Deputy Kelleher was in possession and has 14 minutes remaining.
Residential Tenancies Bill 2003: Second Stage (Resumed).
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle
It is some time since I moved the adjournment of this debate so I might repeat some of what I said on the last occasion. This is a most important Bill and I welcome the opportunity to speak on it.
I compliment everybody involved in the initial debate and discussions which resulted in the introduction of this legislation. There was wide consultation and the Bill contains solid proposals to ensure that the rights of both the tenant and landlord are adequately addressed. As a result of the pressures in the housing market and the cost of housing, more people are entering the rental sector. That is something we must accept. This legislation acknowledges that and seeks to provide a legislative framework that accommodates the rights of both those who provide the rented accommodation and those who rent it.
In the 1970s and 1980s the standard of private rented accommodation was poor. It has improved in recent years not only because of modern building standards but also because people will not accept the poor standards. The policies that have been pursued in recent years to ensure an adequate supply of housing are also having an effect and there is top quality private rented accommodation available. However, the cost of private rented accommodation is exorbitant in some places and particularly in the centre of cities where there is huge demand from people with large disposable incomes who wish to live near their workplaces. The increase in the cost of rented accommodation, as well as the demand for housing and the pressures in the housing market caused by the population increase that resulted from immigration and the economic boom, have created much difficulty. However, ten years ago only 22,000 housing units were being built each year in this country whereas we are now at the record level of 57,000 completions and it is projected that we will reach 60,000 completions next year.
Supply is the key issue and we must ensure that any blockages in the system that hinder the supply of accommodation in the private rented or private ownership sectors are removed. It must be acknowledged that some developers in larger urban areas have been hoarding land. That must be addressed and the Government and all poli ticians are conscious of that. It is time to take action to force the people who are hoarding land to release it so we can increase the supply of housing. In some areas up to €50,000 per unit is incurred in costs on development land and that is being passed on directly to the mortgage holder or the person in the private rented sector. We must address the issue of land supply.
The issue of planning is not dealt with in the Bill but it is within the remit of the Department. Local authorities must accept responsibility for the lack of planning in the past. There was a major upsurge in economic activity and in the population. The demographic bulge demanded the provision of accommodation but the local authorities were slow if not inactive in addressing it. It was sometimes necessary to wait for up to seven years for some county development plans to come on stream until it was made mandatory to make such plans every five years. A system must be put in place whereby local authorities can become more proactive. They must have the means to address the trends that are developing in their cities and other areas and to ensure that there is an adequate supply of land.
Let us be under no illusions. The difficulty is that while county and city development plans contain areas that are zoned for residential development, it does not mean that the lands are available to the market. The person who owns the land might not be willing to sell it at a certain price or to sell it at that time. It is not fair or practical for planners or county and city managers to say that a number of hectares of land are zoned for housing to cope with projected housing demand when many of those landbanks might not be available for development. It could be due to developers hoarding the land and inflating the market or simply that people do not wish to sell a parcel of land for whatever reason. We have to address this issue in the short-term. Otherwise this difficulty will continue.
It is projected that we will need more than 60,000 housing units per year for the next ten years to address demographic trends, immigration and the changes in the population. These statistics are probably conservative given that the EU is expanding and there is a possibility of more people immigrating to this country because of the strong economic growth that still prevails as a result of the Government's policies. The economy is expected to pick up and to continue to grow.
The thrust of the Bill is to ensure security for tenants and to provide for a mechanism to deal with tenants who are not appreciative of the property they rent. There is an onus on tenants to look after the property in a proper manner. The most important aspect of the Bill is that it provides for a dispute resolution mechanism to address the grievances of tenants or landlords. In my experience, many tenants are vulnerable and find it difficult to make ends meet. It is traumatic for them to live without security of tenure. If they have a dispute with a landlord, the only way it can be addressed is by going to court and in many cases these people would not have the means to pursue their rights and entitlements as tenants in the courts.
This Bill gives me an opportunity to speak on a number of issues that must be addressed. One is the practice of stage payments. This will have to be seriously examined. The Irish Homebuilders Association, in conjunction with the Department, will have to bring forward guidelines or a voluntary code for the construction industry to ensure that stage payments are no longer an accepted practice.
It is unfair that people are funding the cost of the development of their homes, while waiting to take possession of them and at the same time having to rent private accommodation. I have major concerns about this practice, which happens in some parts of the country. First of all one has to pay a booking deposit, followed by further payments on signing the contract and when the ground works are completed. A further payment is due for the joist level, followed by a final payment on completion when the mortgage is drawn down. It is inherently unfair on young people who are trying to get on the property ladder and purchase a home. Another obstacle is being placed in their way because they must draw down a partial amount of the mortgage prior to taking possession of the house. They are funding the development instead of the builder or developer funding it themselves and then selling the house on completion. This practice, which is taking place in some areas but not in others, must be examined. The Irish Homebuilders Association has a voluntary code but we must examine this practice and perhaps legislate to address the difficult problems young people have in acquiring property.
Local authorities themselves have neglected the rights of tenants. Council estates can easily be identified by the dilapidated state of their grounds, including a lack of trees and poor grass cutting, as well as poor amenities. We will have to address this matter because a local authority tenant is entitled to the same treatment as anyone else. Even if they have to make a small contribution to this end, grounds, parkland, lights and footpaths should be maintained to an acceptable standard. Such standards are currently required from developers building estates through the bonding system.
Many local authority estates were built back in the 1960s and 1970s and may not have featured today's quality of building materials but there is no excuse for local authorities not to address the aesthetics of such housing. It is like the broken window syndrome: if these issues are not addressed it further exacerbates the problem and people begin to lose interest in the community association and in maintaining their housing estate, with repercussions of which we are all too well aware.
I am not sure how we can address the land banks issue but perhaps the expertise within the Department could come up with some imaginative solutions. Huge profits have been made in recent times due to the increased demand for housing. However, some mechanism is required to deal with the situation, perhaps through changes in the constitutional provisions on property ownership and through changes in the taxation code whereby people could be encouraged to release land immediately to increase the supply available for development. In the budget some years ago, changes were made to capital gains tax, which was used as a carrot and stick approach to encourage people to sell land in order to increase the supply. There was such a continual increase in the price of development land, however, that landowners who hoarded land were able to sit it out knowing full well that after a number of years the capital increases would far outweigh the problems associated with an increase in capital gains tax. We will have to re-examine those matters.
Changes to the law on property ownership would require a constitutional referendum and while property owners would be concerned about that, we must be concerned with the greater public good. A compromise will have to be reached just as this Bill reached a compromise between tenants and landlords. The Irish Property Owners Association has stated it would prefer if this Bill was not, as it considers it to be, biased towards tenants. However, tenants who are renting property are most entitled to security of tenure. Very often they are on the threshold, trying to get on the property ladder, and, as such, they are vulnerable. In that respect, I welcome the provisions of the legislation.
The best way we can address the cost of rental accommodation for ordinary people is to create a real supply of top quality accommodation. That would address the rental difficulties that are being experienced. Rents have decreased in some areas because of the increase in supply following the policies being pursued by the Government.
I welcome the Bill and congratulate everybody who was involved in the initial stages of its drafting, as well as those who have taken part in the debate. I commend it to the House and wish it a speedy passage through the Oireachtas.
Tá áthas orm deis a fháil labhairt ar an mBille um Thionóntachtaí Cónaithe 2003. The Residential Tenancies Bill 2003 provides us with an opportunity to examine a sector that is held in low esteem, even by landlords themselves, according to surveys. An attempt to focus on this issue is long overdue and, even if the legislation is imperfect, it will, I hope, be improved on Committee and Report Stages.
The history of the rented sector in Ireland evokes the worst memories of exploitation, including evictions. Most people who are not involved in the sector probably think of such exploitation in a 19th century context. However, those who are dependent upon rented accommodation all too often arrive at clinics – I am sure the Minister of State is aware of this, as much as any other Member of the House – with stories of absentee landlords and their agents that are not too far removed from the kind of tales one would associate with the 19th century. This is the case when notice to vacate a premises is served giving little time to find alternative accommodation or when rent is increased way above the rate of inflation. In those circumstances, people have little option but to take to the streets or pay up. That situation must be tackled and it would be remiss of any Government to allow it to continue.
The evidence in this regard is not just anecdotal. There is enough hard evidence to prove that many landlords renting accommodation are unwilling to house anyone in receipt of a social welfare cheque. That raises the issue of registration upon which the Bill focuses attention but whether it will be sufficient remains to be seen. At our clinics we hear much about rented accommodation that is in an awful condition, including dampness, rats and cramped conditions. Any day of the week at a constituency clinic, one will hear these conditions being described vividly. The health problems associated with such living conditions in the rented sector can often be a source of considerable distress.
The registration system for rented accommodation has involved enormous hypocrisy within the political system. It is obvious from surveys by Threshold and other voluntary organisations that there has been a flagrant disregard for the law when it comes to landlords registering. However, landlords are not sent to prison or severely reprimanded for not registering. It seems that the local authorities either do not have the resources or are not willing to use them accordingly.
Unfortunately, there is a parallel between that and what the State did in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, which we have heard about in recent years following many cases of child abuse in institutions. The State was in the position that if it took strong action, the institutions would not be available and it would then have a problem in terms of what to do with the young children. The same is the case in the rented sector. If the State takes action against landlords for poor conditions, exploitation and lack of registration, they will invest their money in something else and the State will have to provide accommodation for people. It is time we faced up to the lack of willingness to tackle the issue head on because of the threat that the rented sector will not be available and that those with money to spare will invest it in an offshore account or somewhere else. I hope this Bill will deal with that anomaly and that the same type of regulations will be introduced here as there are in other countries.
This Bill also refers to anti-social behaviour. Similar legislation was introduced in the past for houses which were used for drug dealing or other types of criminal activity. The definition in this legislation is still unclear. The Government must give some thought to the definition of anti-social behaviour and the limitations. It is a serious matter to be accused of anti-social behaviour and it is even more serious if a person is a victim of anti-social behaviour. The Government must consider the exact definition, which I am sure we will discuss on Committee Stage.
As regards the lack of sufficient penalties for non-registration of properties by landlords, the penalty of €140 does not indicate that we are serious about dealing with that issue as landlords are unlikely to quake in their boots. It is a fairly small amount of money considering the level of rent for most properties. That issue must be considered if we want to provide a serious deterrent from non-registration.
There are many others issues with which I could deal, but I wish to share my time with Deputy Ó Caoláin.
Is that agreed? Agreed.
I understand that approximately 50,000 households currently depend on the rented sector. That is a sizeable portion of the population. One third of those households are in receipt of social welfare allowances. The thought that landlords could refuse to accept people in receipt of social welfare is extremely distressing for those who are already at a disadvantage. If the lack of penalties means that such behaviour is acceptable, it must be addressed.
The Bill's proposed six-month probationary period, which allows a landlord to give 28 days' notice within that period, has been criticised by groups, such as Threshold. The temptation for a landlord who does not want to get into a long-term arrangement is to terminate the notice before six months, while giving 28 days' notice. We support shortening that probationary period to ensure that landlords face up to their responsibilities to provide long-term accommodation. Three months was recommended by Threshold, which seems reasonable. It is not clear if the legislation includes every form of rented accommodation. I assume it does, but I would like that clarified because many agencies want to know if bedsits are included.
I have some experience of dealing with people who were unfortunate not to receive a service of notice. That often happens in a property in which a number of people are living because the letter is thrown in the door, but it does not reach the person to whom it is directed. There is a need to register such post and to clearly communicate a service of notice.
It is also important to take into account the fact that this country has an appalling record in terms of providing student accommodation. We have the lowest levels in Europe, according to the Union of Students in Ireland. We depend on the private sector for rented accommodation at the beginning of the academic year which ends in May or June. It is a disruptive system because it uses up private rented accommodation of which long-term households could avail. Other countries rely more on campus accommodation. We must face up to that responsibility rather than relying on private rented accommodation.
I referred earlier to the standard of accommodation. There is a need to improve the level of insulation not only in rented accommodation, but in all houses. Although it does not necessarily have anything to do with Government policy, there is no doubt that energy costs will increase in the future. If we are serious about helping people, particularly those who are disadvantaged and on low incomes, we must improve the levels of insulation in rented accommodation. I cite the example of Berlin where the tenant is looked after. A portion of the rent which a tenant pays in Berlin can be withheld if repairs are not done or substandard accommodation is provided. That would be a revolutionary step in this country, given our history.
The constitutional committee has mentioned changing the Constitution. However, the experts I heard at the committee when I was a member said they did not feel the need to change it. There must be political will to address the exploitative element in the rented sector where the price is too high for rented or private accommodation. Local authorities must be given the power to purchase agricultural land and they should be required to have it before it is rezoned and to have a certificate of valuation. We do not want the profiteering by developers to continue without a reasonable level of valuation.
The record of the Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats Government on housing over the past six and a half years has been nothing short of appalling. It has mirrored the rest of its policies. Everything is left to the market, while social provision is ill-planned and underresourced. This long awaited Bill is yet another example. Tenants in the private rented sector will only have marginally more protection as a result of this Bill. The establishment of the tenancies board is welcome, but it is also long overdue. I acknowledge there are other positive elements, but so much depends on enforcement and enforceability that even those elements remain in question until we see what happens in practice. Everything has been done to protect the interests of landlords.
By contrast, tenants are expected to be content with the bare minimum. It is widely known that existing protections and regulations for tenants are not being enforced. The local authorities do not have the resources to enforce them. Under this Government the trend has been for local authorities to retreat from the area of housing. This is a sad reality.
In recent weeks we have seen amazing revelations from the Revenue Commissioners about the extent of tax evasion in this State. We are also seeing exposed once more the practice of some of the wealthiest people sending their money abroad to avoid taxation. Many of these people claim to be living outside Ireland for tax purposes while it is well known they are living here. The Government mentality which indulges and protects these people at every turn is evident in the Bill, where it provides that the landlords register will not be made available to the Revenue Commissioners. This is a disgraceful provision which speaks volumes about the real intent of the Government. Could the Minister explain this decision? Why should this register not be made available to the Revenue Commissioners? Why should this sector not be fully but fairly assessed and held to account as it should be?
The fundamental weakness of the Bill is the Government's dogged refusal to address the issue of affordable rents. By refusing to regulate rents it has taken the side of landlords against tenants. This goes to the root of the Government's approach to housing – to serve the interests of the property owner. The landlord is seen as a player in the market and the tenant is a source of rent. If market forces cause rents to rise, all the better. This stance will ensure increased contributions to Fianna Fáil from their landlord and property developer friends. Meanwhile, tenants will continue to be fleeced.
As a member of a local authority for the past 19 years, I have considerable experience at the coalface of dealing with people's needs in the context of the landlord-tenant relationship. There are many bona fide applicants for local authority housing who, as tenants, are denied their entitlement to rent subsidy under the terms of the supplementary welfare allowance scheme because their landlords refuse to provide evidence of rental payment. This scheme is operated by the network of community welfare officers, who are employees of the health boards. This abuse is not dealt with in the Bill, nor is there any promise to address the double-edged abuse perpetrated by landlords who refuse to acknowledge their incomes while simultaneously denying the less well-off their entitlements to assistance. I have no doubt the Minister is aware of this practice. Many single parent tenants, already living in fear because of the denial of fixity of tenure, are suffering serious financial hardship. This is not a great start for the young children of these families. From their earliest breaths they are victims of unscrupulous and greedy landlords.
In order to qualify for rent supplement, one must be paying less than €107 per week in rent. This has also caused great hardship as it is virtually impossible to find accommodation which costs less than this. It is pushing landlord and tenant agreements underground – people are clearly falsifying documentation in order to give the impression they are paying less than €107 per week.
Whose side is the Deputy on?
There is no benefit to the unfortunate tenant.
The Deputy is contradicting himself, although he was making sense up to now.
This ceiling must either be raised or scrapped entirely. Rents of more than €107 per week are not found only in city areas – they are the reality in most locations. In my own home town one would do very well to find accommodation for less than this. The cap on rent is cutting out access to rental subsidy for deserving people. This is something the Minister of State should deal with.
The Minister of State wants to change the definition of homelessness. Many other speakers have mentioned this also. I was deeply disappointed with his position towards and his approach to the excellent work of a very credible organisation, Focus Ireland. Although I did not hear his commentary in the Chamber, I heard it subsequently on radio and television programmes. The idea behind redefining homelessness is to hide the reality of the level of need. This will win the Minister no friends among people who are dependent on B&Bs, homeless hostels or women's refuges. This is not the note on which I wanted to finish, but the Minister of State is in denial. Perhaps there is a more suitable portfolio for him than that of responsibility for housing because he does not show the sentiment or the sympathy that is necessary to address this tragic day-to-day reality for countless families throughout the country. Housing is a right that should be enshrined in the Constitution.
I wish to share my time with Deputy Carey.
Is that agreed? Agreed.
Rather than referring to housing in general, as previous speakers have done, I will consider some aspects of the Bill. This legislation will help alleviate many of the fears and concerns of some of those I meet on a regular basis. It was mentioned by another Deputy that 150,000 houses or more are now rented. That still leaves us some way behind many European countries, although one suspects that as things change in the coming years that number will increase, for a whole variety of reasons – different lifestyles, different family sizes, increasing mobility and so on.
The Minister of State should be congratulated for bringing this legislation before us. I would like to have seen it a long time ago and I am glad it has eventually arrived here. It provides a legal framework for the relationship between landlord and tenant which did not exist before now. Various rental agreements were simply not worth the paper they were written on. There were no rules or regulations, and that did not favour either party. As many landlords have approached me about troublesome tenants with whom they did not know how to deal as have tenants whose landlords did not, from their point of view, give them adequate notice. I welcome this Bill because it clearly sets out a whole range of obligations for both parties.
I am sure the Irish Property Owners Association, a lobby group with a vested interest, has contacted most Deputies. I disagree with one or two of its points. It complains about the provision of a right to four years' automatic tenancy following a six-month tenancy period. I welcome this provision. As more people rent private accommodation, security of tenure becomes more important. It is important that they have security of tenure, that they can plan their lives and be guaranteed that their children will be in the same school for a number of consecutive years.
The specific complaint made by the Irish Property Owners Association is that the proposal for an automatic four year right to occupy following an initial six months tenancy period is contrary to the tenant demand for flexible leasing arrangements. It also believes that the blanket imposition of these rights would be a godsend for troublesome tenants. I refute that claim. For the first time, the Bill gives a mechanism to deal with the whole area of anti-social behaviour and in the constituency I represent, which has a number of rented properties, that is an issue that must be addressed. There are tenants in private properties who cause problems for the landlords but, more frequently, the complaints come from the neighbours. This Bill addresses that problem specifically, and it does not just refer to anti-social behaviour in a general way. It goes further and identifies what it regards to be anti-social behaviour, not just on the part of the people living there but others who may visit and so on. That is a major issue and I am glad to see it addressed.
Another issue which was mentioned earlier is the area of registration. There is supposed to be a registration office in local authorities but most people realise it is hit and miss. I welcome the fact that a new registration system will be put in place. I am a member of the Committee of Public Accounts and one of the issues that frequently arises is the whole area of computerisation and IT and the fact that computers are not linked up to each other and people do their own thing without communicating with each other. In that regard, I welcome one aspect of the Bill, which is the use of the tenant's personal public service number for registration purposes.
While it is not specifically mentioned in the Bill, although it is an aspect I urge the Minister to examine, the logical follow on from this is the use of the details on the landlord's side. I cannot understand why there is not an automatic link from this registration to the Revenue Commissioners. Apparently it has not been ruled out fully, but as a member of the Committee of Public Accounts, we examine from time to time the breakdown in communications in this area and I would welcome automatic exchange of information among all relevant Departments. That has been done to some extent on the tenant side with the use of their numbers, but I would also like to see it as an automatic follow through on the landlord side.
On the area of dispute resolution, currently there is no system in place. It is a case of the strongest wins, and that could be the tenant or landlord. That invariably leads to frustration and from that point of view, I am delighted the Bill provides for a system to address disputes. It is interesting to note, as a public representative, that there are a number of misunderstandings between landlord and tenant, many of which arise for minor reasons. In many ways the legislation will help prevent some of those disputes because the obligations of both parties are laid out. While the Bill is cumbersome, comprising many pages, I hope it will eventually be summarised and some of the key elements made available so that tenants would be fully aware of their rights.
It is of equal importance, however, that the landlords know some of their basic rights because the disputes that arise originate from minor incidents. Both parties dig their heels in until eventually, in most cases, the tenant moves on. The fact that we are looking for longer four year tenancy periods to give stability must be tempered by the fact that we have a system here to address those type of disputes.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak on this important legislation. In welcoming the Bill, I compliment my colleague, the Minister of State with responsibility for housing, Deputy Noel Ahern, for bringing it forward. There is probably no one else in this House who has such an intimate knowledge of the housing sector as the Minister of State, and I reject the criticism of speakers like Deputy Ó Caoláin in regard to his handling of his portfolio.
The Bill is the culmination of a process that started with the establishment of the Commission on the Private Rented Residential Sector. The commission, an independent group comprising a range of key players in the sector and interested bodies, examined the rented sector in detail and proposed a number of recommendations designed to improve the situation of tenants while maintaining a balance between the rights and obligation of both landlords and tenants.
The commission's recommendations were designed to facilitate the rented sector of the housing market develop to its maximum potential and become an alternative choice for people seeking accommodation. There are, perhaps, 150,000 rented residential units in Ireland ranging from the penthouses in Ballsbridge to bed-sits with a toilet in the hall in Dublin 1, Dublin 3 or Dublin 11. The majority of tenants, because they are reasonably well off, can and do vote with their feet if their landlord is difficult, making for a fairly balanced tenant-landlord relationship.
It is the tenants at the low end of the rental market for whom the Bill should have the greatest impact. That includes the 54,000 recipients of SWA rent supplement. They typically have the periodic tenancy even though, very often, they may have started with a fixed term lease. This means that the landlord can evict them at will on 28 days' notice and raise the rent as much and as often as he or she likes. We know from contact with our constituents that this often arises.
The insecurity of tenure in turn undermines the basic rights any tenant ought to be able to expect. If a tenant wants to assert his or her rights because they are being evicted illegally, the existing dispute resolution system conspires against them. There is no mediation available for handling deposit refund claims, except to a limited degree in the small claims court process. Tenants wishing to protest about their landlords' behaviour have to hire legal representation and go to court. This is a slow, expensive and therefore impractical process in most cases. The Government accepted the commission's recommendations and has included them in the Bill.
This has been a particularly good way of creating and introducing legislation. To a large extent it has been already agreed before its introduction and despite some comments about tweaking it, the vast majority of speakers I have heard are supportive of the thrust of it. While I have no doubt that as the debate proceeds to Committee Stage various suggestions and amendments will be proposed, it is fair to say that most Deputies and the public are supportive of the comprehensive and well balanced objectives of the Bill. If all legislation were approached in this way, our job would be considerably easier. I have had the opportunity of reading comments from many of the stakeholders from the organisations representing tenants to policy makers to organisations like the Irish Property Owners Association and I must say that, by and large, they are in agreement that this is the way we ought to proceed.
One of the key provisions of the Bill is the establishment of a statutory private residential tenancies board. This is an extremely important feature of the legislation. For too long the residential sector has been viewed as secondary to home ownership. As a result, it became a slightly forgotten sector. It is appropriate and timely that we should now turn our attention to the rental sector.
For more and more people, the option of renting is an option of choice. Society has clearly changed over the past decade. Flexible working arrangements are becoming a reality for more and more of the workforce. This often requires a level of housing mobility that renting can best provide. Over the past years there has been a massive increase in net immigration, not only of foreign nationals coming here to work but of Irish men and women returning to work. Short to medium term accommodation is usually what these people seek. Therefore, it is important that we not only address the current problems and imbalances in the rented sector, but that we create and maintain a focus on the means, oper ation and development of the sector. The establishment of the tenancies board will create and maintain this focus.
One of the key roles given to the board will be the collection of data on, and the monitoring of, the sector and the undertaking of research into it. I agree with some previous speakers who expressed concern about the lack of data and hard information on this sector up to now. The board will be empowered to advise the Minister on activities and trends within the sector, thereby facilitating informed policy making for its future development.
Dispute resolution will probably be the most important function to be carried out by the board. I particularly welcome this. At present the only legal method of resolving disputes between landlords and tenants, if they cannot resolve them themselves, is to go to court. However, for many people the courts are not a realistic option for a variety of reasons, most of which, as we all know, are largely concerned with the high cost of legal fees. People may not be able to afford to pay the costs associated with legal action or they may require speedier resolution than is perhaps usually available in the courts. I do not make this point as a criticism of the courts but merely to point out the reality of the judicial process. The result is that many of the disputes between landlords and tenants are not satisfactorily resolved.
I doubt if there are many in the House who have not come across problems arising in the private rented sector, whether at local advice centres or in correspondence with our constituents. Problems arising for tenants include illegal evictions, too short notice to quit, massive rent increases, poor standards of accommodation, deposits being unreasonably withheld, or failure on the part of landlords to repair or replace broken fittings and appliances. Equally, landlords complain of tenants not paying rent, anti-social behaviour, causing a nuisance to other tenants or neighbours and damaging property.
With the advent of the tenancies board, landlords and tenants will have recourse to an efficient and cost-effective dispute resolution procedure. Over a period of time, as the board deals with disputes as they arise, both landlords and tenants will become familiar with what is expected of them. I hope this will reduce the number of disputes arising in the sector and that landlords and tenants will become more professional in their dealings with each other.
Another key aspect of the board's dispute resolution procedure is the fact that in all instances, the system is designed to help the parties resolve disputes themselves rather than have solutions imposed on them. This is an appropriate way to deal with disputes. The board's ethos appears to be to call on the parties to mediate, not litigate. Perhaps other areas of activity could learn from its approach.
An aspect of the Bill which has perhaps not received the same amount of exposure as issues such as rent or security of tenure is the provision which sets down in law obligations on landlords and tenants. I am especially impressed by the fact that it deals with the issue of anti-social behaviour. I wish we could come up with other words for anti-social behaviour because nowadays anybody who looks crooked at anybody else is accused of engaging in it. This provision has the major benefit of giving third parties a means to have problems with such behaviour addressed, including the right to make complaints to the tenancies board, if necessary. Unfortunately, incidents of anti-social behaviour are probably more prevalent now than in the past.
Overall, the legislation will be good for the private rented sector and neither landlords nor tenants should have anything to fear from it. It will help to stabilise and professionalise the private rented sector and lay a suitable foundation for its development and much needed expansion. The Bill should make landlord-tenant relationships more balanced, even for those whose incomes and options are restricted. It is important that landlords are deterred from penalising a tenant, whether over the six month probation period or if he or she complains to the local authority that the standard of the dwelling is below the legal minimum. A provision should be included in the Bill to cover this.
I would like to see a shorter probationary period of three months rather than the six months mentioned in the Bill. That amount of time should be sufficient for landlords to vet tenants. Landlords should be able to evict tenants who do not comply with their obligations quickly but they would see little to gain by cutting short tenancies to avoid Part 4 of the Bill. The penalty provision in section 14 is a critical safeguard against reprisals by unco-operative landlords. Section 14 should make explicit that retaliatory notice to quit is covered.
I read the comments by the Irish Property Owners Association. While I recognise its concerns, they are not well-founded. The success or otherwise of the new statutory framework will turn on the efficiency with which the board fulfils its functions and, in particular, on the effectiveness of the dispute resolution service. Clearly, the board must be provided with adequate staff and other resources to carry out its functions. It is critical that the board establish itself as a force to be reckoned with at an early stage. Systems must be put in place to ensure that any determination made following the referral of a complaint to the board will be effectively enforced. It is also essential that clear user-friendly information on the impact of the forthcoming regime on existing rights and obligations is made available to tenants and landlords from the outset. I commend the Bill to the House.
Since I came into this House six and a half years ago, I questioned the Taoiseach on a number of occasions on the situation of tenants depending on private landlords for accommodation. I have brought to his attention on many occasions the grievous exploitation of tenants in this State. Indeed, having been a tenant for approximately 20 years, I am familiar with the situation that obtains for those in our society who are dependent on private landlords for a roof over their heads. The purpose of the legislation is to ostensibly assist what is one of the most exploited sections of the population – those who are dependent on private landlords. They total probably a half a million people in this State of nearly four million.
Historically, landlordism has been the scourge of the Irish people. I refer to the landed variety who were, historically, rapacious, ruthless thieves and people who caused enormous suffering to the majority of those who lived on the land. It took the great Michael Davitt and the Land League, a huge movement of people power – among the great demonstrations of people power in the history of the country – to rectify to some extent the balance between the tenant farmers, the small farmers, the rural community and the rapacious landlords.
I am interested in hearing the Fianna Fáil speakers refer to the need for a balance between rights and responsibilities and to the relationship between landlord and tenant. There is no such thing. The relationship is hugely imbalanced in favour of the landlord and to the disadvantage of the tenant. In the capitalist society which obtains in this State, successive Governments have granted virtually all the rights to the propertied class. When the propertied class has the political system and the major political parties in its pocket, pays into their coffers and corrupts members of the main parties, as we have seen again and again, that propertied class can run riot to the detriment of the rights of ordinary people.
The modern counterparts of the landed aristocracy of old are the owners of apartments, bedsitters and houses which are rented throughout the country. The greed of a significant section of the modern landlord class is not a shade paler than that of their landed counterparts in Irish history. The housing crisis over which the Government has presided for six and a half years has given a unique opportunity to the landlord class to rackrent with impunity and to charge the most outrageous rents for properties, ranging from small bedsitters and one-bedroom flats to modest three-bedroom semi-detached homes in modest suburbs. The Government has a disastrous record as far as the housing needs of our people are concerned. It has sat on its hands during that time and allowed the speculators and greedy land developers to run riot and to double, treble and, in Dublin, quadruple the price of a modest home. It has not raised a finger in any significant way to change the grotesque profiteering and exploitation, especially of young people who have to put a roof over their heads. In the same way as we had failure with regard to the price of homes, we have had absolute failure with regard to any measure of protection for the hundreds of thou sands of our people who are dependent on private landlords. The Government has left those people exposed to rackrenting landlords who charge exorbitant rents which are totally out of sync with reasonable standards.
When modest homes in working class suburbs are being rented for as much as €1,500 per month and one-bedroom flats in modest areas of Dublin are being rented for between €700 and €900 per month, it is clear that there is an exploitative situation. A rent of €1,500 per month in west Dublin represents an annual income of €18,000, a far greater figure than many workers on the lower end of the income spectrum earn in an entire year. That is what the Government has allowed to happen. The landlord class has profited massively from the housing crisis in our society. The Government has sat back and allowed the land speculators to determine that a basic human right would not be afforded to many of our people, causing endless suffering, overcrowding and great family tensions in many parts of this city and in other cities and towns throughout the country.
The dishonourable record of certain Fianna Fáil members and councillors in succumbing to corruption by those who sought to corrupt the planning process has been responsible, in part, for the present crisis. It is ordinary people who suffer from the crimes of politicians who have been in the pockets of developers. Of course, much of this has been legal. Those landowners have subscribed to the Fianna Fáil Party and have, therefore, been able to dictate party policy.
There is a double standard in our society. Six decent, honourable taxpayers from south Dublin are in prison tonight because they have taken a peaceful and honourable stand against double taxation and the taxation plans of the Government. Their crime was to carry out a peaceful and brief protest against double taxation. Within days they were landed in the High Court and then in the pits of Mountjoy and Wheatfield prisons, but not a single one of those creatures who subverted the housing rights of our people through the corruption of the Fianna Fáil Party has been in front of a court, let alone seen the back of the high walls of Mountjoy Prison.
The Bill addresses the key issue of security of tenure to some degree. The other critical issue is that of the cost of rents and the affordability of private rented accommodation. This is the one issue on which the Bill refuses to legislate. The single most difficult issue tenants face, their grotesque exploitation by landlords, is not addressed in the Bill. That is incredible. The provision that rents shall not be greater than the market rent prevailing would be a sick joke if it were not so serious for so many tenants. What is the market rent? It is whatever the landlord, in a landlords' market, decides to set. What is the purpose of giving the collection and provision of information relating to the private rented sector, including information concerning prevailing rent levels, as one of the responsibilities of the Residential Tenancies Board? The Minister knows well that land lords can charge anything they want and can judge the cost of a property in Mulhuddart by the standard of a rent in Foxrock. This is a joke. The Minister of State had better get back to basics regarding the issue of affordability and exploitation.
It is not a joke if the supply is right.
Let us get on to supply. The Minister of State referred to increased investment through the promotion of public private partnerships in order to resolve the housing crisis. He should get real. We have much experience of providing good quality public housing. That is what we should get back to rather than depending on the equivalents of National Toll Roads and the rest of them. They will hold us to ransom if the principles enunciated by the Minister of State are put into practice.
The key to resolving the grotesque exploitation of tenants is the provision of large numbers of affordable, good quality, properly planned homes in order to take the ground from under the landlord class, but the Government is not addressing that issue. Another key issue which could resolve the situation is the provision of good quality on-campus student accommodation.