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Seanad Éireann debate -
Friday, 23 Oct 2020

Vol. 272 No. 2

Residential Tenancies Bill 2020: Second Stage

Question proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I am grateful to this House and Dáil Éireann for facilitating the passage of this critical legislation through the Oireachtas. I am conscious that the Seanad has been given limited time to examine the Bill and table amendments for debate. As colleagues know, I am a strong supporter of the Upper House, having been leader of the Opposition here for five years - in the other Chamber, that is, rather than this one - and having voted against and defeated the Thirty-second Amendment of the Constitution (Abolition of Seanad Éireann) Bill 2013. I firmly believe that Seanad Éireann plays an important role in the democracy of our State.

I am asking Senators to pass the Residential Tenancies Bill 2020 to help mitigate the impact of Covid-19 on tenants and to support the Government's efforts in restricting the movement of people in order to suppress the spread of the virus. The front line of the struggle against the virus is in every house and community across our country. A safe and secure home has never been more important. The roof over our heads has become the limit of our social lives, the four walls of our homes our new work office, and the rails of our gardens and balconies our refuge from the pandemic. This challenging time for our country demands that we put aside party politics and ideology to work collectively for a common cause. It is a moment for politicians of all parties and none to stop letting their version of perfect be the enemy of what we can all agree is good.

In that light, I hope that every Senator and party supports this practical and urgent legislation. I am pleased to inform the Seanad that the Dáil passed the Bill unanimously last night. I welcome the support of those from all parties as well as Independents who contributed to the debate in the Dáil and, most importantly, supported the Bill's passage.

The Bill is committed to protecting tenants and recognising the rights of property owners in this deeply challenging time. It gives clear legal protections to tenants by effectively stopping evictions for the duration of the travel restrictions and adding a further ten-day grace period for the small number of people who may need to find new accommodation afterwards. It is a targeted and balanced measure to protect our shared public health interest by insulating tenants from any need to move beyond their homes during the travel restrictions. The temporary restrictions on property owners' constitutional property rights are justified on the basis of a broader social good.

It is important to recognise that the majority of tenancies do not end in dispute and the majority of our 170,000 landlords, most of whom own just one unit, act decently and fairly. The Bill is about providing unambiguous certainty to renters and landlords that their tenancies will be frozen during this emergency period. It is also necessary to provide for extreme and rare circumstances, such as severe anti-social behaviour, where landlords will need to act to protect their properties during the lockdown and protect neighbours beside the small number of unruly tenants.

The Government has a strong record of protecting tenants. The Emergency Measures in the Public Interest (Covid-19) Act 2020 was passed by the Oireachtas in March. Upon my request, a Government order to extend it to 1 August 2020 was put in place. I then introduced the Residential Tenancies and Valuation Act 2020 to provide further protections due to the pandemic's economic ramifications, not just the public health considerations. That Act set out a new emergency period from 1 August 2020 until 10 January 2021 and was specifically focused on tenants economically impacted by Covid-19, in rent arrears and at risk of losing their tenancies. The Act was passed by the Houses, albeit not with the unanimous support we received last night.

It is in place, however, and is a very important protection. Those tenants who make a necessary self-declaration cannot have their tenancies terminated prior to 11 January 2021 and no rent increase can apply for the period ending 10 January. The Act also introduced important permanent protections through new procedures requiring landlords to serve the Residential Tenancies Board, RTB, and the tenant with the 28-day warning notice seeking payment of rent arrears and a notice of termination.

These protections are working. Others have tried and continue to try to make little of them by twisting the numbers and claiming that the protections introduced in August are only helping a small number of people. This is simply not true. The legislation enacted in August will protect all those eligible and has done so successfully so far. That means any person whose income has been negatively impacted by Covid-19 and who is in arrears. Thankfully, as it stands, not many have had the need to apply for these protections due to the range of other measures and income supports that the State has brought in through its multibillion euro investment in our economy and society during this pandemic. That Act will continue to operate and deal with rent issues and it is independent of this Bill.

In the budget, in addition, I also increased the budget of the RTB by 22% to enable it to carry out its expanded duties fully and ensure a fair and equitable rental system. I have also increased funding to ramp up rental inspections and given extra money to local authorities to address overcrowding and inadequate accommodation. Ultimately, today's Bill is needed to help restrict movement in a unified, national effort by Government to address the resurgence of the Covid-19 pandemic. The disease demands our constant vigilance and our collective efforts and this Bill forms part of that endeavour.

The Bill introduces measures to protect tenants from tenancy termination in all but very limited circumstances during the current period of lockdown due to Covid-19. Importantly, it will also do if required during any future lockdowns where severe restrictions are imposed on people's movements. That hardwires this legislation directly to the Health Act 1947 and means these protections will kick straight back in should there be a further restriction of movements to 5 km. This is a strong and robust legislative protection. It will work, like the Act that I brought in August, which does work.

The Long Title of the Bill describes my policy aims and the policy context in which the limited restrictions on landlords' constitutionally-protected property rights are being introduced in the interests of the social good. Section 31A of the Health Act 1947 provides the Minister for Health with extensive regulation making powers to prevent, limit, minimise and slow the spread of Covid-19. Addressing unprecedented and grave circumstances, regulations under section 31A may provide for travel restrictions, prohibition or restriction of some events, such as large outside gatherings, for example, and the requirement that persons remain at home.

The provisions in this Bill will modify the operation of the Residential Tenancies Act 2004 during periods specified by the Minister for Health in regulations made by him under section 31A of the Health Act 1947 to restrict the movement of people outside a 5 km radius of their place of residence. Again, I stress that once the Minster for Health makes regulations restricting movement outside 5 km, these tenancy protections will kick in automatically. They will last for as long as the health regulations are in force, and this includes the regulations currently in force by virtue of the provisions of the Residential Tenancies and Valuation Act 2020, to which I referred to earlier.

I will now outline the main provisions of the five sections of the Bill. Section 1 provides for the interpretation of certain terms in the Bill. Section 2 concerns the emergency period and it defines the period during which the temporary prohibition on tenancy terminations shall apply in an area. The period of time and the area in question shall be set out in the regulations made, as may be required, by the Minister for Health under section 31A of the Health Act 1947 to restrict, in a specified area, people's movements outside a 5 km radius of their homes.

Section 3 deals with notices of termination under the 2004 Act. Subject to subsection (2), it provides for a temporary prohibition on tenancy terminations taking effect in an area where section 31A health regulations apply to restrict the movements of people outside a 5 km radius of their homes. The duration of any emergency period shall not count as part of any termination notice period given. A revised termination date shall apply and should factor in an emergency period of an additional ten days. Subsection (2) disapplies temporary prohibition on tenancy prohibitions in cases of antisocial behaviour and where a rental property is being used other than as a dwelling and without the landlord's consent.

Section 4 provides that security of tenure rights shall not accrue to any tenant on foot of a delay in giving effect to a tenancy termination caused by the operation of section 3. Section 4, on the entitlement to remain in occupation of a dwelling during the emergency period, provides that where a tenant was served with a notice of termination prior to the emergency period and that notice period had expired but he or she remains in occupation on the commencement date of the emergency period, he or she is entitled to remain in occupation until ten days after the expiry of the emergency period, subject to the terms and conditions that applied under the tenancy. Section 5 provides for standard provisions regarding the Short Title to the Bill and provides for a collective citation. The Bill will commence upon enactment.

Several Deputies, Senators and NGOs have raised concerns in recent days, and last night, regarding local authority tenants and members of the Traveller community. I reassure this House that I again intend to give guidance to local authorities to ask them to neither terminate local authority tenancies, apart from in cases of severe antisocial behaviour, nor to move members of the Traveller community at this time, unless it is required to ameliorate hardship or for health and safety reasons. That will be done today. A circular from me will go to each local authority and that will be followed up by my team in the Custom House.

We will continue to monitor the situation and any need for additional advice or guidance will be addressed. This worked very well at the start of the pandemic and I thank our local authorities for their co-operation and for all the work they have been doing on the ground on our behalf. It is important that local authorities continue to manage tenancies during the Covid-19 pandemic and continue, where necessary, to use their powers under 2014 Act. That is particularly case in respect of dealing with antisocial behaviour, including the serving of a tenancy warning or an application to the District Court for a possession order. That can still take place in the context of severe antisocial or criminal behaviour.

As the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, I know that at this time of great uncertainty, a safe and secure home is the best shelter from this storm. That is why I am asking Senators to pass this Bill without delay to help tenants to stay in their homes. I will seek to respond to any specific questions or points raised at the conclusion of this debate. I ask the Senators, as I know they will, to approach the Bill with an open mind, good faith and the sense of urgency that this moment demands, as we are called to work together as a collective to overcome this cruel virus.

As the Minister has to come back in at 1.14 p.m., we have exactly 56 minutes for our seven speakers who have asked to contribute. I ask them to stick to their speaking time of six minutes to ensure that everyone will get in. I call Senator Fitzpatrick.

I am delighted to welcome the Minister and his officials and I thank him for bringing this important legislation before the House. As the Minister stated, there is nothing more important in any of our lives than to have a secure home and to have a place to call home. I am on the record as stating that after Covid-19, climate action and Brexit, I do not believe this Government has any bigger challenge than to address the housing crisis and the lost decade of housing delivery our country is struggling to overcome. I wish the Minister well with his challenge. I think that he has got off to a really good start and there is good energy and ambition regarding his plan.

The €3.3 billion allocation in the budget for housing is warranted and we really need to see it delivered. The Minister and his Department have already put significant supports in place for renters, including the housing assistant payment, HAP, scheme, the rental accommodation scheme, RAS, and the emergency rent allowance. The Government is providing close to €1 billion under those supports, which is very important and appropriate.

The previous Bill the Minister introduced to protect renters from rent increases and evictions was welcome. While none of us likes Bills being rushed through the House or forced on us, we understand where the Minister is coming from in his approach to the legislation before us today. In an emergency, people need an emergency response from the Government. We support this well-balanced Bill which affords further protection for renters. Most renters are already availing of the protections that are in place but this Bill ensures those provisions can be used any time in the future when restrictions are activated or applied.

The Minister made an important point about antisocial behaviour. When most people are doing all they can to suppress the virus and behave as responsibly as possible, it is really upsetting to see antisocial behaviour at any level but particularly when it relates to people's homes. Parts of my constituency have home ownership rates of less than 10%. I know the Minister is going to help me to reverse that horrible trend. It is critical that everybody plays his or her part during this pandemic and that the State has the power to act, and does act, against those who do not. I commend the Minister on bringing this legislation forward swiftly. I hope that the House will support it and that we can move forward with the rest of our important business today.

I welcome the Minister to the House. I agree with him that in the present situation, it is important that people should not be evicted in circumstances that are brought upon them by the pandemic or which make it difficult for them to secure alternative accommodation in the course of the crisis. If this involves the abridgement of landlords' rights to some extent, then, as the Minister outlined, the Constitution clearly indicates that property rights are not sacred and the common good must at all times be seen as something that delimits the total protection of property rights where there are adverse social consequences or implications for the common good.

The Minister has made his apologies for the way in which the Bill is being dealt with in the House. I will not waste much time on that other than to state the simple fact that the business of this House is being reduced largely to rubber-stamping. It is happening on all fronts. The Minister has been very polite and kind in apologising for it in advance but I must say that there is a tendency to try to stop the legislative process from being fully operational and for the Executive to push forward legislation. There is time to consider a lot of issues and we must protect not our rights as Senators but our entitlement to carry out our duties as Senators, which include looking at all the proposals that are put before us and examining them carefully to see whether they will achieve their particular aims in a proportionate and balanced way, as claimed by the people who initiate Bills. Having said that, I appreciate the Minister's apology in advance for asking that all Stages be dealt with today.

One of the consequences of the Bill being dealt with this speedily is that I am denied the opportunity to tender an amendment I intended to propose to the next residential tenancies legislation to deal with the difficulty that now arises where landlords are charging rents that were unlawfully set in breach of the upper limits provided for rent pressure zone rentals. There is a difficulty in that the new regime the Minister has introduced of administrative penalties and investigations carried out by the Residential Tenancies Board depends on the applicability of something called "improper conduct", as defined in Schedule 2 to the 2004 Act, under Part 7A as inserted by the Residential Tenancies (Amendment) Act 2019 . It appears there is a problem in respect of the exact application of these new procedures because the 2004 Act, as amended, refers to the setting of the rent being the improper conduct rather than the collection of the rent. The Act is very detailed and provides that the setting of rent is defined very clearly as taking place at the time when the rent is provided for or agreed rather than afterwards. There is a question as to whether the improper conduct applies to somebody who, historically, reached the rent pressure zone limits and whose only sin now is collecting the excessive rent. It is unclear whether Part 7A applies to that situation or not.

I had intended to put the matter beyond doubt by introducing an amendment making it very clear that it is not just somebody who sets the rent who engages in improper conduct but that anybody who continues to receive the rent or demand it should also be covered. However, because all Stages of the new Bill are being dealt with today, that opportunity does not arise. I ask the Minister to look very carefully at this issue. If it is the case that the powers of the Residential Tenancies Board to investigate such behaviour are limited to cases where the rent was set after those powers came into existence, but do not apply to the collection of the rent after the powers came into existence, then there is a loophole through which landlords who are greedy and are breaking the law may escape. It is a very arcane point but I intended dealing with it in an amendment as soon as the next available train left the station. Unfortunately, the train is leaving the station with no right for my particular carriage to be added to the back of it.

I welcome the Minister and the provisions he has brought forward in this Bill. It is a great initiative. It is not the preserve of the Opposition to be uncomfortable with rushed legislation and the perception that this House is being used for rubber-stamping. However, I appreciate that haste was necessary in this instance. This Bill and the Commission of Investigation (Mother and Baby Homes and certain related Matters) Records, and another Matter, Bill 2020 are two pieces of legislation in respect of which urgency is really understandable and with which I am in sympathy.

There is no doubt that the pandemic has caused terrible hardship and that action is needed to address the rental accommodation aspect. This Bill is very thorough and fair in balancing the rights of landlords and tenants. I thank the Minister for his clarification regarding local authorities and Traveller accommodation. However, there is another area on which I seek comfort from the Minister, concerning the rent-a-room relief scheme. I understand it was also raised during the debate in the Dáil. I am supporting a family in an equal status claim where the main breadwinner is without any income due to the pandemic circumstances. This individual had the initiative to seek support from the State and found that she qualified for the HAP scheme. However, when she brought this happy news to her landlord, the latter recoiled and, all of a sudden, manufactured a daughter who needed accommodation and served notice on the sitting tenant. There was a big hoo-ha. The notice has since been withdrawn because there are errors on the face of it and the tenant is now back at the beginning of the process. In the meantime, I have had a chance to look at the matter in the context of the provisions and protections available under the Equal Status Acts.

The accommodation in question is a self-contained apartment adjacent to where the landlord lives. When we get to the point of discussing the situation under the Act, his defence will undoubtedly be that it is a rent-a-room situation because of his proximity. Obviously, my argument will be contrary to that. There is photographic evidence and I have gone to the apartment to see it, so I would disagree. However, there is some concern about whether people like the woman in question are afforded the same protections under this Bill. If someone is prohibited under the Bill from going to look for somewhere else to live because of the pandemic, that should apply to everyone in the vulnerable tenant category. I would welcome the Minister's clarification of this issue.

I welcome the budget, which builds on the annual increases of recent years in the amount of State-provided social and affordable housing. The budget is ambitious and will be an excellent relief. Thankfully, there was money to pursue it. I acknowledge how fantastic it is and congratulate the Minister on same. He is building on the years of work done by his predecessor.

Whatever we do, we will rely on a private rented sector. It will always be with us. The issue of landlords was mentioned. The word "landlord" is not a dirty word. There are people involved who are there by accident and others who have invested as an alternative to pension schemes. While we need to support tenants' right to longer tenancies and give them better benefits, we also need to consider the reliefs for landlords. I have been on both sides before the RTB in a pro bono capacity and hardships are experienced by tenants and landlords. I urge the Minister to bring his considerations on this issue to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage so that we can have a good debate on how to balance both sets of property rights.

I have encountered a couple of peculiarities in recent weeks. I believe the Minister has addressed them, but perhaps there has been a miscommunication with some local authorities. I am not sure how that situation arose, but I will outline the peculiarities so that the Minister can issue a clarification. People can be struck off the housing list because they did not receive a letter. I have two such cases ongoing. They were suddenly struck off the housing list after it was claimed that a letter had gone out to them and they had not responded to it. There should be a greater onus and burden of proof on the local authority before someone who has rightfully been on a housing list for years has that position removed from him or her.

I am dealing with another situation where a person is repeatedly being told by the local authority that they must be homeless before it will engage with that person. I had believed we had dealt with this issue and were trying to stop homelessness from happening early on, so the idea that a local authority is telling people that they must only approach it when they are homeless seems to undermine the supports and other measures we have introduced.

I have covered everything I was going to say, but I will also ask for the RTB to be resourced. I thank the Minister for the provisions he is making in that regard. He should do so as a matter of urgency, be it in terms of recruitment or whatever, given that there appear to be delays in accessing services.

I commend the Bill.

I thank the Minister for attending to debate this urgent legislation. I share the views of colleagues that a number of Bills have been rushed through the House, some unnecessarily so. In this case, however, it is welcome. The Minister is deeply committed. I have known him a long time. He is willing to listen on all of these issues and I am sure he will listen to the concerns expressed on all sides.

I support this legislation strongly. It gives certainty to tenants during this difficult period and any future period. In that way, the Minister will not need to revert to the House time and again to introduce more emergency legislation.

It is all very well talking about providing protections for tenants and so on, but I welcome in particular the budget allocation of €10 million to local authorities for the rental inspections programme. This will be of considerable help to them in ensuring that the regulations on standards are met. There has also been a €2 million increase in funding for the RTB. We can have all the regulations possible, but not having the resources and staff to ensure they are adhered to has posed a challenge for a long time, particularly for local authorities.

I agree with Senator Seery Kearney about the rent-a-room issue. I was going to ask about tenants in private homes. Some clarity is required.

I hope that the Bill will be enacted. When it is, I ask that its impact be communicated clearly to tenants and landlords in understandable English and in a number of other languages, for example, Polish, Lithuanian and Latvian, for tenants and landlords whose first language is not English.

Sometimes, there is an image that this country is full of rogue landlords with lots of properties who just want to attack tenants. That needs to be challenged. More than 70% of landlords have just one property. They are often accidental landlords, for example, two individuals who had their own properties and came together to live in one, leaving one to spare. Certainly, there are rogue landlords exploiting tenants. I agree with Senator McDowell. When the next train comes into the station, which I am sure will be soon, we should address those landlords who are skirting around the legislation, particularly in terms of rent pressure zones, RPZs. Equally, we should address the problem of rogue tenants. A small number of tenants leave properties in an appalling state and at enormous cost to the landlords. Generally, it is one-property landlords who must bear the cost. As such, I am glad that the Bill's ban on evictions does not apply to those tenants who are engaged in criminal or antisocial behaviour. It would be unfair if they were able to have the protections provided by this legislation.

As the Minister knows, the main challenge on the rental side relates to supply. We are introducing many measures to protect tenants and so on, but the reason our rents are so high is because of the lack of supply. The Minister and I have discussed this matter regularly. Our key priority as a Government must be the delivery of affordable housing. We have to be able to deliver affordable housing. It remains ridiculous that, in almost any part of the country, someone who is renting can get a mortgage for less than his or her rent. I come from Gorey, where rent for a three-bedroom house costs in the order of €1,200 to €1,250 per month but a mortgage costs significantly less. It is the Minister's personal priority that we must help all of those individuals and couples who are aspiring to own their own homes. That must be the main priority for housing. If we can address the supply of affordable housing and allow access for individuals to same, many of the challenges that we are facing in the rental sector can be resolved.

I welcome the Minister's intentions in the Bill. I support the Bill. I ask that he take on board the importance of communicating its provisions, in particular multilingually.

I apologise to Senators Warfield and Moynihan for calling Senator Byrne before those two spokespersons.

I welcome the Minister to the House for the first time. It is an important recognition of the crisis facing renters that he is present. I will support the Bill but I want the Minister to listen very closely to what I have to say. We will support any Bill that protects renters. It is regrettable that only in unprecedented uncertainty are we seeing proper protections being introduced. I know many people in this city and beyond who are in rental accommodation and have felt uncertainty for very many years. This legislation is welcome but it does not go far enough. If we are all in agreement that renters need protection, especially now, why should we limit this protection to seven weeks? We need more than this and renters need more than this.

The Government's national framework for living with Covid-19 states we could be living with the virus well into 2021. I think that is a certainty. Why did we not seize the opportunity and draw up an all-encompassing Bill that actually protects renters and avoids this nonsense of going in and out of emergency periods, introduce a ban on evictions or support the proposal we have today that gives people certainty and peace of mind? The old way is out the window. It is not as though landlords will not have protections either. They will have protections in terms of antisocial behaviour or illegal activity and Part 4 is being paused. This is not just a one-way street.

If there were no Covid-19, there would still definitely be a rental crisis. Rents continue to rise, albeit at a slower rate than previous years. The latest rent report, for the third quarter of this year, shows the average rent in the State is €1,412, while in Dublin the average rent is €2,030. This represents an annual increase of 1% and 0.2%, respectively, on the third quarter of 2019.

The Minister has spoken about his record. Only a few weeks ago, very regressive legislation, the Residential Tenancies and Valuation Act 2020, was implemented. This legislation only adds to the problem. Threshold has confirmed that, as a result, it is now dealing with a significant increase in cases and queries regarding evictions, and we have seen illegal evictions in this city. Today, we have further legislation drawn up by hard-working officials that goes in the right direction but does not go far enough. For our part, Sinn Féin will keep calling for a freeze on and reduction in rents, a ban on evictions and latent defects in housing to be addressed. We continually push for more social and affordable housing. We want renters, many of whom spend half of their salary on an asset they will never own, to have security, dignity and freedom. This is achievable. If the Minister and his predecessors had agreed to many of our housing Bills in the past, this could have been done without him having to lift a finger. If the Covid-19 pandemic is the reasoning behind this emergency legislation, I must mention the Minister's rejection, and that of Fine Gael and the Green Party, of legislation last night that would have banned co-living. Co-living is the worst possible type of accommodation to live in under the threat of Covid-19. It is accepted we may live with this virus well into next year. There may well be co-living developments completed by then with people living in them. Has the Minister told NPHET or the HSE they can expect hundreds of people sharing kitchens and bathroom facilities next year? Has he looked at other major cities that have experimented with co-living?

The amendment I want to focus on primarily today, which Sinn Féin will put forward, is to extend the ban on evictions to six months, well beyond the January date when the current financial protections run out. On a side note, why is January a terrible month? Is it because we have eaten chocolate for all of Christmas? Is it because the weather is rubbish? No, it is because people have no money in their pockets. Does the Minister put himself in the shoes of renters when introducing these types of protections? We support the call from the Simon Community to introduce this amendment providing for a six-month ban on evictions. We are happy to see many other parties and groupings supporting it and perhaps the Green Party will explain to us how refusing to support a six-month ban on evictions fulfils its election promises of looking after renters.

In recent days, we have heard the HSE and the Government ask for understanding from the public as they sought to press the reset button on the contact tracing system. The Minister should know that Ireland is in dire need of a reset for the rental market. We see the six-month ban as primarily helping those people renting to give them certainty and relieve some of the worry and anxiety. The six-month period would also give plenty of time for us to consider how we can give certainty and respite to hard-pressed renters. One of our amendments seeks to include those people who rent rooms on an ad hoc or informal basis. This has been mentioned by Senators Seery Kearney and Byrne. I hope the Minister will support amendment No. 1 given his statements today.

On a procedural note, this is the second time today that Senators had to submit amendments to Bills before the legislation was finished in the Dáil. That is completely unacceptable. I support the Bill but it does not go far enough and we will indicate this through amendments. We should address the crisis once and for all instead of periodically introducing holding legislation that always seems to aim to do the least amount possible.

I thank the Minister for coming to the House. The Labour Party will vote in favour of the Bill because we believe the eviction ban should be extended but we do not believe the Bill has gone far enough. I have tabled an amendment extending the eviction ban to at least March, allowing the ban to be enforced when any limit is put on movement and allowing the ban when people are allowed only to travel within their county. The Minister served the constituency, but some would say county, of Fingal. If people in Fingal were to lose their house and be evicted, it might not just be Fingal where they would look for available properties. They might also look at counties Louth and Meath. It is important, if we go to level 3 and are limited to travel within counties, that evictions would not be allowable.

The virus will not magically go away within seven weeks and in all likelihood we will be back here again after Christmas. The Labour Party and other parties tabled amendments in July that would have dealt with these issues and allowed the Minister to extend the eviction ban based on his own judgment. It would have avoided unnecessary stress for renters about losing their home in the middle of a pandemic. There is every chance that somebody who was evicted in August will not yet have found alternative accommodation. The degree of uncertainty is not fair to renters who, as well as living through a pandemic, are living in a country that has some of the worst protections for renters and face the threat of being evicted on loose grounds. We also have an underresourced Residential Tenancies Board, RTB. I am glad the Minister, through the budget, has addressed some of the RTB's underresourcing to enable it to deal with some complaints. I expect the position to improve next year.

When the seven-week period is up, evictions will occur. There have been evictions since August. They started after the previous protections were abolished by the Government. I will give the House a flavour of some of the cases I have dealt with. One involved a mother living in two-bedroom accommodation with her son who is in a wheelchair. She is in receipt of the homeless housing assistance payment. The family had been in emergency accommodation but had been given notice until the end of October and are now nearing the end of that notice. They have found a new place but it is much more expensive.

In another case, residents of a house with 12 units were served with notice before the previous eviction ban by the family of the deceased landlord. They are ignoring the terms of the suspension notice since the previous eviction ban. This case has gone to the RTB but one resident is concerned that she will be homeless before the RTB case is heard.

The landlord of a family of six, who have spent nine years in the house and 11 years on the council waiting list, has stated he is planning to sell the house in the new year. This family should not be still fighting to get a permanent home after such a long time on the waiting list. When the family transferred from rent allowance to the housing assistance payment from rent allowance, they were moved backwards on the list.

In another case, a landlord is refusing to extend the tenancy of a person in receipt of the housing assistance payment. This case involves a single mother and her daughter. The landlord constantly visits the property. The family have nowhere to go and they feel they are being harassed to leave the accommodation. They are living in very poor conditions.

Another case involves a working family. Both parents are from abroad and they have one small child. They now live in new accommodation after being asked to leave by the landlord. The notice they were given was much shorter than is legal required and they were told this was because the property was being zoned. They left the property unaware of the rights they had.

Between 2 August and 24 September, the RTB was notified of 753 warning letters issued by landlords. Threshold reported in September that 128 tenants received an invalid notice of termination from their landlords, meaning approximately 56% of notices that went to Threshold were invalid.

Threshold tells me that this is high compared with normal standards. No-fault evictions and evictions for very wide circles of family members returned in the middle of a pandemic. Evictions to allow for a potential sale at a future point returned in the middle of a pandemic, as did evictions to allow for substantial renovations.

This Bill links protections for renters with movements being restricted to a 5 km radius because the Minister, on legal advice, considers any moratorium on evictions to be vulnerable to constitutional challenge, as he has repeatedly emphasised. This idea has not really been tested in the recent past. He said that such measures are only constitutionally permissible when there are restrictions on movement. There is much discussion about taking personal responsibility for dealing with the spread of the virus. We have limits on movement, on social interaction, on seeing our families and on our ability to protest. So much of what we have taken for granted has been constricted by legislation and penalties, more of which we will be considering in the House this afternoon. That is fine because we are all in a fight against this global pandemic. What I do not understand, however, is why private property rights seem to be sacrosanct during the pandemic with regard to the ending of the eviction ban. We are all playing our part and putting our lives on hold to fight this virus. Landlords and property owners must also do so.

The Government is leaving families open to eviction from their homes a few weeks before Christmas in the middle of a pandemic. We know that evictions in the private rented sector are one of the main contributors to family homelessness. The Taoiseach has emphasised that, when level 5 restrictions lapse, the Government intends to move the whole country to level 3. Movement will be restricted for cocooners and those living with underlying restrictions. They may be forced out of their homes and our amendment seeks to address this. The priority of the Labour Party and the Opposition in the Seanad is to keep people safe and in their homes. That is why we are tabling these amendments today.

While I agree with Senator Byrne on some issues, I would query one thing he said, which was the ultimate priority is still for people to own their own homes. That is one priority but the core priority of the State must be for people to have security in their homes rather than ownership. This goes right back to Davitt. Security of tenure allows people to plan their lives, decide what school their children will attend while knowing they will live near it, plan for work, have a life and know where they will live. Even if one never owns the property, one can plan one's life in a given place. Generations of people grew up in local authority housing and their children had that security, went to school and went on to do many different things. It is about security of tenure and security of life. That is an ongoing issue. That crisis was an issue during the elections, before this pandemic. The issue of security in one's home has been intensified by the pandemic because it became, potentially, an issue of life and death. It became an issue of safety. That became a concern.

We initially had an eviction ban followed by the measures to which we moved over the summer, which diluted that blanket protection and restricted them only to those who had been specifically hit by the crisis and who were in receipt of Covid payments and to those in local authority housing. These measures did not continue the security needed for all those who were already extraordinarily vulnerable and who already did not have security. I refer to those who were in receipt of the housing assistance payment, HAP, and those who were already unemployed and who may not have been entitled to the Covid payment because they were already struggling. That is a very large cohort of people who started getting eviction notices in August. There were cases of persons who were already on low incomes, and who stayed on those low incomes and were struggling, being served with eviction notices. It is extremely hard for them to find accommodation. I know because I have been contacted by people who have been looking for places to rent or to stay in since August. It is a very difficult time to be searching for accommodation and housing.

I will, of course, support the Bill and I am glad to see a blanket measure introduced for the six weeks, but the concerns I have raised are ongoing. There needs to be wider measures because, as has been mentioned, residential tenancies Bills always come through in a great rush and do one thing. Hope for a proper debate was expressed. I have tabled an amendment, which I hope the Minister will accept, which guarantees full and proper debate on the Bill and all of the issues relating to it, including the misuse of the refurbishment provisions, which it is crucial to address if we want to increase the volume of retrofitting in the coming period. We also need to discuss protections for those with Part 4 tenancies and other issues, many of which have been spoken about by others in the House. We need robust discussion on these matters but, in the interim and in the medium term, I have tried to insert an amendment to guarantee such proper discussion with regard to this Bill.

We also need to deal with the fact that this provision will expire in early December. We will be coming into Christmas, a period in which people do not have a lot of financial liquidity, and into January which is, as has been said, a very difficult time. I have tabled an amendment which seeks to deal with a big concern I had with the legislation about which we spoke previously. I refer to the matter of the 28 days of arrears and the 28 days to pay. These need to be increased to 60 days as 28 days is just not long enough. These periods are part of the general provisions and relate to the non-payment of arrears as a basis for eviction. This is subsequent to the six weeks. It needs to be increased to 60 days. People may easily build up 28 days of arrears in December and January and will really struggle to find the money to repay those arrears within 28 days. That is another measure that could be introduced to deal with this difficult time.

I have also suggested other measures. I completely support the extension of the eviction ban for six months and the measures proposed by Sinn Féin. I will also be actively supporting the measures proposed by the Labour Party with regard to restriction of movement, even at county level. While I prefer the Labour Party's amendment and its wider interpretation of the restriction of movement, I have proposed a milder amendment. My amendment simply applies to any restriction within 20 km. While the city is often the focus, evictions also take place, and housing insecurity is also present, in rural areas. In these areas, a radius of 20 km allows for quite a narrow field in which to hunt for a new home. We have had restrictions to 20 km in the past. If level 3 is introduced, but with a 20 km restriction, I want the Minister to have the power to operate this ban. I ask that this be changed in the Bill and that the Minister indicate how he might otherwise extend this provision in those circumstances through a statutory instrument.

We have 16 minutes remaining and a number of speakers indicating. Senators Cummins and Kyne have kindly agreed to share time, with three minutes each. Are Senators Crowe and O'Loughlin also willing to share time with three minutes each?

I welcome the Minister to the House and thank him and his officials for the speed with which they have worked on this legislation, which is exceptionally important to protect people from evictions during this emergency period and any subsequent emergency periods that may arise. I am sure that, in his response to some Opposition Members, he will defend the Bill against some of the charges levelled and explain the reasons for linking this provision to the 5 km restriction via the section 31A of the Health Act 1947. This 5 km is provided for in primary legislation or in regulations and the provision must be linked to something of that sort, as the Minister's officials briefed us during the week.

I compliment the Minister on the antisocial behaviour clause in the legislation. This is welcome. As Senator Byrne has said, there are instances of antisocial behaviour and we must ultimately still be able to deal with these despite this pandemic. It is often the accidental landlords who are left with problems in this regard. It is all about striking a balance.

This legislation does this by safeguarding the rights of tenants during this emergency period and subsequent periods and the right of landlords to protect their property. The addition of the ten-day grace period when the measure elapses after six weeks is welcome as it will give tenants who were at the end of their notice period sufficient additional time to source alternative accommodation.

Some Members mentioned the resourcing of the Residential Tenancies Board. I compliment the Minister on the much needed additional resourcing provided for the RTB. What additional resources and staffing will be provided?

The issue of the affordable and cost rental housing will be discussed shortly. The Government will ultimately be judged on the provision of affordable housing. The Minister's officials should consider running an awareness campaign to highlight the additional 5% to 10% provision in the help-to-buy scheme and the Rebuilding Ireland home loan scheme. Many people are not aware those fantastic measures are available to help people to get their foot on the housing market ladder. I ask the Minister to take up that suggestion.

I welcome the Minister and congratulate him on his appointment. This is important legislation in affording protection to tenants. Being a tenant can be stressful at the best of times, particularly where the supply of accommodation is limited, but at this time we also have a health crisis. These protections are important, as are those enacted for tenants by the previous Government.

As previous speakers stated, there are rogue landlords and rogue tenants. Thankfully, the majority are good landlords and law abiding tenants. My wife is an accidental landlord as she is an only child and both her parents have passed away. I would like to think she is a good landlord and, thankfully, she has had good tenants. We only hear about the minority of difficult cases. That is understandable because the system works well in general. Where it does not work well is where the difficulties arise.

I agree with Senator Seery Kearney regarding people on the housing list. Many people contact my office who are not sure if they are on the list and who were on the list and have since changed their address and wonder if they are still on the list. We have added complications in Galway city and county because we have two lists. Some people who come from the city may have a preference to live in the county or vice versa, which can cause problems.

Will the Minister consider the issue of former commercial properties? I know of cases where it is very difficult and expensive for people who have a good property that was commercial and is ready to go but the process is extremely convoluted and costly. I know an individual who has spent thousands to reach to the stage where an application to convert a property's use has been rejected again by the city council.

There are approximately 3,500 HAP tenancies in Galway county. A small number of landlords have issues with their HAP tenants. One individual who contacted me and other public representatives has not been paid rent since last November. The landlord has gone through the process, has secured a valid notice of termination for failure to pay rent and antisocial behaviour prior to Covid-19 and the tenants have received a termination order. That landlord has not received any money from Galway County Council. The Minister has been approached about this case. The landlord has been out of pocket since last November and the tenants are still in the property. I ask that the Minister examine this case.

The Minister is welcome to the House. I wish him well in his portfolio. He has taken on the role with gusto. I believe he will make changes to affordable and social housing and I have great confidence in him.

I will support the Bill and a number of the proposed amendments. While it gives certainty to those who are renting and bans evictions, my main concern is the ten-day grace period, which is simply not sufficient as we approach Christmas. Many families are very fearful as we face into the level 5 restrictions. Some will have the prospect of eviction hanging over their heads and will only have a ten-day grace period following the lifting of the restrictions as we approach Christmas. We could have done a little better on that. I am not sure if the Minister will accept any of the amendments but I will support a number of them.

The proposal to have the measures kick in again if the 5 km restriction on travel is reintroduced should be reviewed. I would welcome an extension of that provision to 20 km.

We have 3,400 children and 10,500 people living in homeless accommodation. This is an uncertain time for them. I ask the Minister to advise us on how he plans to deal with that issue. During the previous lockdown, homeless figures decreased. I am sure the Minister has a plan to deal with this issue and I would like to hear it.

I congratulate the Minister, Deputy O’Brien, on his appointment and wish him well in his role. He has hit the ground running in recent months. He has been a great support to me since I entered this House. I have great confidence in him and I know he will deliver social and affordable housing in Galway and throughout the country.

I welcome the Bill. I am delighted there is cross-party support for it in the House. I understand the Minister will correct the record regarding a number of issues that need to be confirmed.

I will address a few issues raised by previous speakers. I thank the Minister for supporting the position that Galway City Council and Galway County Council should not be merged, which he expressed to me at a meeting in Leinster House nearly two year ago. There has been high demand for rented accommodation in Galway city in recent years. People have settled in towns such as Oranmore and Claregalway and now have children attending school in these places. This has created an anomaly where these people are still on the city housing list even though they have been living in towns up to 10 km from Galway for the past seven, eight or ten years. I ask the Minister to examine that issue. There are two different housing lists and it is causing a difficulty. What all Senators and public representatives require is certainty of tenancy for the future. The people to whom I refer are renting on long-term leases. I will contact the Minister after the debate as I do not want to go into specific cases.

There are great opportunities for affordable and social housing in Galway city and county. We need to deliver houses on the ground in the coming years. I have full confidence that the Minister will do that.

The Minister has always been a very strong and firm advocate for housing for all. He recognises, as we all do, that everyone aspires to having a safe and secure home. Our home is our castle. It is where we can feel safe, which is extremely important. The Minister, through this Bill, will ensure that tenants have that security during this time of crisis. It is good that the legislation includes provisions to allow the measure to be used again if necessary.

That means we would not have to come back to debate the matter again and the provisions could be introduced immediately. That is very important.

We all remember from school the lines in the Padraic Colum poem:

O, to have a little house!

To own the hearth and stool and all!

That is certainly something that resonates with many people. The Minister's commitment to providing affordable and social housing is commendable and an unprecedented €3.3 billion spend was announced for housing in the budget. It is just phenomenal and a 24% increase on 2020 alone. I can see the number of people in Kildare on the housing list who are absolutely relying on this Government to deliver, so that funding is very important.

I will mention a few issues in the short time I have. It is important we build communities and not just homes. We must ensure, with the almost 13,000 homes we expect to be built over the next 12 months, there is appropriate leisure, education and other amenities around these developments. The antisocial behaviour aspect has been mentioned. Over the past two to three years, this has reached a crisis level and the fact that people in their homes are subject to antisocial behaviour from neighbours is appalling. We must absolutely deal with that between the Departments with responsibility for housing and justice.

In respect of co-operative housing, there is an anomaly where tenants in social housing can buy their homes, which is really important in the context of all of us aspiring to home ownership, but those who are in co-operative housing do not have this opportunity. Legislation must introduced to ensure this can happen. There is a problem with housing lists. I understand why local authorities need to ensure they have accurate information but this does not always happen because tenants do not get required correspondence. This is how some people realise they have been knocked from a list. Something should be done about that.

I wish the Minister well. The plans are ambitious and he deserves all our help and support in this effort.

I very much welcome the Minister with responsibility for housing to the Seanad and it is great to get to meet him. I very much welcome and support this emergency rental protection measures Bill that will ensure a rent freeze and moratorium on evictions is in place until 10 January 2021. As a renter, I have also gone through the experience of knowing what it is like to receive notice both in Dublin and Galway cities.

I ask about the relevant person element of the written declaration. In Dublin a notice came from the Residential Tenancies Board, RTB, to inform tenants of what is available and the improved rights but will the written declaration be allowed by email? If a landlord looks to increase a person's rent and the person is availing of emergency schemes, can the person in question alert the RTB? How many staff are working in the RTB on this?

I know many people have moved from rental accommodation and I very happy to see the extension of the 90-day notice of termination for failure to pay rent. Representatives have mentioned challenges and I compliment Threshold on its work, particularly in the Galway area. When people needed validation of notices for eviction prior to the Covid-19 period, it has always allowed tenants extra time. I also promote the housing assistance payment scheme as well. I thank the Minister and look forward to his response. The Money Advice & Budgeting Service is an excellent agency and it is very important the RTB takes the initiative there to connect people with that service.

I apologise again to Senators Moynihan and Warfield for mixing up the sequence. I am sure I will not be let back into the Chair after that mistake.

You have 15 minutes. I apologise, the Minister has six minutes. I will not be picked as an Acting Chairman again. I will hand over to a more experienced Senator.

I hope I get back those ten seconds. As I have not had an opportunity to do so in person, I congratulate the Leas-Chathaoirleach on his elevation. I thank Senators for their support and queries and I will deal with as many of them as possible in the short space of time I have. I assure Senators that I spoke with the Leader a number of weeks ago and I intend to come here for a specific debate on housing. I have immense regard for the Upper House and have served in it. Some people may have missed my initial remarks, when I indicated that this is emergency legislation and it is not ideal. I have been in the Oireachtas since 2007 and I get that sense of frustration; no slight at all was intended, however, but because of the urgency required, we have had to deal with these measures accordingly.

I intend to have legislation on housing initiated here in the Seanad as well. I take it we will have further rent legislation early in the new year and I have already discussed this with our Chief Whip and the Leader. It will be done in agreement with the Senators, as it will be important legislation.

There were many queries that I will deal with but I will put this legislation in context first. I say respectfully that we must be responsible in our commentary, and most people have. In July, I brought legislation to the Dáil and my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, brought it here to the Seanad. It was the Residential Tenancies and Valuation Bill 2020 and it moved from what had been a blanket eviction ban, as legal advice was that such a measure was legally unsound and was not on a statutory footing with primary legislation. Some people wish to ignore that but one cannot ignore advice.

It was interesting, as last night in the Dáil, Senator Warfield's colleague stated that we do not really have to abide by the advice of the Attorney General and we could just pass the Bill, and it is fine if somebody wants to bring it to the Supreme Court. It was a really interesting insight into the way Sinn Féin might progress legislation if it was in government. It would do what it likes, having no regard for legal advice, and if somebody wished to challenge it in the Supreme Court, that is what would happen. It was a striking insight into the party's mindset.

I am talking about responsible commentary. In July, I was told that when we moved to more robust measures, we would see a tsunami of evictions and homelessness would skyrocket. A number of people on the left and hard left said that. I am thankful that did not happen. This is not to be complacent but we can see the measures are working. We have 364,000 tenancies, comprising private tenancies, approved housing bodies and student accommodation. Less than 2% of those end up in dispute, and a quarter of that portion ends in dispute because of rent arrears. We should put all this in context. Sometimes, the commentary from those who seek to stoke and feed off fear is that if measures are removed, there will be a massive push to evict people. Between 29 March and the end of July, only 42 notices of termination from over 300,000 tenancies were issued, leaving a compliance rate of 99.98%. That is independent research from the RTB.

This does not mean we do not have to strengthen tenancy protection where we can, going right back to the 2004 Act. The July Act, effective from 1 August, brought in some permanent measures, including the rent arrears piece mentioned by Senator Dolan. From the very first notice of arrears, a copy is sent to the RTB and the Money Advice & Budgeting Service is brought in straight away. By the way, Sinn Féin and others opposed those measures, which is fine, as they are entitled to do that. We also increased the arrears notice period from 14 days to 28 days. I take the point made by Senator Higgins that this should be 60 days, which is fine.

It must be recognised, however, that we have gone from 14 to 28 days, and the notice must be copied directly.

For those who did not support the legislation in July, we now know how many warning letters are being issued. These are facts from independent research and not surveys on party websites. From 2 August to 30 September, 844 warning letters, for 28 days, were issued. We know that figure now and it is good that we know it. Those letters must be copied and then direct engagement is made with tenants to ask how it would be possible to help. Any tenants experiencing difficulty paying their rent have the protection provided by the self declaration provision in place. Some people have tried to twist the small numbers involved in seeking that protection. Up to 30 September, 174 self-declarations were sought and received, and there were no refusals, out of 182 notices of termination. If there is a desire for there to be more disputes, that is fine. Then people would have to seek self declarations and protections. In an ideal world, however, we do want people to have to go to that stage.

Is there an information gap? Yes, there is and has been such a gap. That is why, from last week, 425,600 individual notifications and letters went out to tenants and landlords concerning their new rights and responsibilities. That information is in the sheet being published by the RTB, which is going out, and there is also a TV and radio campaign, as well as information in local and regional newspapers and on local radio. That is all important. We all have a role to play in disseminating that information. I say that because those are real protections and they are in place.

Many queries related to the broad context of housing. I am not ignoring them, and we will respond to them in writing. The budget we passed just over two weeks ago contained €3.3 billion for housing. That is the largest housing budget ever passed. What we all want from the house building programme are secure homes for people. Senator Higgins is right that this issue is about security of tenure. It is not just about purchase, but about rent, and concerns public and private homes and affordable homes. Next year, we will deliver 12,750 public social homes. Of those, 9,500 will be built by the State. That is the largest in any single year in the history of the State. That is what we are doing. We are bringing forward affordable rental measures, which I will be bringing to this House, for a national scheme. We will bring that in, get it in place and we will have 400 new tenancies and a new mode of housing in 2021.

We are also going to bring forward an affordable purchase scheme, which we are working on with colleagues and all stakeholders. I believe in home ownership, and every survey done has shown that the preferred mode of housing tenure is ownership. That is the most secure form of tenure. That is not to say we should not allow people to rent or that there should not be a secure rental market. There are those, however, who have come very late to the game in the context of home ownership and who have published affordable housing schemes where those involved will not even own their own homes in the end. Under such schemes, 50% of those people caught in the affordability trap would be left out. I refer to those renting and paying 50%, 60% or 70% of their net take home pay in rent, and who cannot get mortgages. Those people will be left out because, in the proposed scheme to which I refer, arbitrary caps of €80,000 were placed on incomes of couples. That makes no sense.

There are some people who want everyone to be corralled into one type of housing. That is not our vision, and not my vision as Minister. This about providing a secure rental market and good public housing stock that will come on stream for our people, and ensuring that we drive down the homeless numbers.

I turn now to the points made by Senator Keogan. This is an important issue and there is no complacency regarding homelessness. Every week, I have a homeless delivery team meeting. People have mentioned Threshold, and I deal with that organisation every week. It is an organisation which is a superb advocate for its cause, and it was involved with the legislation we enacted in July. That was opposed by others, it was their right to do so and that is fine. I also deal with the Simon Community and all the other similar organisations, because they all do magnificent work.

We are still driving down homeless numbers. There has been a decrease since the new measures have come in. We will publish more figures next week regarding the monthly homeless figures. We hope to see that downward trend in numbers continue. Behind all those figures are people and families. They are not just numbers, and we know that. The number is below 8,700 now, but it is still too high. Any child in emergency accommodation should not be there. We have our winter plan in place and we must be cognisant that we must protect our homeless community, particularly through this pandemic. I visited many of the emergency accommodation facilities available across the country. There is capacity. I say that to people as well. Every single night in recent weeks, in all our major cities, there has been emergency bed capacity. There are beds available for people. We must look at that and see how we can improve it.

In the budget, this Government also committed to expanding the Housing First approach, particularly for our most vulnerable citizens, including those suffering from addiction and-or mental health issues. I dealt with many of them as the chair of my own regional drugs and alcohol task force. We are going to expand that approach further. We have provided funding for that approach because it is an excellent scheme, and we must protect it.

I have gone on a bit, but I will conclude. It is a pleasure to be here. Senator McDowell raised a specific point that we will look at. Many issues have been raised, and we will revert in writing to all the Senators. I am not expecting that everyone will welcome this Bill 100% and state that there are no other measures they would like to see. That is well and good, but it is important that this Bill is passed. I thank the House for its forbearance and co-operation. It is not ideal that we must truncate our debates like this, but I assure the House that, with its permission, I intend to initiative housing and rental legislation in this Chamber. We will move it on and respond to individual queries as we go.

I thank the Minister for his kind words and I reciprocate them. I congratulate him and wish him well in his new role. I thank him for his good work. We have known each other a long time. We wanted to hear the Minister as comprehensively as possible, so I exercised some discretion.

Question put and agreed to.

When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?

Is that agreed? Agreed.