No motion has been nominated, I understand, for Private Members' Business and so we shall take them as they are on the Order Paper. The first is Motion No. 14.
Private Members' Business: Fair Rents Tribunal: Motion.
That Dáil Éireann calls on the Minister for the Environment to set up a Fair Rents Tribunal to ensure that tenants of private houses and flats benefit from the abolition of rates on domestic dwellings.
I am moving this motion in my own name and in the names of the other members of the Parliamentary Labour Party affixed to it. It is noted that the circumstances which bring me in here at comparatively short notice are ones over which people on this side of the House effectively have very little control. We are grateful to the Minister for being ready also at such short notice to attend and no doubt to contribute to a debate on this very important topic.
Several things may be noticed about this motion. The most obvious is that we are here dealing with a comparatively small proportion of the total number of households in the State, and yet the fact that they are a relatively small proportion of the total number of households in the State should not make us any less concerned about them. If anything, it should make us more concerned about them. Because they are a minority their rights are in a sense almost more important than those of the majority; because they are a minority they do not have as powerful a voice as have the owner-occupiers. It is because they are a minority that the failure of the Government up to now to make any public move towards extending the benefit of rates relief to them is all the more lamentable.
The House will realise from the names of the sponsors that with one exception we represent areas which have a very high proportion of rented private flats. Deputy Quinn's constituency has the highest proportion of such accommodation of any constituency in Ireland. I suspect that Deputy O'Leary's, Deputy Barry Desmond's and my own are not far behind. Certainly in my constituency, which borders University College, Dublin, there are substantial numbers of students living in accommodation of this kind who are most unlikely to be tenants of controlled dwellings and who are much more vulnerable to landlords who may be unscrupulous and who know that students have to live reasonably near to the college if they are not to spend a large portion of their grants or their parents' money on expensive transport facilities in the city. Deputy Eileen Desmond, who has also signed this motion, is our spokesman on Justice and it is important that she should also have signed it because when there was confusion about which Minister was responsible for precisely which part of this overall operation the rent control area was authoritatively stated to be an area of responsibility of the Minister for Justice.
I will refer very briefly to the rates relief policies adopted by both the outgoing Government and the new Government, then the Opposition, in the general election campaign of last year. There were two main differences between these two policies as I see them. The first was an actual difference and we can hardly quarrel about that because it is a matter of fact about pounds and pence. The outgoing Government promised that the remaining rates burden would be removed in two equal moieties. The then Opposition promised to remove the rates burden more speedily. But there is also a potential difference which did not form part of the election campaign as such and which I like to think is important. Part of the rates burden, it is true, had already been removed, but it is inconceivable that any further removal of rates could have been instituted by a Government of which the Labour Party formed a part without a prior assurance that the tenants of private rented accommodation would benefit. We certainly would have been looking for and would have demanded such an assurance from the Government. It would not have been enough for us to come in and to take another cut off the rates bill and then to go fiddling around with ways and means of trying to ensure that flat-dwellers and occupiers of private rented accommodation would somehow benefit from it afterwards. That would have been too late, and indeed we are still waiting for Government action on this issue.
The occupiers of private rented accommodation might have been forgiven for thinking that rates relief would instantaneously be passed on to them. On page 26 of the Fianna Fáil manifesto in the section dealing with local government it is stated, and I quote:
1.3. there will be no rates content in the rent paid by tenants of privately rented accommodation,
As far as I know the manifesto is not dated, although we all know when it was issued, but it is now some nine or ten months since it was issued and for every single one of that 40 weeks there has continued to be for very many tenants of private rented accommodation a rates proportion payable. We do not even know precisely how high that proportion is. We do not know how many landlords removed the rates portion of the money that they charged to tenants on the Monday of one week and increased the rent payable by the same amount on the following Monday, as indeed in many cases it was their legitimate right to do under our system. I have heard of only one landlord—maybe because such people hide their light under a bushel—who has reduced his net rent by the amount of the rates formerly payable on that part of the premises he owns. I am sure the Minister would like to know that that landlord is a Protestant.
There is considerable confusion and concern among the occupiers of private rented accommodation. They want to know, and they have not been so far told, if and when they will be given secure and adequate mechanisms to ensure that this rates relief will not simply be transformed—as the famous £1,000 grant was transformed—into a virtually free gift into the pockets of the builders and of people who already own property. Shortly after the manifesto was issued the outgoing Government issued a statement of their own on the problems being experienced by the capital, and they outlined the series of measures which in their opinion were necessary and would be taken if that Government were returned to office. It should be no surprise that the problems of people in private rented accommodation formed a considerably large part of that "manifesto for Dublin" as it might be called. I am very glad to inform the House that Deputy Quinn— Senator Quinn as he then was and he is now on official business connected with the EEC in Brussels—was one of the mainsprings of that document and, I suspect very much, of the section of the document which deals with the problems of flat-dwellers. The Irish Independent of 10 July 1977 reported the then Minister for Finance, Deputy R. Ryan, and Deputy Quinn as undertaking specifically to publish a flat-dwellers' charter:
Rachmanism in Dublin's flatland may be on the way out because of the new "flat dweller's charter" announced yesterday by the Government ....
Under legislation planned by the Government, all landlords would be registered with the special authority which would be set up to promote the orderly development and improvement of rented dwellings.
Landlords not registering would then automatically find that their tenants had their own statutory rights to permanent tenure at a fixed rent. A condition of registration would be the provision of a rent book to each tenant, rent receipts, and the maintenance of flats in good order. Where a flat did not meet registration standards the landlord would either have to renovate it or take it off the rent market.
The size of this problem varies from area to area. It has been estimated, for example, that up to 5,000 people, many of them young people and people leaving the land, come to Dublin every year and are forced into the market for an ever-dwindling supply of private rented accommodation. Because the supply is inexorably or gradually dwindling, the amount of rent they have to pay is higher and higher. It is virtually still a seller's market. I need hardly underline for the benefit of the Minister or the House the particular problems which are experienced by young married couples with children who want to rent for any period of time private accommodation.
The total number of people who are affected by the failure of the Government to implement this promise on rates relief is, though a minority, still fairly substantial. On 13 December 1977, in answer to a question from me, the Minister noted at column 1231, Volume 302, No. 8, of the Official Report as follows:
The latest available figure for the number of households occupying rented accommodation, other than local authority dwellings, is 96,884, as set out in Volume VI of the Census of Population of Ireland, 1971.
I am prepared to accept that this figure has probably dwindled slightly in the intervening seven years, but if you assume an average occupancy of 2 or 2.5, we are still talking about a couple of hundred thousand people, some of them very young and some very old, both groups intensely at risk in the fierce competition for available housing resources.
These private rented accommodation units are distributed differently in different areas. The census report from which the Minister's parliamentary reply quoted also notes on page 13 that there were a fairly substantial number of private rented furnished and unfurnished households in, for example, Dublin County Borough and Dún Laoghaire Borough. In these two areas in the period in question there were some 17,806 housing units rented unfurnished other than from the local authority and they had a grand total of 21,629 private households in them. When we look at the furnished and part-furnished tenancies you see an interesting variation in the pattern because, while there were 7,359 housing units, there were 17,805 private households in those units. In other words, the trend is fairly clear: where furnished or part furnished accommodation is concerned, the housing units are much more likely to be occupied. In the other county boroughs the pattern is more or less the same. While it is true that this is to a large extent an urban problem, it does not follow necessarily that it is a problem which does not exist to any significant degree outside the urban areas.
Page 14 of the same volume of the census points out that in 1971 some 16 per cent of private dwellings in the aggregate town area were rented from people other than from the local authority. In the aggregate rural area the percentage of rented accommodation was much lower—5.8 per cent— and the overall average for the country as a whole was 10.9 per cent. Even when you fine it down to its absolute bare minimum, we are still talking about 10 per cent of the private households in this country. As I said before, this 10 per cent, because they are small, vulnerable and voiceless, need our support much more than the very vocal, and deservedly so, and well organised owner-occupier group in the population.
It was some time before the question of what precisely the Government planned to do about this 10 per cent of households surfaced in the Dáil. When we finally got our teeth into it, on Tuesday, 21 February 1978, Volume 303, No. 10, of the Official Reports, when the Minister was subjected to some fairly intense questioning about what he proposed to do and when he proposed to do it, he said, after first noting that local authorities had ceased to levy contributions in lieu of rates at column 1605:
As regards private rented dwellings controlled under the Rent Restrictions Acts, rates, following the abolition of domestic rates, will cease to be a lawful addition to the basic rent. Where such additions have not already been removed, it will be open to tenants of controlled dwellings to consider availing of the procedure of serving a notice on their landlords under section 13 of the Rent Restrictions Act, 1960, reducing their rent.
The position of other private tenancies in regard to payment of rates varies a good deal. Some tenants have been paying rates directly and in such cases the benefit of domestic derating will pass to them directly without the need for special administrative or legal action. Other tenants have been contributing less directly to payment of rates. Generally the matter will be dealt with by appropriate provisions in the Local Government (Financial Provisions) Bill, 1978.
There are approximately three columns of toing and froing following this reply in which the Minister on various occasions pointed out that the legislation had already been introduced, that it was almost ready and that it would be circulated—I quote from column 1608—"very soon". It is six weeks since those questions were answered and we must now ask the Minister how soon is "very soon"? If it was already introduced, it is about time we saw it, and it is about time occupiers of private rented accommodation had some sort of answer to the questions they and we have been asking.
There is one major problem in relation to this legislation and that is that I find it almost impossible to believe that the Minister can make it retrospective. I would be delighted to see him try but I would be astonished if he succeeded in this. The longer we are waiting for this legislation the more rates will be paid by the occupiers of private rented accommodation and the less chance they will have of getting anything back in lieu of them.
I should like to deal now with the category mentioned by the Minister because, as he pointed out rightly, there are several categories involved. The first is the tenant of the controlled dwellings category. As the Minister announced this it seemed that here at least was something that could be done. Tenants of controlled dwellings have the legal right of access to the courts for the purpose of having rents reduced by the amount of rates payable formerly but if we look more closely at the situation we will see that the actuality is a little more complex than the Minister, perhaps, would have us believe. For example, it is pointed out very carefully in section 19 of the Rent Restrictions Act, 1960 that the special provision for the relief of tenants of small controlled dwellings refers only to tenants living in such dwellings in appointed areas and these areas are as follows: (i) the county borough of Dublin, (ii) the borough of Dún Laoghaire, and (iii) the parts of the Dublin Metropolitan District outside the area consisting of the county borough of Dublin and the borough of Dún Laoghaire.
It includes also: (b) the county borough of Cork, (c) the county borough of Limerick, (d) the county borough of Waterford, or (e) any area prescribed by regulations for the time being in force as an appointed area for the purposes of this Part. We would like to know whether in pursuance of his desire to relieve people of the burden of rates the Minister has made any order extending the areas, for example, to include the whole country whereby the tenants of small controlled dwellings might apply for relief from rates. If the Minister has not done this it means that there is discrimination, that a legal remedy is available only to people living in the areas listed in the 1960 Act. In other words, there is discrimination between people living in the urban areas and those living in the aggregate rural areas.
Although, as I pointed out, the discrepancy is fairly large between those living in urban areas and those living in the rural areas there remains about 5 per cent of households in rural areas that are occupied by tenants of private rented accommodation. It is one matter for the Minister to say that these people have a relief open to them but it is another matter to see whether this relief can in effect be availed of. As legislators we have a reasonable familiarity with the Acts of the Oireachtas. We spend much of our time in advising our constituents of their rights under the various Acts. Frankly, it is comparatively unlikely that many applications have been made under sections 19 and 20 of the 1960 Act for removal of rates from private rented dwellings since this Government came to office. If the Minister has any such figures we would be interested in hearing them.
Section 20 of the Act reads:
(1) The tenant of a dwelling which he claims to be a small controlled dwelling may apply to the District Justice assigned to the district in which the dwelling is situate for a provisional order fixing the lawful rent of the dwelling.
(2) Every application under this section shall be made by the tenant attending, in person or by agent, the District Court Clerk of the court area in which the dwelling concerned is situate and furnishing particulars in support of his claim to the said District Court Clerk who shall record such particulars and refer the application as soon as may be to the appropriate District Justice.
There are several other sections and subsections dealing with this area which make it quite clear that anybody who is the tenant of a small controlled dwelling has this remedy but I am asking whether the people are aware of this right. I would like to see it go out from this House this evening that tenants of small controlled dwellings have this right. Also, I would like the Minister to commit himself to a greater publicity campaign than one involving two or three lines by way of answer to a parliamentary question to explain to these tenants, particularly in the urban areas, that they have these rights and that in order to claim them they must contact the registrar of the District Court.
Again, we must remember who these people are likely to be. They are likely to be elderly and living alone, people who hardly ever read newspapers, who fall into that category of people that we as public representatives know all too well are often the last to claim their legal rights. Therefore, the very least we expect from this motion is a firm commitment from the Minister to give the maximum publicity to the rights that are available to people under this legislation.
The motion suggests and, indeed, argues strongly that the only real way in which it can be assured that the abolition of rates on domestic dwellings will benefit the tenants of private houses is to set up a fair rent tribunal. The reason for this is that there is absolutely no control in respect of landlords of very many units of private rented accommodation. Nor is there any control preventing them from increasing rents when and as often as they wish subject only to the provisions of any tenancy agreement they may have with the tenant. I should be interested in hearing, too, whether the Minister has any information regarding the proportion of private rented accommodation that is under control and the proportion that is decontrolled. This is very germane to the problem before us.
The setting up of a fair rents tribunal does not appear in any part of Fianna Fáil's manifesto and so far at any rate has not been hinted at by any Government Minister. Yet, there are many precedents for such legislation. In Britain, for example, the Rents Acts of 1968 and a number of subsequent Acts set up and refined rent tribunals with very wide powers in relation to the fixing and the controlling of rents.
These tribunals have the power to determine rents and to reduce rents. They have the power to allow a tenant to reduce a rent by the amount he has spent on repairs that the landlord refused to carry out. These tribunals have the power also to give to tenants greater security of tenure than the landlord is prepared to give. On certain occasions they even have power to increase the rent if this is judged to be fair. The legislation is complex and I do not propose to go into it in any great detail. Neither would I go so far as to urge the Minister or the House to follow slavishly this kind of blueprint. I say this partly because there is no reason for us to follow something adopted in a neighbouring country simply for the sake of doing so but even more so because we should profit from the experience of that country in relation to the operation of fair rent tribunals and to see whether the legislation there achieves the very desirable effect that it has intended to achieve.
Already there is some evidence that the sheer complexity of that legislation has contributed in part to the fact that many tenants have not been getting what were in common sense their rights. In a situation in which the owners of private rented accommodation who are comparatively wealthy people with instant and permanent access to expertise in the legal area, in the accountancy area, in the building area and in all the areas relating to the cost of housing, the experience of many of these tribunals has been that on the one side there would be the unfortunate tenant whose rent is being increased and who goes to the tribunal asking that the rent be fixed more fairly while on the other hand there is the owner of the property concerned who is very rarely seen by the tenant but who is represented frequently by his solicitor with a battery of accounts, facts, statistics and perhaps even more expensive advice from a member of the Bar. No tribunal in the world can resist forever this kind of pressure. In the problem that has arisen because of the operation of the rent tribunals in Britain there seem to be two options which should be considered. One of them is to try to equalise the financial power of the owner of the property by allowing to the tenant pleading for a fair rent a reasonable amount of civil legal aid. This might prove rather expensive. It might be arguable that a preferable way would be to reduce the complexity of the mechanism so that any advantages that accrue to private landlords by virtue of their increased financial fire power would not act unfairly on their side in any argument with a tenant about the appropriate level of rent.
There is a wealth of experience here, a wealth of mistakes has been made and a wealth of options is open to us. We want to see from the Minister some indication of a serious approach to this. It is already very late in the day. I doubt that any legislation is likely to be passed until the summer, which would mean that the tenants of private rented accommodation would have to pay an extra year's rates, a year more than anybody else. They could hardly be blamed for feeling bitter, having voted for a programme which in unusually categorical terms stated that there would be no rates element in the rents charged to occupiers of rented accommodation.
The only thing we have seen in the past couple of months giving any sort of indication of the Government's intentions in this regard has been the White Paper on National Development, 1970-80. There are two sections of this White Paper which give scant comfort indeed to any tenant who may have looked to it for any sign that there would be an early and speedy and just approach by the Government to the problems of people who are still paying rates or who have to pay inflated rents on private rented accommodation. The first straw in the wind is on page 48 at paragraph 5.8 on local authority housing. It is no more than a straw in the wind, but it is enough to frighten one. The paragraph reads as follows:
The continuing and accruing subsidy of up to £1,500 per unit per annum for normal rented local authority dwellings now being provided is placing a very heavy burden on the Exchequer.
If this is the writing on the wall for public rented accommodation, what are the implications for private rented accommodation? These implications are quite obvious. If public rented accommodation by virtue of Government policy becomes more scarce and expensive, more and more people will be thrown into the arms of the private rented sector. It is not impossible to think that the private rented sector, which has been decreasing at a relatively slow rate, might begin to expand again. I believe that this is not a very desirable objective.
Paragraph 5.9 of the White Paper deals with housing stock and states as follows:
The abolition of rates on housing will help to achieve the same result by encouraging improvement in existing dwellings.
How many occupiers of private rented accommodation have seen a landlord rushing in with buckets of paint and whitewash, together with plumbers and electricians, celebrating the removal of rates from premises which they occupy? Very few: none at all in my own experience. They must read that section of the White Paper with an ironic sense of humour, if they read it with any sense of humour at all.
From the manifesto to the White Paper there has been a combination of, on the one hand, inaction and, on the other hand, increasingly depressing noises. This national 10 per cent of households must by now have given up hope. They have certainly given up a fair amount of hard cash which they will not get back. If it is any consolation to them—and they may have to wait some time until they get real justice—I would urge them to read that section on private rented accommodation in the position paper presented by the Administrative Council to the 1978 Annual Conference of the Labour Party. This does not represent party policy at this time but I sincerely hope that the major elements will form part of party policy when that policy is adopted at our conference next year. If it is, we can hope not just for cosmetic improvements in the area of private rented accommodation but genuine structural changes which will remove many of the unfair disadvantages under which such tenants labour at the moment.
The section on private rented accommodation states as follows:
5.3.1. The provision of private rented accommodation has not been properly managed in the past. Labour will undertake the following measures:
5.3.2. A full analysis and study of the needs of this sector of housing will be undertaken as a priority.
5.3.3. The present landlord and tenant legislation governing control of rents in privately owned houses will be replaced with new legislation which will:—
(i) Establish a rents tribunal.
(ii) Establish and protect the rights of tenants.
(iii) Provide a direct rent subsidy, where needed, to tenants in private rented accommodation.
One is not normally in favour of putting public money into private hands in circumstances of this sort but there may be emergency cases in which this may need to be done. The position paper continues as follows:
(iv) Encourage the creation of mid-term leases of up to 10 and 20 years for flats and so enable tenants to purchase leases, giving them security of tenure and a stake in their home.
(v) Provide for an income tax allowance for flat dwellers against the cost of their rent.
The Deputy has two minutes.
I need hardly underline the importance for those 10 per cent of our households living in private rented accommodation. At the moment owner occupiers of houses are allowed to set all the interest on their mortgages against income tax. No such provision exists for occupiers of private rented accommodation and this is a discrepancy which any socially just Government would have to tackle and the sooner the better.
There are two further provisions in this section of the position paper and they are as follows:
(vi) Revise the system of registration of all flats, bedsitters and dwellings available for rent.
(vii) Establish the rights of both tenant and the landlord.
The section finishes with the following:
5.3.4. Labour will ensure that an adequate supply of short term and mid term rentable accommodation is made available at an equitable cost to the tenant with proper conditions of tenure.
I ask the House to compare in all honesty the skimpy, long-delayed and inadequate implementation of a promise that has not been fully thought out with the depth of analysis of thinking contained not just in the Dublin manifesto that the outgoing Government issued in the course of the election campaign but in this draft policy document. I have no doubt that this 10 per cent of the tenants—the percentage is 17 in the urban areas— when they come to consider the implementation of Government policy and the options they were offered will make a certain choice in the years to come.
I welcome the opportunity to debate this very important question. Like the previous speaker and other Deputies, I represent a very dense flatland area with a very high proportion of rented accommodation, and I am quite familiar with tenants' day to day problems in Rathmines, Rathgar. Terenure and Harold's Cross, traditional flatland areas. I am aware there is a high degree of turnover and recycling of flats in these areas.
It has been a difficult problem to quantify flats or other rented accommodation in the city of Dublin. The previous Government did not make matters easier by their negative attitude in not even permitting a census to be taken, at least in the city of Dublin. I do not doubt the sincerity of the last speaker's intention, but I found it difficult to listen to the myriad inaccuracies meted out to us. As a Dublin Corporation member, I have been aware of the inequity of the rating system. Many people who live in rented or private dwellings were not able to discharge that penal debt. But, to put the record straight, the Minister must be congratulated on his speedy action in abolishing rates on private dwellings.
This year the Government are providing £80 million to abolish rates on private dwellings and certain other buildings. About 850,000 dwellings will be relieved of rates as a direct result. People all over the country know exactly what this means. They have realised they are being relieved of a burden which had been tearing into their economic budget year in, year out. They include owners of houses and people buying houses with the help of building society mortgages, many of them in hard pressed economic circumstances. I will refer to those who benefited by the rates waiver scheme operated by Dublin Corporation. That scheme affected 8,000 to 9,000 people out of a total of 120,000. They included local authority tenants as well as people in private rented accommodation.
The last speaker missed the point when he spoke about the establishment of a rents tribunal. That would come within the framework of the Department of Justice, not the Environment. As I have said, the majority of our people know what Fianna Fáil have done. They have implemented their promise outlined in the manifesto. The part read out from the manifesto this evening will be implemented in forthcoming legislation and therefore it is inaccurate to read from the manifesto and state that Fianna Fáil have not implemented their promise. They have abolished rates on private dwellings and they will provide legislation to ensure that tenants will get relief of the rates element in their tenancies. Local authority tenants are already feeling the benefit. People in rented dwellings who pay rates through increases in rents know full well what the effect will be: they know that when the rents would be due to go up later in the year under individual tenancy agreements, this will not happen. This is a fact, not a supposition or a hope that something will be changed.
Domestic rates have been abolished and trying to linger on with some false thinking that this has not happened is plain stupidity. People know that Fianna Fáil at one fell swoop cannot alter the law because legislation has to go through the necessary parliamentary stages. Laws cannot be enacted within 24 hours. Therefore there is no point in speaking about lingering on or about people being kept in animated suspension, not knowing where they stand. That only misleads people.
Tenants must be protected and Fianna Fáil will protect them by legislation about to be introduced. A small number of people whose position is not now clear, those who do not pay anything in respect of rates, know that when forthcoming legislation has been enacted they will get as fair and reasonable a deal as the Government can give to them.
In Dublin there are about 100,000 units which have benefited by the Government's action in abolishing rates. Though the financial split between business premises and private accommodation is approximately 50 per cent, the number benefiting from domestic rates abolition in Dublin is nearly 90 per cent of the total.
I referred to the rates waiver scheme. That was difficult to administer because of a sliding scale. There were borderline cases who should have benefited but did not for one reason or another come within the guidelines of the scheme. Fianna Fáil have abolished rates. In the new Bill there will be some fine tuning to be done, areas that will need clarification. One of these areas includes tenants who have a rate element in their rent structure and who will automatically benefit by a reduction in their total rent. Some clarification will be necessary in regard to the various types of rents people pay. First there are those who pay rents and rates as separate components of their tenancies. Obviously the relief will be immediate for these agreements; they will not have to pay the rates element at all. For those who pay rent and rates together, as a single payment, it is the Minister's intention that they will also benefit. That is not a political ploy but a straightforward intention.
I referred to a Bill which is at an advanced stage of preparation. This Bill will cover rented accommodation and will give adequate protection to tenants. It will embrace cover for the rates element in privately rented accommodation. This Bill will place a legal obligation on the landlord to pass on the relief to the tenant. What could be more protective than that? Surely a legal measure that is provided for the benefit of the tenant is the least expensive and least cumbersome system for the people concerned.
Perhaps a rents tribunal would be another way of doing it, but in my opinion there is a danger that it might work against the tenant, apart from the enormous expense and the cumbersome manner in which it would work, bogged down by civil service bureaucracy. After all, it is the tenant that must be protected. If the tenant is protected under the law of the land, I cannot see any sense in trying to set up a system that might work against him in certain circumstances. It could be self-defeating. I have an open mind about a rents tribunal, but as it is referred to in this motion, "That Dáil Éireann calls on the Minister for the Environment to set up a Fair Rents Tribunal to ensure that tenants of private houses and flats benefit from the abolition of rates on domestic dwellings" it is like setting up a rents tribunal for one aspect of rented accommodation in the city. It could be a futile exercise. If a rents tribunal is to be set up, surely it will need broader powers than the reference to a rating element of a rent agreement which would already be covered by legislation. A rents tribunal would need more embracing powers and would have to list the quality of the accommodation offered and take into account the actual rent itself and how it is costed. It cannot be set up for the purpose that is stated in the motion—that tenants would derive a relief in the rate element. They are entitled to that and they will be protected by law.
As I said earlier, this matter would come within the sphere of the Department of Justice and I cannot see how the Department of the Environment would be involved. Perhaps there is some oblique tie-up in that the Department of the Environment administers local authorities and local authorities enact bye-laws, and there are bye-laws which direct landlords to register accommodation. Otherwise, I cannot see how you could take a rents tribunal within the Department of the Environment.
The Bill will be more efficient in dealing with this problem and will protect the tenant directly under legistation. The tenant will not be required to submit his case to a tribunal and have to wait for a protracted length of time before he is given an answer. The tenant's right to seek a reduction in rent will be protected by law. This point must be stressed because it is of paramount importance. The Minister has referred to it before. If this point is not understood. I am certain that the Minister will amplify it in his reply. Unscrupulous landlords who do not comply with this legislation will be subjected to the full rigours of the law.
I should like to make a brief reference to a rents tribunal as it is mentioned in the motion. It is not for me to say whether or not I would favour a rents tribunal. If it worked for the benefit of tenants in getting a fair deal in the striking of rents and in regard to the quality of accommodation in Dublin, then by all means; but rents tribunals have been found wanting in other countries. We do not want a situation similar to the one in England at present where there is a consistent shrinkage of the flat market with consequent increases in the rents, leading to Rachmanism and exploitation of tenants. A rents tribunal has been in operation in England for eight or ten years. Has it worked for the benefit of the tenant? A memorandum is being prepared on the subject of privately rented accommodation and is under active consideration at present.
That the rights of individuals are protected is what matters most. There is no point in setting up bodies if they are going to be ineffective. Fianna Fáil have delivered the goods in this respect. Everybody knows that we have abolished rates and we are now introducing legislation to protect tenants, legislation which will cover more than the element that is referred to in the motion. Any tenant who is bullied or maltreated by landlords will be able to take action. I represent a large area of flatland in Dublin and any public representative who receives complaints of this nature from tenants will give categoric advice on it. If there is any question of a case being taken to court the judge will treat the tenant fairly and it is hypocrisy to think otherwise.
The tenant must be protected. This is the object of forthcoming legislation. It will protect the tenant much more than would the setting up of a body which might not work. There is a danger that what is proposed in this motion might not work. My objection to it is that it could be counter-productive. It is better to have all-embracing legislation which will empower the courts to take action as necessary against unscrupulous landlords who are not giving a fair deal to tenants.
I should like to refer to what the Minister said in this respect. Part of the Minister's reply to a question on 21 February was read out earlier this evening. On that day Deputy Quinn asked the Minister for the Environment:
the action that has been taken to ensure that flat dwellers in private rented accommodation obtain a proportionate reduction in their rent as a result of the abolition of rates on domestic dwellings.
Will Deputy Brady give the volume and the column?
Volume 303, No. 10, column 1605.
We must have it for the Official Report.
The Minister in reply said:
I am concerned to ensure that the benefit of domestic derating is passed on to tenants of rented accommodation. On my instructions, local authorities have ceased levying contributions in lieu of rates in the rents of their tenants as and from 1 January 1978.
As regards private rented dwellings controlled under the Rent Restrictions Acts, rates, following the abolition of domestic rates, will cease to be a lawful addition to the basic rent. Where such additions have not already been removed, it will be open to tenants of controlled dwellings to consider availing of the procedure of serving a notice on their landlords under section 13 of the Rent Restriction Act, 1960 reducing their rent.
The important part is in the end of what the Minister stated. It is as follows:
The position of other private tenancies in regard to payment of rates varies a good deal. Such tenants have been paying rates directly and in such cases the benefit of domestic derating will pass to them directly without the need for special administrative or legal action. Other tenants have been contributing less directly to payment of rates. Generally the matter will be dealt with by appropriate provisions in the Local Government (Financial Provisions) Bill, 1978.
I repeat the point that it will be covered by legislation. It will become the law of the land and the tenant will be protected automatically once this Bill has been passed. It will be up to every public representative and local authority to inform tenants of their rights in this regard. It will not be a matter of hoping that we can enact something which might work. It will work. This is why Fianna Fáil have now set the seal of implementing one of the finer parts of their manifesto.
I am glad to have an opportunity to speak on this important motion. This matter is causing people anxiety. When rates on private dwellings were abolished many people thought they would reap some benefit but it now transpires they do not. There is no benefit whatsoever for people in the vast areas of flatland. While I have not seen the legislation the Minister proposes to bring in, I do not believe it will be very meaningful. If he brings in a Bill demanding that the rates element be removed from the tenant, there is nothing to prevent landlords the following week putting up the tenants' rents. If he wants a precedent for it, the local authority tenants were very jubilant when the rates content was removed from their rents but they found a couple of weeks later that their rents went up. So much for that bonanza.
Not at all.
The Minister knows that the great majority, except those who are paying very high rents, who thought they would get some benefit from this great bonanza, found they were penalised. There is nothing to prevent the landlord from putting up the rent. I was rather surprised to hear Deputy Brady say that landlords who might use bullying tactics could be dealt with by the law. He knows very little about the matter if that is what he thinks.
Tenants in unprotected dwellings have very few rights. They can find themselves outside their doors either on a seven-day oral request to move or on a written notice to quit. While no violence may be used to put them out, their belongings can be placed outside their doors and, if they are not, their locks can be changed. When that happens we will see what rights they have. I believe it is necessary that a fair rents tribunal be set up to examine all aspects of private lettings. I do not say that all landlords sprout horns and persecute their tenants. There are some very good landlords but there is the other type of landlord. Unless we can set up a fair rents tribunal we cannot determine any question of reasonable rent control. It is important in this area, which has not, as Deputy Horgan said, a strong voice, that the laws are there to protect the rights of all people. Unfortunately as the law stands it tends to protect the landlord and not the tenant. During the week I heard of a person in receipt of £22 home assistance per week having to pay £10 per week rent and her landlord is demanding another £2. Where can she turn? She can go out on to the street and then she will be put on the local authority housing list. That is the anomaly that exists today. For too long this area of accommodation has been neglected.
Deputy Horgan advocated rent subsidies for the landlord and I agree with him. If we set up a fair rents tribunal people will receive a fair rent on their investments, but if the accommodation is priced too high for a tenant, there should be a subsidy. It should not be the business of a private landlord to subsidise a tenant. That is a matter for central government and it should be examined. Many houses are going into decay because there is no real return from them and it does not pay to maintain them in good condition. The whole aspect of private housing should be looked at with a view to preserving and improving it. This can only be done with aid from central government through the local authorities. It is very expensive to develop new units of accommodation. To let houses decay and then to build new units at a very high price seems useless and ludicrous. When we speak of a fair rents tribunal we must look at it in that context, otherwise it will not work.
An elderly lady or gentleman living on an old age pension in a local authority apartment is well subsidised. If they are living in their own dwelling they have no expenses except for repairs to be carried out, but if they are in a private dwelling they are subject to the whim of the landlord. Why should such people be at a disadvantage? Why are they not entitled to some form of rent subsidy? We should have an in-depth study to ensure that the legislation brought in is not piecemeal but comprehensive, even if it takes 12 months to bring it in. Such legislation is worth waiting for provided it takes into account the various aspects of private housing.
The introduction of a rent subsidy could contribute to the improvement of property which otherwise would go into decay. Another way to assist improvements would be to ensure that landlords who make improvements get a reasonably generous tax concession. On the Continent if one only paints the front of one's house one can claim tax concessions. Any improvements to this type of property are important and an incentive must be provided. The local authorities by way of bye-laws have certain constraints upon the type of bedsitters that can be developed and also the number of bedsitters in a house having regard to sanitary conditions and so on. These bye-laws should be more stringently enforced to improve private accommodation. People who wish to build one-bedroom apartments should be given some reasonable tax concession which could be built into a fair rents tribunal system. This concession could be taken into account in assessing rents in this type of dwelling, as bedsitters presently being used are not up to currently acceptable living standards. This whole area must be looked at comprehensively by the Minister.
The fact that a number of people were not getting the benefit of the rates remission was what prompted this motion. This has been a festering sore for a number of years. People have sought this type of legislation before and the motion is worthy of serious consideration by the Minister. If we look at controlled dwellings and uncontrolled dwellings it can be seen that they are poles apart so far as the profits made are concerned.
It is desirable that the Government subvent the whole of this type of housing to ensure it is maintained at a reasonable standard, that people can afford the rents sought, because the cost of buying and developing any type of property now is expensive and rents can run very high. But that should not debar young couples with children from having access to reasonable housing conditions at a fair rent. If a fair rent means that there must be subsidisation by the Government, then that is necessary. In the Government's White Paper they speak about cutting back on local authority dwellings. If they do that it will place even greater pressure on the private sector and that, in turn, will lead to hardship and exploitation. Unless money is made available with which to tackle this serious problem the Minister will find that it will remain on his hands. There are no short cuts on housing problems, no soft options, as was seen in the past few days when the Government examined the area of cheap housing. There is no such thing as cheap housing. If we want proper housing we have got to pay for it. If we want to provide our people with decent accommodation it must be paid for. If people invest money in property they must make a reasonable profit. Therefore it is important that a rent tribunal be set up to control rents, make the whole proposition viable, in turn, making housing available at a rate people can afford.
It was interesting to hear Deputy Brady speak about rates, that the far side of the House had made their abolition possible and that nobody else had done anything about them. It was difficult to hold one's tongue when it was contended that in December 1972 and succeeding months it was impossible because it would have cost a fortune to have anything done about rates. Anything that was done about them emanated from the National Coalition. It is hard to listen to this Government wanting to claim credit for something they said could not be initiated.
I was rather surprised listening to Deputy Brady who said that he represented an area with large numbers of flats. I was tempted to ask him to knock on door after door when he would find very few places where people could lawfully say they had received rates relief since the abolition of rates. I was even more surprised to hear him say that everything in the garden was rosy, that the imminent legislation the Minister will introduce will solve all of the problems and that a fair rents tribunal would be cumbersome and would not be necessary. If they removed the rates this week there is nothing to prevent a landlord imposing them again next week. The local authorities have already done it. That should be sewn into the record to ensure that note is taken that there is no protection for the tenant. I do not think the Minister's imminent financial provisions Bill will meet what this motion is seeking. I do not think it can; it will merely pay lip service to it but will not solve the problem. The only way in which this problem can be solved is by a thorough examination of the whole aspect of private dwellings and the provision, if necessary of a subsidy, because the cost of constructing new dwellings has become so high that we must now take a very hard look at developing our current housing stocks. In Dublin lots of houses are in a state of decay; why? —there is no real machinery, no grants system, no incentive for their repair or maintenance. The next step is demolition, with open spaces and no new development. We must tackle this problem. We must encourage housing trusts. We must examine also housing aid societies—such people may be capable of dealing with a particular grey area in house-letting that perhaps the Corporation or other local authorities may not be catering for. But they cannot do it alone; they must have funds and the Government must make those funds available to them.