Rent and Mortgage Arrears: Motion [Private Members]

I move:

That Dáil Éireann:

recognises:

— the exceptional circumstances of Covid-19;

— the necessity of shutting down non-essential economic activity to prevent the spread of viral infection and to save thousands of lives;

— the loss of income suffered by many households, through no fault of their own, notwithstanding extraordinary measures taken to offset these;

— that many households will have been unable to keep up with rent or mortgage payments during the period of lockdown;

— that accumulated debt from rent or mortgage payments will suddenly crystallise for many households once the economy reopens and current exceptional protections are removed; and

— that the ban on rent increases and evictions during the pandemic has led to a decrease in the number of people presenting as homeless; and

calls on the Government to:

— ensure that no one becomes homeless or suffers penalty charges due to an inability to meet rent or mortgage payments during the lockdown period;

— introduce an extended moratorium on rent increases and evictions until there is sufficient supply of new housing;

— ensure there is a specific provision in law to protect people threatened with eviction due to rent or mortgage arrears accrued during the pandemic;

— establish a State scheme to substantially reduce rent-related debt that has accrued through no fault of households who were unable to pursue their livelihoods during the period of lockdown;

— stop the banks from charging penalties or surcharges on mortgage arrears accrued during the pandemic; and

— clearly state what other actions the Government will take to alleviate the situation of housing-related debt caused by the Covid-19 lockdown on the economy.

Tá mé ag roinnt mo chuid ama leis an Teachta Nash. The Minister will know that during the general election, which feels like an awfully long time ago, housing was one of the issues most often raised on doorsteps. While the Covid-19 pandemic has taken many people's minds off the housing crisis in this State, in many ways it has just pulled a plaster over the reality of housing need in this country. We wish to speak about those who rent and those who have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.

I know that the Minister will appreciate that we have had a dysfunctional housing market for many years. In a European context, Ireland depends disproportionately on the private sector. As we have said and will continue to say for as long as anyone is willing to hear us, the market has no conscience. The private sector has a profit motive. As such, we should not allow people in housing need to depend on the market or rely disproportionately on the private sector. We in the Labour Party strongly believe that the State has to take its role seriously. The State should provide housing and those who are renting should be able to depend on the State to have their backs.

The Labour Party has some very simple suggestions. Last night I spoke about the need for a rent-to-buy scheme. It is impossible for young couples or individuals to rent and save simultaneously. We have had such schemes in the past and the State should support them in the future. Unfortunately, there has been a sense in recent years that the State, the Government or the Department do not want to intervene in the market. We have to intervene. It has been shown time and time again that the market fails consistently when it comes to housing people. We should not go through another of the cycles we have witnessed in the past 20 years or so.

The Labour Party wants the Minister to agree to a State support scheme for rental arrears; legal protection from eviction because of rent or mortgage arrears; an extension of the moratorium on rent increases and evictions; and a ban on bank penalties for mortgage arrears. My colleagues will speak about other areas. I wish to speak about the need for a State support scheme for rental arrears. I want to outline to the Minister who renters are. Before I touch on that, I again remind the Minister that we have a low-pay economy. That is what we have constructed. That is what this economic recovery is based upon. As my colleague, Deputy Nash, frequently reminds this House, 23% of Irish workers were in low-paid work before Covid-19 according to the OECD. About 40% of people under the age of 30 are in insecure work. Someone on low pay can only get accommodation of a low standard. If someone is in insecure work, his or her accommodation is also insecure. The labour market, the rental market and the housing market are interlinked and we cannot divorce them.

I will speak about the State support scheme for rental arrears that we want and why we want it. Let us think about younger workers, to whom I have already alluded. Younger workers are disproportionately affected by Covid-19 lay-offs. Approximately 60% of those aged 18 to 19 are out of work and 47% of those aged 20 to 24 are out of work. Over the weekend Mr. James Doorley of the National Youth Council noted that youth unemployment in Ireland now stands at 45%. Younger workers are also much more likely to live in rented accommodation. Some 30% of those aged between 20 and 24 and 42% of those aged between 25 and 34 are renting.

Job losses have also occurred in sectors where a large number of workers rent. Renters account for 38% of workers in the accommodation and food sectors, 28% of workers in the administration and support sector, 27% of retail workers, 23% of those who work in the arts, and 21% of those who work in construction. Huge numbers of people whose lives and livelihoods have been hugely affected by the current crisis are in rented accommodation. Around 200,000 renters are in the sectors most severely affected by job losses. Essentials make up about 40% of a renter's total spending. The comparable figure for owner-occupiers is just 36%. Renters lead a more difficult life. They are less able to weather storms, including this one. Are we going to leave them to the market and the private sector or are we going to provide them with the protection of the State? That is where the Minister comes in.

Departmental figures from May show that the number of people who are in debt, are renting and have low-paid jobs is still very high. As I have outlined, low-skilled and low-wage jobs are disproportionately held by young people, migrant workers and female workers. There is an equality dimension to this. Supports such as interest-free loans or tax credits for renters are necessary to alleviate debt built up as a result of job losses. This is going to last for years. While we may come out of the immediate health crisis, its effects are going to last for quite a long time, as the Minister knows.

Threshold has created a profile of the renters impacted by Covid-19. Younger single people make up about 60% of the callers seeking assistance from Threshold. Some 69% of those calling have reported losing their homes as a result of Covid-19. Many callers did not know about rent supplements. If a tenant leaves a house share, the remaining tenants become liable for larger rents. There has been a significant increase in queries regarding arrears. Couples and families are disproportionately affected and one-parent families experience a secondary effect.

In putting forward this motion, we are outlining very clearly to the Minister that the demographic in question, namely, people who rent, was already suffering under the economic model we have pursued. We are living in an economy where a disproportionate amount of the income people accrue is spent on accommodation. I think the Minister will acknowledge that. As I understand it, nowhere else in Europe is as high a portion of people's income spent on accommodation by way of either mortgages or rent. We are now in a situation where the collapse in employment is disproportionately affecting those who have been renting. Those people need protections from the State against the excesses of the market, which has no conscious, and the excesses of the private sector, which has a profit motive. That is where the Minister comes in.

My colleague, Deputy Nash, will touch on other issues and we would appreciate the Minister's feedback on all of them. The last thing we need in this Dáil is for Labour Party Deputies or any other Members to come into the Chamber to give valid suggestions only for the Minister to do what Governments have traditionally done, which is to put down an amendment and we all walk away having achieved nothing. Our objective is that people who are witnessing their lives falling apart can look at this Parliament and see a group of people who are working for them and not just playing the game. We in the Labour Party have no interest in playing the game. Our interest is in representing people, getting things over the line and setting up schemes that will affect people's lives in a positive way. All of those things are in the gift of the Minister. We want to know whether he is going to stand by the State or stand by the market. Will he stand by the public sector and public provision of housing or will he stand by private provision, which, as we have seen, has failed time and time again? We very much want the Minister to deal with our motion in the spirit in which it is presented. We are solutions-driven and we are not here to play games. We are here to find real housing solutions for the people of this country.

I welcome the Minister and wish him well on his appointment. We hope he will accept the sentiments contained in this motion. One of our key aims is that action be taken to protect mortgage holders who accrue interest and penalties as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. I have read the Government amendment and it does nothing to alleviate the situation being experienced by tens of thousands of families across the country. Referring a struggling family who will have to pay an additional €4,300 in interest on a 30-year mortgage of €300,000 to the code of conduct on mortgage arrears is nothing short of a slap in the face. These are people who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own and, in many cases, through no fault of the businesses that employed them.

As matters stand, the interest owed amounts to approximately €150 million. Instead of instructing the banks to cover that quantum of money, the Government is taking a hands-off approach. The Taoiseach's response this morning to questions from my party leader, Deputy Kelly, was nothing short of weak and anaemic. We are told that the Minister for Finance will meet the banks to have a discussion about this issue. In everyone's experience, a meeting with the banks will do nothing to alleviate this aggravating situation for tens of thousands of families across the country. The Minister is only one week in government but already he and his party are being schooled, once again, by the banks. The European Banking Authority and the Central Bank have confirmed what we already knew, namely, that there is no obligation whatsoever to place high interest rates on the accrual of mortgage debt during this period. AIB, Bank of Ireland and all the others are doing so simply because they can and the Government continues to allow them to do so. There is nothing stopping the banks from taking a different course. The reality is that the Government is taking a hands-off approach and that cannot continue.

I listened very intently earlier to what the representative of the Banking & Payments Federation Ireland had to say in an interview on RTÉ Radio 1. I was astounded that he sought to divide those who can pay their mortgages at the moment from those who cannot. He said, in essence, that any interest break would have to be paid for by other clients of the bank. In other words, he was placing an obligation on the 90% of people who can pay their mortgage to carry the can, as it were, for those who cannot. We know where those kinds of arguments take us. They are the types of arguments used to pit public sector workers against private sector workers and vice versa. It is not a socially constructive thing to do.

We know that the banks have recorded very substantial profits in recent years. AIB, for example, in which the State has a more than 70% stake, has made huge profits. The banking sector was bailed out by a framework designed and co-created by Fianna Fáil and the Green Party. It is high time that the Minister and his colleagues in government reminded the banks of their social and economic obligation to this country. They should be reminded that their obligation is not just to their shareholders but also to wider society and to those people who are struggling at the moment.

We need a clear answer from the Minister today as to what practical actions he will take. We need to hear that he will not just be having a conversation with the banks but that he will, if required, change the law to provide protections for those who are in mortgage arrears. It is an absolute scandal that interest rates are being applied to warehoused portions of mortgages at a time when people can ill afford to meet their repayments. The Minister needs to address this issue clearly and to reassure the people of Ireland that he is on their side, not the side of the banks.

I move amendment No. 1:

To delete all words after "Dáil Éireann" and substitute the following:

"recognises that the Programme for Government – Our Shared Future acknowledges that Covid-19 has presented the global community with a terrible set of challenges to add to the ongoing climate and biodiversity emergency;

acknowledges the extensive range of measures included in the Programme for Government – Our Shared Future, building on the initiatives already undertaken and in progress, which will be brought forward to support individuals and families in dealing with the financial implications of Covid-19 and to access affordable housing and, in particular, notes that:

- the Government has confirmed its overarching housing policy principle that everybody should have access to good-quality housing to purchase or rent at an affordable price, built to a high standard, and located close to essential services, offering a high quality of life; and

- the focus in recovery will be to get people back to work as quickly as possible. The Government’s aim is to create 200,000 new jobs by 2025 as well as helping people currently unemployed due to Covid-19 get back to work;

notes that the Programme for Government – Our Shared Future acknowledges that the Covid-19 emergency has illustrated the resilience and responsiveness of our system. Hundreds of thousands of people have had their incomes largely protected during the restrictions and thousands will continue to rely on the State for months to come. As this Government moves forward with a new social contract with citizens, the Government will ensure a balanced progressive approach, which provides a safety net to those most severely impacted by Covid-19 while increasing incentives and access to reskilling to enable people to get back working;

further recognises the role that income supports, such as the Pandemic Unemployment Payment, the Temporary Wage Subsidy Scheme, and the flexibility provided through Rent Supplement, have played and continue to play in supporting our citizens during the Covid-19 pandemic; and

further notes the Government's intention to:

- extend the moratorium on the termination of tenancies, in line with public health advice, if the requirements of section 4 of the Emergency Measures in the Public Interest (Covid-19) Act 2020 are met;

- improve the supply and affordability of rental accommodation and the security of tenure for renters; and

- introduce the necessary reforms to our personal insolvency legislation and ensure that sufficient supports are in place for mortgage holders with repayment difficulties and to assess the Code of Conduct on Mortgage Arrears, including the available suite of alternative repayment arrangements, and ensure it has full legal effect."

I appreciate the motion that has been tabled by colleagues in the Labour Party. It follows on from the very constructive approach they took last night in the debate on affordable housing. I will take on board the suggestions that are put forward in contributions today. I took extensive notes during the debate last night and will be responding to those Members who were constructive in their suggestions, such as those in respect of the rent-to-buy scheme. The Government and I do not have all the solutions. We are dealing with a housing crisis, a rent and mortgage arrears problem and a Covid pandemic. We must deal with all of these issues in order to get our country through this phase and onward towards recovery.

Deputy Nash spoke about the interest being charged in respect of mortgage payments not paid during the moratorium. The only mortgages I have control of are the Rebuilding Ireland home loans. Those State-backed mortgages are still being given. There is no blanket ban on lending and the message to the contrary that was put out is not true. There is no interest being charged on those mortgages and nor will there be. They are the loans over which I have direct control. The Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, will speak about the revision being prepared by the Minister for Finance as part of a review of the code of conduct on mortgage arrears. I can only speak on what I, as Minister, have immediate remit and control over, but I absolutely agree that the response to this issue has to be a cross-Government one.

Deputy Ó Ríordáin spoke about State intervention in the market and the State leading by example. I support that, as does the Government. It is why I outlined last night the initial process in regard to setting up a State-backed affordable purchase and rental scheme. It is why we have included in the programme for Government that we want to get local authorities back building and delivering public homes on public land. Our aims in providing housing for all are specifically set out in the relevant section of the programme for Government and they are things this Government is determined to do.

I will deal now with the specific issues raised in the Private Members' motion.

I reiterate that I genuinely welcome the motion and the constructive way in which it is being put forward.

Covid-19 has presented this country and the global community with enormous challenges over the past four months. These add to the ongoing climate and biodiversity emergency. The pandemic continues to present challenges. The programme for Government, Our Shared Future, asserts the Government's ambition to meet those challenges, repair the damage that has been inflicted on our people by the pandemic and take the renewed spirit arising from these challenging times and translate it into action. The Roadmap for Reopening Society and Business, published in May by the previous Government, recognised that within a few weeks of the first cases of Covid-19 being reported in Ireland at the end of February, it became necessary to take unprecedented steps to control the disease. Restrictions on the movement of people were necessary to suppress the spread of Covid-19 and minimise its impact in Ireland. This has been a very stressful and testing time for our people.

Ireland's continued success in suppressing the spread of Covid-19 is a testament to our collective resolve to fight it head on. Together, our actions have allowed an acceleration in the relaxation of the broad restrictions on the movement of people to occur with reasonable confidence, but requisite caution. We are not yet out of the woods, but the relaxation can and should be cautiously welcomed. Our public health officials have earned the respect of the people of our country and the Government. We will continue to work with them to carefully monitor the threat and management of Covid-19.

Our society and businesses are set to continue to gradually open up in the coming weeks. The economic impact of the pandemic will continue to be felt in all parts of the country and, indeed, society. As the Taoiseach has stated, there is no question but that our first priority as a Government is to continue the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic and to move decisively to recover from its devastating social, economic and cultural impact. The key goal is to get as many people back working in a safe manner as soon as possible.

As Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, I know that people need to get back to work and be able to pay their mortgage or rent and other bills as soon as possible. Income supports continue to be available on the housing front and will be available long after the Covid-19 threat expires. The Government is committed to helping people who need help to meet their housing needs. It believes that everybody should have access to good quality housing to purchase or rent at an affordable price, built to a high standard and located close to essential services offering a high quality of life. We understand that the provision of more affordable housing has a profound benefit socially and economically and we believe that the State has a fundamental role in enabling the delivery of new homes and ensuring that the best use is made of existing stock.

The amendment I tabled on behalf of the Government seeks to recognise and highlight the State supports available and the commitments contained in the programme for Government, Our Shared Future, to continue to manage the fallout from Covid-19 for all households. The programme for Government contains a commitment to extending the moratorium on the termination of tenancies in line with public health advice so long as the requirements of section 4 of the Emergency Measures in the Public Interest (Covid-19) Act 2020 are met. Further, it also contains a commitment to improving the supply and affordability of rental accommodation and security of tenure for renters by delivering a new deal for renters. There is also a commitment in terms of introducing the necessary reforms of the personal insolvency legislation and to ensuring that sufficient supports are in place for mortgage holders with repayment difficulties to access the code of conduct on mortgage arrears, including the available suite of alternative repayment arrangements, and to ensuring it has full legal effect.

Emergency legal measures with effect from 27 March 2020 were introduced to protect tenants during the Covid-19 emergency period. Tenants cannot be forced to leave their rental accommodation other than in exceptional circumstances and rent increases are prohibited for the duration of the emergency period. These emergency laws initially applied for a period of three months from the enactment of the Act but, on the request of the former Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, the previous Government by order extended their application to 20 July. The emergency laws set out the legal process for extending the Covid-19 emergency period. The Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government must request that the Government make the order having consulted with the Minister for Health and with the consent of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. The Government must consider such extension appropriate and be satisfied that it is in the public interest, having regard to the threat to public health, the highly contagious nature of Covid-19 and the need to restrict the movement of persons to prevent its spread.

Tenants are required to pay rent to their landlords during the Covid-19 emergency period. Any tenants having difficulty so doing are encouraged to engage with their landlords at the earliest opportunity. They should also engage with the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection as income support and the emergency simplified rent supplement are available. I will turn to that matter when I address the number of people who have accessed that payment in the relevant period. I encourage landlords and tenants to communicate with each other during the emergency period, as many have done, to see whether a resolution to any dispute can be found. The Residential Tenancies Board is encouraging all customers who require assistance or advice to contact it via its web service as there may have been delays answering its phone lines during the period of the emergency.

Any future request for the Government to make an order extending the emergency period will be made at the appropriate time and in accordance with the Emergency Measures in the Public Interest (Covid-19) Act 2020. As we approach 20 July, I am conscious that I will be writing to the Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly, to ask whether the public health situation merits a further extension of this moratorium. If it is justified, I will bring a proposal to the Government accordingly. I will consider the economic situation as well as giving consideration to renters and possible further measures that may be put in place should they be needed.

The Government has made efforts to ensure that social housing supports are provided as efficiently and fairly as possible during the Covid-19 pandemic. Housing assistance payment, HAP, tenants who are not financially impacted upon by the Covid-19 measures are expected to continue to pay their full HAP differential. However, local authorities should reassess tenants whose circumstances have changed or do change and adjust their differential rent accordingly. Local authorities have been requested to ensure that HAP tenants newly in receipt of the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection supports be facilitated in remaining in their HAP tenancies. If amendments cannot be made immediately to a tenant's differential rent amount, any arrears accumulating from the date of approval of the new Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection support should be rectified at a later date. This will not affect the payment to the landlord.

The rent supplement scheme continues to provide short-term income to eligible people living in private rented accommodation whose means are insufficient to meet their accommodation costs and who do not have accommodation available to them from any other source. The scheme ensures that renters experiencing a temporary loss of employment during this emergency can continue to meet their rental commitments. A point that Members may find of interest is that since the introduction of the previous Government's emergency response, slightly fewer than 7,000 customers have been provided with the rent supplement support. There are an additional approximately 1,100 pending applications. When those figures are compared with the fact that nearly 1 million people are in receipt of support under the wage subsidy scheme or the pandemic unemployment payment, it is clear that only a small percentage of the number receiving other emergency supports have sought or are seeking the emergency rent supplement payment. I encourage people whose circumstances have changed to access the emergency rent supplement payment.

The response from the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection to the Covid-19 emergency has ensured flexibility in the rent supplement scheme via specific measures to prevent undue delays in processing applications despite the large number of new cases received over a very short timeframe. The two to three day turnaround of applications ensures that customers do not build up rent arrears. Officers attempt to ensure that applicants' rental obligations are met in full. The scheme offers a safety net within the overall social welfare system by providing assistance to those whose means are insufficient to meet their needs and those of their dependants.

The main purpose of the scheme is to provide immediate and flexible assistance to those who need it who do not qualify for the payment under other State schemes. There are several payments within the scheme, including a once-off exceptional needs payment which can cover rent arrears. I have asked for further flexibility to be shown in that regard should there be a situation whereby we see a substantial debt burden after the pandemic. Where a person has a change of circumstances such as loss of income, that person should notify the relevant authority in the case of a HAP claim or the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection for rent supplement to access any payment that can be made.

My Department and the ESRI operate a programme of collaborative research, principally focused on housing economics. Under this programme, researchers from the ESRI and the Department were asked to prepare a research paper exploring the short run implications of the Covid-19 pandemic for the private rental sector. I anticipate that this research will be published shortly. I have not yet received it. That will help to inform me as the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, and the Government in our policy and approach to any potential rent arrears in the private rental sector. Preliminary findings indicate that there has not been a significant build-up of arrears over the period from April to June. Having said that, if the research leads to a contrary finding for those who are in arrears, we will bring forward measures to address and assist in that area.

The Government already has a number of specific supports in place to mitigate the effects of the pandemic on our society. The key factor is to monitor carefully their effect, to ensure that they remain fit for purpose and that we gradually and safely ease the Covid-19 restrictions. I thank the Labour Party for tabling this motion. I am acutely aware that we are not through the pandemic just yet. We have vulnerable people in the private rental sector. I want us to build our public rental stock substantially over the next few years but we need an immediate response by Government to deal with any residual rent arrears. I encourage anyone who has lost his or her job, or whose income has been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, to use the emergency rent supplement application and scheme, which is there for them. There should not be a large build-up of rent arrears. If there is, based on independent research done by the ESRI, the Government will then seek to address that at the appropriate time with the proper, independent research that we have already sought in our preliminary planning.

I thank the Labour Party for introducing this important motion. Sinn Féin will support it and I will speak to the rental section in a moment. I want to take this opportunity to correct one of the things that the Minister, Deputy O'Brien, said about the Rebuilding Ireland home loan. He said there is no blanket ban on draw-downs. He is not correct. Today, I received an answer to a parliamentary question from his Department and I am happy to share it with him. It confirms that a circular was issued by his Department to local authorities on 6 July. That circular makes it clear that any applicant who has an agreement in principle to draw down his or her mortgage cannot draw down the mortgage until he or she has exited the wage subsidy scheme for three months. I am happy to share it with any other Deputy who is interested. That is a blanket ban on those in receipt of the wage subsidy scheme.

The Deputy is misleading the House.

With respect to the matter in front of us, we know that significant numbers of renters are affected by temporary lay-offs. To try to establish some sense of it ourselves, Sinn Féin launched an online survey for renters over a month ago. About 1,000 renters across the State responded. While it is not a scientifically representative sample and we do not claim that it is, it had a good geographical, age and income mix. That survey told us 60% of renters who replied had lost jobs or income as a result of Covid-19. Some 55% spoke to their landlord about some form of debt relief. Some 40% found their landlords helpful and 40% found their landlords unhelpful. Interestingly, 58% of respondents had never heard of the Covid-19 rent supplement payment and that is one reason why the take-up is so low. The Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection has not been advertising this support, unlike the other supports. Some 60% of respondents were worried about rent arrears post the Covid-19 restrictions. About 70% thought they would have a minimum of €3,000 of rent arrears. A further 13% felt they would have rent arrears of up to €5,000.

Our view is very simple. The Minister, as a matter of urgency, must extend the ban on rent increases, on notices to quit and evictions. He and his colleagues must do more to advertise rent supplement. He must put in place a rent arrears debt resolution process through the Residential Tenancies Board that will include, among other things, the possibility of partial or full rent write-downs. We will work constructively with him and other colleagues to achieve those ends but the time to act is now and I urge the Minister to do so.

I want to raise the issue of mortgages and payment breaks. While we support the Labour Party motion, I know that it does not deal with the issue of payment breaks. It talks instead about penalties as opposed to interest and about mortgage arrears as opposed to payment breaks. In payment breaks, one does not accrue mortgage arrears. I think its spirit is in that line, given what Deputy Nash said. I welcome that this is now getting more coverage.

Before me I have a letter from Permanent TSB to a customer who availed of a three month payment break. The cost of the person's mortgage will increase by more than €7,700 as a result of that three month break. If he goes for an extension to six months, it will skyrocket further. This is not the first time that I have put this on the agenda of this House. I raised it with the Minister for Finance in April. I have produced legislation on this and gave it to the Minister for Finance three weeks ago. Yesterday was not the first time that we learned about it. Maybe it was the first time that others learned of it. This is not the way that it has to be done in this State because we know from the Central Bank's correspondence to me that one does not have to charge interest rates, loans will not go into default and it will not trigger a credit mechanism, because we can see what happened in Spain at the end of March and what Belgium and Germany did. They were able to protect their citizens from the attacks by banks charging interest rates. This is the time for Government to stand up, particularly with banks that we own, and lay down a rule that banks will not be allowed to profit on the back of this pandemic, at a time when Government rightly had to close down our economy to keep our people safe. It is not acceptable for banks to say that it is the time for them to feather their nests, fill their pockets and charge more for such people. A bank is charging €7,700 extra because a person's income was slashed during the pandemic and a State-owned bank sees it as an opportunity. It is time for every single Minister, with their Cabinet responsibility, to stand up and do the right thing.

Tá sé thar am dúinn déileáil leis seo. We absolutely support the call for a system to deal with rent arrears. The Government inaction on this will just leave more children in homeless accommodation. We in Sinn Féin have been calling for this issue to be tackled for some time. We know from data published by the ESRI that young people and those renting are more likely to be in a more precarious situation with regard to their income due to Covid-19 restrictions. We know that since the special Covid-19 rent supplement payment was introduced in March that the number of claims has increased by almost 40%. We in Sinn Féin hosted a survey of renters which showed that 60% of those who took part had lost income because of Covid-19 and a similar number were really concerned about mounting rent arrears. Some 68% of renters in our survey expected to have arrears of up to €3,000 while a further 13% expected the debt to be as much as €5,000.

The moratorium on evictions and the ban on rent increases is due to end on 20 July. The Government must extend the ban on evictions until at least the end of 2020. It must also extend the access to the Covid-19 rent supplement payment until the end of the year. Not doing so will have disastrous consequences for people across this State and in my county, Galway. The Simon Community has reported a drop in people entering emergency accommodation in Galway, which is as a direct result of the ban on evictions and rent increases. There is no doubt that once this ban is lifted, there will be a wave of new homelessness, not to mention mortgage arrears.

By stopping the banks from charging penalties or surcharges on mortgage arrears accrued during the pandemic and extending the ban on evictions, we can provide certainty for individuals and families as well as avoiding a potentially dangerous spiral of mortgage arrears and evictions that will cause untold distress for families throughout the State.

I also welcome the Labour Party motion on housing and homelessness. I wish that party had had the same interest in tackling those issues when it was in government and it adopted the very policies that created the crisis in housing that we now face. The current Labour Party leader and then Minister with responsibility for housing was one of a sorry line of disastrous Ministers in that post. The policies enacted by that Fine Gael-Labour Party Government were essentially about protecting the same vested interests Fianna Fáil had allowed to destroy the economy in the first place. It was about protecting the corporate landlords, speculators and bankers. In their term in government they introduced a new toxic vested interest to our housing policy in the form of the vulture funds.

We have a new Government in place and a new Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government. I congratulate him on his appointment and wish him the best. The sea change required by Government if we are to address our housing crisis is a willingness to stand up to those vested interests that have capitalised on the housing situation that so many families face.

We recall that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael told us there could not be a rent freeze. There is one now and the only question that remains to be answered is how long it will last. We were told there could never be a moratorium on evictions. There is now and question that remains to be answered is how long it will last.

This Government and its predecessors bought the lies the banks sold that they had to profit from the pandemic by charging interest. I commend Deputy Doherty. Primarily through his work we learned that that has been proven to be a lie despite the protestations of their spokespeople in recent times. Because it has been proven categorically to be that case that banks do not have to charge their customers interest or to profit from this pandemic as they are intent on doing, the only question left is what the Government will do about it.

What needs to be done? In the first instance, the banks need to be told by Government that they are not to fleece their customers who have had to go looking for a payment break. If they do not adhere to that instruction from Government, the Government needs to be determined to implement Deputy Doherty's legislation that will put an end to it.

The rent freeze needs to remain in place not for three months or six months, but for years until we get a grasp on our dysfunctional rental market. The moratorium on evictions needs to remain in place. We have heard the experts and the people who are on the front line of this tell us that the moratorium has prevented homelessness. We need to build from that. We then need the radical housing action policies as proposed by Deputy Ó Broin and ignored by successive Ministers. We need a radical public house building programme to be put in place. If the Minister does that, he will have our full support.

I welcome the Labour Party motion; the Social Democrats will be supporting it. I also welcome the comments from the Minister that he will listen constructively to any proposals from the Opposition and others throughout the House.

There is little awareness of the emergency rent supplement. There has been some uptake, but I and others have been dealing with many people who are not aware of it. We are creating a problem of rent arrears because people who could be accessing that support do not know about it. I appeal to the Minister to have a public information campaign on a similar scale to the other aspects of the public information campaign on Covid. We have had advertisements on the emergency rent supplement in the newspapers and elsewhere but not on this scale. That is needed as it will prevent a longer term problem building up.

I want to make three key points. I agree with the calls to extend the moratorium on evictions and rent increases. We need to realise that evictions resulting in homelessness are not inevitable. They are a consequence of policy and can be prevented. That is one thing we need to focus on. The Government can implement a range of policy options to address that. We must learn from the mistakes made with rent and mortgages in the past ten years. We also need to look at best practice in other countries.

I draw the Minister's attention to a report on mortgage arrears, entitled A Lost Decade - Study in Mortgage Possession Court Lists in Ireland, published by NUI Galway. I am sure the Minister and others will be familiar with it. I want to focus on two recommendations in that report. The first is a recommendation that human rights and equality training should be provided for directors of the Central Bank and for State-appointed directors of other banks. I raised this in a parliamentary question to the Minister for Finance who has responsibility in this area. I got detailed information back from the Minister on it.

It is clear from the answer that while there is some training on diversity for employees and different aspects, the core human rights training that is needed for the directors to realise the impact of decisions that are made in large banks and in the Central Bank on people's human rights in terms of mortgages, arrears and evictions is not being done at present and needs to be done. The importance of this is to create a balance so that in making these decisions while people are looking at the financial aspects, they also need to look at the human cost. This should be a core part of their thinking. I urge the Government to implement that recommendation from the report.

The report also recommends that the Minister for Finance should request a quarterly report from the Central Bank along with the quarterly statistics on mortgage arrears. That report should outline the impact of Central Bank decisions on housing rights issues and the disproportionate effects its decisions and supervisory actions have on women in particular. We should not just be looking at the financial numbers in this; we should also be looking at the human impacts. I urge the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, who is present, to say that to his colleague. All of these things have a cumulative effect.

I wish to speak about the sale of mortgages to vulture funds. The Government should be seeking to prevent mortgage holders from having their mortgages sold on to vulture funds. In Germany mortgages cannot be sold on to vulture funds without the consent of the mortgage holder. If that is done in Germany, there is no reason that the same protections cannot also be afforded to people in Ireland.

In terms of the impact that evictions have on people, tackling high rates of evictions and repossessions makes good economic sense. There is abundant proof that preventing evictions is cheaper in the long run than rehousing people after a period of housing exclusion or homelessness. In Finland it has been shown that the cost of an eviction is between €7,500 and €8,000 a year, which is much more than the cost of preventing an eviction. That should be at the core of our thinking on this.

Research has also shown that victims of home loss frequently experience feelings of painful loss, continued longing, a general depressive mood, symptoms of psychological and social distress, and a sense of helplessness. There are particular negative impacts for children in the loss of home and the experience of homelessness arising from evictions when the problems of rent arrears and mortgage arrears are not dealt with.

Research shows that two years after eviction, mothers still experience significantly higher levels of material hardship and oppression than their peers. One study of 2,000 Swedish households showed that those who had lost their legal right to a home where a landlord had applied for eviction were approximately four times more likely to die by suicide. There is evidence of significant levels of eviction among individuals with complex support needs due to mental ill health and substance abuse.

The European Federation of National Organisations Working with the Homeless has described eviction as:

[...] one of the worst forms of violence that can afflict someone [...] Eviction is not only a punishment, it is a collective abandonment of other people; prioritising one individual’s right to own property over another individual’s most basic needs [...] Eviction is a humiliating and traumatising experience, which risks pushing the victim down a slippery slope towards destitution and poor self-esteem. It constitutes a violent rupture of one’s home life that directly feeds into the problem of homelessness.

There are positive international examples of good practice at which we can look. For example, prevention of evictions has been a part of social policy in France for many decades. Mortgage lenders in France are held liable for their irresponsible lending and, accordingly, there are much lower levels of mortgage repossessions. A similar level of accountability should happen in Ireland and the Government has a role to play in that.

In Spain, tenants of small-scale landlords may seek a suspension of rent payments during the pandemic crisis and if they are unable to reach agreement with their landlord, they can avail of interest-free loans. Those tenants continue to pay their rents with the loans to be repaid over a period of six years. For tenants of large-scale landlords with more than ten properties, if the tenant and landlord cannot reach agreement on a postponement of the rent, the landlord is required to either cut the rent by 50% for the duration of the crisis or accept a suspension of rental payments for the crisis period with the rent then repaid over the following three years without interest. We need to look at similar schemes in Ireland.

I want to mention three principles that we should agree on. While we need an extension on the moratorium, we should first look at the rental sector and getting rid of most of the grounds for eviction. We need to be strong on the point that the private rental sector provides people's home first and foremost, and those properties should not be financial or investment assets. Those considerations are secondary.

We need absolutely to prioritise that there should be no evictions into homelessness. Several EU countries already have a policy of never evicting families into homeless and we should have the same policy in Ireland. In many countries, such as Scotland and Germany, the courts must notify the local authority and social services immediately of any impending eviction so that rehousing can be arranged. We should have a similar formal arrangement in place in Ireland.

We also need mediation and payment plans where evictions are being looked at and evictions should only ever be used as a last resort. We must support tenants and landlords to reduce the risk of evictions.

The Social Democrats fully support this motion and look forward to the work the Minister will do on this issue in the coming months. We will work constructively on this with him and other parties in the House.

I will be share time with Deputy Mick Barry. I will take five minutes and he will take four.

The eviction of people into homelessness was utterly unacceptable before the pandemic. Solidarity-People Before Profit put forward an anti-evictions Bill that was passed with a majority in the previous Dáil. If I am correct, Fianna Fáil voted for that Bill and, ultimately, that is the solution. We need to stop evictions into homelessness and remove any grounds for eviction that are not related to genuine fault on the part of the tenant. All of the loopholes, including sale and refurbishment of the home, that are being used by property owners and landlords, essentially to maximise the profit on the property they own at the expense of real human beings who need, and have a right to, roofs over their heads must be removed. That is a generality but it is the solution and we should get on with it.

That aside, allowing the eviction of people into homelessness over rent arrears, mortgage arrears or anything else is utterly incompatible with public health requirements during a pandemic. I do not think that the Minister needs to write to the Department of Health to get advice on this because it is self-evident. The Minister should say that, until we decide the bigger issue, as an absolute minimum nobody is going to be evicted into homelessness during the pandemic. As long as Covid-19 is around - and it looks, sadly, as if it will be around for at least a couple of years - nobody should be evicted. Let us say that, do it, and make sure that is the policy.

How on earth can putting people on the street be compatible with adhering to public health guidance in terms of preventing transmission of the virus? It cannot be done. Where are such people supposed to wash their hands? How is hygiene to be maintained when one does not have a bathroom or toilet? Similar worries apply if someone enters shared accommodation in a hostel or homeless hub where kitchen and bathroom facilities must be shared. It is incompatible with adherence to public health guidance during a pandemic for anybody to be homeless or in co-living or shared accommodation. We should recognise that and enact the policy that is necessary to comply with the obvious need to protect the health of the public.

As I have already mentioned, we must get rid of the unacceptable, spurious and largely profit-driven reasons for evicting people. The Minister probably heard me mention the case of St. Helen's Court in Dún Laoghaire during the previous Dáil, a saga that is continuing and sums up a lot of what we are facing. If the eviction ban is lifted, tenants who have for two years faced four different attempts by a vulture fund to evict them will be evicted. They will be homeless and knocking on the door of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council which has nowhere to house them. We should not let them be evicted, nor should we allow vulture funds to behave in that way. They have no reasonable grounds for trying to evict these people other than wanting to maximise the value of that property and the profit that they can make out of it. That simply should not be allowed.

I spoke to representatives of Threshold today and they are also saying that the Government needs to proactively step in and buy rental blocks from vulture funds to keep people from being made homeless and bring them into social and affordable housing. I suggest we do that in the case of St. Helen's Court, as was done with the Leeside apartments in Cork and in other similar cases where those kinds of threats and behaviours by vulture funds persist. I encourage the Minister to do that. It will save money on HAP and all the rest of it.

The evictions moratorium expired two and a half weeks ago in New York city. The backlog in eviction cases for a three-month period in that city would normally be expected to be somewhere between 50,000 and 60,000 cases but, given the rent arrears that have built up from people who lost their jobs during the pandemic, it is expected that more than 100,000 evictions could be in the pipeline in New York city. The director of litigation at legal services for the city said the situation is the most dire thing they had ever seen. Meanwhile, 24-7 anti-eviction protests are being organised outside homes in Brooklyn and the protestors' slogan is, "No landlords, no cops, all evictions have to stop." Are we going to see something similar here?

This afternoon, the Community Action Tenants Union organised a protest in Blackrock, County Dublin, in opposition to an illegal eviction. For every landlord with an itchy trigger finger, how many will obey the law now but plan to evict once the moratorium here has ended?

It might not be as many as in New York city but I suspect it is far from a small number either. That is just the first wave of evictions. What about the second wave? Recently, the Irish Property Owners Association put the following on its website:

Rent increases are prohibited during the Covid–19 emergency period.

[...] However, Rent Review notices may be served during the emergency period, note that any increase in the rent under the tenancy of a dwelling that should take effect or be payable during the emergency period will not take effect until after the day after emergency period ends.

Are we going to see a wave of rent increases when the rent increase moratorium ends?

Three things now need to be done. The moratorium needs to be extended at the very least into next year. All arrears built up during the emergency period now need to be completely written off. If small landlords are hard hit by such a measure, a once-off emergency tax could be introduced and levied on the bigger landlords including corporate landlords to create a fund to which the smaller landlords could apply for compensation. Last but not least, housing activists need to act on the example of the housing activists in New York city and get prepared for a real battle to defend tenants from the double threat of rent increases and a tsunami of evictions.

I thank Deputy Ó Ríordáin and the Labour Party for tabling this motion on another aspect of the housing issue which we, as public representatives, deal with on a regular basis. One of the things that I come across regularly is the issue of security for tenants in the private rented sector. As a consequence of getting a notice to leave, we are in the situation in respect of homelessness. I have that even in a rural constituency, particularly in the southern part of the constituency in Roscommon, Monksland in Athlone and Ballinasloe, where if someone gets notice that they have to leave, trying to get any alternative accommodation is next nigh to impossible.

I have suggested in the past and put it to the Minister now that we should look to the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, where there has been a very successful tenancy scheme in place which has transformed that sector over the past 15 years. If it is good enough in the agricultural sector, it definitely should be explored in the housing sector. Back in the 1990s, the vast majority of farm and land leases were for 11 months. Today, approximately half of all leases of agricultural land are of five years' duration or longer, some of them up to 15 years. In agriculture, the taxation system has been reformed to incentivise long-term leasing of land for the public good. Surely the same case can be made in respect of the private rented sector. I am not talking about big landlords that have already exploited the system in this country, I am talking about landlords with one or maybe two homes. Many of the these individuals are accidental landlords. There could be an incentive put in place for them whereby they would lease the home to a family for five, ten or 15 years and there would be a built-in incentive. It would provide security of tenure for the family that is renting and a guaranteed income for the accidental landlord. It could transform the sector, as has happened right across Europe where they have long-term leases for accommodation. That to which I refer does not happen in this country but it has happened in the agricultural sector. Surely we should be looking at it and exploring the opportunity for families.

The other thing I hope the Minister will look at is the reform of the fair deal or nursing home support scheme. The previous Government was committed to reforming this in the area of the capital assessment for agricultural land and for businesses. There is a significant anomaly that is preventing up to 9,000 homes coming onto the housing market. The current policy under the fair deal scheme effectively bans the renting out of 9,000 vacant homes belonging to older people who are in nursing homes, because they are hit with a treble penalty under the means test rules that apply. As a practising politician, the Minister knows well that under the social welfare system, the means test for a person's asset is either the market value of the property or the net income that is generated from that asset. However, under the fair deal scheme, 7.5% of the market value of the house is used but on top of that if the home is rented out by an older person, 80% of the income generated, exclusive of any costs such as maintenance or letting, is also included in the means analysis. It gets worse. If that rent goes through the older person's bank account, it is also considered capital on deposit and is calculated at a further 7.5%. If a vacant property is leased out by a family that is looking to put a roof over the heads of some of those homeless families we have across the country, the older person in the nursing home is facing a means assessment with a treble penalty put on it. Some of these properties have 1,000 Mbps high-speed broadband outside the door.

Down the road, some of those 9,000 properties to which I refer will eventually be sold but we are usually talking years by the time a property has gone through probate and everything else. The properties in question will require significant investment at that stage, yet they are houses that people were dwelling in up to a few weeks or months ago. As already stated, there are 9,000 such homes. At the moment, there are 14,000 people with property in private and public nursing homes under the fair deal scheme yet just 600 homes are being rented out. Surely there is something fundamentally wrong if only 600 of those homes are being rented out and the reason is that the system penalises it. I received a commitment from the Minister's predecessor that this anomaly would be addressed and I expect to see this reflected in the legislation when it comes forward.

Another issue which reflects the motion of the Labour Party and has been highlighted also by Deputy Pearse Doherty is the fact that the banks are running amok during Covid-19. They are exploiting their customers and the Central Bank is quite happy to sit on its hands and let this go on. A couple of weeks ago, AIB had to reverse its ban on mortgage approval for couples where one of them was in receipt of the wage subsidy. This is an issue that I took up directly with AIB because I was coming across constituents who had mortgage bans imposed on them.

In recent days, the issue of interest charges has arisen. A family with a €300,000 mortgage who take a six-month payment break will end up with an interest bill of €4,300. These are families looking for a payment break because they cannot meet the current mortgage repayments and struggling as a result of Covid, and we are putting a millstone around their necks of €4,300. The banks are trying to say they have no choice but to charge interest but we now know the Central Bank has eventually woken up about this on foot of clarification from the European authorities. The fundamental problem is that we need to split the Office of the Financial Regulator from the Central Bank. That was the case historically and it must be done again. We need a separate financial regulator. The Central Bank's role in consumer protection and consumer rights needs to be moved and the consumers' advocate must have teeth and be prepared to use them.

The Rural Independent Group is next. Deputy Mattie McGrath is sharing time with colleagues.

My speaking time will be shared with three colleagues. I also support the motion. There was discussion last night with the new Minister in whom I have great faith. I hope he is listening because the banks in Ireland are not functioning across the board. This is crucial for anyone seeking a loan or some reprieve during these times of Covid. The banks are so arrogant that they are trying to get away with overcharging, refusing loans and withdrawing approval for families to build houses. How, during this Covid crisis, will we ever get our people housed?

Deputy Naughten spoke about the regulator and financial watchdog being separated from the Central Bank. We need banking legislation, full stop. From what I can see, there is very little banking legislation. Legislation is in place for all of us in many areas, as are various amendments and statutory instruments, but the banks have free rein to do what they like and they do what they like. A former Member of this House who is also a former MEP is now acting as their PR spin doctor. It just goes on and on. It beggars belief how successive Governments, including the Government of which Deputy Kelly was a member, allowed the banks to do what they wanted. It is time we had real legislation and real regulators, not the toothless people who are there now and do not support the people.

Many landlords are good, accidental landlords who own one or two houses. I will not allow all landlords to be demonised as bad people. We need good people in the market but we need to deal with the banks because they are not functioning. They need to function to allow people who can repay mortgages, regenerate houses or pass them on to do so.

The fair deal scheme also needs to be looked at. There are many issues involved but the banks must be tackled in the first instance.

I thank the Labour Party for tabling this motion. People in mortgage distress are in great fear of losing their homes. Many are genuine people who have done all they can to come to some arrangement with their banks but to no avail. Efforts to throw these people out of their homes must stop. The previous Government stood idly by. Will this Minister do the same?

The laws must change. All those who make a genuine effort to pay their mortgage must be afforded the opportunity to do so. Selling their mortgages to vulture funds, in most cases behind their backs, must stop now. If the Government does not have the strength to stop it, it will find itself facing the same political crisis as its predecessor. The banks seem to be rejigging the payments of people who have three and six-month moratoriums by increasing their payments when the moratorium ends. This is terribly unfair to people who are under immense pressure in these times.

Last night, I spoke about the housing crisis and the need for a rural resettlement programme similar to the one introduced in County Clare some years ago. Such a programme was mentioned in the previous programme for Government but was not introduced. A rural resettlement programme must be introduced. It would take families out of hotels and help people who are losing their homes and those in direct provision. There are suitable developments up and down the country, which would provide safe, comfortable living for people in direct provision. These developments must be looked at immediately. The Minister has an opportunity to turn this around. While some of the measures I have highlighted might not resolve the issue, combined with other housing measures, they would greatly help in delivering homes for those who genuinely want them.

I thank the Labour Party for bringing this very important motion before us. We all hate the word "eviction". Every human being is entitled to have a roof over his or her head and this Dáil should strive to ensure that everyone has a house. For their part, 99% of landlords are good operators who treat their tenants properly but there are also rogue landlords who do not subscribe to that approach. We must remember that in many instances the State takes 50% of the rental income in tax. If something could be done on that, it would help many people.

I will give an example of people who are in serious trouble. In our local authority, the income cap above which a couple with three children cannot remain on the housing list is €33,600. When people go on the family income supplement, it means they cannot survive on their income. I know couples in receipt of that payment who have been thrown off the housing list because their income exceeds the cap. That does not make sense. I have raised this matter several times, as have other Deputies. It must be looked at because these people are seriously struggling to pay their rent. Rents in Killarney have increased to €900, €1,100 and sometimes €1,200. I have even heard of rents of €1,500 being charged. People do not have that kind of money. They will not get a mortgage on an income of €33,600 or even €40,000 to put a roof over their heads. We must do something about that.

Most tenants pay their way but there are others who, regardless of their income, will not pay a penny. Those people cannot be supported. However, the large majority of tenants pay their way and we must ensure there are no evictions of those people.

I also thank the Labour Party for bringing this important debate before the House. I wish to record a very specific interest, as I always do, when I have something to declare. I have been involved in the job of providing accommodation since I was 19 years old so I am sort of qualified to talk about the problem in Ireland today. There is nothing wrong with people finding themselves in a position of needing to rent private accommodation. However, renting is not the long-term solution to their housing needs. The right thing would be to have our local authorities provide accommodation, which people would rent and eventually be able to purchase. That is the ideal scenario for a family or a young couple who want it. We are not like other countries where people want to rent throughout their lives. Some people might want to do that, and it might suit them, but the majority want to have their own front door with their own key. That is an ideal that we as politicians, and the current and future Governments, should strive to achieve.

When it come to the issue of providers of what I call the private accommodation sector, our Government and politicians in this Chamber must be very careful about what they are saying when it comes to people who provide that rental accommodation. As has been rightly pointed out by Deputy Danny Healy-Rae already, they are tax collectors, in that every €1,000 they collect, they give more than €500 of that in tax in many cases. They then have to pay the mortgages, the maintenance, the insurance bills and everything else. I deal an awful lot with people who are involved in that sector and they actually find it very hard if they are dealing with a situation where, perhaps, rent is no longer being paid and they are paying a mortgage on a property that they are getting nothing whatsoever for.

While everybody is only trying to do their best, it works on both sides. Politicians have to remember that if we hunt the people out of providing private accommodation-----

I thank the Deputy, who is out of time.

-----the Government will not be able to fill that gap and make up the difference. We have to ensure we do not hunt people out of providing private accommodation, because that would not be a solution to people’s housing needs.

We are going to have to ensure that other people get speaking time too. Thank you, a Theachta. Moving on to the Independent Group, I call Deputy Fitzmaurice.

I thank the Acting Chairman. I was talking to a person the other day, and as some of the so-called experts will say, one might be better renting. I saw a debate on the television a year ago where a person had paid €250,000 in rent and had nothing for it and still had to buy a house now. It just shows.

I thank the Labour Party for bringing this motion forward. To the Minister, this is about supply and demand. If there is a tight supply of houses, landlords have a field day. At the end of the day, the Minister needs to address one thing. Some €100 million has been taken off the budget of Irish Water. It's fixing of leaks is stopping now because the money is gone halfway through the year. If the Government does not put in the sewers and water in the next year or two, it will not have houses. At the moment, it will get a lovely letter back from Irish Water saying it will give it to consultants, who will come back in a year, and in two or three years’ time Irish Water might do it. That is not how a housing problem is fixed or the people who need houses now are sorted.

On the fair deal nursing homes scheme, as has been pointed out earlier, there are several houses in towns, small or large, and in cities throughout the country that are left idle because people have gone into nursing homes. We need to bring incentives in there. A Bill was to be brought forward - I am aware that the Minister of State is here - and it seems to have vanished into thin air.

On evictions, we have seen different Bills brought in over recent years to deal with this issue. The reality at the moment is that Promontoria will take a person wherever it wants and do whatever it wants. The large vulture funds do not have any mercy for the people in this country. Until we bring in proper legislation to ensure protection where someone is making an effort, we are not going to solve this problem.

On renting, there are couples throughout this country whom we need to do things for, such as incentives we can provide for them and ways we can make sure. For example, why do we not use the English system where if a person travels to X, Y, or Z for a year, we will put him or her higher up on the list. There is an opportunity, especially in rural Ireland, be it in small towns or in the rural areas, where there are a lot of houses where, if €20,000 or €30,000 was spent on them, that was given to the people who own them, and a proportion of it was taken off the rent as each year went by, say over five or six years, we would have a double win. We would have someone living in a community and we would have a family housed that might not have a house. We would also give them the opportunity, when suitable accommodation would come up wherever they would want to go back to, of putting them up on the list.

We have to start thinking outside the box rather than the same ding dong, the same Department stuff, the same civil servants doing the same thing day in, day out, and we get the same answer. If we keep pressing the same tune, we are going to hear the same song. Unless we think outside the box in this new Dáil, we are going to be here in the same place in five years’ time. In the previous Dáil we must have had about 20 different debates on this issue, but where did it get us? It got us to the same old song that we are listening to over and over again. We have to rock the boat and say to the people that are doing this work down through the years, be it Secretaries General, principal officers or whoever, that this is not working, that we have to look at things in a different way, that we are not going to be nodding to them for this five years, and that we are going to take it on and change it. If we do not do that, we are wasting our time being here at all. I want to let Deputy Harkin speak now.

This Government has a real opportunity here to shape how it responds to the economic fallout from the Covid-19 crisis and how it responds to the significant challenges that will be faced by families and individuals as they struggle to pay their mortgages or their rent. If we are to learn any lessons from the previous crisis, it has to be that ordinary people do not pay the price for the economic collapse. The last time we bailed out our financial institutions and we socialised the bank debt. Ordinary people paid the price and many people are still paying a price as both their homes and lands are under threat.

In March of this year, the United Nations condemned Ireland for allowing multinational vulture funds to buy up vast numbers of properties and rent them out at sky-high rents. It described this as an egregious practice in Ireland. That is what happened the last time. We know that we now have a chance to change our response and support our citizens.

It is important to state that before we entered the Covid-19 crisis we had more than 27,000 people in long-term rent arrears. For those people Covid-19 has simply exacerbated the problem.

In the programme for government, the Government has promised a referendum on housing. If that commitment is real, and I believe it is, then we need to make a start now, today. We cannot say that we will start tomorrow or the next day. We cannot say we will protect our renters and those in mortgage arrears because of Covid-19 but that we will do it next week or next year. We have to start now.

Everybody agrees that this is a time of unprecedented change and unprecedented challenge, and we need to respond to it in an unprecedented way. That way will have to ensure that the Covid-19 crisis will not exacerbate the current inequalities in the housing sector.

In that context, I thank the Labour Party for bringing forward this Private Members' motion, because it highlights the crucial issue that many people are really fearful and concerned about having a roof over their heads in three months or six months. As Deputies we meet them, we read their emails, and take their telephone calls. If they knew that there would be an extension to the moratorium on evictions, then they would have some hope that they too could get through this crisis. I have spoken about help for small businesses, and the core of it is to give people hope to start again. If we extend this moratorium on evictions, it will give people hope that they can continue.

To give people belief that this Government will support them as citizens, we have to ensure that the banks and the financial institutions do not charge penalties or surcharges on mortgage arrears that have occurred during this period.

Nobody can profit from this pandemic. Nobody can get rich on the backs of others and nobody can deny hope to those who struggle to pay their mortgage or their rent. This Government is in a position to ensure that nobody profits. This Private Members' motion is as good a place as any to start.

I rise to support this Labour Party motion. We are now in what I call a dark age in terms of public housing projects in this country. From the 1930s to the 1950s there was massive State intervention in respect of public housing build in this country. This was done because there was a will to do it. At the heart of the motion before us is the supply of housing as the ultimate goal and, in the interim, protection for renters and the introduction of a State support scheme to ensure nobody is put out on the street such that we do not further exacerbate the homelessness crisis that we have seen in this country to date.

We need an enlightenment period in regard to public housing construction. The Labour Party will support any measures that are appropriate in that regard. What we want to see from this Government on that journey is real interventions and not only rhetoric. While we all have partaken in rhetoric, it is important now, more than at any other time in our history, that we put in place a programme of public housing construction such that we can alleviate the need for measures such as income supports for those who are renting. To date, 1,300 people within this State are awaiting rent supplement. Whether we like it or not that rent supplement will go into the hands of private landlords. The model we have built up in this country is perverted and we need to deconstruct it.

This motion says to Government that the Labour Party will work it but what we need to see in return is the putting in place of proper activation measures such that we never again see anybody being put out on the street. We need a public housing programme. As other speakers have said, it is a supply and demand issue. We need a public housing programme to ensure that we meet that supply and demand.

I am delighted to stand in this Convention Centre to support this motion. Thus far, I have served as a Deputy for 13 years. The number of people coming to see me who are on social housing lists is ever growing. It is utterly depressing that in this modern republic we cannot build houses for people. We will hold the Minister to his word. We will give him a fair chance and a fair crack of the whip. The Minister said earlier that he wants local authorities to get back to building houses. If that is the case, let us give him a fair crack at that whip. I contend that the model needs to be wider. The local authorities need to be key stakeholders but delivery should not be left to only them. There is a loss of corporates memory in regard to how local authorities built houses. Local authorities have not been involved in house building for a long time. We need to develop a model that regardless of our political persuasions we can buy into and support. We need this to be a non-partisan issue and an issue about young people. These are the very people who are losing hope daily that they will never own, occupy or have fixity of tenure in a house so that they can support themselves and their families.

The time for a radical programme is now. Even in the midst of this Covid crisis now is the time to put our shoulders to the wheel.

I regret that the Minister, Deputy O'Brien, is no longer in auditorium because I wanted to take this opportunity to congratulate him on his appointment. He is a constituency colleague and I know him well. He is, of course, a Fianna Fáil Minister. When many people heard that a Fianna Fáil Minister was taking over the housing portfolio there was a sharp intake of breath and worry because Fianna Fáil has always associated itself with housing. Some of that tradition is proud, in particular the large public housing provision in the mid 20th century. However, some of that tradition is not so proud, including more recently the deregulation of the housing market and the privatisation of public housing. Houses were built too quickly and they were unsafe. Pyrite and fire safety issues happened under Fianna Fáil's watch. It is with trepidation that we welcome a new Fianna Fáil Minister into this role. The Minister is aware of the aforementioned legacy. It is on his shoulders to shape where Fianna Fáil goes next. If, as stated by the Minister, he does propose to return local authorities to the provision of public housing then he will have the support of many groups within this Dáil.

The Government amendment to the Labour Party motion is not a great start. It is very weak. As Opposition spokesperson on housing six months ago the Minister, Deputy O'Brien, would have laughed it out of the Dáil Chamber. The only saving grace was that the amendment did not match with what the Minister had to say in his opening statement. I took a little more comfort from that than I did from the weak and watery amendment on what is the most serious crisis in this country.

I am a little concerned about the Minister's reference to the need to seek advice from NPHET on the continuance of the protections for renters and mortgage holders. We need to be careful about how NPHET is used as we move out of the pandemic. NPHET has played a substantial role in keeping many people alive in this country but it is not the job of NPHET to advise Ministers in any portfolio, in particular housing, on whether protections for renters and mortgage holders should be continued. We have a new Government and a new Cabinet. They have to make decisions and they have to stand over them. NPHET should be nearing the end of its job. Its job is to keep people alive, not to keep people in homes or build homes. That is the job of the new Government and the new Minister with responsibility for housing.

I would like to pick up on a point made by Deputy Michael Healy-Rae. The Deputy said that he is in the job of providing accommodation and has been since he was 19 years old and that we should not be hunting people like himself who are landlords out of their business. The Deputy and landlords should not be in the business of providing housing solutions for the most vulnerable people in our society. That is the responsibility of the State. The State should be providing sufficient public housing such that we do not have to rely on HAP and rent supplement payments or on private landlords to fill the massive gap that was created when the State privatised the provision of public housing. This was done under Fianna Fáil. It is part of its legacy. It is a massive legacy to undo.

We were told many things recently, including that it was not possible to freeze rents. It turned out that was possible and it was done. We were told that the banks, which are heavily owned by the State, could not be influenced in regard to relief on mortgages. That was done. Many things have been possible in the last couple of months that remain possible if there is a will in this country, publicly and cross this Chamber, to do it. We can stop evictions and ensure that people do not find themselves with massive mortgage or rental debt such that they can look forward to the future with some degree of comfort that their Government has their back.

I hope the Government will not push its amendment to a vote tomorrow. I hope it will not move it and that it will instead support our motion. It is a sound and good motion that has the support of the majority of Deputies. It also had the support of the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, a few weeks ago when he was the Opposition housing spokesperson. I commend the motion to the House and thank our housing spokesperson, Senator Moynihan, on her work on it and Deputy Ó Ríordáin for leading on it.

I thank Deputies for an engaging and thought-provoking discussion. To clarify, I understand that the Minister will write to the Minister for Health, not to NPHET, regarding the extension of the moratorium.

The Minister got it wrong.

That is why I said "to clarify".

As the Minister stated, the Government is providing an array of supports for citizens during this difficult period, which we intend to keep under review. The Money Advice and Budgeting Service, MABS, continues to help anyone experiencing problems with budgeting and debt during the Covid-19 pandemic. MABS, under the aegis of the Citizens Information Board, provides assistance to people, in particular those on low incomes or living on social welfare payments, who are over-indebted and need help and advice with debt problems. As part of its service, MABS also provides help and advice to those who are in mortgage arrears. Its services are provided by phone, email, post and video conferencing where face-to-face engagement is necessary. A Covid-19 live feed has been created on the MABS website to host important financial developments and to highlight how they may affect the public. A new call-back and instant messaging service is also available on mabs.ie, where the public can request a call back from a MABS adviser.

I encourage tenants to reach out for help if they find themselves in financial difficulty and to engage with their landlord at the earliest opportunity. Their tenancy relationship should not be put in jeopardy. I encourage them to talk to MABS or the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. Income supports and rent supplements are available to assist. If a tenant is already availing of HAP or rent supplement and his or her income has declined on foot of Covid-19, I encourage the tenant to contact his or her local authority, in the case of HAP, or the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, in the case of rent supplement. The current level of payment can be reassessed in light of any change in circumstances, such as loss of income.

I, along with the Department and the Residential Tenancies Board, urge landlords to consider the negative impact of Covid-19 on their tenants and to show forbearance where temporary rent arrears may arise. As noted earlier, the Department is conducting research on the potential accumulation of rent arrears during the emergency period in conjunction with the ESRI. The research will have regard to the range of rental and income supports made available to those affected by Covid-19 and will assess the combined impact that the supports and changed consumption patterns has had on the incidence of rent arrears. Preliminary findings suggest there was not a significant build-up of arrears over the period from April to June, inclusive, which is welcome news.

The Department recently published a guidance document on Covid-19 supports for landlords and tenants that set out the emergency rental measures and income and other supports available to tenants and landlords during the emergency period. The guidance document and a list of frequently asked questions are available on rtb.ie. The RTB encourages all its customers who may require assistance or advice, including in respect of any threatened eviction, to contact it via its webchat service, although there may be delays with its phone lines during this emergency period.

With regard to debt generally, the Insolvency Service of Ireland, ISI, provides a debt resolution service. The ISI was established in 2013 to deal with personal insolvency and is under the remit of the Department of Justice and Equality. The ISI aims to return people to solvency and full participation in social and economic activity. It offers a range of debt solutions, including a regulated network of qualified professionals who can help a person to reach a permanent debt solution with his or her creditor. The ISI encourages anyone with serious debt issues, including those impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic, to visit its dedicated website, backontrack.ie.

My focus, and that of the Government, is to ensure that as many households as possible remain in their homes. I encourage borrowers to engage with Abhaile, the national mortgage arrears resolution service, which is available free of charge to the borrower. The unique element of Abhaile is that it brings together for the first time the full range of supports and services required by borrowers in home mortgage arrears. A dedicated adviser will work with the borrower and the lender to find the best solution for their particular circumstances.

On mortgage arrears, the co-ordinated forbearance actions of the banking and non-banking sectors announced by the Minister for Finance on 18 March 2020, and agreed to by the members of the Banking and Payments Federation of Ireland and the Central Bank, have provided essential support to personal and business customers impacted by Covid-19. The co-ordinated approach adopted by the banking and non-banking sectors is welcome. These forbearance measures have primarily involved payment breaks for households and SME customers. The importance of these supports is illustrated by the agreement to payment breaks for 80,000 mortgage customers and 35,800 SME customers. With the initial three-month payment breaks issued in mid-March, lenders are undertaking a process of engagement with those who have availed of the break and those customers are being contacted about their options when the payment break ends. These include a payment break extension of up to three months for those who continue to be directly impacted by the fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic. The forbearance approach reflects the wider Government approach of ensuring that all supports, whether tax measures, public expenditure programmes or lender forbearance, are focused on those who have experienced significant income shocks. These levels of support are maximised and scarce resources allocated to those most in need.

The Department has introduced three and six-month payment breaks for holders of the Rebuilding Ireland home loan or other local authority mortgages. The breaks are available through local authorities and borrowers are not charged interest for the period of their payment break. In addition, the Department has just written to all local authorities highlighting that Rebuilding Ireland home loan applications should continue to be processed during the Covid-19 pandemic. Applicants of the temporary wage subsidy scheme can apply based on their pre-Covid income and will be given time post Covid to demonstrate that their earnings have returned to pre-Covid levels. If the applicant's earnings do not return to pre-Covid levels, the application can be reassessed based on the actual level of post-Covid income achieved.

In the case of mortgage-to-rent mortgage holders, for whom no alternative is available, a scheme is already in place for borrowers of commercial lending institutions, which is overseen by the Department. The scheme is targeted at borrowers in long-term mortgage arrears whose mortgage has been deemed unsustainable by their lender under the mortgage arrears resolution process, as provided for under the Central Bank's code of conduct on mortgage arrears. Under the scheme, mortgage holders who are eligible for social housing can transfer the ownership of their home to an approved housing body or the private company, Home for Life, and remain in their home as social-housing tenants, paying affordable rent assessed in accordance with their means. Following a review of the mortgage-to-rent scheme in February 2017, a range of revisions was made to the terms and conditions of the scheme to widen eligibility and ensure greater take-up. In addition, new structures and arrangements have been put in place to encourage a greater number of entities to take part in the scheme and enable it to operate at scale. One threat to the overall viability of the scheme is the lack of borrower engagement with lenders. The Department is working closely with the Abhaile service, as well as the ISI and MABS, to ensure that borrowers who could benefit from the mortgage-to-rent scheme are aware of the benefits and how to access it.

The Government is committed to ensuring that the full range of options is available to distressed borrowers, including keeping as many people as possible in their own homes, and has included a commitment to strengthening the mortgage-to-rent scheme in the programme for Government. The programme for Government is committed to delivering at least 50,000 social homes over the coming five years. It is an urgent priority to address critical housing supply and demand issues, housing delivery and, in particular, the need for social and affordable housing. I am keen to ensure we lose no time or momentum in doing this. Last year, more than 10,000 social homes were delivered nationwide and we want to build on that in future.

I am aware that the past few months have been exceptionally challenging for all stakeholders involved in housing, from those involved in delivery right through to those managing the risks associated with vulnerable groups. Covid-19 has presented challenges to the country but it has also demonstrated the clear resolve of the Government and the need to back the people of Ireland. Our key goal is to get as many people as we can back working in a safe manner as soon as we can to allow them to meet their housing needs independently. We want to help people to help themselves but we recognise that not everybody is able to meet his or her own housing needs.

I sincerely thank the Labour Party for tabling this motion and my fellow Deputies for their thoughtful input. I look forward to working with them in the coming term on our shared objective of providing secure, quality housing for all who need it.

I thank my colleague and newly appointed and excellent spokesperson Senator Rebecca Moynihan for putting this motion together and I also thank my colleague Deputy Ó Ríordáin for working on it with her.

I wish the Minister, Deputy Darragh O’Brien, and the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, the best. Trust me, I know how difficult their challenge is. Given the previous comments on what Fianna Fáil has done in regard to housing during its terms in office in recent decades, particularly the comments of Deputy Duncan Smith, I am glad the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, as a chartered accountant and forensic analyst, is in government with Fianna Fáil because his experience will be useful. I wish him the best of luck; he will need it.

We all know we are in difficult times and that we have to support one another. The Labour Party is suggesting solutions and raising issues it knows the State has to deal with. I stood in the Dáil and outside it at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic and spoke about the issues related to rent and evictions. I found it quite amazing that the previous Government could not introduce rent freezes because it was regarded as constitutionally impossible. I always knew it was constitutionally possible because I introduced them. Fianna Fáil, the main party in opposition at the time, did not believe they were constitutionally possible. They were possible because, all of a sudden, when the pandemic struck, they were brought in. It has never been fully explained to me how Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael made a volte face and were, all of a sudden, able to introduce such a measure. It very much shows the real issue, which is that housing and preventing profiting from rent among landlords are not really at the core of what the two parties believe. This is what distinguishes Labour Party Members and many others in the House from members of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael.

We supported the housing measures introduced by the Government when Covid hit. We did so because they were necessary but we will remember it was incapable of introducing them before that. The Government’s attitude towards this motion is disappointing because, quite frankly, its counter-motion is offensive and amateurish. I do not know who wrote it but I believe it is amateurish. The Minister of State proposes to delete a line that recognises the loss of income to households through “no fault of their own”. He proposes to delete the line that recognises cumulative debt from rent or mortgages will crystallise for many households. He even proposes to delete the rather complimentary statement that the ban on rent increases and evictions during the pandemic has led to a decrease in homelessness. I do not know why that perverse deletion would be made. It is not a good start. I wonder whether it is because the Minister of State wants to brush the issues of rent and homelessness under the carpet. It is telling that his alternative text does not even mention homelessness. Deputy Carthy is not present now but the day on which I will take lectures from Sinn Féin on housing will be the day on which the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission does not tell us that one quarter of all UK homelessness deaths were in Northern Ireland, the day on which it does not tell us that 205 homeless people died there in 2018, and the day on which Deputy Carthy or Deputy Ó Broin will make a statement condemning this. We must remember every day the hypocrisy of preaching in the way they do when we know from Sinn Féin’s practice in another jurisdiction what it has achieved.

Regarding to what is really before us, we have to consider what the public is facing. We share the Government’s ambition to create jobs and to come out of Covid but the fact is we do not know when the economy will be got back up and running, nor do we know the scale of the resources required. It could be months or years before the economy is back up and running. I accept that nobody knows but in the interim thousands of households will face crystallised debt they will not be able to pay. One day, the walls will come tumbling down and somebody will have to pay the debt. Those I have mentioned will not be able to pay it so the Government might as well face it now. A plan needs to be in place to help those affected because they will not be able to pay. It is just a fact. The debt will crystallise day by day, week by week, month by month and, potentially, year by year. The Minister of State is in for some wake-up call if he honours what he said in his alternative motion, that is, that hundreds of thousands of people have had their incomes largely protected. Hundreds of thousands of people are in serious bother, and many renters are among them. The basic fact underlying our motion is that, despite the exceptional pandemic unemployment payment and all the other supports, many workers are actually worse off. Therefore, we need to support them.

The Government has taken no action in relation to the banks to give homeowners several months without mortgage repayments. It has now been exposed that they have been left open to additional interest charges. I raised this with the Taoiseach earlier based on confirmation from the Central Bank and the European Banking Authority. This is affecting so many. It is not believable that the Taoiseach, having sat through my comments, is now instructing his Minister to go off and speak to the banks. A range of European jurisdictions, which I could mention, have spoken to the banks and ensured interest charges of the kind in question will not be imposed. Many of those who face extra payments in the order of thousands of euro will note that what has occurred could have been prevented if the Minister or previous Minister, or both, had spoken to the banks. It is unbelievable that this did not happen.

To hear a Banking Federation representative say the additional interest will be socialised across other mortgage holders who can pay is just rubbish. It is not a case of talking to the banks on these issues but of telling them that what is happening is not acceptable, that the clock should be rewound and that the interest should be got rid of. It is a question of our saying we know it should not be charged. We should point to what other jurisdictions have done, use the analysis across Europe, say out straight what the citizens of this country have done for the banks, and say we are not allowing people to be absolutely screwed and ripped off during the Covid pandemic owing to their being charged more in unnecessary interest.

We need a plan for mortgage repayment periods that are longer than first envisaged. The problem will feature for much longer and, potentially, there is a need for other vehicles to help those in various circumstances. We need a plan to ensure people will not be ripped off because of interest rates and how banks are dealt with. I have always been nervous about the Minister for Finance, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, dealing with the banks. I have been nervous because, while the representative of Banking & Payments Federation Ireland approached the Minister for Finance when the Covid pandemic kicked off, it should have been the other way around.

They should have been summoned then instead of offering to meet the Minister. The Minister needs to instruct them rather than it being the other way around. I am deeply suspicious and we need a plan in this regard.

We also need a plan for rent debt. Many people sitting at home, some of whom are watching us now, are facing huge and crystallised debt of thousands of euro. They are people in this city and in other cities. They are people in Mullingar and in other towns and villages. We need a plan and the spirit of this motion is to deal with that scenario and the other scenarios that my colleagues and I have referenced. It is deeply worrying and not a very good start for the Government that the Minister has decided to oppose this motion.

Amendment put.

In accordance with Standing Order 80(2), the division is postponed until the weekly division time, which will be tomorrow.