Eoin Ó Broin: The Government has shut down debate on the Residential Tenancies Amendment Bill

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The Sinn Féin TD says Government is rushing the Residential Tenancies Amendment Bill through this week without due process, letting renters down again.

THIS WEEK THE Government is trying to steamroll the Residential Tenancies Amendment Bill 2021 through the Dáil and Seanad.

This controversial legislation will extend Covid-19 protections for a small group of renters while stripping an even larger group of tenants of all protections, leaving them at risk of homelessness.

There are currently two separate sets of Covid-19 protections for renters.

The first was introduced in July of last year and prevents landlords from either evicting or increasing the rent of tenants who are in arrears due to Covid-19 income loss and who are on a Covid-19 related social welfare payment.

To avail of this protection, the tenant must submit a written self-declaration to the Residential Tenancies Board. Figures from the Board provided to me last week show that to date just 407 tenants have availed of this protection.

This measure is due to expire on 12 April. The second protection is a more general ban on evictions introduced in October last year. It is linked to the 5km travel restriction in place during Level 5 of the Government’s Living with Covid plan.

This will end 10 days after the lifting of the 5km travel restriction, which initially was expected to take place on 5 April.

Missing vital scrutiny

Last Friday the Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien wrote to the Oireachtas Housing Committee asking us to waive Pre-Legislative Scrutiny of an unpublished Residential Tenancies Amendment Bill.

Pre-Legislative Scrutiny is an important part of the legislative process were Committee members hear from both the Department and other organisations on the content of a Bill before it enters the formal, and more adversarial, legislative process.

In this instance, it would have provided an opportunity for tenant’s advocacy groups such as Threshold and homeless services providers like The Simon Communities to give their view of the impact of the Bills provisions.

The Committee sought a private briefing on the Bill before making a decision. The briefing, with Departmental officials, took place on Monday. Committee members were not given a copy of the Bill in advance of the meeting. Only after some protesting was the Bill shared on the screen of our Microsoft Teams session.

The officials informed us that the Bill had two sections. The first would extend the ban on evictions and rent increases for tenants in arrears due to Covid-19 income loss and who are on a Covid-19 social welfare payment, through to July.

The second would strip all other tenants in rent arrears of the more general eviction ban protection. This would mean that a tenant who has not lost income due to Covid-19 and who is not on a Covid-19 payment but has fallen into arrears because of a rent increase, could be evicted for non-payment of arrears.

Impacting real people

In such cases tenants would have to start flat hunting, increasing their exposure to Covid. In the event that they are unable to find an alternative home, they would be forced into emergency accommodation.

Again, potentially increasing their exposure to Covid-19.

Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Green Party members of the Committee were supportive of the minister’s request to waive pre-legislative scrutiny on the grounds that passing Section 1 of the Bill was urgent. They were silent on the impact of Section 2 of the proposed legislation.

Sinn Féin, Social Democrat, Labour and Independent members of the Committee were deeply unhappy with the potential impact of Section 2 on vulnerable tenants and refused to accede to the minister’s request.

Unable to reach an agreement the private meeting was adjourned, and the Committee met again on Tuesday in public session to decide the matter. Sinn Féin proposed a compromise, suggesting Committee waive the need for Pre-Legislative Scrutiny on the Bill if the Minister would agree to withdraw the controversial Section 2.

Social Democrat and Independent members also proposed holding additional meetings of the Committee to ensure that the valuable protections in Section 1 could be passed in time. Unfortunately, Government members of the Committee refused to budge, and a vote was called.

With the Committee split on Government vs Opposition lines, the proposal to waive scrutiny was passed by 7 votes to 6.

Having successfully avoided the much-needed Pre-Legislative Scrutiny, Minister O’Brien is now steamrolling the Bill through the Dáil and Seanad.

The government has used its majority on the Business Committee to ensure that all stages of the Bill will be taken in both houses in an exceptionally short space of time. This is a deliberate attempt to reduce debate, and crucially votes, on the amendments to the Bill tabled by Opposition TDs and Senators.

Sinn Féin supports extending the ban on evictions and rent increases for tenants in arrears due to Covid-19 income and on a Covid-19 social welfare payment until the end of the year, at least.

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Supporting all renters

However, we also believe that all tenants should get the same protections. Forcing people out of their homes, into multiple viewings or even worse into congregated emergency accommodation makes absolutely no sense at a time when Covid-19 numbers remain stubbornly high.

Unfortunately, this government doesn’t seem to care. Since taking office, Minister for Housing, Darragh O’Brien has repeatedly striped renters of vital protections while making those that remain so cumbersome only a handful of people avail of them.

If the Residential Tenancies Bill 2021 passes through the Oireachtas unamended this week the Government will have let renters down again. But there is still time.

Phone or e-mail your local Senators and TDs and urge them to support the Opposition amendments to have the controversial Section 2 of the Bill deleted. It’s time for Government to stand up for all renters and ensure they have the protections they need in these very challenging times.

Eoin Ó Broin TD is Sinn Féin spokesperson on Housing and author of HOME: why public housing is the answer (Merrion Press 2019) and Defects: living with the legacy of the Celtic Tiger (Merrion Press 2021).

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