I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy English, to the House.
Property Services (Advertisement of Unfit Lettings) (Amendment) Bill 2019: Second Stage
I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
We have all seen it in the news: a profile of a makeshift studio apartment skilfully crafted out of an upstairs hallway or granny flat in which the bed is conveniently located a few feet away from the kitchen or toilet, all to be had for €800 per month. Every few weeks, we see these stories in the media. They are often posted by people who are searching for properties online. These stories then make it into the media. They reflect the depths of desperation we have reached in the rental crisis. Such stories will profile an advertisement for a rental letting that screams of the indignity of being a modern renter. It is either a bed in a dorm room shared with several other people, a bed shared with a stranger, or a furnished shed or fabrication at the end of a garden, sometimes in the absence of planning permission. What is more astonishing is that, even after media attention and online attention is brought to these lettings, the advertisements remain online. They are rarely removed by the online letting agent and I presume and expect that most, if not all, end up getting rented out.
It is depressing to go apartment hunting right now. Some landlords seeking to take advantage of the housing crisis and the desperation of many are making such rooms available and advertising them online in the full knowledge that they are not within the law. I will talk about existing legislation and regulations. The Housing (Standards for Rented Houses) Regulations 2017 set out a robust series of measures regarding habitable standards in areas such as ventilation, heating, fire safety, sanitary facilities and basic kitchen facilities. There is good reason for these regulations. They set out a minimum standard so that people can live in a house or apartment and have their most basic needs catered for. Equally, we have overcrowding legislation in section 63 of the Housing Act 1966. However outdated it is, it sets out that people renting in a shared room must have 400 cu. ft. of their own space. This means that cases of beds in dorm rooms shared with multiple strangers and cases of beds shared with a stranger are almost certainly outside of existing legislation and fire safety standards. Council inspectors are struggling to fight against rogue landlordism. Cash-strapped local authorities are largely failing to take on these landlords due to competing obligations and stretched resources arising from the housing crisis. As a result, a lack of enforcement and effective rent control has brought us to a point of desperation. Sub-standard housing is provided for inflated rents. Many tenants are unaware of their rights or lack confidence in asserting those rights because they feel lucky to have a place at all. While we are in the throes of a housing crisis caused by a lack of quantity, the Minister of State will know that we cannot neglect our commitment to quality.
It is currently a rewarding time to be a landlord and it should not, therefore, be acceptable that minimum standards should not be met as a result of lack of investment by landlords. The Bill seeks to curb the advertising, particularly online advertising, of substandard rental properties that do not meet existing legal rental standards, including overcrowding and fire safety regulations. This short Bill does not seek to change the regulations; rather, it simply seeks to ban the advertising of properties that do not meet those regulations.
I will quickly outline the Bill's provisions. Section 2 proposes the insertion of a new section 56A into the Property Services (Regulation) Act 2011. It deals with allowing the Property Services Regulatory Authority, PSRA, to issue directions to online platforms and letting agents to remove advertisements that breach current minimum standard regulations within a seven-day period. It also allows for members of the public to report advertisements to the PSRA. Although, the minimum standards regulations are a robust series of measures, breaches are not always obvious from photographs and a threshold of evidence would be required. Subsection (5) would grant the PSRA powers to investigate and consult with advertisers to determine the threshold that may be needed in a manner similar to the code of conduct governing letting agents. Letting agents in our towns and villages do not advertise in their shop windows properties that do not meet minimum standards.
I met the PSRA on this matter and I concede that the Bill may need more clarity. I will table amendments on Committee Stage to achieve that clarity. I will also seek amendments on Committee Stage to deal with instances where the PSRA receives a complaint regarding a property that requires physical investigation. In such cases, it should be able to request the relevant local authority to carry out the inspection on its behalf.
Ultimately, the Bill allows the Minister to set the operation of this legislation. It can only be commenced if he and his Department are ready to go.
Although the PSRA does not currently have a remit to regulate online platforms, no other State body does either. Given its experience in working with letting agents in this regard, it is best placed to achieve an effective response to this problem.
I wish to confirm that social media is included in this legislation and that persons may refer a social media ad to the PSRA in the same manner as a rental ad on any other platform. The majority of social media advertising takes place on Facebook. It currently operates an advertising policy whereby it does not approve ads that are in breach of the laws of any given jurisdiction. This legislation would hold that policy to account. Ideally, social media sites and rental platforms would self-regulate to ensure compliance with this law. I am sure that is a subject which the Minister of State will address.
On the Fine Gael amendment to delay the Second Reading for six months, my opinion and that of Sinn Féin is that it is a dishonest delaying tactic. I wonder if the Government is too embarrassed to vote against the proposal as it stands. In delaying the legislation, is it saying that it is acceptable for illegal properties to be advertised on the market for the next six months? I remind Fine Gael of the most recent time it submitted an amendment to a Bill I brought forward. That Bill, co-signed by Senator Ruane, proposed a reduction of the voting age to 16 in certain elections. The Government stated that it wished to consider the Bill further. Six months on, there has been no engagement in spite of our attempts to bring that about. When we brought the Bill back before the House it was opposed on the basis that a referendum would be held on the issue. However, that has not happened.
I do not know of any Opposition Bill that has been enhanced by a six-month delay. Such a delay is not a democratic proposal. I call on Fine Gael not to stifle the efforts of this legislation but, rather, to work with me and other Members to ensure effective legislation is developed.
The Bill is not a finished product. There are multiple Stages in both Houses of the Oireachtas to make it so. No matter how long it takes or what form it may take, we are ready to work with the Government on the Bill. The amendment tabled by Fine Gael does nothing to achieve any collaboration. It is merely political cover to discourage the effort represented by the Bill.
I wish to thank those who have supported the Bill. It is the start of allowing renters to engage in the rental market with dignity and respect. We want the current regulations to be enforced. Properties that do not meet minimum legal standards should not be in the rental market.
I second the Bill. I welcome the Minister of State to the House and say, "Well done", to Senator Warfield for his action on this issue. All Members have been aware of the prevalence of this issue since the downturn in 2007 or 2008. Families had to move back in together, with children moving back to their parents' house or trying to find rental accommodation which has become increasingly scarce, particularly in our cities and especially on the east coast, where it is out of the reach of most young people.
In 2017, we became aware of the problem of substandard accommodation. At that stage, Rathmines was a kind of bedsit haven - it still is, to some extent - for people from the country who came to Dublin for a job. The accommodation in those bedsits was dubious, to say the least. However, we have come a long a way in terms of hygiene standards, personal space, healthy living and healthy homes. We expect far more than putting up with what is on offer. However, some cases have seen the re-emergence of the almost slum-like conditions that were once prolific in Dublin. In the early 1900s, the city was known throughout the world as the slum capital of Europe.
Those conditions are again evident in some properties in Dublin, as was particularly revealed by the 2017 "RTÉ Investigates" television programme on the issue. Unfortunately, the three houses investigated in that programme were in my constituency and the neighbourhood of Crumlin. There were 64 people living in a house, with 16 people shoehorned into each dirty single bedroom. In an unauthorised development in Kilmainham, Dublin 8, bunk beds took up every available space, with 30 or 40 people sharing the property. It was eventually shut down because it was an unauthorised development but its owners certainly got their money's worth out of its temporary occupiers. In Rathmines, 23 women shared a two-bedroom house. These cases date from last year and the year before, not back in the days when we shut up and put up with such conditions because we did not expect to have our own space. Having one's own space is not a luxury. Rather, it is an acceptable standard which has been deemed healthy to have.
If I am paying money for accommodation, I expect standards to be maintained. The clear standards that are in place have been breached on many occasions, as revealed by inspections. How much clearer can one get than a report that states there is immediate danger to the welfare and safety of tenants in a building? There are flagrant abuses of advertising standards on websites such as daft.ie, Facebook and spotahome.com.
What it says on the tin is not what we get inside. What we get inside are stuffy, unhealthy, mouldy and damp small spaces where people are meant to sleep, eat and live. We will not accept that any more.
There are unfit rental properties in the city and people are making a fortune out of them. These people run around unfettered enjoying their ill-gotten gains from various homes in the rental sector. There are multiple breaches of fire safety, never mind overcrowding. There are no escape routes or fire alarms. I understand local authorities, which provide housing assistance payments and rent supports, endeavour to inspect homes for breaches of fire safety and other safety standards, such as rat infestations, but they are overwhelmed. Last year, only 4% of rental properties were inspected. Of this miserly 4%, 70% failed to meet the standards set for the payment of public moneys to landlords through the housing assistance payment and other rent supports.
The resources of local authorities have been cut to the bone. I do not blame the local authorities in that they do not have the resources. We need to bolster these resources because the situation is becoming progressively worse. We are trying to play catch-up all the time but unscrupulous landlords have ways and means of staying under the radar. The same property reappears on the same advertising sites with a different slant on it and perhaps a different number on the door. These landlords use various means to get away with duping people into believing they are getting reasonable accommodation. People are looking for reasonable accommodation, not top-end luxury. We need more resources and a greater willingness to enforce regulation. The purpose of this Bill is that certain advertisements would be called out and banned.
I am a Dubliner and this practice seems to be prolific in the city. I went on to daft.ie to see a shed being offered after a woman showed it to me. She was mildly intellectually disabled and she rented it at €800 a month. She explained to me that she was sick all of the time because she had to go to the main house to access toilet, bathroom, water and cooking facilities. This slipped through the net. Trying to make a complaint and get somebody to do something about it was impossible because many people stated they would take the accommodation. Such is the desperation in the rental market. Not only do we have utterly unsuitable accommodation and unscrupulous landlords, we have competition among desperate people trying to find somewhere to live.
Senator Conway-Walsh asked me to raise student accommodation and rural families paying way over the odds for substandard accommodation. They allow their little ones travel to the big smoke to live a life but the accommodation is detrimental to them and their health. It is their first time away from home and they want comfort. We all want home comforts and we all deserve them, especially when we think we are paying for them.
I cannot see why the Minister of State would be so mean as to block or delay this legislation. It makes sense. It has taken years to get here. I commend Senator Warfield on tabling the Bill for discussion.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House for what is a topical debate. I commend Senator Warfield on raising it as a matter of concern.
I remind the Senator that the Government has tabled an amendment and I suggest that he formally move it.
I thank the Cathaoirleach for that reminder.
The Government will need a seconder.
We will get one. The Senator should not worry.
Will they? Cá bhfuil Fine Gael?
Senator Coffey does not need a seconder immediately.
I move amendment No. 1:
To delete all words after “That” and substitute the following:
"the Bill be read a second time this day six months, for the following reasons:
- to explore further the extent to which the underlying issue the Bill seeks to address is already addressed, or capable of being addressed, under housing legislation;
- to allow for further consideration of associated issues with the Bill, in particular those related to the impact on and compliance with EU law (eCommerce Directive and possibly the Services Directive) and other elements which appear legally problematical."
The Bill is relevant and deals with a topical issue that needs to be addressed. I certainly recognise this. The letting of properties is increasing throughout the country. Obviously, the greatest pressure is in Dublin and the rental pressure zones, which include cities such as Waterford. It is important that advertisements for lettings reflect accurately what is available to those interested in them. Of most importance are the actual standards of accommodation that apply in lettings. As we all know, demand is rising all the time and it is important that we increase the number of properties available for letting, whether apartments or houses. We need to recognise in the debate the work that has been done in raising standards. Many bedsits were excluded from the rental market recently. For years, many landlords took advantage of tenants but they can no longer do so because substandard accommodation has been removed from circulation. Some time ago, calls were made to return some of the bedsits to circulation. This would be a retrograde step. We need to maintain the standard that has been set and find new ways of increasing supply to meet demand.
I recognise what the Minister has done recently in introducing new schemes to help increase availability and supply. Under a scheme to bring homes back into use, supports, grants and incentives are offered to those who have vacant dwellings to renovate and regenerate their properties and offer them for letting at a proper standard. The scheme is aimed at reducing vacancies and I commend the Minister on introducing it. We should acknowledge every effort being made to increase supply.
Legislation is already in place to maintain proper standards. The responsibility to do so rests with the housing authorities, which, whether we like it or not, are the local authorities. They are closest to the ground to inspect properties and ensure an adequate standard of accommodation is maintained. I acknowledge the efforts made by the Minister to increase funding to local authorities for inspections. In his contribution, I am sure the Minister of State will tell us how much money is being invested and given to local authorities to carry out these inspections. I am also interested in finding out about the performance of local authorities in inspecting private properties that are rented. I suspect some are better than others. The higher standard and performance should be adhered to and should at least be an objective and a target for all local authorities. It is essential that proper standards are maintained. We need adequate sanction where breaches are found. We need to devise new ways of reporting breaches of substandard accommodation. There should be online tools to inform local authority inspectors. Simple photographs uploaded directly to a local authority inspectorate's website should be enough to raise awareness and possibly result in inspection and sanction if necessary. There are ways to address this appropriately if the real need is there.
With regard to the Government amendment, the Opposition argues that we are trying to delay the Bill. Obviously, I would not be so cynical. It is reasonable for all of us to give the Minister, the departmental officials and the local authority inspectorates time to respond to the issues raised in the Bill. I look forward to hearing the Minister of State outline his rationale for requesting a period of several months, and that is all it is, to allow him and his officials to respond and take on board the views he hears in this debate and the concerns of those in various housing agencies who deal with tenants on a daily basis. Further amendments might be needed at that stage. This is a perfectly reasonable approach and I look forward to hearing the Minister of State address that issue.
Landlords have legal responsibilities and obligations and I they should uphold these obligations to the highest of standards. They have to maintain proper standards of accommodation. That is the law in this country. As I stated, where breaches are known, local authorities have the powers to act and they should do so. I am interested in learning how many inspections have resulted in sanctions. The figure is possibly not as high as it should be.
We all know that there are substandard properties, including those owned by local authorities. Many of us have been public representatives for many years and we often receive complaints from local authority tenants that their accommodation is not of the required standard. The latter is despite the fact that the local authority is the letting body. It is important that we have proper records and proper accountability in both the private and public rental sector in order to ensure that tenants are properly protected.
On the other hand, I am also conscious of the great demand existing for accommodation and we do not want to scare landlords out of existence. We do not want landlords to give up rental properties when they are most needed. The landlord representative bodies are stating that there is a major burden involved in becoming a landlord. Many people are accidental landlords who may have had properties prior to marriage or something of that nature. They have let those properties and are still paying the mortgages on them but the rent does not cover the latter. There is a need for balance in the debate and we need to be careful that we do not scare away people who are letting properties and fulfilling the demand that exists. I will be interested to hear the Minister of State's response.
It is important that we hear the concerns being expressed. This Bill represents an attempt to address those concerns. We have high standards for fire safety, sanitary, toilet and washing facilities and living space. It is important that those standards are upheld. It is also important that inspections are carried out. Sanctions must apply where breaches of those standards are detected. That is the best way to deal with substandard accommodation. We must deal with it as it arises. Local authorities must be encouraged to continue their inspections and resource them appropriately.
I thank my colleagues for bringing forward the Bill. Legislation of this type can be very complicated but we need to find solutions to the problems that exist. However, this legislation adds a layer of complexity to the rental market at a time when we need to be encouraging the availability of more units in the market and the retention of existing units. We need affordable rental units for ordinary workers who are crippled by the market and we must also implement strategies to combat the scourge of dwellings that are unfit for occupation. This Bill would make it illegal to advertise such dwellings. As a matter of law, however, all landlords, big and small, have a legal duty to ensure that their rented properties comply with certain minimal physical standards. These standards are set out in the Housing (Standards for Rented Houses) Regulations 2017. The issue of enforcing those regulations will be important in future. It does not matter what regulations are brought in, if they are not enforced they are a waste of time. That is where we are failing. Enforcement is key. As it is already illegal to rent out an unfit dwelling, advertising such a dwelling falls within the realm of misleading advertising complaints. Under the Consumer Protection Act 2014, the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission, CCPC, can take action, where appropriate, against businesses found to be misleading consumers. The question arises then as to how each agency verifies a unit is unfit. All of these questions need to be answered. The Bill gives no clear indication as to what burden of administration would be placed on letting agents, newspapers and online advertisers to check each and every property. Relying solely on complaints to the PSRA ignores the role of that body and its resources.
Unfit dwellings should be dealt with by means of a new national inspection quality certificate. That is what we need to look at for the future. Every tenant should have an inspection quality certificate stating that his or her property is up to standard. Local authorities should be adequately resourced to carry out their duties in inspecting rental properties to ensure they are fit for purpose. It is also up to the local authorities to inspect private rental accommodation. We need to find ways to strengthen the ability of local authorities to review the entire system and raise standards overall. Unfit dwellings will become a rarity if that is done. It is in this aspect of the process that we are falling down. The national inspection rate is 4.96% and the average national failure rate is 80.5%. The low inspection rate in Dublin, and other cities, and the high failure rate underlines the need to ramp up local authority inspections and further illustrates the need for a comprehensive national quality certificate for the rental market. That quality certificate would be similar to the building energy rating, BER, certificate and would give assurance to all renters if it was backed up by a comprehensive rental regime.
That is important and that is where we can make a change. Fianna Fáil has published legislation to extend rent pressure zone designations that are due to expire at the end of this year. I want that legislation to be brought in now. In 2016, when the rent pressure zones were introduced, the then Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, Deputy Coveney, stated that he did not expect there would be any necessity to provide for further orders after the three period expired because additional supply, combined with the three years of rent predictability, would have eased the pressure in the rental market in the areas concerned. That has been a total failure and, as a result, the rental market has been a failure. That is unacceptable. I see evidence of this in my area, which, because of the way the road network is designed, is part of the commuter belt adjacent to Dublin. Rents have reached more than €1,100 per month for homes in Carlow. It is not just in the county town that this is happening. The same rent rises are happening in the west and south of the county. I have long called for an overall review of rent pressure zones and I have been accused of asking the Minister to do something illegal by changing the zones. Action must be taken because the cost of renting in County Carlow, in rural and urban areas, is just eye-watering. It pushes people into poverty and an accommodation limbo. People cannot save to buy a house and are forced to make long commutes from towns where they can afford the rent.
Something does need to be done for tenants. However, we must also look at the overall situation. During my time on Carlow County Council, I was a firm believer in having clarity, enforcement and proper education regarding what is possible in a given situation. We need to spend some time on this issue and I will agree to extending the time available. We all need to work together. I compliment the proposers of the Bill but there is not enough clarification of many issues in the proposed legislation and too many issues are also not addressed in it. We all need to look at this issue again, develop further solutions and take it from there.
I welcome the Minister of State. I am in favour of this Bill and I commend Senator Warfield, his colleagues and his staff on the hard work they have done preparing it. I hope this legislation can progress quickly. All legislation goes through detailed scrutiny and reading at the relevant committees and that can only be helpful in progressing Bills. The proposal before us, however, is already very strong. It is something we should support. I will not speak at length about the nuts and bolts of the legislation because Senator Warfield has given a clear, thoughtful overview of why this proposal is needed and its practical impact.
This is a straightforward common-sense proposal. I am surprised the PSRA, or some other similar body, is not already carrying out the kind of oversight function proposed in the Bill. The Minister of State may feel that systems for quality control are already in place. The examples cited by Senators, however, that are appearing in newspapers every week, are surely evidence that those quality control measures are not working properly. The stories regarding large groups of people sharing tiny cramped rooms are disgraceful. The people in those situations are often migrants or members of other disadvantage communities. I have no doubt the Minister of State agrees that it is disgraceful.
I was reared in the tenements in the 1960s and 1970s. I know what it is like to live in a house full of people. The houses next door to us were jam-packed with families and there were often as many as ten children in each family. It is different today. There was a community spirit back then and everybody looked after each other. Today, we are dealing with adults crammed into tiny little rooms. This is degrading and a horrendous way for any human being to live. We recently opened a new tenement museum on Henrietta Street. Looking at some of the rental properties in Dublin, such a museum may not be necessary. That is the reality of the situation. I am glad to see the Union of Students in Ireland, USI, supporting this legislation and other proposals on housing. It is right for USI to fight this awful situation and the union has my full support.
In terms of the Bill before us, it is not a radical proposal to say that letting agents should assume a meaningful level of responsibility for what is being advertised. The Minister of State would agree that one would not let a car dealership advertise and facilitate the sale of vehicles below the minimum legal standards. Similarly, I do not believe letting agents should be facilitating rental properties that do not meet the legal minimum standards. We set these legal standards for a reason and we need to ensure they are met. This should not place too high a burden on the letting agents.
Looking at the Bill, the most likely outcome in practice would be that individuals will see and report these sorts of properties and the PSRA would make an assessment and issue direction to the letting agents. The agents will not need to do lengthy exhausting reporting. A process such as this might also make some letting agents reconsider the quality controls they put in place, which can help further.
Senator Coffey stated this would scare landlords out of existence. To be honest, some of them need to be scared out of existence because what they are doing is horrendous.
Overall, there is deep frustration among the Opposition that while we can keep fighting on this issue, we cannot allocate the resources needed to fix the crisis. Restrictions on the right of the Opposition to legislate often mean we cannot compel the State to act, for example, to build social and affordable housing. That is ultimately the decision of the Government. While the Government may stick to the contention that the current policies are working, I would ask the Minister of State to look at the evidence, that is, the numbers on paper and on Dublin streets, and reconsider this position. The Minister of State, Deputy English, is a good man. He is authentic and he cares so I would ask him to reconsider this.
What the Opposition can do, however, is look at how the system is operating and try to improve on that. We can look, for example, at the dysfunctional rental market and how it works in practice. We can see obvious fixable problems, such as below standard properties being advertised, and try to address them. This Bill takes an important step in that direction and I commend it to the House.
I support the amendment tabled by Senator Coffey. I commend Senator Warfield on the publication of the Bill and bringing it to the House. Contrary to what Senator Black said, the Government is prepared to work with everybody to ensure the Bill is a better Bill. That is why the amendment being put by Government is a reasonable and fair one.
All of us recognise that we have travelled some road in terms of the need to put in place strict advertising guidelines on the principles around which properties can be advertised. I have to be honest and say that I have been with potential tenants who have wanted to rent a property. I have gone with them to look at the property and what one sees in a glossy brochure is way different to what is the reality. That is something on which myhome.ie put in place a sort of a code and procedures in 2017. The issue of equality in terms of advertising is also something that we should look at and work with.
Given that our model of delivery of housing is that we are moving towards a European style where people are living more in urban areas of the inner city and in dwellings that are less than habitable, there must be a balance struck between the need to enforce and penalise and the need to upgrade. I have never been afraid to work with residents to bring landlords to the then Private Residential Tenancies Board, PRTB, to maintain and upgrade properties.
Equally, we need private landlords to be part of the housing solution. It is important a standard is upheld in terms of renting. I suppose my primary focus is that I genuinely support the overarching principle the Bill is trying to achieve. We need to place an emphasis on landlords being good landlords. That means living in communities among people with property that is not only fit for habitation but is a home.
Just this week, the residents' association where I live handed in the notice for the collection of the so-called "dues" to pay for the maintenance of the public area.
It is not a management fee per se but it is what the neighbourhood pays for maintenance and cutting of the grass. At the bottom of it, there was a good note asking people to maintain their properties.
That should be standard.
It should be standard. The Leas-Chathaoirleach is correct.
When I was secretary of the residents' association, we made it a point of principle to talk to and get the telephones numbers of landlords so that they could maintain their properties. As the Leas-Chathaoirleach stated, they should be willing to do it and co-operate with the residents' associations.
I am sure a number of them do so.
The Leas-Chathaoirleach is absolutely correct.
The Leas-Chathaoirleach is a landlord.
This is the Chair being totally impartial, sorry.
That is why the focus must be on the type and quality of accommodation. There can be no diminution from that point of view.
A debate we need to have, as part of the housing debate, is on how we can provide incentives to people, for instance, in Cork, to avail of the living over the shop scheme so that they can live in the city and be part of urban living which we will see more of in the coming years. Under Project Ireland 2040, for example, the Government is ambitious for the city of Cork, where I live, with the primary focus on people living in the city and on what that means in terms of types of accommodation, public transport and services and facilities available.
The Government proposal is a reasonable compromise so that we can make the Bill better. It is about ensuring that we can work with local authorities and the different stakeholders to bring about the desired result which Senator Warfield and we all want to see achieved. It is about ensuring that we create modern homes for different family types. That means looking at the kind of grants and supports available and at how we can provide incentives, whether under the realm of climate change with energy retrofitting or in terms of incentivising the urban property owners to be able to modernise their buildings in keeping with the public realm.
We have over the past number of years changed the responsibility threshold to put more emphasis on landlords having responsibilities, which is to be welcomed. It is important that there is a monitor of the standard of accommodation. It is important that we understand that tenants and landlords must co-exist and that people deserve to live in proper accommodation in terms of what is being advertised. The advertising is the point that this Bill is about. We need to pause and reflect on what we want to achieve.
Senator Warfield has intimated that he is not in favour of the Government amendment and that is his prerogative. I would hope that we would not divide the House and that we would allow for the Government to come back and make the Bill better. My overarching thought is that this is something that I support but I understand where the Minister is coming from.
Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire Stáit. Cuirim fáilte roimhe chuig an diaspóireacht anocht.
I thank and commend Senator Warfield on the legislation before us for discussion tonight. In doing so, I also want to thank Members who have contributed thus far to this important debate. I also take the opportunity, because it is glaringly obvious in the Chamber tonight, to comment on the level of participation on this issue because, as everyone has acknowledged, regardless of where one falls on the Bill, the amendment or whatever, we have all acknowledged that this is an issue of crisis levels.
It is a Statewide emergency being faced by our people. Sometimes, on the Order of Business, one will get a queue out the door of Members to lament the housing crisis and to talk about homelessness. However, when we have legislation in front of us which seeks to give expression to the legal standards and requirements in place for rental properties, where are they? I am disappointed by this. I have no doubt those outside this Chamber who have an expectation will be watching this debate. Some parties and groups are not represented here this evening which is disappointing. However, that is the way it is.
We heard from Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael on the amendment. We will be opposing it because we believe in parliamentary procedure. As Senator Warfield outlined earlier, it is a case of once bitten, twice shy. For example, Senators Warfield and Ruane brought forward legislation to reduce the voting age to 16 which we considered reasonable. However, other parties opposed it and sought to delay it despite having policies in favour of it in some instances. When it came back after six months without any engagement, we were told it was opposed because there would be a referendum which never occurred.
Submitting this legislation on Second Stage is to give the Government and our colleagues in the Seanad notice. It is to ensure all engagement, which is the norm with parliamentary procedure and legislative protocol, can take place. It is to ensure Members can come back on Committee and other Stages to amend, to tweak, to endorse, to oppose or to support the legislation. I do not understand why, on the one hand, one can endorse the Bill’s sentiment, tell everyone that one agrees that rental adverts need to be standardised and made appropriate in tune with the legal requirements but then, on the other, claim it must be done in six months or somewhere down the line.
When I first came to Dublin to carry out my parliamentary work and obligations, I, along with other Members, had to go on some of these websites to get accommodation. Some of them do not even dress it up in terms of false advertising. Some of them would scare one in terms of what is offered to people who are coming to work, live or study in Dublin or find themselves here in more unfortunate circumstances.
The Seanad has an opportunity to do something about it. I do not know if it is a party political decision but during the last Sinn Féin Private Members’ business I made the point that a pattern is emerging. Despite the collaborative approach the Seanad takes to issues which unite us, when Sinn Féin brings legislation to the House, even if it chimes with individual or party policies, people melt like snow off a ditch and do not want to know about it. The Minister of State will appreciate and understand why we are extremely reluctant. Given the importance of this issue, given what the Bill seeks to do and given the work Senator Warfield and his parliamentary assistant, Conor Stitt, have done on this Bill, we will not be seeking to long-finger it. We will be seeking to put it to the people because something must be done in this area. We will be all too willing to redden the faces of those who come in every day to lament the housing crisis but when they have the opportunity to support legislation on it, they are nowhere to be found.
I wish to thank Senators Ó Donnghaile, Gavan and Warfield for bringing forward this Bill which provides us with an opportunity to discuss the advertising of unfit lettings. Some rental properties are of such poor quality they should not be on the market, let alone advertised. No Member would condone that.
The Government has no problem with the Bill’s principle. We would be happy to work with Sinn Féin on introducing legislation in this area. It is a priority area for the Government. However, we have issues with how the Bill is drafted. We do not have the luxury of working on it on Committee Stage when there has not been the chance of engaging on it to tease it out.
Senator Ó Donnghaile said it is a case of once bitten, twice shy. However, the Government has a good record of working with Senators on legislation. I have offered many times to work through issues with Members. I would rather we would work together for a positive outcome on a matter on which we all agree instead of having political rows. We will have political arguments and ideological differences on many issues. That is the nature of politics. However, that should not be the case on matters on which we all agree. There is an onus on us all to work through matters. The Department is willing to do that but it needs more time to tease this particular issue out. This particular issue does not just come under our Department’s remit but that of others, such as the Department of Justice and Equality. We have not had the time to work through this Bill with the other Departments and agencies. This may require six months or less but we will work on it. It is not a case of ducking, diving or hiding. That is not what the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, or I are into.
Senator Grace O’Sullivan brought forward a Bill on microbeads a year ago. A similar Bill was introduced in the Dáil by Deputy Sherlock of the Labour Party. At the time, I explained to Senator Grace O’Sullivan that, while the Bill had its merits, it was not at the level we needed. I gave a commitment, however, that we would deal with it. We went through the whole procedures and we got it done. It was back on the floor of the Dáil in autumn. When we say we will follow up on a Bill, we are genuinely committed and it is not a cover-up or a lie. The Minister , Deputy Eoghan Murphy, would like time to work on this legislation. We put forward the amendment because we need more time on it. Sinn Féin has said it cannot and that is its prerogative. However, co-operation for a positive outcome works both ways. This is an issue on which we could get a result. I would prefer to work on this positively to get a good result rather than going in the opposite direction and bringing it through Committee Stage when there are issues with it. The latter action may end up with us not getting the result we want. Will the Senators park this for several months to give us a chance to work on it?
The Government agrees that platforms have responsibility for what they are advertising. We accept the spirt of the Bill and its genuine attempt to improve the situation for tenants by ensuring that properties available to let are deemed fully compliant with minimum standards before they are advertised. The Minister has stated he wants to work on this.
Recognising the importance of the Bill and notwithstanding the challenging issues it presents, we have tabled an amendment to see how best we can consider and address the challenges presented in this area. We are proposing that this Bill be read in six months’ time to give us the opportunity, in conjunction with the Department of Justice and Equality, to explore further the extent to which the underlying issue the Bill seeks to address is already addressed, or capable of being addressed, under existing housing legislation. It would also allow for further consideration of associated issues with the Bill, in particular those related to the impact on and compliance with EU law, such as the e-commerce directive and possibly the services directive, as well as other elements which may be legally problematic.
We have not had a chance to examine all of those matters because when we bring forward legislation, we must carry out various procedures to ensure it is correct and will work. There is no point in passing legislation that might not stand up in law or work. While I accept that it sends out a good, strong message, it might not be enforceable thereafter. The Senator addressed the importance of being able to enforce what legislation we enact and I am a firm believer in that. There is a duty on us all, therefore, to ensure that the wording is correct, which is why we asked to park the Bill to allow for further consideration of issues associated with it. The law must be evidence based and when we legislate in this area, we generally try to gather evidence. We have all seen the advertisements but we must carry out some more in-depth evidence gathering, although it will not have to take months. We must also carry out some research with other Departments. While that may take a little time, it will not necessarily take the full six months and we could bring forward an alternative sooner if we committed to that.
I acknowledge that the Senator is not proposing the Bill for the credit of any particular party. Nevertheless, when we bring forward Private Members' Bills to which we have made changes, we always acknowledge that they were created in co-operation with, or started by, others and that we only had to tweak or change them. In the case of the Prohibition of Certain Products Containing Plastic Microbeads Bill 2018, for example, we were clear in that regard. We emphasised that it had originally been brought forward by the House and that individual Members had pushed for it. There is no issue with that. If something has to be fixed, we will try to fix it for people.
We are committed to exploring the issues further and on that basis, we seek Senators' support for our approach and their approval of our amendment. While that is up to Senators to decide, it is a genuine effort on the part of the Government because we want to see some progress. The Bill concerns the advertising of unfit properties but we wish to prevent unfit properties in the first place. That is where our focus has been in recent years as we try to improve the standards of property. As has been acknowledged, standards have come a long way over the years. Nevertheless, that does not mean we are getting everything perfectly right and that all properties are acceptable. Work is ongoing and we must deal with unfit properties. They are a more fundamental problem than advertisements for properties. If we could prevent properties from being unfit in the first place, the advertising would not be the concern because they would not exist. I understand, however, that until we catch up on all those properties, there will remain rogue individuals who will try to advertise them and dupe people into renting them or handing over money.
As Senators will appreciate, the Bill raises and revisits some issues that have been considered and are being implemented in the Government’s strategy for the rental sector, published in December 2016. I accept that the majority of landlords can be said to be earning good money. Some are good landlords, some are poor landlords, while others have no respect. There is diversity in the rental sector. It is hard to have this conversation and find some way to endorse the good landlords while addressing the issue of poor landlords. Regulations and new laws are a way of doing that and we are trying to do that as much as possible. Some landlords make exorbitant profits while others do not. The Bill relates to the standards of properties. We are trying to bring everyone with us on this journey and improve standards. State-owned housing stock was mentioned, in which much money has been invested over the years, but we are still playing catch-up. While we try to build more high-quality stock, the quality of some of the existing stock must be upgraded. We are investing taxpayers' money in doing that every year.
It is worthwhile outlining to the House some of the issues the Bill, as initiated, presents and which will need to be addressed in our further consideration of the issues. As it stands, the Bill would have significant resourcing implications for the Property Services Regulatory Authority, PSRA, and local authorities. It also presents some legal challenges, given that the lead authority role for the legislation referenced is vested in the local authorities and not the PSRA. Those challenges, while not insurmountable, will need some time to be teased out to determine the best way to advance the legislation. While we agree with the proposals in principle, there may be a different way to provide for them and we will need to work with Senators in that regard. The new section 56A(3) would provide that any person could refer a complaint to the PSRA in respect of an advertisement of a rental letting which the complainant considers to be in breach of the regulations, that is, the provisions under the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1992, the Housing Act 1996 or the Fire Services Act 1981. It is difficult to see how the PSRA would be in a position to adjudicate on whether any such property is substandard because under the Housing Acts, this is the responsibility of local authorities. A mechanism would need to be developed to ensure that where a complaint is made to the PSRA in respect of advertisement of an allegedly substandard rental property, the PSRA would be able to check with the relevant local authority to confirm whether a particular rental property is substandard. In fairness to Senator Warfield, he acknowledged that when he indicated it could be dealt with by amendments on Committee Stage. We are both, therefore, flagging the same issue that needs to be resolved. While there might be various ways to address it, we have identified the same issue.
This is likely to give rise to challenging legal and procedural issues, as well as a requirement for additional resources in the responsible bodies. As I stated, we must ensure that the Bill is usable. While we want to agree with its aims, we have to ensure that the legislation is workable in order that it will not be defeated in places outside of the House. Given our heightened awareness of data protection issues due to the general data protection regulation, possible solutions will need to be assessed with data protection in mind. This is a complication for the various bodies with different responsibilities. It is red tape and hassle but we must nonetheless deal with it because data protection is a major issue of which we must all be aware. It has complicated all our lives but when drafting legislation, we must follow the procedure and address it. Again, it is not as easy as saying we support legislation and should, therefore, plough on with it. While we would like to do that in many cases, we must examine the various issues that arise.
Section 19 of the Fire Services Acts 1981 and 2003 defines a potentially dangerous building and supports enforcement action by fire authorities where warranted. The section contains an exclusion, however, for “premises consisting of a dwelling house occupied as a single dwelling”, which is interpreted as including individual apartments and flats within multi-unit buildings, as distinct from the common areas, etc. This throws up a specific challenge that will need to be addressed, as the Bill would introduce an avenue of complaint for non-compliance by rental properties with section 19 of the 1981 Act, even though that section of the Fire Services Acts does not apply to individual dwellings. I am just highlighting issues. I do not mean to make a big deal out of them but wish to point out the matters we must address in one way or another if we are to make progress. We must also be conscious of potential unintended consequences that may arise, including, for example, the potential of a reduction in the number of units being advertised on online platforms and the knock-on effect for prospective tenants. As Senator Black stated, there is no problem if that eliminates all the poor properties, but we wish to ensure there are no unintended consequences either. Sometimes there is a sense of fear when changes are brought in because people might hear different interpretations. Our intention is to address that and put it to bed. Today we launched a document about bringing homes back to market and tackling vacancy, and all the related rules and regulations. From speaking to people who own properties that are not in use, we know they do not even engage with the system because they have a fear of red tape and of getting involved with the State, even though we want to work with them to bring their properties back into use. There is a communication issue, therefore, in ensuring there are no unintended consequences. The legislation must be tight, proper and clear.
On the existing minimum standards and regulation, I will outline initiatives undertaken to date, such as the minimum standard regulation, and some of the important work that is ongoing in this area. We all agree that the regulation does not address everything and that some properties continue to slip through the system. I do not deny that but instead I want to show that we are trying to tackle the issue and that improving the whole situation is a priority. The regulations setting out minimum standards for private rented accommodation generally were first set out in the Housing (Standards for Rented Houses) Regulations 1993. A number of changes, however, have been made to the regulatory framework since then to reflect the requirements of the modern rental sector. The current minimum standards for rental accommodation are prescribed in the Housing (Standards for Rented Houses) Regulations 2019. The purpose of the regulations is to provide residential rental accommodation that is safe, efficient, durable and comfortable. These regulations specify minimum health and safety requirements for a range of matters, including fire safety, structural repair, sanitary facilities, heating, and gas and electrical supply. With limited exemptions, these regulations apply to local authority and voluntary housing units, as well as private rented residential accommodation. All landlords have a legal obligation to ensure that their rented properties comply with the regulations. Responsibility for enforcement rests with the relevant local authority. Where someone believes that a property is being made available to rent in breach of the standards, the matter should be referred to the relevant housing authority. Any person who neglects or refuses to comply with the requirements under the Act is guilty of an offence. Fines for non-compliance with the regulations include a fine whose maximum has been increased from €3,000 to €5,000, while the daily fine for a continuing offence has been increased from €250 to €400.
The strategy for the rental sector recognises that high-quality rental accommodation is critical to the success and sustainability of the residential rental sector and its attractiveness as a long-term accommodation option for households. It sets out a number of important actions to ensure the safety and quality of rented accommodation by bringing rental standards up to date and strengthening processes for inspection and compliance. A major review of the standards was conducted in 2016. The aim was to ensure that the applicable standards reflect requirements of the modern rental market, contribute to delivery of high-quality housing and provide increased protection for tenants by addressing critical health and safety concerns, with particular focus on three main areas.
First, changes to existing provisions are being introduced to reinforce them and, where appropriate, to include additional provisions that are not already covered. Second, local authority implementation is being strengthened through closer collaboration, co-operation and the dissemination of best practice. Third, there is a focus on increasing awareness of the minimum standards. The Department published comprehensive guidelines in August 2017 to assist and support local authorities in implementing the regulations. Those guidelines are currently being updated.
The sector faces a number of serious challenges with regard to minimum standards. We are not hiding issues like the low rates of inspection, the high numbers of non-compliant properties, the inconsistencies in interpreting and applying the standards and guidelines, and the lack of follow-up and enforcement action. We are putting those issues out there. We are saying we have to lift the sector to be able to deal with all of this. The working group on rental standards was established in 2017 to develop proposals and make recommendations to give effect to the actions on standards set out in the rental strategy. Three specialist subgroups of the working group have been established. The IT subgroup is focusing on the development and roll-out of a national standardised IT system over the long term, as well as the development and purchase of software solutions to upgrade from current spreadsheet work systems, etc. The training subgroup is focusing on the development and implementation of a training programme for enforcement officers. Two such programmes have been run to date. The housing subgroup hosts an annual seminar to share knowledge and best practice and to support continuous professional development. We are trying to upskill the local authorities by giving them the people they need to be able to do this work. The human resources subgroup focuses on examining and making recommendations and securing agreement on all other human resources aspects, including annual inspection targets, staff numbers, grading structures, funding, qualifications and legal services. We are committed to this space. We are trying to upgrade the system to be able to deal with demand. We are not hiding from it. We are not denying it. The figures for inspections are there. No one is hiding those figures. We know where they need to go.
Specific ring-fenced funding for inspection and compliance activity has been identified from 2018 onwards to increase the number of properties inspected. Annual targets for inspection and compliance have been agreed with the local authorities. Between 2005 and 2017, over €36 million was allocated to local authorities to assist them in performing their functions under the Housing Acts, including the inspection of rented accommodation. Over 229,000 inspections were carried out during this period. Additional resources need to be provided to local authorities to facilitate increased inspections of properties and to ensure greater compliance. Everyone in the House wants this to happen. I think we all support it. That is the space we are in. Provision has been made for €4.5 million of Exchequer funding to be made available to local authorities in 2019 for these inspections. It is intended that there will be further increases each year up to 2021 to facilitate a targeted inspection coverage of 25% of rental properties annually at that stage. By 2021, one in four properties - at a minimum - will be inspected every year. From then on, one's property will be inspected every four years.
I wish we could get there straightaway or tomorrow. We have to build up the team of people, the resources, the skills and the allocation of money. The money is committed and allocated for this year and subsequent years to get us to that level. The number of inspections conducted across the local authority sector in 2018 was 28,692, which represented an increase of over 9,000 on the 2017 figure. These data were a little wrong earlier. This is in line with the target for that year, which was to inspect up to 10% of tenancies. I accept that this is not enough. It is at 10%. Some local authorities are very close to 100%. The average across the country is approximately 10%. The high non-compliance rates in those inspections were mentioned earlier in the debate. We discussed this matter a number of months ago. When one goes behind the details of such cases, one finds that many of these investigations and inspections were targeted. They had a plan for where they were going in the first place. I am glad they are finding high levels of non-compliance because that means they are doing their job right. We want to increase the 10% to 25% as soon as we can.
It is important to look at the current responsibilities of the PSRA because this will help us to identify the changes needed to deliver on the intent of the Bill. A key responsibility of the PSRA is to control, supervise and regulate licensed property services providers such as auctioneers, estate agents, letting agents and management agents. The Act which established the PSRA sets out a number of standards. It provides that where such standards are breached, the authority may - following an investigation - make a finding of improper conduct against the licensee for a breach of the Act. A minor administrative sanction, or a major sanction up to and including the revocation of a licence, which must be confirmed in the High Court, may be imposed on the agent in such circumstances. Areas of improper conduct impacting on a letting agent may include failure to complete a service-level agreement with the client or landlord, or failure to pass on rental income to the client or landlord. If a minor sanction is imposed, the licensee has a right to appeal the sanction to the Property Services Appeal Board. If a major sanction is imposed, the licensee has a right have it confirmed by the High Court.
The Act provides for a number of offences which must be investigated and prosecuted in the District Court. As it stands, the PSRA has no power to direct a licensee to undertake any specified course of action. Furthermore, it does not have the power to direct any other party - in this instance, the proposed online advertising platform - to undertake a specific action. The potential role for the PSRA that is envisaged in the Bill before the House is well considered and innovative. A motion to defer has been proposed to enable the Government to give further consideration to the matter. We want to see how we can make it really workable. We also want to tease out whether the PSRA is the right authority to perform this function. Perhaps a different body would be more appropriate for these purposes. We agree that an effort should be made to do this. That is not what we are against at all.
I thank the Senators for bringing this Bill before the House and thereby giving us an opportunity to have this conversation. This debate will inform our approach to continuing to advance this key area of priority for the Government. Therefore, I ask the House to support our amendment. I stress that the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, and I have been through this. We would really like the House to support us as we work on this Bill in the months ahead. I give the House my word that if Senators want to take this approach, we can sit down to work on this in the weeks ahead. I am giving a commitment that we will try to reduce the timeline. That is a choice for the Seanad to make. I am making an offer on my own behalf and on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, and the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government. This is a space we would like to work on. We believe we can make a change in this regard. It can probably be done quite quickly as well.
As we have said, we will not support the amendment. If it is passed, I will be banging down the Minister of State's door in the Custom House, or wherever his office is, on Monday morning.
I will be happy to interact with the Senator.
I have learned from the last time one of our Bills was delayed. The fear I might take away from tonight is that this motion ensures rental properties which do not meet minimum standards will have a free run on the rental market for the next six months. Senator Coffey suggested that we are a bit "cynical" over on this side. Would he blame us? The Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, said he wanted to deal with this in January 2018. Senator Buttimer said he hopes "we would not divide the House". He knows that Private Members' Bills progress through this House at a snail's pace. There is probably no need to place this amendment before the House to delay the Bill. It is the Senator who moved the amendment who will cause the House to divide.
I thank the Senators who contributed and those who came along to the debate but did not get into the discussion. I thank Senators Devine, Coffey, Murnane O'Connor, Black, Buttimer, Ó Donnghaile, Ruane, McFadden, Humphreys, Higgins and Noone for being here. I thank Conor in my office for his support on this Bill and all the other Bills we have brought to the floor of the Seanad. I do not need to remind the House or the Government that Second Stage debates are about debating the principle of the Bill rather than its technicalities, which are issues for Committee Stage.
The second reason I oppose the amendment is that it refers to "compliance with EU law (eCommerce Directive and possibly the Services Directive)". I do not think those directives have been mentioned too often in this debate, if at all. Legislation that was proposed by Fine Gael Deputies in the other House recently could have led to similar questions being asked about compliance with EU directives. Even though the Bills in question - the Prohibition of Above-cost Ticket Touting Bill 2017, in the name of Deputy Rock, and the Treatment of Cancer (Advertisements) Bill 2018, in the name of Deputy O'Connell - are not perfect and require refinement, neither of them has been subject to the six-month delay that has been proposed by the Government. Deputy Rock's Bill was passed on Second Stage with the support of the Government. Compliance with EU directives is a matter for the next Stage of the debate, rather than Second Stage. The Government's proposal to delay the Second Reading of the Bill will not ensure it complies with EU directives - it will merely stifle its effectiveness.
It is telling and problematic that Fianna Fáil Senators have said they will support the amendment on the basis of their overall opposition to the Bill. For those reasons, I propose that we reject this amendment.
We should allow the Bill to proceed with the intention that Government and all interested Members would work together in a collaborative effort to address the issue of the advertising of substandard accommodation. This issue has become very apparent in recent years. As I have said, Deputy Eoghan Murphy said that he would deal with this in January 2018. That is in the transcript of his response to a priority question.
The Bill is sensible. We are trying to ensure people's safety with regard to fire safety, overcrowding and sanitation regulations. These properties should not be on the market. How often does attention need to be brought to properties which are obviously in breach of regulations online, on social media and in the printed press? People deserve to engage with the rental market with dignity and respect. People deserve better. We oppose the amendment and will be calling a vote on it. If the amendment is passed I will be banging down the Minister of State's door on Monday morning.
Before I proceed, I welcome the former Senator, Fidelma Healy Eames, who is in the Gallery. She is hosting a group, all of whom are welcome. I hope they enjoy their evening.
- Burke, Colm.
- Burke, Paddy.
- Butler, Ray.
- Buttimer, Jerry.
- Byrne, Maria.
- Clifford-Lee, Lorraine.
- Coffey, Paudie.
- Conway, Martin.
- Daly, Paul.
- Feighan, Frank.
- Hopkins, Maura.
- Lawless, Billy.
- Lawlor, Anthony.
- Leyden, Terry.
- Marshall, Ian.
- McFadden, Gabrielle.
- Mulherin, Michelle.
- Murnane O'Connor, Jennifer.
- Noone, Catherine.
- O'Donnell, Kieran.
- O'Mahony, John.
- Reilly, James.
- Richmond, Neale.
- Black, Frances.
- Conway-Walsh, Rose.
- Devine, Máire.
- Higgins, Alice-Mary.
- Humphreys, Kevin.
- McDowell, Michael.
- Ó Céidigh, Pádraig.
- Ó Donnghaile, Niall.
- Warfield, Fintan.
When is it proposed to sit again?
Maidin amárach ar 10.30.