I would like first to take the opportunity to thank the Senators for their contributions to this debate and also for their good wishes to me in my new office. Nobody will argue that the problems with which the Bill before us strives to deal are anything other than very difficult and complex. When legislative provisions are enacted, about 30,000 families will be faced with great uncertainty as to the future position of their dwellings which they have occupied for so long. The Government are determined to ensure that measures be taken to avoid this social upheaval and chaos. The Bill before the House is a balanced measure which in line with the common good gives reasonable protection to tenants and allows landlords a progressive increase in their return on their dwellings.
Predictably, the reactions to the Bill have been mixed in both Houses of the Oireachtas and outside. Since the Bill was introduced I have had the opportunity to receive a number of deputations and to consult with a number of people from the point of view of the tenants who have expressed concern at future consequences arising from this Bill. I have also had some consultation, particularly with one landlord, and others who expressed grave reservations about the outcome of the Bill and who threatened that it was something which they would challenge in the courts. This is an indication of how difficult it is to enact legislation to deal with the problem and to reconcile the interests both of the landlord and the tenant. I shall in the course of this reply deal in some detail with the points made by Senators.
On the wider forum, representatives of landlords have attacked the Bill on the grounds of the restraints it imposes on them and representatives of tenants have taken issue with certain aspects of the Bill not to their liking. As regards the Bill being pro-landlord or pro-tenant in its approach, in my opinion it is neither. It is a balanced set of proposals which takes account of the constitutional advice available to the Government and of the terms of the Supreme Court judgment. It is manifestly obvious that in the face of the court's judgment, the benefits so long enjoyed by tenants of controlled dwellings could only continue for the limited period required to enact permanent legislation. Equally the Government have a responsibility, in line with the pledge in the Constitution that the State should safeguard with special care the interests of the weaker sections of the community, to protect tenants of controlled dwellings many of whom are among the poorer and most vulnerable sections of the community.
I want now to deal with the points raised by Senators. I wish to thank Senator O'Toole who welcomed the Bill. I feel he was sincere when he said that it was a difficult piece of legislation and that he felt that as a result of the decision of the Supreme Court it was as far as the Minister could go. He made a point in relation to the fact that the fire chiefs and the planning people should visit accommodation available to tenants and should inspect it. I want to say to Senator O'Toole that another Bill which has been passed by the Houses of the Oireachtas, the Fire Services Bill, deals with the point he raised. It is also true that planning officers and fire chiefs visit premises of that sort and inspect them. The new Bill which was passed here one week ago complies with the wishes expressed by Senator O'Toole.
Senator Alexis FitzGerald suggested that the District Court should be transformed into something resembling a rents tribunal because the District Court would not be capable of dealing with the problems arising from disputes and difficulties between landlords and tenants in coming to an agreement with regard to a reasonable rent. The Bill provides that in the event of a landlord and a tenant not being able to come to an agreement the rent will then be decided by the court. It applies particularly to places such as Dublin, Cork and our major cities. If there is a question of the courts not being able to deal with the cases brought before them, this is something which the Government will have to consider. If it is found that the courts are not capable of dealing with the situation, the matter will have to be examined.
It was also suggested that the courts would be in a better position to decide on subsidisation of rents. I do not accept this point and neither do I believe that it is something which the courts should be asked to do. It is a matter for the State to come to the rescue of tenants who are in the serious position where they cannot meet the demands made on them. I have given a commitment already from the Government that they will come to the aid of tenants who are not in a position to meet these demands.
To a large extent I am in agreement with what Senator Whitaker said. The Bill before the House, together with the assistance the Government have undertaken to provide, seems to go as far as possible towards allaying the objections and concerns raised in relation to the tenants. This is as far as we can go in that regard.
I want to deal with the points made by Senator Quinn. May I say that, in common with the views expressed by other Senators, I do not doubt the sincerity of his speech, which was very convincing. The Senator has strong views on the matter. There were parts of his contribution with which I would agree but there were some which I could not accept. I want to say that in a situation of that kind it is possible to quote extreme cases and Senator Quinn did that very effectively from the point of view of the tenant. I discussed the matter with the tenants' organisations and anybody who wished to see me on the subject. I will give an example to highlight exactly what Senator Quinn was talking about in one case. He forecast that a considerable number of people would be on the street as a result of this Bill, that they would have nowhere to go, and would apply to Dublin Corporation for some kind of accommodation. He said they would be told to go to a top flat in Ballymun or in some other place, if the Corporation were lucky enough to have some kind of accommodation of that kind available.
Under no circumstances would I claim to know as much about the housing problems of Dublin city as does Senator Quinn and I accept the point he made. On the other hand, a landlord asked me what was my answer to the situation where his daughter, who was a deserted wife with two children, was living in an outhouse while the tenant with a reasonable income was living in a house owned by the landlord and paying rent of £2 per week.
The point I want to make here is that while it is natural and understandable that public representatives, Senators and Deputies, and people generally with any kind of social conscience or Christian outlook would be more inclined to favour or to look at the problems of the tenant rather than the difficulties of the landlord, as the Minister introducing this Bill, I do not want to claim here to be either on the landlord's or the tenant's side. I hope that when the Bill is enacted it will be a fair solution to the problem.
I want to make the point at this stage that it must be borne in mind by Senators that it is not I who looked for this legislation. It was not the Government who directed me to provide the legislation. It was not any socialist or conservative group or any group of capitalists or anybody else who decided that this Bill was necessary. It is as a result of a decision of the Supreme Court where Part II and Part IV of the Rent Restrictions Act, 1960 were declared unconstitutional. That situation forced the Government to provide a measure which would conform to the Constitution. That point must be borne in mind but Senators and Deputies have avoided mentioning it. I do not mind criticism — that is part and parcel of the job — but it was unfair to imply that some vested interests was involved, as was implied in some speeches in both Houses. The Bill was forced on us. It was something which we could not avoid because of the fact that Part II and Part IV of the Rent Restrictions Act, 1960 were declared unconstitutional.
Senator Quinn's contribution could be described as a very eloquent speech but I must take issue with him on a number of points. Concern for safeguarding the interests of tenants is not reserved to him alone and I want to stress that. The Government, the Minister for the Environment and I are extremely conscious of the need to safeguard the position of tenants in every way open to us, particularly of those who are less well off and those who got special mention by Senator Quinn. I do not say that he was not sincere about the cases he mentioned here. I do say that there is a genuine concern expressed by the Government and for that reason we are coming to the rescue or defence of those tenants.
This has been manifest in the commitments in our programme and in the speedy way the Government had the temporary legislation passed last July. There was the undertaking that tenants in need would get assistance in meeting the higher rents they would have to pay. This is a commitment by the Government but it cannot be included in the Bill before the Seanad at the moment. Supplementary welfare allowances which provided assistance in the past are not the concern of my Department. There may be a new system to deal with it but it is not something which is relevant at this stage of the Bill.
I do not want anybody to get the impression that as far as the Government and I are concerned this is the end as far as legislation to deal with landlords and tenants is concerned. I can only express my surprise that Senator Quinn should attempt to cast doubt on the sincerity of what I said in such a clear-cut way not only in this House but in the Dáil earlier this week. His persistence in this respect can only increase the disquiet of tenants. The Bill is simply not the appropriate vehicle to make provision for assistance to needy tenants. Perhaps I should repeat that if both Bills are passed, the need for assistance will not apply until 26 April next.
Senator Quinn said we should extend the Temporary Provisions Bill much further than 26 April. I have no legal qualifications and I am sure there are Members here in the House who understand the law much better than I do. He mentioned that this would give us more scope to have amendments, to discuss the Bill and introduce provisions not already in the Bill. The reason we had to introduce this temporary measure is that Part II and Part IV of the Rent Restrictions Act, 1960 were declared unconstitutional. This is the second time we have looked for an extension. The Supreme Court interprets the Articles of the Constitution. I would point out to Senator Quinn the danger inherent in his proposal and I would ask him to accept that there is no way in which, in my opinion, this could be done because it would be extremely dangerous.
Senator Quinn ranged over the constitutional principles at some length. In many respects what he said was more a critique of the Constitution and the way the matter was interpreted by the Supreme Court than a realistic appraisal of the Bill before the House. The Bill is drafted, as it must necessarily be, in compliance with and subject to the constraints imposed by the Constitution. That is what I have been attempting to do because of the peculiar and difficult position in which I find myself.
I must refer to one particular suggestion the Senator made for amendment to the Bill. Without going into the details I think I quote him accurately as saying that he felt sure the amendment he was suggesting would be outrageously unconstitutional but that it should be made. I may be open to correction here because I am not sure whether I am quoting him exactly. The Government simply cannot legislate in that way, for practical as well as for constitutional reasons. I should perhaps quote Article 15.4 of the Constitution which is as follows:
The Oireachtas shall not enact any law which is in any respect repugnant to this Constitution or any provision thereof.
The Article states in no uncertain terms how the Government must proceed. We have ignored one aspect, namely the constitutionality of any Bill that we bring before the House or any laws that may be enacted. We must recognise what is required of us by the Constitution which, incidentally, Senator Quinn praised highly.
Senator Quinn also suggested that the Government should be more ambitious and test to the ultimate the interpretations of these property rights in the Constitution. This is easy to say but it should be realised that if legislation is found to be unconstitutional the options then remaining open to the Government will be much more limited. I cannot introduce legislation which I consider unconstitutional, no more than I can, as Minister, advocate that persons should break the law. This is something which I am not prepared to do. I hope Senator Quinn will accept this point. Laws which are unconstitutional may not be introduced.
In a constitutional context I must take issue with Senator Quinn on a further aspect. In what I accept was his genuine concern for tenants he seemed to advance a curious proposition. I understood him to say that certain landlords being a minority interest could and should be denied the full protection of the Constitution and that this could be justified by the resultant benefits to tenants. This is very close to one of the faults found in the legislation by the Supreme Court. It is not a proposition to which the Government could subscribe. It has been widely acknowledged that one of the virtues of our Constitution, whatever faults it may have, is that it protects the ultimate rights of the minorities. Whether they are landlords or tenants, it is important that the rights of minorities be maintained.
Senator Whitaker made some suggestions in relation to private rented accommodation. There is genuine concern by all elected representatives. In the matter of housing alone, it is a most contentious and controversial point whether one Government or another are doing more to provide and extra number of houses. There are bad landlords and bad tenants also. If more rented accommodation was available it would solve many of our problems. One of the difficulties in providing extra accommodation was that the incentive to do so did not exist. The Bill is now trying to give landlords an opportunity at some stage to repossess their dwellings, where they will have an interest in maintaining them, where the rented accommodation which is available will not deteriorate as rapidly as it has over the past number of years. This was mainly because sections of the Act were declared unconstitutional. This is an aspect which is not completely divorced from this Bill. It is one of those areas which we could regard as providing some incentive towards a solution of our housing problem. I hear people talking about the difficulties which students have in getting accommodation and I know there is a difficulty there. When accommodation is available the rents are stronomical. While we have a duty to those people to control the rent, we must not remove the incentive to provide such accommodation.
I do not accept there is any room for selectivity. The Constitution is there to protect all citizens and this sets the guidelines on which we must legislate. I am making these points on the constitutional aspect of the Bill. As I said at the opening stages of the debate, the Government had to have regard for the complex constitutional issues which this legislation raises. The Government feel that this measure achieves a fair balance between the interests of both parties and the advice available is that the Bill is in conformity with the Constitution. However, in light of the views to the contrary that have been expressed, the Government have thought it prudent to plan for the possibility of a referral by the President to the Supreme Court. For this reason the Government have proposed that temporary legislation be extended to 25 April 1982.
There has been considerable disquiet and concern among tenants regarding section 9 and this was expressed in the Dáil and the Seanad. If the court decides on a fair rent it has to be phased in—40 per cent for the first year and 15 per cent in each subsequent year until it is 100 per cent in the fifth year. There has been concern about this, that it will throw tenants on the streets, particularly those who are in the upper age limit, widows, those living alone and old age pensioners. I accept there is a difficulty here. If this law fails in that regard then our whole social services will have failed also. I do not accept that the State will not come to the rescue of those people who are thrown on to the streets and have nowhere to go. I accept that the Government will come to their rescue whether by way of supplementary welfare allowance or otherwise.
The drafting of this section took into account the points raised by Senator Quinn. If in the first year tenants were subjected to the fair rent fixed by the courts it would be a severe heartache on those tenants and the purpose of this section was to phase-in the agreed economic rent which was determined by the court. We have got advice from legal experts on this matter that this is the best that can be done. It is not right to say that this was drafted with no consideration for the tenants and their difficulties to pay.
Senator Ryan made some points in relation to the section which I just mentioned. They were repeated by other Senators and I have dealt with them. There is great urgency attached to this Bill and it is important that it be enacted as soon as possible. We had no alternative but to introduce the Bill. The point has been made by a number of Senators particularly by Senator Ryan. I do not disagree with him. It also has been made by Senator Quinn very effectively. Maybe it is not this Bill which we should look at, maybe it is not the law in relation to this problem, maybe it is the Constitution, but that is not a matter for me to decide. I may agree entirely that we could look at it, but there is nothing to prevent Senator Ryan, Senator Quinn or anybody else from expressing that view somewhere, and maybe getting good support. We could look at it to see in what way it is fulfilling what it was proposed to do.
I thank very sincerely the Members here who gave their views and, while I do not necessarily agree with the views expressed, that does not mean that I do not take note of the points made and that I do not appreciate them. They were made in a very sincere way and the debate was of a very high standard from Senators who contributed. I hope they appreciate the circumstances under which this Bill was introduced and the difficulties of trying to reconcile the interests of landlords and tenants. I hope sincerely that when this Bill is enacted it will at least go a portion of the way to protect the interests of all concerned. It is not the duty of the Government nor is it possible for them to direct the President to bring this Bill before the Supreme Court immediately to test the constitutionality of it but —let me express my own personal opinion here—I sincerely hope that this will be done because it is important that at least we would know in the very near future whether this Bill can stand up before the Supreme Court and become law. There are restrictions on us in relation to time and that is why I express the urgency of this Bill and the delicate situation we are in.