legal authority for the sharing of the information, we will pursue that. Revenue has information about landlords and it is really important that we gather in everything that is relevant. Data is the currency of regulation in so many ways. It is imperative that we have everything we need in order to take relevant action. There are other things we can do by way of gathering data from publicly available websites, advertising and so on. Our new technology platform, with further development, will potentially give us scope to gather information from those kinds of external sources. The more information we have, the better informed we are and, therefore, the more steps we can take and the better the information we can give members of this committee about the nature of compliance and the nature of the market.

I noticed in the RTB's financial statements that there was an excessively large increase in expenditure on High Court appeals. Why is that the case? In 2019, such expenditure amounted to approximately €38,500 but in 2020 it jumped to €264,720. Can Mr. Byrne explain that?

Mr. Niall Byrne

Unfortunately, I am not in a position to give the Deputy the exact details but I am aware that there was a jump.

Was there a jump in the number of cases or did a particular case cause the jump in expenditure?

Mr. Niall Byrne

I think it is related to numbers of cases and appeals.

It is a significant rise.

Mr. Niall Byrne

Yes. As I understand it, these are appeals on a point of law from a determination of a tribunal. The law is more complex than it was previously and people are more aware of and exercised about their rights, both landlords and tenants, so more people are coming forward to take appeals on a point of law. The fact that the law is complex means that it lends itself to appeals on a point of law and that is an issue.

I understand that. I ask Mr. Byrne to send us a note on that because it jumped off the page at me.

Mr. Niall Byrne

We will do that.

It is an extremely large increase.

Mr. Byrne said in his opening remarks regarding unregistered tenancies or even those that are registered, that if they are not in compliance with the RTB it can take action and pursue them through the courts or by other means. If he does not have the information to hand today, I ask him to send on to the committee data on the number of those types of cases that the RTB pursues on an annual basis. What remedies are open to the RTB if a landlord ignores, post-mediation, an adjudication from the RTB or health and safety recommendations relating to a property? Likewise, what remedies are available if a tenant has received mediation and ignores it too? What options are open to the RTB?

Mr. Niall Byrne

We can set that out for the committee in writing. I do not think there is time for me to do it now. We can certainly send it on to the Deputy and the committee and set it out in clear terms.

A number of strands of activity are available to us and we can set it out nice and clearly for the Deputy, as well as the data on the number of appeals.

I would appreciate that.

I have some questions. I wish the best of luck to Mr. Byrne in his new job. Somebody pointed out to me yesterday that he has been in the job for only four weeks. There is nothing like an appearance before the Committee of Public Accounts to get bedded in.

Mr. Niall Byrne

It is a baptism of fire.

It can be tough for somebody to get on top of everything when he or she has been in a job for only one month.

To return to the RTB database, there is much talk, including in political circles, about how an exodus of landlords from the property market is taking place. I have examined the figures the RTB gave us. In 2005, there were 50,000 landlords, while in 2014, there were approximately 160,000. In 2020, there were in the region of 165,000 according to the figures I have in front of me, which tells me there has been no exodus. In fact, there was a slight increase since 2014 and it remained relatively flat during that period. Am I correct in stating that the hard information Ms Gallagher has shows that there has been no exodus since 2014 but, rather, that there has been a slight increase in the number of landlords, and that the number has tripled since 2005? I ask her to be brief because I have further questions.

Ms Caren Gallagher

Based on our analysis mostly in respect of the number of tenancy registrations, the current system that captures the data on individual landlords would allow for those figures not to reflect the full tenancy piece. As Mr. Byrne said, we capture the number of tenants and that is more of a direct reflection of the contraction of the sector. Without going into detail, the way our system works at the moment means that depending on how the landlord registers the tenancy, sometimes the system does not reflect the landlord piece.

The number of registered tenancies has increased since 2014 and is more than three times what it was in 2005, according to the figures the RTB supplied. That shows that the idea that tenancies are being terminated because people are moving away from the market is not true. It indicates that, while there might be a smaller number of landlords because some landlords now have more properties and tenancies and own more residential units, there are three times as many as in 2005 and more than there were in 2014.

On the dispute mechanism, our guests stated that the average mediation time is nine weeks, while the average time for dispute resolution is 20 weeks. What is the longest waiting time that a case has taken to be resolved? They might give a figure for 2021. What is the longest time anyone, whether landlord or tenant, has had to wait for a resolution?

Mr. Niall Byrne

The Chairman is asking about the outliers.

Mr. Niall Byrne

I do not think we have that information with us but we can certainly send it to the committee. From my limited knowledge of the data, there are certainly some that are longer than the average. The-----

What would it be in the region of? Would it be six months or a year?

Mr. Niall Byrne

Not a year, but six months is certainly possible. Obviously, that is not desirable at all but sometimes there are technical reasons for it to do with the case, the conduct of the case or legal technicalities that have entered the issue. It would not be because we are not moving them along. Some of them are complex and get delayed for various reasons to do with the parties rather than with the RTB.

Turning to top-ups, I understand it is tenancies that the RTB registers. Even so, the week before last, I met the first tenant I have met in six months who is not paying a top-up in County Laois. I mentioned this to the representatives of the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage who appeared before the committee last week. She is a HAP tenant in Mountmellick. She will soon have to pay a top-up given her rent is due to increase by 37%, although admittedly it has not increased for three years. I have seen the notice. She is terrified of complaining to the RTB because it will mean potentially losing the tenancy. She does not live in a rent pressure zone. I have not met anyone else in my constituency office in the past six months who is not paying a top-up. She was the first. I always ask people whether they pay a top-up and the answer, 99.9% of the time, is that they do. We seem to be powerless. On foot of the answers our guests have given, I accept that the board is not really in a position to do anything about that, although if rent increases are excessive or beyond what is in the market in a given area, it is in a position to act. The woman was handed two sheets of paper that show recent examples of the highest relets in the general area and her new rent is pegged against, or in the region of, that. I am not sure what case she has, therefore, but I thought I should mention it.

According to my brief, a total of 297,000 tenancies have been registered with the RTB. The number of private tenancies according to the Central Statistics Office, CSO, however, is 320,000 or 330,000. Is that correct?

Ms Caren Gallagher

I do not have the CSO figure with me but, from my recollection of the most recent census, there was broad alignment with the level of tenancies we had registered. It is not exactly-----

Is there a gap of 20,000 or 30,000 in the number of tenancies that are not registered?

Ms Caren Gallagher

I am not sure and I do not want to give a figure in case I am wrong. I can certainly give the CSO information to the Chairman later.

Ms Gallagher might revert to us on that. How many housing assistance payment tenancies are registered with the board?

Ms Caren Gallagher

At the moment, when a tenancy is registered with us, we do not capture the HAP flag in our system. What we do have, as was set out by my colleagues, is an exchange of information or data from the Department of Social Protection that identifies a HAP tenancy.

Rent supplement may come through the local authority, an issue I will come to in a moment. Does Ms Gallagher have figures in respect of RAS and the number of those tenancies that are registered?

Ms Caren Gallagher

Again, the level of compliance in that registration piece is quite high. We do not-----

The Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage has figures for the number of people in receipt of housing assistance payment and the number in receipt of rental assistance, while the Department of Social Protection has figures for the number of people getting rent supplement. It is those three cohorts that I am trying to get to the bottom of. We can get the figures from the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage in respect of the number of tenancies that are receiving any of those three supports. Insofar as I can figure out the information provided in the opening statement, although it might have been answering different questions, which I do not mean in any negative way but rather that I am trying to decipher the relevant information, it appears there is a high percentage of tenancies where a rent supplement of one kind of another is being paid that are not registered with the RTB.

If our guests do not have that information to hand, will they revert to the committee with it? It is very basic information. If a landlord is letting a property and rent supplement, a rental assistance scheme payment or a housing assistance payment is being paid on it, that should be registered with the RTB.

I ask Ms Gallagher to revert to the committee with that information.

Ms Caren Gallagher

We can give the figures in regard to compliance on HAP tenancies, as provided to us. There is high registration compliance, at 96%, in regard to HAP tenancies.

I ask Ms Gallagher to repeat the percentage.

Ms Caren Gallagher

The HAP data that comes across to us shows a very high percentage. We are up in the 90% area.

Ms Gallagher mentioned 96%.

Ms Caren Gallagher

That is my understanding. We can come back to the Deputy with segregated information on that and to identify the RAS and other rental subsidies.

I would like to address the issue of enforcement on which very good information is detailed in the briefing. The Residential Tenancies Board pursued a number of cases. The advance briefing note outlined the number of cases taken in 2018, 2019 and 2020 following on from the issuance of registration enforcement notices. In 2020, 1,778 enforcement notices were issued. When one moves to the figures for what happened in that regard, one finds that in 2020 all of the cases were adjourned due to Covid. In terms of convictions, in the previous year, 2019, there was one; in 2018, there was one; in 2017 there were three and there were none last year, 2021. In five years, there have been only five convictions. I note that is a matter for the courts, but it is appalling that of the 1,778 notices issued there were only five convictions. It shows an appalling level of enforcement - people fail to register, the board issues enforcement notices but few convictions follow - and tells me the system is not very effective.

Mr. Niall Byrne

There is probably a better way for us to present this data. In the annual report some of this data is presented in a more dynamic and informative way. During the course of those enforcement processes there is resolution along the way. We are not intending to be in the courts all of the time with landlords. We are trying to encourage, support and facilitate and, if necessary, require and take relevant steps to make them register without recourse to the courts.

It is good if cases can be resolved without going to court.

Mr. Niall Byrne

Yes.

In any sphere of life, it is always better to do that. In regard to registration enforcement in respect of which the board has to resort to the courts, the brief states that a District Court summons is issued for failure to comply with a second notice and that landlords are given ample opportunity to mend their hand before a summons to court is issued. That is fair enough. When the matter proceeds to court, the judge tends to look more favourably on the landlord who has since rectified the issue. On most occasions, once a landlord engages with the RTB cases are adjourned to allow the landlord to register a tenancy. In the instance where a landlord is fully compliant, the judge can direct that the probation Act be applied or a charitable donation be made. There is a weakness there. If I am a landlord, I can go for years without registering or until a complaint is made. When a complaint is made to the RTB, following non-compliance with a second notice the matter enters the legal process through the court. As the court date approaches, I can choose to register. At that point, the worst that will happen is the judge will apply the probation Act or ask me to make a donation to the local branch of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. That is a very weak system. There is no stick in terms of compelling landlords to register. That seems to be a weakness in the system in terms of enforcing registration.

I understand that the RTB has to deal with the legislation and the hand it is dealt with in that regard but there is something in this for all of us. This shows that a landlord can sit on his or her hands for many years and, at the point at which it ends up in the court, register the week beforehand and be deemed to have engaged and thus have the probation Act applied.

Mr. Niall Byrne

We would agree with the Chairman. We do not wish to see ourselves all of the time in this particular process. For a civil regulator like the RTB, it is much more effective for us to have other kinds of approaches and remedies that we can invoke that do not involve criminal prosecution through the courts. The Chairman is correct that criminal prosecution in regard to this kind of activity is not a particularly effective way to go. It can be quite lengthy and there is scope for people to game the system along the way. We have another track available to us, that is, investigations and sanctions for improper conduct. Non-registration is a improper conduct. We can much more proactively investigate and impose sanctions through a quasi-judicial court approved mechanism on landlords who are in default of their obligations.

It is a penalty of up to €4,000.

Mr. Niall Byrne

No, it is €15,000 plus €15,000 in costs. That mechanism is new and relatively untried. Although we are very active in that space, it is still relatively untried as a new provision. There is scope to further develop those mechanisms to give us tools and techniques that are much more effective in terms of timeliness. It is important that we would pursue that with the Department. One of our functions is to review the legislation and advise the Department on necessary changes. We will have learnings from that activity that may require us to ask the Department to enhance it further. Therefore, we might very rarely be in the courts. We may be much further back upstream changing behaviour as opposed to asking a District Court judge to make a finding in a case that he or she might think is not terribly serious in the grand scheme of things.

In terms of advice to the Government, we have a role with this development. This is only one area where there is a gaping hole in the legislation. I will now call members in the rotation starting with Deputy Catherine Murphy.

I want to focus on two particular issues. In regard to the difference between corporate landlords and the individual landlord, from what we can see the rents of the corporate landlords are higher. Is the RTB gathering information in that regard? One of the criticisms is that corporate landlords can leave properties vacant and increase demand as a consequence. Is that an aspect that the RTB is looking at?

I note from the figures provided that 40% of all of registered tenancies are in the Dublin area where rents are highest. As mentioned in the RTB opening statement, for the people in the sector who are renting affordability is the key issue. Is the RTB looking into any particular aspect of that in regard to the corporate landlords? In regard to build-to-rent, we know that is the intended purpose of the build, but does the RTB look at those particular projects when completed from the point of view of the occupancy rate?

It would seem to me an obvious one, given that new properties are being held back. There is only one intention for those and that is they will be rented. Is that something the RTB will be doing into the future or is that within its remit?

Does the RTB appreciate how the housing assistance payment, HAP, works from a tenant's perspective? The Department puts limits on the amount one spends on rent. If one applies for HAP and the cost of rent is €500 higher than is permitted, the application will be refused. Even if the rent is a fairly small amount higher than what is permitted, the application will be refused. That is why these top-up payments are so important. In 2017, 28% of applicants were topping up their payments and it is likely that percentage is higher now. What is happening to the rest of it? Is it not being reported to Revenue? Does the RTB intend to liaise with the Department on the issue?

Mr. Niall Byrne

The Deputy has asked a number of questions to which I will respond briefly. HAP is an assistance payment. The scheme is in place to support tenants with their rents. The operation of that scheme and the policy outcomes arising from it are not matters for us.

That is not the basis on which I am asking that question. The RTB is giving the Department information relating to the amount of rent somebody is paying. In many cases, the Department knows, and its representatives told us this last week, that 28% of people are topping up that payment. The information that is being given to the RTB is wrong in a substantial number of cases because it is not reflective of the actual tenancy. Those payments are topped up by the tenants. I do not know if the RTB appreciates that.

Mr. Niall Byrne

I think we do appreciate that. The Deputy and I are somehow missing each other in this discussion. I will let the chairperson of the RTB come in on this point.

Mr. Tom Dunne

When a tenant takes a property, there is rent involved. That is the rent that is registered with the RTB.

However, that is not the rent that is paid.

Mr. Tom Dunne

The HAP plus the amount of top-up should be the rental figure. If it is not, the landlord has registered the wrong rent.

To be honest-----

Mr. Tom Dunne

I will just finish that point.

-----Mr. Dunne cannot be right about this. Tenants would be refused HAP if the correct amount of rent was notified to the RTB.

Mr. Tom Dunne

We will have to look into this matter.

Mr. Niall Byrne

We will look at the issue in case we are not understanding something. We think we are clear but we will look at the matter because the Deputy is obviously clear in her view on it. It is important for us to understand. We are not unconcerned about these matters. We are all concerned about the rental market, rents and affordability. What falls within our remit is what we are to focus on and that is what we are primarily about.

On the point about corporate landlords, I again make the point that the tenancy is the matter for us. Until there is a tenancy, we are not actively involved in-----

Vacancy does not matter.

Mr. Niall Byrne

-----who has properties they are not renting that could be rented. That is a different policy issue and not one directly for us.

I have some questions around inspections and making it easier to communicate with tenants. Does the RTB have a Facebook page, for example?

Ms Caren Gallagher

We do not have a Facebook account at the minute. We have Twitter, YouTube and our website.

Did the RTB have a Facebook page at one stage?

Ms Caren Gallagher

I think we have held a page but when one goes onto Facebook, one must ensure the account is monitored and resourced. We prioritised Twitter and YouTube in the social media space.

Did the RTB close down that Facebook page?

Ms Caren Gallagher

We have held onto the Facebook page.

However, the RTB does not use it.

Ms Caren Gallagher

We do not use it at the moment. It is not that we do not intend to. We are exploring other social media channels and it is always our intention to expand the different communication channels we have.

I do not understand. It would be easy for renters to communicate with the RTB, as a national regulator, through that Facebook page. When was it last used?

Ms Caren Gallagher

We have not embarked on the management of our Facebook channel. It is not that we do not intend to but we have put our focus on launching our Twitter account and YouTube channel. We have other plans in that area. From my perspective on communications, if conversations are opened up on Facebook with people who want to communicate, it is important that we have the resources and ability to do that. We have a web chat function and there is a high level of contact with our customer contact centre. There are web chat functions available across the website. I would be concerned about starting a conversation on Facebook that we do not resource. That is why our focus has been on other areas. That is not to say we do not intend to expand across those communication channels.

I am concerned that the Facebook page was set up and not used. As a national regulator, the RTB should be trying to make it easy for renters to communicate with it. Is there any truth in the rumour that the password was lost and that is why the account has not been used since 2010?

Ms Caren Gallagher

I could not possibly comment on that. No, that is not the case. The other point I should make is that we are also looking at LinkedIn and Instagram. These are all areas we are actively looking at. We want to make sure if we start a conversation, we are able to engage and are not letting anyone down when they contact us.

It seems strange that the account was set up and just left alone. That is strange.

On inspections, the Government had committed to increasing inspections to a rate of 25% per year. At the same time, the budgets for local authorities has been cut from €12.5 million to €10 million. There seems to be a greater reliance on virtual inspections. Will our guests outline exactly what is involved in a virtual inspection? Does it effectively amount to self-assessment? Do our guests have insight into how property inspections are managed internationally? Is it common for the responsibility for inspection to be devolved to local government or a sectoral regulator, such as the RTB?

Mr. Niall Byrne

The situation at the moment is that inspection of rental properties is a function of local authorities. It is not something we do and we are neither directly involved nor responsible for it. I have seen the published figure reflecting the intention to inspect 25% of properties per year, which would mean a four-year cycle. However, it is not something that falls to us. It is not an area we have examined in any detail because that is not currently one of our functions.

I want to know about the RTB's resources and whether its budget allows it to meet its remit in a timely manner in respect of backlogs, cases and all those sorts of things. Is the RTB adequately resourced or does it find it has a backlog of cases because it is not adequately resourced?

Mr. Niall Byrne

My general view at this early stage of my tenure is that the RTB is adequately resourced for the functions it has at the moment. That said, we must look all the time at the many other areas we could, and perhaps should, get involved in, many of which have been mentioned in the course of this meeting, and the associated resource implications. If we have proposals to expand our functions in the public interest and we go to the Department with a clear case, I think the Department would give those proposals a fair hearing. I regard us as adequately resourced at the moment for the functions we have.

I will focus on the financial statements and I have a number of questions about them, the first of which relates to customer contacts. The RTB spent €2.3 million in 2019. That reduced slightly to €2.2 million in 2020. The documentation notes that customer contacts costs relate to a third-party service company which provides customer contact through telephone, web chat and email, and administrative services to the RTB's customers.

It seems a lot of money is being spent on outsourcing this service. I note Ms Gallagher's comments about the web chat, and I presume social media is included in this if it is not done in-house. Will Mr. Byrne outline what exactly this company is doing for that large sum of money?

Mr. Niall Byrne

It is a large contract, so it is a significant outsourcing item of expenditure for the RTB. To put it in context, there are approximately 40 people who work on that account in the outsourced service provider company. When the Deputy looks at it in that context, if we were to be doing that work internally, given the scope and scale of what it does, it actually does a lot as part of that contract. In addition, flexibility is part of the contract. That is part of what we buy. This means it can flex its resources upwards if there is a surge in contacts on a particular issue or something like that.

Is it an annual contract?

Mr. Niall Byrne

Yes, it is obviously accounted for on an annual basis. It is a multi-year contract, and we spoke about that earlier in relation to the tendering of it. It will go out for tender this year. The board had to make a decision on not going for tender last year for the reasons set out in the report.

Sorry, I am just conscious of time. If I can, then-----

Mr. Niall Byrne

We would say it is value for money, just in terms of an assurance on it, given the state of what it does.

The RTB spent €16,500 on subscriptions. I note it reduced during the pandemic. What are those subscriptions for?

Mr. Niall Byrne

I will have to see if my colleague, Mr. Kelly might have the detail on subscriptions. I do not have it myself.

Mr. Bryan Kelly

I do not have the detail that makes up the €16,500 in 2019. However, it would be things such as professional memberships for certain staff members, subscriptions to newsletters-----

Mr. Kelly might send a note, if he would not mind, please. I note the stenographer and translation headings. I can understand the reduction in costs of the stenographer, given the pandemic. In terms of translation, however, if the RTB's online services continued, why is there a reduction in translation services? Surely, I would have thought that would have roughly been the same, but it seems to be quite a reduction.

Mr. Bryan Kelly

It tracks stenographers. Most of the of the translation cost would be for non-English speakers in hearings and so forth. Hearing volumes were down significantly in 2020.

The RTB had 753 unresolved cases but it made no provision for them. I understand Mr. Kelly said the costs would vary greatly in those, but there is no provision made at all in the financial accounts in 2020. Is that wise given the discrepancy there could be for the RTB's accounts for next year? This is 5(b), section 14 on page 41 of the financial statements. It says the board had 753 dispute resolution cases awaiting hearing as of 31 December 2020. As the cost of the dispute resolution process varies greatly from case to case, no provision is being made for unresolved cases registered prior to the 31 December 2020.

Mr. Bryan Kelly

It is a fair point in the context of how there was obviously an inventory at the end of the previous year that was carried over. It is historical accounting practice within the RTB. It is something I would be more than happy to look into. Historically, the reason has been because the cases can be quite different.

Would they normally be of that magnitude?

Mr. Bryan Kelly

This is where I am saying it is a very fair point. On the cases in 2020, the inventory of unresolved cases popped up because of the pandemic and the sense of-----

I can just foresee as Mr. Kelly sitting here next year - I am sure he is looking forward to it already - accounting for the accounts and realising that perhaps the Comptroller and Auditor General or we might highlight it, given there was no provision at all made for it. I do not think that is right. There should be a given provision for it in light of the number of cases.

On the deposit issue, that was the largest area of issues raised and complaints to the RTB. On deposits at the moment, as I understand it, the deposit is paid and the landlord holds it. Is there any situation where the RTB holds it?

Mr. Niall Byrne

No, not at the moment.

Would the system we have be in line with best practices in northern European countries or is out of sync with them?

Mr. Niall Byrne

My understanding is there are a variety of practices on this. In some countries there are deposit holding arrangements in place, sometimes by statutory bodies or sometimes by some kind of insurance or bonding arrangement. There are different mechanisms in the UK on this. It varies and I do not think there is any one accepted best practice on it. In some places, it is not a feature of their scheme.

I note in the documents supplied that the RTB seems to favour a different system where it would be lodged independently.

Mr. Niall Byrne

We were saying that if there were a proposal to activate a deposit retention scheme here, we would need to look at it all afresh.

Who would hold it?

Mr. Niall Byrne

That is one of the questions. Different people could hold it within a scheme, depending on how the scheme was arranged.

The legislation is there but Government has not activated it yet.

Mr. Niall Byrne

It has not been commenced yet.

Again, I do not want to put words in Mr. Byrne's mouth, but from what he said in the documentation, he indicated strongly that he would strongly favour a deposit retention scheme.

Mr. Niall Byrne

Yes, in principle, but it would depend on how it was designed for the purpose. The whole area would need re-examination now given the passage of time and various changes that have happened in recent years.

Does Mr. Byrne agree that, considering the largest area of complaints to the RTB is disputes, it is an area that needs to be addressed by Government?

Mr. Niall Byrne

It is an important area from the point of view of tenant's rights and it gives rise to many disputes. The holding of it would not necessarily solve it all.

Mr. Tom Dunne

It is a far more complex area than most people think. Even if there was an independent authority holding disputes, that would not necessarily reduce the number of disputes. All that would happen as a result of that is the money at the end of the dispute would be paid from a fund. The proposition is that would be more secure than getting it back off a landlord and easier, in fact, because, ultimately, if a tenant has a determination order from the RTB saying he or she is owed his or her deposit, to effect that, the tenant may have to go to court, whereas, if you get a determination order from the RTB and there is a fund in place, you can go to the fund, present the determination order, and it will pay it out. It is a very complex area.

I understand there might be justifiable reasons and that can be complex. However, where tenants have deposits withheld even though they feel they have done everything correctly during the term of the tenancy, including, as I have seen with long-term tenants, where there were no breakages and only literally the normal wear and tear over a number of years, and they need the deposits to move on with other tenancies, they are dangling in the wind. They are in a very precarious situation.

Mr. Tom Dunne

That is one of the arguments in favour of having a deposit retention system because, logically, what would happen is the tenant would have a certificate from that system saying he or she had a deposit and he or she would not need to get the deposit back every time.

There is legislation in place but it has not been enacted. If it is to be enacted at this stage, we want to know the look of it because the circumstances under which that legislation was passed are no longer applicable. It may be that would need to be looked at more again.

The fee for an ordinary tenancy in €90. Was there a mention of that being reduced to €40? Why would we do that? At the moment, the RTB is not self-financing. Some 40% of its funding comes from the Exchequer. The RTB is bringing in roughly just over 60%. Why is the RTB looking for it to be reduced or is it looking for it to be reduced?

Mr. Bryan Kelly

With respect to annual registration, when we flipped to-----

Is the €90 an annual fee?

Mr. Bryan Kelly

No, €90 is a life-of-tenancy fee. It would be registered once and then it is done.

So the €40 will be annual?

Mr. Bryan Kelly

The €40 will be an annual rate when it comes in this year.

Okay. It is €40 for students for the life of the tenancy, which tends to be short term anyway. At the moment it is €40 for a tenant student accommodation unit.

Mr. Bryan Kelly

That is correct. The student registration de facto is annual registration currently. It is just not for the-----

With the inspection regime, the best people to do it are the local authorities. They need to be resourced. At the moment they receive some money from the Department I believe it is a contra item. I note that they get a payment from the Department for it. Virtual inspections are fantasy land. With a virtual inspection one can get answers over the phone, or a video or whatever. I am not too sure of the detail around how it is done. In fact, one needs to stand in the place - and I have stood in many of them - and have a look at it and speak with the tenant. By all means, speak also with landlord. The person or the people who are occupying a premises know best the faults in it. With a virtual inspection, things can always look better in photographs. In fact, we can all look better in photographs than we look in reality, whether we are on election posters or whatever, and until one is actually face-to-face it is the same with a premises and a residence. I contend that we should not be relying on virtual tenancy inspections, and particularly once we are without Covid. I just wanted to emphasise this strongly and to make that point.

We have covered a lot this morning. I thank the witnesses for joining us today and the staff at the Residential Tenancies Board for the work they have done in preparing for this meeting. In fairness, the board has supplied a lot of information to the committee. I also thank the Comptroller and Auditor General, Mr. Seamus McCarthy, and his staff for assisting the committee here today. Follow-up information has been requested. Is it agreed to request the clerk to seek this follow-up information and to carry out any agreed actions from the meeting? Agreed. Is it also agreed that we will note and publish the opening statements and briefings that were provided for today's meeting? Agreed.

The witnesses withdrew.
Sitting suspended at 12.33 p.m. and resumed at 1.30 p.m.
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