I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I am sharing time. As the rental crisis deepens, we see growing reports of a cohort of landlords attempting to exploit the vulnerable position some tenants and renters are in by demanding sex in lieu of rent or for a reduced rent. Recently there have also been disturbing reports of individuals attempting to exploit women fleeing the war in Ukraine and looking for somewhere safe to stay with offers of sex in lieu of rent. One landlord offered accommodation in Clare without rent to a slim Ukrainian woman with an expectation of sex and demanded a photo from prospective renters before revealing the location of the property. This is despicable behaviour from predatory landlords attempting to exploit people traumatised by fleeing war. It is in sharp contrast to the thousands of Irish families opening their homes in a spirit of generosity, welcome, support and solidarity to people from Ukraine, which is the overwhelming feeling of Irish people.
What has been happening shows the depraved depths of the housing crisis, where a small minority of grossly exploitative landlords expect sexual favours in return for putting a roof over people's heads. It is an abhorrent practice. No one should be subjected to such demands when they are looking for somewhere safe to live and shelter. We are seeing the sharp end of the commodification of housing that has taken place. Housing and shelter have been turned into commodities to be traded and people with resources can profit and exploit the need of others for shelter.
This Bill would introduce a specific criminal offence for anyone who demands sex in lieu of rent or for reduced rent. It would also create a specific criminal offence to advertise sex in lieu of rent, both for an individual placing an ad and for a platform, publication or anyone facilitating such an ad or arrangement. The proposed penalties are imprisonment of up to seven years, a fine or both. For anyone involved in the placing of such an ad, a fine of up to €50,000 is proposed.
Is this Bill needed? The Minister for Justice has confirmed to the Dáil that there is no specific criminal offence for this. Gardaí have confirmed to the Oireachtas housing committee that the PULSE system does not record sex for rent complaints as a specific category, which is not surprising given it is not a specific criminal offence.
It is important to address the fact the Bill has been critiqued by some. They have pointed out this will not end the exploitative practice of sex for rent. That critique is fair but the Bill will act as a deterrent and send a strong signal that exploiting renters in this way is not acceptable. If there is any ambiguity about that, legally or otherwise, this Bill will remove it. We are not saying it is a panacea. It is not an alternative to investing in social housing, cost rental and affordable purchase homes. It is not an alternative to the high rent, market-driven housing favoured in some quarters. It is a small step in trying to address this exploitative practice. While the Bill is needed, the best way to support renters is to improve rights and security of tenure, tackle affordability and invest in cost-rental houses, of which we need thousands each year rather than hundreds. We need to stop the favourable tax treatment that encourages investment funds to dominate housing supply.
We do not know the full extent of the problem in Ireland. Comprehensive research has not been undertaken on it. There is some evidence that migrants, in particular, who may have less access to support networks for information and advice, have been targeted. Some ads have been placed on platforms that are mostly used by migrants. Research undertaken by Shelter, the UK housing charity, suggests that 59,000 women in the UK were propositioned for sex in lieu of rent in the year and a half from March 2020 to September 2021. That is a shocking figure. There is no equivalent research in Ireland but it indicates that this could go beyond isolated cases.
On the devastating impact on people seeking the most basic human need of shelter, excellent work has been done by Ann Murphy in the Irish Examiner in documenting, reporting and shedding light on this serious problem. She reported on a woman in Waterford city who responded to an ad for a room last October. She moved out of her rented accommodation when her landlord told her she could live there without paying rent in exchange for sex. The landlord turned up at her workplace the following day. Renters should not be subject to such terrible exploitative behaviour that makes them feel unsafe in the place they live. Women, in particular, should not be subject to attempts at gross exploitation when there looking for somewhere safe. An Italian woman who has been propositioned by three different landlords since the start of the year told the Irish Examiner that trying to find a room in Dublin "is like falling [into] a dangerous hell". We would be horrified if any of our young people travelling around the world, trying to settle and make a life for themselves, were being treated in this way. We would want everything done to stop it.
I welcome the Government's confirmation that it is supporting the Bill on Second Stage. As a smaller Opposition party, this is as far as we can bring the Bill in our Private Members' time without support from the Government to enable progression through Committee Stage and further. I understand from media reports that the Government agrees with the aims of the Bill but takes the view that more work is needed on it, especially in the way that it interacts with other sexual offences laws. I ask the Minister of State to address the timeline for dealing with the Bill. What approach do the Minister of State and the Government intend to take on this? Will the Minister of State give a clear indications on that approach? Is he seeking to progress this Bill? Does the Government intend to table its own legislation? We are happy to work with the Government and other Opposition parties who support the Bill.
The Bill alone is not enough. We need a clear indication from Government as to what it will do to tackle the power imbalance between tenants and landlords. The Bill will not be enough to tackle the abuses of power that take place. If we do not tackle those abuses and create a situation where tenants have some security of tenure in their home, they will never feel they are in a strong enough position to assert and stand up for their rights.
The growth of this practice is happening in the context of rents spiralling out of control. In our capital city, rents are higher than in any other European Union capital. At the same time that people are paying exorbitant rents, rights for renters are particularly weak. We need wider reform from the Government to improve security of tenure and rights for renters and to address the huge power imbalance. Sex for rent is the sharp edge of that imbalance and it is correct that we try to address it through legislation.
If we do not address that power imbalance overall, we will not be able to tackle this in the way we should. If we are serious about tackling this, we must be serious about ensuring that rights for renters are brought in line with those in other European countries. Fundamental to that is recognising that where somebody is renting it is the person's home. Our system of renters' rights at present does not recognise that. The current unofficial policy of the Government has been to allow rents to increase and to stand over a situation where renters do not have proper rights. It is important that is addressed, as well as supporting this Bill.