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Ban on Rent Increases Bill 2020: Second Stage [Private Members] (Continued)

Thursday, 17 September 2020

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 997 No. 5

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Eoin Ó Broin: Information on Eoin Ó Broin Zoom on Eoin Ó Broin] If he had been here for my speech, he would have heard me address one of the key points he went on to make. This measure on its own is not going to solve the crisis in the rental sector. I went on to list another eight or nine measures for which Sinn Féin has been arguing for years and which the Government has previously ignored. In the round, those measures would resolve these problems.

  I must also say that both the Minister of State and the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, criticised the Sinn Féin Minister for Communities in Northern Ireland for increasing council rents by just over 2%. That is not the same as what this Bill is about. This Bill is about the private rental sector and I would have thought that a Minister of State would know the difference between social housing and private rental housing. Rents in the social rental sector in the North had not been increased for five years and because of a lack of funding from Westminster, the Minister for Communities did the right thing to provide additional funding. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil councillors across the country are also increasing council rents because of a failure of central government to provide adequate income.

  In the quarter-on-quarter rent index of the Residential Tenancies Board, one will see that rent pressure zones, the centrepiece of the policy of Deputies Coveney and Eoghan Murphy to constrain rents, have been an abject failure. Not in a single year have rent pressure zones constrained rents within the designated areas by 4%. They have not worked. The Minister of State should read the data that he is telling me I should present to him before he comes and makes arguments that are factually incorrect.

  The Minister should not doubt for one second my seriousness in bringing forward these propositions or the work my colleagues and I do. He may disagree with me, and I respect that, but to suggest that I am bringing forward Bills that I know will not work is deeply disrespectful to any Member of this House.

  The Minister made some other points. He criticised Sinn Féin councillors for voting against a housing development in Killinarden in South Dublin County Council. Our councillors did the right thing. Up to half of the homes on that public land will be sold at unaffordable prices on the open, private market. That is not a good strategic use of a vital public asset, public land. All of that development should be social, affordable rental and affordable purchase homes and I must say that any councillor who allows houses to be sold at prices of €350,000 to €450,000 clearly does not understand the crises facing working families to rent or buy.

  The Minister criticised me for not doing any legal research and I am surprised he made that comment because we have had this discussion before and I told him them what I will tell him now. I consulted with two of the country's leading constitutional law experts at some length between the presentation of the most recent Bill and this one. Professors Kenny and Walsh from Trinity College are so eminent that they are two of the five authors of the standard academic text on the Irish Constitution. They have not told me any secrets. After Fianna Fáil issued the legal advice it had received from a non-constitutional law expert last December, Professors Kenny and Walsh published in The Irish Times and on their conclusions that such measures could well be constitutional. They criticised the repeated attempts of Governments over the years to hide behind the Constitution because it is ultimately only the Supreme Court that makes that decision.

  I do not have the advantage of having an Attorney General. If the Government wants to share that service with the Opposition, we will happily take them up on it. I am willing to say that, if I were the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, I would go all the way to the courts to defend the rights of renters and if the Constitution needed to be changed to do that, so be it. There is quite a lot of legal weight behind the proposition we have outlined today.

  The Minister and the Minister of State have said that they are concerned that temporarily banning rent increases will have a negative impact on supply. Think about for a moment. What that means is that institutional investors who pay no tax on their rent roll or capital gains, have access to large volumes of cash and the highest rents in the history of the State, will stop investing. The Minister of State is actually telling us that the only way we can see the increase in supply that he says is needed is if we allow those institutional investors to keep increasing rents. That is what he is saying. The proposition I have put forward is that we freeze rents at their high point. We are not taking anything from those institutional investors or landlords, we are simply saying that rents cannot go any higher and tenants cannot pay any more. I believe that if that measure is combined with the other measures I outlined earlier, particularly a major capital investment in affordable cost rental by the Government in the budget, renters will be protected and supply will be increased at the same time.

  The Minister criticised me for not putting every other proposal around protecting renters into this Bill. That is because I want a single focus on this issue but the Minister should rest assured because I have five other pieces of legislation currently with the Bills Office and there will be many more to come. The one thing the Minister will know from when he was on this side of this House is that we are not short of propositions or ideas.

  I must say that the defence by the Minister and Minister of State of the appalling piece of legislation that they rammed through the House in a short period of time in July is a disgrace. That legislation stripped vital protections from thousands of renters. The Minister and Minister of State have said that is a good thing. Of course, the very small number of renters who will receive the new protections will welcome them but I am concerned about all renters and that is why I opposed that Bill and would do so again.

  I have to laugh when I hear the Minister talking about the voids programme because, when he was in opposition, he agreed with us that the then Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, was being deliberately misleading when he presented the small amount of top-up funding for refurbishing casual re-lets as somehow bringing voids back into use. There are virtually no long-term voids left in our housing stock and certainly not in urban areas. What the Minister has done is give a small amount of top-up funding to local authorities to refurbish vacant units that have recently been vacated by a tenant but because the Government traditionally would not give the local authorities enough money to vacate and refurbish properties, it is now giving that top-up. Those are not voids, they are casual re-lets and the Minister and his officials know it. It is time we are honest about that.

  The Minister also criticised Sinn Féin's opposition to the help-to-buy scheme. It is one of the most appalling housing policies that was introduced by the previous Government. It has without doubt helped some people but it has disadvantaged many more because it inflates house prices. It locks in house prices and, in fact, 40% of the households who got significant sums of money did not need it because they had the deposit before they applied for the scheme. Even still, we gave them another €20,000 of taxpayers' money that should have gone to struggling families who cannot save a deposit, buy or rent a home at affordable levels.

  I am not surprised at the policy positions of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael because they have never stood by renters and that is why our rental market is so dysfunctional. Not once, for decades, have renters got a good turn. The idea that a balance has to be struck between landlords and tenants suggests that somehow there is an equivalence between the two when landlords will always have greater power because they own the asset whereas tenants will always be more vulnerable. I do not like to criticise the new Chairman of the housing committee because we are only beginning to build a relationship but I am disappointed that the silence of the Green Party in the debate has been deafening. Of course, that is because this is a policy the party previously supported. The fact that nobody from the Green Party has come in to explain their position will be seen by many people as the beginning of a substantial shift in the policy of that party on housing and that is disappointing. I mean no disrespect to my colleague who is here.

  First-time buyers and struggling renters will judge this Government by what it delivers. The Minister of State said that his party did a great job with renters when, in fact, the rental market is worse today than it was when the then Minister, Deputy Coveney, published his rental plan a number of years ago. That is true by every single indicator of the Residential Tenancies Board, the Economic and Social Research Institute and the non-governmental sector. We have a new Government and we will judge it by what it does. If it delivers large volumes of generally affordable homes for working people to rent or buy, I will applaud and commend it from this side of the House. However, if it continues to do what Deputies Eoghan Murphy and Coveney did, which is to promise much but deliver next to nothing for struggling renters, we will hold the Government to account, criticise it and demonstrate that better policy alternative are available until such time as the tables are turned and Sinn Féin is on that side of the House, delivering real change for the renters and potential home buyers who need the support of a Government, which they have not got since 2016.

  Question put.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seán Ó Fearghaíl Zoom on Seán Ó Fearghaíl In accordance with Standing Order 80(2), the division is postponed until the weekly division time on Wednesday, 23 September 2020.

  The Dáil adjourned at 10.30 p.m. until 2 p.m. on Tuesday, 22 September 2020.

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