Residential Tenancies Bill 2020: Second Stage

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

I am grateful to the Ceann Comhairle and all Deputies and Senators for facilitating the urgent passage of this critical legislation through the Houses of the Oireachtas. This evening I am asking Deputies to pass the Bill in order to help mitigate the impact of Covid-19 on tenants and to support the Government's efforts to restrict the movement of people in order to suppress the spread of this virus.

The front line of the struggle against this virus is in every house and community throughout our country. A safe and secure home has never been more important. The roofs over our heads have become the limits of our social lives, the four walls of our homes our new offices and the fences of our gardens or balconies our refuge from the pandemic. This challenging time for our country demands that we put aside party politics and ideology to work collectively for a common cause. This is a moment for Members of all parties and none to stop allowing their versions of perfection to be the enemy of the good on which we can all agree. In this light, I hope every Deputy and party supports this practical and urgent piece of legislation.

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

It is also important to recognise that the vast majority of tenancies do not end in dispute. The majority of the State's 170,000 landlords, most of whom own just one unit, act decently and fairly. This Bill is about providing tenants and landlords with unambiguous certainty that their tenancies will be frozen during the emergency period. It is also necessary to provide for extreme and rare circumstances where property owners and landlords will need to act to protect property during these restrictions, such as in cases of antisocial behaviour.

The Government has a strong record of protecting tenants from rogue landlords who might wish to exploit this situation. The Emergency Measures in the Public Interest (Covid-19) Act 2020 was passed by the Oireachtas in March. Upon my request, a further Government order extended the emergency blanket ban on evictions and rent freeze up to 1 August 2020. I then introduced what became the Residential Tenancies and Valuation Act 2020 here in the Convention Centre, which afforded further protections from the economic ramifications of the pandemic, rather than solely addressing public health considerations. This Act provided for a new emergency period running from 1 August 2020 to 10 January 2021 for tenants who are economically impacted by Covid-19, are in rent arrears and are at risk of losing their tenancies. Those tenants who make the required self-declaration cannot have their tenancies terminated prior to 11 January 2021. No rent increase can apply to their tenancy in respect of the period ending 10 January. The Act also introduced permanent protections in the form of new procedures requiring landlords to provide both the Residential Tenancies Board, RTB, and the tenant with an increased 28-day notice period when seeking payment of rent arrears and serving any related notice of termination.

These protections are working. I know that others are trying to belittle them by twisting the numbers and claiming the protections introduced in August are only helping a very small number of people. This simply is not true. The legislation enacted in August is protecting and will continue to protect all those who are eligible. That means that any person whose income has been negatively impacted by Covid-19 and is in arrears will be protected. Thankfully, not many people have needed to apply for these protections due to the range of other income supports the State has provided through its multibillion euro investment in our economy. That Act will continue to operate to deal with rent issues and is independent of the Bill before the House. I have also increased the budget of the RTB by 22% to allow it to carry out its expanded duties, and increased funding to ramp up rental inspections in order to address inadequate accommodation.

Ultimately, the Bill is needed to help to restrict movement in a unified national effort by the Government to address the resurgence of Covid-19. The disease demands our constant vigilance and collective efforts. The Bill forms part of that endeavour. It introduces measures to protect tenants from tenancy termination in all but very limited circumstances during the current period of restrictions due to Covid-19 and, if required, during any future restrictions involving the imposition of severe travel restrictions on people's movements. This is a strong and robust legislative protection and will work in a manner similar to that in which the Act brought in by the Government in August worked and continues to work.

The Long Title describes our policy aims and policy in the context in which the limited restrictions on landlords' constitutionally protected property rights are being introduced for the social common good. Section 31A of the Health Act 1947 provides the Minister for Health with extensive regulation-making powers to prevent, limit, minimise and slow the spread of Covid-19. Addressing unprecedented and grave circumstances, regulations under section 31A may provide for travel restrictions and the prohibition or restriction of some events such as large gatherings, as well as requiring persons to remain at home. The provisions of the Bill will modify the operation of the Residential Tenancies Act 2004 during periods specified by the Minister for Health in regulations made by him under section 31A of the Health Act 1947 in respect of which a restriction applies on the movement of people outside a 5 km radius of their place of residence. I wish to again stress that once the Minister for Health makes regulations restricting movement outside a 5 km radius of one's place of residence, the protections in the Bill will kick in. The protections will last for the emergency period defined in health regulations. This includes the regulations currently in force, as well as any new regulations at national or sub-national level that may be introduced.

I will briefly outline the main provisions of the Bill, which has five sections. Section 1 provides for the interpretation of certain terms in the Bill.

Section 2 deals with the emergency period and defines the period during which the temporary prohibition of tenancy terminations shall apply in an area. The period and the area in question shall be set out in regulations made and as may be required by the Minister for Health under section 31A of the Health Act 1947 to restrict in a specified area people's movement outside a 5 km radius of their home.

Section 3 relates to notices of termination under the 2004 Act. It provides, subject to subsection (2), for a temporary prohibition on tenancy terminations taking effect in an area where section 31 health regulations apply to restrict the movements of persons outside a 5 km radius of their homes. The duration of any emergency period shall not count as part of any termination notice period given. A revised termination date will apply and shall factor in an emergency period of an additional ten days. Subsection (2) disapplies the temporary prohibition on tenancy terminations in cases of anti-social behaviour or where a rental property is being used other than as a dwelling and without the consent of the landlord. Part 4 security of tenure rights shall not accrue to any tenant on foot of a delay in giving effect to a tenancy termination caused by the operation of section 3.

Section 4 relates to entitlement to remain in occupation of a dwelling during an emergency period. It provides that where a tenant was served a notice of termination prior to the emergency period and he or she remains in occupation on the commencement date of the period, he or she is entitled to remain in occupation until ten days after the expiry of the emergency period, subject to the terms and conditions that applied under the tenancy.

Section 5 provides standard provisions relating to the Short Title and collective citation. The Bill will commence upon enactment.

As Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, I know that at this time of great uncertainty a safe and secure home is the best shelter from this storm. That is why I am asking Deputies to pass the Bill without delay to help tenants stay in their home. I will seek to respond to any specific questions in my wrap-up later this evening. I ask Deputies to approach the Bill with an open mind, in good faith and with a sense of urgency that this moment demands as we are called to work together to overcome this cruel virus.

For several years, many Deputies have been calling for a legislative ban on evictions in order to prevent homelessness. The Focus Ireland amendment, legislation very carefully crafted by one of the country's leading homeless charities, was tabled on up to five separate occasions during the previous Dáil but, each time, it was voted down by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. For several years, and particularly since prices in the rental sector reached historic highs, many Deputies have been calling for a ban on rent increases. Although Fianna Fáil initially supported those calls, both it and Fine Gael have prevented the introduction of such legislation. All the while, until Covid-19 cruelly struck, the number of adults and children in emergency accommodation or otherwise experiencing homelessness rose.

What the Covid-19 ban on rent increases, notices to quit and evictions showed was that these policies work. That legislation received unanimous support in the House. Homelessness fell during the previous lockdown by a dramatic 68%, to its lowest level in three years. My strong and sincere view is that the ending of those bans was a mistake. I think that decision was based on conservative and restrictive interpretations of the Constitution by two Attorneys General. Even if new legislation was required to allow those bans to continue, that is the course of action the Government and that which preceded it should have taken. They would have found willing collaborators in that effort among the Opposition.

With the greatest of respect to the Minister, the Residential Tenancies and Valuation Act introduced in July stripped the vast majority of private rental tenants of key Covid-19 protections. Yesterday I received the most up-to-date figures from the RTB for quarters 2 and 3. The figures show that in the quarter immediately after the ending of the ban and the introduction of the aforementioned Act, notices increased fourfold. Almost 80% of those notices to quit were issued on grounds other than rent arrears, meaning those households do not have additional protections in the year of Covid-19. We do not yet know what will happen with those notices to quit. Those matters may well be resolved at some point, but the increase shows that the concerns many Members genuinely expressed in opposing the Residential Tenancies and Valuation Act unfortunately seem to be coming to pass.

That said, Sinn Féin is supporting the Bill. We are doing so because it is better than the current absence of protections for the vast majority of renters, but it is, unfortunately, in our view, very weak. I have tabled several amendments because I genuinely believe renters need stronger protections than those provided for in the Bill. For example, the Bill does not apply to social housing tenants, those living on Traveller-specific accommodation sites, those with licences not covered by the Residential Tenancies Act or those in informal rent a room arrangements. The first two of those categories, namely, social housing tenants and those living on Traveller-specific accommodation sites, will be covered by a different mechanism. I understand that a circular will be issued to local authorities, instructing them not to proceed with evictions. The circular will be in the same spirit as the Bill. I ask the Minister to give an assurance that he and his Department will fully enforce that circular because, unfortunately, I am aware of several instances in which the previous circular was not fully adhered to by all local authorities. It would be a mistake not to fully enforce the circular.

One of my biggest concerns about the legislation is that its protections will only be in force for seven weeks and three days, comprising the six weeks of the emergency period and the ten additional days thereafter, unless the Minister for Health extends the restrictions on travel movements or reintroduces them at a later stage.

Our strong view and the view communicated to Deputies from all parties yesterday of the Simon Communities, one of the country's leading homelessness organisations, is that given the impact of Covid-19 on the rental market, we would be better to have a minimum of a six-month ban, something we will return to when we deal with the amendments.

It is also a mistake to link this ban on evictions exclusively to the public health advice and the regulations restricting movement to 5 km from home. There are other grounds, such as restrictions on the entry of people to one's home or county lockdowns. Again, we can tease out the merits or otherwise of that on Committee Stage.

Of course, there is no mention of rents and the impact that the continuing increase in rents, particularly in a number of counties outside Dublin, is having on security of tenure.

I have tabled 11 amendments. I assure the Minister they are tabled with real sincerity and whether we agree with them at the end of the debate is a separate manner. We had only an hour and a half between the circulation of the Bill and the amendment deadline. I would like them to be teased out. Even if the Minister is not willing to accept them, I want him to consider their merits in case there are further opportunities for legislation or further circumstances that require reform.

It is also a mistake not to allow Part 4 tenancy rights to accrue to tenants availing of this ban who have less than six months on their initial tenancy. The reason for that is the Bill rightly allows for very limited cases of notice to quit where there is, for example, damage to property or serious antisocial behaviour. That was not in the previous legislation and therefore the provision not to allow the accrual of Part 4 tenancy rights for well-behaved rent-paying tenants is not a reasonable proposition.

The ten-day grace period that is being given at the end of the emergency period is too short. For example, somebody who has a notice to quit that expires this Saturday will be able to avail of the six-week ban. The idea that they would then be able to secure a property within ten days after that six weeks, particularly in high-demand areas like Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Galway or Waterford, is extremely optimistic and 28 days, which is the standard final notice period would be much more appropriate.

It is unfortunate that the Bill makes no mention of homelessness. I understand and support the Minister in any legislative measures designed to prevent the spread of Covid-19. Restricting people's travel movements and people moving into and out of houses to make viewings etc. is part of that. However, this is also legislation to stop people becoming homeless. Therefore, there is a rationale to include, within the Long Title of the Bill as part of the purpose of the legislation, the prevention of adults and children from becoming homeless.

I genuinely commend the staff in the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government. Yet again they have been asked to produce very complex legislation - it may be short but it is legally highly complex - in a very short time. They have done that while at the same time providing members of the Oireachtas housing committee with a detailed briefing. I also commend the officials in the Bills Office, the people who behind the scenes take the legislation from Government and the amendments from the Opposition. They probably worked exceptionally late into the night and came back again early this morning to ensure Bills and amendments are published. The work they do should not go unnoticed by any of us.

Sinn Féin supports the Bill. I welcomed its publication yesterday. However, it is too weak. The Minister could go further, and I urge him throughout the course of Committee Stage to at least consider the merits of our propositions and the sincerity of our amendments. If our wording is not legally watertight, I urge him to at least consider returning to them at a later stage.

The Bill is important and obviously I support it but it does not go far enough. We have gone through a very difficult year. People on low incomes and people with larger families have a very unsettled future and have had a very difficult past during this year because of how Covid has affected our society. The people who get Covid tend to be poorer and from more challenged economic groups. While I welcome and will support the Bill, it would be reasonable to extend the protections therein until the end of March which would give adequate time to take due cognisance of the position of families who have financial difficulties because of Covid or may have personal illness as a result of Covid.

I believe that the vast majority of tenants are excellent and do their very best. Rent is the first thing on their minds after they put food on the table. Particularly coming up to Christmas, the capacity for younger people aged 16 and over to earn spare income for the family has been greatly reduced. The demands on families, particularly when there are young children, are significantly increased coming up to Christmas and many more families than normal are being driven into poverty with the Covid pandemic. I urge the Minister to rethink the time limit. I welcome what he is doing, which will give families some relief. It does not go far enough.

Many people have contacted me and other Members of the Oireachtas. They have significant problems. They are very happy that they are getting the pandemic unemployment payment, but their jobs have disappeared. Young people and people who are unskilled, who would normally find part-time work in pubs and restaurants to bring in additional income at this time of the year, are now going to be considerably worse off. Many of them will reluctantly and unavoidably fall into debt. I believe the United Kingdom has extended its moratorium to the end of March and we should do the same. It would be the honourable and decent thing to do. It would be proportionate to the difficulties families face.

As the Minister has pointed out, different proceedings should apply to people involved in significant criminal and other adverse activities. It is important to recognise the humanity of those who are now at greater risk than ever before. It is not good enough to abandon them on 11 January, particularly as we are entering the coldest part of the winter period.

The Constitution is regularly used as an excuse for not doing things. It has often been used for blocking interventions on housing. It was used to argue against any kind of rent measures, even the rent pressure zones that we eventually ended up with. It was used as an argument against a rent freeze. It was used as an argument against a ban on evictions such as the Focus Ireland amendment that was argued for by many political parties and civil society organisations for a long time. It turns out that it can be done. The Government and the previous Government have been remiss in not arguing on the basis of the significant social need that existed at the time and the common good that was involved in that for an intervention such as exists in this legislation and existed in previous legislation.

Nevertheless, the introduction of the legislation is welcome. Thousands of people remain in significant fear of eviction and notices to quit. It was an error and was hasty and unwise to remove the ban at the time. I agree with my colleague, Deputy Ó Broin, and with Deputy O'Dowd that we need to go further with the timescale. I am sure it is the same in the Minister's constituency but even with everything that is happening with Covid, housing is still the number one issue among the people who ring and email us. Many people who are getting notices to quit are still fearful of eviction. I am thinking of a family that has been dealing with Cork City Council, at one level or another, for 17 years while seeking housing. They have been failed in not having been given more permanent accommodation but that is an issue for another day. They received their notice to quit during the height of the pandemic. It came back into focus in recent weeks. They now have a brief reprieve but it is only a small relief because they are now looking at eviction in December. They have not worked in recent weeks and were not working at the start of the year. Realistically, they will not pick up work between now and Christmas but they face eviction between now and Christmas if this ban is lifted when restrictions may be lifted in six weeks. We need to look much further than that to give people breathing space and the chance to make alternative arrangements if they need to, ideally to keep their home but if that is not possible, to allow them to prepare. We need to go much further with the timescales.

I strongly agree with Deputy O'Dowd's comments, which were spot on. I ask the Minister to listen to them and to consider this point. The Social Democrats will support the legislation but it does not go anywhere near far enough. The reason it is being introduced is because we are in the middle of a pandemic. The people most effected by and at risk from the pandemic are people who are exposed because of chronic disease and people who are exposed by chronic disease are also more likely to be on low incomes and are more likely to be renting. Moreover, renters are more likely to be in vulnerable groups such as migrants. Many people who rent are those who have kept everything running throughout the pandemic with front-line and essential services, keeping our hospitals cleaned and the shelves in our supermarkets stacked. They are the groups that would benefit most from the protection of a ban on evictions in most circumstances for the next six months. It is surprising that the protections for tenants during the pandemic have been better in the UK under a Tory Government than under this Government. I would never have thought that any Tory Government would provide better protection for tenants than any Irish Government of any hue or make. We should stand by renters and people on low incomes and give them the full protections they deserve during the pandemic. That is why I tabled an amendment to lengthen the time to at least six months.

A key part of an effective strategy against Covid-19 is building social solidarity. Getting rid of the protection against eviction for tenants sent the message that no, we are not all in this together, that some of us enjoy better protections than others and that people in the exposed groups, who are renting or on low incomes, did not deserve the same protection. It is in all our interests to build up the sense of social solidarity in order that all of us can fight the virus together. To build such confidence, we need to take a clear stand and put protections in place for those who need it most, including those working on the front line, who are in high levels of contact with people and are most at risk from Covid.

International research has shown the direct link between evictions and the spread of Covid-19 as epidemiologists in Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Illinois have demonstrated. If we are serious about tackling and fighting the virus, it is logical that we would prevent evictions on most grounds for the next six months. I urge the Minister to consider that measure. I hope he will accept our amendments today but if not, I urge him to return to Cabinet on this point and seek further protections.

To give Members 90 minutes between our receipt of the Bill and tabling amendments was regrettably short. I acknowledge timeframes are tight but even two or three hours would have been more appropriate. It is a pity that the only amendments which were received were from the Social Democrats and Deputy Ó Broin. Other groups have told me they would have tabled amendments but the 90 minutes was too tight. Many people are working hard on tight deadlines but the democratic process requires more than an hour and a half to read the Bill and put in amendments. My amendment to increase the time to six months has the full support of the Simon Communities of Ireland, an organisation which works on the ground on homelessness. It strongly supports that kind of measure and it assisted in the drafting of amendments.

I note there has been a rise in Covid infections in the Traveller community in Ireland over the past four weeks. Since the initial outbreak, fantastic work was done by national and local Traveller organisations, which have worked very hard to mitigate and deal with the problems of insecure accommodation and homelessness in particular, as well as those issues which are related to the spread of Covid-19. As the Minister is aware, Travellers are an extremely vulnerable group as there is a higher incidence of chronic disease and conditions deemed to be at a high risk in the Traveller community but also because of the lower life expectancy. More than 2,000 Traveller families are living in inadequate, unsafe and insecure impermanent conditions. I wish to raise concerns about Traveller children in particular. Upwards of 3,000 children live in inadequate conditions, which has been brought to the attention of the Ombudsman for Children. For children living on roadsides, there is not always access to water, electricity and sanitation, which is particularly serious during the pandemic. In addition, 174 families live under local authority provision in basic service or transient bays, which only have minimal toilet and washing facilities. That also must be addressed. I ask the Minister to address these points in his comments but also in his work generally and to look at the groups most at risk, including members of the Traveller community and migrants, who have been affected by Covid in large numbers because of their insecure housing and their insecure, precarious working conditions, which put them more at risk and make them more exposed.

I will conclude by addressing the three parties in government.

The amendments we have tabled, if the Minister accepts them, will make a very real difference to the people who are most exposed to the impact of the Covid-19 crisis. They have been putting their shoulder to the wheel since the start of the pandemic to keep services running and, in so doing, they are helping to build social solidarity and social cohesion at this time, which is absolutely what we need to fight the virus. Unfortunately, we have seen that cohesion fraying a bit in recent months. Let us take a stand now to protect renters and the people who are most exposed to the effects of the pandemic. We must work to build the social cohesion and solidarity we need to fight the virus. Doing so is in all our interests and I urge the Minister and Government Deputies to consider that we could be doing more for those at most at risk and for renters.

I welcome the Bill that is before the House. I note the comments of Deputies Ó Broin and Cian O'Callaghan in particular because many of the arguments they made about the housing crisis echo comments the Minister made when he was in opposition. Those comments reflect the grave error we in this country made of not building more public housing on public land. In the 120 days since the Minister took office, I know he would have preferred to be bringing forward legislation to deal with issues such as the affordable housing scheme, the cost rental model that is being introduced and other housing reforms. Unfortunately, we are in a world where Covid-19 is dominating everything. The provisions in this Bill will offer protections to people who face a notice to quit during this extended lockdown period. The first thing it does is provide that reassurance. The second thing it does is to put the provisions on an automatic basis in order that we do not have to consider them anew each time new restrictions are imposed. I hope we do not have to go into another level 5 period after we have come out of this one but, as the Taoiseach said, we do not know what is ahead of us. It is a very sensible measure to put the provisions on such a footing.

Of course, an emergency Bill to restrict certain activities in the housing sector will not solve the entire housing crisis. We might want to go further and solve all the various elements of our dysfunctional housing market in one Bill but we know that is not possible to do. I often observe that Deputies in opposition have the luxury of calling for things that the Attorney General has advised against, but one does not have that luxury in government. As we have seen today, when the Attorney General gives advice, it is very difficult for Government to act against it. A total ban on evictions and a total ban on rent increases have not been advised as being constitutional and the Government must act within that advice. However, this does not stop us from building the 10,000 public housing units we plan to build next year. It does not stop us from ensuring local authorities have more power to build homes. It does restrict our ability to bring in some of the measures for which the Opposition has called.

It is important to clarify an issue about which there is much misinformation. If a person is experiencing income difficulties as a result of Covid-19, he or she is protected until next year. It is really important to state that clearly for the benefit of people listening to the debate. I acknowledge the cross-party support that is being given to this Bill. It is important to acknowledge when Opposition parties and the Government are working together. I hope that when it comes to the other measures the Minister will bring forward later this year and in 2021, we can work together to solve the housing crisis the country faces.

I welcome protections for renters. It is a straightforward matter to support any such measures. At this point in time, we are dealing with a pandemic and we are in a period of severe restrictions. We need to ensure we achieve the community buy-in that was there at earlier stages of the crisis but which has dissipated to some degree. We can only do that if we can tell people that we have their back. I welcome the Bill but I would like to see its provisions extended for six months. We need a connection between this type of legislation and any future lockdowns, because none of us is sure of what the future holds.

We must address the other difficulties people are facing in regard to housing. I accept that there is no silver bullet for the short-term, medium-term or long-term housing situation. The reality is that a whole range of supports is needed. We must, for example, deal with local authority underfunding. I have spoken on previous occasions about the loans Louth County Council has for land banks bought in previous times. We need to empower local authorities to be able to build. The performance of the Minister and the Government will be determined on how successful they are in providing the housing solutions people need, namely, affordable cost rental housing, council houses and affordable mortgages. The Government must deliver for people. I welcome the Bill as a start in this regard but it is vital that local authorities are empowered and supported to deliver the houses our people need.

I am sharing time with Deputy Barry. Any respite for people who are threatened with eviction is better than their not getting that respite at all. This is true in the current circumstances and in any circumstances where people face the possibility of being made homeless by a landlord, overwhelmingly because that landlord wishes to sell a property or refurbish it or, as also happens, the landlord says that he or she needs to do so when, in fact, the intention is to get rid of the tenant and increase the rent. In any event, to be made homeless, particularly in a situation where it is nearly impossible, as it is in many areas, to get alternative accommodation, puts people in a terrible situation. If one is evicted by one's landlord, it is, in many cases, a recipe for ending up in emergency accommodation, couch surfing or living in overcrowded conditions with family members or friends. To get respite from that at any time, including in the midst of a pandemic, is certainly better than having the threat of eviction hanging over people.

However, I really do not see why the provisions in this Bill are limited to level 5 restrictions and the ten days after they are lifted. It is almost a form of cruelty to do that, particularly in the run-up to Christmas. The idea that one's landlord cannot evict one for the next six weeks but will get the green light to do so before Christmas is an awful prospect and a terrible thing to inflict on people. We are talking about very real and live situations. I have raised the situation of the St. Helen's Court residents in Dún Laoghaire with the Minister many times. They are still in the same situation, waiting for the axe to fall as their landlord continues to try to push them out. In the same block where these people, including families, have been resident for many years are ten apartments owned by the same landlord that have been sitting empty for two years.

I will address that situation in my response because it is important.

There is no justification for what is happening to those people.

Whatever about the perfect being the enemy of the good, which is the argument the Government is making in saying that we cannot solve everything right now because of constitutional limits and so on - I do not buy that argument, by the way - there is absolutely no excuse whatsoever, when we have a Covid strategy and when the Government has made clear we will probably be facing further intense restrictions in the new year, for not at least retaining the ban on evictions until this pandemic has passed.

We are in the midst of a pandemic, and the Minister acknowledges that until we have a vaccine this is going to be an ever-present threat. Under any such circumstances or any level of restrictions, how is it acceptable for people to be homeless, to be put into overcrowded housing conditions, to be put out on the street or to be put into emergency accommodation? How could it possibly be compatible with public health? How could it possibly be fair? It is clearly not. To do that to people at the best of times is cruel and terrible and should not be allowed. The Minister supported our Anti-Evictions Bill when he was in opposition. To allow this to happen during a pandemic at any point until the pandemic has come to an end is absolutely unacceptable.

The Minister said the emergency situation we are in allows the Government to impose a ban on evictions. Why then is it limited to level 5? Why would the ban not be for the entirety of the pandemic? There is no good reason other than continuing to pander to the landlords. The right to private property and, critically, the right to make money from private property is actually higher up the pecking order of concerns of the Government than the absolute imperative to ensure nobody is made homeless at any point during this pandemic, regardless of the restrictions being at level 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5.

I will leave it at that. We will vote for this, of course, but really the Minister should give people the security from the possibility of homelessness at least for the entirety of the pandemic and the public health threat it brings.

We are debating the reintroduction of the eviction ban for a period of six weeks and ten days. I welcome the reintroduction of the ban on evictions but the ban does not go nearly far enough with regard to how long it is proposed to last. The ban is proposed to last for six weeks and ten days. This means it will expire exactly two weeks before Christmas. What is going to happen then? It is a recipe for many tenants around the State receiving notices to quit in the run-up to Christmas and over the Christmas holidays, and for a sharp spike in evictions in the new year. Evictions always spike in the new year, but next year it will be more pronounced than previously. This eviction ban does not last long enough. It should be for a minimum of six months. An amendment tonight proposes to extend it for six months. We will vote for that important amendment. There is a strong argument to say it should be longer than six months, and that until the public health emergency is definitively finished an eviction ban will remain.

This ban is linked to level 5. When the 5 km travel restriction is in place, the eviction ban will kick in and can kick in again. It is linked to level 5, not to level 4. Why is it not linked to level 4? Level 4 is a serious lockdown with serious restrictions on people. One cannot have a friend around for a cup of tea in level 4. Is the Government saying that in level 4, a person cannot have a friend around for a cup of tea but a landlord can give notice to quit and evict that person? What kind of double standard is that?

I would like a Government spokesperson to comment in detail on my next point. In July, when the blanket eviction ban was being dismantled, we were told that the Government would like to have kept it in place because the Government was the tenant's friend and the worker's friend and so on, but it could not keep it in place because it had been given legal advice by the Attorney General that it was not possible to keep it in place as the economy and society was being opened up. Has the Attorney General said there is a legal problem with having an eviction ban when level 4 is in place? I would like to know the answer to that question. If the Attorney General did advise this I would put a serious question mark over that advice. There are many very qualified legal people in the country who would challenge that in a serious way. I would, however, like an answer to my question about whether that was advised.

When the eviction ban was first introduced two things went together: a ban on evictions and a ban on rent increases. It has now been decoupled and this is a ban on evictions only, and for a very limited period of time. There is no ban on rent increases. Why not? There should be a ban on rent increases when the country is in lockdown.

I wish to return to the idea of the double standard. We had a debate earlier about extending very serious emergency powers to the State to restrict people's travel and to restrict who people are allowed to meet up with and how many people they can meet. There are rules now that affect people's jobs and livelihood. For how long are we being asked to extend those powers? I will have to check my notes. I believe it is until June 2021, which is the start of next summer. Yet, we are talking about extending a ban on evictions for six weeks and ten days, to expire two weeks before Christmas, which will allow notices to quit to be handed out in the run-up to Christmas, over Christmas and will allow a really sharp spike in evictions at the start of the new year. I will vote in favour of the ban on evictions, but I will also vote in favour of the amendment to make it last for six months. I will do so to register the point very strongly in this debate that this ban does not go nearly far enough.

I believe the next speaker is from the Government. Is it Deputy Richard Bruton? It is a long distance.

I thank the Acting Chairman. We will have to get binoculars to help him.

I welcome the legislation and I thank the Minister for introducing it. I listened to Deputy Barry but my reading of the Bill is that it puts a freeze on any termination notice. It does not lead to the sort of cliff edge at Christmastime that he was talking of. That may be of consolation to him.

We really need to look at the long-term stability of the rental sector. We are continually coming up with short-term solutions in this arena and they really do not allow us to develop the sort of long-term stable rental sector we have seen in other European countries. We seem to have a very strong aversion to seeing institutional investors, such as pension funds, coming in to develop well-regulated, well-maintained and well-kept properties that would be provided on a long-term basis. Time and again people say this form of development should be banned in Ireland but I do not believe this is a long-term sustainable approach.

We also have a real problem with the State supports we have had. As many speakers have said, the State has relied for far too long on the private sector to provide solutions when we need to support people with their rentals. In recent years, however, we have unwittingly been in a situation where the State provides supports and effectively competes on a substantial scale with ordinary members of the public who are looking to enter the private rented sector. The kinds of supports we deliver on such a scale through the housing assistance payment, HAP, and rent supplement are simply not sustainable unless we create a much greater supply of private rented accommodation. Everyone recognises that we have fallen behind on the provision of social accommodation and social housing, but we also need to see an expansion in the private rented property area. There is a huge difference between a family trying to pay 100% of the cost of rent from their own income without any tax relief, and a family being offered differential rent of 12% or 15% of income. Those two families are treated in an extraordinarily different way, despite the fact that there may be only a very small difference in their income positions.

We need to think more clearly about that approach. We also need to get over the sort of anti-landlord rhetoric seen in this house. If we want a greater supply of housing, some of it will have to be provided by private owners. If we want to go beyond home ownership alone, we will need landlords. This is what they do. Like any other business, they act in a fair and reasonable way. I am all in favour of good, balanced legislation which puts responsibilities on landlords but I do not think this constant vilification is useful. Indeed, "landlord" is almost a term of abuse in this House. It is bandied around as if landlords were in some way trying to undermine our society. Some of these people are genuine and many are accidental landlords as a result of one event or another. We need a more mature approach. I welcome the legislation but we need to move towards a more balanced set of proposals in respect of the private rented sector to ensure stability.

While I welcome this Bill, it does not go far enough. The least the Minister could have done would have been to give renters some certainty over Christmas and into the new year. We all know that most landlords will not evict tenants over the Christmas period but there will be a tsunami of notices to quit in the new year, as there is every year. It will be a lot worse this year, however, as a result of Covid. Many people are in very difficult situations. We in Sinn Féin would have extended this ban for another six months. At the end of August, 8,702 people were on the homeless list. This will not get any better over the winter. Covid has proven just how chaotic our housing system is. If we are to learn anything and to build a better society, it is up to this Government to start building State-funded, low-cost and affordable housing for ordinary workers to allow them to grow families and build proper communities with community services and facilities which will, in turn, allow people to prosper, to reach their potential and to have a decent quality of life, saving the State money in the long term.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill. I also welcome the support for genuine tenants who will be protected from eviction at this difficult time. There are some excellent tenants and some excellent landlords who have been more than understanding of the loss of income and livelihoods as a result of this pandemic. Unfortunately, there are also rogue landlords and this Bill will help to provide their tenants with some protection.

A number of cases have been brought to my attention over recent months and I will provide the Minister with the details of just two of them. One case involves an 84-year-old landlady whose tenant has refused outright to pay rent since December 2019, before the pandemic arrived. This tenant, who was in receipt of social welfare payments, has not suffered any loss of income and had been claiming rent supplement. It is not known whether rent supplement is still being paid directly to her. This tenant is describing the property as her house and will not engage with the elderly landlady, any of her representatives or the RTB. She will not accept any registered letters and completely refuses to engage. This is despite the elderly landlady carrying out some refurbishments to the house earlier this year while the tenant was in default of rent. This has caused untold stress to this elderly lady to the point that she is now becoming ill. She is owed more than €10,000 in rent arrears and there is no end in sight.

In the second case, which also involves an elderly landlord, the tenant stopped paying the rent despite this rent also covering all of his utility bills. He used a previous ban on evictions to frustrate and delay the process of moving out and then took a case to the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, on the grounds of discrimination. The landlord felt bullied into accepting the terms of the WRC's judgment, which meant that all rent arrears were waived. Threshold knew that the tenant was not paying the rent and was likely to lose his case with the RTB. The landlord subsequently learned, following a phone call to Threshold, that it is advising tenants to take cases to the WRC, which seems to be in bad faith and at odds with the function of this charity. The tenant in this case was also in receipt of social welfare payments and his income has been completely unaffected by the pandemic. This landlord lost in excess of €16,000 in rental income from this tenant.

These are elderly people and their cases are only two of several cases of which I have been made aware since March. In the case of the elderly lady in question, her family were informed by the RTB as recently as yesterday that the case will take a very long time to process due to Covid-19. Where is the fairness in this? While legislation should be in place to protect good tenants and to prevent homelessness during this unprecedented time, the situation is becoming even more difficult for genuine landlords who are unable to get fair play. I ask that provision be made in the new Bill for cases in which tenants are simply using the legislation to frustrate the system. I ask the Minister to ensure there is some fairness for landlords in these instances. Landlords who pay tax and comply with the law cannot be penalised by legislation introduced to protect those who are exploiting that same legislation for their own benefit. The legislation needs to include some provision to ensure fair play for all involved and protection for genuine tenants - and there are genuine tenants out there - and for genuine landlords. I look forward to the Minister's comments in this regard.

I also ask the Minister to outline his plans for supports for commercial tenants. I have been contacted by a commercial tenant of 20 years who has always kept rent payments up to date. Unfortunately, closure during lockdown has meant this tenant has been unable to pay rent. The landlord was unwilling to provide a rent break and actually increased the rent. This landlord has now issued a notice to vacate the property, despite the business having been there for 21 years and having not had any income for most of this year. Here we see a good tenant with a viable and successful firm being forced out of business. This issue has to be dealt with.

All of our worlds are upside down right now. For many of us, nothing we did at this time last year is now possible. For many people, going to work is impossible and, for many of these, working from home is also not possible. These people, through no fault of their own, have become unemployed. Not one of us could have predicted that we would be where we are today. The stress, anxiety and uncertainty are unprecedented. For renters, this stress, anxiety and uncertainty would be compounded by the insecure nature of living in rental accommodation were it not for the decisive action of this Government and the previous Government.

As a result of this Bill, no renter in Ireland, whether in Lucan or Lismore, Clondalkin or Clonakilty, Palmerstown or Portlaoise, will live in fear of eviction during the period of these unprecedented restrictions. This measure does not just support their accommodation needs but also provides comfort and assurance in a world devoid of certainty. It gives people the security of knowing that, no matter what their landlord situation is, they will not be left looking for a new home while level 5 restrictions are in place.

There is, however, another group of people in need of comfort. Mortgage holders throughout Ireland have, unfortunately and through no fault of their own, lost their jobs due to Covid-19 and the restrictions imposed on society. They need the same level of comfort and the same assurance that they will not have to fight to remain in their homes, no matter their current circumstances. The Minister, Deputy Donohoe, has engaged with the banks and I know he is doing his utmost to ensure they play ball with people whose circumstances have changed as a direct result of Covid-19 and are already facing stress, anxiety and uncertainty. I appeal to our banks not to forget the people who bailed them out when they needed our help. Many of those people now need their help. I thank the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, for looking out for renters and ask him to continue to work with the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, to strike an arrangement with the banks that looks out for mortgage holders.

The Residential Tenancies and Valuation Act 2020, which came into effect at the start of August, already protects tenants experiencing rent arrears due to Covid-19 from eviction and from rent increases right up to 10 January.

This new Bill will protect all tenants from eviction while movements are restricted. I am particularly pleased that this Bill is set out so these protections will apply any time that severe restrictions are placed on people's movement, and that a ten-day grace period is included after the lifting of restrictions. This is the kind of action we need to take to ensure renters do not face undue stress in addition to the stress already stemming from Covid-19 and level 5 restrictions.

I am glad to speak on this legislation. I wish the Minister well in his office. I worked with him long ago when I was in the same esteemed outfit as he is, but I took a different path since then, thankfully, and I thank the electorate for supporting me. I also worked with the Minister, when he was a Deputy, on the housing committee in the previous Dáil, and he was energetic, enthusiastic and had some great ideas.

I used to be a member of the Irish Council for Social Housing, ICSH, and I still have a connection with that body. The CEO, Mr. Donal McManus, and other people there, are impressed with the Minister's attitude and his approach towards getting the work done, which is a slogan I use myself. I refer to regular early morning meetings and regular updates. We have had too much lethargy and talk and too little action in recent years. We had promises of delivery of housing, but we were not getting them because there were blockages.

Turning to the legislation, I welcome it but I am disappointed with it. This morning, we were discussing what I called tyrannical powers being given to the Government in respect of the lockdown until June 2021. I do not know why this Bill does not have the same timeline. If we are going to have those kinds of draconian powers, and we are expecting the worst, until next year, surely we can expect the same to apply to renters.

Renters need security of tenure. I am not going to demonise all landlords because there are some very good examples and some very bad ones. Many in the middle do their best and are accidental or unintentional landlords who may have been left a house or acquired a property somewhere or other that they never expected to have. They have great people and the relationship between the tenants and the landlords is very good. There are also some occasions when the tenants are wrong. They just blackguard and damage the property, do not appreciate it and the landlords cannot do anything. The Residential Tenancies Board, RTB, often does not support them either. That is unfair.

Landlords are leaving the market. Two weeks ago, I left the convention centre and went down to a chemist in this lovely plush part of Dublin with all the new buildings. When I came out, a man in a van recognised me. He told me he was a landlord in the centre of Dublin, and had been for 40 years. He had 160 properties. This was an ordinary man, in his van, fixing a toilet or some similar plumbing problem in one of his houses. He explained to me that he was getting out of the business because there was too much hassle and landlords were being demonised and not being respected. That man is providing 160 units. I refer to an ordinary gentleman driving an ordinary van, something similar to what I drive in my constituency. He is a workman and a businessman who had a good relationship with the majority of his tenants. He was tired of the pressures and the demonisation and blackguarding. He had a great deal to say about certain parties on the left which are constantly attacking landlords.

If we drive them all away, where do we go? We saw what happened with the bedsits in Dublin when they were all closed down some years ago. That was a stupid decision. Those bedsits were not ideal but they were much better than sleeping in a box or on the streets. More than 8,000 families have been declared homeless. Fr. Peter McVerry and similar people are doing their best and those voluntary groups must be supported. I am delighted that the Minister is supporting them.

Evictions should not be going on now because people have been discommoded. Ordinary families who were working and paying their rent and who were happy to pay it and raise their families have been put out of work. They may be getting the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, but there is no certainty with that. There is great worry and fear. We must, therefore, ensure that this legislation carries on in tandem with the legislation we debated this morning, which we are voting on later, and the Health (Amendment) Bill 2020, which we will debate tomorrow. Why is the legislation we are debating now only for level 5? People were at risk of evictions in levels 3 and 4 as well.

The Minister will know very well one gentleman to whom I have been talking. He is also a former member of the Minister's party. He was dragged through the courts during the pandemic, day after day. We were told the courts were not doing that and that they were only hearing emergency cases. That man, however, was dragged through the courts by vulture funds. He lost rental properties and families were unmercifully evicted out onto the street in the middle of the first lockdown during an early morning raid. Six families were made homeless there and then. That type of thing was not meant to be happening. Why are we so blinded? Why has this Government and the previous one had blindfolds on? We are making it easy for the banks and the vulture funds.

I do not want to interrupt Deputy, but his colleague, Deputy Michael Healy-Rae, is indicating that he would like to speak.

I did not see him, I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for telling me. The protections in this Bill must be extended until next summer along with the legislation granting the powers in respect of the lockdown restrictions. I felt that was too long and that next February would be enough. Why do we have two tiers in this regard, however? Why are we only protecting families in rented properties who are at risk of eviction when level 5 restrictions are in force, and only for ten days thereafter?

Many people will be hoping that the restrictions will be lifted, but fear will mean those renters will be hoping the restrictions are never lifted. We have a blatantly two-tier situation. We are looking after the vulture funds and the banks, with Ministers meeting representatives from the banks and asking them to be nice. The moratorium should not have been ended. Such moratoriums are still in place in other European countries and several of them have brought in legislation to insist on moratoriums in respect of the banks and vulture funds-----

I want to be fair, and I am not sure how the Deputies are sharing their time. I call Deputy Michael Healy-Rae.

I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle and Deputy Mattie McGrath for allowing me to speak. As I always do when I have an interest in a sector, I declare one on this occasion. As legislators, we must be careful regarding what we do in this House and the message we send out. Every person elected here has a duty of care to every citizen in country and to help and assist them when it comes to providing housing, whether that is private housing, social housing, social and affordable housing etc.

Each one of us has a responsibility to ensure people are not threatened with homelessness or being made homeless. People should have a right to dignity in their lives and have affordable accommodation. One thing that has been happening in recent years, however, and the Minister knows this, as he is level headed, is that thousands of people have been exiting the private rental market. When we talk about the private rental market, we should remember that the people involved are tax collectors. They pay tax at 52% to the Government. Substantial sums of money go to the Exchequer every year from those private rental businesses. Those people are involved in providing accommodation. It is an important part of the market because governments, past, present and future, will be unable and incapable of taking care of the housing market. I am not saying that in a smart way. It is just not possible.

It would be great and brilliant if the government of any country could provide all the required accommodation. If it cannot, however, people in the private sector must be involved. However, we have seen the people in that sector being demonised and accused of every type of thing. Like every sector in life, rogue people may not be doing their work properly. There are also, however, professional people doing that work in a professional way. They provide proper accommodation to proper standards at affordable rents and are undertaking a balancing act. They are borrowing money, providing accommodation, paying taxes at 52% and they have an onus of responsibility to the tenants, as we do as legislators. We must, however, be very careful not to scare those people out of the market because of the work we do here.

There are tens of thousands of them, and the vast majority of the properties coming up for sale that are rented at present do not go back onto the rental market. They are bought by people who use them for themselves. That is fine but it is reducing the availability of rental accommodation, which is continuously getting squeezed. These people are on to me and I am sure on to everyone else here about this.

We are dealing with two people here. For every tenant whose right to a home we are trying to protect, there is also the person who owns that property and who is only trying to do his or her best. Some politicians stand up in here continuously and try to make out that the people who are involved in this business are some type of evil criminals who are doing something wrong. There is nothing wrong with it and it is no different from operating a guest house, bed and breakfast, hotel or any other type of accommodation. These people are just business people, or they might be incidental landlords with one property they inherited or acquired over time. They are only trying to do their best so we have to be very careful about what we do.

Níl aon chainteoir ann ón Rialtas. We will go back to Sinn Féin.

I welcome the Bill but it is like making a foundation out of crêpe paper. It is a bit weak. It does not go far enough and Sinn Féin's amendments, of which there are plenty, would certainly strengthen it. What the people want is security, especially in this current Covid climate. Security of six weeks is insulting. We need to give renters a break. We are coming up to Christmas and people are very worried and scared at the moment. The Government is giving out a pittance by telling them they will be safe for six weeks. That is not going to be very encouraging for people. We need to help give people a quality of life. People need to feel safe. Families have lost their jobs due to Covid and for the Government to come out and insult people after what we just witnessed here is very thin. Hallowe'en has been cancelled and that is going to be the spirit of Christmas. People are entitled to change their minds.

The Deputy should remember what he said in July. He should look back at it and see if he was right.

The Minister should give people a break, for crying out loud, and support the amendments.

On the face of it, I support this Bill as it will ban evictions during the level 5 lockdown. The Bill's title states that Covid-19 “will impede the ability of tenants to find alternative accommodation” and mentions the “consequent impact on the well-being of persons and families”. Since when have the mental health impacts of secure housing been a concern of Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael? Their housing policies have been set up over many decades to reduce the availability of affordable housing, destabilise the private rental sector through rent supplement payments, and allow vulture funds and private investment companies to profit from our overinflated rental market. Basically, they have commodified this essential and basic human right.

Focus Ireland, Barnardos, the Children’s Rights Alliance, the Ombudsman for Children, Dr. Niall Muldoon, and many more have highlighted the long-term mental health effects of homelessness and housing insecurity on children. We might not be talking about our housing and homelessness crisis all the time at the moment, but we have not forgotten it either. I have told the Minister about our hidden homelessness issues in Donegal. The most recent figures from the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government on family homelessness are for the week of 24–30 August 2020. Where are the September figures? During that week in August, there were 1,120 homeless families with 2,620 dependants.

They will be published next week, on the last Friday of the month.

They will not be published until after this Bill has been passed. That is good.

That is nothing to do with this Bill so the Deputy should not imply-----

It is difficult because we cannot hear the Minister with the interchange. It is important information but it cannot be heard.

Maybe the Minister can respond when he is summing up because I have been waiting for my time for a while.

The RTB reported that it was informed of 374 eviction notices to tenants between March and the end of June this year, when the blanket eviction ban was in place. The RTB also said there was an increase in complaints about illegal evictions during September. Like everything, what good is legislation if it is not enforced and if people are still being put out on the street?

Section 2 provides for the emergency period whereby travel restrictions of a 5 km radius are imposed. Section 3 provides for notices of termination under the Act of 2004, and subsection (1) extends termination dates to after the emergency period. Interestingly, subsection (2) highlights Fianna Fáil priorities in that it provides for the exemptions to this Bill where a tenant is not complying with some of his or her obligations. It refers to section 16 of the 2004 Act, subsections (h)(i) and (m), which read:

16.—In addition to the obligations arising by or under any other enactment, a tenant of a dwelling shall—

[...]

(h) not behave within the dwelling, or in the vicinity of it, in a way that is anti-social or allow other occupiers of, or visitors to, the dwelling to behave within it, or in the vicinity of it, in such a way,

(i) not act or allow other occupiers of, or visitors to, the dwelling to act in a way which would result in the invalidation of a policy of insurance in force in relation to the dwelling,

[...]

(m) not use the dwelling or cause it to be used for any purpose other than as a dwelling without the written consent of the landlord (which consent the landlord may, in his or her discretion, withhold).

Section 3(2) of the Bill also exempts landlords from the eviction ban, as per section 67(2)(a)(ii) of the Act of 2004, if the tenant is “threatening to the fabric of the dwelling or the property containing the dwelling”. Section 67(1) of that Act states, "This section applies where the tenancy is being terminated by the landlord by reason of the failure of the tenant to comply with any of the obligations of the tenancy."

In further Fianna Fáil style, section 3(3), regarding notices of termination, states, “A person shall not, by virtue of the operation of this section, acquire any rights under Part 4 of the Act of 2004.” God forbid tenants be accidentally granted a more secure tenure by a tenancy becoming a Part 4 tenancy due to this extended time. The Residential Tenancies Act 2004 gave tenants the right to stay in rented accommodation for up to four years, following an initial six-month period. This right is known as security of tenure and applies to both periodic and fixed-term tenancies. A tenancy then becomes a Part 4 tenancy and can be followed by a further Part 4 tenancy. The Planning and Development (Housing) and Residential Tenancies Act 2016 extended a Part 4 tenancy, that is, security of tenure, from four years to six. This applies to all tenancies created from 24 December 2016. That is what the Government is preventing people from getting.

Section 4 provides for the entitlement to remain in occupation of the dwelling during emergency period, “until that date that is 10 days after the expiration of the emergency period”. Ten days. Has the Minister not looked on daft.ie or other rental sites? Does he think it is usual that someone can find an appropriate, affordable place and move in such a short space of time, especially given that what is happening with Covid-19 is fluid? We currently have level 5 lockdown for six weeks until the end of November, but what if level 5 is extended or the emergency period is shortened after a four-week review? Ten days does not provide much comfort or support, especially so close to Christmas. We will have a lockdown again after Christmas, another around Easter and one in August and September next year as well. We will just continue on like that. I agree that this Bill should just have a point at which it would roll over again.

The Taoiseach has said that the previous blanket ban was unconstitutional, but does that mean certain tenancies could be in danger? Are there any indications in that regard? Has the Department been liaising with Threshold and the RTB?

In July 2020, the ESRI produced a report entitled Exploring the Short-Run Implications of the Covid-19 Pandemic on Affordability in the Irish Private Rental Market. One of the key findings was that many non-supported private renters faced considerable affordability challenges prior to Covid-19. Further, around one in three, or approximately 70,000, households did not have sufficient income remaining after housing costs to cover a minimum standard of living expenditure, and that was before the pandemic.

I will support this Bill because it will offer some small security to tenants during our level 5 lockdown, but it is the least that the Minister and Government can do. It is a half-hearted way of offering some reprieve to tenants at this anxious time.

I thank colleagues for their contributions and their support. I note that there are amendments tabled, which we will go into in more detail as they are moved. For Deputy Pringle's knowledge, this Bill was not scheduled to coincide with the release of figures for homeless numbers. That happens in the last week of the month. They will be published on Friday next week, as I have done since I took over.

Deputy Buckley spoke about the measures here. We debated other residential tenancy protections in July. I am grateful that many in the Opposition have moved from the position that they had then of opposing that Bill, which afforded protections for those who needed them the most, whose incomes had been affected and jobs had been lost because of Covid. Those protections are in place and they are working. I am glad of that. I accept the genuine concern that Members here had. I remember Deputy Buckley talking about a tsunami of evictions that would happen after the removal of the blanket ban on evictions, which was not sustainable in the manner it was set up. That was the legal advice I had. We transitioned to something far more secure, with primary legislation, namely, the Residential Tenancies and Valuation Act 2020, which came into effect on 1 August. Not only did that provide protections until January 2021, it made some permanent changes, such as to the extension to 28 days of the period for a notice of arrears. That notice of arrears has to go to the Residential Tenancies Board, and the Money Advice & Budgeting Service is involved at that stage. We try to deal with the issue of rental arrears before they become a problem. That is a good thing.

It is important that colleagues are honest, and I note that less than 2% of tenancies ever come into dispute, which is a good thing. Deputy Pringle mentioned the 2004 Act, which many of the section 4 provisions are in. Deputy Pringle made some party political charges about Fianna Fáil and I ask him who brought in the 2004 Act. We have the work that we did earlier in July, which was opposed by many in opposition. I am glad that many in opposition now support this legislation.

To answer the question about what happens should another restriction such as the level 5 restriction come in, these provisions will automatically kick in again. I take the point that Deputy Cian O'Callaghan made earlier about the length of time given to table amendments. The staff in the Bills Office and my Department have worked incredibly hard, and I know Deputy O'Callaghan and others recognised that, including Deputy Ó Broin. While it is hoped it will not happen, if we have further restrictions in future, these measures kick in again automatically. I take the point. I never want to have to bring in legislation on an emergency basis such as this. We are debating all Stages this evening and I will go to the Seanad with the Bill tomorrow. We have already sought and received permission to seek an earlier signature by the President.

There are important measures here. Some have mentioned the provisions in Britain and the notice period. There is not an eviction ban for six months in Britain or the four parts of the United Kingdom. The six months relates to England. It is not an eviction ban but an extension of the notice period. In response to those who mentioned what the Tory Government is doing compared with what the Government in the Irish Republic is doing, it is different. Lest we forget, tenancies of a duration of between one and three years have a 120-day notice period, and for those more than three years, it is a 180-day notice period. The Oireachtas brought in the initial ban in March during the interregnum, with the support of everyone, and I extended it. We then brought in more permanent measures which are needed to protect tenants. Regardless of where we are coming from in this debate, my priority is the protection of tenants. We also have to ensure that protections that come in do not ensure that there is another exodus of the many decent landlords from the private rental market. As I said, only 2% of tenancies fall into the category where they would come into dispute. Others have to recognise that we are losing the mam and pa landlords from the market.

I want to build more public homes. That is why, in the budget that we just passed, there is the single biggest housing budget in the history of the State. I was in Donegal with Deputy Pringle and I was glad that he met me there that day. We were opening public homes. Five different housing estates in Donegal were opened that day. I want more of that. Next year, we have a target of 12,750 public homes, with 9,500 actual builds. This year, the July stimulus has the largest ever voids programme, where we are bringing 2,500 existing social homes back into the stock. Those 2,500 homes will be allocated and mostly occupied by December this year. That is actually being done. When we talk about the provision of permanent homes, that is what I want. I want public homes. We are going to bring forward affordability measures and an affordable purchase scheme as well as affordable rent, which we are working on and will come to the Dáil.

We have to ramp up our housing supply. Deputy Pringle bemoaned the short-term rental assistance measures that have been given. That is not propping up a private market. My Department supports 58,000 housing assistance payment, HAP, tenancies. Does the Deputy want me not to support them? Does he want me to stop funding that so that all those families do not have homes?

(Interruptions).

These are the choices that we have to make. In the budget, which Deputy Pringle opposed, we provided for a further 15,000 new HAP tenancies. I do not necessarily want to do that but I have to make provision for it if we are to stop people going into homelessness. Instead, we are transitioning to public homes, with the largest building programme in the history of the State for next year. We supported that. It is what this coalition and I, as Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, are bringing forward.

In the short term, while we are dealing with the pandemic, we have ensured that our construction sector will keep going through levels 4 and 5. I commend it and all those workers in the sector who have shown an unbelievable degree of flexibility, working under tough conditions. They have endured and the sector has shown that it is able to adapt. The safety of those workers has to be paramount. It is important that we do not fall further behind with our housing delivery. The sector is staying open with the workers' agreement. The safety measures on the sites that I have visited have been exceptional. There are protocols in place should there be any further breakdowns in any of those sites. We are focused on delivering public homes for our people and affordable homes, both for rental and purchase.

We are adding further protections for our tenants. If one looks back at the Act and the Bill that I brought in here in the convention centre at the end of July, it has worked and is working. The Residential Tenancies Board and its numbers will tell Deputies that it is working. Up until the last quarter, only 177 people had sought those protections. They may not have sought those protections for two reasons, first, because there may not have been a need to seek protections, and second, because we need to provide more information about it. At present, 450,000 circulars are going to tenants and landlords throughout the country, advising of the new rights and protections that they have.

In reply to a question asked by a number of Deputies, I personally engage with the Simon Communities, Focus Ireland, Threshold and tenant advocates all the time. We have formal meetings on homelessness services delivery and how we can strengthen tenancy rights.

I genuinely welcome the support Opposition Members have shown for this legislation. It will be effective. It will also mean that should there be further restrictions, which we all hope will not be required, these measures will come back into effect. It adds to the protections we introduced last August. There are 13 or 14 amendments and we will discuss each of them on Committee Stage. I will discuss them in the spirit in which they were put forward, which is a genuine desire on the part of Members to put forward their views on how they believe this legislative measure may be improved. I will listen to the arguments that are made on that Stage.

Deputy Cian O'Callaghan mentioned the more vulnerable communities in our society, referring to the Traveller community and the new Irish community. I am acutely aware of that. I will not go into detail here, and Members will understand the reasons. I am engaged directly, along with the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, with organisations regarding Traveller accommodation, in particular, and what further measures we must take to help the Traveller community through the Covid crisis. We have provided significant additional funding in that regard. Just last week, I had a number of telephone conversations with representative groups. I take the point the Deputy made very seriously. We must ensure that those who are more vulnerable to this virus are protected.

That includes those in our homelessness services. The budget this year provides €218 million for homelessness services in 2021 to address homelessness. It will go to expanding Housing First, which most Deputies on all sides of the House see as a worthwhile and effective mechanism to help those who are most vulnerable in the homeless community, with addiction and mental health issues, and to provide wraparound services and supports. I and the Government are committed to expanding Housing First, and we will do that. We have secured the funding to do it. Currently, we are carrying out an evaluation and looking at the targets for different parts of the country into which we can expand Housing First. My absolute priority is reducing the numbers of families and individuals who are homeless in every city, town and county of the Republic. We will continue to do that. I am acutely aware, right down to county level, of the challenges the local authorities face, but we will not be found wanting with the funding and assistance we provide in that regard.

Another reason I put out the call for housing last July was to ask the local authorities, on an exceptional basis, to source single properties. These are for larger families. Some 50 larger families have been homeless for over four years and 73% of the adult homeless community are single people. We do not have enough property for single people. That is relevant to design into the future and how we design our estates, but we must deal with the issue now. The funding in the budget is €218 million, an increase from €168 million in 2020. That is significant and gives us a fighting fund to combat homelessness.

First and foremost, however, the Government and all Members of the Dáil must continue to work together on behalf of our citizens to ensure they are safe during this pandemic. That is the purpose of the legislation before the House. It balances the rights of those who own property. We must acknowledge those rights. Some Members may not agree that this should be the case and believe that one can set aside constitutional rights. I respect Bunreacht na hÉireann. All legislators should, and I am assuming all do. However, one cannot just pick and choose from it. It is not a pick and mix. It is the Constitution and one must abide by it. The laws we make in the Oireachtas must abide by Bunreacht na hÉireann.

This Bill has been well crafted with the assistance of the Attorney General, his office and, in particular, the staff in the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government. I thank the members of the team there for the work they have done late into the night on bringing forward a robust legislative measure that will add to the armoury and protection we have for tenants. I am acutely aware of my responsibility to try to keep people safe during this pandemic, particularly tenants and those in the homeless and other communities. We will do everything we can to achieve that. When I was in the Chamber in July I told colleagues that if we needed to do more in terms of protections, I would return to the House with further legislation and do that. That is what I am doing tonight with the support of my colleagues in the Green Party and Fine Gael.

If we have to do more as this pandemic progresses, and we all earnestly hope we will see the back of it soon, I will return to the Dáil and Seanad and further strengthen protections, should that be required. It must be proportionate. I thank colleagues for their contributions. I have listened and taken notes. I look forward to the Committee and Remaining Stages in which we can debate the amendments proposed by Members.

Question put and agreed to.