The really significant innovation in this Bill is obviously that concerning Part 7, which is giving the Residential Tenancies Board, RTB, the option to pursue criminal sanctions against landlords who breach the rules of rent pressure zones. At the same time, it allows for civil sanctions and the powers to investigate and, where the board feels it appropriate, to impose sanctions for landlords in breach of the rules for both annual rent registration and rent pressure zones.
I have outlined the really important aspect of the Bill. The rest is important also but this is crucial. It is important that we take some time on Second and Committee Stages to get it right. In reality, the criminal sanctions will be used very rarely. First, the RTB will not have the power to carry out the investigations and therefore its burden of proof in the courts would be very significant, not to mention the costs. In some senses, therefore, the criminal sanctions will be for repeat offenders, or landlords whose breaches have been continuous or of such severity that they fall into the criminal sanction category. In reality, we know from various agencies that the sanctions will be rarely used. Therefore, the really important sanction is the civil sanction. That is the one we have to make sure works right. What we need to come out of this legislation is a number of relatively speedy, high-profile cases in which landlords who are breaking the law are found to be doing so and where the sanctions are applied as quickly as possible.
I have two very significant concerns. I appeal to the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, and his officials to examine them between now and Committee Stage. The first concerns the timelines. If one adds up all the timelines proposed, including the discretionary additional timelines that the authorised officer may consider, one realises there could be very lengthy investigations, and that is before one gets to the issue of Circuit Court confirmation. The problem with that, of course, is that during the whole period in question, the tenant, who would more than likely be paying a rent above that dictated by the rent pressure zone rate of 4%, would still have to pay the rent, unless he or she separately took a complaint to the RTB for mediation or adjudication.
That could take six, eight or, in some cases, 12 months. That is far too long a period. I urge the Minister and his officials to look at this and bring it more in line with the average timelines we have in place for other RTB cases.
For me the big problem is the requirement for Circuit Court confirmation contained in the proposed section 148Z(2). What this means is the authorised officer will conduct an investigation and make a finding of fact. The Residential Tenancies Board will then decide there is a breach and will want to issue a sanction but, unlike the power it has at present to deal with landlords significantly in breach of, for example, the provisions to deal with issues of antisocial behaviour of their tenants, the Residential Tenancies Board will have to go to the Circuit Court for court approval. This will cost a significant amount of money for every case. At current costs for barristers at the Circuit Court it could cost as much as €5,000. It could take weeks and, in some places, because of the court sitting schedules, it could take months. This means it would not only be expensive but would delay the process. It is also not legally necessary. Yesterday, the Residential Tenancies Board issued a fine of €20,000 to a landlord for non-compliance with the provisions of the Residential Tenancies Act. Obviously, that landlord has the right to appeal to the High Court so there is due process. No Circuit Court confirmation was required for it. I do not understand why there would be any requirement for such a provision, particularly when the provision will actively undermine what the Minister is trying to do, which is to ensure the speedy address of landlords in breach of the Act.
My understanding is that we have an Attorney General who takes a particularly orthodox view of the divisions between administrative justice and the more traditional practices of Judiciary sanction. I have to say this is the wrong approach for us to take. I suspect the Minister might have some sympathy with what I am saying and I am interested to hear his views and the views of the officials. This will be a major issue on Committee Stage and I urge people to look at it. Yes, we should have an appeal to the courts for a landlord when there are sanctions - this is absolutely required legally and constitutionally - but the idea that every case would be referred to the Circuit Court for confirmation simply makes no sense.
I warmly welcome the Minister's confirmation yesterday, although he had given it to us previously, that he will bring forward amendments on student-specific on-campus and private accommodation. It is very necessary. I echo Deputy Darragh O'Brien's request that it might be useful, if the time allows, for us to have sight of the amendments before formal Committee Stage. Having spoken to the officials when they presented at the most recent committee hearing on the issue we are absolutely on the same page and I welcome this. My one concern is that we are beginning to see some universities increasing rents now for the 2019 to 2020 academic year, which is way earlier than they would do ordinarily. One was in the news recently. It might be helpful for the Minister to try to use even some soft power publicly to state it really is not appropriate for publicly funded bodies in particular to try to circumvent the changes he is seeking to introduce in the legislation.
I welcome confirmation of the work on the rent register. However, if it is a little more legally complex I would prefer if it were in the next piece of legislation than to delay the Bill. As the Minister rightly said, we want to progress this as soon as possible.
Yesterday, the Minister mentioned he will bring forward amendments to clarify the issue of what will happen to the rent pressure zones when they are due to expire under the current legislative sunset clause. The sooner the Minister can publicly state what the intentions are the better because there is concern among tenants who are fearful the zones will stop. I presume what the Minister is looking at is a mechanism to extend them. Even if the Minister were to say it is his intention to extend them and that we will deal with the details on Committee or Report Stage it would be helpful, particularly for those tenants who are concerned.
We are 95% of the way there with the Bill. The Minister and his officials have done a very good job in dealing with some complex issues. I urge some serious second thinking from the Minister and the staff at the Department on the Circuit Court confirmation and the timelines. Whether by Government amendment to this Bill or further amendment in the next residential tenancies legislation, I ask the Minister to consider applying the power of investigation and sanction to all tenancies. If a landlord is breaking the law outside of a rent pressure zone he or she is breaking the law. Clearly, the powers of investigation and sanction should apply just as they do in rent pressure zones. There is real value, in particular with regard to notices to quit that are clearly and deliberately invalid, in applying the investigation and sanction powers. I emphasise the point I made yesterday that there is value in looking at, not in this legislation but in the next Bill, the issue of serious breaches of minimum standards and overcrowding, just as we have the issue of serious anti-social behaviour in the current Residential Tenancies Act, and possibly applying the investigations and sanction regime to them, albeit with the inspections done as they are at present by local authorities and environmental health officers.
Sinn Féin will support the Bill. The Minister was probably in contact with his office today. The housing committee has time available next week and the week after for Committee Stage. We are ready to proceed but we would like the Minister to consider some of the concerns I and other Members have raised and, I am sure will raise, throughout the remainder of the debate.