I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I am grateful to all Deputies for facilitating debate on this urgent legislation in Dáil Éireann so that it can become law before the Easter recess. I also wish to record my appreciation to the Chief Whip and to members of both the Business Committee and the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage for enabling the Bill to be read a Second Time today.
The Bill is a timely and proportionate response to the continued elevated threat and impact of the pandemic. The time-sensitive nature of the legislation is an inevitable consequence of the constant reassessment of the pandemic and its evolving nature. I thank Deputies for facilitating its passage in the same co-operative spirit that has enabled similar Bills to pass swiftly since the Covid-19 crisis erupted.
This is the fourth Bill the Government has introduced to protect tenants during this pandemic since I came into office. The virus has mutated and challenged us in different ways, but we have responded to ensure that as best as possible the vulnerable are shielded from the unprecedented economic fallout. Today’s Bill is a further important action to safeguard tenants in the face of an ever-threatening pandemic.
In light of this prolonged challenge, I ask Deputies to pass the Bill to enable its early enactment to provide technical amendments to the Planning and Development, and Residential Tenancies Act 2020, PDRTA, to extend the application of its enhanced tenancy protections for a further three months from 13 April 2021 to 12 July 2021. The Bill also provides for technical amendments to enhance the interoperability of the PDRTA with the Residential Tenancies Act 2020.
Subject to the conditions and procedural requirements, the PDRTA currently protects tenants in rent arrears due to Covid-19 and at risk of losing their tenancy from eviction and rent increases during the period from 11 January 2021 to 12 April 2021. It is considered that the ongoing threats and impacts of the third wave of Covid-19 necessitate this Bill to extend the protections for a further three months until 12 July 2021. The three-month time increase is a proportionate response balancing constitutional property rights and the common good. While the numbers directly invoking this legal protection have been small, it has provided a strong safety net to vulnerable renters and sends a clear signal to the rental system that the State will continue to protect tenants. In this context and because of strong direct financial supports, we have prevented turmoil in the rental system. Deputies will be aware that thankfully less than 2% of tenancies end up in dispute, but these protections are required and proportionate, and we need to extend them up to July.
It is important to note that these protections are separate and distinct from the Residential Tenancies Act 2020, which provides for a moratorium on evictions taking place, with limited exceptions, during a period of 5 km travel restrictions in an area specified in regulations made by the Minister for Health and during the ten days following the lifting of such restrictions. In broad terms the protections are on separate economic and health grounds, respectively. The Bill seeks to clarify that a 5 km travel restriction does not affect the legal obligation on a tenant to pay rent, nor should it ever have been the case. Instead, tenants in circumstances where they cannot pay their rent due to the pandemic can move to avail of the separate protections under this Bill and I encourage people to do so if they have not already.
This clarification is required as the PDRTA provides the necessary tenancy protections for any tenant in rent arrears due to Covid-19 and at risk of losing their tenancy. The Bill removes this duplication and potential confusion over obligations to pay rent. Importantly, significant and enhanced State income supports are available from the Department of Social Protection. I encourage any tenant who needs assistance to reach out early to the Money Advice and Budgeting Service, MABS, and to seek every available State income support. For example, the enhanced illness benefit for Covid-19, the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, rent supplement and supplementary welfare allowances can assist tenants to meet their legal obligation to pay rent. The legislation similar to this that we introduced last August put in place permanent protections to help tenants who fall into rent arrears from the beginning by engaging at an early stage with MABS and the Residential Tenancies Board, RTB, and that is working very well.
I also encourage landlords to show forbearance and to afford tenants the time to stabilise their income through State support, if necessary. It is in the interest of both parties to sustain a viable tenancy. Overall, the State has rightly spent €11.5 billion on Covid-19 welfare supports. We have not been, and will not be, found wanting in supporting any tenants in difficulty.
At this point, the earliest expiry date for the current moratorium on evictions across the State under the Residential Tenancies Act 2020 is 15 April 2021, which is ten days after the review date for the expiry of the 5 km travel restrictions. The Government will consider this matter in light of public health advice in the coming days. Regardless of that decision, this Bill will ensure protections are in place until 12 July for tenants economically impacted by the pandemic.
We recognise that lockdowns are especially difficult for some people and that low-income tenants are disproportionately employed in sectors that are severely affected by Covid-19, such as hospitality and retail. As I have said, the State is here to help, and we will continue to provide immediate support to families and individuals in private rented accommodation under the Department of Social Protection’s rent supplement scheme. The scheme provides short-term income support 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 can continue to meet their rental commitments.
The aim is to avoid any tenant going into rent arrears. That said, the PDRTA complements and supports the provision of rent supplement and other State supports by providing time and security for tenants while engaging with State services in a bid to resolve any financial difficulty.
The Government also recognises that 70% of landlords own one rental property and 86% own one or two rental properties and that Covid-19 has given rise to financial difficulty for some of those mom and pop landlords. The PDRTA provides the requisite and proportionate balance between the rights and obligations of tenants and property owners in a carefully calibrated manner, recognising the legitimate interests of both. This strikes an equilibrium between property rights and the common good in the midst of a pandemic.
We have to continue to address the economic and social consequences of Covid-19, protect as many jobs as possible and ensure that families and businesses can manage financially. The economic consequences of this pandemic are far-reaching, but the hit for certain sectors and for some tenants has been extremely challenging. The emergency measures introduced by this Government have prevented systemic problems in the rental sector. The rental measures proposed under this Bill will help further. Other measures that we brought forward have worked and this an addition and extension to them.
I now wish to outline the provisions of this Bill. The Long Title and recitals of the Bill describe our policy aims and the policy context in which the limited restrictions on landlords' constitutionally-protected property rights will serve the social common good for three additional months, to 12 July 2021. The Bill is technical in nature and it contains three sections, with section 3 being a standard provision outlining the Short Title and collective citation of the Bill.
Sections 1 and 2 are the substantive provisions. I have already given a summary of their intent. Section 1 provides for a number of amendments to the PDRTA by updating various dates to reflect the extension under this Bill of the emergency period to 12 July 2021. The proposed amendments to the PDRTA provide, subject to conditions and procedural requirements under that Act, for its enhanced tenancy protections to continue to apply from 13 April 2021 to 12 July 2021 where tenants have been economically impacted by Covid-19 and consequently are unable to meet their obligation to pay rent and risk tenancy termination.
The remaining sections are outlined in the remainder of my speech. The Bill is being introduced against the backdrop of the worst public health crisis in the history of our State and an economic collapse without compare. It is incumbent on us all and the Dáil to ensure that the protections that are rightly in place for the most vulnerable tenants are extended further to 12 July.
I thank Deputies for their attendance and their interest in this matter. I look forward to the debate this evening and again tomorrow when we will resume Second Stage and take Committee and Remaining Stages as well.