Adjournment Debate. - Housing Regulations.

I welcome this opportunity to raise the concerns being voiced by some landlords at the Housing (Registration of Rented Houses) regulations, 1996, which come into force on 1 May 1996.

I know from various statements of the Minister of State that these regulations will be introduced following consultation with representatives of landlords. If that is the case, why are so many objections being raised? Was there broad general agreement on the concept of control, or was the £40 charge to be imposed per unit and other conditions specified in their drafting? While all landlords may not be members of their association, I emphasise the strong objections many of them have to the charge and the amount of detailed information sought.

There has been broad, general agreement in political circles for some years on the need for regulation of the housing private rented sector. However, have we moved from one extreme to the other? Landlords claim they will be badly hit by these regulations — first, by the passage of information from health boards to the Revenue Commissioners — approved in last year's Finance Bill — and by the provision under which tenants can claim tax relief on their rent.

While I accept that the mere existence of landlords remained unknown over many years, suddenly there is data emanating from three different sources, leading me to question whether we have moved from one extreme to the other.

I fully agree with the need for controls, proper standards, rent books and so on because we have all heard far too many stories of rogue landlords who cram tenants into little cubbyholes in substandard accommodation. Nonetheless, we must be careful not to tilt the balance too far in one direction as there are many responsible landlords providing good accommodation. Indeed this and previous Governments recognise that the private rented sector forms an integral part of Government housing policy. We need people to invest their resources in housing and the system must be seen to offer them an incentive to do so.

There is great concern being voiced at the proposed charge of £40 per unit. Can the Minister of State guarantee that this charge will remain unaltered because many landlords fear it will rise to £50 or £100 within a few years? Can the Minister guarantee that future increases will be linked to the prevailing rate of inflation or to the cost of supervision on the part of the relevant local authority?

I am disappointed the Minister of State did not avail of this opportunity to introduce regulations pertaining to the external appearance of rented houses. In many parts of flatland in my constituency and others in Dublin one hears constant complaints from residents' associations whose members are doing their best to compete in tidy towns competitions and the like. They know that the appalling external appearance of many rented houses drags down their areas — many are very shabby, curtains hang on windows that appear not to have been washed for five years, there is poor or non-existent paintwork and rubbish bags in gardens to be collected in four or five days time. I am sorry that issue has not been addressed.

Of course, there are also rogue tenants. Representations were made to me recently by a landlord in danger of losing all his other tenants because of the misbehaviour of one a couple of nights a week. That landlord is playing the game by the book, has issued his notice to quit — which has been totally ignored — and taken legal advice, although it may take him months to have his case heard in court. In the meantime his solicitor informed him he must put up with it and not take any rent from that troublesome tenant or he may jeopardise his legal case.

In recent years tenants have been given many new rights, which is their entitlement, but rights carry attendant responsibilities. Therefore, the right balance must be struck between the rights of the tenant and those of the landlord. I am nervous that these regulations, with which I fundamentally agree, will be perceived by some as tilting the balance too far in favour of the tenant.

I hope the Minister of State will consider the points I made, particularly the external appearance of rented houses. I had hoped that aspect would have been addressed in recent regulations. Perhaps the Minister will bear it in mind when they are next reviewed.

I am getting a very mixed signal from Deputy Noel Ahern: on the one hand being criticised for being too penal while, on the other, for not being sufficiently penal.

I thank the Deputy for having raised this matter which affords me an opportunity to clarify a number of issues in relation to these new regulations.

Successive Governments have signalled the desirability of the introduction of a system of registration for private rented dwellings — and it is fair to say that there is broad support for the principle of registration. The difficult issue is, of course, to devise a regulation system that is meaningful in helping housing authorities to discharge their range of regulatory functions in regard to standards, etc., but which is, at the same time, not excessively onerous on either tenants or landlords.

Therefore, it was essential to the preparation of the regulations that representatives of tenants, landlords and local authorities were consulted. During 1995 there were extensive consultations with the interests involved on specific draft proposals for inclusion in the regulations. However, there was a certain limitation because there is not any one organisation representing all landlords nationwide, which difficulty I expressed to those organisations I met. Following those consultations the original proposals were modified substantially in the 1996 regulations. In particular, in deference to the concerns of landlords regarding their personal security, and those of tenants who also expressed some difficulty with that aspect, the original proposal to include the name of the landlord and tenant in the public register was dropped.

The purpose of the registration regulations is to underpin standards of accommodation in the private rented sector by assisting local authorities to enforce, in a pro-active manner, compliance with the various statutory requirements relating to the sector, including rent books and minimum physical standards of accommodation.

The Housing (Registration of Rented Houses) Regulations, 1996, require the registration with the local housing authority of houses, including apartments and flats, which are let for rent or other valuable consideration. There are certain exemptions from this requirement, including houses let by local authorities, approved voluntary housing bodies, universities to students, and certain resident landlords. In addition, where a house is let to certain relatives of the landlord, registration does not apply.

The registration system which is to come into effect from 1 May entails three main elements: the supply of information to the local authority by the landlord; a register of rented accommodation which will be available for public inspection, and the payment of an annual fee in respect of each registered dwelling.

There have been some misleading statements in the media regarding the information which will be included in the public register. Therefore, I want to make it clear that the public register will contain the following items only: the address of the rented house, a brief description of the house type, and the date of receipt by the local authority of the application to register.

In so far as the level of the annual registration fee is concerned, Deputies will readily appreciate that it is desirable, when requiring local authorities to carry out additional functions, that they should be given resources to assist them in effectively discharging the new function. The annual fee is £40 — a modest sum — and, of course, is an allowable expense against the landlord's tax liability.

The fee structure was revised following the consultation process. The financial implications, and indeed, the administrative burden for landlords which arise from the regulations are, in fact, considerably less than originally proposed. The original proposal that the local authority be notified of each change of tenant and that the landlord pay a fee of £10 on each such change was dropped as being unduly onerous.

These regulations should not cause undue concern to landlords. Their views, with those of the other interests involved, have been taken into account in the preparation of the regulations. Overall, we can all be satisfied that the new registration system will be of considerable benefit to the private rented sector.