Property Services (Regulation) Bill 2009 [Seanad]: Second Stage

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I am pleased to have the opportunity to introduce the Property Services (Regulation) Bill 2009 and look forward to today's discussion. The Bill received broad support from all sides on its passage through the Seanad and I look forward to a continuation of that broad support in this House. The Bill provides for a comprehensive and streamlined statutory framework for the regulation of auctioneers, letting agents and property management agents. It will replace the current court-based system for regulating auctioneers and house agents with an updated system for regulation of the categories of property services providers I have mentioned.

Under current legislation, the Auctioneers and House Agents Acts 1947 to 1973, licences are issued to auctioneers and house agents by the Revenue Commissioners on presentation of the required District Court certificate. The system is confined to auctioneers and house agents and does not extend to property management agents. The latter comprise a new segment of the property services sector. In so far as it extends the licensing system to property management agents and extends statutory safeguards to the clients of such agents, mainly property management companies, the Bill constitutes an important element of the Government's strategy to address problems arising in relation to the management and governance of multi-unit developments and complements the Multi-Unit Developments Bill 2009, which completed Committee Stage in the select committee last month.

The Bill before Members seeks to give effect to the principal recommendations of the auctioneering-estate agency review group. At its heart is a proposal to establish a new statutory body, the property services regulatory authority, to control and supervise providers of property services and to improve standards in the provision of those services. The Bill also provides for improved standards of consumer protection by establishing a system for investigating and adjudicating on complaints relating to the provision of property services, as well as a property services compensation fund to compensate those who suffer financial loss as a result of dishonesty by property services providers.

Before describing the main provisions of the Bill, I inform Deputies that work has begun on a number of amendments that I hope to table on Committee Stage. In the renewed programme for Government agreed last year, the Government recognises that the lack of transparency in the property market, including the lack of sales prices, is an impediment to consumer protection and must be tackled. I intend to bring forward an amendment to the Bill to give the property services regulatory authority the statutory function of publishing details of residential property sales prices. The working group on transparency in commercial rent reviews recommended the establishment of a public database that would include relevant details of commercial letting agreements and rent reviews. I also intend to amend the Bill to give the responsibility for the gathering and holding of the necessary detail in this respect to the authority. I look forward to progressing these amendments on Committee Stage.

I turn now to the Bill's main provisions to give Members a general outline of its scope and how the proposed system of regulation will work in practice. Section 2 contains the important definitions which determine the scope of the Bill. I draw Members' attention specifically to the definition of "property service". It means the provision in the State of any of the following services, namely, the auction of property other than land, the purchase or sale, by whatever means, of land, the letting of land; and property management services. All auctioneers, letting agents and property management agents will, therefore, require a licence from the authority. Certain limited exemptions to the licensing requirements are set out in section 3.

This licensing requirement will apply to the property services employer, such as, for example, an auctioneering company or partnership, and to an individual providing a property service in the course of employment or as an independent contractor. If the property service is provided in the State, a licence will be required irrespective of whether the property concerned is located in the State. Part 11 contains provisions which deal with the provision of property services here by those who hold licences issued by corresponding licensing authorities in other European Union member states.

Part 2 contains many standard provisions relating to the structure and operations of the new authority, including provisions regarding the appointment of the authority members and staff, the conduct of meetings and the keeping and auditing of annual accounts. I draw Members' attention to the main functions of the authority set out in section 11. These functions include the operation of a comprehensive licensing system covering auctioneers, letting agents and property management agents. In addition, it will set and enforce standards for the grant of licences, such as, for example, educational and training standards, levels of professional indemnity insurance, as well as standards to be observed in the provision of services by licensees. Moreover, it will establish and administer a system of investigation and adjudication of complaints relating to the provision of property services, will promote increased consumer protection and public awareness of property services in general and the cost to consumers, risks and benefits associated with the provision of those services. It also will establish, maintain and administer the compensation fund.

This Part also provides for the charging of fees. It is intended that this fee income should be sufficient to meet the costs of administration of the Act. This is in line with the recommendation of the review group that the new regulatory structure should be funded through fee income generated by the authority for licences and other services. Part 3, comprising sections 29 to 43, sets out details of the new licensing system which will apply in future. Under section 29, it will be an offence in future for a person to provide a property service without the appropriate licence, unless he or she falls within one of the limited exemptions in section 3. If a licensee provides a property service other than a service for which he or she holds a licence, or holds himself or herself out as available to provide a property service other than the service in respect of which he or she has a licence, it will constitute improper conduct and an appropriate sanction may be imposed.

In order to provide ready access to the list of licensees, section 30 requires the authority to establish and maintain a public register of licensees. This will enable users, or intending users, of property services to confirm that a provider is registered to provide the service they require.

Sections 31 to 35 contain details of the licensing system. Each application for a licence must be accompanied by references as to character and competence, including details of education, training and experience; evidence of availability to the applicant of the necessary level of professional indemnity insurance; and the appropriate fee.

In the case of applications for licences as a property services employer or an independent contractor, the applicant must also furnish a certificate by an accountant that proper financial systems and controls are, or will be, in place for the protection of client moneys. Such applicants will also have to furnish an up-to-date tax clearance certificate.

When deciding whether to issue a licence, the authority will take into account the information provided by the applicant and, where appropriate, any information provided by the Garda Síochána under section 43. In short, it will not issue a licence unless it is satisfied that the applicant is a fit and proper person to provide the property service concerned and complies with all statutory requirements. A successful applicant must pay the appropriate contribution into the compensation fund before the licence will be issued.

Before refusing to issue a licence in any case, the authority must notify the applicant of its intention to do so, and the reasons for it, and give the applicant an opportunity to make representations. It will be possible to appeal any refusal to issue a licence to the property services appeal board which is also being set up under section 74 and Schedule 5.

Arrangements applicable to the renewal of licences are set out in sections 36 and 37. Part 3 also includes provisions imposing obligations on licensees to have their licence in their possession and to produce it, if requested, or to display it in their place of business depending on whether the licensee is an individual or a company. It also requires licensees, other than those who are employees, to include their registration number in advertisements, on their stationery and in sales brochures, etc.

Section 41 provides that where a licensee is declared bankrupt, his or her licence will be suspended immediately and will remain suspended until it expires or the bankruptcy is discharged, whichever occurs first. Section 42 requires an applicant for a licence or a licensee to notify the authority of any material matter which would be likely to affect the validity of the licence.

Part 4, comprising sections 44 to 46, sets out a number of general obligations with which licensees must comply. Section 44 requires licensees to issue a letter of engagement to all clients. Once the letter has been signed by both the licensee and the client, it becomes a property services agreement. Details of the extensive information that must be included in such a property services agreement are set out in Schedule 2.

A property services agreement must include details of the services to be provided by the licensee, the fees or commission payable by the client and the period during which the agreement has effect, etc. The authority will specify the form of letter of engagement which all property services providers must use.

Section 45 imposes an obligation on property services employers and independent contractors to keep records of all services provided for a period of six years.

Part 5, comprising sections 47 to 55, contains very important provisions dealing with client accounts and related matters. It updates existing provisions in the Auctioneers and House Agents Acts 1947 to 1973 and, importantly, extends them to property management agents.

Section 47 empowers the authority to make regulations in relation to the kind of bank accounts which may be opened by licensees for the keeping of client moneys, the rights, duties and responsibilities of a licensee in respect of client moneys, the accounting records which must be maintained by a licensee, and client entitlements, etc. Section 48 makes it an offence knowingly to lodge client moneys to an account other than a client account, or knowingly to make a false or misleading entry or record in accounting records.

This Part also contains provisions for the protection of client moneys and documents in the event that the authority refuses to renew a licence, a licence is suspended or revoked, or the licensee ceases to provide property services. It also makes provision for the protection of client moneys in the event of the bankruptcy or insolvency of a licensee.

Part 6, that is sections 56 to 62, deals with the sale and letting of land and includes new provisions requiring auctioneers and letting agents to provide statements of "advised market value" or "advised letting value", as the case may be, to their clients within a seven day period. The "advised market value" of land for sale must be reasonable and the authority may investigate cases in which values appear not to have been reasonable. This value can be a price range but the difference between the minimum and maximum value cannot exceed 10% of the lower value. The advised value can, however, be altered to take account of market conditions.

Where land is being sold at auction, the vendor will be prohibited from bidding for it and from authorising or permitting another person to do so on his or her behalf. Where land is being sold by private treaty, section 61 requires licensees to retain records of all offers received, including conditional acceptances.

In order to avoid conflicts of interest, section 60 specifies the conditions under which a licensee acting for a vendor may provide a financial service to a purchaser or potential purchaser. It prohibits the provision by a licensee of such a financial service to a purchaser without the prior written consent of both parties. Section 62 empowers the authority to make regulations in relation to matters concerning the sale or letting of land. This will include regulations concerning the contents of advertisements, booking deposits, the terms of building contracts and similar issues.

One of the shortcomings of the current system identified by the review group is that the only available sanction against misconduct is refusal to renew a licence. Part 7 addresses this deficiency by making provision for a comprehensive system for investigating complaints and imposing appropriate sanctions where such complaints are upheld.

Section 63 provides that any person can make a complaint to the authority and the authority must investigate the complaint provided it is made in good faith and is not likely to be resolved by mediation or other informal means between the parties.

Section 64 provides that where the authority considers that immediate suspension of a licence is necessary to protect clients or customers, or potential customers, it may make an application on notice to the licensee to the High Court for an order to suspend the licence.

In exceptional circumstances, where the authority considers that there is an immediate risk of financial harm to clients or customers, or potential clients or customers, it is empowered to apply to the High Court on an ex parte basis for an interim order to suspend the relevant licence. An interim order can last for a maximum of eight working days. In order to extend any such order, the authority must apply to the High Court on notice to the licensee for a new order.

Section 65 provides that an investigation may be carried out by the authority on foot of a complaint or on the authority's own initiative. It provides for the appointment of an inspector, or inspectors, to carry out such an investigation and to submit a report to the authority. Section 66 gives inspectors comprehensive powers to enable them to carry out investigations, including powers to enter and search premises, carry out examinations and inquiries and conduct an oral hearing. This section also provides that a person who obstructs or impedes an inspector is guilty of an offence.

Section 67 provides protection for persons, including employees of licensees, who make complaints to the authority.

Section 68 sets out the actions to be taken by inspectors and the authority on completion of an investigation and includes provisions to ensure that fair procedures are applied. On completion of an investigation, the inspector must submit a report to the authority. Before doing that, a draft of the report must be sent for comment to the licensee or licensees where the investigation concerned more than one licensee, and to the complainant if the investigation arose from a complaint.

After considering an investigation report, the authority may decide to request the inspector to carry out a further investigation, impose a major or minor sanction, as appropriate, if it is satisfied that improper conduct is occurring or has occurred, or dismiss the complaint and take no further action. Before making its decision, the authority may conduct an oral hearing or invite the licensee or licensees, if the investigation related to more than one licensee, and complainant, if the investigation arose from a complaint, to make submissions on the investigation report. A "minor sanction" is defined in section 2 as a reprimand, warning, caution or advice, while a "major sanction" is defined as the suspension or revocation of a licence, payment of up to €50,000 into the compensation fund, payment of up to €50,000 towards the costs of the investigation, or payment of a penalty of up to €250,000.

Factors to be taken into account in determining the appropriate sanction are set out in section 73. These include the need to ensure that any sanction is appropriate and proportionate to the improper conduct, the seriousness of the improper conduct, any gain made by the licensee as a result of the improper conduct, and the amount of any loss suffered or costs incurred as a result of the improper conduct.

Sections 69 to 72 contain detailed provisions dealing with major sanctions. Section 70 provides that a licensee may appeal a decision of the authority imposing a major sanction to the High Court. Where the licensee does not appeal the decision, the authority must apply to the High Court under section 71 to have its decision confirmed. Section 72 makes provision for an appeal to the Supreme Court on a point of law.

In addition to a complaints and investigation procedure, an appeals system is also essential. Part 8 provides for the establishment of an independent property services appeal board to hear and determine appeals against specified decisions of the authority. Matters relating to the composition of the appeal board and its operations, including the procedure for handling appeals, are set out in Schedule 5.

Part 9, which includes sections 77 and 78, provides for the establishment, administration and maintenance of the property services compensation fund. Its purpose is to compensate clients of licensees who suffer a financial loss as a result of dishonesty on the part of a licensee or an employee, partner or agent of a licensee in the course of the provision of a property service. Section 78 sets out rules on the payment of compensation out of the fund. Detailed provisions in regard to the administration of the fund are set out in Schedule 6. Part 9 and Schedule 6 are modelled on similar provisions in the Solicitors Acts.

Part 10 empowers the authority to draw up regulations for professional competence schemes for licensees and principal officers of licensees and related matters.

Part 11 and Schedule 7 contain provisions governing the provision of property services in the State by persons who hold licences from comparable authorities in other member states. Rights of establishment and freedom to provide services are set out in the European Community treaty. These treaty rights have been elaborated in greater detail more recently in Directive 2006/123 on services in the internal market.

A person who has a licence or other authorisation from another member state to provide a particular property service has a right to provide that service here without having to obtain a licence from the authority. However, that person must be subject to client account protections similar to those in Part 5 of the Bill.

A person who is permitted to provide a property service here on the basis of an authorisation from another member state will be subject to the authority's complaints and investigation procedures, and to the new statutory requirements in regard to letters of engagement, client accounts and the sale or letting of land.

Part 12, comprising sections 86 to 98, contains miscellaneous provisions. I indicated that once the Bill comes into force in respect of any category of property service, the provision of that type of property service without a licence will be prohibited. In order to ensure that this prohibition is enforced, the authority's powers of investigation extend to persons who are suspected of providing a property service or claiming to be available to provide such a service, without a licence. This power is set out in section 86 of the Bill.

If the authority considers that a person is operating without a licence, it must report the matter to the Garda Síochána and the Minister. The authority may also seek a High Court injunction requiring the person to cease the activities concerned.

Section 91 deals with offences and it empowers the authority to bring and prosecute summary proceedings for offences under the Act.

Sections 92 and 93 empower the authority and the Minister to make regulations implementing detailed provisions in the legislation. Sections 95 to 97 provide for transitional arrangements to facilitate the transition from the existing licensing system for auctioneers and house agents to the new licensing regime.

The Bill provides for an appropriate and comprehensive new system for regulating the property services sector. I am confident the provisions set out in it will, when enacted, serve to enhance the standing and image of the sector, provide much-improved consumer protection for the clients of property services providers and serve to assure the public that high standards will be applied and maintained. I will be making amendments on Committee Stage in respect of the two issues I have indicated.

I welcome the fact that this Bill is now finally before the House. As with every action of the current Government, the stable door is being closed after the horse has bolted.

It is interesting to return to the origins of this legislation. During the early years of the property boom, there was substantial public concern over the conduct of auctioneers and estate agents. Instead of addressing this, the Government initially provided for multiple examinations by a variety of different groups to identify what was wrong with our laws and what changes were required.

The Bill aims to give effect to key recommendations of the auctioneering-estate agency review group, whose recommendations were published in July 2005. As described by the Department of Justice and Law Reform, the review group was set up against the backdrop of "public concern about certain practices in the property services sector, weaknesses in regulatory and supervisory arrangements and the need to take account of new forms of property services". The group's report, when published, made the case that there was a need for urgent legislation. Urgency in this State with Fianna Fáil-led Governments apparently results in legislation coming before the Dáil more than five years later than it should. The Government failed abysmally to put in place the legislative structure necessary to address a series of issues. Had the legislative structure been put in place to deal adequately with certain problems that were clearly evident in the period 2004 to 2006 some of the thousands of people in this State who made disastrous decisions to purchase property, particularly residential property, might have thought twice before doing so. Alternatively, they may not have been seduced into doing so by the campaigns run by certain auctioneers and estate agencies on behalf of developers. Such campaigns were commercially astute but their ethical standards and morality left a great deal to be questioned. I will return to this issue.

The Law Reform Commission also produced reform proposals in this area. In the context of the many difficulties in this area, the commission, in its consultation paper of 2006, referred to an understanding deficit that must be addressed as urgently as possible in the context of consumers dealing with auctioneers and estate agents.

The National Consumer Agency recommended in 2006 that legislation to regulate this area should be "prioritised in the Government's programme to ensure that it is enacted as a matter of urgency" with a view to ensuring "early protection for the consumer". I wonder why "prioritising" and the word "early" fell on the deaf ears of Ministers.

As we know, there is currently no licensing system in place for property management agents. The code of practice for property service providers in regard to auctioneers and estate agents does not apply to the management agent profession. It is, of course, welcome that this legislation extends to management agents. In the context of the construction of a large number of apartments throughout the country, management companies have employed agents to undertake work. Some agents have undertaken the work extraordinarily well while others can only best be described as having been unfit to undertake such work and as having behaved with gross negligence. Initially, management agents were appointed by the developers of apartment blocks who controlled exactly what the management agent did. All too frequently, management agents used annual fees paid by residents of apartments to make good work that developers failed to complete properly to the cost of those who had acquired apartments instead of at the cost of the developer. The reason was because the management agent was in the pocket of the developer and behaved in that manner in the hope that they would be appointed to manage other further apartment blocks or private housing estates for which the developer was responsible.

There are welcome provisions in the legislation in so far as there will be an updated legal structure for the licensing of auctioneers and estate agents, dealing with disciplinary issues, when they arise, and issues relating to management agents. A number of particular provisions in the Bill are welcome. The Government, of course, is not happy to establish a general whistleblowers' charter which might blow the whistle on difficulties in the public sector or within Government Departments or State agencies. However, it is welcome that there is essentially whistleblowers' protection contained in section 67 of the Bill.

While I welcome various aspects of the Bill, I may table amendments on Committee Stage that may be required to it. I note the Minister has said he will introduce certain amendments. I wish to refer to a number of issues of general relevance to this legislation which impact on people outside the House, some of which I do not believe have been adequately or appropriately addressed in the Bill but which could, to great benefit, be addressed in it.

I will start by making reference to a section the Minister referred to in his speech which deals with the functions of the new property services regulatory authority that is to be established. The Minister quite properly made reference to section 11 which prescribes the functions of the authority and states:

(1) Subject to this Act, the Authority shall control and supervise licensees and maintain and improve standards in the provision by them of property services.

Maintaining and improving standards is a very broad concept. I have absolutely no doubt that there is a need for better standards as was clearly exhibited during the insane period between 2004 to 2007 until the complete collapse in the property market. Section 11(1) is a general provision relating to the maintenance of standards, but what perception will be taken of standards and what standards should be maintained is a highly subjective issue. I wish to draw the Minister's attention to certain matters which I believe should be more specifically dealt with in the Bill but, before doing so, I want to refer to section 11(2).

Section 11(1) provides the general provision for maintaining standards. Section 11(2) states "Without prejudice to the generality of subsection (1)”, but then delineates specific matters the authority may have regard to in respect of dealing with issues of standards. Section 11(2)(d) states that the authority may specify and enforce standards, including technical standards — this is reasonably straightforward — and "appropriate ethical standards" to be observed in the provision of property services, which is a good deal more complicated.

What are appropriate ethical standards? There is something that needs to be said about this area and it is of specific relevance to the property bubble, the collapse of our economy, the profligate behaviour of the banking sector and the silence, to date, on the role played by auctioneers and estate agencies in that. I do not expect that we will witness a repeat of that disaster for many, many years, but history has a horrible habit of repeating itself. There was conduct on the part of auctioneers and estate agents, who were acting in cahoots with developers and financial institutions, that can, at the most charitable, be described as immoral and disreputable. This should have been policed many years ago by Government, it should have been stopped by Government but the Government turned a blind eye. As a consequence, tens of thousands of people in this country are trapped in negative equity having borrowed funds that should never have been made available to them and which they used to acquire houses and apartments at exorbitant prices for no reason other than the hysteria which developed in the market to which auctioneers and estate agents, by their marketing tactics, contributed substantially and in respect of which the financial institutions and developers aided and abetted.

To what am I referring? The House has not yet explored to any great extent the fact that a very small number of well-known auctioneers and estate agents — I have one particular firm in mind but I will not name it — appeared, by 2002 or 2003, to have essentially taken control of a substantial portion of the market for the sale of apartments throughout the State. They organised sales on behalf of developers, who were funded by the financial institutions. Having funded the developers, they were very happy, either directly or through their subsidiary companies, to put together "attractive" financial packages to facilitate anything between 90% to 110% loans being made available to purchasers of apartments. There was no competition because the sale of apartments was orchestrated. When one estate agent was dealing with a large number of sales, it would orchestrate matters so that on a particular weekend only one launch of apartments would take place in north Dublin. There would be no competition from other developers in north Dublin. At the same time, there would only be one launch in south Dublin on the same weekend and this would be heralded in a great fanfare of publicity.

When such launches took place — this also applied to some housing estates — they said that because of the concerns of the developer, only 20 or 30 apartments or houses would be released for sale. People in my constituency, who were desperate to buy for fear the prices were about to go up, queued overnight to buy overpriced houses and apartments from developers, which the banks were immorally funding, being sold at prices that could never be maintained. Due to the fact that the numbers being released onto the market were artificially restricted, a perception was created that they were a rarity as we were heading into constructing 60,000, 70,000, 80,000 and then 90,000 individual units in consecutive years. We were constructing at a level that was not even remotely required per head of population in our neighbouring countries of England, Scotland and Wales.

Auctioneers were in the centre of this; auctioneers were orchestrating this. If I am talking about conduct that is unethical or maintaining moral standards, this legislation needs to do a lot more than it does. It needs to ensure that there is proper competition in respect of the marketing of apartments and houses, as well as commercial buildings. It needs to ensure that it will be unlawful for an individual company of estate agents in any particular part of this country to orchestrate the release of properties, such as apartments, residential units or houses in an orchestrated, anti-competitive manner in co-operation between developers who should in fact be in competition with each other to the detriment of the consumer. This legislation does not deal with that.

Too many people in this country are casualties of what happened on the Government's watch and what did the Government do while all of this was happening? It formed a committee to examine the issue, which finally produced a report in 2005 and in November 2010 we are debating the legislation in this House. I believe there should be an inquiry into the conduct of estate agents and auctioneers during the property boom period between 2000 and 2007. I believe there is a need for an independent inquiry. I believe there is a need for formal evidence to be taken. I believe there is a need to examine the practices that applied.

I believe that developers and financial institutions should be required to explain the arrangements that were put in place whereby financial institutions that were facilitating spiralling land prices, the acquisition of building land at excessive prices through the financial assistance provided by that financial institution and the role played by that financial institution, to ensure the developer paid back the borrowings, guaranteeing anything from 90% to 110% of required finance to residential purchasers. That helped to fuel the property bubble and auctioneers and estate agents were right in the middle. They were the conductors of that orchestra and there has been no examination of their conduct to date. I do not believe that this legislation adequately addresses remotely that particular difficulty and that particular issue.

I want to put into the record of this House a letter received by me from a constituent of mine dated 31 October. For the sake of his confidentiality, I am not going to tell the House his name but he is classically the type of individual who is caught by what occurred on the Government's watch. The Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats Government in office from 2002 to 2007 should have enacted legislation to put a stop to the type of activities I am talking about. This is a letter he sent to the Taoiseach, Deputy Cowen, and he copied it to me. He said:

Dear Taoiseach,

I am writing to you regarding my situation and that of countless others like me and to find out what your plans are to deal with same. I appreciate you are busy so I will try to be concise and make my points in bullet form.

Then he does. He states as follows:

I had quite a good start in life. I went to a good school and have an arts degree. Ever since I have worked in typical white-collar jobs, sales, marketing, etc., plus I have had my own business but never earning very much money. The most I ever earned was about €45,000 and usually much less, but these days it is closer to €35,000, plus I had a period of six or seven months in 2010 where my earnings veered down to dole levels. I have always paid my taxes, I have never been on the dole and never had a medical card. In other words,I have made a decent contribution to society and have never been a drain on it. I also do voluntary work. Having bought into Ireland, so to speak, I purchased an apartment in Carrickmines off the plans in 2006. My purchase price was €340,000 for a tiny one-bedroom apartment.

There have been various problems on-site as you might imagine, living in a half-finished development with flooded car parks, some antisocial problems and a general lack of funds to manage the development. Also, myself and everybody on my floor were burgled in 2009 mainly due to the fact that the entrance to our block is in a secluded area. It was originally envisaged that we would back onto another block, of course never built. However the biggest problem, it goes without saying, is the catastrophic collapse in our property values.

In the spring of this year they did a highly publicised fire sale of units in our development with the equivalent of my apartment going for €130,000.

I remind the House he paid €340,000 for this apartment into 2006. He goes on to state:

That is not even half of what I paid; it is closer to one third. They could not even sell them at that price. There was quite a bit of interest but apparently many of the would-be purchasers could not get mortgage approval and since then prices have fallen further, with further falls forecast for 2010 and 2011. In conclusion, my apartment is effectively worthless and I am mortgaged up to my neck. It is a massive amount. I currently owe more than €300,000, paying over €1,400 per month lasting until I am 70 years old.

As a single person I can't afford my payments on my reduced salary and this is while interest rates are still relatively low, plus I am swamped in debt and sinking further. If I lose my job I will be in default immediately. I am still quite young, 38, energetic, willing to work and I try to be positive but it is hard not to think my future is very bleak. I have literally thrown away over €200,000 worth of equity, will probably never be able to purchase another property and am most likely destined to spend the rest of my life in this tiny apartment. Please keep me in mind; I only bought the apartment so that I would have a place to live, not as an investment.

I thought it was a responsible thing to do to try to get on the property ladder before I ran out of mortgageable years. I purchased at the age of 34 but the delay in building my apartment caused by the builder running out of money meant I did not start my mortgage till I was 36. I can't even emigrate as the rent I would achieve on my apartment would fall considerably short of my mortgage payments and therefore it is unlikely that I would ever be able to afford to have children or become a normal high spending member of society. Have you considered these specific effects of the property crash?

This situation really only affects those who joined the property ladder between approximately 2002 and 2007, that is, it is not a massive number of people in the overall scheme of things. All those who purchased earlier than that had built up enough equity and those who have not purchased at all will be in the best situation of all, providing they can acquire jobs. Indeed, people of my generation will be at a huge disadvantage compared to the next generation, saddled as we are with these millstones, massive mortgages on reckless properties. All of this has had a significantly detrimental effect on my health. [He goes on to ask the Taoiseach] to consider Peter Bacon's recent suggestion that the Government pay off the negative equity experienced by my generation and therefore free us up to spend more money in the economy and remove some of the despair that is out there.

I have read that letter because we should not ignore the fact that auctioneers and estate agents earned huge sums selling these properties at exorbitant prices and facilitating putting together the financial deals which enabled young men like this constituent of mine to purchase residential units at prices for which they should never have been sold. There is a great deal more that needs to be done about this but we need to look back at the involvement of estate agents and auctioneers. We need to amend this legislation to ensure that they operate truly independently.

I do not believe that auctioneers and estate agents should ever be permitted to be directly involved in facilitating the putting together of financial packages to enable individuals to purchase properties. That should be left to the individual. I do not believe that financial institutions that fund developers should be allowed to provide prepackaged finance to facilitate the sale by developers of the constructions, residential or commercial, that have been funded by that particular financial institution. There is a need to provide clear blue lines or red lines beyond which no one can travel, in the interests of the consumer.

I want to refer to certain other issues. One of the great difficulties in the area of property is knowing what is the actual value of property. Putting it into a current context, I read with interest the provision in this legislation to which the Minister referred about the sale or letting of land provisions contained in Part 6 with regard to the "advised market value", and possible difficulties that a totally ethical auctioneer or estate agent may find himself or herself getting into with regard to advised market values that may not be correct. Will the Minister say how in the current market anyone can advise on the market value of anything in the property area?

One of the areas of work in which estate agents and auctioneers engage is rent reviews. We have already had an amount of talk about commercial leases. In the area of commercial leases it was the practice for many years that when individuals entered into leases there was provision for upward-only rent reviews. The legislation that this House passed has addressed that issue for individuals entering into commercial leases from the date the legislation became operative but has not addressed the problem for all of those who currently are tenants and who have commercial leases which preceded the enactment of that legislation.

There are many businesses located in different parts of the country currently struggling to maintain viability. A number of them in my constituency, some of them in Dundrum Town Centre, are being confronted by landlords many, but not all, of whom are financial institutions who seek rent reviews in circumstances in which under the lease all one can have is an upward-only rent review. If they go to arbitration, the arbitrator, as is normally provided for arbitration in these leases, can only accept an upward-only rent review. An arbitrator may determine that rents should remain as is, but he or she has no remit, jurisdiction or capacity to look at the current market and reduce rents. This is resulting in businesses closing down, jobs being lost and businesses that could remain viable ceasing to function because of financial pressures created by landlords and financial institutions unwilling to recognise that the market has changed and rents should be reduced. Some of the landlords, in the context of pension or other funds, are loath to reduce rents because maintaining them at an artificially high level allows them in their annual accounts to present the capital balances in their accounts and the capital value of funds as being greater in theory than they may be in reality. A wise landlord in the current market would be anxious to hold on to a willing tenant, even if the tenant is offering a lesser rent, if that tenant has a good history of making rental payments.

I do not know whether what has been brought to my attention is accurate, but concern has been expressed to me about this. I am not saying this is necessarily something any estate agent is involved in. It may simply be something which some of those who own rented commercial property have been engaged in. The concern has been expressed to me that when one goes to rent reviews in an arbitration context, or even if rent reviews result in persons ending up in court, the determining factor is when the arbitrator looks at what are called comparators — the rent payable for similar properties in similar locations or in the same location — and relates that rent as a true rent to what the rent should be in the lease being reviewed. It has been suggested to me that in some parts of the country landlords identify individual commercial tenants who they incentivise to agree a substantially increased rent, in other words, a lease is concluded or a rent review is agreed at a higher rate but there is some secret benefit given to the tenant who agrees to it. The reason that is happening is that such rent review can then be used as a comparator to force higher rents on a broad range of other tenants in adjacent commercial properties. If that practice is happening, it needs to be criminalised. Anyone involved in that should be liable to be charged with a criminal offence and I ask the Minister to look at that.

This Bill should provide for the creation of a database of property that is sold and the prices at which it is sold and detailing rental agreements reached and the rents payable so that the general public has a true indicator of the real value of properties and access to information on sales and rents agreed for particular properties. If there can be that sort of accessible public database in part of the United States, there is no reason we should not have it here. The United States has the greatest free enterprise economy in the world. It does not see that as divulging secrets. It sees that as ensuring there is a real and genuine market and that when people purchase property there is a real indicator of value and price. This legislation, in the context of dealing with estate agents and auctioneers, should have prescribed the creation of that sort of database, and included within it any changes required or amendments to the Data Protection Acts.

The effective regulation of auctioneers and estate agents has been demanded in this House for many years. A Bill to regulate auctioneers, letting agents and property management agents is long overdue.

It is remarkable that throughout the boom none of the successive Fianna Fáil-led Governments that gorged themselves on property taxes was prepared to move to proper regulation. A distinguished Member of the Upper House was able to demonstrate that the process required for an auctioneers licence was perfunctory in the extreme. Provided the applicant could furnish a modest bond there is no test as to his suitability.

Fianna Fáil used think of itself as a national movement where auctioneers are an integral part of the infrastructure, somewhere up there with publicans. As a leading publican said at that famous public meeting that we will never forget, "Who does the Government think is running the country?"

For the best part of a decade there has been an even more urgent need to regulate property agents who emerged and multiplied with the arrival of multi-unit developments. Often these gentlemen were a front for the property developer who built the development. Acute difficulties for residents have been created in many of these developments but it has taken six or seven years by Government to respond to advocacy for regulation in this House. In so far as this Bill is part of the answer, I welcome its belated introduction.

I do not particularly blame the Minister. I am not referring to the fact that this Minister has repeatedly disavowed any familiarity with the property sector and would not know a developer if he met one on the street. Rather I am questioning the wisdom of abolishing the department of law reform. The department of justice already has a huge legislative schedule and, in a department so tightly controlled as justice, it may simply be unrealistic to anticipate that sufficient priority would be given to law reform. Given that Fianna Fáil has been more or less permanently in office, the permanent government has learned how not to displease its political masters. The result is that control of beggars is accorded a higher legislative priority than regulation of auctioneers who have played a part in beggaring the rest of us.

Now the horse has bolted, the Government is responding to boom-time demands. The Government sat back while bankers, developers and auctioneers colluded to manipulate the market to facilitate profit-taking to such an extent that the crash became inevitable and families have been pauperised. Disquiet about certain practices in the auctioneering business finally gave rise to a review group being established in 2004. This was the period over which the then Taoiseach consistently resisted pleas in this House to look at a Kenny report style mechanism to control the price of building land. Eventually, he kicked to touch and referred the issue to the Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution, his excuse or explanation being that arguments on this side of the House that the Kenny report or some of its key recommendations might be implemented posed constitutional difficulties. The committee concluded, of course, that where the exigencies of the common good required it, there was no such impediment in the way of addressing the cost of building land. The then Taoiseach did not act and now we are all paying the price.

The principal proposal of the review group established in 2004 is the establishment on a statutory footing of a property services regulatory authority. Its purpose would be to control and supervise providers of property services and to improve standards in the provision of those services. Six years later, the Minister's Bill now reflects that principal recommendation.

One of the questions that arises is whether we need another agency and elaborate architecture to police a sector currently dormant and unlikely to be over-activated in the years immediately ahead. Is there no existing agency of State that might be given responsibility for these functions? For example, might these functions not be reposed in the National Consumer Agency? It appears to many people that as it stands the National Consumer Agency has few powers and believes it discharges its role merely by advising people to shop around. If its role is purely about consciousness-raising among consumers on the relative merits of shopping baskets, surely this function could be done to better effect by the national broadcaster? Why not give the National Consumer Agency some statutory teeth, including the key functions envisaged in the Bill, such as the capacity to earn fees?

More pertinently, I ask the Minister to state, when he is responding to this debate, whether discussions have taken place with the Property Registration Authority to ascertain whether it is in a position to discharge these functions. It seems the Property Registration Authority would be eminently well-placed to undertake the functions and activities envisaged by the Bill. I would be pleased if the Minister will indicate if he has considered this option, whether discussions have taken place with the Property Registration Authority, and whether it is the case that the authority already possesses the skill set necessary to discharge the functions envisaged in the Bill.

It is arguable that the elaborate architecture envisaged by the Bill has its origins in boom times and can be funded only in better times. Notwithstanding the intention that this new authority will be funded from fees levied on licensees, these questions need to be answered. Must we really establish a new authority on every occasion that we attempt a needed reform or seek to regulate a professional body? Perhaps there are circumstances that require precisely such an approach but is this one of them? Over the past 20 years, the Government has tended more and more to franchise out functions to agencies and quangos while at the same time employing outside consultants to help with the retained duties of a Civil Service diminished in numbers. Can we afford to continue to govern in this way?

It is clear that the Ministers clinging to office in this Government are still in the mindset of the profligate days when throwing around money was the formula for retaining power. It is a mindset that has imperilled our country, yet those responsible behave as though the citizens should be indebted to them for supposedly latterly putting the country before party. When one talks to people from outside this country, they express disbelief that the same politicians so guilty of undermining our way of life are still in office.

I acknowledge the welcome extension of the licensing system to encompass property management agents and that the residents who are clients of these agents will now enjoy at least some statutory safeguards. Taken together with enactment of the Multi-Unit Developments Bill, there should belatedly be protections in place for apartment owners, many of whom never anticipated or understood the challenges facing them when they bought into some of these developments. However, as the Minister is aware, there are a few outstanding important issues awaiting to be addressed on Report Stage of that Bill.

To most people outside of the House that a person should be deemed fit and proper to discharge the functions of an auctioneer seems an obvious first step. However, no such requirement as to character has been implemented up to now. I accept that the Bill envisages that in the future, the authority will enforce a more rigorous regime in this regard. I look forward to us having the opportunity on Committee Stage to test the adequacy of these provisions.

I am less clear as to the powers of the authority to intervene where it is suspected that there is collusion and anti-competitive practices being operated by the big players in the estate agency business. There is no doubt but that the big players in the estate agency business played no small part in artificially inflating property prices during the boom. Even before the crash, many individual families — especially first-time buyers — paid a heavy price for some of the practices engaged in by some auctioneering groups. Of course, in the vicious spiral that occurred, the big players in the estate agency business fuelled the crisis, and were encouraged and abetted by the broadsheets that profited from property supplements larger than the main newspaper. In the process, the big players cannibalised many of the small local auctioneers with no beneficial results to the local community. The developers, the big auctioneering firms, the banks and the newspapers were a heady cocktail that together puffed up the market at the expense of the consumer and ultimately caused the crash that is inflicting such hardship on so many families.

The Government refused to intervene because, as the then Minister for Finance, Deputy Cowen, famously stated, it was not his job to interfere in the market. It was a statement of such monstrous misjudgment that it will take a generation to recover from the consequences. The Government did not refrain from extending tax-based property incentives for long beyond their usefulness. The question that arises for the Minister is whether the new authority will have the power to arrest this type of self-serving spiral of greed.

Whether or not the Minister wants to proceed with the creation of a new authority as distinct from, as I have suggested, asking the existing Property Registration Authority to discharge these functions, I would like to raise a few questions, mainly in regard to Part 6.

I wish to raise a few questions with the Minister in respect of Part 6 of the Bill in which attempts are made to regulate licensees regarding the sale or letting of land. Auctioneers or valuers also provide a crucial function in the fixing of rents at rent review stage — to which Deputy Shatter referred — in long-term leases or where the court is asked to fix the term of a new lease where a tenant is claiming statutory rights and is consequently required to fix the rent. Tenants, including commercial tenants, have little or no confidence in valuers and auctioneers to disclose fairly and candidly all material facts with regard to comparable properties being let in the general vicinity of a premises. The tenants and the court are dependent on the valuers presenting comparators, that is, details of comparable lettings of which they are aware, for similar properties.

There should be a mandatory statutory obligation contained in the Bill, in the context of the fixing of a rent in any tenancy, whether it be the initial rent or in a rent review, that the valuer should disclose all material facts in connection with lettings being advanced. For example, if the valuer is aware that the rent set in a lease he or she is presenting as a comparator to the court has been varied informally or that some other arrangement has come into existence, for instance, a waiver of rent for a period of time or a landlord carrying out works in connection with securing a letting, this should be fully disclosed in a rent review, in any arbitration or in any process where the valuer's expertise is being relied upon. It should be a specific criminal offence to fail, omit or wilfully refrain from disclosing material facts about any letting, values or terms being presented in support of a rental value for any property.

Ireland should follow the lead of the UK Misrepresentation Act 1967. In practice, valuers, estate agents and auctioneers have a monopoly on information and the public are at their mercy as to the market rent for domestic and commercial properties. This is manifestly not in the public interest and the public have no confidence in the sector to regulate itself. There is no reason a proper and clear record should not be kept at the creation of each letting agreement of one year duration or longer of crucial data such as the core terms of the letting, for example, the square footage of the property, the intended usage and the rent. This data could be readily collated and made available to the public.

Under the Registration of Title Act 1964, leases for 21 years or longer can be registered as burdens and details of their existence can be ascertained and data pertaining to them are submitted to the Land Registry. Under the Registration of Deeds and Title Act 2006, the Minister for Justice and Law Reform has the power to extend registration to leases that are for less than 21 years. The greater the transparency and the more readily available to tenants and their advisers the true facts regarding the terms of lettings, the more likely we are to have a fair system of rents and less need for lengthy arbitrations or litigation to resolve disputes with regard to the fixing of the terms of new tenancies. Litigation and arbitration are costly processes and do not serve the interests of tenants who can often ill-afford the legal and expert fees involved. Never was this more applicable than today.

Deputy Shatter has raised the question of rent reviews and I know that the Minister has expressed views on this subject. I refer in particular to the question of upward-only rent reviews on which a Private Members' Bill was introduced by my colleague, Deputy Ciarán Lynch, but the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, has not responded positively.

In the interests of transparency, the Minister should introduce regulations immediately under section 59 of the Registration of Deeds and Title Act 2006, facilitating the registration of leases or lettings which are for 12 months or for a greater duration. The Property Registration Authority is perfectly equipped to deal with this matter. It has a system in operation for the past 40 years for the registering of leases.

The expansion of the category of leases to be registered readily facilitates data capture of rent. The data capture of rent is important, given the number of times Members of this House have received complaints in that regard. This is critical data which any Government seeking to manage the rights and interests of tenants and landlords needs to take into account as it reveals dynamics and trends in the property industry. There is no reason the sale prices of properties should also not be published and made available. This Bill would afford an ideal opportunity to confirm formally the position. What the public and national interest require at this time is a property price register and a publicly-accessible database.

For an appreciable period of time, the Minister has sought to hide behind the decision of the Data Commissioner that publication of house sale prices would offend the Data Protection Act. The Data Protection Commissioner operates the relevant legislation including the Data Protection Act 1988. This Act was amended by the Data Protection (Amendment) Act 2003, which brought Irish law into line with the EU data protection directive 95/46/EC. However, in England, details on property sale prices are readily available and the same EU data protection directive governs England as well as Ireland. Other common law jurisdictions, such as New Zealand, routinely publish sale prices and the information is openly accessible to the public. If we want to avoid distorting the rent or property market with regard to rent or prices, then the only method of prevention is to publish the actual facts about rents achieved and the sale prices of properties. The Data Protection Acts should be amended, to the extent that this is necessary, to bring the position into line with other countries, including England and Wales.

Furthermore, once the legislation is formally amended, data from previous years, particularly from 1 January 2005, should be made available so that the true facts and circumstances about sales of houses, in particular, are available for consideration. The public have a legitimate interest in having access to the information. In each conveyancing transaction the Revenue Commissioners acquire a document called a Particulars Delivered document which contains full details of price and so forth. Therefore, the data is already captured, is held by the Revenue Commissioners and is readily accessible. What is missing is the political will to facilitate the disclosure of the data.

The questions I have raised are purely in connection with Part 6 of the Bill. It is very unlikely that this Second Stage debate will conclude in the near future but I hope the Minister will take time to respond. We missed out on the ten-year period when this legislation was so badly needed. I cannot see the point now in rushing to enactment and bringing in an imperfect piece of legislation. This Bill has its origins in the boom times. Unfortunately, the market at present does not exist. The dead hand of NAMA is over all property transactions and, until that matter is stimulated, there will not be any movement.

The opportunity is there for us to get this legislation right. However, there is still a reluctance to deal with the kind of issues I have raised in respect of Part 6, including a reluctance on the part of the Minister to do so. I do not know why this is the case. Surely, notwithstanding the affinity that exists between the Minister's party, the property industry and the players within it, we must have learned that never again can we inflict this on our country. The damage which has caused us all to talk about co-operation and consensus to keep the IMF wolf from the door has been provoked because of the mistakes we made in this area. The Minister must acknowledge there is not just a necessity to admit those mistakes on his part and, in particular, on the part of his namesake, the former Taoiseach, but they must admit we need to address them now. We have not addressed them, as this Bill stands.

It is a very elaborate architecture. I do not know whether the capacity exists in the industry to pay for it. I am more concerned about the skill set that will be available to the authority to do the job of monitoring, policing, supervision and prosecution, if need be, of bad practice and the kind of manipulation of the market to which Deputy Shatter referred in his earlier remarks. We all remember it very well. We all remember the queues, in particular the arranged queues and the manipulated partial sales, as if there was a shortage of land and of houses for sale in the country, and we remember all of these kids who were walked into that by the smooth sales speak of so many commercial professionals.

It absolutely sticks in the craw now to see some of those beginning to re-emerge onto television and to give us opinions about the economic situation we are now in. They are crawling out from under the stones again — the banker economists who told us to party on and buy more houses because the prices were still going up.

They are all advising NAMA.

Some of them certainly are. They crawled under their stones for a couple of years but they are now beginning to emerge and the national broadcaster is beginning to feature them again. Some of them even have the audacity to tell us that they told us so. They did not. I am afraid to say that if they had, I do not think the newspapers would have published it. The newspapers were part of the vicious circle. They were making huge profits from fat property supplements and they were part of the collusion that went on between the big five estate agents, the newspapers themselves, the bankers and the auctioneers.

The Minister, six years later, has introduced the Bill to the House. We ought to take as much time as is necessary to get it right. There is not a great deal of activity out there at present and we have time on our hands on this one.

I wish to share time with Deputy Kenneally.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill. To follow on from some of the earlier comments, I agree with Deputy Rabbitte in regard to the property price register, which we should move quickly towards because it gives certainty within the market, in particular to potential buyers. I note that Deputy Rabbitte did not comment on the fact work has been ongoing. I have had occasion to question the Property Registration Authority Ireland, PRAI, when it came to the Committee of Public Accounts two to three months ago, and I am aware work has been ongoing with the Minister of State, Deputy Finneran, in that regard.

A proper register on the sale of properties is something we need to move towards because the difficulty is that uncertainty leads to stagnation in the market — I speak as one who was a first-time buyer not too long ago, which I will return to shortly. To take my area of north Dublin, which has the youngest population in the country at an average age of 32.5 years, many people there are looking to get on the housing ladder but are unsure as to whether it is the right time or if there will ever be a right time. Publishing statistics that are area-specific is a measure I would like to have expedited. I am pleased work is ongoing but we cannot delay further. What impressed me about the PRAI was the work it has done in bringing its systems up to speed in this regard, and this is something we need to follow very quickly with legislation. If that requires amendment to data protection legislation, we should do this as it will assist the whole sector.

I take this opportunity to welcome what I read on the RTE news website today about the agreement seemingly reached today by lawyers for Menolly Homes and the Lagan Group with regard to the pyrite difficulties in my area, as well as in many areas across the country. I understand the judge has adjourned the case for six weeks to allow for consultation with residents in the affected estates. Without seeing the full detail of that agreement, it might be an important step forward to give certainty to home owners who, in the main in areas such as Kinsealy, purchased their homes in 2005-06 and now have grave difficulties with their houses. I give this a guarded welcome. I want to see the detail of the agreement in the next week in order to discuss it with my constituents and find out how they feel about it. It might be an important step forward.

Building control within the State is another area that needs to be examined in great detail. When developments are finished, there is no point having the building control units of local authorities signing matters off the plans and designs. The United Kingdom has a very different system whereby inspections take place at each stage of a housing development and are signed off on-site. This issue has led to some of the problems in my area of north Dublin and I would like the area of building control to be addressed.

To move to the Bill itself, I would not be nearly as critical as some of the speakers. It is an important step in the right direction. We have been crying out for independent regulation of this sector. The issues are complex, however, and I speak as one who lives in a managed estate. I have had personal experience of dealing with a managing agent in Malahide and, prior to that, with a management company that simply was not up to scratch in terms of the services it was providing. I see this consistently in my area of north Dublin. There are managing agents who do their jobs well and work with residents, who are, after all, the owners of the managing company. This point is often forgotten. When I meet residents of managed estates, I am shocked by the number of people who do not realise that they themselves own a part of that management company and it is the managing agent's duty to discharge the services on behalf of the owners of that company.

The problem has been that when an agent is not performing its duties, producing accounts or responding to queries and complaints within an estate but is simply collecting the management fees, this has a vicious circle effect, namely, people withhold their management fees and the services cannot be provided within the estates, which then run into debt. Those debts are carried by the owners of the company, namely, the residents. I am specifically interested in the provisions in the Bill for managing agents and a proper authority which will have the teeth to deal with complaints. In my own area of Malahide, we had to come together as residents to pressure a managing agent to leave. We did not have legal powers to force the agent's departure because the structure of the company was such that its board was controlled by the developer. That is not a way for people to live in their own communities. This Bill will ensure that people have recourse to the property services regulatory authority and a compensation fund.

Heretofore, some managing agents have enjoyed a free lunch. I do not want to tar all agents with the same brush because I have dealt with individuals who perform their duties extremely well and offer good value for money. However, under the planning regime that has obtained for the past several years, local authorities have made permission for many housing estates and apartment developments conditional on being managed on a private basis. In many instances, this was done to allow the local authority to abrogate its responsibility to residents. I am pleased to note that amendments were brought to the last two Fingal County Council development plans to ensure that housing only developments were not given over to management companies. This example ought to be followed across the country.

Under the Bill, the property services regulatory authority will be tasked with controlling and supervising the providers of property services in order to improve standards. We only have to open any local or national newspaper to read complaints from people who are dependent on managing agents to provide basic services. The licensing system will cover auctioneers, letting agents and property management agencies and the information collected will be made available to residents to allow them to decide who is best able to look after their estates. The authority will also have a comprehensive investigative and enforcement function and its scope will extend to property management services. It will be empowered to appoint inspectors to carry out investigations of licensees either on its own accord or on foot of a complaint. If a licensee is convicted of an offence under the Act, the court may in some cases revoke all licences he or she may hold and prohibit him or her from reapplying for a licence either permanently or temporarily. That is a serious sanction which will make people sit up and take their responsibilities seriously.

The new regulatory regime will be funded by fee income generated by the authority from licences and other services. We have nothing to fear from regulation. My previous career was in the independent insurance broker market. While there has been considerable discussion about the Financial Regulator and the banks, independent financial advisers have moved quickly in response to good regulation and the people who were not doing their jobs properly were weeded out. This Bill will have the same effect on property management companies.

I thank Deputy O'Brien for sharing his time with me and I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Property Services (Regulation) Bill 2009. There is agreement on all sides of the House that property management has been crying out for regulation. Anything that streamlines services or makes them more efficient is to be welcomed. When we speak about small and medium enterprises we regularly call for costs and bureaucracy to be cut. Costs in the industry will be reduced by changing the licensing of auctioneers from the current court based system to the regulatory regime proposed in the Bill.

I do not usually like to see new bodies being established or power being taken from Departments but this authority is different because it will not cost the Exchequer anything. Too many bodies set up in the past did not fund themselves and I do not see any difficulty with an agency being self-reliant. The fees it generates from the industry will cover its operating costs of €3 million per year. I assume the big auctioneer firms which have a presence in almost every town and city across the country will pay the lion's share of the fees. I hope the amount of funding they provide will not give them a disproportionate influence over the authority's activities.

It was sensible of the Minister to set up an implementation group and a chief executive designate because there is always a lead-in period after legislation comes into force, particularly where a new organisation is being established. Much of the preparatory work has already been done. I assume the State is paying the salaries of the individuals involved in the implementation process and I ask whether this expenditure will be recouped when the authority begins to generate its own income.

The licensing regulations are important because we are all aware of how rapidly the property market developed during the late 1990s and the early years of this century. Regulations did not develop as rapidly as one would like, however, and it is time that we caught up.

I am glad property management companies will be covered by the regulations. While they are more prevalent in Dublin, property management companies operate in every corner of the country. They have largely been unregulated and, while it is probably fair to say that the vast majority carry out their functions in an exemplary manner, a number do not.

While the Bill sets out a number of conditions that must be met before a licence is granted, I could not find out how long a licence will last. One of the licence conditions is that the individual must be tax compliant. A tax clearance certificate from Revenue is valid for a year but if the licence expires after two or more years, its holder may not be tax compliant for the full duration. I wonder if there is a mechanism in the Bill to check whether somebody who is not tax compliant is operating under the scheme. Obviously, that should not be allowed.

I wish to speak about section 44 of the Bill, which relates to letters of engagement. I am not sure if I have the correct version of the Bill, as passed by the Seanad. My reading of the section is that when a person employs an auctioneer to sell a house, within a short period of time the auctioneer must set out the agreement or contract between them in a letter of engagement. What happens if the person employs a second auctioneer, which happens quite often at present? I assume a second letter of engagement must be issued in such circumstances. I do not know what prices are being charged, or rates of commission are being earned, by auctioneers at present. I have very few dealings with them. One might have agreed rates of commission of 2% or 3% in the letters of engagement with both of one's auctioneers, in addition to the other matters agreed in the letters. As far as I know, if both of them are involved in the sale of one's house, as things stand the commission is split between the two of them. Under this legislation, would one have to pay commission to both auctioneers even if one of them had done very little? If so, one might not be keen to hire a second auctioneer even if that would make it easier for one to dispose of one's property.

I would like to ask a similar question about letting agents. As far as I can see, anyone who is covered under this legislation must issue a letter of engagement. Will such a letter be needed if a letting agent rents out a property for as little as €500 a month? Many letting agents have separate property management companies. If such a company is managing the renting out of a property, it might be on a commission of 10% of the rent per month, for example. That would be a small amount of money if the company were involved in renting just one property. I wonder if this form of bureaucracy is necessary in cases of that nature. If a property is being rented for a payment below a certain threshold, perhaps the transaction should be exempt from these requirements.

I welcome section 67, which provides protections for people who report improper conduct. We are familiar with certain cases, such as the AIB case, that were brought to our attention by whistleblowers. It happened in FÁS as well, although I think that was done under a cloak of anonymity. We have to protect these people. I welcome the fact that this legislation will offer some protection to people who act in good faith. Does the authority have the power to ensure such people are not discriminated against? It is easy to ensure a person is not dismissed, or does not suffer a reduction in salary, but it may be more difficult to prove that a promotion opportunity has been denied. It needs to be watched. A simple and clear mechanism should be available to that end. Will it be possible for the authority to accept an anonymous report from a person who might be worried about being victimised? A person who works for a licensed operator might be happy to come forward as long as his or her name is not published. We must protect honest men and women. Their integrity is invaluable to us.

I am pleased to have had an opportunity to say a few words on the Property Services (Regulation) Bill 2009. I compliment the Minister on its introduction. I hope it will make its way into law shortly.

It is a miracle that this Bill has finally appeared in the House. Even in the context of the Government's track record, the length of time it has taken to appear and, worse still, the false starts that have been associated with it, have been unbelievable. It is unacceptable that such urgently needed legislation was delayed for five years. This view has been expressed by many bodies that expected the legislation to be brought before the House before now.

As a public representative who is familiar with the problems experienced by people throughout Ireland, including my constituents, due to the lack of regulation of the property services sector, particularly with regard to property management agents, I welcome this Bill. I also welcome it as a licensed auctioneer who has awaited the regulation of this sector. I do not understand why the provisions of this legislation could not have been adequately dealt with in the Multi-Unit Developments Bill 2009. If the two Bills could have been brought together in such a manner, as Deputy Rabbitte suggested, it is necessary to criticise the blatant waste of public money and duplication involved in the separate introduction of the provisions of the previous Bill and the Bill before the House. When will Fianna Fáil and the Green Party start to save the taxpayer from unnecessary expenditure? Perhaps the Minister, Deputy Dermot Ahern, who is going through his files as I speak, will explain why he felt two Bills were required. It seems that a single Bill could have covered all of these provisions. I recognise that the scope of the Multi-Unit Developments Bill 2009 was narrower, but it should have been possible to include all of the provisions under the umbrella of one Bill.

One of the main provisions of the legislation before the House is to give a legislative stamp to the National Property Services Regulatory Authority. The authority has been like a toothless dog, in so far as it has snarled occasionally but has had no bite. The establishment of another quango without legislative power has been another major waste of public money. It is another example of a Department trying to avoid taking responsibility for something that should be part of its operation. There is a strong case to be made that the establishment of the authority was a mistake from the outset. The Law Reform Commission made it clear that there was a sufficient number of regulatory bodies in the public service to implement the new legislation. The Government, in its wisdom, chose to ignore this recommendation. It is not surprising that the taxpayer, as always, is bearing the brunt. The authority has the best office accommodation in Navan, which is an expensive luxury in the absence of a fully stamped role.

Given that the bottom has fallen out of the property market, one wonders if the authority will ever have a vital role to play. The once urgent need to regulate estate agents and managing agents does not now seem quite so urgent. At a time when the regulation of its own operations is under scrutiny, the Government would be well advised to ensure the authority, which has the appearance of nothing more than an expensive quango, does not duplicate the functions of other centralised regulatory bodies in Dublin. Amalgamation is now the name of the game. It would be ironic if the authority were to be amalgamated before it had done little more than use up taxpayers' money. This time last year the National Building Agency, the Homeless Agency, the Affordable Homes Partnership and the Centre for Housing Research were amalgamated to cut expenditure. What price for an authority that has cost millions of euro but has been shackled by the Government's failure to give it legislative power?

One of the positives of this legislation is that, irrespective of whether the authority survives in the short or long term, it greatly strengthen the interest of apartment owners, which is welcome. It will also keep a tight rein of management agents whose services and charges have been a source of great anger and conflict. The matter of management fees must be addressed once and for all.

Expecting excited first-time buyers to pay management charges before moving into their new properties and refusing to hand over keys until charges are paid has become one of the greatest scams associated with the property market. Worse still, on many estates in my constituency of Longford-Westmeath, people were expected to pay charges before necessary infrastructure such as public lighting, footpaths and so on was in place. During the past few years, on many Sundays I have been called to public meetings on such estates where the issue of management fees was criticised. It needs to be addressed urgently.

These charges affect house and apartment owners alike. Evidence suggests there are serious problems regarding apartment complexes and housing estates and many residents feel powerless to address them. These problems relate primarily to common areas and the failure of builders and managing agents to maintain them while simultaneously charging high management fees that increase each year, often with little or no provision for a sinking fund, which is necessary to cover the high costs that occur every few years when major refurbishment is needed. Fees can often be higher than two mortgage repayments and residents are often at a loss to know what they are paying for and why.

As far back as 2002, the Programme for Government had committed to the regulation of management companies but eight years of misery for many have passed without resolution of these problems. With approximately €1 million per annum poured into the PSRA, it will be more than welcome to see it being given the power to finally function and carry out its brief with full powers to control and supervise licensees and maintain and improve standards in the provision of property services by licensees. Under this legislation, the authority will be given the power to oversee the issuing and renewal of licences, the establishment and maintenance of a register of licensees, the enforcement of requirements for the issuing an renewal of licences and minimum levels of professional indemnity, the specification and enforcement of technical and ethical standards, the dissemination of information, the establishment and administration of a compensation fund and the development and promotion of codes of practice and conduct.

In this regard, the authority has developed a code of practice for property service providers, auctioneers and estate agents, which set out the minimum standards to be expected from both. I was surprised that Deputy Kenneally was wondering whether this was provided for in the Bill. Not only will the authority take over this function from the Department, it will take over licensing responsibilities from the District Court. Will the Minister expand on this when he replies to Second Stage?

Unfortunately, the legislation does not solve the problem of ghost estates and the huge empty spaces that stand as the legacy of Fianna Fáil-Green Party Government, although the Progressive Democrats were partly responsible for what has happened and we tend to let them off hook. Some of its former members are still hovering around the House and they should not be let off the hook regarding the deprivation they have caused for communities and for our society. This is a legacy of shame that sees the Taoiseach stand as one who has destroyed the historic legacy of his party. He has shamed the memory of Eamon De Valera and the pride of nationalism. The replacement legacy was formed on the basis of greed and cronyism. Many of those involved frequented the Galway tent in the good years and made huge contributions to the Fianna Fáil Party. Such misplaced collusion with property developers and speculators has shamed the Taoiseach and his party both at home and abroad.

The people are left to pick up the pieces of their devastated counties, as is the case in my constituency where ghost estates haunt the landscape. I attended a meeting only last week with the manager of Westmeath County Council. One of his directors of services had a list of ghost estates in that county as long as my arm and the position is similar in Longford. I hope to get further information on this. Longford is one of the worst hit counties in the State, along with Leitrim and Cavan. The Government needs to wake up and create an incentive to sell off property on ghost estates. There is money in the country and we should not be conned about this. There are people with money but the country lacks hope. The Government should introduce a scheme for six months whereby stamp duty would not be applied to ghost estate properties. Many people in Dublin would love to have weekend homes in the midlands and they could maintain those homes. It would be better than having them lying idle with whin bushes growing in the door. Some of the estates have been idle for between five and eight years. A scheme such as this would offer a stimulus to kick-start the purchase of property on these estates.

We have wonderful tourism projects in the midlands and we have a rich heritage. We have fine rivers and lakes and recently the Royal Canal, which runs from Dublin through my constituency to meet up with the River Shannon at Clondra, was refurbished. We have many historic buildings, monuments and parks and there are arts centres in Longford, Mullingar and Athlone. Many customs and traditions are dying but they should be promoted as part of our tourism product. People whose families moved to Dublin two or three generations ago might like to move back on a weekend basis to see what rural Ireland has to offer. It has a great deal of offer and it is a great place to live, work and socialise. Agri-tourism options could also be explored.

The massive overproduction of housing units in counties Longford, Cavan, Roscommon, Leitrim and Sligo was fuelled by the misconceived upper Shannon renewal scheme introduced in 1998 by the then Minister for Finance, Charlie McCreevy, and it was wound down only on a phased basis by his successor, Deputy Cowen. Blame for the oversupply of housing in these counties rests on both their shoulders.

Debate adjourned.