Overall, we welcome the Bill. It promises to strengthen the rent pressure zone legislation, will increase tenants' rights and provide a degree of rent transparency although it is certainly not everything for which we asked . We have some concerns and there are some provisions which we would like amended.
I agree with Mr. O'Brien on a couple of matters. The first is that this is another amendment to incredibly complex legislation. It has long gone beyond the stage where a member of the public can read the legislation and understand what he or she is supposed to do to follow the law. It is getting to the stage where not only must one be a solicitor or barrister to navigate the legislation, but also one who specialises in residential tenancies law. Two amending Bills this year will add to that complexity. We may be asking for the moon but we would like the Department to consider redrafting and restating the entire Act. That would take time but it would be well worth doing. Perhaps the committee could pressure the Department in that regard.
We echo the concerns on resourcing and funding outlined by some members when representatives of the RTB appeared before the committee. If the new sanctions regime is to succeed, the board must be properly resourced. There have been intermittent resourcing issues for a long time and we are a little concerned that sufficient money will not be allocated. We support the sanctions regime. It is currently relatively limited and only applies to certain scenarios.
In response to Mr. O'Brien's comments on proportionality, there is a potential fine of a maximum of €30,000, which is divided into €15,000 in costs and €15,000 in fines. It is limited to that amount to keep it within the jurisdiction of the District Court. Proportionality is built into the Bill because it is an administrative sanction and must be so, as it would not be constitutional otherwise. The proportionality is clearly spelled out even in the heads of the Bill.
We wish to raise a wider concern about the interaction between the new sanctions regime and the dispute resolution mechanism of the RTB. For example, what happens if an investigation concludes with the landlord being fined but there has also been a breach of a tenant's rights?
Can a tenant then bring a dispute on the back of that? It would be a strange scenario if a tenant could walk into the RTB and lodge a dispute with a report or sanction from the RTB in his hand and say he or she now wants compensation because the RTB sanctioned the landlord. We need a little bit more clarity on how they interact.
I will refer to something the Minister has spoken about in the past as a potential option. That is a legal definition in the Act of "likely to constitute substantial change" and "substantial change of nature". They are very important phrases for the purposes of the rent pressure zones and for evictions. A legal definition, although difficult, has to be tackled.
It is a more technical point but we very strongly welcome the changes in head 6 to section 41 of the 2004 Act. It is very welcome housekeeping in terms of the Residential Tenancies Act. I do not think anyone would argue that the current interpretation of the RTB is the same as the intended interpretation of the Oireachtas when it passed the Bill, which is that a further Part 4 tenancy is a new tenancy. The language used in the Bill does not really reflect the intention of the Bill. It is important housekeeping.
There is a question for the committee but also for Members of the Oireachtas more generally. There is a concern about the wording in head 9 on the notice periods, particularly the 28-day notice period, for a notice that is found to be invalid where the time period has expired. The wording in the heads of the Bill could result in an unintended consequence in cases where a landlord deliberately issues a notice of termination with one day given as a notice period which is found to be invalid and the notice period thereafter is 28 days. It is clear the intention is if a notice is deemed to be invalid for reasons other than incorrect notice period, when a dispute is lodged with the RTB and the notice period has expired the notice period will then be 28 days. That is not explicit in the way it is drafted. It would potentially leave a massive loophole in the legislation.
The rent register is not everything we asked for. It will not address the problem we raised. The RTB has acknowledged that. It is really not rent transparency. I think it has said it is a step along the way. We have no particular issue with the proposals except possibly to warn of the potential for tenants to be given only enough information to be suspicious but not enough information to demonstrate their rent is lawful or unlawful. A situation could arise where a person goes to an advocacy organisation or a Deputy and asks them what to do because he or she knows the rent on the street and he or she is paying considerably more than the rent on the street. The best advice in that scenario might be to lodge a dispute with the RTB. It can be done online and it costs €25. The landlord will then have to prove the rent is lawful. It could lead to the unintended consequence of the RTB responding to speculative cases because people are not being given enough information to know whether the rent is right or wrong. They are being given just enough information to know it might be right or wrong, in which case it could lead to more cases before the RTB. From a resourcing perspective it is an issue for the Government but, more generally, it is something no one would really want to see happen.
On the issue of student accommodation, we agree with everything that has been said by the USI. We also echo what was said by the RTB. It is our belief that an awful lot of student accommodation agreements between landlords and students that are termed licences are actually tenancies. Clarity is required on the issue and we welcome the Bills from Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil on that issue.
On the wider issue of licensees, it is a very complicated issue. There is an awful lot of very delicate balancing to be struck between the rights of homeowners, in some instances, and licensees. It is something we encourage the committee to have a look at in the medium term. It would require an awful lot of careful examination and it is probably appropriate for a committee such as this to examine. Beyond student accommodation, lodgers and people on the rent-a-room scheme are also licensees and have very few rights. The equality legislation, which does not necessarily cover residential tenancies, covers the provision of accommodation. In some instances the equality legislation would protect licensees from discrimination but not in every case, particularly where somebody is sharing his or her primary residence.
In terms of opportunities for amendments, I can direct the committee to our website which has lots of them. I will outline some of the smaller opportunities for amendment in this Bill. I am cognisant of the fact there is another one on the way. We would like to see a definition of rent to help navigate the RPZ rules. We would like to see clarity on things like service charges, parking charges and extra charges. We would like to see that tackled by a definition of rent so we have certainty about what rent means. We are harping on about it. Section 34(b) of the Residential Tenancies Act has no purpose anymore and should be deleted. It allows for evictions for no reason at the beginning of a new further Part 4 tenancy. Given that section 42 disappeared at the beginning of 2017, there does not seem to be any reasonable purpose for section 34(b).
We are quite exercised about the issue of receivership, given that 2,900 buy-to-let properties were included in the Ulster Bank sale and 4,000 in the PTSB sale and there may well be more coming along. That is an enormous number of individuals who are now in a very precarious position. There are an awful lot of landlords who are in a precarious position as well. We would like to see movement on that. I understand the Minister has indicated that something is coming along. However, it has been delayed considerably.
I will respond to some of the issues raised. We agree entirely that the tax treatment of landlords is something that needs to be looked at in detail. The tax treatment of landlords has to be rebalanced in their favour. They labour under a relatively unfair situation.
In terms of pursuing rent, the enforcement of determination orders is now dealt with in the District Court which is very welcome. It will help both tenants and landlords considerably in enforcing RTB determination orders. That is still to play out but we do not see any particular difficulties with it.
It is not everything we asked for. It will not solve problems in many cases but we do not have any particular issues other than the ones we have raised. It is dependent on the will of the RTB and the Minister in resourcing it.