Residential Tenancies Bill 2020: Committee and Remaining Stages

SECTION 1

I remind Members that there is an hour and a half allocated to Committee Stage.

I move amendment No. 1:

In page 4, between lines 3 and 4, to insert the following:

“(4) Notwithstanding the interpretation contained in section 1(2), sections 2, 3 and 4 shall also apply to such persons living in dwellings with written license agreements, verbal license agreements and informal rent-a-room arrangements.”.

This is a straightforward amendment. One of the most vulnerable sections of the community who live in the private rental sector are people who do not have tenancies. They often have licences, informal unwritten licences or informal rent-a-room agreements. After the initial Covid-19 ban on evictions was introduced, there was some evidence that people in such positions were subject to inappropriate evictions because they did not have the protections of the previous legislation. This amendment attempts to ensure that all people living in the private rental sector, including those who do not have formally recognised tenancies under the terms of the Residential Tenancies Act, get the protection of this Bill.

I thank the Deputy for tabling this amendment but, unfortunately, I cannot accept it. The Residential Tenancies Acts do not apply to licensed arrangements apart from in the student-specific accommodation sector which I, Deputy Ó Broin and others worked on in the last Dáil. The rent-a-room lodgings in private dwellings are not covered by the Acts or this Bill. Tenancies in dwellings where the landlord lives are not covered by the Residential Tenancies Act. The Bill proposes to modify temporarily the operation of certain provisions of the Residential Tenancies Acts relating to tenancy terminations in the context of a global pandemic. I cannot accept the amendment.

Amendment put and declared lost.
Section 1 agreed to.
NEW SECTIONS

Amendments Nos. 2 and 3 are related and may be discussed together.

I move amendment No. 2:

In page 4, between lines 4 and 5, to insert the following:

“2. (1) An emergency period in relation to the tenancy of a dwelling shall be a period of at least six months from the enactment of this Act.”.

Again, this amendment is self-explanatory.

I am not sure what is happening outside, but there is a good deal of noise and it is difficult to concentrate. Perhaps somebody could investigate what is happening.

It seeks to do what the eminent and-----

I am sorry about the interruption to Deputy Ó Broin.

No, we can wait. That is okay.

I do not think those who are speaking realise they can be heard.

The amendment seeks to do what the very eminent Deputy O'Dowd proposed, and what Deputy Cian O'Callaghan and I are seeking to do, which is to introduce a six-month ban on evictions.

I want to briefly address the issue of the Constitution and the advice of the Attorney General. As you will know as a legal professional, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle, there is not a unified school of thought on the interpretation and the use of the Constitution. There is one eminent school of thought, and the current and previous Attorneys General are part of that school, which takes a very restrictive and conservative interpretation of the Constitution but, increasingly, legal professionals and legal scholars, including some of the most eminent young scholars writing about the Constitution and property rights, take a much more permissive and progressive view. Their view, which they base on the recent Supreme Court rulings on property rights, in particular on Part V of the Planning and Development Act 2000, up to the present, is that the Constitution provides for a much wider interpretation and therefore could allow the Oireachtas much greater scope in limiting property rights where there is a good reason to do so, in particular in terms of how the Constitution prescribes such limitations according to principles of social justice and in the common good. I can think of nothing more socially just than preventing homelessness during a pandemic, and I can think of nothing more in the common good than protecting those families most at risk of homelessness.

I have to say, and this is not a criticism of the current Attorney General in his professional capacity, that one can tell a lot about a Government by the Attorney General it appoints. The question is whether it appoints a more conservative, restrictive Attorney General in terms of constitutional practice or those who are more permissive. Contrary to what Deputy McAuliffe said, it is not that politicians argue for one thing in opposition and then realise it cannot be done in government, it is that when progressive parties get into government, they ensure the legal advice they get is in line with their objectives. Ultimately, the Supreme Court decides. Nobody in this House and no holder of the Attorney General's office arbitrates on the Constitution. As that is something ultimately that is done by the Supreme Court, I do not accept the argument that it would be unconstitutional to have such a ban. I respect the fact that the Attorney General has a different view. There are many eminent legal professionals and scholars with the same, if not more, experience as he has who would support my argument and on that basis, I am pressing the amendment.

I remind the House that there are two amendments under discussion that are being taken together. They are in the names of Deputies Ó Broin and Cian O'Callaghan.

On that very point, the thing about the Attorney General's advice, which is well written up by good legal scholars, is that the Government is not under obligation to follow his advice. The obligation is to listen to it and consider it but the Government can then make a decision as to what course of action it wants to take.

As Deputy Ó Broin has been saying, there is now a growing body of scholarly evidence from eminent legal commentators in Ireland, including in the Trinity College school of law, in this regard. It is strongly of the view that there is a lack of case law in this entire area because the Government has not taken different items of legislation through, I suppose out of fear of court cases being taken. Given the absence of case law, we simply do not know where the Supreme Court would lie on many of these issues. I agree with the Minister. We are bound by Bunreacht na hÉireann and if one reads it, it is very strong in terms of balancing private property rights with the common good. If the middle of a pandemic is not a time to act in the common good, when would be the time to act in the common good? Surely this is the very time we need to act to build social solidarity and social cohesion.

My amendment is backed by the Simon Communities of Ireland, which helped with the drafting of it, and it seeks to extend the emergency period for six months. I do not hold up the UK as a model, far from it, but I draw the attention of the Minister to the level of protections it has introduced during the pandemic for renters. It is stronger in England and Wales, where they had a full six-month ban on evictions. As the Minister must be aware, we ended ours at the end of July or the beginning of August but they extended it through to September. A full six-months' notice-to-quit period was introduced after that for all renters, but here it is only for certain categories of renter. That is a better level of protection. As to whether it is the best level of protection and what we should model ourselves on, that is absolutely not the case.

The key point, which the Minister knows, is that if we evict people it increases the level of homelessness. If we increase the level of homelessness, we increase the level of people in high-risk situations and congregated settings and that leads to an increase in Covid-19. That is what this amendment is about. Deputy Bruton was correct to say that we need more long-term measures in the rental sector to give better stability to the sector and for renters. That should be done as quickly as possible but this is the right measure now in terms of this pandemic. I strongly urge Deputies to support my amendment and that of Deputy Ó Broin.

One of the reasons we opposed the extension of the emergency legislation today, and will oppose the plan to impose fines in connection with the public health restrictions, is not because we do not support the public health measures or think that people should not comply with them to drive down the virus, but because we do not think coercion is the way to achieve compliance with public health measures. We believe persuasion is the way. The other reason is because it implies that the reason we now have a rising infection rate, such that we need a lockdown, is because of the behaviour of ordinary citizens rather than the behaviour of the Government. Here is an instance of what we are talking about. We know, for example, that congregated and overcrowded settings are conducive to the transmission of the virus. At any level of infection where the pandemic persists, the Government is actually endangering public health by allowing people to be homeless. The Government should be fined for doing that.

A pensioner in my area was made homeless during the previous lockdown. He could have invoked the legislation, but he did not feel he could stand up to the landlord. In any event, I think it was an Airbnb property so, although I am not sure, it could possibly be one of the instances covered by Deputy Ó Broin's previous amendment. He was a pensioner who was made homeless and he had to live in a shed for the entirety of the lockdown. His name is Brian. The only accommodation this pensioner was offered was in hostels in town, where he was obviously afraid to go because of his vulnerability to the virus. That is what was on offer for him from the Dublin Region Homeless Executive, DRHE.

If we allow people to become homeless, not just at level 5, but at any level of infection or where it is necessary for restrictions and while the pandemic persists, the Government is creating the conditions for the further transmission of the virus. It is. I do not understand how the Minister can shake his head. That is the case if he allows people to be put into homelessness or into homeless accommodation in congregated settings. I honestly do not know why the Minister is shaking his head. I will give him another example of a mother who was put into a hostel. This is precisely to the point.

I have a case of a mother and her kids who were put into hostel in town while her kids go to school in Dún Laoghaire. That was all she was offered. She said that although they had their own-door accommodation, such was the situation in the hostel in Gardiner Street that there were kids from other families running in and out of the room where they were staying. They were also sharing bathrooms and so on. She was extremely worried from a public health point of view about herself and her kids. She then had to drag her kids out at 7 a.m. every morning to Dún Laoghaire to bring them to school. She was working as well and nearly lost her job. This was all at the lower level of restrictions before even the Government came in with various levels. She was extremely worried about her health in those conditions with numerous kids from multiple families running in and out of each other's rooms and sharing bathrooms.

Those are precisely the conditions we should not put people in during a pandemic. However, the Minister plans to do that as soon as we go down to level 4, level 3 or level 2, even though it is precisely those kind of settings which can then drive it back up again. It is madness. I do not see why the Minister would not accept this amendment, notwithstanding the wider debate about the issue of homelessness and banning evictions altogether. We will have that debate on another day. For the period of the pandemic with the possibility of infection rates continually going up and down, I cannot see how the Minister can justify not having a blanket ban on evictions. I think it is poppycock from the Attorney General from a legal and constitutional point of view while the Government and the Chief Medical Officer want to drive infection rates down by December to ensure we can come out of level 5. At the same time, NPHET modelling suggests it is more than likely that early in the new year infection rates will start to rise again once we leave the current restrictions. In turn, we will be into another lockdown and, as Deputy Pringle said earlier, we will be in another one three months down the line after that.

Why would the Minister have people on tenterhooks as to whether they could possibly be evicted? There is an irrefutable case for having at least a six-month moratorium on evictions. I am interested to hear the Minister's response but I think it is an unanswerable case to have a six-month eviction ban, if not one during the duration of the pandemic.

Last night at 10 p.m., I submitted an amendment to go on the clár today but I was immediately told it was too late. I knew it was too late because at 7.30 p.m. I received an email telling me that I had to have the amendments in by 9 p.m. At 7.30 p.m. I was here embroiled in the debate on the mother and baby homes.

I made a complaint to the Ceann Comhairle this morning about this. I was told that the Business Committee agreed on 9 p.m. the evening before as the deadline. I cannot corroborate that. However, I know the staff are very busy but it would not have killed somebody to send an email when that agreement had been made on the deadline instead of at 7.30 p.m. last night, effectively giving an hour and a half notice for amendments.

I want to read the amendment I would have submitted into the record. It was in fact copied and pasted from the amendment that we achieved to get into the last emergency measures in the public interest when we passed them back in March. The amendment basically covered all proposed evictions in tenancies in the State. For the avoidance of doubt, it included local authority and approved housing bodies. It stated all Travellers currently resident in any location should not, during the crisis, be evicted from that location except where movement is required to ameliorate hardship. There is much hardship among the Traveller community. The Irish Traveller Movement wrote to the Minister recently and made a well-argued and well-thought out plea to him to put a ban on evictions of any Travellers for the duration of the crisis.

In fact in the past few weeks there has been a significant rise of Covid infection in the Traveller community. Will the Minister give the same degree of protection from eviction afforded to Travellers in the last eviction ban? I support the amendment to increase it to six months. Even as it stands, will the non-eviction of Travellers apply whatever the duration is?

It is important because this is an extremely vulnerable group. The sort of chronic diseases Travellers are at risk of arise mostly from the conditions in which they live. Their living conditions are often damp and cold and lack proper sanitation and water facilities with no ability to heat them. The homes leave much to be desired for hundreds of families. More than 3,000 children are living in inadequate conditions. Many of these conditions are the ones that Covid goes after. Their vulnerability involves chronic lung diseases, pulmonary diseases, heart conditions, cystic fibrosis and asthma. That is what Covid loves to go after. Many children and adults living in Traveller accommodation are susceptible to these problems.

There is a significant level of homelessness among the Traveller community. As a proportion of the entire population, it is over-represented in this regard. The Minister knows up to 10% of all homelessness is made up by the Traveller community. That Travellers will not be evicted for the period designated must be on the Minister's radar.

I am raging I was not allowed put my amendment. It is grossly unfair, not just to the Travellers but to all those vulnerable groups we were setting out to protect. Local authorities have sadly and badly let down the Traveller community. In July, the Irish Traveller Movement revealed that, nationally, 30% of Travellers are currently in need of accommodation and yet eight local authorities have set targets well below the need identified in their five-year Traveller accommodation programmes. There is a history of this. We know it because there was significant publicity around it during the last Traveller accommodation programme plan where we saw a pattern of every local authority not drawing down the spending allocated to them for Traveller accommodation needs.

We have to redress this. We must ensure Travellers are not evicted during this pandemic, despite the awful conditions in which they live. It is not good enough just to extend this for the period of level 5. The Government has admitted we are not going to come out of level 5 and have no Covid. I have heard on radio programmes and other interviews over the past week the expression "ebb and flow" used by many Ministers. It is ebb and flow not zero virus or crushing or breaking the virus. If that is the Government's strategy, then it needs to ebb and flow some decency in the direction of the most vulnerable. Among them, I give a shout out for the Traveller community. They need to be protected too.

On Deputy Bríd Smith's comments on the Business Committee, I am not a member of it and I do not make those decisions. While I recognise she was in here working, the officials in my Department, the Attorney General's office and the Bills Office were working full tilt in the preparation of this emergency legislation. I know the Deputy knows that.

I mentioned to colleagues earlier that it is of course far from ideal that there was only a window of an hour and a half to table amendments. We had to bring the Bill to an incorporeal Cabinet meeting yesterday and I had worked on it the day before and last week as well. There was no intention to in any way, shape or form inhibit people from tabling amendments to the Bill.

The Business Committee makes the decision on the scheduling of business and I have nothing to do with it as Minister, and nor should I. I assume the Deputies will take me on my word on that, and with any other legislation we bring forward, we will always try to afford the appropriate time between Second Stage and Committee and Remaining Stages. We want to allow time for amendments to be tabled. It is the right and duty of Members to do that if they see areas in legislation they want amended. They should have the facility for that. At least this evening the Deputy has managed to put on the record what her amendment would have been. She can now decide what to do in that regard.

The Deputies mentioned the Traveller community. We should be cautious when mentioning Traveller representatives or representatives of any other ethnic or minority group so as not to identify groups in the context of Covid-19 spread or such matters. It may be well-intentioned but it is not helpful. I know many people in such representative groups have asked that this be avoided. I will not address the matter further today other than to say I am happy to take the discussion outside the Chamber. I and officials in my Department are in regular contact with the community and representatives on Covid-19 measures.

Deputy Ó Broin asked a question earlier and a circular will issue either this evening or tomorrow morning to all local authorities. The first aspect relates to local authority tenants who are not covered under this legislation. As happened earlier in the year, I have asked that the circular should indicate that forbearance is given by local authorities to local authority tenants. To answer Deputy Ó Broin's question, I will follow that up and ensure that happens. We did it before and we will do it again.

On the question of how the needs of the Traveller community are addressed, I have given significant extra funds in the budget to permanent Traveller accommodation as well as Covid-19 measures and additional assistance that may be given in order to allow people or families to self-isolate or shield. There will be no movement off public land. If local authorities need to work with the community to ensure there is no overcrowding on certain sites, I have given a large degree of latitude on that. I am happy to write to the Deputy separately on that and give him a full update. I will ensure he gets that tomorrow via email. It is a really important matter and I am absolutely committed to ensuring we do everything possible to protect all communities and particularly those that are more vulnerable. If the Deputy has any additional queries, he can certainly get back to me.

I will address some of the points raised by Deputy Boyd Barrett. Some of them have been rehashed from the points raised in July by Deputies Boyd Barrett and Mick Barry. I specifically remember Deputy Barry's contribution as both he and Deputy Boyd Barrett predicted an opening of the floodgates in evictions, with a massive increase in homelessness and tenants being thrown out on the street. The Deputy engages in melodrama from time to time.

I am thankful that prediction did not come to pass. The Deputies are entitled to their view but they must also recognise what has happened. Deputy Boyd Barrett described what happened to his constituent, Brian, and such a case should never happen. I have figures for eviction notices between 29 March, when the blanket eviction ban was introduced, and the end of July, when we transitioned to more permanent measures. There were 303,023 registered tenancies in the country and 42 notices of terminations were issued. This means that with 42 tenancies, the landlord disregarded the protections. Brian, Deputy Boyd Barrett's constituent, was, unfortunately, one of those 42 cases.

The Deputy said his evicted tenant did not raise the matter with the Residential Tenancies Board, RTB, and neither of us would particularly like to force anybody to do something even when the law is in place. These are the facts, however, and the compliance rate was 99.98% in that time. As an older man, Brian may not have wished to engage with the system. I am sure the Deputy, as his representative, did everything he could to assist him, and continues to do so. I urge the local authorities to do what they can as well. However, there were 42 cases like that. We should be clear on the reality.

In July and again tonight, Deputy Pat Buckley was prone to overstating or exaggerating the current position. We have a serious homelessness problem and we are addressing it. I am committed, like all Deputies and the Government, to doing that. Let us not stoke fear in people either, as that happened in July. Deputies speak about trepidation in tenants, and we certainly want to strengthen protections in short-term tenancies.

We should look at what happened when the new regulations were introduced. From 2 August to the end of September, there were 844 28-day warning letters issued. How do I know the number? The RTB was able to tell me the number because in the Act we passed in July, we gave the RTB the ability to get that number. The Deputies opposite, including Deputy Boyd Barrett, Deputy Ó Broin, his party and others opposed the Bill. We now have the ability to see these numbers and how they relate to people in arrears. Those 844 28-day warning letters had to be copied to the RTB because of the legislation brought forward by the Government and passed by the Members who voted for the Bill. Of that total, 182 notices of termination were issued and 174 self-declarations were requested and received. There has been one referral to the Money Advice & Budgeting Service so far. The more permanent measures, particularly around arrears, will work, as 22% of tenancy disputes in 2019 related to arrears. I am not saying the system is perfect and I mean no disrespect to the Deputies.

I will turn to the Deputies who proposed amendments Nos. 2 and 3. I cannot accept them. The temporary prohibition on tenancy terminations under the Bill operates when section 31A of the Health Act 1947 is in force to restrict the movement of people. This means that when we hardwire this legislation, it ties any further protections like these emergency protections to the 1947 Act, ensuring they can be introduced automatically. It is a very strong protection.

This provision is intended to be agile and it activates and deactivates when tenants most need our help. It operates on top of the protections that exist already under the 2004 Act and the Residential Tenancies and Valuation Act 2020 that most of us voted for in this very Chamber in July and which came into effect from 1 August. The provision is intended to be fair and it recognises the need to complement the restriction of movement provided for by health regulations while limiting the infringement on property owners' rights.

People have commented on the advice given by the Attorney General. We should not really be debating it in the Dáil and suffice it to say the Attorney General is the legal officer and adviser of the Government. Lawyers and barristers may disagree and most of the time we could find somebody with a contrary view but it is our job in the Government to have very serious regard to such opinion. I was struck that Deputy Ó Broin referenced the Supreme Court in what was almost a throwaway manner. He implied that the Attorney General would advise but we would not have to abide by it and the Supreme Court could adjudicate the matter.

That would be a fine way to introduce legislation in the Houses of the Oireachtas. Simply passing a Bill and waiting to see what happens would effectively abrogate the responsibility of the Dáil and the Seanad and kick the problem up to the courts. That would be a most irresponsible way to bring legislation forward. I note that neither of the two Bills the Deputy has brought to this House since the formation of this Government have been referred to the Office of Parliamentary Legal Advisers. That is fine. It is his and his party's choice. One would have thought, however, that since the service is available to Members they would use it to check that the Bills they bring forward are actually constitutional and legal. Merely being written down does not make them so. We cannot play fast and loose with legal advice given to the Government or with Bunreacht na hÉireann. The Constitution is not a pick-and-mix document. We cannot choose to apply the parts we like and disregard the parts we do not. People may get some insight into some Members' feelings on the primacy of the Constitution from their view that it can be set aside if it does not suit a political or personal belief. That is a dangerous and frankly a somewhat horrifying proposition.

I cannot place a six-month blanket ban on tenancy terminations without a proper justification arising from a social and common good. We need a functioning rental sector. It is already under strain, and arbitrary changes that affect confidence in the sector will drive good landlords out of it. That has been happening, whether we like it or not. I have heard the Deputies opposite rightly saying in the national media that most landlords are good people who own just one or two properties. That describes 86% of landlords. We do not want to drive them out of the market as well. We need to provide more public homes, and that is what I and this Government intend to do. We will bring forward affordable rental options for those who cannot access social housing schemes. As I said earlier, we will deliver 12,750 homes next year.

The Bill is underpinned by the prevailing public health advice. The collective will of the Government is behind the regulations introduced under 31A of the Health Act 1947. I cannot accept either of the amendments from Deputy Ó Broin or Deputy Cian O'Callaghan. I recognise that they put them forward for genuine reasons. We cannot tinker with timelines in emergency legislation rooted in the Minister for Health's powers under the Health Act 1947. It would not be legally sound.

I will be pressing the amendment.

I never said there would be a flood of evictions.

It might have been Deputy Barry who said it.

I will let Deputy Barry speak for himself, but I never said that.

I would not like to misrepresent what the Member said, so I will withdraw that claim. I have regard for Deputy Boyd Barrett.

What I said in my contribution and previously was that it is a fact that the majority of people who come into my clinic because they are threatened with eviction are in that position because the landlord is selling. It is not a flood, but there is a constant flow of people of all ages into my clinic. As a result of the eviction ban which applied during the heavy lockdown the number of people entering homelessness declined. That is a fact. Logically, it followed that when the ban was lifted the number of cases began to rise again. The Minister knows the numbers better than I do. I am not saying it was a flood of cases, but people who were protected are no longer protected.

There is one specific question where this amendment is concerned. I have the Citizens Information website in front of me. The Minister can go on that website right now and see the terms of the level 3 restrictions. People are not allowed to leave their county. If I live in Shankill and my landlord decides to put me out, one of the places I will have to look is across the county border in Bray. I will not find anything closer to Dún Laoghaire, where rents get more and more expensive. That is totally out of reach. If I am lucky I might get somewhere in Bray. However, level 3 restrictions mean that someone cannot leave Shankill to look for an apartment in Bray, which would be hard to find anyway. People are not allowed to have visitors to their houses under level 3 restrictions, never mind level 4.

One man, Brian, has been told there is no place for him but he can apply for a housing assistance payment, HAP, tenancy. One man who came to my clinic is in his 70s. He has several serious ailments. He is a long way down the social housing waiting list and he has been told to look for a HAP tenancy. At a time when level 3 restrictions prevent people from visiting each other and older people should be protecting themselves, does the Minister think they should be traipsing around looking for HAP tenancies? I certainly do not. It contradicts public health advice. If someone like that is evicted because they are not protected during this period, the Minister is endangering their health. He is encouraging them to breach the public health guidelines his own Government has imposed.

As I said earlier, making people homeless is simply incompatible with the drive to protect public health and to get people to adhere to the most basic precautions by limiting social contact. That applies as long as we are facing a pandemic, not only while we are under level 5 restrictions. That case is absolutely unanswerable. The Minister is saying that this may be true at level 5, but if we go to level 4 or level 3 it will not be true any more. He has not answered that point because he cannot. I will be interested to see if he can, but otherwise he should drop his objection to this amendment and let it pass.

I have listened very carefully to every Deputy's contribution because every Deputy's contribution is very important. I would like to return to the very sound point Deputy Boyd Barrett has just made. I have no reason in the world to doubt what he says. I have seen it in my own clinics. People say that the house they are living in is being sold. We have to ask ourselves why those properties are being sold. I touched on this in my earlier contribution. Why are properties that were being rented now being sold? I will give Deputy Boyd Barrett the answer. It reflects what goes on in Dáil Éireann, where people like Deputy Boyd Barrett have demonised people involved in the private rental sector. Much of the legislation that has been proposed is actively hunting people out of that sector. We have to ask why people are selling properties. Deputy Boyd Barrett and others forget that these people are taxpayers. They pay 52% of their earnings in tax.

They must then pay a mortgage and insurance. If it is being run as a business, there are many things that must be taken out of the money that comes in.

As I stated, Members of this House must be careful and responsible in what we do. I have no doubt about the genuineness and concern of Deputy Boyd Barrett regarding the comments he makes, but one must be careful if one does what he is doing and says many of the things he is saying. I do not wish to make this about the Deputy. People such as him have been saying certain things that might be contributing to the cause of the problem. In other words, such comments are actively putting people out of the business of providing accommodation. The record will show that in the past six or seven years in particular, thousands of properties have been sold out of this State and into ownership whereby they are not being put back on the rental market. That is a very important point. It is contributing to the problem we have.

Of course, there is an ideal solution, one that I wish to be in place for the county I represent, County Kerry. We have an excellent housing authority in County Kerry. I am very proud of every person who works there, including those who go out to repair local authority housing, the directors of service, the engineers and the ladies who administer the housing assistance payment, HAP. All of those people are excellent at and very committed to their job. The one thing we need in County Kerry is more funding from central government. We need to build more local authority houses. There used to be a thing called a single rural cottage and it was probably the best thing there ever was. As so few of them seem to be built in Ireland now, many people have forgotten what they are. People who had enough land to so do could sign over a half acre plot to Kerry County Council. The council could then come along and build a nice, fresh rural cottage on the land for that family. The family was able to live in that home and, in time, had the opportunity to buy it. It was one of the greatest things ever to see the local authority building such a house because one knew the family would be secured forever. It could continue to rent it from the local authority at an affordable rate or, in the best outcome of all, it could buy the house from the local authority. Very sadly, in recent years fewer and fewer single rural cottages have been built by our local authority. We wish to see more of that coming back into play. Obviously, more local authority housing should then be built in our towns and villages and-----

I hate to interrupt the Deputy, but we are speaking to amendments Nos. 2 and 3.

I am acutely aware of the amendments to which we are speaking, but it is all tied up in a circle. It comes back to what Deputy Boyd Barrett stated about people going to a clinic and stating that they have a problem because their house is being sold. It comes back to the reasons those houses are being sold. That is the point I wish to make.

I call Deputy Barry on amendments Nos. 2 and 3.

I was watching the debate on a screen on a level below the Chamber and heard the Minister taking my name in vain. I wish to reply to what was said in that regard. I will be brief. The Minister stated that I am forecasting a flood of evictions. He should look at the figures. More than 10,000 people were in emergency accommodation when the eviction ban was introduced in spring. There were fewer than 9,000 people in emergency accommodation when the ban was lifted at the end of July, a difference of in the region of 1,500 people. It was the most successful housing policy introduced by a Government in the past five years. If the Minister thinks the numbers will not climb again when he reverses the ban, that thinking defies logic. It is the case that the numbers did not increase significantly at the end of August. We will see the figures as at the end of September when they are released next week. It does not make sense to state that when one reverses a ban which reduced the number of people in emergency accommodation by more than 1,500, one is not in danger of the number beginning to travel in the opposite direction again. The anecdotal evidence on the ground is that, without a doubt, evictions are back up and running.

I refer to the points raised by Deputy Michael Healy-Rae. I do not know whether he declared an interest in this debate.

He did declare it.

Deputy Michael Healy-Rae should correct me if I am wrong. It certainly was the case a few years ago-----

I am sorry to interrupt the Deputy. At the very beginning of my contribution, I most certainly did declare my interest, as I did last night and every other time I have spoken on this issue.

The Deputy declared that he is one of the biggest landlords in the House.

I ask the Leas-Cheann Comhairle to clarify for the Deputy what I stated at the start of my contribution.

I will leave that to the Deputy because-----

If he indicated that he is one of the biggest landlords in the House, I am quite happy to accept that.

Just a minute. We are now into a situation where we have the Minister and several Deputies making comments. The House is discussing amendments Nos. 2 and 3. Deputy Barry wished to correct the record and I allowed him in to so do. I am not taking issue with that but, rather, pointing out what happened. I am simply asking Deputies to redirect themselves to amendments Nos. 2 and 3. I have given Deputies great latitude.

I will finish on this point. The gobbledygook that comes across from Deputy Michael Healy-Rae about landlords being forced out because of criticisms made in the House of their actions, criticisms of landlords who have hiked rents, evicted people and in many cases made a fortune from the misery of others, is an argument against which I will argue on another day when there is more time to so do. I will argue against such points whether they are raised by a Deputy who is not a landlord, is a small landlord or is one of the biggest landlords in the House.

I have tried to address the queries that have been raised regarding the amendments. I point out to Deputy Barry that I know exactly what he stated in the House. That is the reality of it and it is important. I do not see what anyone's background has to do with the matter. It is not for me to hold a candle to anyone. If a Deputy is elected to the House, he or she is entitled to speak. It should not make a difference whether a Deputy is from Cork, Dublin, Belfast or elsewhere, or whether they own two houses, ten houses or no houses. I am not a landlord, if that is what Deputy Barry wishes to know. Perhaps he should tell the House all about himself and his background. He stated in the House:

Next week, the official figures for the numbers in emergency accommodation at the end of August will be announced. I expect those figures to confirm that evictions are on the rise, possibly in a dramatic fashion.

I am not complacent about what we need to do here, but I am responsible in my commentary on what we should do. We should not stoke fear. I know there are some Deputies opposite who thrive on so doing. The Government is not going to go down that road. I am trying to deal very specifically with bringing in additional protections for people and families. I point out to the Deputy that since the changes we have not seen a rise but, rather, a continued decrease for which we are thankful. That is not all down to the Government or policy. It is down to the really hard work of homeless charities, local authorities, the Dublin Region Homeless Executive, to which Deputy Boyd Barrett referred in a less than flattering manner. I know the level of work and the commitment of the people in all the housing associations and local authorities.

I would not besmirch the work they do or their commitment to ending homelessness, which is something we are committed to.

I agree with the point raised this evening about landlords terminating a tenancy on the basis of saying they are selling the property. I have raised this with the RTB. In the budget, which Sinn Féin opposed, we rightly put significant extra money into the Residential Tenancies Board to allow for additional staff to enforce tenancy protections. We regularly ask the Residential Tenancies Board to do more and to carry out investigations to support our tenants. Where landlords are not doing what they should be doing and are breaching the law they need to be investigated and prosecuted. Over 200 investigations have been initiated over landlords giving the reason of sale of a property and where a complaint would be received that they have not indeed moved to do that. Prosecutions based on legislation introduced last year can be brought about with fines of up to €30,000 and that should be done. Where complaints are made, I have encouraged the RTB to follow those through with investigations and it is doing so.

I will give some facts to the House. From listening to some Members, one would be led to believe that thousands are being thrown out of their houses because landlords are selling properties. In quarter 1 of this year, 365 notices to quit were based on the reason that the house was for sale. In quarter 3 it was 165, so there has been a reduction. They are the facts, but we need to watch these things.

I will conclude on a more positive note. While there are differences in the approach here, I recognise that Members opposite are supporting the legislation. That is an improvement and I recognise that they want to provide additional supports for tenants. This will be in addition to the protections we introduced in July. Some of the Members who are supporting this Bill, which I welcome, opposed those other protections, as is their right. They included things like being able to know when a tenancy goes into arrears. Without that legislation we would not have that information now. We would not have the obligation of a landlord having to send a copy of that arrears notice directly to the RTB when he or she writes to the tenant. We would not have it if we had not passed the legislation in July with effect from 1 August.

I thank Deputies Ó Broin and Cian O'Callaghan for the amendments they tabled. I respect the manner in which they put them down in good faith, but I cannot accept them.

Amendment put:
The Committee divided: Tá, 57; Níl, 86; Staon, 0.

  • Andrews, Chris.
  • Barry, Mick.
  • Boyd Barrett, Richard.
  • Browne, Martin.
  • Buckley, Pat.
  • Cairns, Holly.
  • Canney, Seán.
  • Carthy, Matt.
  • Collins, Michael.
  • Conway-Walsh, Rose.
  • Cronin, Réada.
  • Crowe, Seán.
  • Cullinane, David.
  • Daly, Pa.
  • Doherty, Pearse.
  • Donnelly, Paul.
  • Ellis, Dessie.
  • Farrell, Mairéad.
  • Fitzmaurice, Michael.
  • Gannon, Gary.
  • Gould, Thomas.
  • Guirke, Johnny.
  • Harkin, Marian.
  • Howlin, Brendan.
  • Kelly, Alan.
  • Kenny, Gino.
  • Kenny, Martin.
  • Kerrane, Claire.
  • Mac Lochlainn, Pádraig.
  • McGrath, Mattie.
  • Mitchell, Denise.
  • Munster, Imelda.
  • Murphy, Catherine.
  • Murphy, Paul.
  • Mythen, Johnny.
  • Nash, Ged.
  • O'Callaghan, Cian.
  • O'Donoghue, Richard.
  • O'Reilly, Louise.
  • O'Rourke, Darren.
  • Ó Broin, Eoin.
  • Ó Laoghaire, Donnchadh.
  • Ó Murchú, Ruairí.
  • Ó Ríordáin, Aodhán.
  • Ó Snodaigh, Aengus.
  • Pringle, Thomas.
  • Quinlivan, Maurice.
  • Ryan, Patricia.
  • Sherlock, Sean.
  • Shortall, Róisín.
  • Smith, Bríd.
  • Smith, Duncan.
  • Stanley, Brian.
  • Tóibín, Peadar.
  • Ward, Mark.
  • Whitmore, Jennifer.
  • Wynne, Violet-Anne.

Níl

  • Berry, Cathal.
  • Brophy, Colm.
  • Browne, James.
  • Bruton, Richard.
  • Burke, Colm.
  • Burke, Peter.
  • Butler, Mary.
  • Byrne, Thomas.
  • Cahill, Jackie.
  • Calleary, Dara.
  • Cannon, Ciarán.
  • Carey, Joe.
  • Carroll MacNeill, Jennifer.
  • Chambers, Jack.
  • Collins, Niall.
  • Costello, Patrick.
  • Coveney, Simon.
  • Cowen, Barry.
  • Crowe, Cathal.
  • Devlin, Cormac.
  • Dillon, Alan.
  • Donnelly, Stephen.
  • Donohoe, Paschal.
  • Duffy, Francis Noel.
  • Durkan, Bernard J.
  • English, Damien.
  • Farrell, Alan.
  • Feighan, Frankie.
  • Fitzpatrick, Peter.
  • Flaherty, Joe.
  • Flanagan, Charles.
  • Fleming, Sean.
  • Foley, Norma.
  • Grealish, Noel.
  • Griffin, Brendan.
  • Harris, Simon.
  • Haughey, Seán.
  • Healy-Rae, Michael.
  • Heydon, Martin.
  • Higgins, Emer.
  • Hourigan, Neasa.
  • Humphreys, Heather.
  • Kehoe, Paul.
  • Lahart, John.
  • Lawless, James.
  • Leddin, Brian.
  • Lowry, Michael.
  • MacSharry, Marc.
  • Madigan, Josepha.
  • Martin, Catherine.
  • Matthews, Steven.
  • McAuliffe, Paul.
  • McConalogue, Charlie.
  • McEntee, Helen.
  • McGrath, Michael.
  • McHugh, Joe.
  • Moynihan, Aindrias.
  • Moynihan, Michael.
  • Murnane O'Connor, Jennifer.
  • Murphy, Eoghan.
  • Murphy, Verona.
  • Naughton, Hildegarde.
  • Noonan, Malcolm.
  • O'Brien, Darragh.
  • O'Brien, Joe.
  • O'Callaghan, Jim.
  • O'Connor, James.
  • O'Dea, Willie.
  • O'Donnell, Kieran.
  • O'Donovan, Patrick.
  • O'Dowd, Fergus.
  • O'Gorman, Roderic.
  • O'Sullivan, Christopher.
  • O'Sullivan, Pádraig.
  • Ó Cathasaigh, Marc.
  • Rabbitte, Anne.
  • Richmond, Neale.
  • Ring, Michael.
  • Ryan, Eamon.
  • Shanahan, Matt.
  • Smith, Brendan.
  • Smyth, Niamh.
  • Smyth, Ossian.
  • Stanton, David.
  • Troy, Robert.
  • Varadkar, Leo.

Staon

Tellers: Tá, Deputies Cian O'Callaghan and Eoin Ó Broin; Níl, Deputies Brendan Griffin and Jack Chambers.
Amendment declared lost.

I move amendment No. 3:

In page 4, between lines 4 and 5, to insert the following:

"2. (1) An emergency period for the purpose of this section shall be deemed to exist for a period of at least six months after the enactment of this Act.".

Amendment put and declared lost.
SECTION 2

Amendments Nos. 4, 5 and 13 are related and may be discussed together.

I move amendment No. 4:

In page 4, line 6, after "regulations" to insert the following:

", including restrictions on the number or type of persons who can enter a dwelling, in order to limit the spread of Covid-19 or".

As I said at the outset, one of the weaknesses of the Bill is that the eviction ban is limited in its applicability to the triggering of the 5 km travel restriction by the Minister for Health. This means we could have a situation where we are in a level 4 plus lockdown and there could, for public health reasons, be a heightened restriction, for instance, on visitations to one's home. However, because we are not in level 5 and the 5 km travel restriction is not triggered, there would be no consequent ban on evictions. Where a person receives a notice to quit and the landlord starts organising viewings, if the latter is an accidental landlord or an estate agent operating at the lower end of the market who does not have the facilities for online viewing, there could be multiple strangers viewing the property in which that person and his or her family members are living, one of whom could have an underlying condition. In addition, if one receives a notice to quit at level 4 plus on the Covid scale, one will have to go out and view properties. We have all seen the images of queues of people - often young couples or families - waiting to view a rental. That makes no sense.

Amendment No. 5 deals with county lockdowns. We could have a situation at some point in the future where the 5 km restriction is not in place but there are individual county lockdowns. When we raised this issue with the officials, we were told that, in such instances, people can move freely within their county. The problem is that rental markets do not follow county boundaries. For example, a person living in west Dublin and searching for a new rental is as likely to look in the adjoining commuter belt markets of counties Meath, Kildare and north Wicklow as he or she is to look in other parts of County Dublin. Likewise, a person renting in Ferrybank in south County Kilkenny is as likely, if not more likely, to look for a new rental in County Waterford as to look for something new in Kilkenny. The problem with the legislation is that because it sets such a high bar regarding public health advice, it will lead to difficulties when level 4 plus restrictions apply in the future.

Amendment No. 13 proposes the insertion in the Title of the prevention of homelessness as a key objective of the legislation. The Bill is not just about limiting the movement of people and, therefore, the spread of Covid. It must also be about reducing the risks arising from becoming homeless, particularly for very vulnerable groups. One such risk is the greater likelihood of contracting the virus in congregated emergency accommodation settings.

These are some of the examples of the weaknesses of this Bill, which, as I said at the outset, we are nevertheless supporting. Those weaknesses are the reason I will be pressing all three amendments.

I hope this group of amendments will be taken on board by the Minister. The Bill seeks to address the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic and the associated restrictions for people who are limited to a 5 km radius in trying to find rental accommodation. The Minister said earlier in his contribution that he noticed in August and September that 182 notices to quit were issued.

That was not in August. I will clarify the matter in my response.

These are families and individuals who could technically become homeless. As a consequence of the ban on evictions during the first phase of lockdown, we saw the homeless figures go down, but because of what happened in July, we will start to see the figures go up again. I am telling the Minister what people are telling me when they ring me in my constituency office. I know of one family that will be evicted at the end of October. I am aware of people who have a notice to quit for November, December or January, at which point they will be facing homelessness.

We need to look after the most vulnerable in our society. We want to work with the Minister and we see there are positives in the Bill but we want to go further and do more. People need reassurance because they are fearful as a result of the Covid-19 crisis. I know of a family that will become homeless at the end of this month. The mother and children will move in with her parents, while her husband will have to move in with his parents. How can that be right when the public health advice is that households should not mix in this way? We want to be positive and constructive and we are asking the Minister to increase the ten-day extension period to 28 days. This is a very challenging time for families and individuals in rented accommodation. We need to give them protection and the reassurance that we are listening to them. We want them to know they will be safe at this time. I hope the Minister accepts these amendments, which will offer greater support to the most vulnerable.

We are appealing to the Minister to use common sense in his approach. Let us not lose sight of the facts. We are trying to live with a global health pandemic and, in addition, we have had, for many years now, scandalous and embarrassing numbers of homeless people and families. It is mind-numbingly depressing. The current situation arises from a lack of action in the past. The problems with homelessness are, in large part, down to the failure that is the housing assistance payment, HAP, scheme. Teachta Michael Healy-Rae alluded to this issue but did not go into detail. Everyone to whom I speak about the housing situation remarks, within two minutes of the conversation starting, that common sense is not so common in this House.

I am appealing to the Minister to accept these amendments in order to give people certainty and strength. Numbers are constantly being mentioned in the House but each and every number represents a real person who should have the right to the most basic of necessities, which is shelter. That is dealt with in the junior certificate business studies textbook, which covers Maslow's hierarchy of needs. If he does not act, the Minister will create more anger, stress and outright frustration in our society. I appeal to him to use common sense in this matter by accepting the amendments and, in so doing, giving strength and support to the people dealing with this most fearful of situations. It is awful to think that one might not have a home for one's children within a very short space of time. In addition, having to go against public health guidelines in order to look for a property is absolutely outrageous.

The Deputies have covered a lot of details in discussing these amendments. We are dealing with the reality of the situation and putting practical measures in place. The Bill represents the second very significant addition to tenancy protections that the Government has introduced since late July. I welcome the conversion that some on the far left and Sinn Féin have come to by supporting this legislation.

I genuinely do welcome it, but I repeat, the measures we brought in in July, effective from 1 August, the Residential Tenancies and Valuation Act 2020, have worked. There were Members on that side, and Deputy Buckley did it again tonight as did many others, who were predicting a tsunami of evictions. We will not be complacent, but that has not happened.

On the homeless numbers, particularly with families, we have seen continued reduction and I hope to see further reduction next week. That is down to good policy and the hard work that has been done by people within this sector, including our local authority staff, the staff in the Department and all the housing and homeless NGOs I work with on a near daily basis. This is why it was important in the budget passed by the Government just a few short days ago that we have the largest ever financial budget for housing to deliver €3.3 billion, with a total of more than €5 billion, for my Department. We will deliver 12,750 homes next year, with 9,500 of built public homes on public lands. We are committed to doing that. We will bring back 2,500 vacant stock voids into use in six months, allocated and occupied. These are real homes for real people.

While we are doing that we have to further protect and strengthen our tenants. This is why in the budget, which Members opposite voted against, we had to make provision for additional moneys for HAP tenancies. This was to save people going into homelessness. We are supporting more than 58,000 HAP tenancies. I would rather have 58,000 extra homes but, unlike some of the speakers opposite who think they can magic up 20,000 homes in a year, that is not doable. We have got to be realistic about it. We need short-term supports. That is what we are doing and what we will continue to do.

I remind people of what actually happened between March and July. It is important to put it on the record again when we are talking about what people had predicted earlier this year. From 29 March to the end of July, of 303,000 registered tenancies, only 42 notices of termination were issued. That was 42 landlords who disregarded those protections. That is a compliance rate of 99.98%. I say to Deputy Gould earnestly with regard to his constituent, that by passing the legislation this evening it stops the clock on his constituent's eviction notice. This is why we brought this in as emergency legislation. We have hardwired it into the public health advice and the public health Acts, right back to the Health Act 1947, so that if we ever have to move back into additional travel restrictions these measures will come back into place. They are focused and targeted measures and that is what we need to do.

I welcome the support from Deputies this evening on the rental protection measures for tenants by Sinn Féin. I welcome that, and the support of other Members who have decided now that it is the right time to support tenants. This is the second piece of significant legislation the Government has brought forward to protect tenants. I have not seen any legislation on that from the other side of the House. On the issue of a rent freeze, there is nothing about that in the Bill. The eight line Bill brought by Deputy Ó Broin was about a rent freeze but nothing about evictions, so let us be straight on that.

While welcoming the support I cannot accept amendments Nos. 4, 5 or 13. The legislation states "In this section, “relevant regulations” means regulations made under section 31A of the Health Act 1947 which operate, subject to conditions contained in the regulations, to impose restrictions on travel in an area or region to which an affected areas order applies." It is when section 31A of the health regulations restrict the movement of people outside of 5 km of their place of residence, that the prohibition on tenancy termination comes into play under this Bill.

As I have already said, the Bill is underpinned by prevailing public health advice and the collective will of the Government behind section 31A of the health regulations. Any future restrictions on the number or type of persons who can enter a dwelling in order to limit the spread of Covid-19 will be a matter for the Minister for Health in the first instance. The Bill is framed in the here and now. The public health advice is to restrict movement outside of a 5 km radius of a person's place of residence. I cannot pre-empt, nor can any of us, future decisions of Government or the Minister for Health. I know that such decisions will be based on public health advice and the best public health advice prevailing at that time. I know that Government decisions are taken, and I am included in them, in the best interests of all.

I informed the House in July, when we debated the Residential Tenancies and Valuation Act 2020, that if I needed to make further changes to residential tenancy law, and I also said it here and gave that commitment, to suppress the spread of the virus and to protect our tenants, that I would come back to the House and I would bring in more protections. That is what this Government and I are doing here this evening. I have not delayed. I am here now and I am following up on the prevailing public health advice. I hope that this six week restriction is the last restriction we need to face. If it is not, these measures and protections will come back into force. This is a legally sound, robust and strong piece of tenancy protection that will have effect, like the legislation we brought in in July, effective from 1 August this year. It will work and it is working. We need to do more to assist people in that space. This is why the Government has given more money and increased substantially the funding to the Residential Tenancies Board to allow it carry out its job, and to insist tenancy advocacy services such as Threshold are supported in the work they have to do.

This Government is supporting and does support renters. We are strengthening the protections in place for them. We will prosecute the, thankfully very few, rogue landlords who decided that these regulations do not apply to them. There are more than 200 ongoing investigations right now over incorrect notices to quit being issued.

The time permitted for this debate having expired, I am required to put the following question in accordance with a resolution of the Dáil of 20 October: "That in respect of each of the sections undisposed of the section is hereby agreed to, the Title is hereby agreed to in Committee and the Bill is accordingly reported to the House, without amendment. Fourth Stage is hereby completed and the Bill is hereby passed."

Question put and agreed to.