Residential Tenancies Bill 2020: Committee and Remaining Stages

SECTION 1

I move amendment No. 1:

In page 4, between lines 3 and 4, to insert the following:

“(4) Notwithstanding the interpretation contained in section 1(2), sections 2, 3 and 4 shall also apply to such persons living in dwellings with written license agreements, verbal license agreements and informal rent-a-room arrangements.”.

I will be brief because my priority, as I mentioned in my opening comments on Second Stage, is the six-month ban on evictions. We submitted this amendment to ensure that the protections in this Bill will apply to those who do not have formal contracts with landlords or are not registered with the RTB. Many people are in informal arrangements, such as renting a room from a friend who may be the main leaseholder. The Minister needs to recognise their tenancy rights when drafting legislation such as this or, more broadly, he needs to fix the private rental market. Doing nothing is not an option.

This issue arose previously, and there is one element that is relevant to the rent-a-room aspect. It was mentioned by Senator Seery Kearney as well. It is not for a landlord to decide if it is a rent-a-room situation or a real tenancy. The RTB can adjudicate on that point. Regarding this amendment, I cannot accept it. The Residential Tenancies Acts do not apply to licensing arrangements, save in the student-specific sector. I worked to have that aspect included when I was in opposition and on the housing committee with the Senator's colleague, and others, during the lifetime of the previous Oireachtas. They are not included currently, however. Rent-a-room lodgings in a private dwelling are not covered by the Acts or this Bill, and tenancies and dwellings where the landlord lives are not covered by the Residential Tenancies Act 2004. This Bill proposes to modify temporarily the operation of certain provisions of the said Act regarding tenancy terminations in the context of a global pandemic. I do not, therefore, propose to accept this amendment.

Amendment put and declared lost.
Section 1 agreed to.
NEW SECTIONS

Amendment No. 2 is in the names of Senators, Moynihan, Bacik, Hoey, Sherlock and Wall. Amendments Nos. 2 to 4, inclusive, and 7 to 9, inclusive, are related and may be discussed together by agreement. Is that agreed? Agreed. Acceptance of amendment No. 2 involves the deletion of section 2 of the Bill.

I move amendment No. 2:

In page 4, between lines 4 and 5, to insert the following:

“Emergency period

2. (1) Subject to subsection (2), an emergency period, in relation to the tenancy of a dwelling, shall be a period in respect of which relevant regulations made by the Minister for Health restrict travel to, from or within the area or region within which the dwelling concerned is situated.

(2) Where the period referred to in subsection (1) is specified in relevant regulations as ending on a date before 31 March 2021, the emergency period shall expire on 31 March 2021.

(3) An emergency period shall include an emergency period in respect of which the Minister for Health made relevant regulations before the coming into operation of this Act and which emergency period has not expired on that coming into operation.

(4) In this section, “relevant regulations” means regulations made under section 31A of the Health Act 1947 which operate, subject to conditions contained in the regulations, to impose restrictions on travel to, from or within an area or region to which an affected areas order applies.”.

I will briefly speak to the amendment, if that is okay.

Can we allow the Senator to speak to it and can she read the amendment, please? It was not circulated to the rest of us.

Of course she can speak to it. She has moved the amendment and she may speak to it.

I will speak briefly because I referred to the amendment in my speech. This amendment seeks to extend the eviction ban until, at the very least, March 2021. It also allows the Minister, where there are any restrictions on movement, to impose an eviction ban. That is a particular issue. The 5 km limit is very restrictive, particularly when one is talking about within a county. I gave the example of Fingal.

In the briefing the other day with the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, there was the presumption that alternative housing would be available or made available within 5 km. However, we all know from the housing crisis that alternative accommodation is not necessarily available and, at this time, the market is probably contracting. The amendment gives the Minister the power to have an eviction ban while we are in the living with Covid phases, not just level 5 and not just limited to 5 km.

A number of similar amendments are grouped together. I support Senator Moynihan's amendment. She has offered a useful and pragmatic insight into how housing, family units and support structures work and was one of the key champions of the bubbling mechanism which has been taken on board. She has form for offering useful proposals.

My amendments Nos. 7 and 9 are being discussed in this grouping. They are a more modest version of Senator Moynihan's proposal in that they specifically try to address the question of the 20 km restriction. There is a strong likelihood that, even if we move to level 3 after this, we will be in level 3 plus. As we have seen, we tend to have an ad hoc approach involving adding different measures as required. There will be concern going into Christmas when, unless cases have really substantially reduced, the Government will not want people doing large amounts of travel, yet people will still want to travel to close family.

I want to provide for the event that the Government moves to restrictions on travel outside a 20 km radius. Looking to rural Ireland, accommodation options can be limited within a 20 km limit. The other invisible supports we have had for people who are between housing in Ireland include couch-surfing, staying with a friend or crashing with a family. All such measures are restricted by the other household restrictions in place. Many informal things people have done when moving out of one housing situation and having not yet found another are not available. I urge the Minister to accept Senator Moynihan's amendment. I also support amendment No. 3, which is being discussed in this section, in relation to the extension of six months.

The six-month ban on evictions would see us through the cold winter months and, hopefully, through much of the Covid pandemic. Many countries, such as France, have had wintertime bans on evictions for years. As I said in my speech, we urgently need time and space to sort out the private rental market. The Simon Community stressed this measure will give time to get beyond flu season, increase contract tracing and for non-governmental organisations, NGOs, local authorities, the HSE and the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage to continue to work to reduce the number of people in emergency accommodation.

I assure Senators that Sinn Féin, if Senators agree to this measure, will work with them to provide a long-lasting solution to the rental crisis. This six-month period would allow all parties to contribute and the time-pressure of the pandemic would not hamper those efforts.

I thank Senators for the amendments. I think we are in danger of trying to fix the massively dysfunctional environment of the private rented market in an emergency piece of legislation. The Minister has accepted it and I believe he is committed to trying to fix the systemic problems around supply, the provision of public and affordable housing and security of tenure, of which Senator Higgins spoke.

I welcome the Minister's commitment on the cost-rental model. That legislation is long overdue. As a city councillor, I and my colleagues have been pushing for that for a couple of years. We need to get to a point where people can have a reasonable expectation of having security of tenure and affordable homes.

We need to get this legislation through as an immediate and urgent matter but I am concerned we will create a new residential housing policy that will not meet all our needs, will be inadequate and will not address the issue of affordable rents. We absolutely need affordable rents, which need to be State-provided, secure and to provide security of tenure and affordability. We need to get this through today and not get bogged down in trying to fix all the problems, of which there are myriad. I want these issues addressed and have raised them at the Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage. We have a large work programme at that committee and I and others have put these matters into that programme. However, if we try to fix it all here today, we will not make any progress and the clock is ticking.

There are wider concerns but everybody has shown admirable restraint in that Senators have not put all our good ideas around the Residential Tenancies Bill into amendments. This grouping is specifically around creating space and time for that proper debate. The amendments do not seek to change everything about residential tenancies but to give us enough space during a time of restricted movement in terms of a six-month period to address these issues.

Primary and secondary legislation were mentioned, so I will clarify in relation to my amendments, Nos. 7 and 9, that I am presenting the Minister with two options. One is to insert the 20 km option into primary legislation, which this Bill is.

Amendment No. 9 gives the Minister permission to introduce secondary legislation in the form of a statutory instrument. Both options are on the table in that regard.

I congratulate the Minister and wish him well in his portfolio. I, too, believe that we cannot fix the housing crisis in this House or with this Bill.

In terms of landlords, we cannot have landlords without tenants or tenants without landlords. Landlords have played a very important role for many years and I hope that they play a role going forward. Quite a lot of landlords have left the market over the past five or six years. Why have more landlords left than entered the industry? We should debate the issue.

In terms of breaching the number of persons allowed in a household during the pandemic, whether there are more than two, four or ten people in a rented house, who is the person responsible? Fairly severe fines of up to €1,500 have been put in place for a breach but who is responsible for paying the fine? Is it the landlord or the occupier of the house? People now rent rooms in people's homes. Who pays the fine if a number of people have rooms in a house? Is it one person, three or four persons or is each individually responsible for paying if a fine is issued by the Garda Síochána?

To answer Senator Burke's question, later this afternoon the Seanad will debate the Health (Amendment) Bill that deals with the fines aspects.

In terms of a breach due to exceeding the number of people allowed in a home, the person legally responsible in that instance is the tenant if he or she is in charge of the house. That is something for later this afternoon when the health legislation comes here.

I understand the manner and spirit in which the amendments have been tabled. In reality, if any amendment were accepted here today then we would have to return to the Dáil and would not get this legislation enacted. I have sought an early signature motion to make sure this legislation is enacted.

That is not our problem.

It is the tenants' problem. I try to do things that are realistic.

Then we may as well not be here and go home.

I have explained, Senator. He is here on his own. I respect this House, have come in here and asked the House for forbearance so that I can bring in this legislation that provides protections to tenants that are required in the middle of a pandemic, like I did in July. If we need additional protections into the future, as I said in July I would return to both Houses and introduce those, which is what I am doing and I am good to my word.

What I am also inclined to do, and what any Government must do, is act responsibly yet strike a balance. Going back to what Senator Burke has said, some Senators may not be aware that to have a functioning rental market we need a mix of providers. We need landlords, tenants, public housing and private housing. Without question the market is very fraught at the moment. We have lost 16,000 tenancies since 2015 for many reasons, part of which is down to tax treatment and regulation. We should examine the matter further. I want more public housing. I want affordable rentals, which I have said. The Government and I will deliver on that. It is in the programme for Government, in the Housing for All section, that was agreed by the three parties. The programme for Government is radical but realistic and deliverable. I can come in with measures and people can stoke fears, feed on it and try to gain political advantage. In some instances it is obvious that happened like in July and August when people said that there would be thousands of new homeless due to thousands of evictions but that did not happen.

I am more than confident that the measures we are bringing in here, with the support of all Members of this House, will have an effect. One of the reasons that I cannot go with six months is because I must be proportionate yet operate legally within the Constitution. Furthermore, I want to hardwire these regulations into the 1947 Act so that they are completely aligned. So at any stage whereby there is a restriction of 5 km, which is the public health restriction as mentioned earlier by Senator Cummins, this would automatically kick back in. Let us not forget that this is on top of what most of this House supported in July when we brought in the Residential Tenancies and Valuation Act 2020. People whose salary income has been affected by Covid-19 and the pandemic can avail of a self-declaration and get full protection against eviction to 11 January 2021 under legislation that has been place since 1 August 2020.

The temporary prohibition on tenancy terminations, under the Bill, operates under Section 31A of the health regulations. They are in force, as everyone knows, to restrict the movement of people outside of 5 km of their place of residence. The provision is intended to be agile, which means it activates and deactivates when tenants most need our help. In case people looking in from the outside think that all tenancies are in dispute, I wish to remind them that less than 2% of tenancies end up in dispute. We have resourced the Residential Tenancies Board, accordingly.

In response to what Senators asked me earlier, we have an additional €2 million into next year, 15 staff particularly on the investigations side, additional moneys for local authorities and €10 million extra to carry out inspections. Where we do have rogue landlords prosecutions should be brought, and I have encouraged the RTB to do this although it does not need much encouragement.

With absolute respect, Minister, there is a large number of amendments.

I take the point made by the Senator but there are six amendments in this grouping.

I wanted to check, in terms of time.

I do not even need to speak to the amendment; I could just say that I am not accepting them.

No, commentary is useful.

It is important, out of respect to Senators, that I explain why that is the case. Senators, including Senator Higgins, have gone to the trouble of preparing and tabling these amendments and I will not delay much further.

An issue that has arisen a number of times is the sale of property being used as a reason to terminate a tenancy. There are about 200 ongoing investigations into that at the moment. There is a fine of up to €30,000 and prosecutions may be made.

The provisions are intended to be fair. I recognise that there is a need to complement the restriction on movement provided in health regulations but also to be fair to property owners in limiting the infringement on their property rights. We cannot just dispense with them, as some would have us believe. Individual property rights are not superior to anyone else's rights but they are rights within the Constitution. That is where it is so I cannot pick and choose. I cannot adopt an à la carte approach to Bunreacht na hÉireann as some would want us to do, and as arose in the Dáil last night which was striking. I cannot place a five or six- month blanket ban on tenancy terminations without proper justification. If there is a proper justification to achieve a social common good then we will not be found wanting, as we have not been found wanting in terms of bringing in protections at this stage. We need the rental sector and public housing sector to grow to meet housing demand.

Again, to those who opposed the recent budget, we have 58,500 people and tenancies supported through the housing assistance payment and made provision to provide for another 15,000. The Bill is underpinned by prevailing public health advice, and the collective will of Government, behind Section 31A of the health regulations.

I cannot pre-empt a future decision of the Government or, indeed, of the Minister for Health. I know such decisions will be based on public health advice prevailing at the time. I know the Government's decisions, because I am part of them, are taken in the best interests of us all. I will listen carefully to public health advice with regard to the safeguarding of tenants.

If it were safe for tenants to move within a radius wider than 5 km, I would genuinely have difficulty in justifying a further infringement of a property right. The measure is not set in stone, however. I am indicating to the House that I can legislate only on the basis of the prevailing public health advice. At present, the temporary prohibition on tenancy termination is based on public health advice that recommends the restriction of movement outside a radius of 5 km from one's home. I informed the Dáil, and the Minister of State, Deputy Burke, informed this House, that if I needed to make further changes to tenancy law in a bid to suppress the spread of Covid-19, I would not delay in doing so. I have not delayed. I am here now, I am following up and I am acting on the prevailing public health advice. I hope this six-week restriction is the last restriction we need to face but, if not, and if this Bill is enacted, these protections will come back into play. This Bill protects tenancies now and is in line with prevailing public health advices. These advices may change in due course, and I am more than willing to come back to the Houses of the Oireachtas to make any necessary amendments.

With regard to amendment No. 9, it would not be appropriate for me to have the proposed regulatory power to change the radius of 5 km to 20 km. This is a matter for section 31A of the Health Act, under which regulations are made on the advice of public health officials in conjunction with the Minister for Health and with the collective support of the Government.

We should all be conscious, as we contribute, that we should allow as many amendments and sections to be dealt with today as we can. Therefore, I will move as fast as I can. Is the Senator pressing the amendment?

Amendment put:
The Committee divided: Tá, 14; Níl, 21.

  • Bacik, Ivana.
  • Black, Frances.
  • Boyhan, Victor.
  • Boylan, Lynn.
  • Gavan, Paul.
  • Higgins, Alice-Mary.
  • Hoey, Annie.
  • Keogan, Sharon.
  • McCallion, Elisha.
  • Moynihan, Rebecca.
  • Ruane, Lynn.
  • Sherlock, Marie.
  • Wall, Mark.
  • Warfield, Fintan.

Níl

  • Ardagh, Catherine.
  • Burke, Paddy.
  • Byrne, Malcolm.
  • Carrigy, Micheál.
  • Casey, Pat.
  • Cassells, Shane.
  • Conway, Martin.
  • Crowe, Ollie.
  • Cummins, John.
  • Dolan, Aisling.
  • Fitzpatrick, Mary.
  • Gallagher, Robbie.
  • Garvey, Róisín.
  • Kyne, Seán.
  • Martin, Vincent P.
  • McGahon, John.
  • Murphy, Eugene.
  • O'Loughlin, Fiona.
  • O'Reilly, Joe.
  • Seery Kearney, Mary.
  • Ward, Barry.
Tellers: Tá, Senators Fintan Warfield and Rebecca Moynihan; Níl, Senators Robbie Gallagher and Seán Kyne.
Amendment declared lost.

I move amendment No. 3:

In page 4, between lines 4 and 5, to insert the following:

"2. (1) An emergency period in relation to the tenancy of a dwelling shall be a period of at least six months from the enactment of this Act.".

Amendment put:
The Committee divided: Tá, 13; Níl, 25.

  • Bacik, Ivana.
  • Black, Frances.
  • Boylan, Lynn.
  • Gavan, Paul.
  • Higgins, Alice-Mary.
  • Hoey, Annie.
  • Keogan, Sharon.
  • McCallion, Elisha.
  • Moynihan, Rebecca.
  • Ruane, Lynn.
  • Sherlock, Marie.
  • Wall, Mark.
  • Warfield, Fintan.

Níl

  • Ardagh, Catherine.
  • Boyhan, Victor.
  • Burke, Paddy.
  • Byrne, Malcolm.
  • Carrigy, Micheál.
  • Casey, Pat.
  • Cassells, Shane.
  • Conway, Martin.
  • Crowe, Ollie.
  • Cummins, John.
  • Davitt, Aidan.
  • Dolan, Aisling.
  • Dooley, Timmy.
  • Fitzpatrick, Mary.
  • Gallagher, Robbie.
  • Garvey, Róisín.
  • Kyne, Seán.
  • Martin, Vincent P.
  • McDowell, Michael.
  • McGahon, John.
  • Murphy, Eugene.
  • O'Loughlin, Fiona.
  • O'Reilly, Joe.
  • Seery Kearney, Mary.
  • Ward, Barry.
Tellers: Tá, Senators Fintan Warfield and Paul Gavan; Níl, Senators Robbie Gallagher and Seán Kyne.
Amendment declared lost.

The time permitted for this debate having expired, I am required to put the following question in accordance with the order of the Seanad on 22 October 2020: "That section 2 is hereby agreed to in Committee; in respect of each of the sections undisposed of, the section is hereby agreed to in Committee; the Title is hereby agreed to in Committee; the Bill is accordingly reported to the House without amendment; Fourth Stage is hereby completed; and the Bill is hereby received for final consideration and passed."

Question put and agreed to.