Deputy Keating in possession. The Deputy has 20 minutes available to him.
Private Members' Business. - Residental Ground Rents: Motion (Resumed).
I am not sure who is representing the Government on this debate.
The Minister will appear in a moment. The Deputy may proceed.
The essential point and purpose of this motion is to ensure that the wishes of the people, as expressed in the general election result on the basis of pledges made prior to that by the now Government, are implemented. The Minister's amendment asks us, rather than accepting the good faith of the Opposition, to instead express confidence in him in regard to his ability, intention and integrity to introduce the desired measure at an early stage. It is not our desire at this stage to call into question the Minister's handling of this. We would prefer not to be deflected into personality clashes. The Minister has a difficult job and we do not wish to make it more difficult. It is reasonable to say that the understanding of the electorate was that legislation would be introduced within a short time to eliminate the creation of new ground rents and to abolish existing ground rents.
Yesterday the Minister made great play of the alleged failures of the Coalition Government. The Coalition Government have more than paid for their omissions. The proposition that the Coalition erred and that Fianna Fáil will do what the Coalition failed to do is an unreal one. The truth is that Fianna Fáil were given a mandate to do the job because the people believed their promises. The residents' associations played their cards democratically in regard to this specific issue. The Coalition Government did not feel empowered to make the commitment entered into by Fianna Fáil.
The Government's pledge must be met soon without any effort to deflect attention from the issue. The issue is that there has been an increasing abhorrence by public representatives and the electorate of the concept of ground rents. The payment of ground rent does not mean a great deal to many people. Once you begin paying it you do not take much notice of it. However, there are more important principles, one of which is ownership. Many people are now worrying about ownership because of its implications in their lifetime and the lifetime of their children.
It is time that we threw off the yoke of ground rents. It is an antediluvian measure which was inspired by a desire to ensure a feudal-type grasp on homes and properties throughout the country. We are at one with the Government in our abhorrence of the system. That is not to say that the law can suddenly be set aside because of the undoubted opposition of all parties to ground rents. There are major difficulties in relation to the abolition of ground rent. One difficulty would appear to be the implications it has in regard to the Constitution. Another difficulty is the cost of abolishing ground rents. In both cases efforts have been made to get information from the Minister. We have not been given any helpful information or any information which would lead us to the conclusion that the Minister is seriously considering the abolition of ground rents.
I suspect that a Bill will soon be introduced to eliminate the creation of future ground rents. That Bill will be similar to the Coalition's Bill. The work and effort put into it will be that of the previous Government. The subsequent debate will give the impression that the Government have kept their promise. The issue is no longer the abolition of the creation of ground rents but the abolition of existing ground rents.
It is reasonable to say that this motion would not have been introduced if we had been given a hint of the Government's intention in regard to ground rents. The Minister has only been active in the Dáil for a few weeks but there was a substantial honeymoon period during which other Ministers aired their proposals through the media. The Minister for Justice has also been given an opportunity to air his views in public.
The Minister cannot leave the House this evening without saying whether his proposed legislation will need a constitutional amendment. He appears to be confident of his ability to introduce the necessary legislation within the time available to him. Therefore, I would assume that a constitutional amendment is not necessary. Another way for the Government to abolish all ground rents is to buy them out and I should not be surprised if the Government were thinking along those lines. If that is the case, we would be talking of a figure in excess of £100 million, which would be an enormous burden. If the pledge had not been made and if the Minister had said he would consider the question of ground rents after the election, we would not be as anxious as we are. But the pledge was made and common sense tells me that promises are not made lightly, particularly promises that involve enormous amounts of money and have major implications for the Constitution. I would assume that the Fianna Fáil manifesto was not merely a set of political tricks but was a carefully considered document. It is unfortunate that the Minister has changed the tone of this debate into a debate of confidence in him. We do not wish to undermine the confidence of the House in the Minister. He has a difficult job to do and we wish to support him.
ACRA have publicly questioned the wisdom of holding this debate. Any measures taken by public representatives at any level could jeopardise the introduction of legislation. We would like to assure them that we will be vigilant not just tonight but in the next four years to ensure that the many pledges—and specifically in the context of this debate the one on ground rents—will be implemented and honoured. I ask ACRA to accept that this pledge must be delivered and that it is the job of the Minister to do so within a short period.
I would like a public assurance from the Minister that what we are witnessing now is not a long debate on a Bill to prevent the creation of new ground rents, which will sap the will of the Government and waste the time of this House, to avoid, prevent and inhibit a further Bill being introduced to abolish all ground rents. It is the latter we are concerned about, because it is the policy of Fine Gael and was the policy of the National Coalition to eliminate all ground rents. That is the unanimous view of the House, but what about existing ground rents and the six months pledge? In fact, what about the many pledges on the record?
I should like to ask the Minister a number of questions. Firstly, will the legislation which the Minister is to introduce involve a change in the Constitution? Secondly, has the Minister any idea of the cost of the abolition of ground rents? Thirdly, when exactly will the Minister be in a position to bring legislation before the House abolishing existing ground rents, the primary political pledge of the Government in the context of ground rents? Fourthly, will the Minister give a public guarantee that the legislation dealing with the abolition of existing ground rents will be introduced within the time limit clearly implicit in the pledge in the manifesto and compounded by his letter to ACRA, that is, six months or thereabouts?
Assurances, direct and unequivocal answers to those points, would do much to allay the concern we have. In all other matters we wish the Minister every success. Many of us have admiration for the manner in which he is going about his difficult job— and we say that sincerely—but the matter before the House is one of extreme political and social concern. We would appreciate a straight response to the points I put.
I find a distinct difference between the tone of the debate tonight and that which existed last night. It is possibly because the Opposition have had their go at this issue, got their headlines and done their political thing or political trick, as Deputy Keating said. Tonight we are faced with a soft shoe approach, perhaps in an effort to overcome some of the irresponsible and rash statements that were made last night.
I was disappointed with the approach of the Opposition to this fundamental and important question. It was totally negative. No positive proposals or suggestions were put forward. All the difficulties involved in solving the ground rents problem were put, but no solutions were offered. The possible costs were thought out, imagined and emphasised. It is not surprising that this was the approach of the Coalition partners to this problem, because for four years they looked at the problem, perhaps thought about it, but certainly took no positive action. Why was this the case? Was it because they lacked the initiative to do anything about ground rents? Was it because they lacked the originality of thought, the formulation of new ideas or the breakthrough in new legislation? Was it their inability to overcome practical difficulties posed by legislation such as this, or was it simply their inability to conceive methods of abolishing ground rents?
Rather than all of those things, or indeed in addition to them, it may have been the lack of a political will to initiate difficult change and to abolish ground rents. I find it extraordinary that after such a short time the National Coalition, who were in power and had plenty of time at their disposal to take action, should attack so vehemently a Minister who is obviously making preparations to deal with this question. It was the view of Deputy Quinn that Fianna Fáil do not have the guts for structural change. At the same time he described our manifesto as an action programme. That is a compliment in itself, but then he asked where the action was. A lot of action has taken place in this House. As a new Member I find the operation of the House quite efficient, something that will surprise many of those who look at it from the outside. One thing that I enjoy— and I realise that the more experienced Deputies have found this out over the years—is that if one does not wish to listen to a Member speaking one does not have to, although all Members have the right, democratically, to make their point. After only one month the Government have put through two Bills dealing with Ministers and Secretaries and setting up a new Department of Economic Planning and Development.
The Deputy must appreciate that we have to keep to the motion before us. We cannot go back over other business.
We have also dealt with the Bill proposing to spend £350 million on telephones, a Bill concerning the IDA and some other Bills. Deputy Keating told us that ACRA sought pledges, and got them, from Fianna Fáil and that the National Coalition would not give a promise. He said they only promised to review the situation and keep it under review. After four years of thought and consideration why was that still the situation? I believe it was because of the lack of political will to bring about the necessary changes.
In my experience ACRA never asked the Minister to provide the money. They only asked the Minister to provide a means for abolishing ground rents. Deputy Keating referred to this tonight. According to an evening newspaper a representative from ACRA made it clear that:
It was never envisaged, nor have we ever suggested, that the State should bear the cost of this proposal. In fact, money was never mentioned.
One can buy out one's ground rent now if one wishes.
Deputy Keating's evaluations in my view are not helpful to the cause of ground rents abolition. In fact, I regard them as most unhelpful. He should tell the House the present market value of ground rents. I regard his estimates as grossly inflated. Who would buy ground rents at present if they were up for sale? What is the net value of ground rents, bearing in mind the tax which must be paid, the collection costs and the other difficulties associated with them? Let us be realistic about this. Why suggest grossly inflated values? This is unhelpful to the cause the Deputy says he supports. In my view the real value is somewhere between nought and three times the face value of the ground rent. The Minister is taking action and the Opposition know this. Perhaps this is why they staged this debate in an effort to regain something from their own disastrous policy of inaction.
The Opposition raised the point that ground rents were put up for auction as an election issue. I did a little research today and found that on 6th June, 1974, just before the local elections, the Coalition put ground rents up for auction. A statement issued by the Government Information Services on 6th June, 1974, on behalf of the Minister for Justice reads as follows:
At their meeting on 6 June, 1974, the Government decided that legislation should be prepared on the basis of proposals that had been submitted by the Minister for Justice, Mr. Patrick Cooney, T.D., on the subject of ground rents. Accordingly, the Minister intends to introduce legislation as soon as possible which will contain a provision to prohibit the creation of future ground rents.
The Government was also concerned with the difficulties regarding title and legal costs being experienced by persons wishing to buy out their ground rents under the 1967 Ground Rents Act and will seek to include proposals in the new legislation to ameliorate these problems.
In coming to their decision the Government took cognisance of the view expressed in the Ground Rents Commission Report of 1964 in favour of a prohibition on the creation of future ground rents. An extension of the right to purchase ground rents is also under consideration.
That was immediately prior to the elections of 1974. Since then the Coalition had four years in office and left office without any ground rents legislation on the Statute Book. They now want Fianna Fáil to accomplish all aspects of the abolition of ground rents within six months.
They promised it.
I will leave it to the Minister to fulfil the promises and I am confident that he will do so.
(Cavan-Monaghan): Over to the Minister.
The Landlord and Tenant Bill was introduced in February, 1977. The Second Stage was discussed but the Committee Stage was never tabled. Why was this the case? Is it because of lack of political will to put through this kind of legislation? This has been an election year and I should like to point out that despite all the arguments made by the Opposition the Fine Gael manifesto made no reference whatsoever to their policy in relation to ground rents. Presumably this is because ground rents had a very low political priority for the Fine Gael Party. Alternatively, perhaps this highlights what the Fine Gael Leader has been stating for some time, that the Fine Gael Party had lost touch with their grass roots.
Had the Coalition been prepared four years ago to prevent the creation of future ground rents, many people now appearing before the courts would not have to do so. Ground rents are a unique device. One must consider how much money has already been paid by many householders who have occupied their houses for quite a number of years. The solution to the ground rents problem lies in terms of practical settlement, not in terms of the kind of compensation which the Opposition were talking about. Practical settlement is a matter of agreeing figures on an individual basis and establishing a speedy method of legal process, perhaps even making provision for hardship cases because there are exceptions to every rule.
Deputy Keating has already spoken so the Deputy need not pay any attention to him.
I do not think the Deputy understands the nature of the ground rents problem or the nature of the problem facing people who are currently threatened in relation to ground rents or the real market value of these ground rents. The more he speaks the more I am concerned that he is putting forward arguments which are unhelpful to those who wish to see the abolition of ground rents with the most reasonable marketable settlements.
This vexed question is one which has given all Deputies a great deal of concern and worry over a number of years. It concerns the right of the householder to full ownership of the piece of land on which his or her house is built. Surely it is not a very extreme or radical aim in this enlightened year of 1977—I do not say that with any party political bias—that we should strive to help ordinary citizens to achieve this aim. Over 100 years ago Michael Davitt achieved this goal for the farmer tenants. In this regard we are fortunate to have a Minister for Justice who has committed himself to this issue. His post is extremely demanding in many respects and we can have only the highest admiration for him in that he has already given us an undertaking that he is proceeding rapidly with this legislation. I have every confidence that the Minister will do so and that he has the necessary plans and initiative. He has told us already he has plans immediately to introduce a Bill to abolish future ground rates. I am confident he will keep to his promise and follow up by meeting the promises of Fianna Fáil in the election as close as he possibly can to the time limit he has allocated to himself. I am so confident because he has approached all of his work with the same painstaking detail. Consequently, those people at present worried, concerned and under threat in relation to the whole vexed question of ground rents can look with confidence—as I and my party do—to our Minister for Justice in the action he is taking to correct this problem which has been left to fester over the last four years.
Since it is the first occasion I have spoken in a debate at which the Minister for Justice is present, I should like to welcome him and congratulate him on his appointment. I am sure he will not take it as a slur on his party or indeed on his Leader if I say that the events of June last, spectacular though they were, were nothing like as spectacular as some of the electoral triumphs enjoyed by the Minister when he was a student at University College, Dublin.
Nobody will be gladder than I if not only future ground rents are prohibited from being created but existing ones abolished. At the same time I have considerable difficulties about the amendment the Minister has put down. I propose to analyse this in such a way as to put a major question mark against it. I would also urge our friends in ACRA—and I believe I am right in saying that ACRA have friends in all parties in this House—not to count their chickens before they are hatched, not to pat too many people on the back before they see the Bill the Government will introduce.
I find the amendment in the name of the Minister to be deficient on at least two counts. It is semi-literate for one thing and devious for another. If it is not semi-literate it is at least not entirely literate. If time allowed us I should be very grateful if somebody like Deputy Power could apply his scholarly mind to the syntax of the words of the amendment. The motion, if it were amended, would read:
That Dáil Éireann expresses its confidence in the Minister for Justice to introduce at an early date a scheme leading to the abolition of existing residential ground rents.
That, to me, does not make sense. It is quite in order for the Dáil to express its confidence in the Minister for Justice and to welcome his decision to introduce at an early date such a scheme, or something like that. But the amendment, as it is phrased at present, has a large gap in the syntax in the middle of it, in fact such a large gap as to render it very nearly meaningless.
I also find the amendment at fault in its deviousness or at least in its lack of clarity. If the Government thought it necessary to put down an amendment to the Fine Gael motion it was obvious that they did so because they disliked the terms of the Fine Gael motion and because they wanted this House to pass a motion of a different kind. Therefore, we have to scrutinise the motion and the amendment to find out what are the differences between them. The chief difference is a very significant one. Whereas the original motion calls on the Government to abolish existing residential ground rents, the amendment falls considerably short of that and, instead, merely promises the introduction of a scheme leading to the abolition of existing residential ground rents. Between abolition and a scheme to abolish, I would suggest, there is a large gap.
It is precisely because there is a large gap that this amendment has been put down by the Government. Unfortunately the nature of this large gap has not yet been disclosed to us but will, I am confident, when the Bill is actually produced. Agreeing to produce a scheme leading to the abolition of existing residential ground rents is not by any means the same thing as saying that the Government will abolish existing residential ground rents. It is not the Government who will abolish ground rents under this amendment, it will be the scheme. We are entitled to ask: who, when, and how, under this scheme, will be paying for the abolition of the ground rents in question? When we do this we will be scrutinising the Bill, when it appears, with considerable attention. I would be very surprised if it goes as far as many people who voted for the Minister's Party expect it to go.
Certainly I will grant that I was one of those who was disappointed by the failure on our part to process the necessary legislation before we left office. We are still in one of the most anomalous situations of any country in the world in regard to the ground rents problem. Only in Britain, I believe, does it exist to anything like the same extent. In many other European countries this sort of anomaly has been completely dispensed with. Not only is it an anomaly in itself, it is one which has spawned and which continues to spawn even greater anomalies.
Sometime before the last election I was approached by a resident of this city—somebody who is now a constituent of Deputy Woods—whose ground lease involved her not only in the necessity to pay her own ground rent but to collect ground rent from a number of other tenants on the same estate and to pay the money over to the solicitors. She was not only being humiliated by having to pay ground rent on the house she thought she owned but she was further humiliated by being forced to act as an unpaid collection agent for the solicitor and, ultimately, for the absentee landlord involved.
It is probably also true to say that, when this country became effectively independent after 1922, there was a considerable expectation on the part of many of the ground landlords of that day that they would be speedily dispossessed. They must have been very relieved to find out that a native Irish Government was not proposing to do anything of the sort. I am sorry that the Fianna Fáil administration which came in in 1932 did not take advantage of the fact that they could have, at any time between 1932 and 1937—and I am sure the then Labour Party would have supported them if it had come to that—abolished existing ground rents without any of the complications created by the subsequent passage of the 1937 legislation and Constitution.
When we talk about ground rents we must never forget that we are talking about land. Land is still the major source of wealth in Ireland, whether rural or urban. I was very interested to hear Deputy Woods refer to Davitt because it is true that, for a century— and certainly also in our own time under successive native Governments —there has been a policy with regard to rural land which has been highly progressive. The activities of the Land Commission in acquiring and re-distributing holdings, while not perhaps managing to give everybody on the land at least a living, has tended very substantially in that direction. It is extraordinary that this land policy, which was such a feature of rural areas, in no way was carried over into urban areas. If it had been we would not have the ground rents problem we have today.
Of course the critical question, if existing ground rents are to be abolished, is a cash one. I say that despite what Deputy Woods said. He quoted a statement by ACRA to the effect that they did not expect the Government to buy out ground rents. That may or may not be true, but one thing I am fairly sure of is that they do not expect to have to buy them out themselves. If the Government are not going to buy them out and if they are not going to buy them themselves, we are left with very few options. There is the option of expropriation, which might create constitutional difficulties. But there is another option I would recommend to the Government, one that is being followed in rural areas. It is that if the Government are going to buy out ground rents they should do so on the basis of exchanging them for land bonds. This solution has been adopted for years in rural areas and I do not see why it should not be adopted with similar success in urban areas.
Under the previous administration some progress was made even though the Bill we are talking about was not passed. The actions of the then Minister for Local Government in requiring comparatively low, and sometimes nominal, ground rents as a prerequisite for the granting of certificates of reasonable valuation to new houses was a major step towards removing this anomaly. We now have to wait and see if the anomaly will be removed finally by the Government. As I suspect, and as people may be deeply disappointed to find out, all the Government will do is to streamline the machinery a little and expect people to abolish the anomaly themselves at their own expense.
(Cavan-Monaghan): I wish to support the motion standing in the names of Deputies O'Keeffe and Keating and myself calling on the Government to honour without delay their commitment to abolish existing residential ground rents. Before doing so I should like to join in the words of welcome to the new Minister for Justice and to wish him a happy and successful term of office. So far he is behaving as the pleasant man he is.
Ground rents have been blistering householders for many years. It is generally accepted that they are an undesirable burden on owners of houses and that they should be abolished. It is unnecessary for me to go into the long history of ground rents because that would necessitate a longer speech than I have time for this evening.
Fianna Fáil set up a Ground Rents Commission on 2nd December, 1961, under the chairmanship of Mr. Justice Conroy to inquire into and report on the whole question of ground rents. That commission reported to the then Minister for Justice, a member of the Minister's party, on 26th June, 1964. They recommended that tenants should be given the right to buy out their ground rents and recommended a method for so doing. They also reported that it was undesirable that future ground rents be created. While the commission did not give any specific recommendation in regard to the manner in which the creation of future ground rents should be prohibited, they said they should be prohibited and advised accordingly.
No steps were taken by the Fianna Fáil Government from 1964 until they introduced the Ground Rents Bill in 1967. That measure provided machinery for the purchasing of certain categories of ground rents but it did nothing whatever about the prohibition of further ground rents.
The Bill was a good measure as far as it went. However, I wish to emphasise that it ignored completely the creation of future ground rents although the Minister is on record here on several occasions as saying that the creation of future ground rents could be prohibited by a two-section Bill. The legislation in 1967 that was put on the Statute Book by Fianna Fáil ignored the question of the prohibition of future ground rents. However, it provided machinery for a limited category of lessees to purchase their ground rents.
Although it was a move in the right direction that Bill proved to be unsatisfactory even in respect of the purchase of existing ground rents because it transpired that the category of tenants that could purchase was limited. The people concerned were involved in very heavy legal costs in the purchase of their rents. For those reasons it was held that the Act needed amendment but that was not done between 1967 and 1973 while Fianna Fáil were in office.
On the change of Government, Fianna Fáil got busy about the matter. They urged the new Government to do the job they had not done between 1964, when the Conroy Commission reported, and 1973, when they went out of office. They were very energetic in urging the National Coalition to do the work they had not done. They put down a motion deploring the lack of action by the National Coalition in regard to ground rents and it was debated here on 9th December, 1975.
The present Minister contributed to that debate. I think I can summarise his contribution to the debate by saying that the 1967 Act needed tidying. that future ground rents should not be created and that so far as existing ground rents were concerned something would have to be done about them. In the Minister's view that was a long-term policy that would involve constitutional amendments and it was something that would take a long time to remedy. In case I am not correct in my summary I propose to put two short extracts from the Minister's speech on the record. At column 1123 of the Official Report of 9th December, 1975, he said:
It is part of the Fianna Fáil package in relation to the ordinary householder that not only should he be relieved of the burden of rates but also of ground rents. Fianna Fáil now urge that legislation be introduced immediately to stop the creation of further ground rents. We also urge that the Landlord and Tenant (Ground Rents) Act, 1967, be extended to remove the restrictions on tenants who are precluded by that Act from purchasing their ground rents. This enactment should abolish the 25-year period below which a tenant cannot purchase his ground rent. It should further abolish the restriction on buying out ground rents where the lease is not a building lease.
The Minister continued:
There is another aspect of ground rents which is more difficult and that is the abolition of ground rents altogether. This aspect can be dealt with after the new legislation is enacted because it causes certain constitutional problems. We are absolutely in favour of the total abolition of ground rents but we are acutely aware that this could cause constitutional problems and that by doing away with one injustice we might be creating another. The Constitution, in Article 43, guarantees the individual the right to private property and any attempt to abolish ground rents without compensation is, to my mind, likely to be unconstitutional. It could be argued that it is not in accordance with the common good or the principles of social justice that ground rents should be imposed on tenants and the constitutional problems might be got over in that way. However,——
and this is very important,
——this is a matter for further argument and it will obviously take a long time before it is remedied.
That was the present Minister speaking on ground rents on 9th December, 1975. He regarded the abolition of existing ground rents as something for the future, far into the future, involving constitutional changes, new legislation and a lot of thinking.
The next step was the introduction of a comprehensive Bill entitled The Landlord and Tenant Bill, 1977, and was introduced by the Minister's predecessor, Senator Cooney. That Bill did exactly what the Minister wanted. Section 108 prohibited the creation of future ground rents. It extended very considerably, in section 66, the categories of people entitled to participate. I might summarise section 66 by saying that it covered every possible individual ground rent lessee who could reasonably expect to be covered. It provided a cheap method of buying out ground rents. It cured the defects in the Fianna Fáil Act which imposed a heavy legal burden on the tenants who had to buy out.
I want the Minister to contradict something he said last evening. When he was told by one of the speakers from this side of the House that this measure was introduced and died with the general election, he very unfairly said that Senator Cooney introduced this measure, put it into cold storage and did nothing about it. I want to put the facts before the House. I hope the Minister will then avail of an opportunity of withdrawing his allegations of delay in respect of that Bill.
It was initiated, in accordance with the procedure of this House on 19th January, 1977. The Second Stage was taken on 2nd, 3rd and 24th February, 1977. A very full debate was given and many points were raised. As the House knows, and the country should know, the Second Stage of any Bill is an opportunity for discussing the principles in the Bill and giving the Minister an opportunity to put down amendments to deal with points raised and also giving Deputies an opportunity to put down amendments.
Between the Second Reading Stage, which concluded on 24th February, 1977, and 20th May, no fewer than six lists of amendments, 113 amendments, were tabled to the Bill. Many of them were in the name of this Minister of Justice and his colleague, the Minister for Health and Social Welfare and other Deputies. Half of those amendments were in the name of the previous Minister, Senator Cooney. They had to be worked out by the Parliamentary Draftsman and the Department of Justice. Surely that was action between the Second Stage and 20th May when the Bill fell with the general election.
I want to be perfectly fair to the Minister. I understand—I cannot prove it in writing—the Bill was put back at the request of this Minister for Justice who was not ready to deal with it because it usually takes an Opposition time to prepare their amendments. As I said, I cannot produce that in writing, but I was told it on reliable authority. If I am wrong I am sure the Minister will avail of an opportunity to contradict me. If it is right—and the massive number of amendments put down would suggest that it is right—then the Minister should withdraw his attack of yesterday evening on his predecessor, Senator Cooney, for deliberately soft pedalling and putting the Bill into cold storage. In that Bill we have every blessed thing this Government were advocating in their motion which they put down in the name of the Fianna Fáil Party, in December, 1975, and to which I have just referred.
The Minister in his election manifesto undertook to introduce a scheme which would lead to the abolition of ground rents, not a scheme to facilitate the purchase of ground rents. It was not a scheme, as Deputy Woods would have us believe now, that would enable lessees to purchase their ground rents. That scheme was published in the now famous Fianna Fáil manifesto and was carried in many of the mini-manifestoes, issued in every constituency in more attractive language. The Fianna Fáil canvassers at the doors of tenants did not use hairsplitting language: they promised to abolish ground rents. By the abolition of ground rents we mean that they would be abolished without expenses to the lessees.
One thing is certain and that is that the Minister is not going to confiscate ground rents. If he were he would have to have a constitutional amendment. He is not going to have that because he told us last evening, and in reply to questions, that he is going to introduce this Bill which will lead to the abolition of ground rents within the time given in his undertaking to ACRA, namely six months. We know we are not going to have a referendum in a few days' time. Therefore, it is a matter of logic that he is not going to confiscate the ground rents, and I am glad of that.
As he said in a part of his speech which I did not quote, ground rents are the income of many widows. When ground rents were more desirable than they are now, men bought them and settled them on their wives in order to provide for them. Many charitable organisations, too, have ground rents as their main source of income. Indeed, some institutions that could be regarded as semi-State bodies—insurance companies guaranteed by the State—are some of the largest owners of ground rents. Therefore, I am glad that for the sake of the widows involved and for the sake of others who are dependent on ground rents for an income and also for the sake of policy holders in the insurance companies concerned, that it is not proposed to confiscate ground rents. However, this does not relieve the Minister of his obligation to deliver the goods to the electorate whom he wooed with his manifesto in June last. We are here this evening in an effort to have him honour that manifesto.
Since there is not to be confiscation of ground rents, they will have to be paid for but the question is who will pay for them? If we take Deputy Wood's contribution at face value we may assume that the tenants or the lessees will pay for them. If that is so they should say to the Minister, "thank you very much but most of us could have paid for them at any time between 1967 and today". Those who could not have paid for them during that time either because of the category being too limited or the legal costs being too high should say to the Minister, "you are not doing any more than your predecessor in office did in the Bill that he introduced on January 19th, 1977 and consequently, your manifesto was nothing but a load of waffle". If the Minister is to honour the solemn undertaking given in the manifesto, repeated in his letter to ACRA and by all of his party's candidates in the election, he should be the one, at Government expense, to pay for these ground rents.
I would disagree with Deputy Horgan in his reference to land bonds being used to pay for ground rents. I had the privilege of being Minister for Lands for a few years and I know that the history of land bonds is not good. I can assure the Minister that any attempt to introduce bonds as a means of purchasing ground rents will not be acceptable to the people concerned. Land bonds got a very bad name and rightly so because one only has to read the financial pages of any paper any day of the week to realise that the people who sold their land for four per cent land bonds would get less than £50 for every £100 worth of them on today's market. Those who were given 99 per cent land bonds would lose about £20. There were various rates of land bonds ranging from four per cent up to the ones I introduced at 16 per cent. These latter ones were of some good because they are still standing at a premium. They are good land bonds.
I am warning the Minister not to try to introduce a land-bond type of purchase scheme in respect of ground rents. He will have to pay for these in hard cash. The people concerned will not be satisfied with less.
We are accused of putting down this motion in bad faith. Is it any wonder that we tabled this motion? If it brought nothing more before the House than the contribution of Deputy Woods, it was worth while because we know now that in his opinion the people concerned will buy the ground rents out of their own money and that in the event of their being unable to do that, they will continue to pay for them indefinitely. The contribution of Deputy Woods alone might shame the Minister into having second thoughts about his proposal in this regard.
Undoubtedly, people are deceived by election manifestoes. Yesterday while travelling in my car I listened to that very good programme,The Gay Byrne Hour. Mr. Byrne had read all the national morning papers and also some of the English papers and he said that he was very honoured to read that an English paper had complimented this country in the most glowing terms on doing a good job of work in a certain respect and setting the lead for the country. They were complimenting Fianna Fáil on abolishing rates and showing how this could be done.
The motion has nothing to do with the question of rates.
(Cavan-Monaghan): It is not my intention to deal at length with this question. I merely wished to refer to an English newspaper complimenting the Government on the abolition of rates and showing the country how this could be done.
We are dealing with the question of ground rents.
(Cavan-Monaghan): We are dealing with the Fianna Fáil Manifesto.
That is not so. Every other speaker has kept to the motion which relates to ground rents.
(Cavan-Monaghan): I beg the indulgence of the Chair for a moment. The motion, by implication, relates to the Fianna Fáil Manifesto. There are only two more sentences I wish to put in that regard so let it be a painless operation. Everybody knows of the promise to abolish rates but they have not a clue as to how this is to be accomplished. There is chaos in the Custom House and in every local authority in this regard. The relation between the two is that here we have a promise to abolish ground rents before there is any idea of how the local authorities will be paid in respect of the rates that they are to abolish.
They knew how to abolish the Deputy.
(Cavan-Monaghan): The Minister for Economic Planning and Development seems to arrive always at the psychological moment. I fear that even the dear doctor has not a clue as to how these ground rents are to be paid for.
We have a very clear idea as to what we shall do about them.
(Cavan-Monaghan): In that case I wish you would let our county manager in on the secret.
Deputy Fitzpatrick has been here long enough to know that he must address the Chair.
(Cavan-Monaghan): The Minister, Deputy O'Donoghue, always fascinates me.
While speaking on the motion the Deputy should not allow the Minister or anybody else to fascinate him.
(Cavan-Monaghan): We have heard that the legislation will be introduced before Christmas. I want to hear from the Minister as to whether that is so and I want him to honour his promise, too, to deliver the goods. I want him to abolish ground rents in accordance with his manifesto and his undertaking to ACRA, at no cost to the ground rent lessees or tenants. That is what he promised and that he would do.
In the limited time at my disposal I would like to compliment the speakers. We have had Deputies O'Keeffe, Quinn, Keating and Horgan and at least they had the good luck that they were not tainted by being members of the previous Government. The only one to stand up for the Opposition who was tainted with being a member of the previous Government was the last speaker. He spoke about hard cash being needed. Indeed, it was hard neck that was needed in his case to stand up here tonight. Years ago I knew a priest who used always refer to the penny catechism when he would be giving his sermons. I find it very difficult to know what the Members over there would now refer to were it not for the Fianna Fáil manifesto.
Deputy Power has only two minutes.
There will be no ground rents in this country in the future. We are standing over that. That is what we were elected to do. We were elected to rule this country for the next five years. We are going to apply ourselves to that and the legislation we will introduce will deal with no future ground rents being created.
The Deputy was in a position to speak if he had wanted to. I am standing up for the three minutes at my disposal and I would like the courtesy of the Deputies' silence. We have had it up to now. It will be very hard for us to deal with the misrule of the last four years, but we will apply ourselves to that too. The abolition of ground rents is a continuation of Fianna Fáil policy. It can be said that our founder abolished land annuities despite opposition from other quarters. The Opposition had the chance in three Coalitions to abolish ground rents and they did not do so. Even in the last four years the previous Minister claimed that he was building 25,000 houses a year. If he was, that was 100,000 opportunities he had that he let slip by. Céad míle teach atá i gceist agamsa, 100,000 houses where there could have been ground rents that he did not apply himself to. Are the Opposition sorry now that we are in a position to do this?
They mentioned the Landlord and Tenant Bill. That Bill lay for four months. Someone has mentioned amendments.
Sorry, your time is up, Deputy.
It was a cheque that was written but never signed.
One matter that is not clear to me at all after listening to the Government speakers, is why they will not accept our motion. The motion simply calls upon the Government to honour without delay their commitment to abolish existing residential ground rents. We have speaker after speaker on the Government side telling us that they are going to abolish existing residential ground rents and furthermore they tell us they are going to do it very quickly, in fact without delay. At the same time, I presume in a quarter of an hour it is the intention of the Minister to muster his troops and put them through the lobby to defeat this motion. Why? An amendment was introduced which is rather nebulous. I tried to discuss the amendment in my opening speech last night and I have had no explanation as to why this amendment has been put down or what exactly is the meaning of it.
As far as my party are concerned I would not wish the Minister, the Government, the tenant organisations, the ground rent householders or the general public, to have any confusion as to where we stand on this motion. There could be a certain amount of confusion arising as a result of the many references to the Bill which is to be circulated, as was variously mentioned, next week, in a few days, and at one stage the Minister referred to "in a few hours", relating to the prohibition of the creation of future ground rents. The question of future ground rents is common case and does not arise at all. It has nothing to do with this motion. As the Minister, the House and the country well know, the question of future ground rents was dealt with in that it was included in section 108 of The Landlord and Tenant Bill, 1977, which was introduced by the last Government. Obviously the Minister must be very well aware that, subject to any discussion on the technicalities involved, any Bill of a similar nature is going to have the full support of this side of the House. He, the tenant organisations and the ground rent householders can take it that we will not delay the introduction of any such Bill.
However, that has nothing whatever to do with this motion. This motion relates to existing residential ground rents and a number of questions arose which are still on the table and remain unanswered. What were and are Fianna Fáil's intentions in relation to the abolition of existing ground rents? These are the questions which were never explained at the time the commitment was given or at the time that any letters were written about the matter, and they have never been explained since. The purpose of Fine Gael in putting down this motion was two-fold. Firstly, it was to ensure that Fianna Fáil honour their commitment, and in that regard I thought it fair to point out that that commitment was understood by the people to mean that ground rents would be abolished in the context of the fact that an individual could at the moment—in fact since 1967—purchase his own ground rent. That commitment was understood by the people—and that understanding was developed by the Fianna Fáil canvassers in the last election—as meaning that the tenant would not have to pay for the privilege of getting his freehold. Our concern is to ensure that that commitment given to the people will be carried into effect as quickly as possible.
We come back to the reference to confusion. If the Minister intends to abolish grounds rents without delay why not say so very quickly? Why not accept our motion and so finish the matter? Immediately afterwards he can introduce his two Bills, or if he is ready to abolish existing ground rents he has not explained why the two matters should not be included in the one Bill. I endeavoured to trace the history of the Landlord and Tenant legislation in an effort to find a true and proper interpretation of what is involved here. Since 1967 there has been a provision on the Statute Book giving ground rent lessees the right to purchase their ground rents and acquire their freehold title. Considerable difficulties arose for many tenants in that regard because of the title problems involved. Those difficulties were dealt with by the then Minister for Justice, Deputy Cooney, in his Bill because that Bill provided not alone for the prohibition of the creation of future ground rents but also for a very simple way for the tenant to buy out, avoiding the difficulty of tracing superior interests, and mortgages affecting those interests. The only thing the tenant had to do was to lodge his money with the county registrar and get statutory freehold title.
It was against this background that the commitment was made by Fianna Fáil and it is only in that context it can be considered. I tried to read the Minister's mind in the absence of any proposals from him. I thought that last night he would give us some clear idea of what is involved but he did not tell us anything. Questions which trouble my party and householders remain unanswered.
The Minister referred at some length to the question of future ground rents. I regard references to future ground rents as a red herring. Deputy Fitpatrick brought up a point I did not know of, and which the Minister will not like to be reminded of: the fact that this apparently was recommended prior to the 1967 Act and that recommendation was not adopted, by the Minister's party at the time. In that context the Minister's reference to the many, many houses built during the days of the National Coalition— 100,000 or more—seems rather odd.
He did not introduce this to give a pat on the back to the National Coalition which would be well deserved. This seems to be a sore point in the light of the interruption from the other side. He introduced it in the context that a number of additional ground rents were also created during the same period, conveniently forgetting the number that were created during the period 1967 to 1973. I accept that the rate of house building during that period was much less.
When the proposals are made details are normally given and any wrong interpretations are denied or corrected. The interpretation that was accepted by the people has never been denied or corrected by the Minister either before the election or since.
The contribution of Deputy Woods was interesting on a number of points. He suggested that positive proposals should come from this side of the House. It is no harm to remind the Deputy that it was not this side of the House gave this commitment. My party, hopefully for a short period, is in Opposition. It was very often mentioned by the Deputy's party during the last four years that it was the duty of the Government to produce proposals. This is much more the case now when the commitment was given by the party in Government.
The Deputy also said that the valuations given were not helpful. I was at pains to stress that I made many efforts to get accurate figures and included in them was a supplementary question I put to the Minister for Justice on the 27th October last asking him to give me certain figures which he did not have. I did the best I could. It was time somebody brought the problem before the House and looked at the basic question involved in the abolition of ground rents—the question of money. This basic question has been ignored by the Minister, other members of the Government and his party.
The background, which we went into in great detail, is quite clear. The right of the tenant to purchase is there since 1967. The 1977 Bill made it quite clear that this right was to be extended to a number of other people who did not qualify under the 1967 Act. A very easy scheme was proposed in that Bill to enable the tenant, if he wished to pay his money to get his freehold. It cannot be overstressed that it was in the context of that Bill in the background that this commitment was made by Fianna Fáil.
It is fair to mention that some criticism was levelled at Senator Cooney in relation to that Bill. It contains 122 sections and is a monument to Senator Cooney. It deals not alone with ground rents but with the whole question of landlord and tenant reform. I strongly recommend the Minister to re-introduce that Bill in its present form or to redraft it and bring it before the House as quickly as possible. There are thousands of tenants around ther country waiting to see many provisions in that Bill implemented.
The motion before the House merely asks the Government to do what they committed themselves to do prior to the election in their manifesto. The Minister said he has every intention of doing this. I suggest there is no reason why this motion should not have the unanimous approval of the House.
- Ahern, Bertie.
- Ahern, Kit.
- Allen, Lorcan.
- Andrews, Niall.
- Aylward, Liam.
- Barrett, Sylvester.
- Brady, Gerard.
- Brady, Vincent.
- Briscoe, Ben.
- Brosnan, Seán.
- Browne, Seán.
- Burke, Raphael P.
- Callanan, John.
- Calleary, Seán.
- Cogan, Barry.
- Colley, George.
- Collins, Gerard.
- Connolly, Gerard.
- Cowen, Bernard.
- Crinion, Brendan.
- Cronin, Jerry.
- Daly, Brendan.
- Davern, Noel.
- de Valera, Síle.
- de Valera, Vivion.
- Doherty, Seán.
- Fahey, Jackie.
- Farrell, Joe.
- Faulkner, Pádraig.
- Fitzpatrick, Tom (Dublin South-Central).
- Fitzsimons, James N.
- Flynn, Pádraig.
- Fox, Christopher J.
- French, Seán.
- Gallagher, Dennis.
- Geoghegan-Quinn, Máire.
- Haughey, Charles J.
- Hussey, Thomas.
- Keegan, Seán.
- Kenneally, William.
- Killeen, Tim.
- Killilea, Mark.
- Lalor, Patrick J.
- Lawlor, Liam.
- Lemass, Eileen.
- Lenihan, Brian.
- Leonard, Jimmy.
- Leonard, Tom.
- Leyden, Terry.
- Loughnane, William.
- McCreevy, Charlie.
- McEllistrim, Thomas.
- MacSharry, Ray.
- Molloy, Robert.
- Moore, Seán.
- Morley, P. J.
- Murphy, Ciarán P.
- Noonan, Michael.
- O'Connor, Timothy C.
- O'Donoghue, Martin.
- O'Hanlon, Rory.
- O'Leary, John.
- Power, Paddy.
- Reynolds, Albert.
- Smith, Michael.
- Tunney, Jim.
- Walsh, Joe.
- Walsh, Seán.
- Wilson, John P.
- Woods, Michael J.
- Wyse, Pearse.
- Barry, Peter.
- Barry, Richard.
- Begley, Michael.
- Belton, Luke.
- Boland, John.
- Bruton, John.
- Burke, Joan.
- Clinton, Mark.
- Desmond, Barry.
- Donnellan, John F.
- Enright, Thomas W.
- FitzGerald, Garret.
- Fitzpatrick, Tom (Cavan-Monaghan).
- Griffin, Brendan.
- Harte, Patrick D.
- Hegarty, Paddy.
- Horgan, John.
- Keating, Michael.
- Kelly, John.
- Kenny, Enda.
- Kerrigan, Pat.
- Lipper, Mick.
- McMahon, Larry.
- Mannion, John M.
- Collins, Edward.
- Conlan, John F.
- Corish, Brendan.
- Cosgrave, Liam.
- Cosgrave, Michael J.
- Creed, Donal.
- D'Arcy, Michael J.
- Deasy, Martin A.
- Murphy, Michael P.
- O'Brien, Fergus.
- O'Brien, William.
- O'Keeffe, Jim.
- O'Toole, Paddy.
- Pattison, Séamus.
- Quinn, Ruairí.
- Ryan, John J.
- Ryan, Richie.
- Spring, Dan.
- Taylor, Frank.
- Timmins, Godfrey.
- Treacy, Seán.
- Tully, James.
- White, James.