Deputy Mattie McGrath was in possession. He has nine minutes remaining.
Residential Tenancies (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2012: Second Stage (Resumed)
I welcome classes from Coláiste Dún Iascaigh who are in the Visitors Gallery today.
I compliment the work of the voluntary bodies, as I am sure the Minister and all other Members do. I am the chairperson of Caislean Nua Voluntary Housing Association and I wish to pay a special tribute to the members of its small committee. Most of them are older than me and they do tremendous work, as do voluntary groups throughout the country. I am not referring to Respond! Housing Association and the many other groups which also do great work, but to the several hundred smaller groups that are of and for the community. They volunteer their time on a daily basis, because there are always issues to be dealt with. Thankfully, last Christmas was nice but two years ago the water pipes froze and there were leaks in some houses. The committee members had to go out and deal with the residents. There is a wonderful bond between the residents and the committees of these voluntary association boards.
The boards are voluntary and limited by guarantee. As such they are subject to many statutory obligations in respect of financial regulations, company law, the residential tenancies legislation and regulations relating to good housekeeping and respect for tenants. There is a range of issues to be addressed on Committee Stage, particularly measures to protect tenants and tenants' deposits from illegal retention and to tackle the non-payment of rent by tenants remaining in situ. These are two of the most common issues that arise. Anybody who has been a member of a local authority has been confronted with these issues. I compliment the housing staff in both North and South Tipperary County Councils, Waterford County Council and, indeed, all county councils, especially the staff who deal sensitively with these issues. The rent collectors in south Tipperary have been very professional in doing their job and have always had a very high collection rate.
I pay special tribute to Donal McManus and his colleagues on the Irish Council for Social Housing. They provide an outstanding support for the local groups, especially the fledgling groups I like to encourage. Indeed, we encouraged one in Ballymacarbry, County Waterford, and the former President, Mary McAleese, came down to officially open its estate. The people got involved and it was a joy. There is a great deal of work involved in procuring the site and planning, appointing architects and builders and generally overseeing the job. It is not easy to deal with Departments over the different stages. While departmental officials have a job to do, issues came to the fore towards the end of that development about VAT and so forth which were unclear and caused a great deal of trauma and angst. Thankfully, however, they were resolved. I thank Niall Morrissey who was the liaison between the Department and the group. He is now chief executive officer of South Tipperary Development Company. He is a very able and dignified official. He is also very respectful of community groups. That is what is required. What we must not do with this Bill is in any way damage or frighten the community initiative. That is vital.
Due to low funding in the Department most houses are being allocated by local authorities through the rental accommodation scheme, RAS. Even though funding has been cut to the bone, I still see value for money being achieved and careful, neat and clever design. Indeed, there is a competition bi-annually at the annual conference for the different schemes and designs, not only for housing but also for community facilities and all the different aspects of creating a home and special place for residents. The different ideas, designs and clever concepts make life a fulfilling experience for the residents. There is nothing more satisfactory for a voluntary board than being able to house people who are in need. We had one case just after last Christmas. The person had left the community, bought a house in a different county but it did not work out and the person became homeless. It was very meaningful and delightful to help. We have a strict tenancy agreement which must be respected by both sides but one can deal sensitively with it and make people's lives better.
Demand for the dispute resolution service of the Private Residential Tenancies Board, PRTB, has increased, but the number of staff in the PRTB has decreased. The most recent annual report stated that 2010 was a challenging year for the dispute resolution service with an unprecedented 2,230 dispute applications being received, representing an increase of 20%. Sadly, I have no figures for 2011 or 2012 but I believe the figure has increased simply because of the economic depression. People have lost their jobs and incomes and are challenged in many ways with bank loans and so forth. More staff are needed in the PRTB as we must deal with that issue sensitively. It is not fair on the staff either. I compliment the staff because it is a very delicate area.
In that regard, I wish to pay tribute to the council housing liaison officers, especially the officers in south Tipperary, Tess Collins and Catriona Crowe. They must deal with severe problems on a daily basis. Often it can be quite intimidating but they do it with decorum, respect, utmost sensitivity and confidentiality, which is very important. That is also required of the voluntary sector in respect of its tenants. I hope that area will be strengthened as there are not enough of these officers. Given their budgets, it is a challenge for councils to maintain them, but they must be supported. Above all, they must be allowed to do their work without fear or favour and to sort out issues early. We have seen the work that has been done in the Cooleens Close area in Clonmel.
There is also the work the RAPID - Revitalising Areas by Planning, Investment and Development - programme assisted on the fringes of voluntary schemes and also in deprived areas in the towns of Cashel, Tipperary and Clonmel. It is a shame that RAPID funding for the co-ordinators has been withdrawn under this Government. To its credit, South Tipperary County Council has decided it will try to shore up the money - it was getting 60% of the funding - for the co-ordinators, who are doing an outstanding job in those three towns. They are getting down to the problem areas in the communities. The value for money of those RAPID programmes within the housing stock in the socially deprived areas, the work they have done and the schemes they have brought forward cannot be let go. South Tipperary County Council saw the value of that and has tried to put the money together to retain the co-ordinators. However, there will be no funding for the programmes. That is wasteful. The Minister of State, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, promoted and supported that programme in her constituency, where it was badly needed. That programme has done valuable work and we must not throw the baby out with the bath water. We are in an economic depression but that type of value and support is vital. That is evident. If anybody carried out an audit of its value in any Department, there would be no questions asked and it would not be touched. It would be saved, ring-fenced, supported and enhanced.
While I do not wish to be critical of departmental officials, I sometimes wonder why they do these things. We saw it again two weeks ago with the monitored alarms which are used in the voluntary schemes and also in private houses. A decision was taken to cut them but, thankfully, they had to go back on that decision. These decisions cannot be taken with the stroke of a pen. We must support the voluntary sector as well as the local authority housing sector. I am a strong supporter of the voluntary sector. We must protect it and encourage it. We cannot oblige its volunteers to stay up for nights filling in complicated quasi-legal documents. They must pay for legal advice, although my group has a very good and supportive legal adviser in Aine Ryan. It is intimidating. We also must have audited accounts every year. There are many obligations that people do not see. However, that is my view on the situation at present.
I wish to share time with Deputies Tom Hayes and Seán Conlan.
I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the debate. This amending Bill is important and timely, reflecting the growing move in society away from owning a home to renting. The Irish practice of home and property ownership is, rightly, deeply ingrained, given our historic experiences of famine and the land war. However, in more recent years, there has been a trend towards the norm on the Continent of renting, not just as a short-term option but even when establishing a family home. According to the 2011 census, the rate of home ownership dropped from 74.7% to 69.7% between 2006 and 2011. In my town of Navan, the rate has dropped from 73.2% to 67.43%. The rates in other towns such as Trim and Enfield reflect the decrease in the national average, according to the CSO figures. Our laws and the size and quality of apartments and other units have been slow to follow European trends fully and the Bill is a welcome step in the right direction.
I welcome the fact the PRTB will be renamed the residential tenancies board and that it has been self-financing since 2010. This marks the board out from many other State agencies and quangos that do not pay their own way, leading to increasing public cynicism about their relevance and about public institutions generally. We must be wary, however, as a Parliament, in voting through increases in powers and responsibilities of the day-to-day workload of the board if there are no plans to provide additional funding to meet them. We expect a great deal from the board and I have received many queries through my office over the years regarding services people had hoped they would get from the board. There can be delays due to staff shortages and workload and there have also been problems with the board's powers to follow up on cases but that is being addressed in the legislation, especially in regard to tenants who disappear or move on. The landlord generally owns the house and can be contacted and dealt with. There are consequence for him or her but it is easy for tenants to disappear or move on and the board does not always have the powers, time or funding to chase them to enforce fines or to ensure they correct what they have done. We need to ensure this is borne in mind when additional powers are given to the board.
In this regard, I am concerned with section 16, which will terminate the practice of charging a fee of €25 for mediation services, even though the Bill and many of the board's reports propose to encourage more mediation. While I recognise the principle underpinning this is to increase the take-up of mediation as an option, this could be done by way of a fee reduction or another form of incentivisation rather than wiping out an important income stream for a self-financing agency. I would welcome the Minister of State's feedback on this matter. Perhaps I am missing something and the Minister of State could outline the reason for this.
Similarly, the number of board members will reduce from 15 to 12 and while, on paper, it is often wise to reduce the size of boards to save money, we are going through tough times and the board will face an increased workload with a reduced staff. There is a great deal of international evidence that a board comprising 12 members is the optimum in the context of decision-making and achieving outcomes. If that is the case, I accept it, once it is recognised that we are asking the board to do much more as its powers are increased. The last thing I want is more backlogs. The board does not carry out the day-to-day functions but it makes decisions in this regard.
The voluntary and co-operative housing sector is doing fantastic work in every county providing safe and secure accommodation, often for those on the margins of society, for whom a home provides a sense of dignity and self-worth, which is often life changing. In my home town, good work is done by Navan Mental Health Housing Association, which is based in Flower Hill. Nationally, 700 voluntary and co-operative bodies have approved housing status, providing a total of 25,263 housing units or homes, as I prefer to call them. Too often we call them units when they are people's homes. The voluntary and co-operative housing sector may find it difficult to raise the registration fee of €90 per tenancy. Its drive and ethos is different, as it is not-for-profit. Rents are generally well below market rates and those paying them are on social welfare supports. This should be borne in mind. Is there scope for a reduced registration fee, even for a settling in period? Perhaps a balance could be struck by retaining the mediation service fee and reducing the registration fee for not-for-profit bodies. I am conscious I have not been present for all the contributions to the debate and I may have missed the reasoning behind this. The flip side is there are many advantages for the tenant and landlord in this sector as the expensive avenue of redress to the courts is being removed for many of the day-to-day disputes that arise. This benefit cannot be highlighted enough.
As a Member for Meath West, I have gathered much evidence from my clinics and contacts with local public representatives about the need for a deposit protection scheme and I am sure other Members are no different. The issues regarding deposits are often linked to disputes over rent arrears which, in turn, are often linked to disputes about the quality of accommodation and failure to deal with problems repeatedly flagged for attention. Our student population and young adults setting out on their careers are particularly vulnerable in this regard. Tenants in this age group are rarely always angels but there can be plenty of devils among landlords who take advantage of generalisations about students and young people to provide excuses for retaining part or all of a deposit. While this is deeply unfair it is also, sadly, common. England, Scotland, Wales and New Zealand, which are fellow common law jurisdictions, have deposit protection schemes. These are worthy of study, not for the sake of it, but in a strong, solution focused way to deliver for people in the expanding rental sector. I urge the Minister of State to examine this and drive such a scheme forward under this or future legislation. It is an issue for many groups in society and we need to do all we can to protect them.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to contribute to the debate. The PRTB is doing a good job, which is more important now than ever before, given the changed circumstances in many houses and on many housing estates throughout the country. The board is under huge pressure because of a reduction in the number of its staff. The Minister has been lobbied to resource the agency better to carry out its functions in a more meaningful and efficient way.
The Bill is welcome but I wonder whether it goes far enough. Anti-social behaviour is a major problem in every town, including in Clonmel, Cahir, Cashel, Carrick-on-Suir, Fethard, Tipperary town and others in my constituency. Third parties can bring complaints to the PRTB but the process of adjudication and appeals is too slow and bureaucratic and the penalties are too weak. Generally, the Garda will not act unless a criminal offence has been committed but many offences could be prevented if gardaí had powers to act when complaints are made to them in the first place. Many older people cannot sleep at night because of noise and nuisance created by unruly tenants. In this day and age, it is not good enough, particularly for the elderly, who have paid for their houses and worked hard all their lives. In the times we live, people feel vulnerable at night because of the incidence of break ins and robberies throughout the country. It is, therefore, unfair for older people to have to tolerate noise and other anti-social behaviour. It is becoming more prevalent and needs to be tackled. The Ministers for Justice and Equality and the Environment, Community and Local Government and the Minister of State with responsibility for housing, who is present, need to tackle this issue. It is particularly unfair on older people who have paid for their houses but it is also unfair on people with young families.
Many changes have taken place in society and in the way people act and behave, but they must behave within the law. The law needs to be strengthened to protect and help everyone who lives in a housing estate or a residential area. The gardaí play their part, but we need forward thinking and planning. The Garda is under resourced but gardaí are playing their part. Last week, I called to my local Garda station and saw a plan for community support and involvement and to protect the people. A Garda station closed in a small rural area but the gardaí have put a plan in place to deal with ongoing policing in the future. The gardaí are prepared to work and co-operate, but we must all work together. The gardaí must be provided with legislation to help them deal with what is a major problem in many areas.
Many tenants, genuinely, cannot afford to pay rent but some deliberately will not pay it. That is a real problem. These tenants know from experience that if they do not pay the rent it will be at least a year before their landlord's complaint to the PRTB will be dealt with. That is not good enough. This is why I go back to my earlier point. The staff and resources need to be provided to make the board effective. The period of delay is too long for a landlord to have no rental income. Landlords have mortgages and household and water charges to pay and commitments to meet. Everyone must play the game and regulations need to be tightened up.
The days of changing locks overnight are gone, and rightly so, but now the law has swung full circle in favour of bad tenants. We need to redress that and change our attitudes. That must be part of the Bill. This is an opportune time to insert a speedy process for dealing with tenants who do not pay and are over-holding. Landlords, many of whom are in serious financial difficulty, should have such tenants evicted within one month.
This is important and timely legislation and can be of benefit to the many people who will be affected by it.
As a nation, we have arrived at a new place in residency arrangements. Due to the events of recent years we find ourselves drifting towards the European model of families and individuals renting accommodation rather than purchasing it, as was the case before the recession. This has largely resulted from the imposition of more difficult criteria for mortgage applicants, making it more difficult to secure finance to purchase a home, and from the fall-out of a broken financial system whereby many have accrued enormous debts and will not be considered for further advances in the foreseeable future. Added to this is the growing number of unfortunate people who have lost jobs and can no longer meet their mortgage repayments, presenting them with no alternative but to hand back the keys of their homes and seek rented accommodation.
The rental sector is booming. There is enormous growth in the sector. The presence of the essential elements guaranteeing future growth has provided a challenge to the Legislature to enact legislation capable of delivering an adequately regulated property rental sector that will meet the needs of the new rental population. This is what the Bill seeks to do.
The Bill is aimed at expediting the dispute resolution process and broadening the scope of the legislation to afford this facility to tenancies in the voluntary and co-operative housing sectors. It does this to considerable effect. In that regard, the Bill is a welcome improvement on the current system.
Rented accommodation is often acquired on a short to medium term agreement basis and fast and efficient addressing of disputes is essential as they often relate to people who are transient. It is important that the resolution process addresses the needs of those at whom it is targeted. Therefore, anything that expedites the process is helpful.
Some 72% of cases brought by tenants to the PRTB, which will now be known as the residential tenancies board, RTB, relate to issues of deposit retention, while 68% of those brought on behalf of landlords relate to rent arrears. These are the two major issues causing disputes. It is puzzling, therefore, that the legislation that seeks to address the area of dispute resolution in the tenancy sector ignores the two items that represent almost three quarters of all complaints processed. While I applaud the endeavours of the Minister in seeking to address this area, we need to include many of the issues that are absent from the current process if we are to provide legislation that adequately addresses the needs of the sector.
Before the recession, rental accommodation was the domain of the young and the less well-off. It has now become the vehicle of choice for a wider range of our citizens as a means of providing accommodation for themselves and their families. It will become more common and, in time, we will become more like our European counterparts. A properly regulated sector can do the nation a service, allowing members of the community to have a home and a life, two things they have often had to choose between because of the exorbitant price of accommodation.
The key issues for landlords are non-payment of rent and anti-social behaviour of tenants. If tenants trash an apartment or house, the unfortunate landlord, who may have bought the property as a pension plan and at a very high price, may not have the financial wherewithal to renovate the apartment. The tenants can walk away scot fee and there is a very slow process in place to deal with the issue. From tenants' points of view, retention of deposits is a massive issue.
We need legislation with teeth to address these issues in a speedy fashion and make sure both landlord and tenant are treated fairly. Unless we properly fund the RTB we would be better off abolishing it and going back to the old system of settling disputes in the courts. Tenants and landlords both need speedy resolution. Twelve months is too long to deal with any issue. Perhaps we should have statutory time limits for responses to queries from individuals. Statutory time limits and proper funding would ensure that the organisation can deal with issues in a speedy fashion.
I welcome the basis of the legislation. We need to tweak it and make sure we focus on the fundamental issues that are of most importance to people in the private rental sector.
In analysing any situation we can see the glass as half empty or half full. Many Deputies have largely welcomed the Bill. It will be broadly supported. It is, however, limited in its cover and in what it does. We need to look at it in more depth.
The critical absence from the Bill has already been highlighted. The biggest issues of concern are, from a tenant's point of view, the withholding of deposits and, for landlords, rent being unpaid. Those issues are the two significant contributors to the caseload of the PRTB but they are the two areas that are excluded from the Bill. The Minister says this will be addressed later. That is doing things the wrong way around. If the Bill is to be comprehensive, adding this later is not adequate. We need to examine this inadequacy. We say the legislation will reduce delays and simplify procedures for dealing with disputes between landlords and tenants. Nobody will say that is a bad thing. We must look at the mechanisms being put in place to make that a reality. If we look at the actual situation, we have to say the Bill is trying to square a circle.
Unless resources are provided we cannot deliver on the legislation and we will not be contributing to improving the situation. We have seen the statistics. More than 2,000 cases are before the board. This, according to the board itself, represents an unprecedented 20% rise in the number of cases in the past year. Other Deputies highlighted issues such as the waiting time of between eight and 12 months.
With the embargo on public sector recruitment, the numbers in the organisation are due to fall from 70 to 33 staff. How will it deal with more applications with fewer staff to provide the efficient service the Bill claims it will deliver? It sounds good but behind the scenes the situation will get worse.
We are increasing the scope of the board to extend cover to voluntary and co-operative housing schemes. Most Deputies welcome that but I am not so sure. I have no problem with their inclusion but we must dig deeper and ask where we are going with social housing policy. There has been an explosion of these voluntary and cooperative bodies while there has been an erosion of local authority provision. Do we really need hundreds of these voluntary housing organisations? I am not so sure we do. These are some of the background issues the Minister of State must resolve before this legislation will deliver any meaningful change.
We must step back from the situation to look at the nature of accommodation provision in Ireland. We are in a peculiar hybrid situation where there has been an explosion of rental property. The slum owning, rack renting landlords of James Connolly's time are not new to this country but the landlord of today is very different from the traditional landlord who played that role. Many people have become involuntary landlords by virtue of the fact they cannot meet the mortgage payments on the home they bought at the height of the boom. Many of them have had to move back to their parents' houses or share with someone else, while renting their property to repay an unsustainable mortgage so the bank gets its money. In many cases, the rent is not even enough and they must make up the deficit.
Many retired people were encouraged to buy property, particularly those who found themselves with an inadequate pension fund, and their life savings are now going towards mortgage repayments while the property is a liability rather than an asset that could fund a pension. These people are not renting to make a profit and we must consider that. Many of these involuntary landlords need decisive action.
What is the benefit of the State paying rent subsidy for the private rental of those properties with unsecured tenure? There should be some sort of a scheme whereby the Government would take over those mortgages on the basis that much of the debt was written off when the banks were recapitalised. Those people should be allowed to get out of those contracts. That would then be a vehicle for the State to become the landlord, directly providing social housing, which would be a much better way of resolving disputes. Contrary to what people think, the management and tenant resolution process is far easier within the scope of direct provision by local authorities. The local authorities are in a much better position to deal with these issues than the private sector. This Bill must be seen in that context, where there is a new type of landlord and circumstances are different from before.
There has been a virtual collapse in social housing provision. No houses are being built and no NAMA properties are being transferred into the ownership of the local authorities. The best that is on offer at present is the long-term lease where the local authority or tenants engage in a ten year lease. That is a joke, where the local authorities take over these properties, pay rent on them for ten or 20 years, become responsible for the full maintenance for the property and at the end of that period they are handed back to the person who owns it and who has profited in that time while the person who was living there and considered it a home does not have any security other than the obligation of the local authority to rehouse him somewhere else. It undermines the idea of a home.
There has been an explosion in RAS properties, where people rent the property for a five year period. Is that better than what happened before? It is better than the rent supplement situation because the rent is calculated as if the property was a council house and the person can take up gainful employment if the opportunity arises and by some miracle he manages to get a job. He could then pay higher rent but would not lose all the benefits as used to happen under the old system. Does that, however, offer adequate security of tenure? No, because that person is still at the whim of the landlord if he or she wants to sell the house and the tenant cannot make changes. There are broader issues that must be discussed at greater length.
In some ways, this debate can be contradictory. We need more protection for landlords and we also need more protection for tenants. How do we balance the two sets of rights, particularly when they conflict? It is not an easy issue to deal with. I am not sure the legislation can achieve that. We have all experienced cases of tenants whose deposits have been withheld for the most ridiculous reasons, such as basic wear and tear that the landlord is lawfully responsible for. The landlord decides to chance his arm and withhold the deposit, making it very difficult for that person to move on, particularly if there is money from the HSE and there are issues around being unable to get a second deposit. It is an horrendous situation that must be addressed.
On the other side, landlords are in a very difficult situation. I had a recent case that highlights the new nature of landlords and the pressures people face. Their experience with the PRTB was not satisfactory and if we want legislation to improve that, we must take such cases into consideration. This couple were self-employed and their business dried up because of the recession. They had a second property with a large mortgage as an investment. As they were self-employed they had no social welfare entitlements and they were living off the rent from the second property. They registered with the PRTB and paid their money, doing everything by the book. Early last year, their tenant fell behind with the rent and by the middle of the year had stopped paying the rent at all. By now they were owed thousands of euro. They served the tenant with all the notices required and did everything by the book as instructed by the PRTB. The tenant was supposed to vacate the premises but did not and, instead, changed the locks. The people contacted the PRTB to secure help from the dispute resolution service but were told that although they had registered, they had failed to re-register. They were not aware of that requirement and despite being owed thousands of euro in rent, when they sought assistance from the board, they were told the case could not even be looked at until they gave the PRTB another €180. Even then the board could not say when the case would be heard, in spite of the fact that the tenant had not paid any rent for nine months. These people have virtually no income in the later years of their lives and will probably have to sell the house to realise anything at this stage. That gives us a glimpse into the complexities surrounding this issue.
The idea of tenants being protected from unscrupulous landlords is good on paper but there are measures in place that state the contract cannot be terminated pending an appeal to the board so landlords are waiting 12 months with somebody in situ in their property.
The person in situ knows that he or she can get away with living, basically rent free, for months while this process is being weighed up, and this results in significant financial hardship on landlords such as the couple I mentioned. What is a protective measure for the tenant has become a real source of coercion for the landlord in that case and it is clearly very unfair. We need a better balance. I am not sure that the Bill, as it is structured, but particularly the PRTB the way it is structured, can deliver on that. Even the good objectives of this Bill cannot be delivered if that board does not have the staff and if we do not have a criterion in the Bill which states that paragraph (k) should be dealt with in a month. That means investment and more resources going in, but if we are serious about tenants' rights and landlords' rights and improving the situation for both, we have no choice but to do it.
I would go back to the point I made at the start, that we probably are looking at this debate the wrong way round. In many ways it is indicative of the sort of creeping privatisation of social housing stock. It is wrong to move away from direct provision of housing, which was the norm years ago and now does not happen at all. It creates all sorts of problems and all manner of bureaucracy, and that is the elephant in the room.
There has been an explosion in the number of voluntary housing bodies. There are 700 of them in a country of this size, managing 25,000 units. Some of them are only for one dwelling here and there, and are minor, but I am not sure extending this type of control is good. Why do we need all of this duplication of separate housing organisations, with their own directors, management teams, offices, bureaucracy and administration, when there are 34 local authorities with fully trained staff who have experience over decades of housing issues and who can deal with many of these issues? It is like privatising the area.
Each of these not-for-profit bodies will be charged €90 to register with the PRTB. Let us be clear that they will not pay because they have no money and it will be the tenant in that property who will end up paying. The same tenant will end up paying for the property tax because those houses are included in the property tax, which will amount to a couple of hundred euro. We know the statistics on rent arrears already. We are putting onerous pressure on tenants, almost making it inevitable that they will fall behind in their rent. When we know that half the families in the State have only €50 a month left when they meet their basic expenses, de facto between those measures we are adding significant amounts of extra rent making it more likely that these precise tenants will end up in front of the PRTB because they cannot pay their rent either. We need to stand back and look at how we are relying on the private sector too much.
I am aware that many of the non-traditional landlords, the new type, need tenants in their houses to repay their mortgages, but that is an unsustainable situation. It is linked to the overall mortgage crisis and the failure of the banks, despite being compensated, to write down those mortgages and deal with those properties in negative equity where borrowers cannot cope. We need an initiative so that those who are merely keeping those houses going and merely acting as a landlord simply to pay the banks can go into another process where they can hand back the property without being left still owning the banks loads of money, and so that they can get on with their lives. They never wanted to be a landlord, but who will step into the vacuum? The only one who can do that is the State in the form of the local authorities, but it means the banks playing their part and accepting the fact that they have been compensated by the taxpayer already to the tune of billions of euro, and part of that was about writing down unsustainable mortgages. That must be added in.
We need to take on board what is best in terms of international experience on issues of security of tenure. In countries such as France, for instance, tenants are provided with a security whereby, if they rent their main residence, their rights are akin to the rights of a home owner, and that is what we need to do. We are not talking about houses, which are only bricks and mortar and a little furniture. We are talking about people's homes, their lives, their ability to raise their families in decency, etc. That means rights and responsibilities on both sides. However, we probably are looking at it slightly the wrong way round.
Nobody will oppose this Bill. It will go through to the next Stage. I am glad that the Minister stated that the issues of rent arrears and deposit retention will be addressed later on, hopefully before it concludes. That will be an assist for sure. It represents 50% of the case load of the PRTB and unless we come up with an easier, seamless mechanism for dealing with these issues, the rest of the Bill will definitely not be able to implement the objectives. We may consider looking at some amendments on the voluntary housing issue for the reasons I stated. I am not fully comfortable with that because de facto it will move the cost onto the shoulders of tenants who cannot deal with it, but I am glad that we are beginning to discuss these issues in more detail. It needs to be supplemented by a broader discussion on direct provision of social housing in the manner in which we did previously. I am not talking about having to go around and build the houses, but about some mechanism by which the State could take them over and run them more efficiently than is being done currently.
We need to acknowledge that we have a serious and growing problem with anti-social behaviour in residential areas. We also must acknowledge that the current system simply does not work. It does not work because the enforcement of the anti-social behaviour laws in the Residential Tenancies Act is difficult and is being implemented poorly by the PRTB, and the laws are simply not capable of being enforced properly by that kind of body.
With many of the issues I get as a local representative, I feel I can help, do something and advocate, but this the one issue that occurs repeatedly and where I feel utterly powerless to help. People come in to me who have neighbours who cause them misery. These people are enduring behaviour that is sometimes minor but which accumulates, has a grinding effect on them, affects their mental and physical health, community relations and the vibrancy of the neighbourhood, and that completely undermines the quality of life, not only in that person's home but in the entire neighbourhood, and it can all be because of one tenant or one house in that area.
What has happened in the property market, as has been alluded to previously, is that we have gone from people either owning their own home or being in a local authority home and the existence of a small rented sector to a plethora of different housing types. We have private owners, private rented, local authority housing, the residential accommodation scheme, the long-term leasing scheme and rent allowance. As a result of all of these different types of tenancies and housing models, there are no longer areas, as there used be in the past, where there was a private estate and a local authority estate. The different models and different forms of housing provision are spread right across every area of cities, urban areas, towns, etc.
For example, Ballybane, in Galway, the area in which I grew up, has local authority housing that was built in the 1980s and has settled down. It has private residential accommodation that was built but has never been given a chance to settle properly. There has been more local authority housing put in and more private housing during the boom, and it has been over-populated. Coupled with that, there is a third level institution nearby and the area has suffered all of the anti-social behaviour problems that are possible to list. It is a microcosm of the problems we face and an example of how the current infrastructure and tools of the law to deal with anti-social behaviour simply do not work. One couple that came to me were in their 70s and lived in a private house. The local authority had bought the house next door and their life was made hell by behaviour of the children, intimidation, car mechanics operating outside the door, the illegal building of sheds against their wall and all manner of such behaviour. This was an elderly couple who were afraid to speak, act or do anything. They eventually came to me, to other local representatives and to the local authority, but at the end of the day the solution for that elderly couple was to sell their house and move rather than persist in working with the local authority and using the other legal avenues to deal with the anti-social behaviour.
They only way they could envisage enjoying the last two or three decades of their lives was to leave that property. They have sold it and are now living in private rented accommodation. That is how serious it is. That is an issue where a local authority is involved. There are other issues where the PRTB is involved where the service and action to help those people would not be as good.
I can give many examples of people from areas such as Knocknacarra who experienced little things, but the cumulative effect of little things can really impact on people, including rubbish being thrown on the streets, bins being left blocking cars in people's driveways, ten cars parking outside a house and parties in the night. Any of those individually could be regarded as an isolated incident but the cumulative effect on people can undermine their confidence and their enjoyment of their home. It is often a sense of fear and intimidation that can undermine people's lives. When I talk to people I am at a loss as to what to tell them to do. I have never come across anybody who got a successful resolution to these kinds of issues from the PRTB. One of the people who came to me had been to a solicitor, who asked if they had three brothers who might come along, knock on the door and intimidate them, because that would be quicker, cheaper and more effective than taking the legal route which they might not win and would cost them a fortune. If people in the legal sphere are recommending fighting intimidation with intimidation, we are in a seriously difficult position.
I acknowledge that there are some very good landlords. When there is a good landlord there is rarely a problem. However, there are real problems with delinquent landlords who do not care. It is a factor of the change in the housing model. People went from having very little to owning 20, 25 or 30 houses, all for the purpose of making a quick buck. They do not run it as a business or with any professionalism - they run it in a way that it does not matter whom they get in as long as they can pay off the mortgage for 25 years in order to have a vast property portfolio and can retire comfortably. As the sole motivator is paying the mortgage, they do not look after the property - they do not paint it, upgrade it or replace furniture. The windows are often left decaying. All they care about is getting in the rent to pay the mortgage. The landlord of a person living in Shantalla owned up and said as much. The property is then left to decay so much that the landlord will not get tenants who will maintain the property. This is a major issue and the sense of powerlessness people have further adds to the issue. Something drastic needs to be done.
I very much welcome the provisions of the Bill. However, regarding the PRTB we are tweaking around the edges of a failed system. The 2004 Act is quite good in defining anti-social behaviour in very broad and effective terms, but we are missing enforcement of those laws. There is something we have failed to implement in the system and the law. Regardless of whether it is owner-occupied or privately rented, the property owners have responsibility for those properties. Just because they have been leased to tenants does not mean the landlord can step back and claim it is an issue between the tenants and their next-door neighbours. The landlord who is taking the rent is responsible for how the tenants behave in the property and that principle needs to be enshrined. The ability we have now with a proper register of property ownership, and a proper analysis of who owns what properties through the household charge and the property tax, gives us an excellent opportunity to enforce the responsibility of owners of properties to those properties.
When I deal with such cases I often contact the local authority, which has no role if it is not a local authority house, or contact the Garda, which has no role if it is not a criminal matter. However, somehow we can issue on-the-spot fines for speeding, littering and dumping. I do not understand why we cannot issue on-the-spot fines for some of the very simple forms of anti-social behaviour that occur in residential properties, regardless of whether they are owner-occupied. If we know who the owners of those properties are, that fine should be passed on to the landlord immediately and without question. The relationship between landlord and tenant should be one where there is agreement to pass that fine on. However, the landlord cannot be immune from the concerns of neighbours, gardaí and others as to what is happening. However, that is what is happening and they are closing their ears and paying no attention. If the fine were issued to the landlord, who could then pass it on to the tenant, we would have the landlord involved and a landlord would be very quick to act. A landlord who suddenly gets a bill for €80 for a house party, €100 for nappies being thrown into the garden or €1,000 for blocking someone's house would be very quick to act.
We cannot continue with the current system. We need a fundamentally different approach to this issue, which is growing. In certain areas it is completely destroying the fabric of community. Once there is one house it affects the next-door neighbours; they move out and the same thing happens - a private landlord will come in and rent it out, and the problem spreads. Entire areas of Galway city - I can name the estates - are being vacated by people who simply cannot live there anymore and are moving out. Once that happens there is no longer the proper social mix between privately rented and owner-occupied, and it becomes more serious than anti-social behaviour - that is when criminality starts to become an issue and the area becomes a haven for certain kinds of activity. We need to nip that problem in the bud with a proper system that makes landlords and owner-occupiers responsible financially in an easily enforceable way for anti-social behaviour occurring in properties owned by people from which they benefit financially now and into the future. It is not unreasonable to take that approach. We need a task force between the justice and housing authorities to implement such a system. The only way to solve that problem is to take radical and effective steps to deal with it.
I congratulate the Minister of State on the Bill. I agree with Deputy Nolan that we are just tinkering at the edges. We need to consider how we manage, enforce and co-ordinate legislation on rented properties and I support his call for a task force. There are housing estates in vast areas of Cork city with no owner-occupier and just rented accommodation or there might be a single owner-occupier in a row of houses with the rest being rented. That does not lend itself to the development of community through a proper mix of housing. That approach needs to be taken now. How we view housing is changing. There is now a generation of Irish people - unfortunately, perhaps - who might now regard themselves as being committed to a life of renting as opposed to looking forward to buying or owning their own property. That is why we need to review our approach to housing. That should be our fundamental starting point.
Undoubtedly, the landlord and tenant need to live up to their responsibilities and duties in unison. While the main focus of the Bill is on the private-rented sector, particularly the role of the landlord, it is important that we recognise that the majority of landlords and tenants are decent people, both living in mutual co-operation and respect. However, there is the minority and there are those who, for whatever reason, do not live up to their responsibility. Our landscape has changed and our expectations regarding the type of dwelling - be it an apartment or house - have changed. We should never be allowed to compromise that expectation on the tenant's part. Equally, the tenant also has a duty.
I acknowledge the difficulties that the PRTB encounters. I have been a party to hearings with the PRTB and have found the work of staff dealing with investigations very comprehensive.
While waiting times for hearings are lengthy and people do not often get the outcomes they want and are disappointed on other occasions, the PRTB makes decisive judgments. While I am often critical of the board, it provides a service and is an important part of our housing agencies.
I welcome the decision of the PRTB in the Bishopscourt residents' case. It is important to put on the record of the House what happened in this regard. Residents alleged that the occupants, or their associates and visitors, of two rented properties engaged in persistent anti-social behaviour, including street brawls, late night parties, recklessly driving souped-up cars, theft from neighbouring houses and drinking and urinating in public, which is activity all of us in this House would condemn out of hand. Having complained to the landlord, whose response was not in their view satisfactory, the residents made a complaint to the PRTB. This was the second time they had taken up the matter with the PRTB.
The residents based their complaint on three subsections of the Residential Tenancies Act 2004, namely, section 15(1) under which a landlord, as the designated owner of a property, has a duty to enforce tenancy arrangements, section 15(2) which states, "would be ... adversely affected by a failure to enforce an obligation of the tenant were such a failure to occur and includes any other tenant under the tenancy involved in that subsection", and section 16(h), which states in regard to the role of the tenant, "not behave within the dwelling, or in the vicinity of it, in a way that is anti-social". These provisions armed the residents in demonstrating to the PRTB that the landlord, in failing to tackle anti-social behaviour, was in breach of his duties to them. Following two hearings by the PRTB, it was established that the residents had "clear, credible and compelling evidence of the affect the anti-social behaviour had on them and their families." They were able to show through the use of this legislation that their quality of life was being greatly affected and that the anti-social behaviour was particularly stressful, frightening and upsetting for older people.
The PRTB also found that the landlord was in breach of his duty to the residents who suffered inconvenience, loss, stress, distress and upset and that their entitlement to peaceful enjoyment of their dwellings was adversely affected. This shows how effective legislation can be. There is an obligation on landlords and tenants to respect the rights of their neighbours and to not behave in an anti-social manner. I pay tribute to the residents association in Bishopscourt who demonstrated that the landlord and his tenants were in breach of the legislation. To its credit, the PRTB enforced payment of a fine of €29,500 to the residents, one of the largest amounts ever awarded by it.
I would now like to draw the attention of the Minister of State, Deputy O'Sullivan, to a model which I hope she, in conjunction with the Minister for Education and Skills, will look at in the context of students, student accommodation and student behaviour. This model, which is a register of landlords and tenants, is operated by University College Cork, and should, I believe, be introduced throughout the country. In this regard, there is joined-up thinking between the students union, college authorities, Garda Síochána, local residents and landlords. When a complaint is made, representatives of the college and students union visit the students residing in the property which was the subject of that complaint and make contact with the landlord. A property in respect of which persistent problems arise and which problems the landlord fails to deal with can be removed from the register by the college. There are regular meetings between the college, students, local residents and the Garda. These meetings are action-orientated. The college and Garda respond to each complaint and requests by residents. There is also strong community policing in this area through Mr. Ken O'Connell, the community garda, landlords and the residents association, all of whom deserve great praise.
The college has bought into this idea and keeps excellent records of complaints and so on. It also has in place a good process in terms of managing complaints, although some do manage to slip through. As my constituency office is located in that area, I hear all sides of the argument from landlords, tenants and residents. This is an example of a voluntary code of conduct that is working well. The University College Cork guide to renting accommodation states that anti-social behaviour on the part of UCC students is a serious breach of student rules and a complaint can be referred through formal student discipline procedures to UCC as detailed in student rules. I would also like to put on the record my appreciation of the role of the UCC students union. Next Tuesday, Cork Institute of Technology, CIT, will hold a coffee morning for local residents to demonstrate that students living in rented accommodation and residents can live and interact in a mutually respectful way.
After eight years, there are still difficulties with the PRTB. The radical reform promised has not yet taken place. Dispute resolution is slow, often delaying landlords obtaining overdue rent and making it difficult for them to end troublesome tenancies and causing delays for tenants experiencing difficulties in having their cases processed. Tenants who continue to live in a property in respect of which a dispute arises are often vulnerable. It is important there is a further review of the housing market. I welcome that the Minister of State has undertaken to review the deposit protection scheme, which was the topic of discussion during a meeting I had earlier this week with landlords from Cork, who are good landlords.
I welcome the Bill and congratulate the Minister of State on her initiative. I look forward to further dialogue with her on this issue.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate on the Residential Tenancies (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2012. This is an important debate in the current economic and housing climate, with all the associated problems for people in this State.
Before going into the details of the legislation, I would like to deal with the issues raised by the voluntary community housing sector. I warmly commend the great work done by the Irish Council for Social Housing and urge the Minister and Government to note their concerns around this legislation.
I apologise for interrupting the Deputy but according to my list he has already spoken on this Bill. Is that correct?
The Deputy made his contribution last year.
Am I allowed to make a further contribution?
No, we cannot break the rule.
What happens now?
The next speaker is Deputy Boyd Barrett but as the Deputy is not in the House I propose that we suspend the sitting for five minutes. Is that agreed? Agreed.
I support many aspects of the Bill. A key provision is on the significant problem of deposit retention whereby landlords refuse to return deposits to tenants. It is very welcome that we should strengthen the law in this area to ensure landlords do not abuse tenants in this way. The biggest category of cases brought to the attention of the Private Residential Tenancies Board is deposit retention and this indicates a real problem. This is not to say all landlords are of the 19th century variety but sadly quite a few of them are. Anything which gives us stricter regulation in this area and safeguards the rights of tenants and their entitlement to get back their deposit is very much to be welcomed.
On the issue of the non-payment of rent, obviously people should pay their rent and it is reasonable that landlords should expect rent to be paid. However, I am aware that a number of housing organisations believe people are in rent difficulties for all types of reasons, particularly in the current economic climate. I agree with this view as it has certainly been my experience in dealing with the many people coming to my clinic and I am sure other Deputies have the same experience. It is clear the difficult situation we are in is putting families in great difficulty with regard to paying rent. Many families are forced to make terrible choices between putting food on the table, paying electricity bills or paying the rent. We must have a regime which is humane in this regard and takes into account situations where people, for genuine reasons, fall into arrears. I do not know exactly what is the answer but these issues must be taken into account. We must assist people who are in difficulty and not take a hard line. I am a little concerned about this area and I understand groups such as Threshold and others are also concerned. When disputes arise about tenancies - a significant number of such cases are on my desk at present - while a hearing is awaited rent builds up and this can be a real difficulty.
Several times I and others have raised an issue which contributes to the extreme difficulty for many tenants, namely, the reduction in rent caps for rent allowance. The Government does not seem to acknowledge it has got this wrong and that the rent caps applied are simply not appropriate in many parts of the country. Particular categories seem to be hit very hard in this regard such as single people in Dublin, particularly in south Dublin but I suspect in the centre of Dublin also. It is possible to obtain private rented accommodation in parts of Dublin within the rent cap and obtain rent allowance, but in many places it is impossible. I am not exaggerating, and perhaps the Minister of State knows this. Week in week out people come to my clinic in tears fearing that because of reductions in the rent caps and the refusal of landlords to reduce rent they face eviction and will find it impossible to find somewhere else to rent in the vicinity.
Consequently, families - most often with young children - are faced with the prospect of entering the emergency homelessness system, which is awful. Something must be done about this because the situation is dire and getting worse.
In order to resolve this matter, quite a number of people are - sometimes with the tacit suggestion of community welfare officers - making arrangements with landlords to under declare the amount of rent that is being charged. They are getting rent allowance on the basis that it might be €925, but in fact the rent is €1,000 or €1,100 so they have to make up the difference. People are getting into extreme difficulty as a result. Further down the road, people are simply unable to pay the rent, so they find themselves in arrears. In that scenario pressure is put on them over non-payment of arrears, whereas it is not the tenant's fault but the fault of the Government and the inappropriateness and unfairness of rent cap reductions.
I can think of quite a few cases that are currently in that category. I know of one such case, although I will not name where it is. It is not even in my constituency, but slightly outside it. There is a terrible situation both for the landlord and the tenant, which has resulted directly from the reduction in rent caps. There is now a bitter dispute going on between the tenant and the landlord. The latter feels they are owed a lot of money going back several months. They are calculating the rent owed based on the original rent, whereas the tenant is saying, "All I can pay is the rent cap based on what I am getting in rent allowance and my ability to top that up. I can't pay the extra". Meanwhile, the landlord is claiming the tenant owes €5,000 or €6,000 while the tenant is says it is about €2,000. I will not say there have been pitched battles on the doorstep, but something akin to that. It is a nasty situation and both parties are somewhat innocent in this. That is because they are both victims of a situation that is essentially being created by the rent cap.
There must be real sensitivity, flexibility and awareness that people are often in rent arrears through no fault of their own or in some cases as a direct result of Government policies in this respect. I do not have the figures, although the Minister of State probably does, but I have plenty of anecdotal evidence that rent arrears have risen dramatically since the recession kicked in and austerity was imposed. It is completely understandable why that would be the case. The dire economic situation in which we find ourselves results directly in significant rent arrears for many families. We should not deal harshly with them because of arrears that are out of their control and arise from an economic situation that is not of their making.
I appeal to the Government to examine the rent cap issue in terms of rent allowances. It should be more area specific in that regard, although they may be appropriate. When I raised the issue previously with the Minister, she said many people have managed to get their landlords to reduce the rent. It is clear that while that is possible in some areas, it is not so in other areas. Rents are rising in parts of Dublin, so landlords are asking why should they bother reducing the rent when they can get somebody else to rent it at a higher rate. Ultimately, it will cost the State money if people have to go through the emergency housing system. That situation has to be examined.
The answer to many of these problems is the provision of social housing. The differential rent scheme takes into account people's various incomes depending on whether they are working or have lost income. Nonetheless, it is worrying that the Government and local authorities seem unclear as to whether the significant cost of the property tax will be loaded on top of council rents, particularly where council rent arrears have also grown significantly in recent years. The idea that a significant increase in council rents will result from the imposition of the property tax could put many people in serious difficulty. I call on the Government not to do that and urge it to avoid putting even more families into a difficult situation.
As many housing organisations say, the ultimate solution to many of these problems is to provide a greater stock of social housing. That can be done either through an acceleration of the slow process of identifying properties in NAMA's control for social housing or through direct build, which is still required particularly in Dublin and some other urban centres. It is clear that in such centres we will soon have a housing shortage, notwithstanding the excess of housing in other parts of the country. The identification of social housing units by NAMA has been pitifully slow. It is difficult to get to the bottom of this, but I do not understand why so few houses are being identified by NAMA as suitable for social housing. I suspect it is happening because NAMA's mandate is to recover as much money as it possibly can. With rents beginning to rise in cities, NAMA probably figures it can get a higher return by renting those properties in the private market rather than giving them over to local authorities. It may even be sitting on properties in the hope that property prices will bounce back in the near future, although that is a forlorn hope. NAMA may also think it will sell off a lot of the properties and can thus get a bigger cash return quickly from them. Whatever the reasons, however, if we continue along the current road we are unlikely to get a significant dividend in terms of social and affordable housing from the NAMA properties unless the Government takes serious action to transfer some of that housing over.
While I will not rehearse at length the economic argument, it has been stated repeatedly in this House that it would make financial and economic sense for the State and the Government to provide more social housing directly, either through acquiring NAMA properties or through the direct building of social housing. Whatever the initial capital costs might be, the Government would make huge savings on rent allowance payments that are going to landlords at present and this measure would draw rental revenue back into the State. This would mean, for example, that were we to set out with a housing programme to house the 100,000 families who currently are on the housing list within a reasonable period of five years, such a scheme could have paid for itself by the end of that five-year period. Beyond that, such a plan would generate additional revenue for the State or for the local authorities. I do not understand the reason the Government will not do this and the only excuse provided by the Government is that it lacks the initial capital. However, the National Treasury Management Agency, NTMA, has money. What is that agency doing with its money? I attend the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and reform-----
That money cannot be spent on the balance sheet, in accordance with agreements.
Hold on a second. The NTMA is charged with investing the National Pensions Reserve Fund in a safe way to protect that money and get some return for the State. What could be safer and better for the economy than investing some of that money in a major direct-build social housing programme or refurbishment of NAMA, houses to make them suitable? This would put people back to work and would be guaranteed to achieve the return. This would be over the medium to long term but the National Pensions Reserve Fund is a medium to long-term fund and is not obliged to make an immediate return. Were the Government to invest now and build a particular number of houses for this number of council tenants, one could quantify exactly how much revenue it would get back. It is guaranteed and in the present situation, in which markets are all over the place and very few investments could be said to be safe, the provision of social housing is a safe investment. The Government would get the money back. While it would not get back massive profits, it would be a steady return that would wash its own face and, once the initial capital costs had been paid back, such a programme would derive additional revenue over the longer term for the State. I simply do not understand the reason the Government will not do this and I am sure the Labour Party-----
Would that it were so simple.
I remind the Minister of State that in the 1950s, when Ireland was virtually a Third World country, 50% of the housing in the State was provided by the State.
We were not borrowing €1 billion a month to finance the gap between revenue and expenditure.
I ask the Minister of State to allow the speaker to continue.
No, I do not mind a bit of engagement on this issue, because it must be debated.
We are in a very different position in respect of the gap between expenditure and revenue.
That is not an excuse. I will not get into the debate on the debt but notwithstanding the rights and wrongs of how much Ireland is paying out, borrowing and all the rest, it still has investment funds, albeit perhaps not as much as one would wish. Nevertheless, such funds exist and the NTMA has money. As for going to the international markets to borrow money, I note that at present, Ireland is borrowing money to pay back the international markets. It is borrowing money from the markets to pay back to the markets, at interest. It is a win-win situation for them and a lose-lose situation for us.
As the Deputy is aware, we are making progress.
However, notwithstanding that debate, we could go to financiers or even to the credit union movement, which has indicated it has a couple of billion quid it would like to invest. At present, the credit unions are obliged to invest this money out of the country because of various rules. The credit union movement has stated it would not mind investing in community or social projects. Why does the Government not talk to the credit union movement and agree to borrow that money from it? It would be at a low interest rate, which the credit unions are willing to accept because they simply wish to protect those moneys and get some return on them. The Government could use it for a major direct-build social housing programme on which it would get a guaranteed return. It is a safe bet and there is no risk. Moreover, a desperate social need would be met and people would be put back to work to boot, thereby boosting tax revenues to the State. It is an absolute win-win situation. It is a no-brainer and frankly, even a capitalist could work that one out and probably would lend the State money for such a programme. However, the credit union movement is one organisation that has offered to so do. The point about this proposal and where it relates to all this stuff and the problems with which the Private Residential Tenancies Board, PRTB, and tenants must deal is-----
Deputy, your time is up. You may wish to wrap up.
I thought I could go on for as long as I wished.
I am afraid not.
I wish to mention one measure to the Minister of State that the PRTB should be doing. It is a legal requirement that after January 2009, any dwelling that is rented should have an energy rating. However, this requirement is not being enforced. The State is training people in this area of energy rating, installation, retrofit and so on, but while 30 or 40 such individuals in my constituency will qualify in May 2013, there are no jobs for them because the requirement for energy ratings is not being enforced and, following on from that, a national installation programme is not being rolled out sufficiently rapidly. There would be an employment dividend in so doing, as well as a dividend for tenants, many of whom are living in substandard accommodation in which there is no proper insulation and where it is damp, cold and so on. The Government should examine this issue and should enforce what is the law. In addition, the Government would be obliged to control rents to ensure landlords did not pass on the cost of such enforcement to the tenants. The way to do this would be to roll out the pay-as-you-save scheme on installation in order that there would be an incentive for landlords to retrofit and insulate their homes without incurring a long-term cost.
First, I thank all the Deputies who spoke on the Bill. Even if one counts Deputy Finian McGrath only once, more than 30 Members did so. It was a highly informed debate, as Members obviously knew what they were talking about. Moreover, many highly constructive suggestions were made and I look forward to teasing out on Committee Stage many of the issues raised here. However, I will refer to some of the common themes because a number of themes were raised by a very large number of Members.
One pertained to the issue of delays within the PRTB as it is currently known before completion of this Bill. I acknowledge and it has been recognised that issues of delay exist. However, the number of cases has grown by 25% since 2008 and staff numbers have fallen. Moreover, as some Members noted, they will fall further in accordance with the Government's employment control framework. Consequently, the Government understands the pressure under which the board is operating and, in this regard, I note it is entirely self-financing. One must also remember the PRTB has taken on the role of the courts in dealing with landlord-tenant disputes and, as such, it always must be subject to similar procedural restraints to ensure it adheres at all times to the principles of fair procedures and constitutional justice.
The PRTB itself is aware of issues of delay and has a range of modernisation initiatives that are ongoing at present, including, for example, shared services. The PRTB is working very hard on reducing delays and one element of its efforts is the implementation of its ICT plan, and progress certainly has been made in that regard. It is intended to leverage ICT to provide self-service options to clients and to bring about improved efficiencies. As many Deputies will be aware, landlords can now register their tenancies online and more than 40% of tenancies now are registered in this fashion. In addition, a three-year ICT programme has seen the development of a tenancy management system and the development of online registration. This also will be beneficial for the approved housing bodies when they come under the remit of the residential tenancies board, RTB, after the enactment of this legislation.
Deputy Clare Daly referred to an issue regarding re-registering and that also will be facilitated in the online system. This will bring about online dispute applications through the new tenancy management system which came on stream in mid-2012.
It will considerably reduce processing times in 2013. The direct payment of rent supplement to landlords is a key component of the Government strategy to transfer responsibility for long-term rent supplement payments from the Department of Social Protection to local authorities, and that should also help to reduce disputes, in addition to a tenancy deposit protection scheme, which I will discuss momentarily.
The Private Residential Tenancies Board, PRTB, is committed to reducing delays across all areas of service delivery and I am confident it will be in a position to deliver an effective service to the new landlords and tenants coming within its remit following the enactment of the legislation. I hope the transfer of long-term rent supplement from the Department of Social Protection to my Department and local authorities will address some of the issues raised by Deputy Boyd Barrett. We are working on that.
There is no doubt that there is a considerable challenge for the PRTB and many of the measures in this Bill will be of assistance, particularly the issue of deposit protection. I intend to address that on Committee Stage, as it relates to a very large number of the cases brought to the PRTB now. The streamlining of mediation will also help, as although mediation is an easier option, it is not taken up by many people who have a dispute. We want to encourage people to take up the option of mediation. To respond to Deputy English's point, that is the reason we are eliminating the charge for mediation, which should encourage more people to use the process.
This is about balancing the rights of tenants and landlords, and many Deputies have referred to the big issues of deposit protection for tenants and payment of rent with regard to landlords. Nearly every Deputy referred to deposit protection, which concerns me greatly, and I identified it as a priority when I was appointed a Minister of State. It remains a priority and Deputies will be aware that it is also in the programme for Government. On foot of that, I asked the PRTB to commission research with economic consultants Indecon, and a final report on the topic was delivered last month. I have examined the document, which offers a range of ways in which we might implement deposit protection and fulfil the commitment in the programme for Government. I am considering the options to determine the best way to go about this.
Critical issues include whether a scheme should be custodial or insurance-based in nature and whether it should be operated by the PRTB or a third party. There is also the question of how it should interface with the current legal system and the PRTB. These are quite complex issues and in order to ensure we deliver deposit protection in the context of the current Bill, we must address these issues as quickly as possible. In order to inform wider debate and thinking on the topic, I have published the report on the Department's website so it is available to any Deputy who wishes to read it. I very much look forward to hearing the views on Committee and Report Stages. I wish to act on the establishment of a deposit protection scheme in the context of this Bill's passage through the Oireachtas.
The issue of rent supplement was raised by a number of Deputies and I am committed to rent supplement reform and the transfer of rent supplement from the Department of Social Protection to the local government system. We are working on that currently and hope to have a pilot of the new scheme under the housing assistance payment, HAP, a new rent assistance system that we intend to introduce. We hope that in the second half of 2013 there will be pilots to test how we can eventually transfer the long-term rent supplement system in its entirety to local authorities. Rent supplement was originally intended to be a short-term income support but it has evolved into a long-term housing support. Exchequer costs are estimated at €500 million, which is a considerable amount, and it is intended to introduce HAP, which will be paid directly to landlords with the Department of Social Protection maintaining a residual rent supplement system for certain households with short-term needs. Those short-term cases for rent supplement will stay with the Department of Social Protection but the long-term cases - most people on rent supplement - will make the transfer. We want to remove barriers to employment in the current system, which will be important in facilitating people trying to return to work. I am determined to drive that process as quickly as possible and I am working with the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Burton, in that regard.
In discussing Government plans for the transfer of long-term rent supplement payments to local authorities I will refer to the contribution of Deputy O'Dea. He provided a "Walter Mitty" type of intervention in saying that he raised this issue frequently when he was a Minister but nothing was done. I do not know if that means Deputy O'Dea was not effective in the way he raised it or whether his colleagues did not listen to him. Nothing was done either way and we are hoping that we can take up the slack as quickly as possible. It is a priority for us.
The issue of minimum standards in rented accommodation was raised by a number of Deputies, particularly Deputy Donohoe, as well as Deputy Ellis, who is in the Chamber, and Deputies McNamara, Crowe and Kenny. There is no doubt there has been a substantial improvement in the regulation of the rental sector in recent years but there are still difficulties with standards. Under the 2008 rented standards regulations, the outward appearance of a rented property, including the garden, is the responsibility of a landlord, and local authorities must continue to enforce standards in this regard. Deputy Donohoe praised the work recently carried out by Dublin City Council in his constituency, where people went from door to door in an intensive attempt to identify substandard rental accommodation. This work is the result of intensive inspection projects carried out by Dublin City Council and specifically funded by my Department. In 2010, €2.4 million was set aside for local authorities from the process of PRTB registration fees to carry out blitz inspections of key areas and categories of housing. In Dublin the North Circular Road area was highlighted.
In addition to the usual inspections of local authorities, these projects were known as intensive inspection projects, and they targeted particular categories of rented accommodation, such as older and dilapidated properties, properties which are the subject of rent supplement payments and large properties subdivided into multiple residential units. Dublin City Council did an intensive job in a particular area, with an additional six environmental health officers used on a contract basis. That was very successful, as described by Deputy Donohoe in his contribution. The work is planned to continue until March 2015 and I am glad it has been of benefit to residents.
On 1 February, the full effects of the housing standards for rented houses regulation will come into force for existing residential rented accommodation, meaning there must be separate sanitary facilities for tenants.
What about energy ratings?
We can supply to the Deputy details of a number of areas in which private residences are supposed to meet standards. They are listed in regulations. As Deputy Boyd Barrett indicated, we must improve enforcement. The pilot scheme is a positive step and has been working well. We are encouraging local authorities to carry out their inspection responsibilities as well.
With regard to the ongoing changes, my Department placed advertisements in national newspapers in October outlining the new requirements of the measures being introduced for 1 February and we will continue to work with key stakeholders, such as Threshold, to spread awareness of and compliance with standards. I am satisfied that significant progress has already been made with regard to standards in the past few years. Standards in rented accommodation have never been higher but we must continue to improve them. The final implementation of the housing (standards for rented houses) regulations 2008 represents a significant step in that direction.
It is important to remember that we have minimum standards for rented accommodation to protect the most vulnerable in our society. Strong standards and robust enforcement, allied to an ever more professional rented sector, will contribute to the creation of sustainable communities and healthy, happy homes. We want to achieve these goals, with many representatives talking about other European countries which are more advanced than us in the regulation and organisation of the sector. I met a German Minister this morning, and Germany is an example of a country with good protection for tenants and stability in the market.
We want to develop the Irish system to ensure it provides protection for the owners of properties and tenants.
The goal of creating sustainable communities leads me to the issue of anti-social behaviour in private rented accommodation, which was raised by a number of Deputies, including the - unfortunately - relatively small number who availed of the invitation of the Private Residential Tenancies Board to visit its offices last week. Perhaps a further visit could be organised if other Deputies are interested in participating. As many Deputies noted, the experience of anti-social behaviour can be terrible for those affected. I am familiar with it in my constituency and it was described very well by a number of Deputies. While action to deal with anti-social behaviour is primarily a matter for the Garda Síochána, in the case of private rented dwellings landlords are responsible for enforcing the obligations that apply to their tenants under the Residential Tenancies Act. The Act prohibits a tenant in a private residential tenancy from engaging in anti-social behaviour in, or in the vicinity of, a dwelling to which the Act applies and allows a landlord to terminate any tenancy where the tenant is engaging in or allowing others to engage in such behaviour, subject to a notice period of only seven days in the case of serious anti-social behaviour or 28 days in the case of less serious but persistent behaviour. As Deputy Nolan stated, relatively minor incidents of anti-social behaviour can become a major problem for tenants when they are persistent in nature. He and Deputy Buttimer made a good suggestion that the Department engage with the Department of Justice and Equality on this issue. I am very willing to engage with the Department to improve co-ordination on the issue of anti-social behaviour, a major problem that has been raised with me during this debate and elsewhere.
The Residential Tenancies Act also provides that a third party affected by anti-social behaviour may, subject to certain conditions, take a case to the Private Residential Tenancies Board against a landlord who has failed to enforce tenant obligations. As Deputy Buttimer noted, the effectiveness of these provisions was clearly demonstrated in a recent case taken in Cork against the landlord of two properties, the tenants of which were found to be engaging in anti-social behaviour. A group of 13 residents took a case to the Private Residential Tenancies Board and was awarded combined damages of almost €30,000 against the landlord for his failure to address the behaviour of his tenants. I commend the residents in Bishopscourt in Cork who took this action.
While keeping in mind that the punishment of anti-social behaviour must be a matter for the courts and Garda Síochána and any comprehensive solution to the problem must apply equally across all types of housing tenure, I will examine ways to further strengthen provisions regarding anti-social behaviour prior to Committee Stage. Several Deputies spoke of providing for anonymous or third party referrals of cases involving anti-social behaviour to the Private Residential Tenancies Board. While the attractiveness of this proposal is understandable given concerns about potential intimidation, it is problematic given that the right of persons to know their accuser and challenge his or her evidence is a basic principle of natural justice. However, we are considering the possibility of allowing a residents association to take an action.
Deputies Ellis, Crowe, McLellan and Finian McGrath expressed concerns that section 3 excludes tenants in receipt of care and support services from the application of the Residential Tenancy Act. As I noted, this exclusion arose from concerns in the sector that the delivery of care and support services could be affected by the application of the Act to tenants in receipt of such services. However, the early publication of the Bill has allowed me to further consult the approved housing body sector following publication and I have decided it will be possible to extend the remit of the Act to more of the approved housing body sector than originally envisaged. The document on this issue produced by Focus Ireland and to which Deputy Ellis referred has informed my discussions with the approved housing body sector. I will amend the Bill on Committee Stage to provide that there will be no additional exemptions for approved housing body tenancies other than those already provided for in the 2004 Act. The result of this amendment will be to extend the rights under the Act to an even greater number of approved housing body tenancies.
A number of negative remarks were made about approved housing bodies. In my experience, these bodies have done very positive work. Many are entirely voluntary and are staffed by people who give freely of their time and effort without any financial reward. These organisations have a voluntary ethos at their heart. Deputy Daly noted the large number of these bodies. The Department has commenced a process of delisting inactive approved housing bodies. It has contacted the relevant bodies and is working on producing a more accurate register of active housing organisations. We are also encouraging some clustering of activities, for example, the sharing of management functions among smaller housing associations. In County Limerick, for example, a number of small housing associations based in villages are working together to utilise their combined strength. While regulation of the sector is important to provide reassurance to key stakeholders such as tenants, potential investors and the governing boards of voluntary housing associations, it is equally important that we recognise the work these organisations are doing on behalf of some of our most vulnerable citizens.
Deputies Ellis and Crowe raised the issue the application of the Residential Tenancies Act to the social housing sector. While the Bill does not address this issue, the application of the Act to the approved housing body sector inevitably raises a question as to how we will deal with long-term local authority tenants. I concur with Deputy Ellis that a strong, logical case has been made for the application of a consistent set of rules and obligations to landlords and tenants in all forms of rented tenure. As such, I understand the Deputy's call to extend the provisions of the Act to the local authority sector. However, this sector encompasses almost 100,000 tenancies and the extensive body of housing legislation covering it means extending the Act to local authority housing would be a highly complex task and one which we are not currently in a position to perform. Our focus is on the incremental extension of the Act to the approved housing body sector, while in parallel engaging in discussions as to how best to extend a shared set of principles to local authority tenancies.
Many Deputies raised the issue of rent arrears and the difficulties experienced by landlords in cases where tenants do not pay their rent. I am very aware of the concerns of landlords about unpaid rent and the difficulty they experience in repossessing a rental property where the rent remains unpaid. In these difficult times, where many people are struggling to pay mortgages on buy-to-let properties, it is essential that we take action on this issue. We have made significant progress in dealing with the complex legal and policy issues arising on this topic. While I was not able to finalise this matter in time for the publication of the Bill, I look forward to introducing detailed amendments on the issue on Committee Stage. Again, it is important to strike a balance between the rights of landlords and tenants.
Many Deputies also raised the issue of enforcement. The Private Residential Tenancies Board enforces tenancies registration requirements in accordance with the provisions of the Act, specifically sections 144 and 145, which provide for the issuing of notices to landlords and-or occupiers of the dwellings in question and prosecution of offenders for non-compliance with the registration requirement. Under section 9 of the Act, a person guilty of an offence is liable on summary conviction to a fine or imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months or both.
To respond to an issue raised by Deputy Michael McNamara, the Residential Tenancies Act 2004 makes provision for the exchange of information between the Private Residential Tenancies Board, Department of Social Protection, Revenue Commissioners and local authorities. Ongoing investment by the board in its information and communications technology systems has recently allowed for systematic comparisons to be made between the rent supplement database held by the Department of Social Protection and the tenancies register held by the PRTB. Arising from the comparison of this data, the Private Residential Tenancies Board recently secured criminal convictions against two landlords for failure to register their tenancies, resulting in fines totalling €24,000 and costs being awarded against the landlords in question. A further 22 prosecutions are pending and more than 43,000 landlords were contacted by the board last year regarding non-registration. The information technology link among various Departments and agencies is clearly bearing fruit. This extensive registration enforcement drive illustrates the commitment of the PRTB to addressing this issue. Nevertheless, Deputies are correct to highlight this matter and I expect the board to maintain a focus on registration compliance.
I wish to touch on the issue of homelessness, which was raised by Deputy Finian McGrath. I stress the Government's commitment to working on this matter. I identified the issue as a priority when I took on my role. We are reviewing the homeless strategy and implementing a housing-led approach. The work on the review is almost complete and I will issue a policy statement shortly. In 2012, investment of approximately €50 million was made by central and local government in the provision of homeless services.
A number of the other issues that were raised were not central to this Bill. For example, we are accelerating progress in regard to NAMA units. We are open to suggestions on other innovative solutions to the provision of housing. Despite Deputy Boyd Barrett's belief, we cannot spend large amounts of capital as we would like. While we want local authorities to provide more housing, we must use the methods that are currently at our disposal.
Some of the issues that have been raised, including that of rent supplement, are outside my remit. However, this has been an informative debate and the later Stages will present us with an opportunity to address them in more detail. Overall, we are trying to improve the regulatory system and make the situation better for the tenants and owners of private rental properties. I look forward to further engagement with Deputies on Committee Stage.