Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 23 Mar 2022

Vol. 1019 No. 7

Ban on Sex for Rent Bill 2022: Second Stage [Private Members]

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

I am sharing time. As the rental crisis deepens, we see growing reports of a cohort of landlords attempting to exploit the vulnerable position some tenants and renters are in by demanding sex in lieu of rent or for a reduced rent. Recently there have also been disturbing reports of individuals attempting to exploit women fleeing the war in Ukraine and looking for somewhere safe to stay with offers of sex in lieu of rent. One landlord offered accommodation in Clare without rent to a slim Ukrainian woman with an expectation of sex and demanded a photo from prospective renters before revealing the location of the property. This is despicable behaviour from predatory landlords attempting to exploit people traumatised by fleeing war. It is in sharp contrast to the thousands of Irish families opening their homes in a spirit of generosity, welcome, support and solidarity to people from Ukraine, which is the overwhelming feeling of Irish people.

What has been happening shows the depraved depths of the housing crisis, where a small minority of grossly exploitative landlords expect sexual favours in return for putting a roof over people's heads. It is an abhorrent practice. No one should be subjected to such demands when they are looking for somewhere safe to live and shelter. We are seeing the sharp end of the commodification of housing that has taken place. Housing and shelter have been turned into commodities to be traded and people with resources can profit and exploit the need of others for shelter.

This Bill would introduce a specific criminal offence for anyone who demands sex in lieu of rent or for reduced rent. It would also create a specific criminal offence to advertise sex in lieu of rent, both for an individual placing an ad and for a platform, publication or anyone facilitating such an ad or arrangement. The proposed penalties are imprisonment of up to seven years, a fine or both. For anyone involved in the placing of such an ad, a fine of up to €50,000 is proposed.

Is this Bill needed? The Minister for Justice has confirmed to the Dáil that there is no specific criminal offence for this. Gardaí have confirmed to the Oireachtas housing committee that the PULSE system does not record sex for rent complaints as a specific category, which is not surprising given it is not a specific criminal offence.

It is important to address the fact the Bill has been critiqued by some. They have pointed out this will not end the exploitative practice of sex for rent. That critique is fair but the Bill will act as a deterrent and send a strong signal that exploiting renters in this way is not acceptable. If there is any ambiguity about that, legally or otherwise, this Bill will remove it. We are not saying it is a panacea. It is not an alternative to investing in social housing, cost rental and affordable purchase homes. It is not an alternative to the high rent, market-driven housing favoured in some quarters. It is a small step in trying to address this exploitative practice. While the Bill is needed, the best way to support renters is to improve rights and security of tenure, tackle affordability and invest in cost-rental houses, of which we need thousands each year rather than hundreds. We need to stop the favourable tax treatment that encourages investment funds to dominate housing supply.

We do not know the full extent of the problem in Ireland. Comprehensive research has not been undertaken on it. There is some evidence that migrants, in particular, who may have less access to support networks for information and advice, have been targeted. Some ads have been placed on platforms that are mostly used by migrants. Research undertaken by Shelter, the UK housing charity, suggests that 59,000 women in the UK were propositioned for sex in lieu of rent in the year and a half from March 2020 to September 2021. That is a shocking figure. There is no equivalent research in Ireland but it indicates that this could go beyond isolated cases.

On the devastating impact on people seeking the most basic human need of shelter, excellent work has been done by Ann Murphy in the Irish Examiner in documenting, reporting and shedding light on this serious problem. She reported on a woman in Waterford city who responded to an ad for a room last October. She moved out of her rented accommodation when her landlord told her she could live there without paying rent in exchange for sex. The landlord turned up at her workplace the following day. Renters should not be subject to such terrible exploitative behaviour that makes them feel unsafe in the place they live. Women, in particular, should not be subject to attempts at gross exploitation when there looking for somewhere safe. An Italian woman who has been propositioned by three different landlords since the start of the year told the Irish Examiner that trying to find a room in Dublin "is like falling [into] a dangerous hell". We would be horrified if any of our young people travelling around the world, trying to settle and make a life for themselves, were being treated in this way. We would want everything done to stop it.

I welcome the Government's confirmation that it is supporting the Bill on Second Stage. As a smaller Opposition party, this is as far as we can bring the Bill in our Private Members' time without support from the Government to enable progression through Committee Stage and further. I understand from media reports that the Government agrees with the aims of the Bill but takes the view that more work is needed on it, especially in the way that it interacts with other sexual offences laws. I ask the Minister of State to address the timeline for dealing with the Bill. What approach do the Minister of State and the Government intend to take on this? Will the Minister of State give a clear indications on that approach? Is he seeking to progress this Bill? Does the Government intend to table its own legislation? We are happy to work with the Government and other Opposition parties who support the Bill.

The Bill alone is not enough. We need a clear indication from Government as to what it will do to tackle the power imbalance between tenants and landlords. The Bill will not be enough to tackle the abuses of power that take place. If we do not tackle those abuses and create a situation where tenants have some security of tenure in their home, they will never feel they are in a strong enough position to assert and stand up for their rights.

The growth of this practice is happening in the context of rents spiralling out of control. In our capital city, rents are higher than in any other European Union capital. At the same time that people are paying exorbitant rents, rights for renters are particularly weak. We need wider reform from the Government to improve security of tenure and rights for renters and to address the huge power imbalance. Sex for rent is the sharp edge of that imbalance and it is correct that we try to address it through legislation.

If we do not address that power imbalance overall, we will not be able to tackle this in the way we should. If we are serious about tackling this, we must be serious about ensuring that rights for renters are brought in line with those in other European countries. Fundamental to that is recognising that where somebody is renting it is the person's home. Our system of renters' rights at present does not recognise that. The current unofficial policy of the Government has been to allow rents to increase and to stand over a situation where renters do not have proper rights. It is important that is addressed, as well as supporting this Bill.

I thank Deputy Cian O'Callaghan for the work he has put into this issue, which has largely not been dealt with by the Government. It has been off the political agenda in this country even though there are some reports of it being dealt with in the UK. It has probably been off the agenda here because unless one has been in the footsteps of someone who faces the rental crisis that this country faces, it can be difficult to fully appreciate or understand the impact it has on an individual. There are many landlords in the Chamber but I am not sure how many of us currently rent.

I rented for probably 20 years of my life. I rented as a student, as a single person and as a mother. I have rented all over Ireland and I have rented overseas. I had some really good and some really bad landlords. The one consistent thing throughout that rental experience was the level of vulnerability one has as a renter. It sits on one's shoulder whereby one knows that at any point in any day one could get an email or letter saying that the landlord wants one to vacate the premises that is one's home. It is constantly with the renter and makes him or her very vulnerable. It is a constant stress. Thankfully, I have never had to rent in a housing crisis or in a situation where a country is about to take in potentially 100,000 or 200,000 people who are desperately in need of accommodation. In addition, I have never had to rent in a situation where I did not have family supports around me, where I did not understand the language of the country in which I was renting or where I was fighting for the survival of my children.

What we have seen due to the housing crisis, and will continue to see, is that the power dynamic between a landlord and a tenant is cavernous. It is incredible. That makes people very vulnerable. It is the Government's responsibility to step in and offer those people the protections they need from the predatory, disgusting behaviour that very few, but some, landlords wield over tenants, particularly women seeking to house themselves and their children. I welcome the fact that the Government will not oppose the Bill but, as my colleague said, it has to go further. It must bring it through the Dáil and the Seanad and implement the legislation. We cannot be in a situation five or ten years hence where scandals will emerge even though we knew what was going to happen and we did not take a stand or the Government did not put the supports and protections that are obviously needed in place.

The Bill does not just make it illegal for somebody to offer or request sex for rent, it also makes it illegal for a platform to house or hold that offer. There has to be a lot of questioning of the media institutions that allow that to happen. It is important they are held to account. Why they would ever allow anybody to use their platforms for that type of reprehensible, disgusting offer is beyond me. That is an important part of the Bill.

The Bill is incredibly timely because there will be thousands of refugees coming to this country, mainly women and children. As Deputy Cian O'Callaghan said, there was a story in the Irish Examiner this week in which we already see that type of behaviour being forced on very vulnerable people, so it is important this legislation is put in place. We acknowledge this Bill is not a panacea. We are not claiming that it will resolve the situation because ultimately the greatest protection to vulnerable women and people in our society is access to housing. People will remain vulnerable until there is a roof over their heads and if they feel they have no other option but to put up with the offers that are being made, in some instances they will take those offers on board. The Bill is an important step and an important protection. We ask that the Government put it in place and ensure it is passed quickly so we can send a very clear signal to those who think this could be an option for them that we will not accept or tolerate it and that we will do everything in our power to stop it and make sure it does not happen.

I thank Deputy Cian O'Callaghan for bringing this Bill forward. It is difficult to know what to say on this issue. It is difficult to sum up how abhorrent it is for anyone to prey on vulnerable women and to leverage shelter for sex. This issue has come to the forefront in recent weeks, primarily due to the tireless reporting by Ann Murphy in the Irish Examiner, as well as the arrival of more than 10,000 Ukrainians who are in desperate need of accommodation in an environment where there is already a chronic housing shortage. The outpouring of goodwill from the public has been genuinely heartwarming to witness, to see thousands of people offer their home to those who have had to abandon their own home in fear of their lives.

However, in every crisis there will be individuals who will take advantage. The Irish Examiner reported on a property in Clare which was on offer for free to a "slim Ukrainian woman" with the expectation of sex. The landlord in question requested that women send him a photograph and he would then let them know if they were deemed suitable. It is hard to comprehend how anyone could watch Ukrainian hospitals bombed, Mariupol being starved and bombarded and millions flee across neighbouring borders and only see an opportunity to sexually exploit vulnerable women in that context. However, it is happening both in Ireland and across Europe. It has always happened. Abusers hone in on vulnerability. This type of exploitation has always been about an abuse of power as much as of the person. The people arriving in Ireland from Ukraine are in an incredibly vulnerable position. They have left everything behind them and have landed in Ireland with no support base and, in many cases, without English or very little English. They have also been absolutely traumatised.

The Government has announced that it will conduct Garda vetting for people offering rooms to children and vulnerable adults, but we all can agree that every person needs to be protected from this type of abuse. Not everyone is going through official accommodation channels or the Irish Red Cross. Many Ukrainian refugees are taking up housing offers through Facebook groups which have been set up to help them. Vetting will only apply to people using official channels and, of course, will only determine whether the people offering the accommodation have a criminal record. We are all too aware of the shortcomings in that regard, given the appalling conviction rates for sexual assault and rape in this country.

Foreign nationals are often the most targeted group by sex for rent offers because they are seen as the most vulnerable. Chantal arrived in Ireland last October to start a new career and shared her experiences with the Irish Examiner and "The Pat Kenny Show". Three people asked her for sex in lieu of rent. She said she was really upset, disgusted and afraid. She is here alone, without family, and was facing this. She felt hopeless about it. This Bill will criminalise sex for rent, but the Government has to be much more proactive, as Deputy Cian O'Callaghan outlined. It must work with housing and social media sites to ensure they are identifying these posts and filtering them out, as well as banning the people responsible for them.

Renters in Ireland are vulnerable, and we have known that for years. With a shortage of supply and unaffordable rents, people are desperate.

Trying to find accommodation to rent is a minefield for a woman. Housing advertisements on daft.ie and Facebook groups are constantly appearing with the offer of reduced rent for women with the expectation that sex or sharing a bed with the landlord would be required. It is just absolutely unbelievable that this would be the case. I have heard from a young woman who when trying to arrange viewings was sent the address of a nearby pub because the landlord insisted on having a drink and getting to know this woman first. On another occasion the same woman attended a viewing and was told directly by the tenant subletting the apartment that it would be offered at a reduced rate for sex. When she googled his email address later on, she found he ran a website for upskirt pictures of women taken without their consent.

The sexual exploitation of women for housing is not a new phenomenon. Whenever there is a scarcity of resources and a desperate need to get accommodation, abusers will always take advantage. I welcome that the Government is not opposing this legislation and I know there is goodwill right across the Dáil on this. However, there is an urgency to this and I ask the Minister of State to respond to Deputy Cian O'Callaghan on the timeline for what is intended in this Bill. This could be put through the Houses quite quickly because there is goodwill.

On behalf of the Minister for Justice, I thank Deputy Cian O'Callaghan for bringing forward this timely Bill with very important proposals. Members are all too aware of reports in the media of offers being made to provide accommodation in exchange for sex; there are reportedly even worrying offers being targeted specifically towards vulnerable Ukrainian women. I am also aware of reports of existing tenants in vulnerable circumstances being approached in a similar way.

I am acutely aware of the level of distress such an advance would cause to a tenant, particularly somebody in a vulnerable position, perhaps where the tenant is no longer in a position to be able to pay rent. It is also upsetting for people generally and all of us reading such advertisements placed by people attempting to exploit others for their own self-gratification. Let me be quite clear that any behaviour from accommodation providers seeking to use their position to prey on vulnerable people is totally unacceptable. It is an appalling abuse of power by unscrupulous individuals and it will not be tolerated by this Government.

It is important to note the laws surrounding sexual offences have been significantly strengthened in recent years, notably with the introduction of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017. Sexual offences legislation now makes it abundantly clear that consent must be freely and voluntarily given. In other words, submission when a person is forced or has no other choice is not the same as consent. Sex without consent is rape and punishable by up to a life term in prison.

There have been other important legislative advancements in the area in recent years, including the Domestic Violence Act 2018 and Coco's law, otherwise known as the Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offences Act 2020, which introduced the offence of sharing intimate images without consent. That was legislation championed by Deputy Howlin and it is evidence of the Government's willingness to work with the Opposition to introduce important legislation to protect vulnerable users.

My Department is also working on a number of new legislative measures to strengthen further our laws in the area of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. Before Easter the Minister, Deputy McEntee, aims to publish a Bill that will include new specific criminal offences for stalking and non-fatal strangulation. The general scheme of the Government's hate crime Bill, published in April 2021, will create a new and specific hate-aggravated offences for crimes motivated by prejudice against protected characteristics, including that of gender. The Sex Offenders (Amendment) Bill 2021 currently before the Houses will, among other provisions, strengthen the monitoring and notification provisions applicable to convicted sex offenders.

I will now turn to the Bill itself. The aim of the Bill is to create a criminal offence for acquiring or accepting sex as a condition of access to or retention of accommodation. The Bill also aims to make it an offence to arrange or facilitate such behaviour. The Government supports the objectives of the Bill in principle and will not be opposing it today.

My Department has considered the provisions of the Bill and sought advice from the Attorney General on its proposals. I am advised there is no difficulty with the intent of the Bill but there are, however, some concerns with the detail that would need to be addressed to ensure it is legally sound and can achieve its objectives. I will outline some of the concerns around the Bill so we can perhaps work towards addressing them.

In its current form the Bill is very general and for a criminal statute not sufficiently precise in terms of the definition of the terms used in it and the parameters of the offence. Offence provisions that are impermissibly vague risk being found incompatible with the Constitution and in order for the provisions in this Bill to be constitutionally sound, it would be necessary to define more clearly the precise nature of the conduct that is to be criminalised. For example, more clarity is required on what is meant by requiring sex as a condition of access to accommodation and who falls within the term of "provider" of accommodation. The terms "accommodation" and "sex" should also be defined.

Section 3 creates the offence of facilitating an offence under section 2 and it is particularly vague. The mental element of the offence is different for a person and a publisher but a publisher is not defined. An offence by a publisher is committed by failing to take on specified remedial action in an unspecified reasonable time after being informed that its actions have arranged or facilitated an offence under section 2. It is necessary, at a minimum, to specify remedial action and a required timeframe for action to ensure this offence can be clear and enforceable.

Our further concern with the proposed offences in section 3 arises with respect to existing offences. The penalty under section 2 of the Bill is imprisonment for a period of up to seven years, and this means an offence under section 2 is an arrestable offence. It is already an offence under section 7 of the Criminal Law Act 1997 to aid, abet, counsel or procure the commission of an arrestable offence, so it appears there is an overlap between an existing offence under the 1997 Act and a new offence under section 3 of this Bill. The penalty for aiding and abetting under the 1997 Act is punishable by the same penalty as the primary offence, which in this case is up to seven years of imprisonment. The Bill provides a penalty of a fine of up to €50,000 for arranging or facilitating a section 2 offence.

If the aim of this section is to create an offence of publishing an advert requiring sexual acts as payment or part-payment for accommodation, it would be preferable to provide expressly for that rather than having the wider construction of the offence proposed in the Bill. The Bill creates a new offence in a stand-alone capacity and does not consider how the proposed new offences would interact with existing sexual offences legislation.

Deputies will be aware there is a comprehensive body of laws in the area of sexual and domestic violence, further strengthened in recent years, notably with the sexual offences Act of 2017 and the domestic violence Act of 2018. Consideration should be given to any implications to the proposed offences where they occur in the context of intimate relationships, particularly where parties are cohabiting and the relationship breaks down, and it is not clear what the intended scope of the offence is in the Bill in the context of personal relationships. This is particularly the case where parties are not married but living together and there is friction, as the current formulation could result in complaints of criminal behaviour being made under section 2(1).

Section 7A of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 1993, as inserted by section 25(b) of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017, makes it an offence to pay, give, offer or promise to pay "money or any other form of remuneration or consideration for the purpose of engaging in sexual activity with a prostitute". This offence does not cover the circumstance where a tenant is offered accommodation in return for sex as there is no suggestion that it would occur for the purposes of prostitution, so any potential overlap between the two offences should be considered.

The proportionality of the penalty for the offence under section 2 would itself benefit from further consideration. By way of contrast, a first offence of paying or offering to pay for sexual services for the purpose of prostitution under the 1993 Act has a maximum penalty of €500.

I offer the above not by way of criticism but rather to outline some challenges that we can explore and seek to resolve. My colleague, the Minister, Deputy McEntee, and I fully agree that the behaviour that Deputy Cian O'Callaghan's Bill aims to target is unacceptable and exploitative. It should be a criminal offence. On that basis the Government will not oppose the Bill on Second Stage and it fully supports its principle. As I have outlined, the Bill requires further precision and careful consideration in how it interacts with other legislation in the area of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. The Minister, Deputy McEntee, is happy to engage with the Deputy to assess the best way to advance the principles of the Bill.

Undoubtedly, nobody in the Chamber condones the behaviour of a landlord exploiting somebody who is seeking accommodation for personal sexual benefit. Condemnation is not the same as action, however, and I thank my colleague, Deputy Cian O'Callaghan, for being the one to take action against this predatory behaviour, as well as journalist Ms Ann Murphy of the Irish Examiner for her critical work in highlighting the matter and bringing attention to it. I also acknowledge the Cabinet for accepting the Bill and I ask it to continue to support this work by fast-tracking the Bill's passage.

I hope that there will continue to be cross-party support for ending the abhorrent and exploitative practice of sex for rent. The Minister of State has outlined some of the issues in respect of the Bill comprehensively. One of the omissions from his statement was the timeline. We accept there is urgency, so let us get urgent about it. I hope the Minister of State will in his next response outline the timeline by which we can develop legislation he feels is appropriate.

Deputy Cian O'Callaghan's Bill is clear in its objective that no one should be expected or required to occupy his or her landlord's bed for a roof over his or her head. Landlords who engage in such predatory behaviour will face a fine or imprisonment of up to seven years or both. The Bill also provides that those who publish, arrange or facilitate sex as a condition of accommodation will face a fine of €50,000. When introducing the Bill, Deputy Cian O'Callaghan spoke about how in times of crisis there are always those, however few, who will seek to exploit and take advantage of others who are at their most vulnerable and desperate.

While we should be disgusted at those who seek to exploit others at their most vulnerable and desperate, we need to be equally disgusted by a society that causes such desperation, poverty and scarcity when it comes to something as basic as housing. I strongly welcome the Cabinet's acceptance of this legislation and the action it will take against predators exploiting the scarcity of housing and shelter for our most vulnerable. Will the Cabinet also accept the conditions which create those vulnerable people who fall prey to predators? The housing and rental crisis in Ireland is deepening. Overlapping with it is the cost of living crisis. The number of homes available to rent nationwide reached an all-time low according to the fourth quarter rental report from Daft. Just 1,397 were available to rent on 1 February nationwide, pushing rents up even higher and overlapping with inflation, which is at its highest rate since 2018.

Consistently, the groups most at the margins of our society are most vulnerable to exploitation in housing. In 2021, research published by the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission and the Economic and Social Research Institute found that less than 25% of one-parent families reported home ownership compared with 70% of the total population. Over half of all homeless families were one-parent families and their children. Some 48% of migrants live in the private rental sector but just 9% of those born in Ireland live in the private rental sector. It is these groups who are most likely to experience financial hardship, deprivation and poverty in our society. They face the most profound barriers to accessing secure housing and are most likely to face such cruel and exploitative practices as the one Deputy Cian O'Callaghan's Bill aims to confront.

Globally, another crisis is taking place. The war in Ukraine with Russia has global ramifications. The United Nations reports that 10 million people have been uprooted from their homes with 3.5 million of them forced to leave their country and 6.5 million internally displaced within Ukraine. In Ireland, 20,000 people have pledged their homes to Ukrainians fleeing the war. While the vast majority have done so in solidarity and altruism, again there have already been reports of some using this crisis of women fleeing the war and seeking refuge in our country for their own sexual gain. Ann Murphy in the Irish Examiner last week reported that a property in Clare was being offered to a Ukrainian woman for free with an expectation of sex. The landlord demanded a photo be provided from the prospective tenant before providing the exact location of the property. Nasc, the Migrant and Refugee Rights Centre, has urged Ukrainians arriving into Ireland not to consider sex for rent accommodation arrangements and to avoid any accommodation that is unethical or immoral.

There is a dearth of information when it comes to this practice, which is extremely worrying as the extent of the problem is hard to quantify. The Garda PULSE system does not record sex for rent complaints as a specific category. However, recent research done by UK housing and homeless charity, Shelter, found that 30,000 women in the UK were propositioned for sex for rent arrangements between March 2020 and January 2021. Sex for rent specifically targets women from migrant backgrounds precisely because of their additional vulnerability due to reduced levels of knowledge and lack of social and support networks. Last February the Irish Examiner spoke to six women who were offered accommodation by a landlord at either a reduced rate or for free with an expectation of sex. Five of the six were foreign women who had travelled to Ireland for work or study.

We need to be cognisant of the power imbalance at play between landlords and those looking for secure and safe housing. We need to question ourselves as legislators. Why is it taking us so long to act? Why have we allowed landlords to abuse their status for such exploitative purposes for so long without facing specific criminal penalties? The Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage issued a statement last week vehemently condemning any attempts to target vulnerable persons with an offer of accommodation in return for sexual acts, including those fleeing the devastation of war in Ukraine, and calling the practice exactly what it is, abhorrent. However, the statement also mentioned the introduction of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017, which has provided for a better representation of consent and explicitly states that it must be freely and voluntarily given.

Although we have these criminal laws that deal with sexual offences of rape and consent, we still need something like the Bill Deputy Cian O'Callaghan proposes. The legislation now makes it abundantly clear that consent must be freely and voluntarily given. In other words, submission where someone feels forced or has no other choice is not the same as consent. Sex for rent arrangements are by their very nature non-consensual because of the exploitation and power imbalance within them. In addition, the act of a landlord seeking a sex for rent arrangement, advertising or propositioning a person for sex for rent, needs to be criminalised. There should be criminal sanctions for those who facilitate or attempt to arrange this cruel practice. Currently there is no legislation in place to deal with the practice of landlords offering sex for rent arrangements. This is exactly what Deputy Cian O'Callaghan's Bill seeks to address, targeting the small number of landlords who carry out this grossly exploitative practice.

There are legitimate concerns and criticisms that the Bill will not fully address the problem, which we all believe are fair. This form of exploitation and coercion, of men using their power differentials to exploit vulnerable people, must be seen on the spectrum of men's violence against women which we have often and rightly discussed in this Chamber over the last months. This despicable form of that particular plague is even more insidious as it taps into the structural violence that comes from our housing crisis and crisis of poverty. While not even close to a panacea, the Bill is an acceptance from the State that predatory men are using the failures of the State, homeless and poverty, to prey on vulnerable women living in our country today.

The Bill seeks to address a very real practice within the rental sector. It is also an example of something that is endemic within our rental sector, namely, the exploitation of people in desperate situations. There is a housing crisis in our country. The lack of supply and consequential high rents coupled with poor security of tenure mean people end up being taken advantage of and exploited by manipulative individuals. Those conditions have been created and perpetuated by successive Governments.

There is a responsibility to act, and quickly. We are proud that the Cabinet has agreed to support the work of Deputy Cian O'Callaghan by supporting the Bill. We request a timeline for its implementation. If the Government agrees that the requirement of sex as a condition of accommodation is truly abhorrent, it should only seek to fast-track the Bill in order that the practice of sex for rent comes to an end and the minority of landlords who use this exploitative tactic face the full legal consequences.

I congratulate and commend Deputy Cian O’Callaghan on bringing this very important legislation before the House. Our party will enthusiastically support it. What is particularly important about the Bill is not just that it makes the seeking of sex for rent arrangements a criminal offence but also that it seeks to impose criminal sanctions on those who would allow the advertising of such activities. That is a really important part of the Bill. It is something that Government has often been unwilling to do, as we saw for example with the weak regulation of short-term lets and so on.

I also commend the sterling investigative journalism of Ann Murphy from the Irish Examiner. She has been doggedly reporting this story since December of last year. Given how difficult it has been to find many of these adverts, because they are not necessarily on platforms most of us readily use, her work and that of her publication must be commended not only on revealing this but ensuring that the story is placed at the centre of the political agenda. Thanks to the Social Democrats, we are now dealing with legislation on it.

When the story broke in December I along with many other Deputies wrote to both Ministers, Deputies McEntee and Darragh O’Brien, urging them first to clarify whether there was anything in existing law that could be used to prevent this kind of activity from continuing and if not, to bring forward legislation as a matter of urgency. To the credit of the Minister, Deputy McEntee, she replied saying she had raised the matter with the Attorney General and would consider it on foot of his recommendations. I have to say I was a little bit more disappointed with the Minister, Deputy Darragh O’Brien. There is a clearly an argument, in addition to the sanctions provided for in this legislation, to make changes to the Residential Tenancies Act so that, for example, the Residential Tenancies Board could conduct its own investigations where such matters are brought to its attention. I have not heard anything from the Minister, Deputy Darragh O’Brien, to say he is looking at that. Not only do I believe there should be criminal sanctions and fines; I also believe anybody who engages in this kind of practice should not be allowed to be a landlord, full stop. The Residential Tenancies Board and its sanctions regime would be a very strong complement to what is in the current legislation.

When the news first broke, what came to my mind initially was a feeling of what if this was my sister, mother or daughter. When these kind of stories arise, that is the question we should all ask ourselves because when you ask yourself that question, you realise the kind of urgent response that is required from all of us as legislators. I add my voice to all those who spoke today and condemn utterly this disgusting behaviour, particularly when it is targeting vulnerable women trying to get access to the private rental sector, be they single parents, those on low incomes or indeed Ukrainians seeking refuge from war in our country. As other speakers have indicated, condemnation is not enough. We need action. While I appreciate that these are complex legal matters and it is not possible to produce legislation overnight, I am disappointed with one aspect of today's debate, namely, that we are not debating Government legislation because that would be a much quicker way to proceed. This is no disrespect to the proposer of the legislation.

I listened to the Minister of State's statement, which was very considered. However, one thing was absent from it, namely, a cast-iron commitment that the Government would bring forward its own legislation to fix the problems the Government rightly outlines. When a number of us on the Opposition benches, including myself and Deputy Cian O'Callaghan, brought forward legislation to give student renters greater protection last year, the Minister said on the floor of Dáil, sitting in the Convention Centre, he would take that legislation and bring forward his own amendments because it was a quicker way of addressing the issue than going through the committee. I think this is what the Minister for Justice should do. She should contact the sponsors of this Bill, convene a meeting of Opposition spokespeople on housing and justice and work with us to ensure legislation to address the issue is brought forward by Government at the earliest opportunity because that is the quickest way to resolve the matter. We have been in this Dáil and the relevant committee for over two years and have yet to get an Opposition Bill through our committee. Therefore, if it is simply left to Committee Stage, my fear is that it will just sit there and gather dust and more and more women will be affected by this appalling practice.

I urge the Minister of State to take these concerns back to the Minister and urge her to be proactive and work with us. She will find a very willing collaborative approach from those of us on the Opposition benches. The Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage also needs to address the many issues raised by other Opposition spokespersons regarding the weakness of regulation in the private rental sector but that is an issue to which we will return at a later stage.

I thank Deputy Cian O'Callaghan for bringing forward this legislation. It does exactly what we need to see happen. This practice is used as a gateway at times by very unscrupulous people to get young vulnerable women into prostitution. I visited UCD recently and met the sexual exploitation research programme there. What researchers told me about prostitution fits into what we are talking about - vulnerable women coming from dangerous situations. They told me they interviewed 144 women who were overwhelmingly migrant women of 26 different nationalities. Nine of the 144 women were Irish while the remainder were all of other nationalities. A total of 37% were Brazilian, 32% were Romanian and many were from eastern Europe. The average age of the women was 29 but ages varied from 18 to 56. Nine were transgender - all self-identifying as women. Over 40% had insecure or absent migration statuses - in other words, they were undocumented. That is another aspect of this, which does not fit in the Ukrainian situation. A significant number of the women had poor English or English language skills. Many were without stable, safe accommodation living and sleeping in multiple locations wherever they saw buyers. Almost one fifth were of no fixed abode. If we look at that sample of 144 women in prostitution, we can see how it fits into what is being attempted here by some of the people who are initially offering a place for someone to stay. I feel it is a first step to bringing these women into the horrible and despicable trade of prostitution and that this is what is really afoot here. It is important that this legislation is used in such a way that we can find one mechanism to prevent that happening.

Irish people have shown huge generosity, and I have seen this in my own community, to the victims of the war in Ukraine, who are mainly women and children fleeing in terror, through finding homes for them or opening their houses to them. A tiny minority is using that as an opportunity to inflict power on these people because this is about power. The issue is that this tiny minority needs to deliver for themselves and for their own power by exploiting some other individual who is in poor and difficult circumstances in a despicable way. It is very clear that we need to move this on as quickly as possible to ensure this legislation is put in place immediately.

I thank the Deputies who brought forward this legislation. I also thank the Irish Examiner and specifically Ann Murphy for her work on this because she doggedly pursued this issue, brought it to public attention and should be acknowledged for that. I am glad the Government is not opposing the Bill. It would be better if the Government supported it. I think we are all getting a bit tired of coming in here to be told the Government is not against it but is not actually doing anything about it. I welcome the fact that some work is underway but as an Teachta Ó Broin said, it would probably be better - I do not mean this disrespectfully - if we were debating Government legislation because it would be done more quickly. The general consensus here is that the best way to resolve this is the quickest way.

I also hope the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage is watching this debate because in truth, the conditions for renters are in no small part the reason for the creation of the atmosphere in which this practice is happening. It is not the only reason but it is certainly a contributory factor. In that regard, I will read into the record a message from one of the Minister's constituents. It concerns her brother, who is looking for accommodation at the moment. He has been looking for one-bed accommodation for months and has been in and out of flats and studios. The constituent said:

The last straw...was a viewing which took place on St. Patrick’s Day for a one bed flat in [north County Dublin]. I accompanied my sibling to the viewing as it was local. I won't say where it was, but we were both shocked that in this day and age in March 2022, a one bed flat, with mould on the walls in the bathroom, no shower...dirty and smelly, was on the market at for 1200 euro.

She said that her sibling was so desperate he would have taken it because that is the market at the moment but that other people were so desperate, he did not even get the chance to take it because it was gone before they got there. That is the atmosphere, that is the rental market and the vulnerability and there are people there to exploit so we need to act on this.

There is no doubt that this situation has been partially created by our housing market. Many, and I hope, most, landlords are good and responsible but our housing market has produced such an imbalance that it has given a minority of landlords a belief that they are beyond reach, have impunity and can do what they like and that people are so desperate they will do anything for a place to stay. Unfortunately, in many instances, they are correct in thinking that people are desperate. I believe it is essential that we criminalise this practice, which is growing. I have seen it in my constituency in Cork in the past two or three years. There was an incidence involving a flat in The Lough in 2020. In some incidences, it can be couched in a way that is vague but sometimes it is quite explicit. It is vital that this practice be criminalised.

While I believe the Government bears responsibility for allowing the housing market and the rental crisis to worsen to this level, the primary person responsible is the person undertaking this practice and this is the person who should face sanction. I cannot be clear enough about my view that this behaviour is sick, perverted, twisted and disgusting. What is important is that we ensure the criminal justice system has the power to punish these people and ensure that the platforms that host these advertisements are careful about the content they put up.

We must ensure those involved in this practice are punished appropriately because they are taking advantage of people who are very vulnerable. In Britain, there have been approximately 30,000 instances per annum of solicitations of this kind. It clearly is an issue that is growing in many places where there is an imbalance in the housing market. I am very concerned for vulnerable people coming to this country. We need to criminalise this practice.

I add my thanks to Deputy Cian O'Callaghan and the Social Democrats for bringing forward this Bill. The fact we need to legislate in 2022 to introduce a specific criminal offence for the practice of seeking sex in lieu of rent is absolutely shocking. The housing crisis has left many people vulnerable to poverty, homelessness and living in substandard accommodation. However, that some landlords are demanding sex in lieu of rent is an all-time low. It is totally unacceptable. People who have a desperate housing need and are in a vulnerable position could be seriously exploited.

As a society, we must do everything possible to protect these vulnerable people. We have seen reports in the Irish Examiner of landlords advertising rooms openly in exchange for sexual favours. One advertisement was for a shared house in Limerick, with the landlord seeking a single lady "with a twist" and stating, "Can do reduced rent for occasional fun". The only thing with a twist is that person's twisted mind. When contacted by a prospective tenant, the landlord made it clear that sexual activity was required on a weekly basis in return for rent of €200 for the first month and €250 per month thereafter. This is absolutely abhorrent behaviour and it cannot be tolerated. Every effort must be made to make it impossible for these scumbags, which is exactly what they are, to operate.

Legislation is required to outlaw this behaviour. Tough sentences must be handed down to anyone convicted of such offences. As it stands, advertising platforms are displaying advertisements such as the following, as reported by the Irish Examiner: "Hey currently have a room to rent... not looking to rent for cash but instead a fwb [friends with benefits] situation. Strictly applies to females, no males will be considered." Any platforms hosting such sex for rent advertisements must face serious fines. These platforms need to be held accountable for providing a space that allows predators to operate. Situations like these must not happen again. Unfortunately, this practice is a window into the underbelly of our society, the imbalance in gender relations, particularly as they impact on vulnerable women, and the predatory behaviour of certain persons.

I thank Deputy Cian O'Callaghan for bringing forward this Bill. The types of acts it seeks to address are repugnant in the extreme and indicate the ease with which some people are ready to take whatever advantage they can of the desperation others experience in trying to secure a home. When I read these revelations, published in the Irish Examiner, words failed me. The fact that some people just see others as expendable, as objects to be used, is incomprehensible to me.

When this story first broke, Sinn Féin's housing spokesperson immediately raised it with the Ministers for Housing, Local Government and Heritage and Justice. We are now approaching the end of March and still there is no specific criminal offence for the practice of landlords offering free or reduced rent in exchange for sex. We need action and that is what this Bill proposes. The people who use others in this way have no sense of empathy for those who are in severe need of housing. It is the exploitation of people who feel they have few options when it comes to accommodation. It also is the exploitation of people who are newly arrived in this country and who may be less aware of how or where to receive advice and support on their rights. While the vulnerability of certain people in accessing the rental market needs to be addressed seriously and urgently, what we are talking about here is the willingness of some predators, who have no morals and no objection to dehumanising people for their own gains, to use the broken rental market as a vehicle to do so.

Exploitation always targets the most vulnerable and often is accompanied by misogyny, as we see in this case and which, unfortunately, continues to raise its head. We have a duty to protect everyone in Ireland from exploitation and from those who are ready to take advantage of people they see as vulnerable. This is especially timely given how the rising cost of living is leading to increased poverty. In unprecedented times such as these, predators see the opportunity. The Government must counter this with action, including legal sanctions and provisions for An Garda Síochána to monitor and act on practices such as these, which seek to exploit others. I welcome the Bill, which calls for the creation of an offence of requiring or accepting sex as a condition of accommodation and an offence of arranging for, or facilitating, such exchange. We need action now. There is no time for delay and we cannot allow increased need to be accompanied by increased exploitation.

I welcome the Bill and thank Deputy Cian O'Callaghan and the Social Democrats for bringing it forward. Sex for rent is a shocking concept. The fact that people who are looking to rent a property should have to give in to this awful exploitation to gain a roof over their head is so wrong as to be quite unbelievable in this day and age. I cannot for the life of me understand the mentality of those renting out a property who would somehow see this type of exploitation as normal practice. As the Bill states, this activity should be illegal and those who engage in it, advertise it and promote it should be met with the full rigours of the law. Research shows this abhorrent practice is mostly perpetrated upon women and migrant renters, that is, those who are perceived as weak by the people who see this as an acceptable practice.

As other speakers said, this disgusting activity can only happen within a dysfunctional rental market, which has been created by the Government and its predecessors due to the abandonment of the social and affordable housing market to the private sector. Extortionate rents will only lead to an increase in this particularly horrible arrangement, with people desperate to find accommodation. Legislation must be enacted to make this practice a stand-alone crime carrying a heavy sentence for anyone found to be engaging in it. There is no place for this kind of practice to exist in any society. The Government also must look at its housing policy to ensure renters are protected and the rental market is fit for purpose in order that these unscrupulous landlords and subletters cannot capitalise on this practice. Those found to be engaging in sex for rent agreements should be jailed, fined and banned from ever renting out a property in the future.

I commend Deputies Cian O'Callaghan and Whitmore and their colleagues on bringing forward this important Bill. The Labour Party offers its strong support for it. All of our thoughts at this time are with the people of Ukraine, who are enduring the horrific bombardment of the brutal Russian invasion. Other speakers have pointed out that this Bill has an application for the many people fleeing to our shores seeking refuge and who may be at risk of exploitation by unscrupulous landlords. We all are very conscious of that. I am very glad the Government is supporting the Bill but I echo the calls of colleagues for a clear timeline for its introduction into law. The Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, in particular, has expressed strong support for it, which is why the Cabinet has agreed to approve it in principle. That is very important.

We all want to condemn the appalling practice that has been described and which the Bill aims to criminalise. Its provisions would create two offences. The first is the offence of a person accepting or requiring sex for the purpose of access to, or retention of, accommodation and related services. The second offence is that of facilitating the offence of accepting or requiring sex as a condition of accommodation, which is notably aimed at publishers. Both are indictable offences carrying significant penalties. I may comment further on these proposed offences presently.

Before that, I want to speak a little about the context of these proposals. We know from the experience in Britain that this practice, appallingly, is relatively widespread. UK research by Shelter found that between 30,000 and 40,000 people were targeted by current or prospective landlords over a three-month period. We do not have that level of data for this country and it would be important to know how widespread this appalling practice is here. We are absolutely indebted to Ann Murphy and the Irish Examiner for their report on this and for bringing it to our attention some months ago. In their investigation, they were able to identify particular advertisements containing language and other clear indications that sex was being sought in return for rent. That investigation shows us the need to address this practice specifically in legislation.

It also illustrates one of the causes of this appalling practice, which is the power imbalance in Ireland currently whereby there is so little accommodation for those seeking to rent and landlords, therefore, are in such a position of power relative to tenants. There always is a power imbalance in this regard but notably so during a housing crisis. We are aware that this is a problem throughout the country.

We know from data how few properties are available for rental. It is one of the reasons the Labour Party brought forward a renters' rights Bill drafted by my colleague, Senator Moynihan, to seek to try to strengthen renters' rights and ensure that landlords had more responsibilities. We also need to see an increase in supply of housing and the building of housing on public land. That is crucial to address the housing crisis. We are all well aware of that.

I will speak about the provisions in the Bill and about existing law. The Minister of State identified some drafting issues in his speech and the need for the tightening up of language but these issues could be dealt with through collaboration with the Bill's proposers on Committee and Report Stages. Similarly, the issue of compatibility with existing criminal law could be addressed. There is a need to ensure we have a clearly streamlined series of laws on sex offences, rather than piecemeal amendments being carried out.

In terms of civil law penalties, a sex-for-rent arrangement, under housing law, would clearly be in breach of quiet enjoyment and exclusive possession. However, there is a gap because such covenants are only read into tenancy agreements and not into room-for-rent or room-sharing arrangements. That is clearly a gap. Of course, the remedies for breach of tenancy covenants are civil only and there is no criminal offence committed by a breach.

Deputy Ó Broin made a good point about the need to ensure the Residential Tenancies Board would be able to take action against unscrupulous landlords who engage in this practice. That is another matter that might be addressed through separate legislation.

As others have said, Part 4 of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017 criminalises the purchase of sexual services and brings Nordic-model laws into Ireland in keeping with a unanimous report by the then Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality. The report was supported by all parties and had the widespread support of the trade union movement, NGOs, the National Women's Council, the Immigrant Council of Ireland and others.

A major campaign resulted in the passage of that important legislation, which has been very effective in other countries in which it has been introduced to tackle to demand for sexual services and reduce the incidence of prostitution. That law was introduced precisely to deal with this issue of exploitation and abuse of power and to recognise that women from migrant and disadvantaged backgrounds, in particular, are very much at risk of exploitation and abuse and that a law tackling demands by criminalising the purchase of sex is an effective means to deal with that exploitation.

That law is in place but it does not cover the situation of a person who seeks sex in return for renting a property. It tackles those who are engaged in the sex trade and prostitution and exploited through prostitution. There is, therefore, a gap and the purchase of sexual services ban would not cover the practice addressed here. Other potentially applicable offences under the Non-Fatal Offences against the Person Act 1997 would not necessarily cover this either.

The very progressive updated definition of consent for which we fought very hard to have included in section 48 of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017 provides that consent must be "freely and voluntarily" given but it does not address the situation where consent is lacking by reason of situation of exploitation of power or economic dominance. There is a gap and that is why this legislation is important.

The second offence of arranging or facilitating, as the Minister of State has said, may well be covered under section 7 of the Criminal Law Act 1997. However, there is a strong case to be made for explicitly prohibiting advertising of this sort. We have some precedent for that in section 23 of the Criminal Justice (Public Order) Act 1994.

I will finish by referring to the context by which we have a need for this legislation. As the tragic murder of Ashling Murphy reminded us, unfortunately and regrettably, women are still especially vulnerable to harassment, abuse, intimidation and exploitation. The practice of sexual exploitation of women and vulnerable persons is not new.

We know it is compounded by class and immigration status and that women from migrant backgrounds are especially vulnerable to sexual exploitation in Ireland today, where we see large numbers of migrant women exploited through the sex trade on a daily basis. It is very important that we recognise that power imbalance and the coercive context in which practices such as that identified in this legislation are carried out.

I will refer to the appalling situation in Ukraine and pay tribute to international and national NGOs such as the sexual exploitation research programme, SERP, in UCD, which has identified very strong risks of women and girls being vulnerable to sexual exploitation and trafficking where they are moving in such large numbers to flee from the Russian bombardment. We know there have been instances of that at the borders of Ukraine and that there is a risk it will happen here. Indeed, there have been some suggestions that it is already happening. That is all the more reason to ensure this legislation is brought through the process speedily and that we see a clear timeframe for its adoption.

I will share time with Deputy Bríd Smith. We will vote for this legislation, which has become known as the sex-for-rent Bill. We will not shed any tears whatsoever if landlords who advertise sex-for-rent arrangements end up either with hefty fines or even behind bars. These people are creeps who exploit their position of power over people who have less or no power and need a roof over the heads.

The situation is given an added urgency with the arrival of Ukrainian refugees. The Irish Examiner recently exposed the case of a landlord in County Clare who said that he wanted a slim Ukrainian to come to stay. The landlord did not disclose the location of the property and wanted photographs sent first. It was a sex-for-accommodation arrangement. This just shows the need for this legislation to go through the Oireachtas quickly.

Of course, it is not a solution to the problem and does not come close to resolving it because landlords will tend not to openly advertise. They will go about their nefarious business in more sly ways where there is less proof that can be used as evidence. If this acts as something of a chilling factor or a deterrent of any kind and saves even a handful of women from going through this experience, it is positive and we will vote for that.

Of course, the root cause of the problem is the massive power imbalance between the power of the landlord on one hand and tenants on the other. This is even more so when the State faces the greatest housing crisis since its foundation. On the one hand, one has a property owner who has sufficient wealth, which might be modest, to have his or her own accommodation and spare accommodation to rent, such as a house or an apartment. On the other hand, one has a person who does not have a roof over his or her head and cannot afford many of the properties that are on the market given the high rate of rent. That is a recipe for sexual exploitation to take place. Some would say a significant majority of landlords would never countenance going down such a road. I accept that is the case for a clear majority of landlords. However, is there a minority who will go down that road? There is such a minority and it is perhaps greater than many might expect.

The key is to reduce that power imbalance. While one has landlordism, one can never reduce it to nil, but one can reduce it massively as much as one can. What kind of policies are we talking about? We are talking about a massive social housebuilding programme, a ban on evictions and the State playing the key decisive role in terms of providing accommodation for the new arrivals from Ukraine. We will not be able to achieve those things playing by the rules of the market. We need to rip up those rules and challenge the property rights of the owners of the vacant properties, including the big vulture funds who own vacant apartment blocks, the hotel owners and so on. We will vote for the legislation but we want to raise those points because they are key. We will keep pressure on those fronts as well.

We fully support the Bill and welcome its introduction. It is absolutely needed and I do not think any decent person in the country would shed a tear about any landlord who would advertise sex for rent or engage in that practice.

As Deputy Barry said, they are creeps of the highest order and everybody in this House is morally outraged by this practice.

I thank the Social Democrats for bringing the Bill forward. Having said that, this is not the first time in my lifetime that I have heard of this practice. In the 1980s, my sister conducted research for the Department of Health on the health needs of homeless women. In interviewing several hundred such women, she found that there was exploitation of this nature of very vulnerable women, who usually had high needs or addictions, in homeless accommodation which, in those days, usually meant bed and breakfast accommodation. That same exploitation was taking place but this is a notch up because it is being advertised for what it is and is happening in the year 2021. When Ireland is supposed to have progressed and moved forward, these most obscene practices are bringing us back towards those dark ages. That is why we welcome the Bill.

I want to talk about the Government's support of the Bill. The Government will obviously have to support it. As I have said, everybody here is outraged by this practice and the Government has to support the Bill. However, I wish it would see the deep irony and contradictions in its position of supporting a Bill that bans sex for rent while not supporting measures that would have mitigated against us reaching such a point. In other words, the Government and those which preceded it brought us into this massive housing crisis, which has now gone on for nearly a decade, and, while supporting this Bill, it refuses to support a Bill that would freeze or control rents, a Bill that would deliver affordable housing and Bills that demand derelict properties be taken back into control. It has also blocked Bills that sought to enshrine a right to housing in the Constitution. It is hypocrisy because the root cause of this problem is the housing crisis and not just creepy landlords who will do anything to take advantage of vulnerable women and others. It is not just such landlords but the housing crisis perpetuated by this Government that is at the heart of the issue.

We would like to see a bit of consistency. The Government should support the Social Democrats' Bill but it should also finally deal with housing crisis rather than perpetuating it and blocking every progressive measure aimed at dealing with the root cause of the crisis brought forward from this side of the House. Instead of such measures, we have a Government that has had multiple meetings with vulture funds, cuckoo funds, developers and bankers to ask what it can do for them, how far it can bend for them, how many laws it can change and how many regulations it can reduce to facilitate their profits and developments. That has been the approach to housing while, at the same time, the provision of public, affordable and social housing has been run down throughout this State. This Bill is a consequence of the failed housing policy of successive Governments. The Government needs to fully deal with this issue in addition to giving full support to this Bill today.

I compliment the Social Democrats on bringing forward this very important legislation. We still have such abhorrent, reckless and demeaning practices going on in our State in 2022 and do not have legislation to punish those engaging in them. I welcome the fact that the Government is not going to oppose this legislation but we need to make sure it is brought in as quickly as possible in order to send a clear message.

I would like to bring into the debate the issue of what we have seen in this country since the destruction and demolition of Ukraine, that is, the great number of people who have been put out of their homes as a result and the continued generosity and goodwill shown by people in Ireland. That has to be noted in this debate. This legislation will benefit very few people but the practice of providing accommodation in exchange for sex, whatever way it is dressed up, has got to be stamped out. We have many good landlords in this country and good people who are opening up their homes to people from Ukraine. It is hard to think of this kind of attack being made on people who are vulnerable and who are desperate to get a roof over their head and to be able to sleep in a bed.

That brings me to my next point, which relates to victims. Last Monday night, I attended a meeting in Headford on crime prevention, the Community Alert programme and all that goes along with that. Present were some people who were victims of crime. Their houses had been robbed. They explained how they felt after their homes being raided while they were out for perhaps half an hour. The big point they made is that the victim is not taken into account in the whole process. One man said that his house is not the same any more. We need to make sure that, alongside whatever happens with regard to crime, criminality, convicting people and putting them into jail, we have more respect and more supports for people who are the victims of what might be deemed a simple crime, that is, their house being robbed. It is very important that we have services in place to help these people and to allow them to become part of the process. They should be part of the process of solving the crime but there is also a healing process involved for these people.

I will be honest and say that there was also a lot of disdain shown for our bail laws at the meeting. We allow repeat offenders out on bail again and again. They often offend while they are out on bail and this is something the Government has to look at. We cannot tolerate that. The reason we cannot tolerate it is that the victim feels they are being victimised again when somebody gets away with something like this. Another issue that was raised and that I must raise in the House relates to free legal aid. Repeat offenders get free legal aid. Taxpayers' money is spent defending repeat offenders. I am not saying we should not have free legal aid, but it should be measured in such a way that makes it available to those who need it but not to everybody who commits a crime.

We have to arrest the sentiment that is out there at the moment and which is particularly prevalent in rural areas where crime has happened. Rural crime is basically robbing houses and farmyards. Convictions for such crimes do not seem to come up in the courts.

To return to the legislation, I hope it comes in quickly and that it is used for what it was intended for, that is, to put people who commit crimes like this behind bars so that the victims get some sort of consolation in their minds for what was foisted upon them. The debate here today is about particular legislation which needs to be brought in as a matter of urgency but, in the wider context of crime and criminality, we are a bit soft on criminals. We have a system in which they are allowed to get away with it for as long as possible. Gardaí tell me that there are people who travel to rob and who do this in a systematic way. They know an awful lot about them but I have not seen a great number of convictions in the courts for these crimes in my area or in any other area. The legislation is there but the bail laws are not helping. We need to tackle this properly. We need to make sure that we do not tolerate crime or give people a soft option. If they commit a crime, they should pay the price. Otherwise, it is the victims who will suffer continuously.

I welcome the Bill brought forward by the Social Democrats. Sadly, sex for rent appears to be on the doorstep of both urban and rural communities throughout Ireland although, thankfully, it is not very widespread at the moment. I was shocked to read a story of such a case in Limerick, which I thank the Limerick Post for exposing. This is probably the darkest side of homelessness, where people are desperate to secure housing at almost any cost.

We can see the housing crisis that we have. We can see people who are in a family situation where there is violence. We can see families who want to try to move out and who are looking to escape from violence within the home and violent behaviour. We can see what we can do as a country. When Ukraine was looking for our help, we were able to get certain accommodation and the Irish people were able to welcome people from Ukraine into their houses to help them in a situation of need, and rightly so. We can also see premises around this country that have been closed up for years upon years - convents and different places that are out of use – and which are now being put into use to house families from Ukraine. Again, I agree with this. It is right.

What I have to ask is what the Government has done for years upon years in regard to looking for places to house vulnerable people who have been put in a situation of sex for rent. That is a failure of Government policy; it is a failure of the Government. We can do it when people ask us in a Ukraine-type situation but when it comes to Irish people who have been asking for years, the Government says there is nothing it can do. We can do things. We can move mountains in this country when we are called upon and when there is a need from other countries, but when Irish people ask, the Government says, sorry, there is no funding for vulnerable families. Things can be done in this country to help people but the Government is again failing to act to protect those like the people in Ukraine and people in Ireland who are in violent situations and who are caught in a situation of sex for rent. To me, that is a failure of the Government.

I welcome the Bill. I will be supporting it. Well done to the Social Democrats.

I am glad to get the opportunity to speak. I thank Deputy Cian O'Callaghan and the Social Democrats for bringing this Bill before us. I am amazed that there was no way to deal with this offence before. Remarkably, the Minister for Justice has confirmed that no specific criminal offence for this practice currently exists in Ireland. It is amazing that, as matters stand, there is no way to deal with some landlord or other person who could prey on vulnerable women, and men also. It is wrong and we have to support this Bill. I thank the Social Democrats for highlighting it. We read what an examination by the Irish Examiner found, with advertisements offering properties in Limerick and Dublin. I only hope there is not much of it, but we have to stamp out whatever there is now. It is imperative that we all work together to ensure this Bill is put through without delay.

As has been stated, we do not seem to be improving housing options for many and there are many still without homes. We appreciate what the Government is doing for the Ukrainian community and we are very sad about what is happening in Ukraine. It is a terrible situation and we appreciate what the Government is doing.

In saying that, there are still a lot of people who have been on lists here for years and who are still ringing and ringing, and they have no options available to them. While we see that most of the Government's activities are directed towards Dublin, there needs to be more direction and assistance with housing in Kerry. For example, take people whose houses become derelict on family farms. In times gone by, people could have a demountable home so they could stay in the place they gave all their life to and finish out their days on their farm. That option is not there anymore. We are told that local government no longer has funding for those demountable homes. I have a number of applicants who are in demountable homes for many years and the homes are disintegrating around them, but we have no funding to replace them. That is a crying shame. People in rural Ireland need homes just as much as those in Dublin or anywhere else, but especially on family farms where they gave 60 or 70 years and where they want to finish out their days. Surely the Government must look at that. I ask the Minister of State to have some input into that and to deal with it.

Another problem was created by the Tánaiste, Deputy Leo Varadkar. When he was the Minister for Transport in 2012, he gave a direction that there was to be no more planning granted for properties coming out on national roads, even where there is current access. It is ridiculous to think that someone is denied the right of putting a roof over their heads even though they are coming out the same exit onto the national road. If they stay in their mother’s or father’s house, or whatever house was there before, there is no problem with that, but it is only the same level of activity when they build a house for themselves and stay in it. I ask the Minister of State to look at that again.

There are many more issues but those two specific issues that I have related to the Minister of State are hurting people at the present time in the county of Kerry which I represent.

I thank Deputy Cian O'Callaghan and the Social Democrats for bringing forward the Bill. This is a practice we all abhor. It is disgusting. I listened to the Deputy’s contribution at the start of the debate and I will address some of the issues before I make my concluding remarks.

Deputy O'Callaghan made the specific point that while the Bill in itself is not enough to tackle this issue, it is certainly a step in the right direction. The abuse of power and the disparity of power between landlord and tenant is something we all wish to challenge. As has been stated by the Minister of State, Deputy James Browne, how this Bill interacts with other sexual offences legislation is critical. We are all going to work together to try to improve this and the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, and the Minister of State, Deputy James Browne, are committed to doing that too, which is critical. Our ultimate objective is to criminalise this disgraceful practice and put a stop to it, once and for all.

Deputy Bacik raised the issue of the experience in the UK, where 30,000 to 40,000 women were being exploited. The issue here is that we do not have data. We have a great deal of anecdotal evidence. We are very grateful to Ann Murphy of the Irish Examiner for shedding light on this practice. However, data is important and that is something we need to get conclusive information on.

Deputy Bacik also raised the issue of compatibility with existing criminal law and the other issues the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, is committed to addressing, namely, looking at the role of the Residential Tenancies Board, RTB, and at situations where his Department can bring in cross-cutting measures and legislation to end this practice.

The Deputy went on to raise the issue of women from migrant and disadvantaged backgrounds who are more at risk from this activity and more at risk in general from sexual exploitation.

The Deputy referred specifically to the sexual exploitation research programme.

A number of Deputies raised the intersection of challenges from the influx of what will be a huge number of refugees from Ukraine. All states across Europe need to be mindful of that now. There needs to be spare capacity in all our housing policies for the intake of refugees in general because after the Ukraine crisis is addressed there will be another crisis and another crisis, either through conflict or climate change. It is critical that we have built in housing capacity to be in a position to take in refugees at very short notice. That is something for another day but it is important.

Deputy Barry raised the issues of refugees and the lack of adequate social housing provision as the root cause of this. It is right to say that the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage is committed, through Housing for All and legislation, to protecting tenants' rights and to putting in place the most significant and most ambitious housing programme in the history of the State. That will take time. We see housing commencements increase month on month now, and that will help us in our long-term objectives.

Deputy Bríd Smith raised issues dating back to the 1980s. This issue is nothing new, with vulnerable women in addiction and bed and breakfast settings. It is important to note that.

Deputy Canney raised a number of other points about housing in general, and Deputies O'Donoghue and Danny Healy-Rae raised points about crime in general. Again, these may be issues for another day. Our core objective is the legislation before us. I thank Deputy Cian O'Callaghan again for bringing it forward in the Social Democrats' slot.

I join colleagues across the House in expressing my disgust at reports of accommodation being offered in exchange for sexual acts. It is reprehensible and utterly unacceptable. For that reason the Government will not oppose this Bill.

This issue was raised by the Minister for Justice and with the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage after reports appeared in the Irish Examiner last December. The Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, sought the advice of the Attorney General, who confirmed that such behaviour is not a criminal offence under the current law. However, while offering accommodation in exchange for sex may not be a criminal offence, let me make it absolutely clear that any agreement to pay for accommodation with sexual acts is invalid and not enforceable under contract law. In addition, as the Minister of State, Deputy James Browne, has said, under sexual offences legislation it is absolutely clear that consent must be freely and voluntarily given. Any attempt to coerce or to force a person to engage in sex is rape and is punishable on conviction by up to life imprisonment.

It is also important to note that tenants are not without rights and protections. Tenants' rights are set out in the Residential Tenancies Act 2004, as amended. This point was raised by Deputies Ó Broin and Bacik. Under that Act, a tenant has, among other rights, the right to privacy, the right to receive advance notice of termination of a tenancy and the right to refer a dispute to the RTB. Additionally, in the past two years alone, my Department has introduced six rental Bills, including a number of measures to provide additional protections for tenants during the pandemic. The operation of the Residential Tenancies Acts is kept under constant review.

It is important to note that not all tenancies come under the remit of the RTB. This includes those availing of the rent-a-room scheme, which it seems would encompass the majority of the highlighted sex-for-rent advertisements in this State. Tenancy protections on their own may not prevent an unscrupulous landlord from seeking to exploit someone vulnerable by offering reduced rent in return for sex. That is why we are examining if this issue needs to be addressed in its own right as set out in this Bill.

Colleagues raised the issue of housing supply. While an increase in housing supply will not in itself stop unscrupulous accommodation providers from trying to prey on vulnerable people, I assure Members that the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage and the entire Government remains committed to addressing the issues in the housing market. I have stated that in the context of Housing for All and the ambition that lies therein. As Deputies will be aware, Housing for All: A New Housing Plan for Ireland is the Government's housing plan to 2030. It is a multi-annual, multibillion euro plan that will improve Ireland's housing system and deliver more homes of all types, social and private. It sets out the Government's plan to increase the supply of housing to an average of 33,000 units per year over the next decade, including through the development of a new cost-rental sector, which is already up and running. It also commits to the delivery of more than 9,500 new build social homes on average over the next five years and more than 90,000 new social homes in the period 2022-30. This year, 24,600 homes will be delivered, including 9,000 new build social homes, 4,100 affordable and cost-rental homes and 11,500 private rental and private ownership homes.

It is clear from the debate today that all sides of the House are united in their disgust with and condemnation of the small number of people who would try to take advantage of others in vulnerable situations and seek to sexually exploit them. It beggars belief. I assure Deputies, however, that the Government is deeply committed to tackling domestic, sexual and gender-based violence in all its forms. The prioritisation of this hugely important work is evident in the policy and legislative developments implemented by this Government and those that are currently being progressed. Additionally, increased budget allocations have been secured this year in order to address such heinous and unacceptable behaviour. The Minister for Justice is leading work on a whole-of-government strategy to combat domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. This new plan will have a particular focus on prevention and on ensuring that victims are better supported. It will set an overall goal of zero tolerance of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. The strategy has been developed in partnership with the sector to ensure that it is targeted, comprehensive and effective in achieving all the goals set out and will be published, with an associated implementation plan, as soon as practicable.

As has been said, the Minister for Justice is in favour of introducing new criminal offences to address this issue. Officials in my Department will continue to work with colleagues in her Department and with the Attorney General to ensure that effective measures, including criminal sanctions, can be introduced to address this issue.

Again, I thank Deputy Cian O'Callaghan for bringing forward this legislation. As the Minister of State, Deputy James Browne, and I have stated, it is the Government's intention to work with Members to try to progress this and to end this disgraceful practice once and for all. The House is united in trying to achieve that. I commend Deputy O'Callaghan again on bringing forward the legislation.

I thank my colleague, Deputy Cian O'Callaghan, and his team, Pádraig, Micheal and Jack, for developing this important Bill. Sex for rent is abhorrent. It reveals the depraved depths of the housing crisis, whereby grossly exploitative landlords expect sexual favours in return for putting roofs over people's heads. Abusers see an opportunity to take advantage of women who desperately need accommodation. It takes a particularly revolting and immoral person even to consider sex for rent, not to mention actually advertising their sleaze. Thanks to the investigative work of Ann Murphy and the Irish Examiner, we are aware of the latest manifestation of this issue, but we also know that the problem is more widespread. As legislators, we are compelled to act.

This Bill is a focused response to these incidents to make requiring sex for accommodation, or facilitating sex as a condition for accommodation, crimes. This is simple legislation, its rationale is incredibly clear and it has strong political and public support. No one is naive enough to think that it will immediately stop the malpractice. It is, however, an explicit reaction that will provide the Garda and other State bodies with a means of countering this appalling trend and holding its perpetrators to account. The creation of a specific offence is a recognition of that offence and what it represents. It demonstrates society's revulsion. This Bill is a concrete action the Social Democrats can take as an Opposition party.

I welcome the Government's support for the Bill, but this needs to prompt reforms in the sector, addressing issues that can leave people open to exploitation and harassment. Renters have to hand over a considerable amount of personal information to landlords or agents, which leaves them vulnerable to unwanted attention and abuse. Sex for rent and forms of harassment and abuse should also be made issues on which the RTB can act. We also need stronger safeguards to ensure that individuals convicted of sexual, abusive or coercive crimes are not permitted to have residential power over others. The implications of this Bill are considerable. I urge the Ministers for Housing, Local Government and Heritage and Justice to develop a more comprehensive response to fully eliminate this disgusting issue.

We must also face up to the realities that facilitate sex for rent. It is symptomatic of the housing crisis. Skyrocketing costs and shortages of housing are forcing more people into accepting substandard and miserable accommodation.

Photos regularly circulate on social media of tiny rooms for shocking prices. Tenants in public and private accommodation have to live with mould-covered walls. There are cases of migrants being crammed into houses. Whole cohorts of renters are being exploited in the Irish housing system by landlords and companies more interested in profit than in providing proper accommodation.

Sex for rent is by far the most disgusting articulation of this exploitation but there are many other practices that also prey on vulnerabilities. Young people, disabled people, migrants, international students and people on fixed incomes are all made vulnerable by government policy. They are left susceptible to those who want to exploit them for their own gain. Regulation in the sector is vastly inadequate for the scale of issues involved. The system is rigged in favour of big landlords and vulture funds. Prosecutions and enforcement in the area do not reflect the realities of renting in Ireland today. For example, renters should not be discriminated against because they are getting certain payments, such as housing assistance payment, but we are all aware of situations where landlords do not accept tenants on it. Of course they give another reason on paper but we all know the reality. While this is wrong, it is a minor offence compared to some of the other malpractices in the sector. If this infraction cannot be policed then what hope is there for addressing the other issues?

This legislation will only be effective if there is the desire and resources to see it implemented. It is a further indication that the State needs to have a far more active role in housing. The continuing opposition to the regulation of housing, freezing rents, prioritising families, tackling dereliction and building public housing is ideological. There is a serious and disastrous imbalance between the role of the market and the role of the State. This needs to be addressed. The Ban on Sex for Rent Bill deals with a specific issue. Without addressing the larger underlying factors of a housing shortage and rapidly-rising rents the conditions for these abuses will remain.

I thank all of the Deputies from across the House in various parties and groups for their very helpful and constructive comments on the Bill and for their support. I specifically thank Ann Murphy and the Irish Examiner for all of the work they have done on highlighting this. It would not have come to light and we would not be debating the Bill and trying to address this if it was not for their very important work on it. It really shows the huge importance of independent investigative journalism and how important it is to our democracy to have strong independent journalism.

Most Deputies spoke about the wider issue of power imbalance. This has to be tackled if we are serious about this. I very much welcome that the Minister of State recognised it in his comments. It is significant because often we do not hear recognition from wider government about the problems of the power imbalance. It is important that it has been recognised. It needs to be across government. It needs to be seen, named and tackled. There was a real contrast between the Minister of State's opening comments in which he recognised this and the official comments prepared by the Department. They did not recognise it and did not name it. Included in those comments were the protections in place for tenants. It is correct there are no protections in place for tenants. There was no recognition in the official comments of how we need to go much further to create a situation where tenants have a level of protection so the power imbalance can be tackled and addressed.

I welcome the comments of the Minister of State on the importance of gathering data on this. It will be welcome to hear from the Government on what it intends to do on this. Earlier, we heard from the Government about the difficulties with gathering data and how difficult and invasive it would be and how upsetting it could be for people. We want to hear from the Government what it wants to do because it has resources in this area.

It is welcome that we have been told the Minister, Deputy O'Brien, is looking at the role of the Residential Tenancies Board in this. I agree very much with the earlier comments of Deputy Ó Broin on this. The RTB should have powers to investigate this specifically and it should be able to strike off any landlord found to be engaging in this practice or in placing ads. This would be an additional deterrent. No landlord who engages in this or attempts to engage in this is in any way fit to be a landlord. I want to hear from the Government what it will do about this.

It is very clear we have cross-party support throughout the House for this to be dealt with urgently. This is what most people asked for. It is welcome the Minister, Deputy McEntee, will engage with us on how the Bill can be advanced. We have had helpful and constructive comments from the Minister of State, Deputy Browne, about the specifics of the legislation and specific areas the Government wants to see addressed and improved. The key issue is that the Government has access to the advice of the Attorney General and departmental resources. In terms of progressing this further the ball is very much in the court of the Government. We will work with the Government on it and help as much as we can and be constructive on it. We need action on this. There has been a very strong message from the House on this. It is worth saying the vast majority of landlords find this practice absolutely abhorrent, as does everybody else. If we do not address the wider power imbalance and the wider issues in the sector then we will not be taking enough action to deal with this. I implore the Minister of State, who has recognised the issue, that it needs wider impetus from across Government.

Question put and agreed to.
Cuireadh an Dáil ar fionraí ar 11.47 a.m. agus cuireadh tús leis arís ar 12 meán lae.
Sitting suspended at 11.47 a.m. and resumed at 12 noon.