Minister Murphy's speech during the Dáil Private Members Business debate on rental standards

Published on Tuesday, 07 Nov 2017
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Check Against Delivery

Thank you Ceann Comhairle. 

I would also like to thank Sinn Fein Deputies for providing the opportunity, this evening, to discuss the appalling revelations regarding breaches of minimum standards in the private rental sector, which were aired in last week’s RTE Investigates documentary.

What we witnessed was horrendous and degrading. No one should have to live like this – no one should be allowed to live like this.

The properties shown have been closed down and the landlord is being pursued, as is only right and proper. It would seem that this was not an accidental breach of standards; rather it would appear to be the wilful and deliberate exploitation of a powerless group of people in our community. 

This is not the Ireland that we stand for – not for the people in this Republic or those that we would invite to come to live and work and contribute.

That such appalling conditions can exist, almost undetected and uninterrupted it seems, shows how much we need to implement the rental reform agenda that we have already put in place.

Motion

This RTE documentary has put a public focus on standards that persist in some of our private rental accommodation; that’s a good thing because we should be made very aware of some of the living conditions that people in this country still have to put up with. But this is not a new focus for government – we have been working towards new solutions and protections for quite some time.

Our rental reform agenda is underway and I am determined to see it through, together with the new proposals that I announced in September.

But to step out of the current context of this debate for just a moment, it is important to note that the images shown in the documentary do not represent the vast majority of people’s experiences of the private rental sector.

The vast majority of our small independent landlords are good landlords. They look after their accommodation and they look after their tenants. But in every walk of life it seems, there are those who will break the law and who will give a bad name to a good enterprise.

Returning to the context of this debate - You can be assured that this Government is absolutely committed to tackling this problem and to addressing the issue of substandard accommodation in the rental sector comprehensively. 

While not subscribing to every single word of the Sinn Fein motion, the Government will not be opposing it.   In the time available, I would like to take the opportunity to outline some of the actions that have been taken to date and that are planned to improve the quality and management of rental accommodation, so that our citizens can live secure and safe lives wherever they call home.

Government Action

Essentially these actions involve:

  • the introduction of new standards, which has already happened
  • a commitment of funding for increased inspections, already given and now ring-fenced for 2018
  • and, a new system of compliance that will be progressed as part of the change management plan for the RTB which I announced in September of this year.

The Government’s Strategy for the Rental Sector, published in December 2016, set out a wide range of measures to be introduced under the headings of Supply, Security, Standards and Services - many of which have already been progressed. 

The most important of these for the quality of private rental accommodation are the Standards and Services. These encompass greatly enhanced inspection and enforcement standards.  They include: 

  • The updated Standards for Rented Houses Regulations 2017, which came into effect in July, and are clearly focused on tenant safety. They introduce significant new measures covering heating appliances, carbon monoxide and window safety.  Local authorities have been given a comprehensive guidance document by my Department to assist them in the implementation of these regulations.
  • But we also need the resources to enable increased inspections.  And while a total of €7.5m has been provided to local authorities for inspection purposes over the four years to the end of 2017, we recognise the need for additional resources to ensure greater compliance with standards.  
  • Therefore we have made greatly increased provision for inspections, with €2.5m in funding to be provided in 2018.  I intend to provide further annual increases in the period up to 2021, when it is envisaged that €10m will be provided.  
  • This will enable us to increase our inspection rate from 4/5% to 25% of rental properties annually. Which means that a rental property will be inspected every four years. But more importantly, the properties that really need  urgent or regular inspection will be prioritised – those particularly ‘at risk’ properties that include very old buildings  and instances where there has been a complaint.

New Sanctions

But it’s not enough to simply raise standards and increase inspections, especially when we know that there are unscrupulous people out there determined to subvert the law and put people’s lives in danger.

We need to be sure that there is a robust enforcement and sanctions regime, and this will be at the core of the change management programme for the RTB that I announced almost two months ago.

In the current situation, there is little disincentive for unscrupulous landlords, who let poor quality, unsafe or overcrowded dwellings and take advantage of the most vulnerable renters in the sector. Such landlords may be tempted to try to operate undetected for as long as possible and, if discovered, simply discontinue the use of the accommodation and move on to somewhere else.

What this means is that a landlord can currently provide substandard accommodation without the prospect of being subject to any immediate penalty as an offence is only committed and a penalty imposed when an improvement notice or a prohibition notice is served and is not adhered to. This has to change. And it will change as part of the government’s continued reform of this sector.

While the sentiment behind the call, this evening, that the Government support an NCT-type certification system for private rented housing is understandable, the reality is that establishing and rolling out such a system would take a significant amount of time and would not be an effective means of dealing with the immediate problem we are facing now.

Under the changes coming to the RTB to make it a strong regulator of the sector and to allow it to effectively represent tenants’ as well as landlords’ concerns, landlords will be required to register their tenancies on an annual basis.

I believe that a more effective way of addressing this issue of certification and sanction, is to require landlords, when registering a tenancy with the RTB, to certify that the property in question is compliant with regulations in relation to standards for rental accommodation, overcrowding and fire safety. 

This will mean a legally enforceable requirement on landlords to certify the quality and safety of their rental properties.

Failure to provide this certification, failure to register the tenancy or, very importantly, the provision of an untrue certification, will all constitute offences, prosecutable by the RTB. This will protect the good landlords as well as expose the bad.

This is how we can quickly come to greater protection for tenants from unscrupulous landlords by introducing a more meaningful sanctions regime.

The RTB will play a key role in terms of standards and enforcement in the rental sector, and will be given the powers and the resources required to take on this enhanced regulatory responsibility. 

This will require legislative change and this is a priority for this government.

I have previously stated that this is a substantial programme of work that would need to be undertaken over a number of years.  However, priority is being given to exploring, as a matter of urgency, the changes needed in legislation and in the Board’s financing arrangements in order to make early progress in the process that will progressively see the RTB become the sector’s regulator over the next two years. 

Particular attention will be given to possible amendments to the provisions in relation to overcrowding, both in terms of its legal definition and the enforcement actions and sanctions applicable to such situations. I take the view that enabling or causing deliberate and unsafe overcrowding is a very serious offence and I will treat it as such in the legislation. 

Inspected properties

The proportion of inspected properties found not to meet rental accommodation standards, cited by RTE as 69% nationally, is high.  However this should not be extrapolated to imply that non-compliance is at this level across the sector.  Local Authority inspections currently target properties that are identified as being at risk of not complying – older properties and those with a history of quality problems.

And of course many inspections are conducted as a result of a complaint received.

For this reason the rate of non-compliance among inspected properties will inevitably, and properly, be higher than the rate across all rental properties.

Other improvements

The issues of inconsistency and significant differences in inspection and enforcement capacity across local authorities are also being addressed under the Rental Strategy.  Work is underway to build a more efficient, standardised and transparent inspections and enforcement approach across all local authority areas.

My Department, the Residential Tenancies Board and Local Authorities are working together to develop a national system of shared support services covering ICT, legal services, training and capacity development and resource and performance management.

This will mean that all Local Authorities will have access to the most up to date and effective tools and systems to increase their levels of inspection and expedite enforcement processes so that rates of compliance increase and opportunities to operate under the radar are eliminated.

In addition we will increase stakeholder engagement and awareness raising to educate landlords as to their statutory responsibilities and obligations, as well as making tenants fully aware of their rights.

The RTB will offer a voluntary landlord accreditation scheme by which landlords and their agents will gain knowledge on best practice and a more thorough understanding of both their rights and obligations of landlords, including in relation to safety and quality of their properties.

And, after the Grenfell Tower tragedy, the RTB prepared an information leaflet on the fire safety measures which landlords are required to ensure are in place and delivered it directly to all registered landlords.

Conclusion 

We are facing significant challenges in the rental sector at this time. Sub-standard and dangerous accommodation is not something we can tolerate, no matter how bad the current shortage of housing.

But things are improving on the build side.

Implementation of the Government’s Rebuilding Ireland Action Plan is working to address the issue of supply of new housing for ownership and the rental sector, whilst the Strategy for the Rental Sector is driving changes to improve standards, and to increase the coverage and efficiency of the inspections system to underpin improved compliance.

And the new changes for the sector which I announced in September will allow us to properly deter but also sanction where it occurs, the wilful breach of accommodation standards, to the severe detriment of tenants in such accommodation. 

In this regard, the bulk of the measures included in this motion are already covered by the Government’s work to date, either in terms of actions completed, work underway or measures planned in our already announced programme of work.  We will remain resolutely focused on delivering on this programme in the months and years ahead.