Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 12 Jul 2017

Vol. 958 No. 1

Mortgage Arrears Resolution (Family Home) Bill 2017: Second Stage [Private Members]

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I am delighted to speak on the Mortgage Arrears Resolution (Family Home) Bill 2017. The fundamental premise of this Bill is that our party, Fianna Fáil, believes that it is good social and economic policy to protect the family home. We believe the State should support people who are making a genuine effort to face up to their responsibilities and should ensure it has a system that is fit for purpose and protects the family home. We must recognise that there is still a significant problem with mortgage arrears and that the system must be improved. For example, there are still more than 76,000 private dwelling home, PDH, or family home mortgages in arrears. Of those, 41,000 are in arrears of a year or more. The total debt in respect of those mortgages is approximately €8.8 billion and the amount of actual arrears for mortgages in arrears of a year or more is approximately €2.5 billion. That is the scale of the problem.

While some restructures are happening and some deals are being done, it is very inconsistent and patchy across the different institutions and, indeed, depends on who one might be dealing with within the institutions. Many of those who oppose this Bill will say that the number of repossessions is low. However, I point to the recent statistics from the Central Bank which show that in the first quarter of 2017 alone, legal proceedings were issued in respect of 1,645 cases. I accept that the proceedings are issued, not concluded. Nonetheless, it is the start of the process. For every house or apartment that is repossessed by way of court order, many others are lost to the individual or the family by way of voluntary surrender or voluntary sale. That is very common in our system.

Of course, the ideal scenario is that an individual mortgage arrears case would be resolved by agreement between the lender and the borrower under the code of conduct on mortgage arrears, CCMA, and the mortgage arrears resolution process, MARP. That is happening in some cases, but certainly not in others. Under the CCMA that has been established, the odds are stacked against the borrower. It is the lender who makes the final decision as to whether a mortgage is sustainable and the lender makes the final decision on whether a mortgage holder is entitled to receive a restructuring offer under the terms of the code. Where agreement cannot be reached, the State's solution is that people should engage with the Insolvency Service of Ireland.

When the service was established under the 2012 legislation, Fianna Fáil described the Government decision to give the banks a veto as a bad idea which would not work. The then Government stated it would be unconstitutional not to give the banks such a veto. Under pressure from my party and others, amending legislation was passed in 2015 to provide for an appeals mechanism to an insolvency court under certain criteria. This system is simply not working, however. I have spoken to a number of borrowers who have been caught up in the system, as well as personal insolvency practitioners who act independently rather than solely on behalf of the borrower. They inform me that it can take up to and beyond one year to conclude a case. They also note that the banks are providing significant resources to defend cases. The result is that mortgage holders have been put on the never-never and left in limbo because it is not clear whether their cases will be resolved.

The Minister may ask why cases should go this far. The most recent statistics from the Insolvency Service of Ireland confirm that in the first quarter of 2017, 43% of applications for personal insolvency arrangements, which involve secured debt and typically mortgage debt, were unsuccessful because they were either rejected by the creditor by way of a vote against the arrangement or the protective certificate expired because it was not possible to reach a deal.

There does not appear to be an end point in the current arrangement other than the loss of the home, whether through a court order, forced surrender or so-called voluntary sale. We are proposing that an independent office in the Insolvency Service of Ireland have the final say on a proposal to restructure mortgage arrears involving the home of an individual or family. This would be a fundamental reform of the current system, one which would remove the veto over personal insolvency arrangements and give individuals and families the real prospect of achieving the outcome they desire.

The Bill is not a charter for chancers or people seeking to avoid their responsibilities. Many important safeguards are built into its provisions and the independent office will have significant powers in this regard. However, it provides a pathway to protect the family home and sets out a way in which the debt associated with the home can be prioritised. Other indebtedness that an individual may have would be dealt with under the normal insolvency system.

As I will wrap up the debate, I will cede time to my many colleagues who wish to contribute. I look forward to the debate and call on Deputies across the House to support the Bill when the House divides on it tomorrow.

Six years ago, Deputy Michael McGrath introduced the Debt Settlement and Mortgage Resolution Office Bill 2011 because a significant number of people had found themselves in very serious mortgage arrears. Unfortunately, six years later, this problem has not gone away. As Deputy McGrath pointed out, 76,000 holders of mortgages on family homes are in significant mortgage arrears. It is apparent that the problem has not been solved in the past six years because the Government has not attempted, let alone introduced, a radical solution.

In 2011, the then Government did not oppose Deputy Michael McGrath's Bill. On the contrary, it commended him on the legislation and allowed it to pass Second Stage. The body of the Bill included a proposal similar to the proposal in the Fianna Fáil Bill before us. It featured a section dealing with the establishment of a mortgage resolution office and a further section dealing with the conditions for a mortgage resolution order. Unfortunately, the substance of the Bill introduced six years ago must be reintroduced because there has not been a solution in the meantime.

The reason I raise this issue is that I understand one argument the Government will make is that the Bill before us is unconstitutional. If, as the Government claims, the Bill is unconstitutional, why was that point not made six years ago when the former Minister for Justice and Equality, Mr. Shatter, commended Deputy McGrath on his legislation and allowed it to proceed beyond Second Stage?

The Constitution does not preclude the State from interfering in the property rights of individuals. I have no doubt the Government will make an argument that this Bill could constitute an interference in the property rights of banks. What that argument fails to recognise, however, is that the Constitution recognises that actions can be taken by the State to interfere with private property in circumstances where the common good requires it. If ever there was an example of the common good requiring radical intervention, this is it. When one considers the number of families who are stuck in mortgages and that Personal Insolvency Act introduced by the previous Government has had no real impact on the lives and problems of these individuals and families, one must note that radical surgery is required.

I will give an example of how the State previously intervened and interfered in the property rights of individuals. Subordinated bondholders were burned by the State because of legislation introduced in 2010. There is, therefore, nothing to preclude the State from seeking to interfere in and diminish the property rights of individuals and corporations, provided this is done proportionately. The Bill drafted by Deputy McGrath and introduced by my party provides this balance.

It must be recognised that we are nearly eight years into this crisis and the Governments in power for the past six or seven years have not yet provided a solution to the problem. Radical surgery is required and this Bill contains a radical proposal, which I urge all Members to support.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill, which provides some relief to those who are currently trapped in a crisis mortgage. I commend my colleague, Deputy Michael McGrath, on his relentless focus on this issue and on bringing forward this significant measure which will help struggling families.

The housing crisis rightly dominates this Dáil and has dominated my work as a Deputy. We must remember that thousands of families in County Wicklow are experiencing a housing crisis as they struggle, day in and day out, to keep a roof over their heads. The modern social contract between the citizen and State is broken. For too many Wicklow residents, the contract that ensured people could work towards owning a family home has turned into a nightmare with no end. People whose mortgage repayments are in crisis are also suffering greatly as a result of the complete failure of the Government's housing policy.

I regularly meet people who are literally trapped in their homes and unable to afford anything in life other than attempting to meet their mortgage repayments. In many cases, food is provided by organisations such as the Society of St. Vincent de Paul because nearly all family income is tied up in paying the mortgage. These families deserve to know the State is on their side and a one-stop-shop will be established to work with them and their lender to put in place a restructured package that allows them to work to retain their homes.

The Bill recognises that the current personal insolvency arrangements are not working. In the first quarter of this year, 43% of applications for such an arrangement were unsuccessful because the lender did not consent to them. The appeals process is placing additional stress on these families because the legal process can take up to a year to complete. While the lender will have substantial legal support, families are left dangling as they face the nightmare of not knowing whether they will be able to keep their homes.

An independent mortgage resolution office would mean people in such circumstances could have confidence that the office would make the final decision on mortgage restructuring. The office will be tasked with providing a wide range of options to make the mortgage work for the family and lender. I hope there will be widespread support for this practical proposal to help these families who are also a part of our housing crisis.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute on this Bill, which I support. It was introduced by my colleague, Deputy Michael McGrath. It is important that, as Members of the Oireachtas, we do everything in our power to protect people and allow them to stay in their family homes instead of seeing them evicted into homelessness.

Families need support to remain in their homes. Every Deputy deals on a daily or weekly basis with a number of people who have fallen into mortgage arrears, are dealing with banks or, in some instances, local authorities via shared ownership and are finding it difficult to reach a solution that would allow them to remain in their family homes. The problem is that, when people enter into those discussions on maintaining the family home, they often just get distant responses and the banks are flippant and arrogant in how they deal with them. Sometimes, banks are not willing to engage at all, preferring instead the heavy-handed approach of taking people to court for repossession. We know the irony of that. When people's homes are repossessed and they seek housing supports from local authorities, we know what the answer will be. Due to the current crisis, there is no support.

We must get real about this. We need an independent office that can in the first instance assist families in dealing with mortgages and find a constructive pathway to deal with arrears so that people can remain in their homes. There are different proposals and these can be considered constructively rather than in the negative and arrogant way that is currently being taken. People being put outside their own front doors by banks and then going to local authorities to be put on the housing list and get social supports through the rental accommodation scheme, RAS, housing assistance payment, HAP, or rent supplement is not a runner. There are no properties for them to rent. Even where there are properties, people find it difficult to pay their rents.

I call on the Government to consider this Bill in a positive way and accept it as a means of addressing the issue. Instead of the heavy-handed approach that we know from regular experience is being exercised by the banks, this Bill is about families being maintained in their homes so that they can continue existing in a proper environment.

As we know only too well, we are in the midst of a housing crisis. There are many contributing factors. Unfortunately, the State and the Government's response has not sought to reverse the trend. The statistics are damning. Waiting lists continue at an alarming level. Homelessness continues to blight society. Children continue to be dependent on emergency accommodation. Efforts by the Government to address demand have failed in the absence of earnest efforts to address the issue of supply. The problem of mortgage distress and arrears is undoubtedly contributing to those figures. Efforts by the Government to date to address this have failed abysmally.

From our own constituencies, we are well aware of the unfortunate statistics emanating from courts in respect of repossession cases. We are well aware that many people find themselves without adequate representation to assist them in that process. We are well aware that the banks' dominance in this scenario allows this situation to continue. The failure of the Government to address that is something that we as an Opposition party have grappled with, which has led to this Bill. It is a meaningful way of addressing the issue.

I am disappointed that, in its response to date, the Government has failed to recognise the Bill's significance and potential and claimed that it cannot proceed for constitutional reasons, in that it usurps the court system that deals with this area. It is obvious to all and sundry that the way in which this matter is being dealt with is far from adequate and far from a society that seeks to help those who find themselves in this unfortunate situation. Precedent has been set in how the Workplace Relations Commission can make its recommendations. Setting up an independent mortgage resolution authority within existing processes would, on foot of a case that is presented to it, enable it to make recommendations that allow for fair and reasonable solutions without taking the side of the bank, which has been the case heretofore. Mortgage-to-rent schemes, split mortgages and interest-only options would become real options with a statutory basis, which is not the case now. If resolutions and recommendations had a statutory basis, cases could be removed from the court system, thereby allowing courts to get on with the job that would be expected of them in a normal society and democracy.

I implore the Government to listen to the debate on this Bill. A great deal of work has been put into it by Deputy Michael McGrath, who is our spokesperson for finance, Deputy O'Callaghan, who has a legal background and is our spokesperson for justice, and me in terms of housing. Knowing the terrible blight that this situation has been on society, we are making meaningful proposals. If the Government was serious and could recognise the potential of this Dáil in its current configuration to produce solutions, it would engage with us on seeking to find solutions where it believes there are blockages in the proposals. We can reach an understanding whereby we can put a procedure in place that is conscious of the predicament that people are in and of our responsibilities under the Constitution and ensures that, while the law is protected, people are given a fair opportunity to address the situation with meaningful proposals that have a statutory basis.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill. Nearly 17 or 18 months ago, we sat down for 80 days of Government formation talks. The first issue that was agreed at those talks - the then Minister, Deputy Noonan, brought it to Revenue and it was given the green light - was for a one-stop-shop to be established for people whose homes were being repossessed and for legislation to be introduced so that people would be given the option of a split mortgage or a mortgage-to-rent scheme before a case could go to court. Sadly, this has never been done. Solving the problem is not complicated. If these options were given to people before a case could go to court, many problems would be eliminated.

A change to the Land and Conveyancing Law Reform Acts might be necessary so as to give courts more power.

Our third option relates to housing agencies. Vulture funds are buying large amounts of property from the banks. We should have a housing agency and the banks should be prepared to sell it those houses at the same price. We must remember that people may be caught in the middle of all of this who might not be eligible for social housing.

This problem could be solved quickly if we wanted to solve it, but there is pressure. When one tries to negotiate with a bank, one sees that pressure is being applied by Europe to solve this. Basically, banks are just driving at people now.

Besides the family home, we must also remember the small family businesses around the country. The vultures are tackling the farming community. They bought many loans at 40% and 50% and are seeking 100% profits on them. That is unacceptable.

This situation could be solved quickly were the will there. This Bill is the way forward.

I move amendment No. 1:

To delete all words after “That” and substitute the following:

“Dáil Éireann:

(a) noting the significant concerns with the Mortgage Arrears Resolution (Family Home) Bill 2017 in respect of its compatibility with the Constitution of Ireland, but acknowledging the positive intentions behind the Bill;

(b) acknowledging the importance of addressing the difficulties faced by distressed borrowers in mortgage arrears and the high priority that Government attaches to this issue;

(c) noting the range of measures already put in place by Government, both up to 2016 and under A Programme for a Partnership Government, to support and assist financially distressed borrowers in mortgage arrears on their homes, with a view to keeping people in their homes and avoiding repossessions as far as possible;

(d) noting the welcome substantial and continuing decrease - as shown in the latest Central Bank of Ireland statistics - in the overall number of home mortgage accounts in arrears, the very significant number of home mortgage restructures now in place, and the very high proportion of home mortgages which are meeting the terms of their restructure;

(e) noting also the welcome significant and ongoing reductions, both in the issue of new civil bills seeking possession on foot of home mortgage arrears and in the numbers of repossession orders made by the courts, and the continuing and substantial increase in repossession proceedings struck out or discontinued;

(f) noting the existence of the personal insolvency arrangement, provided under the Personal Insolvency Acts, as the primary formal mechanism to facilitate the negotiated resolution between debtors and creditors of both unsecured and secured (including mortgage) debt;

(g) noting that the personal insolvency arrangement is designed, as far as possible, to permit the debtor to continue to reside in his or her principal private residence, while resolving their debts in a holistic manner and returning the debtor to solvency;

(h) noting that under changes introduced by the Personal Insolvency (Amendment) Act 2015, a borrower whose reasonable proposal for a personal insolvency arrangement - which includes his or her home mortgage arrears - is refused by the mortgage lender or other creditors can now seek an independent review of that refusal by the courts, which have power, subject to certain conditions, to impose the rejected proposal, thus ending the so-called bank veto;

(i) noting the introduction of free independent financial and legal advice and assistance, for insolvent borrowers in home mortgage arrears, as part of a range of supports available through the Money Advice & Budgeting Service, MABS, under the Government’s Abhaile mortgage arrears resolution service, and the high level of take-up by distressed borrowers of the various supports provided under Abhaile;

(j) noting the public consultation already completed on personal insolvency legislation, and the ongoing review of the insolvency system, to be completed this year under A Programme for a Partnership Government commitments on mortgage arrears;

(k) noting the further measures already in train under the Government's Action Plan on Housing and Homelessness, including recent and continuing changes to the mortgate-to-rent scheme to extend its availability, particularly for borrowers in rural areas; and

(l) noting the other relevant measures which have been put in place to protect principal private residences of those in mortgage arrears; and declines to give the Bill a Second Reading.”

I acknowledge the work Deputy Michael McGrath has done and I thank him for raising this important issue and for his further information and explanation on the Bill. I acknowledge the Deputy's genuine concerns about this issue and the positive intentions behind the Bill. The remaining home mortgage arrears problem and the risk of repossession remain a major issue and a high priority for the Government as A Programme for a Partnership Government clearly underlines. We have already taken extensive actions to address these issues. Those actions are achieving practical results which have been demonstrated in the matter of reducing arrears and in helping to get sustainable solutions in place for distressed mortgage holders. I will return to those later.

Further important Government measures to address these problems are continuing to come on stream. I will mention these too. Unfortunately, the Bill before us will not make a meaningful contribution to resolving these important problems. It is an over-simplistic solution in this very complex area, which risks creating a range of serious and unintended negative effects, most importantly for distressed mortgage holders themselves. The Bill is not fully thought out on issues of fundamental importance. If implemented, it would be at risk of ongoing legal challenges. More seriously, the Bill appears to be incompatible with the Constitution and, in light of the advice we have received from the Attorney General, there is a very high risk that it would attract constitutional challenge. For these reasons, the Government will oppose the Bill.

I will turn first to the significant legal and constitutional problems raised by the Bill. Essentially, what the Deputy is proposing is the creation of a new, independent, quasi-judicial body to be called the mortgage resolution office. A financially distressed borrower who was in arrears on his or her home mortgage on or before 1 January 2017 would apply to this new office. The office would have the power under the Bill to make a new form of order called a mortgage resolution order. This would impose legally-binding changes to the terms of an existing mortgage. Such changes could include: extending the term of the mortgage by up to 20 years; directing a change in the interest rate; imposing a reduction in the principal sum due under the mortgage; directing interest-only payments for up to four years; imposing a split mortgage with warehousing for up to ten years; and imposing a mortgage-to-rent solution or any other solution to the borrower's arrears that the office may consider appropriate. An mortgage resolution order would also prevent a mortgagee or financial institution from issuing any new enforcement or repossession proceedings. It is clear that these powers are extremely far-reaching, which was the intention.

The only appeal provided for under the Bill is, effectively, to a second newly-established quasi-judicial entity, namely, an appeals officer. An appeals officer could refer a point of law arising before him or her to the High Court. Under the Bill, there is no appeal to any court either against an mortgage resolution order made by the mortgage resolution office or against a decision by the appeals officer. This is a fundamental flaw in the whole conception of the Bill and raises very serious constitutional and legal difficulties. The Bill essentially seeks to give these two new quasi-judicial bodies, the mortgage resolution office and the appeals officer, extremely wide-ranging powers to intervene and change the vested constitutional and contractual legal obligations and the legal rights of private parties. Such powers are exclusively reserved, as the Deputy will know, to the courts, under Article 34 of the Constitution as part of the administration of justice. Following legal advice obtained from the Office of the Attorney General, it is likely that the proposed far-reaching powers and discretions of these bodies would contravene Article 34.

The Bill seems to be based on legislation providing for a statutory scheme of grants in which State subsidies or payments are the only matter at issue, such as in respect of social welfare appeals or agriculture appeals. The proposed mechanism of a quasi-judicial decision at first instance and on appeal could be suitable in that context. That is wholly inappropriate in the context of this legislation. Even if the Bill were fundamentally revised to provide for the proposed mortgage resolution orders to be made by a court rather than this quasi-judicial body, it would remain at high risk of constitutional challenge. Such orders would intervene with the banks' legal right to be repaid under a mortgage contract validly entered in with private parties. These are protected vested property rights under Article 40 of the Constitution. The constitutionality of proposals to impose mortgage resolution solutions has been extensively discussed by Government Departments and the Attorney General's office, not only in recent times but in recent years, as all Members are aware. Any legislative interference with private property rights in this area seeking to achieve an objective of the common good still has to demonstrate clearly that it is a carefully balanced and strictly proportionate intervention which has taken full account of the respective rights and obligations of both parties. The very cursory provision in this Bill falls far short of that standard.

The Bill also has significant further legal defects. Time will allow me to mention but a few. The income, asset and debt levels required to qualify as a financially distressed borrower are not defined in the Bill. It is questionable whether a Bill could constitutionally leave this key issue to be decided by a statutory instrument. There is no provision for the mortgage resolution order to be varied if the borrower's financial situation changes, only for it to be terminated which may leave the borrower in a worse position than he might have been in before. The new office is proposed to be located with the Insolvency Service of Ireland. However, there are a number of conflicts between statutory functions of the latter and those proposed for the new office and these would likely to lead to ongoing operational problems of a serious nature.

In addition, the Bill raises significant practical problems. I will give some examples. While the Bill provides a mechanism intended to protect against enforcement or repossession of the home, it does not provide any protection against registration of a judgment mortgage against the home by a creditor other than the mortgage lender. This creates a real risk that unsecured creditors would rush to register judgment mortgages against the home creating new problems for the distressed borrower. A judgment mortgage is a court order and can only be varied or suspended by a court, not a quasi-judicial body. Given its very considerable legal defects, the Bill is likely to give rise to a very high proportion of objections, appeals, legal challenges or views which would be time-consuming, expensive and uncertain. The Bill only provides for a resolution of the borrower's mortgage arrears. There is no provision for dealing with other debts or returning the borrower to solvency as would be done by way of a statutory solution under the personal insolvency Acts. These issues were raised by Deputy Fitzmaurice who seemed to think they had been incorporated into this Bill already. There is a risk that borrowers will opt for this new solution only to find themselves back in the frying pan for this reason. The Bill risks delaying a debt or getting a comprehensive solution, getting some certainty and making that outcome more difficult to achieve. I am also concerned the Bill could discourage financial institutions from new lending for house purchase purposes which would exert a negative impact on the recovering housing market.

I will now turn to the extensive measures already undertaken by the Government in this area which Deputy Cowen failed to acknowledge and the demonstrated and practical results in helping home owners in mortgage arrears. Deputy O'Callaghan wonders what happened in the past six years so I will mention a few things. Measures already introduced include the Personal Insolvency Act 2012; the courts' power under section 2 of the Land and Conveyancing Law Reform Act 2013 to adjourn repossession proceedings so a borrower can explore whether personal insolvency can resolve his or her financial difficulties; the Personal Insolvency (Amendment) Act 2015, which removed the bank veto in personal insolvency cases by introducing a court power to review an unreasonable refusal by a creditor; the Abhaile mortgage resolution service set up to implement the first point in the programme for Government's commitment on mortgage arrears, providing free, independent, expert legal and financial advice and assistance via MABS to borrowers at risk of losing their homes; and the development of the MABS resource across the country, which is now integrated into the Abhaile scheme.

I acknowledge that mortgage arrears remain high but, despite what is suggested by some media reports and commentators, both home mortgage arrears and repossessions are falling significantly and have been doing so now for a sustained period. Owner-occupier private dwelling house, PDH, mortgage accounts have been falling consistently for 15 consecutive quarters since their peak in September 2013. All categories of PDH mortgage arrears are declining. Even those in largest arrears, equivalent to over 720 payments, have now been declining steadily for seven consecutive quarters. It should also be noted the Central Bank indicates the figure of 76,400 home mortgage accounts includes 26,500 restructured mortgage accounts where the remaining arrears are historic and the borrower is not at risk provided he or she meets the current terms of restructure.

We can see a clear impact of Government measures to help borrowers in home mortgage arrears to get solutions into place. There is no room for complacency and there is much more to be done in that regard. Important further measures already in train under the Government's Action Plan for Housing and Homelessness include recent and continuing changes to the mortgage-to-rent scheme to extend its availability particularly for borrowers in rural areas.

The House is well aware of the extent of complexity of the home mortgage arrears problem. I am sure Deputy Michael McGrath and the authors of this legislation also acknowledge that. This remains a priority for Government. Arrears and repossessions are falling steeply but they are still too high. We are determined to reduce them further. We have taken action and we continue to take action. Of course, we are open to looking at all constructive solutions and fully appreciate the genuine intent behind this legislation but it is fundamentally flawed. It appears incompatible with the Constitution and risks adding problems to those already suffering the worst of arrears. For these reasons, we cannot support it.

It is clear that the Government does not like this Bill. The Minister has given one excuse after another to leave things as they are. I take a different approach. I also took a different approach from Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil on the Anti-Evictions Bill, which both parties suggested was constitutionally flawed. I believe it should proceed to Committee Stage where we can thrash those things out. The Bill should be allowed to pass because of the numbers recited in the House by the Minister and by Deputy Michael McGrath, the Bill's sponsor, whom I commend on bring the legislation to the floor of the House.

We are talking about close to 80,000 individuals, many of whom have been in arrears for a long time. That we are debating tens of thousands of Irish citizens who are in long-term mortgage arrears nearly a decade after the crash is a clear reflection of the Government's inaction. Deputy Michael McGrath referred to previous attempts by him and others to bring issues to the floor of the House to try to address this problem. In 2013, I drafted legislation that would have provided greater protection in law to the family home. Unfortunately at that time, the Fine Gael-Labour Party Government decided to vote against it.

We need new thinking and a new approach from the Government. I have long advocated for an independent office that would be able to impose decisions over the heads of the banks. That is exactly what Deputy Michael McGrath has proposed - a new process within the insolvency service, a mortgage resolution office that would be empowered to put in place a mortgage resolution order designed to protect the family home in the insolvency process.

As has been mentioned, a number of existing solutions could be offered based on such an order being made, including debt write-down, debt for equity, mortgage to rent and a number of others. The Government is clearly and predictably setting its face against it. It is about inaction as opposed to action. We should deal with this on Committee Stage. I have issues with the Bill. I do not want to waste my time discussing something that is unconstitutional but let us get the advice from the counsel here in the office. Let us hear from legal experts. Let us carry out the pre-legislative scrutiny on this. If need be, let us tweak it, amend it and reshape it in order that we have legislation that will give protection to those families currently facing the weight of the financial institutions that are trying to repossess their house by voluntary or involuntary action.

What we have from Government is more and more promises. The programme for Government promised to set up a special court to deal with mortgages. Last week I got a response to a freedom of information request. After a year and a half, there is not one piece of paper briefing the Minister on a special court to deal with mortgages, a key promise in the programme for Government. There is no action on that and it will quietly be let go. Based on the Minister for Finance's recently published brief, the Central Bank has not backed the plan to amend the code of conduct in order that lenders would have to offer more solutions. Even the ideas that the Government came up with, which were done when it was under pressure trying to cobble together a minority Government, are being knocked back.

What we have is same-as, plan A, the way it is. The Government wants to leave it to the markets, leave it to the financial institutions and leave it to the vultures, which the former Minister for Finance believed played a very important part in the system. Who are the prey of these vultures? It is the 80,000 families who are in mortgage arrears. They deserve to be front and centre in this political debate. It is an issue that has not gone away and is not going away. It needs action.

On behalf of Sinn Féin, I thank Deputy Michael McGrath for bringing this very important issue to the floor of the House again. I pledge our support for it to go to pre-legislative scrutiny at which point we can start to take the politics out of it and start to do what is in the best interests of families and homeowners who are suffering the brunt of the financial institutions which want to take the rug from under them.

Sinn Féin will support the Bill's passage through Second Stage. It seeks to establish a mortgage resolution office which would be empowered to put in place a mortgage resolution order designed to protect the family home in the insolvency process.

As of the end of March this year, 76,422 mortgages on principal dwelling homes were in arrears and 120,894 principal dwelling house mortgage accounts were restructured. Such restructuring arrangements include a switch to an interest-only mortgage, a reduction in the payment amount, a temporary deferral payment, extending the term of the mortgage and capitalising arrears amounts and related interest. In addition, lenders were in possession of 1,740 principal dwelling properties at the end of March 2017. Some 370 properties were taken into possession by lenders during the first quarter of 2017; 142 were repossessed on foot of a court order and 228 voluntarily surrendered or abandoned.

This crisis has been trundling on for many years. This Government and the previous Government have failed miserably to address the issue of distressed mortgages in any meaningful way. Instead they have relied on the banks to sort out the problem in their own way, choosing to sell to vultures or repossess the homes as they please. We do not need to look too far back to see just how despicably the banks have acted. The scandalous exposé of how thousands of fixed-rate mortgage holders were deliberately kept in the dark by their bank regarding their entitlement to move or move back to the cheaper tracker mortgage rate shows just how rotten things were. The implications of this were huge with thousands of families struggling to pay the higher rate and many dozens of families losing their homes due to the excessive mortgage-repayment costs they faced. That is only one example.

I recognise that some initiatives have been launched by Government but not all of them have been successful. It is encouraging to note that more people are now using the insolvency process but for many families this is still an unattractive option as it does not guarantee retention of the family home. Much more needs to be done.

The programme for Government made many promises pertaining to the protection of the family home, but concerns have now been flagged that some of the proposals are unlikely to happen. This is an extremely worrying development. For example, there was a commitment to introduce legislation that would:

Establish a dedicated new court to sensitively and expeditiously handle mortgage arrears and other personal insolvency cases, including through imposing solutions, including those recommended by the new service. The hearings of this court could be held in private if requested by the debtor.

However, I understand that the Taoiseach confirmed to my colleague, An Teachta Ó Dochartaigh, that there is no sign of the mortgages special court Bill-courts (mortgage arrears) Bill which has been on the legislative programme for a considerable time.

I call on Government not to renege on its commitments. Too many people have suffered and too many continue to suffer with the stress and fear of losing the roofs over their heads. It is time for the Government to show some political will in this respect. Action is needed now.

While we fully support the Bill, which is the right way to move forward, we need to bear in mind why such a Bill is needed. We are not talking about loan books or pieces of paper; we are talking about people's lives. We are talking about families who are struggling to make ends meet and find that their very future is in jeopardy. The programme for Government promised to do something to solve the problem but the Government has not solved the problem.

Yesterday in the High Court, the Master's list contained 101 loans for repossession, 70 of which were from AIB. The latter is owned by the State. I assume it is trying to clean up the mess before it is sold or whatever it is doing. The Master of the High Court, Mr. Honohan, said some time ago that AIB should be sponsoring the court given that so much of its business is going through it. That is a reflection of where matters stand because all of those people with family homes took out mortgages ten or 15 years ago in order to buy homes, get on with their lives and have a sense of a future. The rug is being pulled out from under those people. The reality is that no matter what we say, we have to do something to protect them and their futures.

Another thing that happens is that loans are sold on the market to vulture funds. The funds buy the loans, in most cases at a huge reduction. I have come across that in my constituency and I know many others have seen it happen as well. People have come to me who have made their mortgage repayments on time and who received letters indicating that their loans been sold. If they ask if they could buy them back at the same knockdown price that is available to vulture funds, they are told they cannot. Their offer is turned down. That is something that must be examined.

I have firm information that many of the loans being bought by the vulture funds are known to them in advance in terms of what the loan and property is like. Their only intention is to sell the property and put the people living there out of their home. We need to resolve those issues. While the Bill goes some distance towards doing that, much more needs to be done. The Government must get tough with the banks. If we do not do that, we are letting the people down. At the moment, everyone out there, including me, is paying a mortgage at approximately 3% above the average interest rate in the rest of Europe. This means that during the lifetime of most people's mortgages, they will have paid the banks €30,000 to €40,000 more in interest than should have been the case and than they would have paid if they were living in France, Germany or any other country in Europe. The banks in Europe are getting money from the European Central Bank, which is the same place the Irish banks get it, at practically 0% interest and yet they are screwing the Irish people when it comes to paying those loans. Having come through the terrible days of the recession and seeing our children emigrate and everything else that we have gone through, it is obscene that we are still in a situation whereby the banks are in the driving seat. I appeal to the Minister to look at the situation again, to support the Bill and to do more to ensure that Irish people can have a future, because that is what this is about.

What does it say about Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael that we are in the middle of a housing crisis and a new property bubble while at a time when the courts are chock-a-block with families in mortgage distress from the previous property crash?

A small group of people has been largely ignored in all of the processes so far. I refer to women who have children and who have separated from former partners. Many of them are struggling to pay the mortgage on their own and to keep the roof over their heads. In most cases, they are not getting any support from their former partners or the fathers of their children. Some of those women manage to cut deals with banks or mortgage providers but they often struggle to pay the agreed monthly repayment. The banks say that they require two signatures on any deal they make. One of the signatures must be that of the former partner. In some cases, because of the poisonous relationship between the couple, the former partner withholds his signature on any new deal with the bank, which means that it cannot proceed. The bank wants a deal and the mother and children want a deal but it is prevented by the former partner. In such cases, the women and children will become homeless because there is no alternative accommodation. It is really important that the Minister focus on that cohort of individuals who are being held to ransom through no fault of their own and are being forced into homelessness.

I know of a particular woman who has struggled to pay a mortgage for the past five years on her own after she separated. Her ex-husband paid nothing for many years and he filed for bankruptcy due to debts he had elsewhere. His name was taken off the deeds of the house and replaced by that of the official signee in the bankruptcy process. The woman was told her ex-husband would have nothing to do with the house ever again. She has since remarried and she and her new husband are living in the house. Just last week, however, that woman was told that, under Government legislation, her ex-husband, who has contributed nothing to the house for eight or nine years, will have his name put back on the deeds of the house and that she has no control over this whatsoever. I cannot adequately describe the level of stress she is experiencing. She is in a most vulnerable situation. Her ex-husband could move back into the house. He could possibly look to sell the house. He could also possibly look for further loans and potentially use the house as collateral.

I ask the Minister to ensure that this genuine situation whereby the man's name has been put back on the deeds of the house is sorted out.

I am aware of another case where a bank is offering a lump sum of €10,000 to a family in mortgage distress to get out of their house. The family is doing its best to work with the bank to pay a certain amount to cover some of the capital and all of the interest relating to the loan yet the bank is offering them €10,000 to get out of the house. If the family was vulnerable and there was addiction to drugs, alcohol or gambling, there is no doubt that there would be a serious temptation on their part to accept the money. However, they would be homeless in a number of months. It is important that the Government focus on that issue too.

Despite all the great efforts taken by political parties and Governments to manipulate the narrative around politics in this country in order to convince the public that they are doing this, that or the other and the parliamentary games that have been regularly played on a large scale in recent weeks - such as ramming legislation through at a rate of knots and all those games in which the big parties in particular specialise - when the history of this period is written, what will be recorded will not be all the public relations spin, manipulation and tricks, it will be the fact that the two major parties allowed the banks and those who profiteer from property to destroy the economy and create an unprecedented period of austerity and hardship for the citizens of this country and then allowed the conditions which led to the latter to re-emerge rather than tackling the fundamental reasons for it happening in the first instance. The housing crisis, the mortgage arrears crisis, the rental crisis and the homelessness crisis all revolve around that fact. Even now, in the aftermath of the disaster that was inflicted, this Government does not want to stand up to the banks. That is just putting it simply.

If 80,000 people are in mortgage arrears and 33,000 of them are in arrears for two years or more and have the real prospect of losing their homes, the Government is willing to allow that to happen as long as we do not annoy the banks or upset somebody's notion of private property and the rights relating thereto. I always wonder when reference is made to the Constitution and the protections relating to private property. When we argued for rent controls, the Government said it could not be done. Strangely enough, however, the Government - under a lot of pressure - brought in a very limited form of rent control at the end of last year. Suddenly it could be done and no legal issues emerged. I do not believe all that nonsense and much as I hold Fianna Fáil responsible for getting us into this mess, I agree that the Bill should pass Second Stage because it is doing something that we proposed in an extensive series of amendments to the personal insolvency legislation when it was originally introduced, namely, that the Insolvency Service of Ireland should be allowed to enforce solutions for people in mortgage distress in order to ensure they do not lose their homes.

I am not sure if Fianna Fáil voted with us when we put that forward. I hope that they did, to show a little bit of consistency. Our proposal was written out in great detail. I wrote the amendments myself at great length. Fine Gael would not do it then, however.

It is all because Fine Gael wants to protect the banks. That is the reality, with all the suffering that flows from it. It is not just about the mortgage arrears crisis which this Bill deals with but also the wider housing crisis. Worse than that, the Government is resurrecting the conditions that led to all this by allowing and facilitating the sale of vast amounts of property assets to vulture funds which are evicting people and gaining even greater control over property prices, rents and so on. The Government is facilitating a worsening of the situation. It beggars belief. The least the Government could do is let this Bill, which is trying to address one aspect of it, go through Second Stage in order that we can discuss it.

I met a woman a number of years ago now, towards the middle of the crisis, when I was an MEP, who was facing mortgage distress and crisis. She was about my age or slightly younger. She was being harassed and harangued by the bank for the mortgage arrears in every way possible - emails, phone calls, and so on. Despite all her explanations about the conditions that were giving rise to her inability to pay, the bank would not stop. As a consequence, out of stress, her hair had fallen out even though she was a young woman, younger than I was.

It brought home to me the devastation wrought on people's lives by the behaviour of the banks in pursuing people in this manner and that of vulture funds in particular. There was an article in thejournal.ie a few months ago which summed it up:

It’s the effect of the whole thing that has the biggest impact on your life. It causes an awful lot of stress. The thoughts that you are going to maybe lose your home. It hangs over you.

This is a consequence of Government policy. It is also a consequence of Fianna Fáil policy, going back, in terms of the creation of the bubble.

The guiding principle of the Government and of the establishment political parties in this country is to ensure the banks are returned to the private sector in order that they can be run for profit in the interests of big business, a process that is well under way. Therefore, despite being in public ownership, they were given the green light to go after those in arrears with vigour. Any rules to rein them in or temper their profit maximisation amounted to nothing more than more voluntary, light touch codes. They were facilitated with the relaxation of the Central Bank mortgage arrears resolution process. The green light was given to go ahead. Added to that was the selling off of mortgage books, including residential mortgages, by publicly owned banks to vulture funds.

We now have 50,000 mortgages held by vulture funds, or 15% of the market. These funds are not charitable institutions. I remember the former Minister for Finance, Deputy Michael Noonan, talking positively about the role of vultures in cleaning up the economy, etc. They sum up capitalism, which is red in tooth and claw and merciless in terms of extracting every last single penny or cent of profit. There is a couple with small arrears whose mortgage was passed to a vulture fund, again quoted in that article in thejournal.ie. They say that:

[Th]e vulture fund just keeps on grinding, and grinding and grinding away at you, because they know the ordinary husband and wife don’t have the machinery to deal with it ... All they want is to see how many zeros they can add, all at the expense of a family ... They don’t make phone calls, they don’t do emails, they just keep sending threatening letters in the post.

If we want to sum up modern-day capitalism and a modern-day banking system run for profit, that is what it is.

We are in favour of this Bill. It would shift the balance slightly in favour of the householder and those who hold the mortgages, as opposed to the banks. It would be a small counterweight. Like Deputy Boyd Barrett, I would be completely dismissive of the constitutional argument.

It is something the Government hides behind whenever it suits, saying it cannot do it because it is unconstitutional. When it does not suit, it will be utterly forgotten.

We know Deputy Murphy's attitude to the Constitution.

I just won a court case on the basis of a constitutional article, on the defence of the right to protest. I thank the Minister. I would like to think I did my bit to uphold the Constitution.

More needs to be done. The vulture funds have to be stopped. Their mortgage books should be brought into public ownership under compulsory purchase with the sale price as a maximum. That was suggested by the Master of the High Court. The sale of State shares in the banks must be halted. It is a disgrace that it is going ahead in what is effectively a fire sale, handing the banks back to the private sector to pursue profit at the expense of householders and of the economy given the weight of mortgages on the economy as a whole. Instead, let us use the banks as a public utility, democratically run, which, as part of their role, could write down mortgages to affordable levels.

All Deputies and public representatives have met people who are in mortgage arrears. For people in that situation, their whole demeanour is despair. They are like ghosts. They cannot deal with issues. They close their windows and blinds during the day so no one from the bank can see into the house or see whether they are there. Many of those who are suffering in this situation feel they are being followed. They become seriously ill. I have dealt with a number of households in this situation. When we did manage to get deals for them like mortgage to rent, it was like a new person was walking in the door. It was like seeing someone go through grief.

We have to remember this when we are in discussions and debates. We are not just talking about 80,000 mortgages in arrears or whatever. We are talking about real people, real families, real children, trying to deal with probably the most horrendous situation they have ever faced. These people did not find themselves in this situation because they put themselves in it. They found themselves in the situation because they lost jobs, because of the crash, incomes went down and they could not afford to pay.

I will always remember Deputy Joan Burton saying before the 2011 election that if she got into the Dáil she would write down all the mortgage arrears like they did in Iceland. It worked in Iceland. They cut all the mortgages down to about 70% or whatever so that people could actually manage to pay them in a changed situation. That should have been done here. We gave the banks money for the losses they made on their mortgages and that. The banks have gained an awful lot out of this. The Government has supported the banks. The last people who have been dealt a decent set of cards are those who found themselves in the situation through no fault of their own.

The ECB has instructed the banks to get rid of their distressed loans. It could be that we will see many of these people facing eviction or notice to quit. They will find themselves being handed a letter by a sheriff to say they no longer have a home and are to go to the local authority to put themselves on the housing list. As has been mentioned already, this means nothing to people. They are homeless. Earlier, during Leaders' Questions, I made a point about the research study, Investing in the Right to a Home: Housing, HAPs and Hubs, which shows that the housing crisis has not peaked. It will peak if these repossessions go ahead. We will have thousands of families coming into homelessness over the next five years if we do not deal with it.

I support the Bill in principle. It is trying to deal with an issue and get a resolution for people in this situation. However, I do not think it will work. We have to look at the broader issue. We know that at the moment, there are negotiations going on in respect of Irish mortgage holders with distressed loans from AIB. They are talking about potentially getting 2,000 properties where the owner qualifies for mortgage to rent and a further 3,000 distressed mortgages that they could actually buy at the rate at which they wanted to sell them to vulture funds. People would be able to pay back their mortgage according to their means.

Something like this has to be brought into account. A similar Bill, the National Housing Co-operative Bill 2017, has gone through Second Stage in the Seanad. I think it is supported by the Master of the High Court, Mr. Honohan. Something of that nature, which takes in the broader sense of distress, needs to be considered. We have proposed various types of resolutions in the Dáil, but the Government just does not listen.

If our economy is to move on, people have to be able to pay back what they can afford. People in 2017 cannot afford to repay mortgages of 2008 levels. The Minister should work with bodies like the Money and Advice Budgeting Service, the Free Legal Advice Centres, the Irish Mortgage Holders Organisation and the housing bodies to put these structures in place quickly. We have 12 to 15 months before we will see the banks and the vulture funds moving in heavily on people. Not too many cases have been before the courts to date, but I think we will see many more over the coming period if a general resolution of this issue is not found. I appeal to the Government to move on this issue. I know the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government is in talks with Dublin City Council. The necessary structures need to be set up and need to get moving so that people can go to a one-stop-shop to resolve and deal with their issues with the banks.

I would like to know why the housing bodies did not take 3,600 mortgages in respect of which agreement had been reached with the banks for them to go into mortgage-to-rent scheme. Why are housing bodies refusing to take on mortgage-to-rent cases that have already been cleared through resolution? I think that should be investigated. It is an absolute disgrace that someone who has gone through the difficult process of getting some sort of mortgage-to-rent deal then finds that the housing bodies are not taking their mortgages on board. I will leave it at that. I ask the Minister to move on the issues I have raised, including the issue of the AIB mortgage holders, and look seriously at the Bill I have mentioned.

I would like to share time equally with Deputies Michael Healy-Rae and Danny Healy-Rae.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

As the Leas-Cheann Comhairle knows, we are very equal in the Rural Independent Group.

Ar an gcéad dul síos, ba mhaith liom mo chomhghairdeas a ghabháil leis an Teachta Mícheál Mac Craith. I compliment Deputy Michael McGrath on the introduction of this Bill. I know he has put a lot of work, energy and research into this legislation. It is timely that it is before the House this evening. I am supporting it wholeheartedly. Any efforts in this area must be examined. I note that Deputy Donnelly, rather than Deputy McGrath, is now present on behalf of Fianna Fáil. I hope the important Bill that Deputy McGuinness and I are trying to introduce, if the Ceann Comhairle - the Leas-Cheann Comhairle's boss - will leave us, will get support from all of Fianna Fáil and not just from Deputy McGuinness. A great deal of work has been put into the Bill in question, which has been prepared by Ed Honohan and many other distinguished people.

We have a collective duty to try to ensure the people who have been terrorised and traumatised by this massive crisis can get some breathing space, some hope and some light at the end of the tunnel. They need to live again. As Deputy Joan Collins said, people did not bring this crisis on themselves. They showed the courage and tenacity to house themselves by getting mortgages to buy houses or by securing planning permission and getting builders, thereby stimulating the economy. They were prudent most of the time, although the banks sometimes gave them too much money. Those who sought to house themselves were not like some people here who want everything for nothing and want to pay for nothing. I refer to those who say "can't pay, won't pay". The decent people I am talking about were stung when the economy crashed badly.

We have been paralysed here. We bailed out the banks. I voted for the bank guarantee. It was the biggest mistake I ever made in my life and I will regret it until the day I die. We bailed out the banks, but now they are giving two fingers to families, insolvency practitioners and everybody else. The mortgage-to-rent scheme has been an abject failure. There are some very good points in this Bill. We have had elections in the meantime. Before one of them, Deputy Burton promised she would do what had been done in Iceland. When she came in, she got frozen in ice and stuck to the seat. She did nothing. She was paralysed. That is what it was all about. We have too many promises.

I wish the Minister and the Minister of State well. We need to get stuck in here. We need to allow these people to live again by giving them some sort of help along the way. These difficulties are causing all kinds of illness and family trauma, including marriage break-up and children in care. If all of us who are here are worth our salt, we have to sort this out. Someone has to put manners and respect on the lending institutions that were helped out. All they see now is profit. I learned today that an ex-Bank of Ireland man, who received big pensions and big pay-offs here, is making profit out of the miserable and unfortunate people of Africa. I compliment Deputy Michael McGrath and the people who have helped him, including his staff who did the research. I am supporting this Bill. I hope the Government will give it a favourable response.

I compliment Deputy Michael McGrath and Fianna Fáil for bringing this terribly important motion before this House. One of the saddest things I encounter at clinics is when young couples - the boy and the girl in the couple might come to see me together, or on his or her own - tell me they do not have €10 or €20 at the end of the week. That is the difference between living and not living. I know the Minister understands this problem because he deals with it himself. I know he is not isolated from it. One of the most awful things is that there was a bailout for every big person, but there was no bailout for young honest-to-God couples who borrowed money because they wanted to get on the property ladder. They got their mortgages and did their best to provide houses and homes for themselves and their families. If they borrowed €300,000 or €400,000 to buy the properties they are living in, they were encouraged to look for every penny of it. The banks could not give them enough. It is awful that many such people are now left struggling and barely living hand to mouth. As Members of the Oireachtas, we have to make provisions for young people in these circumstances. We have to legislate and do anything and everything we can. I do not care what it is.

The big people who borrowed tens of millions have been sorted. They went into bankruptcy and came out of it again. If they have gone back working again, I wish them good luck with that. I do not begrudge anybody anything. I want to see the small person being sorted as well. I want to see young couples being able to live. People who are killing themselves working should be able to have a little disposable income at the end of the week. This might involve meaningful and tangible debt resolution that will work having to be put properly in place. I thank those who have been helping people with distressed mortgages all along. Some of them have to charge a modest fee so they can try to assist young couples. It is an important job. When young couples ring me, come into my clinic or meet me somewhere to tell me their sad stories about how bad their finances are, many of them have written out in black and write the details of the costs that are making things so tight for them. They have itemised how much it is costing them to educate their children or run their cars. We have to be seen to do something tangible to help such people. I thank Fianna Fáil and Deputy Michael McGrath again. I wish them well with this Bill, which I fully support.

I thank Fianna Fáil and Deputy Michael McGrath for giving us an opportunity to talk about this important matter. Even though it has been discussed all along the way since I first came up here 17 months ago, many people are still in a great deal of trouble. One's home is one's castle, or it should be. There is nothing wrong with Fianna Fáil's proposal to set up an independent mortgage resolution office to give people someone independent to go to. I have no problem in the world saying to the Minister that people have been blackguarded and are still being harassed. Their phones are ringing early in the morning and late at night. That is wrong. I know it has happened. It is still happening.

Very recently, a woman who had paid €150,000 towards the mortgage on her house was still forced to leave it. They did it by giving her €20,000 to get out. She goes around the town in Kerry and the homeless services are trying to fix her up. She has two children who have been taken out of the school they are in. They have no hope of getting back into that school and being with their friends again in the near future.

I know another person who owed €500,000 on a mortgage on both his house and his business together. He has now found the money but the vulture fund to which the loan was sold will not agree to take the amount he owed. That is wrong. In another town, a woman and her four children are homeless because she and her husband broke up following the problems they had with their mortgage. These are sad stories but they are honest-to-God true stories.

The Minister said he was worried the banks might not lend to people applying for loans but he must think of the people who are in trouble first, because the banks have been looked after. The Government owned practically all of one bank but got rid of it as if it were a hot potato. This Bill is not a bad idea and if the Minister cannot agree all of it he should look at the good aspects of it. MABS was the only service that could help people in trouble but, sadly, the Taoiseach, Deputy Varadkar, recently proposed to reduce the number of MABS offices, which is deplorable.

There should be system for people who get into trouble in order that they can remain in their homes. The local authorities could buy the house and rent it back to them but we must not continue to put people out on the side of the road. Deputy Michael McGrath's Bill deserves more consideration.

I am sharing time with Deputy Healy. I welcome the measures in the Bill, which go some way towards alleviating the mortgage crisis and offsetting the looming spectre of a new wave of homelessness caused by people facing repossessions of homes they simply cannot afford at this time. It is hard to believe that, almost ten years after the property crash, we are still talking about this as a substantial issue.

The Bill makes provision for a number of potential remedies where mortgage holders find themselves in distress. The NUI Maynooth report, published this morning, makes it clear that we have not yet reached the peak of the housing emergency and that things are likely to escalate over the next five years. At a time when the Government response to the emergency is to try to portray family hubs as an attractive option, it is vital that measures to help stem further homelessness are embraced and encouraged. While there will always be a limited number of cases where repossession is actually the best option for all parties, that is, in cases where things are and will continue to be simply unsustainable, for the most part it makes no sense to allow lenders to march people through the courts process in vast numbers every week and force them into homelessness. Many cases simply require a bit of breathing space for people to get back on their feet following the recent years of austerity and job losses, while many others just need time to readjust to the change in circumstances. We have all had experiences of people telling us they had experienced ill health or a family crisis that made it difficult for them to get back on their feet. The Bill provides options which can become a lifeline for people who simply need a bit of breathing space. There are good options, such as mortgage to rent, but it is incredibly difficult to get from A to Z in that scheme.

It makes no economic or social sense to turf people out of their homes when, given a bit of time, they can get themselves back on track or be assisted to do so. The mortgage arrears crisis costs us either way. If the system continues in its pursuit of repossession orders, society will pick up the cost because the people involved will not have the wherewithal to house themselves once they have lost their home. Going back and looking for another mortgage is not going to be an option and we all know the length of the housing waiting list. We either put in place the mechanisms to prevent, as far as practicable, the current practice of constant repossessions or we accept that we pay the price, both economically and societally, of forcing families into homelessness and children into hostels or hubs, with all the heartache and damage that causes to the individuals and to the social fabric of our country. We already are seeing people going through physical and mental health problems with the stress they are constantly under and all Members can testify to that from the people they meet in our constituency offices. The children of today's hubs are far more likely to be the disenchanted youth of tomorrow. We are storing up problems for ourselves if we do not accept the entirety of the housing emergency. It is not just about a roof over our heads - it is the social aspect too.

Far too many people pass through our offices who fail to get the solutions that are supposed to be there. Others are simply looking for breathing space or are pleading with the lender for a little bit more time, only for it to get worse as house prices increase. This cannot be tolerated in a civilised society and Government has a responsibility not to take a laissez-faire approach to this emergency but tackle it head on in a proactive and urgent fashion. This Bill provides a mechanism to do that to some extent. It is not complete but it is certainly very useful. We have to get past the point of talking about this and actually do something about it and the Bill goes some way towards that.

The policy of reliance on the market has created a housing emergency. The market has failed and failed disastrously. The result is 91,000 families on local authority housing waiting lists and 21,000 families on housing assistance payments, all of which are living from hand to mouth and have not got a ha'penny left at the end of the week. Thousands are homeless, including 2,700 children living in various forms of homeless accommodation, and we have the unseen homeless, the thousands of people who are couch-surfing or doubling up with friends or relatives. There are 76,000 mortgages in arrears, 30,000 of which have been in arrears for two years or more. The people in those cases got mortgages and fell into arrears through no fault of their own when they lost their job due to the recession. They were cajoled into getting mortgages by the whole system, including the newspapers whose property supplements told them they had to get their foot on the housing ladder. Now they find themselves in very serious financial difficulties.

The first thing the Government and this country should do is stop making the position worse.

What I mean by that is they should stop adding to the problem. The Government owns Allied Irish Banks and Permanent TSB and should immediately instruct those banks to stop repossessions and evictions. No legislation is needed for this; all that is needed is a simple phone call from the Minister for Finance to tell these two banks which we own to stop evictions and repossessions.

This would be a good start but we really need the declaration of a housing emergency in law. Clause (a) of the Government's amendment, suggesting that the Bill might be unconstitutional, is to my mind disingenuous. The previous Government introduced financial emergency measures in the public interest, FEMPI, legislation and this Government extended it only a few weeks ago. The FEMPI legislation interferes with property rights, and there is a provision in the Constitution which allows interference with property rights in emergency circumstances such as those we have now. Public service pensions were cut and as those pensions have been noted and adjudicated on by the courts to be property rights, the Government has already interfered with property rights. It can do so again and should do so immediately. The declaration of such an emergency would ensure that the other banks could be stopped from repossessing and evicting people who, through no fault of their own, are in financial difficulties.

I will briefly outline other measures that could be taken. The Government could instruct the banks to operate the mortgage-to-rent scheme. The banks are still vetoing this scheme in a disgraceful fashion and that must be stopped. We must also repeal the shameful provisions in recent legislation that enable vulture funds to evict sitting tenants if they can get 20% more in a sale price because of vacant possession.

The Deputy has exceeded-----

We need to take these measures immediately. I welcome the Bill.

I thank the Minister of State for being in the Chamber. With no disrespect to his good self for taking the time to be here, I wish the appropriate senior Minister were present. It is a manifestation of the Government's lack of seriousness - and indeed, going back to 2011, that of the previous Government - on this very important issue. I am quite proud to see this Bill before the House. Listening to some of the commentary from colleagues in the House other than Government representation, I believe it will pass for a Second Reading. This is vitally important.

I first got involved in this issue when I established the Prevention of Family Home Repossessions Group in March 2010 and made a submission to the now deceased Hugh Cooney's expert group on mortgage arrears. We also made proposals to the Oireachtas joint committee on finance at the time. Many of those proposals are incorporated within this Bill in a streamlined approach to give people real options and put people at the centre of State policy on the family home.

I find it reprehensible in the extreme that Government has the arrogance in its amendment to suggest that this legislation is in some way not compatible with Bunreacht na hÉireann. This is fundamentally wrong, it is flawed and I cannot imagine that this advice came from the office of any learned Attorney General. Rather, the default position when a Government does not like the idea of the Opposition bringing forward legislation that has the people central to its focus is to say it is incompatible with the Constitution of the State. Article 41 of that very same Constitution, a copy of which I have to hand, states "The State recognises the Family as the natural primary and fundamental unit group of Society, and as a moral institution possessing inalienable and imprescriptible rights, antecedent and superior to all positive law." I put it to the Government's Attorney General, whoever is advising it or whoever is manufacturing the objection as being based on law and the Constitution to read this section of the Constitution. The protection of the family supersedes all positive law. Surely, a person's home is absolutely vital to upholding this provision of the Constitution.

Thanks to many colleagues, particularly Deputy Michael McGrath, this Bill is in effect our party's fourth attempt to tackle this issue. This day six years ago, 12 July 2011, I introduced the Family Home Bill in the Seanad, which, once again, the Government of the day, in the guise on that occasion of the then Minister of State, Mr. Brian Hayes, MEP, said was unconstitutional, as per the Government's amendment today. It is a pat on the back by which the Government says it likes the way we are doing things and it is good to have the opportunity to talk about these important issues. This is rhetoric in the extreme and an insult to the people of Ireland.

When we were dealing with these issues after the crash, in 2008 and 2009, the nation was consumed with the phrase "the systemic nature of our banks". This may well have been the case in the context of our economy but at what point will we acknowledge the systemic importance of our people to the nation? That is what the Government then missed and what this Government is missing today. In the Mortgage Resolution Bill 2013, dismissed-----

Is the Deputy sharing time?

I am indeed. I am just finishing now. The names of the Deputies with whom I am sharing time should be on the Leas-Cheann Comhairle's list.

I am only reminding the Deputy.

I think there are three of us sharing time. I am just finishing. I apologise.

The Government ignored the attempts made with the Debt Settlement and Mortgage Resolution Office Bill 2011; the Family Home Bill 2011, as I said, which I jointly put forward with Deputy Thomas Byrne, who was a Senator at that time; and the Mortgage Resolution Bill 2013. I urge the Minister of State not to miss this opportunity.

Finally, on top of the great measures in this Bill, other Members have mentioned that there is a civil society Bill promoted by various Members of the House called the National Housing Co-operative Bill. In the new session, regardless of the final positions parties or individuals take, that Bill needs a good airing in this House and I hope the Government too will embrace that opportunity.

The next two Deputies have five minutes between them. I will leave it to them to divide however they wish. I call Deputy Thomas Byrne.

Half the time has been used by my colleague.

Well used, though.

I will use half of the remaining time.

I have no control over the matter.

I think we will all support this Bill and I am delighted to join my colleague, Deputy MacSharry, in supporting it, as I was delighted to join him in writing legislation while in the Seanad. Government Members should cop themselves on and go down to a mortgage court any day of the week, wherever it is on, because they obviously have not been there. I have, as many of my colleagues have, as a Deputy, not a solicitor. I hope my experience in my profession has been helpful to the people I have met there. What is going on in our mortgage courts day in, day out, every week in every county, is a shame and a national embarrassment. Anyone can look up the list: there is not even any confidentiality regarding people's mortgage arrears problems.

Like Deputy MacSharry, I, together with a former Fine Gael Deputy, Olwyn Enright, in 2009 prepared a report for the social protection committee on this issue as it was arising. We tried to get implemented some of the recommendations we put forward then. Brian Lenihan, God be good to him, tried to implement some of that report and other ideas that came forward in other reports before that Government left office. Some of those ideas still have not been implemented at all. One is mortgage to rent. Mortgage to rent is the answer to a huge number of people's problems with mortgages. There is a huge number of people out there for whom mortgage to rent is the easy and acceptable solution. It would keep them in their homes as renters and save the State a fortune not spent rehousing them somewhere else. We must get serious about mortgage to rent. It does not exist in reality. It is the answer. The answer is in front of the Minister of State. When we researched this in the social protection committee in 2010, it had already been operational in Scotland, so it is not a novel idea. It has been called for in this country for years and Fine Gael has been completely deaf to it. I urge Fine Gael Members to go to the mortgage courts, see the stress and worry on people's faces because of this and do something about it. If the current Government cannot do something about it, another Government must take office to do it because Fianna Fáil has consistently provided solutions, possibilities and hope to those who wish to remain in their homes.

The Bill before the House would keep families in their homes, remove the bank veto and create an independent mortgage resolution office. It would also create balance for the first time between lenders and borrowers. I take this opportunity to acknowledge the huge work done by Deputy Michael McGrath on this Bill and to recognise the support from right across the Opposition benches for it.

Some version of this Bill should have been put in place by the Fine Gael-Labour Party Government years ago. I have raised that matter several times. Deputy Michael McGrath raised it several times. Deputy Pearse Doherty raised it several times. This has been raised again and again and again. Every time it has been raised, Fine Gael has put up the same defence, namely, that we cannot do this because we have to protect the private property rights of the banks.

When the Government put its hands into people's private pension funds, what of the private property rights of the owners of those pension funds? When the Government levied taxes upon taxes on people to recapitalise the banks, to pay the debts of the banks, what about the private property rights of the citizens then? When the Government took the mortgages of homes of tens of thousands of Irish families and sold them to vulture funds from America that were not even paying any bloody taxes on their profits, what of the private property rights of those families? When it came to the State bailing out the banks and paying down their debts, there was no talk of private property rights. When it came to delving into private pension funds there was no talk of private property rights. When it came to selling Irish families down the river to foreign vulture funds there was no talk of private property rights. God forbid that a piece of legislation would be introduced in this country that gave some rights to borrowers. Suddenly, such a piece of legislation is against the Constitution. We were unable to do anything for the past ten years because of the private property rights of the banks. What is happening is outrageous and it must be stopped.

The other spurious position put forward is that this would damage new lending. As anyone involved in financial services knows, however, one of the things holding up lending is these legacy debts of the banks. One of the things that is stopping that being cleared up is a decent process with balanced powers between borrowers and lenders. In his rebuttal of the Bill, the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, cited the Personal Insolvency Act 2012. Fine Gael and the Labour Party amended the Personal Insolvency Act 2012 in 2015. Section 115(A) of the Personal Insolvency Act 2012 gives the courts today, under limited circumstances, the power to take away the bank veto, yet when it is proposed by Fianna Fáil, suddenly it cannot be done because it is repugnant to the Constitution. Ten years after the mortgage crisis - every Deputy in this House has been dealing with individuals and families trying to hang on by their fingernails in the intervening period - it beggars belief that the Government maintains the line that it cannot remove the bank veto because of the private property rights of the banks.

On behalf of the Minister for Justice and Equality, I thank Deputies for their contributions to the debate. I will make a few comments on the debate in a few moments.

The Government is proposing that the House decline a Second Reading of the Bill introduced by Deputy Michael McGrath because the approach proposed is over-simplistic and risks creating a range of serious negative effects for home owners in mortgage arrears. The Bill is not fully thought out. On fundamental issues it would create extensive legal uncertainty and lead to a higher risk of legal challenge, which does not serve anyone’s interest. The introduction of the proposed measures also risks discouraging financial institutions from lending for new home mortgages and negatively affecting our recovering house market and in particular first time buyers. I appreciate, as does the Government, the genuine concerns that Deputy Michael McGrath and others have in raising this very important issue. We are fully aware of the stress experienced by families living with unsustainable mortgage arrears who want to pay their way and keep their homes. We have all met people in that position. That awareness underlies the raft of significant measures already taken by Government which the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, has already outlined, and a high priority is given to these issues in the programme for Government.

The Government is fully engaged, via a range of initiatives already in place and with more on the way, in helping home owners in mortgage arrears to engage with the range of free supports and expertise now available to them with a view to getting solutions in place and, wherever possible, keeping people in their homes. The Bill fails to take into account the range and impact of measures already put in place by Government, including the end of the bank veto in personal insolvency cases, the significant increase in personal insolvency applications and the new Abhaile services to help those in arrears. Take up is well ahead of expectations, and the data suggests that these measures are operating successfully. We expect their impact to continue and to expand significantly over the coming months. For example, a national information campaign to encourage further engagement with Abhaile and take-up of its services, focusing on the local level, is now being finalised and will be rolled out in the coming months. This Bill would likely to have a negative effect on the success of measures already in place to help distressed home owners.

Having considered the Bill, the Department of Social Protection and the Insolvency Service of Ireland - as well as my own Department - have warned that it would impose considerable strain on Abhaile, the Insolvency Service of Ireland and MABS and risks duplicating and greatly complicating their work without useful effect. Specific concerns raised on the implications for budget and workload and the risk of multiple appeals and legal challenges include some very important differences between the Insolvency Service of Ireland's statutory objectives and those that would be set for the proposed mortgage resolution office by the Bill. These appear problematic on an operational level. Most of all these bodies are concerned that this Bill would damage the success of those measures in helping distressed borrowers. The Minister has already referred to concerns that this Bill, unlike solutions available under the Personal Insolvency Acts, does not deal at all with an insolvent borrower's non-mortgage debts, including any judgment mortgages and risks moving the borrower from the frying pan and into the fire.

Some of the figures cited on arrears and repossessions in the debate on the Bill give a somewhat distorted picture of the situation regarding repossessions. That is important because it risks causing further unnecessary alarm for borrowers who want to engage. Deputy Michael McGrath said earlier that 1,645 civil bill repossessions were issued in the first quarter of 2017. I am told that the correct figure is 633 bills nationwide in the first quarter of 2017. That is according to Courts Service figures. This represents a drop of almost 60% from the rate at peak of the first quarter of 2015. I want to put that on the record. Deputy Pearse Doherty and Deputy Michael McGrath both referred to 76,000 to 80,000 home mortgages in arrears. The Central Bank figure is 76,422 home mortgage accounts in arrears at the end of March 2017.

What the Minister of State has quoted me as saying is factually inaccurate.

This misunderstands the figures because many people took out second mortgages. The number of mortgage accounts in arrears is significantly bigger than the number of mortgage homes in arrears. The Department of Finance indicates and the Central Bank states that there are an average of 1.3 accounts per mortgaged home. Accordingly the number of homes in any level of mortgage arrears at the end of the first quarter of 2017 is approximately 59,000. It is still an awful lot, but it is not 76,000 or 80,000. The data simply does not support the persistent media claims of an impending tsunami of repossessions. Court repossession statistics are falling steadily and significantly, whether we look at the issuing of new proceedings or the making of possession orders.

We still have too many mortgage arrears cases, and action to reduce them remains a priority, but the progress made to date is very encouraging. In stating this I am not by any means seeking to downplay the levels of stress and anxiety felt by people arising from court proceedings. However, it is important to emphasise that it is absolutely not the case that all or most civil bills for possession issued will lead to possession orders being granted by the courts, or to a borrower who wishes to engage losing their home. Lending institutions often issue civil bills for possession in an effort to seek engagement with borrowers who have not previously engaged with the lenders. Very many of these actions result in further negotiations between borrower and bank, ending in an arrangement which allows a borrower to stay in his or her home.

Mortgage to rent has been mentioned. Work is continuing to implement further programme for Government commitments in this area. Further measures being developed by Government include significant expansion of mortgage to rent. This is a particularly invaluable initiative as it targets those home owners who do not have the financial capacity to support mortgage restructuring or a personal insolvency arrangement. The review of the mortgage-to-rent scheme was a priority under Rebuilding Ireland and was published on 8 February 2017. It identified a number of important reforms to make the mortgage-to-rent process quicker, more transparent, easier to navigate for borrowers and ultimately more accessible to more households in mortgage distress. The key changes to the scheme identified in the review include the introduction of flexibility in terms of the size of properties which qualify for the scheme. In practical terms, this means that an assessment of the property size suitable to a particular household will allow for a maximum of two additional bedrooms in the property above the actual need of the household, with the property still being considered eligible.

The property price thresholds for eligibility under the scheme have been increased in line with the acquisition thresholds for social housing generally. The threshold for a house in Cork, Dublin, Galway, Kildare, Louth, Meath and Wicklow has been increased to €365,000, while the threshold for an apartment or townhouse in these areas has been increased to €310,000. For the rest of the country the threshold for a house has been increased to €280,000 and for an apartment and townhouse to €210,000. The most significant increases are in the more rural locations, which is consistent with market findings. These thresholds will be subject to regular reviews taking account of the market at the time and will continue to remain in line with the acquisition thresholds for social housing generally. A significant change is that the application by the borrower for social housing support will be made by the borrower to the local authority prior to submitting the mortgage-to-rent application to the housing agency. This change means that from an early stage, the borrower will know of social housing support, SHS, eligibility or not and if not eligible, will need to focus attention on other options to deal with their debt. New property valuation procedures will be put in place. A new communications protocol for MTR will be agreed and implemented to cover communications between all stakeholders and at all stages of the mortgage-to-rent process. The process by which the necessary repairs to property are costed will also be revised to speed up the process of agreement between all parties. Changes to the eligibility criteria and other process changes became effective on 27 March 2017 and are already delivering welcome results. The other changes are being progressed actively.

It remains the Government's priority to ensure that repossession or other loss of the home is absolutely a last resort where all other avenues to resolve the arrears situation have been properly considered by the lender and been exhausted. The Government is determined to ensure that help is available for home owners in mortgage arrears who want to engage in finding a sustainable solution to their financial difficulties and to continue its work in getting a range of sustainable solutions in place which can, wherever possible, keep people in their homes. For the many and important reasons outlined earlier, however, I do not believe the proposals contained in Deputy Michael McGrath's Bill are the right solution nor that they would have a positive impact on the situation of the borrowers we are trying to help or the mortgage arrears problem or the housing market.

The number of owner-occupied mortgage accounts in any level of arrears has fallen from 141,639 at the peak in September 2013 to 76,422 at the end of the first quarter of 2017, a drop of almost half. This is equivalent to an overall drop of approximately 109,000 mortgage homes in any level of arrears in September 2013 to approximately 58,786 at the end of March 2017. The mortgage account statistics produced by the Central Bank include second mortgages on the same property. The rule of thumb used by the Department of Finance is that the number of mortgage accounts is 1.3 times larger than the number of mortgaged properties. The Central Bank also indicates that 120,894 private dwelling home, PDH, mortgage accounts have already been restructured and that overall, 87% of borrowers are meeting the terms of their restructure. Some 447 applications have been made to the courts under the new personal insolvency court review under the Personal Insolvency (Amendment) Act 2015 where creditors refuse a personal insolvency proposal by a borrower which is considered reasonable by the personal insolvency practitioner. The review appears to be operating successfully and has already been interpreted and applied in several High Court judgments.

Uptake on the Abhaile service is well ahead of expectations. As of 7 July 2017, 8,034 vouchers for free financial legal advice from a personal insolvency practitioner, or a panel run by the Insolvency Service of Ireland, or a solicitor on a panel run by the Legal Aid Board, had been issued by the Abhaile service. At the end of June 2017 the Money Advice & Budgeting Service, MABS, in-house mortgage debt advisers, who are now also part of Abhaile, had helped almost 4,000 borrowers and 1,300 borrowers facing repossession had been referred by MABS mentors for specialist help and advice. Up to the end of August, Abhaile duty solicitors will have attended almost 500 repossession lists before the county registrar across the country to provide legal assistance to unrepresented borrowers wishing to engage with Abhaile. Data collected on the 1,565 borrowers who consulted a personal insolvency practitioner under Abhaile indicate that the Abhaile service is reaching its main target group of those in the deepest arrears. Insolvency Service statistics indicate that two thirds of the borrowers were in the deepest category of arrears exceeding 720 days payment. For all these reasons the Government is opposing the Bill.

I congratulate Deputy Michael McGrath on bringing this Bill before the House. This is one of the most important Bills that will be debated by this House in this or any term. The Minister of State's contribution shows how detached the Government is from reality. He talks about last resorts but unfortunately many people in family homes find themselves in the last resort and are being pushed out of their homes.

This Bill addresses an issue that is causing huge hardship and stress to thousands of families around the country. A total of 33,000 mortgages on family homes are in arrears of more than two years and require a specific and measured approach if a resolution is to be found. The banks have not been treating this problem with the urgency it deserves. They have paid lip service for years to the issue while busily working themselves back into profit.

The ordinary people in this country bailed out the banks to the tune of billions of euro and suffered the austerity that followed. We all believed that part of the bailout was the resolution of the mortgage arrears on family homes with the ultimate objective of keeping families in their homes in the majority of cases. This did not happen and it is up to this Dáil now to instruct the banks to make it happen and put the structures in place to ensure that it does. That is what this Bill aims to do.

This Bill will introduce a mortgage resolution office with the power to make a mortgage resolution order that will be binding on both the lender and the bank, thereby removing the bank veto that has been shamelessly used by the banks to do nothing and maintain the status quo. I also urge at this juncture that the courts would now temporarily postpone processing court orders on family homes where the lender is making an effort to engage with the bank and give time for a mortgage resolution office to bring a long-term solution to the problem and end the need for repossessions save in the most extreme cases.

The scandal of the unregulated vulture funds that own approximately 12,000 mortgages in this country must be addressed. The stress and pressure being visited on families around the country by the representatives of these vulture funds is nothing short of a disgrace. We must send a clear message out from here today that Ireland is no longer a soft touch for these profiteers and we will protect the homeowners of this country. We reject the notion that the vultures picking over the carcass of the recession is somehow the natural order of things. It is not and it will not be tolerated.

I welcome this opportunity to speak on behalf of the many families across the country enduring the very real physical and mental stress of mortgage arrears. I commend my colleague, Deputy Michael McGrath, on his tireless and continuous work on this issue. Under the current arrangements, there does not seem to be any end point for those in mortgage distress other than the loss of the family home by court order, forced surrender or the so-called voluntary sale. This Bill proposes that an independent office would be established within the Insolvency Service that would have the final say in respect of the restructuring of mortgage arrears for a family or individual. It would represent a fundamental change in our current system giving families and individuals some light at the end of the tunnel and the hope that they can enter an arrangement which is favourable to them.

In the midst of this housing crisis we often get caught up with statistics and drift away from the very real anguish being experienced by the people on the ground in mortgage distress. The current personal insolvency agreements are simply not working and I note 43% of applicants in the first quarter of this year were rejected because the lender failed to agree.

We must offer people a pathway to repayment that is realistic and fair. The establishment of this one-stop-shop to work between the lender and those in distress to put in place a realistic restructured payment package would offer tens of thousands of families some hope that they can retain their homes. We are creating a vicious cycle by which people are being forced out the front door of their homes and into the front door of their local authority to seek a place on the social housing list for houses that are not there or for social assistance through the rental accommodation scheme, RAS, or the housing assistance payment, HAP.

The Government should investigate the possibility of extending the terms and conditions of the mortgage-to-rent scheme to include local authorities. The level of engagement from housing agencies is not sufficient in any way, shape or form. I contacted several housing agencies and they all spoke poorly of the current parameters of the mortgage-to-rent scheme and had little interest in engaging with those in distress. I rang the housing agencies to ask them to take people on in my constituency and they refused, saying they were not interested in the mortgage-to-rent scheme. The Minister of State should consider that and extend it to county councils such as Kilkenny County Council in my constituency, to enable us to have an input and help people in mortgage arrears.

I welcome this Bill in that we propose to move the date when people need to be in arrears to before 1 January 2017. Currently it is 1 January 2015. In other words, if a person fell into arrears only in the past two years there was no help for them or their struggling families. People could not avail of an appeals route if their original offer was refused.

In addition, moving the date forward to 2017 also allows many struggling home owners who may have gone into arrears in the past two years to access the State's financial assistance scheme for financial advice from the Money Advice & Budgeting Service, MABS, and Abhaile. The scheme allows those in mortgage arrears to get financial assistance to see the personal insolvency practitioners, PIPs, and solicitors who will be able to advise them on their options. A major issue is the valuation of the family home. I welcome the Bill's attempt to reduce the bank's influence in valuing properties by introducing a new mortgage resolution office. This rebalances the issue in favour of the home owner. I commend the Bill.

I thank all contributors to this debate. It is instructive that not one Government backbencher came to the House to attend the debate, not to mind speak on it. Not a single member of the famed Independent Alliance came to the Chamber to make a contribution or even observe the debate that was going on. I have reached the conclusion that the Government is in denial. With the greatest respect to the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, and the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, we had two robotic speeches. They simply read out Civil Service scripts which seemed to have no meaning or understanding.

Deputy McGrath must not have been listening.

The Minister of State tried to correct the record regarding something I apparently said. I quoted directly from the Central Bank's quarterly mortgage arrears statistics and referred to the commencement of legal proceedings in quarter 1, which was 1,645. I did not mention anything about civil bills for repossession or Courts Service statistics. The Minister of State did not know that because he was handed a script by the Civil Service, which seems to be the way the Government operates.

The message from the Government tonight for the 33,000 mortgage account holders, who probably represent approximately 100,000 people, who are in arrears of two years or more is that those people are in very serious trouble. There is a completely dysfunctional and unworkable mortgage-to-rent scheme, as Deputy Thomas Byrne correctly pointed out. There is no safety net for them. We have all had individual cases where people were taken up to the top of the hill by approved housing bodies, local authorities and the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government only to have it flop at the last minute. Repossession orders were put in place and the mortgage-to-rent scheme was pulled from underneath them. Just over a year ago, the Government made promises. That is why I was so interested that the Independent Alliance, which made great play at the time, did not even bother to show up. Where is the new mortgage arrears court? Not a single mention of it was made in 20 minutes of contributions from prepared scripts by either the Minister or the Minister of State. Clearly, it is not going to happen. It is not a Government priority. There were references to the amendment of the code of conduct to place an obligation on lenders to provide a range of sustainable arrears solutions. We have had no amendments whatsoever.

The constitutionality of Bills seems now to have become a very elastic concept and a very convenient defence for Government which has no interest in supporting Opposition legislation. The constitutional provision around property rights is not absolute. The Constitution also provides for the common good and contains principles of social justice. It refers to an "unjust attack". It is very clear that property rights in the Constitution are conditional and by no means absolute. In reality, deals put forward through the insolvency process are being rejected left, right and centre, including by banks in which the State continues to hold a very significant shareholding. People are being forced, if they qualify, to go through an appeals mechanism which never seems to end. Banks throw endless resources at that by way of barristers, the filing of affidavits and applications for adjournments.

The Bill is not perfect but it is a genuine attempt by an Opposition party to address a huge issue in our society. Nothing was said by any Minister in government tonight to give comfort to anyone caught in the mire of mortgage arrears. I appreciate the support of others in the House and hope the Bill passes Second Stage tomorrow, proceeds to proper scrutiny and sees the light of day with its key provisions enacted as law.

Amendment put.

In accordance with Standing Order 70(2), the division is postponed until the weekly division time on Thursday, 13 July 2017.