I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I am grateful to the Ceann Comhairle and all Deputies and Senators for facilitating the urgent passage of this critical legislation through the Houses of the Oireachtas. This evening I am asking Deputies to pass the Bill in order to help mitigate the impact of Covid-19 on tenants and to support the Government's efforts to restrict the movement of people in order to suppress the spread of this virus.
The front line of the struggle against this virus is in every house and community throughout our country. A safe and secure home has never been more important. The roofs over our heads have become the limits of our social lives, the four walls of our homes our new offices and the fences of our gardens or balconies our refuge from the pandemic. This challenging time for our country demands that we put aside party politics and ideology to work collectively for a common cause. This is a moment for Members of all parties and none to stop allowing their versions of perfection to be the enemy of the good on which we can all agree. In this light, I hope every Deputy and party supports this practical and urgent piece of legislation.
The Bill is designed to protect tenants and recognise the rights of property owners in this deeply challenging time. It gives tenants clear legal protections by effectively stopping evictions for the period of duration of travel restrictions and by adding a further ten-day grace period to allow people to find new accommodation in the very small number of cases in which this may be necessary. This is a targeted and balanced measure to protect our shared interest in public health by insulating tenants from any need to move beyond their homes during these travel restrictions. The temporary restrictions on property owners' constitutional rights are justified on the basis of a broader social good.
It is also important to recognise that the vast majority of tenancies do not end in dispute. The majority of the State's 170,000 landlords, most of whom own just one unit, act decently and fairly. This Bill is about providing tenants and landlords with unambiguous certainty that their tenancies will be frozen during the emergency period. It is also necessary to provide for extreme and rare circumstances where property owners and landlords will need to act to protect property during these restrictions, such as in cases of antisocial behaviour.
The Government has a strong record of protecting tenants from rogue landlords who might wish to exploit this situation. The Emergency Measures in the Public Interest (Covid-19) Act 2020 was passed by the Oireachtas in March. Upon my request, a further Government order extended the emergency blanket ban on evictions and rent freeze up to 1 August 2020. I then introduced what became the Residential Tenancies and Valuation Act 2020 here in the Convention Centre, which afforded further protections from the economic ramifications of the pandemic, rather than solely addressing public health considerations. This Act provided for a new emergency period running from 1 August 2020 to 10 January 2021 for tenants who are economically impacted by Covid-19, are in rent arrears and are at risk of losing their tenancies. Those tenants who make the required self-declaration cannot have their tenancies terminated prior to 11 January 2021. No rent increase can apply to their tenancy in respect of the period ending 10 January. The Act also introduced permanent protections in the form of new procedures requiring landlords to provide both the Residential Tenancies Board, RTB, and the tenant with an increased 28-day notice period when seeking payment of rent arrears and serving any related notice of termination.
These protections are working. I know that others are trying to belittle them by twisting the numbers and claiming the protections introduced in August are only helping a very small number of people. This simply is not true. The legislation enacted in August is protecting and will continue to protect all those who are eligible. That means that any person whose income has been negatively impacted by Covid-19 and is in arrears will be protected. Thankfully, not many people have needed to apply for these protections due to the range of other income supports the State has provided through its multibillion euro investment in our economy. That Act will continue to operate to deal with rent issues and is independent of the Bill before the House. I have also increased the budget of the RTB by 22% to allow it to carry out its expanded duties, and increased funding to ramp up rental inspections in order to address inadequate accommodation.
Ultimately, the Bill is needed to help to restrict movement in a unified national effort by the Government to address the resurgence of Covid-19. The disease demands our constant vigilance and collective efforts. The Bill forms part of that endeavour. It introduces measures to protect tenants from tenancy termination in all but very limited circumstances during the current period of restrictions due to Covid-19 and, if required, during any future restrictions involving the imposition of severe travel restrictions on people's movements. This is a strong and robust legislative protection and will work in a manner similar to that in which the Act brought in by the Government in August worked and continues to work.
The Long Title describes our policy aims and policy in the context in which the limited restrictions on landlords' constitutionally protected property rights are being introduced for the social common good. Section 31A of the Health Act 1947 provides the Minister for Health with extensive regulation-making powers to prevent, limit, minimise and slow the spread of Covid-19. Addressing unprecedented and grave circumstances, regulations under section 31A may provide for travel restrictions and the prohibition or restriction of some events such as large gatherings, as well as requiring persons to remain at home. The provisions of the Bill will modify the operation of the Residential Tenancies Act 2004 during periods specified by the Minister for Health in regulations made by him under section 31A of the Health Act 1947 in respect of which a restriction applies on the movement of people outside a 5 km radius of their place of residence. I wish to again stress that once the Minister for Health makes regulations restricting movement outside a 5 km radius of one's place of residence, the protections in the Bill will kick in. The protections will last for the emergency period defined in health regulations. This includes the regulations currently in force, as well as any new regulations at national or sub-national level that may be introduced.
I will briefly outline the main provisions of the Bill, which has five sections. Section 1 provides for the interpretation of certain terms in the Bill.
Section 2 deals with the emergency period and defines the period during which the temporary prohibition of tenancy terminations shall apply in an area. The period and the area in question shall be set out in regulations made and as may be required by the Minister for Health under section 31A of the Health Act 1947 to restrict in a specified area people's movement outside a 5 km radius of their home.
Section 3 relates to notices of termination under the 2004 Act. It provides, subject to subsection (2), for a temporary prohibition on tenancy terminations taking effect in an area where section 31 health regulations apply to restrict the movements of persons outside a 5 km radius of their homes. The duration of any emergency period shall not count as part of any termination notice period given. A revised termination date will apply and shall factor in an emergency period of an additional ten days. Subsection (2) disapplies the temporary prohibition on tenancy terminations in cases of anti-social behaviour or where a rental property is being used other than as a dwelling and without the consent of the landlord. Part 4 security of tenure rights shall not accrue to any tenant on foot of a delay in giving effect to a tenancy termination caused by the operation of section 3.
Section 4 relates to entitlement to remain in occupation of a dwelling during an emergency period. It provides that where a tenant was served a notice of termination prior to the emergency period and he or she remains in occupation on the commencement date of the period, he or she is entitled to remain in occupation until ten days after the expiry of the emergency period, subject to the terms and conditions that applied under the tenancy.
Section 5 provides standard provisions relating to the Short Title and collective citation. The Bill will commence upon enactment.
As Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, I know that at this time of great uncertainty a safe and secure home is the best shelter from this storm. That is why I am asking Deputies to pass the Bill without delay to help tenants stay in their home. I will seek to respond to any specific questions in my wrap-up later this evening. I ask Deputies to approach the Bill with an open mind, in good faith and with a sense of urgency that this moment demands as we are called to work together to overcome this cruel virus.