I am pleased to have the opportunity to present this much needed and important legislation, the Housing (Regulation of Approved Housing Bodies) Bill 2019, to the House. This Bill was passed by Dáil Éireann last week and I hope we can progress it through the Seanad this week in order that it can be enacted before the end of the year.
As it progressed through the various Stages in the Dáil, there were good discussions on the principles and provisions of the Bill as it relates to the regulation of approved housing bodies, AHBs, which are incredibly important for the delivery of much needed social homes. It is important to have robust and effective regulation of the sector. I am pleased to say that there has been a great level of support for this Bill, including in the context of the amendments made in the Dáil.
Prior to today, Senators will have received a briefing note setting out the background to the Bill, outlining amendments made and some additional information on the regulator and the AHB sector. I hope this has been useful. This is a balanced and proportionate Bill which provides for the regulation of AHBs for the purposes of supporting stronger governance within and the financial viability of that sector, with a particular focus on safeguarding the significant public investment being made in the delivery of social housing by AHBs. Similarly, the Bill will provide stronger assurance to tenants, the public and potential investors that the sector is well regulated. We need to keep our focus on the tenants, who are the people going into housing body homes under social housing agreements.
Senators will be aware that AHBs provide thousands of social housing homes in Ireland. They operate as independent, private, not-for-profit organisations, formed for the purpose of relieving housing need, which is often of a certain type. AHBs have a particular expertise in meeting that need, be it for people with disabilities, those coming out of homelessness or individuals with special needs. AHBs have played this role since before the foundation of the State. Consider, for example, an organisation such as the Iveagh Trust, which has being doing this work for many decades.
We hope this can happen in 12 to 18 months once the Bill is enacted. Regulation is currently conducted through Building for the Future: A Voluntary Regulation Code for Approved Housing Bodies in Ireland, and is underpinned by financial, governance and performance standards. At present, there are 275 AHBs, including all of the larger tier 3 AHBs that have signed up to the voluntary code. My Department’s register indicates there are 552 AHBs in existence. However, many of these are inactive and an exercise will be carried out to delist inactive AHBs from the register. Preliminary work has already commenced in this regard.
As the Senators will be aware, the Rebuilding Ireland action plan for housing and homelessness recognises the key contribution approved housing bodies make to the delivery of social housing. AHBs are committed to delivering one third of the 50,000 new social housing homes that are to be provided over the period of the plan through a blended delivery of build, acquisition and leasing. Last year, the AHB sector was responsible for 38% of the delivery of social homes. The target for delivery of new social housing in 2019 is up more than 20% from 7,869 to 10,000 this year. The target for new build homes has almost tripled from 2,260 in 2016 to 6,545 in 2019. Next year will be a record year for social house building. We will build more social housing homes than we have built in any of the last 20 years, including the boom years.
Approved housing bodies receive significant levels of funding from the taxpayer to take people from our housing lists and they build on local authority land. They are part of our new and more sustainable approach to social housing, where delivery is not dependent on one single stream like it was in the past, but social housing is now delivered in a number of ways, protecting would-be tenants from any adverse shocks to the economy or the sector. They complement but do not replace social housing delivery by local authorities. In cases of particular need, such as those with disabilities, for example, they have the required experience in providing the most appropriate housing. I have big ambitions for this sector. I want it to continue to grow and to continue to provide the quality homes for those most in need. I would like to pay tribute to the Irish Council for Social Housing, ICSH, the Housing Alliance and all involved in what was a record year for them in 2018 for the delivery of new social homes. This Bill will support and strengthen that ambition by demonstrating to all that the sector is well regulated.
Let me now move to the detail of the Bill itself. The Bill contains 70 sections in nine parts, together with one Schedule. In Part 2, the approved housing body regulatory authority - the regulator - is laid out in sections 7 to 24, inclusive, providing for the establishment of the regulator and sets out the functions and the organisational structure of the regulator, the appointment of a chief executive, staff, preparation of a strategy statement and other related matters. The functions of the regulator are set out in section 9, namely: to establish and maintain a register of AHBs; register persons as AHBs; prepare draft standards for approval by the Minister under section 38 and publish the approved standards; monitor and assess compliance by AHBs with this Act, in particular the approved standards; carry out investigations under Part 5; under Part 6, protect tenants and AHBs and cancel the registration of AHBs where necessary; encourage and facilitate the better governance, administration and management, including corporate governance and financial management, of AHBs by the provision of such information and advice, in such form and manner, as the regulator considers appropriate; with a view to promoting awareness and understanding of this Act, make available such information as appears to the regulator to be expedient to give to the public about the operation of this Act, in such form and manner as the regulator considers appropriate; collect such information concerning AHBs as the regulator considers necessary and appropriate for the purposes of the performance of the regulator’s functions; and, publish such information, including statistical information, concerning AHBs as the regulator considers appropriate. Section 9(1)(f) originally provided for the regulator to intervene in the functioning and management of housing bodies and cancel the registration of housing bodies under Part 6 of the Bill. This was raised by Deputies on earlier Stages of the Bill and I therefore proposed an amendment, which was accepted on Committee Stage in the Dáil, to better reflect the fact the regulator will not be involved in the day-to-day running and management of housing bodies. Rather, one of its functions is to protect tenants and housing bodies and cancel the registration of AHBs under Part 6 of the Bill.
Sections 14 and 15 are important oversight provisions which provide that the chief executive shall appear before the Committee of Public Accounts and other relevant Oireachtas committees when requested to do so.
I know some Members have raised queries about having too many regulators. I agree it is a crowded regulatory space. However, section 23 will require the regulator to agree memoranda of understanding with other regulators, such as the Health Information and Quality Authority, HIQA, the Charity Regulator and the Residential Tenancies Board, RTB, for example. This will ensure there is no regulatory conflict and will ensure clear lines of competence between regulators. It is an important provision.
Part 3 provides for the regulation of approved housing bodies and includes sections on the registration procedures for AHBs and their entry onto the register, as well as the drafting and approval of standards. To be eligible to register as an AHB, the persons or bodies must be: a company with at least five directors; a registered society; a friendly society; or a charitable trust with at least five trustees. The persons or bodies must include in their constitution the provision or management, in the State, of housing for the purpose of alleviating housing need as well as provisions prohibiting the distribution of any surplus, profit, bonus or dividend to members, directors or other persons and requiring that its assets and profits be applied solely towards its primary object or objects.
Sections 26 and 27 provide that the regulator will establish and maintain a register of AHBs and set out where and when the register may be inspected, along with setting out procedures for those persons or bodies who wish to apply for registration and what should be included within the application. Section 34 enables existing housing bodies approved under section 6 of the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1992 to be deemed registered. Sections 28 to 33 enable the regulator to grant or refuse applications. Section 35 provides that a person who knowingly provides false or misleading information to the regulator as part of an application will be guilty of an offence.
Part 4, comprising sections 38 to 43, inclusive, provides the regulator with the powers to monitor compliance by housing bodies with the standards. Arising from the assessment, if the regulator deems that a housing body is not complying with the standards, it may require the body to draw up and submit a compliance plan. Section 42 deals with the failure of a housing body to implement a compliance plan. Where the regulator takes the view that the housing body is failing to implement a plan or is not implementing it in accordance with its terms; the regulator may issue a notice on non-implementation. Section 43 provides that the regulator shall enter on the register details of a non-implementation notice.
Part 5, comprising sections 44 to 52, inclusive, relates to investigations. It provides the regulator with powers to appoint inspectors and undertake investigations into the affairs and performance of housing bodies. It also sets out the powers of the inspectors and the mechanism for the production of inspectors' reports.
Part 6, comprising sections 53 to 60, inclusive, relates to interventions. It allows for intervention powers to be afforded to the regulator in respect of assets of a housing body where an offence has been committed, a housing body has failed or is failing to comply with the provisions of the Bill, there has been misconduct by a director, officer or member of staff or the financial viability of a housing body is threatened.
Section 54 empowers the regulator to seek a High Court order if he or she suspects that: a housing body has committed an offence under the Bill; a housing body is failing to comply with provisions under the Bill; a housing body is misusing or mismanaging property in such a way that endangers the property; there has been misconduct or mismanagement by a director or employee of a housing body in relation to its affairs; there has been unlawful or improper use of funds; there is a serious risk to the financial viability of the body; it is necessary for the purpose of the protection of the tenants of dwellings provided or managed by a housing body; or where there is information indicating any of what I have just outlined. In such circumstances, the court may issue an interim, interlocutory or permanent order. Such orders may include: removal or suspension of any director or officer or employee of the body; appointment of other people to be a director or officer of the body; vesting of any or all of the property of the housing body with another housing body identified by the regulator; prohibiting the removal or sale of the property without the regulator's consent; non-payment by a debtor to the body for a specified period; or the restriction or prohibition of a housing body to enter any agreements.
Section 58 enables the regulator to cancel a registration on the following grounds: that the housing body:has been convicted of an offence under the Bill or any other indictable offence; has failed or is failing to comply with any provisions under the Bill; no longer satisfies the eligibility criteria for registration as a housing body, or is deemed to be a housing body under section 35 and has been deregistered under the provisions of that section. The section also provides for the procedures that the regulator must pursue in cancelling a registration, including allowing the housing body to make representations and allowing a housing body to appeal the decision to cancel registration.
Part 7, comprising sections 61 to 64, inclusive, concerns appeals. It provides for a housing body to submit appeals to an appeals panel where the regulator exercises its powers in relation to registration, compliance plans or cancellation of registration. Section 61 provides that the Minister shall establish an appeals panel to determine appeals under the Bill. It sets out the qualifications and number of members, terms of office, grounds for removal of members and disqualification for appointment and the provision of resources to support the work of the panel. Section 63 provides for the process that the panel should follow in considering an appeal. It also provides that the panel shall be independent in the performance of its duties. Section 64 allows for any party to an appeal to appeal the decision to the High Court on a point of law within three months.
Part 8, comprising sections 65 and 66, inclusive, covers miscellaneous issues. Section 65 prohibits the unauthorised disclosure of confidential information. It makes it an offence for a member of the regulator, staff member, inspector, adviser or any other person engaged under contract with the regulator to disclose confidential information acquired during the course of performing their duties unless they are required to do so by law or with the regulator's permission. The section does not prevent the disclosure of such information to the regulator or a Minister of the Government by or on behalf of the regulator or in compliance with provisions of the Act. Section 66 is a new section which was inserted on Report Stage. It requires the Minister to commission a report, within 12 months, relating to the transfer of dwellings provided by housing bodies, which have received funding through the various funding schemes for housing bodies from the Department. The amendment ensures that there will be consultation with key stakeholders and that any matters arising, including legal and financial matters relating to transfers, will be examined. This report will be important in determining and evidencing if any further policy initiatives are required in respect of stock transfer. The Minister is obliged to lay the report before the Houses of the Oireachtas and to publish it online as soon as is practicable thereafter.
Part 9, comprising sections 67 to 70, inclusive, covers consequential amendments and transitional provisions in detail.
Several amendments were made to the Bill on Committee and Report Stages, as I have outlined. I have referred to some of these amendments as I discussed the contents of the Bill, but there are two others to which I would like to draw Members' attention now. A particularly notable amendment was the deletion of the section on fees. This was discussed at length on Committee Stage and I was pleased to bring forward amendments in the Dáil on Report Stage to reflect that positive engagement. As the Bill now stands, fees may only be charged under two subsections. Subsection 26(3) provides: "The Regulator shall make a copy of an entry in the register available, on request, on payment of such fee (if any) as may be determined by the Regulator". Subsection 62(2) provides: "An appeal shall be accompanied by such fee (if any) as may be determined by the Regulator with the approval of the Minister".
Another amendment of note was proposed by the Opposition on Committee Stage. This was to delete paragraph 56(1)(g), which required a housing body to notify the regulator if it received a determination order within the meaning of section 121 of the Residential Tenancies Act 2004. The Irish Council for Social Housing expressed the view that to notify every order made by the Residential Tenancies Board would be disproportionate and unnecessarily onerous. I agreed to accept this amendment.
I restate that this is a balanced and proportionate Bill. It will support stronger governance and the financial viability of the very important housing body sector, safeguard the significant public investment being made in the delivery of social housing by housing bodies and provide stronger assurance to tenants, the public and potential investors that the sector is well regulated. I commend this Bill to the House.