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Regulation of Private Landlords

Private Members’ Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 12:15 pm on 13th October 2008.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker 12:15 pm, 13th October 2008

I remind Members of the requirements of Standing Order 69 in relation to the declaration of any interest relevant to a debate.

The Business Committee agreed, at its meeting on Tuesday 7 October, that, where two or more amendments to a motion are selected, an extra 15 minutes will be added to the length of the debate. The basis for that decision was to ensure that other Members who wished to be called were not unduly impacted upon by the time taken to move and wind up multiple amendments. Up to one hour and 45 minutes will, therefore, be allocated for the debate. The proposer will have 10 minutes to propose the motion and 10 minutes to wind up. All other Members will have five minutes. Two amendments have been selected and published on the Marshalled List. The proposer of each amendment will have 10 minutes to propose and five minutes to wind up.

Photo of Fra McCann Fra McCann Sinn Féin

I beg to move

That this Assembly calls on the Minister for Social Development to bring forward a proposal for legislation on the regulation of private landlords.

I accept both amendments, because their intent is in keeping with the spirit of the motion.

A Cheann Comhairle agus a chaired. I brought a similar motion on the registration of private landlords to this House more than a year ago. After that motion won Members’ support, I firmly believed that the Minister for Social Development would introduce legislation that would make it mandatory for landlords in the private-rented sector to register. However, for reasons that are baffling — and despite the fact that the previous motion was given full support in this Chamber, including the support of the Minister and her party — that has not been the case.

What have been the consequences to tenants of the Minister’s failure and her reluctance to legislate for the sentiments of the motion passed in October 2007? Many tenants in the private-rented sector have been illegally evicted from their homes or cheated out of their deposits. Other tenants have been intimidated by landlords who told them that complaining about deplorable living conditions would lead to their being left on the streets.

Sinn Féin has long recognised that many landlords in the private-rented sector play a major role in the provision of decent housing for their tenants. It is accepted that many in the private sector provide excellent accommodation. However, while many in that sector recognise the existence of bad landlords, they disagree about how they should be regulated. Nor is it agreed that there are too many landlords providing poor units of accommodation. The best way forward that was suggested by the private-rented sector was to allow the market to regulate it. In light of recent events in relation to the global credit crisis, surely there are clear indications that the market is not capable of regulating any sector.

(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McClarty] in the Chair)

We have also raised concerns about the role of some estate agents in the private-rented sector. Some agents have changed their charging arrangements from monthly to four-weekly payments so that they can extract an extra four weeks’ rent over the calendar year. That is gross manipulation of tenants, many of whom cannot afford to pay the additional money and go into debt to do so. It amounts to an attack on the neediest people in our society.

The continuous problem of landlords charging rent that is substantially higher than the housing benefit rate for particular areas forces many people into debt, and that practice is widespread. There are mechanisms in place for people to make complaints, but most people will not complain because of threats of violence or eviction. For many people it is better to suffer than to sleep on the streets.

In a question for written answer to the Minister for Social Development, the Member for North Belfast Fred Cobain asked how many enforcement orders had been brought against landlords under the Private Tenancies Order 2006. The reply stated that district councils are proactive in carrying out their responsibilities, with one enforcement case in Ards, two in Ballymoney, 13 in Banbridge, 42 in Belfast, 14 in Carrickfergus, five in Castlereagh, three in Craigavon, one in Down, one in Dungannon and three in Newtownabbey. There was no mention of the other councils across the North, but that is the standard under which those councils have operated. Many other landlords lease houses that are in poor condition but have not been inspected.

Sinn Féin does not distinguish between landlords who provide accommodation in houses in multiple occupation (HMO) and landlords in the private-rented sector. Many landlords supply houses to both sectors, therefore, the whole sector must be regulated by the same legislation.

In a recent consultation document, the Housing Executive said:

“Out of 134 statutory notices served on HMOs in Dungannon 49 (36%) were abated by the landlord moving the tenants … to unknown destinations.”

The document went on to state that although the Housing (Management of Houses in Multiple Occupation) Regulations 1993 require landlords to provide managers of schemes to pass on relevant information, there is no incentive in the regulations to make them do so.

Some landlords ignore the system; therefore, strong legislation, such as mandatory registration, is required for the entire private-rented sector, as it is the only effective way of dealing with those landlords.

The same document stated that 11% of HMOs in south Belfast were unfit for human habitation, as were 17% in north Belfast, 2% in Coleraine and 13% in Derry. The document further stated that, given that there are thousands of unregistered HMOs, those figures are actually far worse. In my constituency of West Belfast, it is not known how many of those houses exist. In fact, the private-rented sector has grown in West Belfast to such an extent that it is undermining the social fabric of many districts. Many properties are in poor condition, and we have all heard the horror stories about houses in bad states of repair. I am sure that many Members have dealt with such issues as antisocial tenants being forced on local residents, and residents’ complaints that have gone unheeded by landlords who do not care because they are getting the high rents demanded.

I have spoken to many people in the housing sector and in local government who have said that those problems are but a drop in the ocean. Without stronger powers and mandatory registration, their ability to deal with those problems is being seriously undermined. It is difficult to comprehend why the Minister is reluctant to implement the necessary legislation, as tens of millions of pounds in housing benefit is paid to landlords every year.

In the past, it has been intimated that the remit of the private-rented sector is to be widened to allow more people to move into the sector, especially given the lack of social housing. For many people, moving to the private-rented sector is seen as a last resort, and, with no regulation to protect tenants, they will be condemned to living at the mercy of many unscrupulous landlords. All available information points to mandatory registration as the only weapon available to ensure that tenants are protected.

We ask the Minister to commit to introducing legislation that will allow some control over the private-rented sector and make it mandatory that all landlords be registered. Sinn Féin proposes that, in order to make mandatory registration effective, the legislation must contain measures that ensure compliance and impose strong penalties for non-compliance. We ask the Assembly to support the motion in order that we may send a clear message to the victims of unscrupulous landlords that we are no longer prepared to accept this deplorable situation.

Photo of David Simpson David Simpson Shadow Spokesperson (Education), Shadow Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow Spokesperson (Transport)

I beg to move amendment No 1: Leave out all after “Assembly” and insert

“recognises the intention of the Minister for Social Development to bring forward legislation to regulate private landlords; and calls on the Minister to ensure that these regulations will tackle unfitness in the sector, whilst ensuring that unnecessary bureaucracy is avoided.”

I declare an interest as a very good landlord, in a very small way.

I support the amendment that stands in my name and that of my colleagues. The motion is in need of two things: first, it and its sponsors must be challenged; and, secondly, the motion needs to be amended.

The motion was tabled by three Sinn Féin MLAs. Given the fact that those three Sinn Féin MLAs felt so exercised about the issue that they tabled the motion, I imagine that they want people to believe that the matter is of pressing importance to them and that it is one of their priorities. That is interesting, given where we are as an Assembly at present, and given their party leader’s recent foot-stamping as he desperately tries to appear relevant to a world that has passed him by.

The following question must be asked: if the Minister for Social Development were to introduce legislation tomorrow, would the three Sinn Féin MLAs’ attachment to the issue be enough for them to urge their colleagues to attend an Executive meeting to approve its intro­duction? There is absolutely no point in Members tabling motion after motion, calling for Minister after Minister to take action after action, only for them to then say that they will not go along to discuss the possible introduction of legislation on the subject.

For a community that is well used to Sinn Féin hypocrisy and double standards, to say that this is one of that party’s more obvious and less convincing motions is really saying something. Then again, I may be being unkind to the three MLAs. Perhaps the new Sinn Féin policy is government by urgent procedure. Perhaps that is the brave new world into which Mr Adams is leading his party — time will tell. Either way, the real question that hangs over the motion is not one for the Minister or any other party in the Chamber to answer but one for the three Members who tabled it and their party to answer.

It is clear that the motion should be amended. Our amendment embraces all the essential ingredients needed for a debate on the regulation of private landlords. The Minister for Social Development is to introduce legislation. Draft proposals are to be put out for consultation by March 2009. We welcome that commitment. Of course, the three Sinn Féin Members in whose name the motion stands already know that, or, at least, they should know it, which again —

Photo of David Simpson David Simpson Shadow Spokesperson (Education), Shadow Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow Spokesperson (Transport)

No, I will not give way. Serious doubt is cast over the motion’s real intent. Our amendment also highlights two pressing requirements: the legislation must incorporate a way in which to tackle landlords’ responsibilities for housing unfitness; and it must ensure that unnecessary bureaucracy is avoided.

Some issues of concern are the registration of private landlords; the general fitness of a premises for human habitation; the resolution of tenancy disputes; prompt repairs; how, when, and how often rents can be increased; the length of contract; notice to quit; and the protection of tenancy deposits. There are also issues to do with training landlords on their rights and on those of tenants. Those matters are all of huge importance to anyone who has entered into a private-rented agreement, or who is about to do so.

There are also issues regarding landlords’ rights in dealing with the small minority of problem tenants; however, time will not allow for a full discussion of those matters. At the beginning of my contribution, I declared an interest as a landlord, so I speak from experience. It is a serious issue for a landlord when a tenant stops paying rent, then disappears after trashing an apartment; I am sure that I am not alone in experiencing that. Just as the majority of tenants are ordinary, hard-working, civic-minded people, so many private landlords do the right thing. Such people should not be overburdened by bureaucracy.

This is an important issue, despite the obvious hypocrisy that lies at the heart of Sinn Féin’s motion and in that Assembly group’s game-playing. Our amendment deals with the entirety of the issue, and I commend it to the House.

Photo of Dawn Purvis Dawn Purvis PUP 12:30 pm, 13th October 2008

I beg to move amendment No 2: At end insert

“to include provision for the mandatory registration of, and establishment of service standards for, private landlords.”

Although I support Sinn Féin’s motion in principle, it needs to go further by calling for the mandatory registration of landlords. On 1 October 2007, the House debated and agreed to a motion that Fra McCann moved that called for the mandatory registration of all private-sector landlords. I have some sympathy with amendment No 1, but the issues facing those in the private-rented sector go beyond unfitness. This is a critical issue. More than a year ago, the House agreed to Fra McCann’s motion, which called for legislation in that area. However, the Minister for Social Develop­ment has not introduced any legislation on the matter. In the meantime, the shortage of social housing and still-inflated house prices mean that many more people rely on the private-rented market for housing. Buy-to-let mortgages have increased the number of private-rented homes that are available, and renting privately is increasingly the tenancy agreement of choice for many young people.

Legislation to improve the sector is not about unnecessary bureaucracy. The mandatory registration of private landlords and the establishment of service standards should improve the quality of properties, improve standards for landlords’ management of properties and tenancies, and improve the service for tenants. Housing is the number one issue that I deal with in my constituency office, and I do so regularly. Indeed, I would hazard a guess that that is the case for the majority of MLAs. In my office, many of the housing-related issues that we help people with are simply consequences of the absence of mandatory registration of private landlords.

Some tenants living in private housing that is in a state of disrepair cannot locate their landlords to request necessary repairs. That is a common problem that occurs daily. According to the 2006 house conditions survey, 64% of private-rented dwellings were classed as being in need of repairs. Some 27% of private-rented dwellings failed to meet the decent homes standard, the criteria for which state that a home must be in a reasonable state of repair, have reasonable modern facilities and services, and provide a reasonable degree of thermal comfort. Most of the tenants in such homes are elderly and on low incomes.

Neighbours who are affected by antisocial behaviour are sometimes unable to locate the owners of a dwelling in order to speak to them about the behaviour of their tenants. That is an issue. Sometimes, in my constituency, even the police have had difficulty in tracking down landlords to deal with issues of antisocial behaviour.

The inappropriate and, sometimes, illegal retention of a tenant’s deposit by a landlord is also a problem. Recently, I was visited by a tenant who paid a £1,200 deposit for his or her flat, and the landlord refused to repay it when the contract ended, because a door handle had been broken. Furthermore, landlords are issuing 28-day notices to quit, or eviction notices, without even talking to the tenants concerned.

Most landlords are good citizens and respectable businesspeople, who meet their legal obligations, maintain their properties and look after their tenants. However, that is not always the case, and the consequences can be significant. Shelter is a basic human requirement; therefore, it is critical that those who provide that service, in either the public or private sector, adhere to reasonable standards for conduct and the quality of service that they provide. When that does not happen — as we now debate — we must legislate to make it happen.

Experience from other systems has shown that efforts to register landlords are most successful when compliance is mandatory. In Scotland, the attempted light touch has proved ineffective when trying to enforce standards, particularly with those landlords who do not register for whatever reason. Landlords should be required to provide their contact details and details of all their properties, and that information must be regularly updated. Therefore, registration must be mandatory, and a failure to register should result in a prosecution or a fine. There should be a system of sanctions for serious misconduct. The Department or office that is responsible for registration should have the authority to deregister landlords who fail to comply with legal requirements.

Registration can also be used to educate landlords about their legal obligations. The Housing Rights Service supports mandatory registration and suggests that registered landlords be provided with a licence on condition that they follow guidelines set down in an approved code of practice. Registered landlords would also have access to a dispute-resolution service. Tenants should have access to the register and should be able to retrieve, without charge, their landlord’s current contact information. Moreover, there should be provision for a custodial-deposit scheme to ensure that deposits are managed safely and are not withheld by landlords, unreasonably or illegally. If there is a dispute over a deposit, tenants have access only to small claims courts, which are prohibitively expensive and time-consuming for most. Instead, landlords should be required to pay those deposits into a custodial system so that, if there is a disagreement over a deposit at the end of a tenancy, landlords and tenants will have access to the same dispute-resolution service, and a third party will oversee the process.

Although I welcome the Minister’s commitment to bring forward proposals for legislation at the end of this session, it is not soon enough. I hear daily about the problem from constituents who come into my office. Proposals must be brought forward sooner and must include mandatory registration and the establishment of service standards for all private landlords. I am pleased to move the amendment.

Photo of Fred Cobain Fred Cobain UUP

I welcome the motion and support amendment No 1. Although I recognise the work that the Minister has undertaken, we still do not have sufficient social housing in Northern Ireland to meet the need. Therefore, the private-rented sector is crucial in housing some of the most vulnerable people in our society. Eleven per cent of Northern Ireland’s housing stock is privately rented, and 44% of households in the private-rented sector live in fuel poverty.

In 2006, 27% of dwellings in the private-rented sector failed to meet the decent homes standards, and, over the past five years, there has been a 50% increase in the number of households presenting as homeless to the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, due to a loss of rented accommodation. It is crucial that people who rent in both multiple-occupancy homes and alone are protected by legislation from the minority of rogue and complacent landlords.

I welcomed the introduction of the Private Tenancies (Northern Ireland) Order 2006, which provides a new structure for the private-rented sector in Northern Ireland. Although the Order covers other tenancy issues, it does not go far enough on unfitness and disrepair, rent controls and certificates of fitness.

It does not require landlords to register but relies on their co-operation, and that is the Order’s weakness. I recognise that during the last debate on the issue, the Minister stated her desire to examine the success of the Order, looking at what has gone well, where the problems lie, and what more needs to be done.

I am sure that the Minister will inform the Assembly what difference the Order has made. However, I consider it a matter of practical necessity that the private-rented sector should be open and transparent, and in order for that to be guaranteed, the registration of private landlords and regulations that tackle unfitness in the sector are a must. If such measures are introduced, the room for complacency, bending the system and blatantly breaking the law would be removed. That would also benefit landlords as it would create a level playing field for business.

This is not an anti-private-rented sector motion in any way. The sector provides an excellent service for the majority of the time, and the DUP amendment recognises some of the fears that may exist in the sector with regard to increased bureaucracy.

It is crucial that the sector is given the freedom to maintain healthy competition and business practices while protecting the basic needs of its customers. The motion is not about excessive regulation but about creating good regulation that will benefit tenants and landlords. In the current global conditions, we are all beginning to recognise the benefits of good regulation. I, therefore, urge the Minister to look at practices in Scotland and decipher what has worked and on what we in Northern Ireland can improve.

The credit crunch has crippled the first-time-buyers’ market, and that will mean that in coming years, the private-rented sector will become even more important as people cannot afford to buy their own homes. Although I welcome the recent investment in the co-ownership scheme, the housing sector will face severe difficulties for the short term at least. It is, therefore, crucial that the correct regulation is in place in order to ensure that people can live in accommodation that is of an acceptable standard.

It has been almost six months since Sir John Semple referred to the matter in his review of affordable housing when he called for the registration of all landlords. However, despite unanimous support from all parties in the Assembly, the Minister has still not made a categorical move in that direction.

I recognise the pro-active work so far undertaken by the Minister. I urge her to introduce legislation that will adequately regulate private landlords, including registration, and tackle unfitness in the sector.

I support the motion as amended by amendment No 1.

Photo of Alban Maginness Alban Maginness Social Democratic and Labour Party

I advise any prospective football manager not to recruit Mr McCann to his team. Mr McCann is the master of own goals, and today he shows his mastery with regard to own goals. He moves a motion that has been exposed, including through remarks made by the Chairperson of the Committee for Social Development, Mr Simpson, as bogus. The motion has also been exposed as opening up a very simple line of attack on Sinn Féin, which is this: if the Minister were to produce legislation today on the regulation of private landlords, she could do nothing about it because the Executive are not meeting, and the reason for that is because Sinn Féin is boycotting Executive meetings.

Therefore, when Mr McCann hypocritically comes to this Chamber and cries about there having been a delay in legislation, he refuses to answer the fundamental question, namely, why is Sinn Féin blocking vital social policy legislation?

Photo of Fra McCann Fra McCann Sinn Féin

On a point of order. Mr Maginness is misleading the Assembly, because I have been consistent on the issue of mandatory registration.

Photo of David McClarty David McClarty UUP 12:45 pm, 13th October 2008

Order. The term “misleading” is not parliamentary language, Mr McCann. That was not a point of order. Your remark was unparliamentary; therefore, I ask you to withdraw it.

Photo of Fra McCann Fra McCann Sinn Féin

I withdraw the remark. However, I must say that when Mr Maginness and Members from other parties are particularly vocal against Members of the House

Photo of David McClarty David McClarty UUP

Order. That is not a point of order.

Photo of Alban Maginness Alban Maginness Social Democratic and Labour Party

I am happy to take an intervention from Mr McCann so that he can explain why, on the one hand, he supports Sinn Féin’s boycott of the Executive, yet, on the other hand, he insists that legislation on that particular area of social policy be brought before the House immediately. If he wants to take the opportunity to explain that contradiction to the House, I am prepared to give way.

Photo of Fra McCann Fra McCann Sinn Féin

On 1 October 2007, I brought a motion on the mandatory regulation of landlords before the House. The new Chairperson of the Committee for Social Development will not be aware that I have also raised the matter on several occasions in Committee. Sinn Féin has taken a principled stand against the DUP’s refusal to accept the fundamentals of the Good Friday Agreement and the St Andrews Agreement, which take in equality and the very foundations on which the Assembly currently sits.

Photo of Alban Maginness Alban Maginness Social Democratic and Labour Party

I understand Sinn Féin’s principled approach. However, the fact is that that principled approach is blocking vital legislation from coming before the House, not only on the mandatory registration of landlords but on a whole range of other issues. Fuel poverty, for example, is a pressing concern.

The country is in economic meltdown. Finances are in chaos, yet Sinn Féin insists on boycotting the Executive.

Photo of Alban Maginness Alban Maginness Social Democratic and Labour Party

No, I will not give way, because I do not have much time left.

The SDLP accepts the motion’s substance. It also accepts the proposed amendments. There is certainly a necessity for legislation to regulate private landlords. The Minister has committed to that as an objective of her term of office. As soon as she can, she will introduce legislation to deal with the issue. She cannot, however, simply introduce legislation without working out carefully its shape and form.

In Northern Ireland, 66% of the public money that is distributed through housing benefit is paid to private landlords. The private-rented sector accounts for around 12% of all housing stock. The SDLP fully supports good regulation, but any measures that are introduced must be carefully thought through. I am certain that the Minister will expedite the legislation that she sees fit to introduce.

As I said, I support the motion’s substance. However, I must highlight its motivation. It appears that it has been designed to be a political attack on the Minister, not on the social problems that arise from the private-rented sector.

Photo of Anna Lo Anna Lo Alliance

I thank Mr McCann for proposing the motion. I support it and the two proposed amendments. All add to the call for the regulation of private landlords.

Undoubtedly, the private-rented sector will expand in the coming months and years owing to current economic trends and the pattern of inward migration. All Members have heard of good and bad landlords.

In a recent case in South Belfast, the agency found three houses occupied by some 80 Roma — one house was found to have 30 people crammed into it. That is sheer exploitation of people by landlords.

With respect to public housing, the Housing Executive is responsible for the provision of decent homes and their maintenance in accordance with rules and regulations. The private-rented sector receives £1·4 million each year in housing benefit. Why should it not be held accountable for good management practice and standards of repair? The Housing Rights Service’s briefing paper on the Bill makes good sense on that issue. We need a holistic approach to address a range of issues to make the sector fit for purpose. On the one hand, we must ask landlords to improve their practices; on the other, it is good to offer incentives for them to do so. On that, the briefing paper makes some useful suggestions.

The Assembly last debated mandatory registration of landlords in October 2007, and all Members agreed on the need for the registration of landlords. A register of landlords would make it much easier for councils and tenants to contact landlords when problems arise. In South Belfast, a tenant has been trying to contact his landlord for years so that repairs can be made. The building is now in a shocking state: a disused bath has been lying in the front garden for 10 years. Neighbours have written to my party asking for help in tracking down the landlord. They are understandably worried. Not only is the house an eyesore but, more importantly, the structural problems of that house may spread to adjoining properties.

Once registered, a landlord should be required to comply with an approved code of practice recognised by the courts. Failure to abide by that code should bring penalties — fines, or even deregistration.

I also support the suggestion of a deposit-protection scheme, whereby the landlords have to pay deposits that they receive from tenants into a custodial fund. We have seen examples whereby tenants — particularly students — pay a deposit to a letting agent, but cannot retrieve it from the landlord some years later. Landlords put up all sorts of excuses for refusing to return deposits. So often, people are reluctant to seek redress from the small claims court. Students who are preparing to move on to other parts of the Province or to other parts of the UK or who are leaving Northern Ireland to take up jobs cannot wait for court procedure to take its course.

We need a comprehensive approach to rein in the private-rented sector through legislation that sets acceptable standards and provision of information and advice to landlords and tenants. I am sure that that will be welcomed, not only by tenants, but by the majority of landlords.

Photo of Jonathan Craig Jonathan Craig DUP

I support amendment No 1.

One Member has commented that housing is the number one issue in her constituency. However, lack of housing is the number one priority in my constituency — and that applies to both public and private sectors. As has been said, examples of good and bad landlords exist in both private and public sectors.

Like other Members, I have received complaints from tenants about rented housing. Some of the worst examples of unfit housing that I have seen have been in the public sector, not in the private sector.

There are examples of good private landlords who take the issues seriously, but there are also examples of the worst kind. I presume that a lot of these landlords have come into the market because of the property boom that we have witnessed over the past couple of years. There are major issues surrounding private individuals who are renting out properties — they do not understand their obligations as landlords. They do not understand the issues. If landlords find themselves with tenants who are not behaving properly, or have to deal with evictions, they do not understand the laws, or how to get rid of those tenants and deal with the issues.

I support registration. I also support the Minister’s moving forward with this legislation in March 2009. I look forward to seeing what is proposed in the Bill. We need to raise the standards of those who have moved into private landlordism and how they deal with their tenants.

We have all seen examples of tenants who are outrageous in their behaviour for whatever reason. We have all witnessed those who are either dealing in drugs or playing music until all hours of the night. Getting those people out of the property is a very complex issue. It is extremely complicated — even the Housing Executive has issues with moving out tenants like that.

An awareness scheme must be built into any proposed legislation. There are examples where legislation has been tried. If we look at the legislation that was introduced in Scotland in 2006, we can see the basis on which we could move this situation forward.

I commend the Minister for working on the issue. It is only right that she take her time to get the issue right, because the rights of landlords and tenants are a legally complex issue. There is always a war going on between the two. The Minister must look long and hard at the serious issues, and get it right. I commend the Minister for continuing to work on the issues, and look forward to seeing the tentative legislation. As some of my party members have said, there is more chance of the legislation being introduced to the Social Development Committee than there is of seeing a meeting of the Executive.

Photo of Mickey Brady Mickey Brady Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. It is disappointing that Mr Simpson did not spend more time dealing with his amendment than he did attacking Sinn Féin. He initially spoke about being a good landlord in a small way. I am not sure if that means that he is good in a small way or that he is a landlord in a small way. That was not satisfactorily explained to me. I am sure that he will explain at some point.

Alban Maginness spoke about own goals, a subject in which he is well versed. If he is speaking about impending legislation from the Minister, he is getting into the realms of fantasy football. Maybe he should keep that in mind.

I will now try do deal with the motion —

Photo of Lord Maurice Morrow Lord Maurice Morrow DUP

I hope that you are not going to attack anybody?

Photo of Mickey Brady Mickey Brady Sinn Féin

Hopefully not, but if I do, it is an education being here anyway.

Photo of David McClarty David McClarty UUP

Order. Refer all your remarks through the Chair, and do not bat-and-ball them across the Chamber.

Photo of Mickey Brady Mickey Brady Sinn Féin

If the remarks from across the way were, with respect —

Photo of David McClarty David McClarty UUP

Order, order. All remarks must be made from a standing position and not from a seated position.

Photo of Mickey Brady Mickey Brady Sinn Féin 1:00 am, 13th October 2008

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. For many people, the private-rented sector is their only avenue for accommodation, and any new strategy should promote the sector as a suitable option. As the sector is playing an increasingly important role, a strategic framework is needed to ensure responsible letting. New legislation should ensure that management standards and physical conditions are improved. The registration of landlords will mean that there is a more consistent and stronger approach to addressing the issues of bad management practices and poor fitness standards. A register will better enable local councils to progress enforcement action more effectively. When landlords are registered, they can be issued with a licence enabling them to follow guidelines laid down by an approved code of practice. Landlords will have to abide by the legal obligations laid down in the relevant legislation; to ensure effectiveness, any registration scheme must be mandatory.

After the imposition of a register, a number of issues will have to be addressed. Relevant information on rights and responsibilities should be made available to landlords and tenants. The legislation must include powers to modify the inclusion and exclusion of those who must register. The enforcement body will have the power to deregister landlords who fail to comply with legal requirements. A tenant/landlord dispute-resolution service should also be included. As the registration scheme is being developed, interested stakeholders must be widely consulted.

A major source of dispute in the private-rented sector is the retention of tenancy deposits by landlords. In the legislation, a tenancy deposit protection scheme must be included so that deposits are safely managed and not, as happens in many cases, unreasonably withheld. Landlords appear to have a distinct lack of knowledge on the key issues affecting tenants, so it is essential that any new legislation gives landlords maximum access to information pertaining to them and their responsibilities.

In my constituency, there are private estates, 90% of which are owned by private landlords. That has led to considerable problems in the state of the houses and how tenants are treated, which contributes to a lack of community in those estates. I support the motion, and I wish to make a point concerning students, which has already been raised with the Minister for Employment and Learning. I have raised a certain case on several occasions, in which a student died and the money owed is still being pursued by the landlord, causing trauma and stress for that student’s parents and family. Go raibh maith agat.

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP

I declare an interest, not as a good landlord but as an excellent landlord; I support amendment No 1.

The debate is perhaps asking more questions of Sinn Féin than of the Minister for Social Development. We are used to déjà vu in the Chamber, so I will restate some of the comments that have been made. Along with other Members, I am struck by the irony — or, more accurately, the hypocrisy — of Sinn Féin Members calling on the Minister for Social Development to act but not calling on its own Ministers, who are still refusing to fulfill their ministerial duties.

When the issue of private landlords was last debated, there was consensus that a registration scheme was, in principle, a good idea. My views have not changed; although I support the principle, I reserve final judgement until I see those firm proposals. No firm proposals have yet been produced; however, I believe that we only have to wait for them until March 2009. At least we have a date for those proposals, unlike the next Executive meeting. Nevertheless, by that time, we will have a further year’s experience of the Private Tenancies (Northern Ireland) Order 2006.

Although that Order has been effective in some areas, it was criticised for not going far enough when it first came into force. The Housing Rights Service, in its recent briefing to the Committee for Social Develop­ment, alleged that many local councils’ enforcement of the Order has been almost non-existent. The evidence for that is contained, purportedly, in a response to a question for written answer from the Member for North Belfast Mr Cobain. The response suggested that mandatory registration may assist enforcement, because local councils may not know the landlords’ identity.

Without further investigation of the figures, it is a bit of a leap to level criticism at councils or to suggest that mandatory registration would have any impact. In its briefing to the Committee, the Housing Rights Service provided no evidence of further questions to the councils asking them to account for the ostensibly low figures.

The Housing Rights Service made several suggestions: the inclusion of a landlord licence in the mandatory registration scheme of private landlords; access to a dispute-resolution service for the landlord and the tenant; an assessment by councils of the fitness of properties built before 6 November 1956; the provision of information on rights and responsibilities to landlords and tenants; prosecution for failure to register; and deregistration for those who fail to comply with their responsibilities. Finally, it suggested that the scheme be phased in.

In general, there is not much to disagree with in those proposals, other than whether the power to deregister a landlord would assist a tenant residing in one of his or her houses. However, the details of such a proposal would, no doubt, be ironed out during consultation with stakeholders.

The Minister previously stated that she was investigating various registration schemes. Given that she responded to Mr McCann and Mr O’Dowd to that effect in May 2008, and advised the former that any legislation would be introduced in the final session of this Assembly’s mandate, it is wholly premature to debate the matter yet again.

However, the amendment that my colleagues tabled provides a welcome addition to the debate. For the sake of completeness, I will again set out, as I did in October 2007, my thoughts on the overall issue. I agree with the concept of mandatory registration to provide a level of security to tenants that the rented property is of an appropriate standard and that the landlord is reputable. Any proposed register must allow for access to required information only and should not be a means to facilitate prying into the affairs of individuals.

Members should be concerned by the cost of administering and enforcing the scheme. We must ensure that bureaucracy be kept to a minimum to facilitate the smooth running of an effective system that safeguards tenants but does not become so onerous for landlords that it becomes unworkable. I support amendment No 1.

Photo of Billy Armstrong Billy Armstrong UUP

I welcome the motion, and I support the DUP amendment. It is crucial to protect vulnerable people from bad landlords. It should be recognised that the private-rented sector is essential to the housing stock and that the vast majority of landlords follows best practice. However, those landlords who do not respect their tenants have a damaging effect on their quality of life, be that through demands for excessive rent, disputes about deposits or the provision of accommodation that does not meet the required standard. Many people who have limited housing options are at the mercy of unprincipled landlords. Therefore, it is crucial that the Assembly introduce legislation to ensure that landlords meet required standards.

The DUP’s amendment, as my colleague noted, recognises landlords’ potential concerns about the increasing bureaucracy that will affect the sector. New legislation should be regarded as a way in which to ensure a level playing field for landlords, in order that some do not gain an unfair advantage over others or at the expense of their tenants. It is important not to damage the supply of private-rented accommodation.

I draw Members’ attention to regulations that were introduced in Scotland in 2006. They include several rational exemptions from registration and ensure that judgments are based on adopting a sensible and practical approach before deciding that sanctions are necessary. Landlords have a duty of care to the buildings that they own and to the people who live in them. In the coming months, Sinn Féin has a duty of care to this Building and to the people whom it was elected to represent.

In the coming months, the private-rented sector will become increasingly important because the first-time-buyers’ market is stagnant and people will, potentially, fail to renew their mortgages. Therefore, it is vital that legislation is in place to regulate the system properly. People should feel safe and secure in rented accommodation and in their homes, and the Assembly must ensure that the important amendment is noted.

Photo of George Robinson George Robinson DUP

I appreciate that the majority of private landlords are responsible and can manage their tenants without difficulty. It is essential that all responsible landlords understand that message. The motion targets landlords who do not fulfil their responsibilities. Not all tenants are saints, and we must be mindful of the vital role that private-sector lettings play in accommodating our population. Therefore, there must be a balance in any registration programme that is produced. We cannot allow a black market in substandard accommodation to develop — that may be a consequence of ill-judged or rushed regulation.

I represent a constituency that — because of the University of Ulster at Coleraine and high tourist levels — has a large number of private-sector landlords. I have heard nightmare stories from constituents who have — and I use the word advisedly — suffered at the hands of some private landlords, who refuse to fix broken locks and attempt to intimidate tenants from properties. Such disgusting behaviour is often inflicted on those who are least able to fight back or seek help.

A compulsory registration scheme for landlords would give tenants greater security, and ensure good living conditions and a fair rent. The private-rented sector is becoming an increasing part of the housing stock, and, therefore, it is essential that the Assembly ensures the protection of the large number of people who seek accommodation in that sector. The private sector cuts across all economic barriers. Furthermore, private rentals are likely to increase, because an increasing number of young people and couples are experiencing difficulty gaining public-sector housing or affording a mortgage.

The compulsory regulation of landlords would not be a punishment, rather a means of ensuring that all accommodation is of good quality. Good or bad housing does not affect only the well-being of those who live in it. Bad housing may lead to health problems, which can impact on a child’s education or an individual’s ability to get a job.

I know that the Minister takes the issue seriously, and I acknowledge that the problem is being investigated in order to find a way to deal with it. However, given the current economic downturn, the urgency with which the issue is addressed must be stepped up a gear. I support the amendment.

Photo of Margaret Ritchie Margaret Ritchie Social Democratic and Labour Party

The motion and amendments provide a welcome and timely opportunity to highlight the considerable work that is already under way to deliver improvements in the private-rented sector, which is now almost as large as the public-rented sector in Northern Ireland. In recent years, the private-rented sector has undergone much innovation. The introduction of the Private Tenancies (Northern Ireland) Order 2006, which came into effect in April 2007, came on foot of earlier private-rented strategy. Those initiatives delivered improvements and established a new system of regulation, which gave tenants and landlords much-needed rights, protections and responsibilities.

At that time, the objectives of those initiatives were far-reaching. However, the housing situation has subsequently developed and now faces new challenges. Some aspects tackled by the previous strategy and legislation have become much more acute.

The private-rented sector is now home to many more vulnerable people, so we must be confident that arrangements in the sector are robust and professional, and ensure that the right level of protection is afforded to the tenants and to the landlords who provide services.

Over the past couple of years, the fast-moving developments in the housing market — together with their associated impact on the private-rented sector’s contribution and potential to meet housing need — prompted me to commission a further review of my policy relating to the private-rented sector earlier this year. I am surprised that some Members were not aware of that. Many of the points that Members made today support that approach.

There should be a new focus on core issues, such as more effective tenancy management; robust arrange­ments for the resolution of disputes between landlords and tenants; effective tenancy deposit arrangements; better security of tenure for people moving into private-rented accommodation; and other matters. That work is already in progress and I will have the results, together with draft proposals for a new private-rented strategy, by March or April next year. At that stage, I intend to consult widely on those proposals.

I will use that review to consider the initial impact of The Private Tenancies (Northern Ireland) Order 2006. Although that legislation is still in the early stages of implementation, I will measure its immediate impact against its key objectives. I will study its effect of improving awareness and understanding of the new obligations and rights of landlords and tenants. Early evidence suggests that there is a continued lack of knowledge at all levels. The experiences and views of Members that were expressed today support some of that analysis. I will work with stakeholders to find the most effective ways to improve that position as quickly as possible.

The evaluation also considers how the district councils have used their new enforcement powers, which were provided in the legislation, to target unfitness and disrepair. That was a primary objective of The Private Tenancies (Northern Ireland) Order 2006. Careful analysis is needed to determine the need for new or enhanced policy initiatives and, therefore, the need for any subsequent supporting legislation. The motion calls on me to introduce a proposal for legislation on the regulation of private landlords. When I announced the new housing agenda earlier this year, I made it clear that I wanted to support people to move into the home of their choice.

Increasingly, the private-rented sector is playing a bigger part in meeting housing need, in some cases through choice. However, for more vulnerable people on lower incomes, that is solely because they have no realistic alternative. To respond effectively to that need, the sector needs to be fit for purpose and provide good physical standards of well-managed accommodation. In the private-rented sector, 66% of tenants receive housing benefit. I will explore how that considerable investment could be used to positively influence future landlord behaviour.

The facts in the private-rented sector speak for themselves. The poor perception of life in some parts of that sector appears to be borne out by the level of problems that private-renting tenants experience. Despite the introduction of new laws, evidence from advice services shows that levels of enquiries have remained constant. That clearly points to the need for action to improve the core problems of tenant management, which include rent books and deposits. Furthermore, tenancy agreements are needed to provide confidence against fears of intimidation and unlawful conviction, as well as for repairs and improvement arrangements.

Despite considerable progress in recent years, real problems with unfitness levels remain. The private-rented sector has an older stock profile and, therefore, has greater unfitness and disrepair problems. The ‘House Condition Survey 2006’ showed that the private-rented sector accounted for a high proportion of Northern Ireland’s unfit housing. Security of tenure for tenants in the private-rented sector also remains a fundamental issue, thereby contributing to a lack of confidence.

Furthermore, the tenancy-deposit schemes and dispute-resolution mechanisms are essential, and they will be considered as part of the development of the new strategy for the private-rented sector. Evidence from the South of Ireland’s dispute-resolution system suggests that the majority of disputes there concern deposits.

Compared to home ownership, in Northern Ireland, renting is often considered to be, and experienced as, second best. In other countries, that negative opinion of renting does not exist, and, in order to address that, I am determined that unscrupulous actions, wherever they occur, will not be tolerated. Good practice will be promoted throughout the sector, with appropriate support and guidance made available for landlords and tenants.

Previous legislation has gone some way towards challenging some of the difficulties with, and in delivering tangible improvements to, the quality of private-rented properties. That legislation established better rights for — and has clarified the responsibilities of — people involved in that sector.

The Private Tenancies (Northern Ireland) Order 2006 strengthened harassment and eviction law in order to prevent unscrupulous landlords from harassing tenants. In addition, it established protections for tenants concerning notice periods, and it places obligations on landlords to provide rent books and written tenancy terms. Furthermore, specific regulations continue to apply to particular tenancies, such as unfit private tenancies, protected and statutory tenancies and houses in multiple occupation.

The regulation of private tenancies on the basis of unfitness addresses a major housing problem that has proven intractable for many years. District councils have been provided with significant additional powers to compel landlords to make properties fit, to carry out necessary repairs, and to ensure that rental income is dramatically reduced while a property remains unfit.

Photo of William McCrea William McCrea DUP 1:15 am, 13th October 2008

Will the Minster assure the House that having considering this matter, the forthcoming legislation will deal with the problem of unfitness, without extending the existing massive amount of bureaucracy, which is the fear of some Members?

Photo of Margaret Ritchie Margaret Ritchie Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for his intervention, and I can assure the House that every angle will be explored.

Protected-tenancy regulations ensure that the important security of tenure that that limited group of tenants enjoys can be safeguarded, while ensuing that rent levels, although higher than equivalent Housing Executive rents, will continue to be subject to statutory limits.

Given the existence of the Landlords Association of Northern Ireland (LANI), it would be wrong to think that all is bad in the private-rented sector, which, as it has grown, has delivered much high-quality accommodation. Not all landlords are the same, and I welcome that fact that many private-sector landlords have formed their own association — LANI — whose aim is to professionalise and drive up standards in the industry. I met that group, and I have instructed officials to engage with it concerning regulatory matters. I believe that that is the first ever structured engagement between Government and the private-rented sector.

A statutory registration scheme operates for houses in multiple occupation, which are of particular concern due to the high levels of health and safety risks that they pose. Arguably, they give rise to a disproportionate amount of antisocial behaviour in local communities. The Housing Executive’s registration scheme aims to address those matters and to ensure that non-compliance is tackled effectively.

In the course of the next few months, my officials will meet stakeholders to develop ideas and proposals for an overall strategic framework for the private-rented sector. Increased regulation of private landlords will, of course, be one of the many matters to be addressed, and the outcome of that policy-development exercise will enable me to find strategic solutions that are capable of delivering sustainable improvements in order to effectively, and in a timely manner, tackle those agreed matters in the private-rented sector.

I have heard calls for a mandatory registration scheme for private landlords. However, I remain concerned that that has been proposed as the panacea for the problems in the private-rented sector. My examination of the effectiveness of such schemes in the South of Ireland and in Scotland has not produced a cut-and-dried result. Although there is agreement that such schemes have delivered several benefits — for example, increased knowledge of the scale and spread of the private-rented sector — that has been at a considerable cost and, some three years on, with some debate about the measurable outcomes.

Competing arguments point to alternative and effective approaches that deal with the core problems, such as tenancy deposit schemes, dispute arrangements, better security of tenure and more effective use of housing benefit to drive good practice. I will continue to monitor the impact of those schemes and keep in touch with developments, particularly in Scotland, where a voluntary landlord accreditation scheme is under consideration. Similarly, an evaluation of the scheme in the South of Ireland is ongoing.

As part of the new housing agenda, I am committed to ensuring that everyone in Northern Ireland has access to a decent, affordable home — I believe that all Members want to see that. The private-rented sector has an increasingly important role to play in achieving that, particularly as it provides a home for a diverse range of households. My work to develop a new strategy for the private-rented sector will ensure that priority issues in the sector are dealt with effectively. Subject to the outcome of that work, I am sure that new legislation will be required to give life to the new strategy for the sector. I aim to introduce that in the latter part of 2009-10.

As Members know, a draft housing Bill from my Department is caught in the current logjam at the Executive. I emphasise that the lack of Executive meetings will undoubtedly have a damaging impact on the legislative timetable, and I hope that that does not carry through to my forthcoming second housing Bill, which will regulate —

Photo of Basil McCrea Basil McCrea UUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Margaret Ritchie Margaret Ritchie Social Democratic and Labour Party

Apologies; I will not give way because I have only a few minutes left.

That Bill will regulate the private-rented sector. I ask the Members who proposed the motion — who belong to the party that is refusing to allow the Executive to meet — to do all in their power to ensure that that legislation does not slip. If those Members genuinely care about, and feel compassion for, people living in the private-rented sector, surely they will not allow this legislation — or any form of legislation that impacts on the social and economic conditions of the people of Northern Ireland — to slip.

I welcome a strong vote of support for the work that I have put in place to improve conditions in the private-rented sector through the development of a strategic framework to ensure that everyone in our society has access to a decent, secure and affordable home. I believe that all Members want to see that happen. I will write to Members individually if I have not answered any issues that were raised.

Photo of Dawn Purvis Dawn Purvis PUP

It is unfortunate that some Members choose to expend a lot of energy in scoring points; I urge those Members to use a similar amount of energy in trying to resolve the issues that are preventing the Executive from meeting.

I return to the debate, and I welcome the Minister’s commitment to dealing with the issue. I acknowledge the hard work that she and her Department have done, and I look forward to seeing, and commenting on, the proposals when they are published.

The debate was wide-ranging and represented the views of landlords and tenants in the private-rented sector. For many of the reasons that were outlined, there is much interest in the issue. We must improve the management of properties and tenancies by landlords, so legislation is important, and the mandatory registration of landlords is crucial. Many of the core issues were discussed: the fitness of properties; the rights of tenants, which include access to deposits and security of tenure; and safeguards for landlords in relation to absconders and evictions.

However, the primary reason that the legislation is needed is to promote good practice in the private-rented sector. That sector is growing rapidly in Northern Ireland, and we must ensure that it is regulated, for the benefit of tenants and landlords.

Photo of Lord Maurice Morrow Lord Maurice Morrow DUP 1:30 am, 13th October 2008

Everything that I want to say has been said already, and I agree with what the Minister has said. However, quite frankly, this motion should not have been before the House today. I say that, not because there is not a housing need or a housing crisis — there certainly is. I say it because it seems that the crisis is not yet big enough for Sinn Féin to do what any normal party would do, which is to allow things to move on.

Alban Maginness was correct when he said that tabling the motion was a classic own goal. Sinn Féin is like a rabbit caught in the headlights. In tabling the motion, that party is either not conscious of the fact that everyone sees its members as the fools that they are or it wants to ensure that its members are viewed as such. This issue could be dealt with if Sinn Féin were to allow progress to occur in Northern Ireland.

It is hypocritical — in fact it is a lot of nonsense — for Sinn Féin to ask the House to instruct the Minister to get on with things when it is that party alone that is responsible for telling her that she cannot help because it will not let her do so. Sinn Féin seems to be totally confused today. Its Members must stand up and say what they believe and believe in what they say.

Dawn Purvis has said that this is not the time for point-scoring, and she is absolutely correct. This is not the time for point-scoring: this is the time for getting things done. The blame has got to lie fairly and squarely where it belongs. Sinn Féin is holding up progress and it does not want social-sector housing to be progressed. It feels that it can play politics with people’s lives and futures. It is absolutely ridiculous and disgraceful that the Executive cannot meet because Sinn Féin will not allow them to meet.

Sinn Féin is not playing ball because things are not going its way. Its view is that if things are not done its way, it will not allow the Executive to meet. What sort of an agreement did Sinn Féin think that it had signed up to — an agreement based on a Sinn Féin agenda? Of course, that was not the case.

There is a housing crisis in Northern Ireland, and thousands of people are in need of housing urgently. Landlords must be regulated, because not all of them are good landlords. The Assembly has heard today from several Members who are also landlords, and they have protested that they are good landlords, and I accept that. However, not all landlords are good landlords.

Furthermore, there is the problem of serious overcrowding in the private sector. The Minister told us something quite startling today — that private-sector letting is now as large as social-sector letting. The House and the Assembly are charged with a responsibility for addressing those issues.

For how much longer can Sinn Féin sit on its hands? How many more people are going to be in a housing crisis before that party takes action? Its stance is hurting its constituents as much as those represented by other parties. Some of the Members who proposed the motion today represent West Belfast, where, I suspect, there is housing need. There is also housing need in my own town, Dungannon, where literally hundreds of people are waiting to be housed. Those people cannot be helped unless and until the Minister is given the authority and the opportunity to help. The Minister has been sincere today when she says that she wants to tackle this social issue.

I have been involved in social housing and private-sector housing for the past 30 years. It is appalling that the Assembly is debating a motion that does not need to be debated. This motion is a vain repetition of what happened in the House 12 months ago. Since then, we have not moved forward one inch — all because Sinn Féin wants to play politics with people’s futures — [Interruption.]

If you want to say something get to your feet. If Sinn Féin were sincere, it would not be tabling motions such as this; it would be going to the Executive table.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Councillor, and MLA, Fra McCann was — rightly — admonished for speaking across the Chamber. The Member opposite is doing likewise, but you have not addressed that.

Photo of David McClarty David McClarty UUP

It is strange that Members can see faults in others but fail to see faults in themselves. I was sitting in the Chair, and I saw that remarks were being made to and fro across the Chamber. It was coming close to the end of the Member’s allocated five minutes, so I allowed him to continue.

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Will you provide clarity to the House on a technicality? I thought that if both amendments were accepted, both would be carried. I know that you explained it to my colleague earlier, but will you clarify whether the second amendment will fall if the first amendment is successful.

Photo of David McClarty David McClarty UUP

That is correct, and I will remind Members of that before the Question on the amendment is put. Amendment No 2 will fall if amendment No 1 is made.

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

Thank you for that clarification. Sinn Féin regrets that it cannot accept both amendments, and we extend our apologies to Dawn Purvis and the PUP. We accept the sentiments of both amendments, but, judging by the way in which the debate has developed, the DUP amendment will be accepted.

Fra McCann and my colleagues had every right to move the motion, and we will not be chastised by any Member for doing so. There are stark difficulties out there, and, as the Minister said, the private sector is growing to almost the same size as the social sector — if not bigger. With that expansion, the need for mandatory regulation of the sector also increases.

Every Member who has spoken has said that there are good landlords, and that must be recognised. Constituencies such as North Belfast have many private landlords. I know that there are many good landlords, because I work closely with them. Equally, and unfortunately, there are more landlords who are not so good. In fact, there are a few whom I have never seen in the many years that I have represented my constituency. I welcome the enforcement powers that are emerging from councils, and I will vigorously pursue some of the landlords who, for many intents and purposes, have homes on interfaces. Some landlords have allowed their houses to lie vacant; some have let their houses to families who have extreme social problems, and they are causing all sorts of difficulties. The main thrust of the situation is that mandatory regulation is required.

With regard to Fred Cobain’s question about HMOs and private landlords, Fra McCann provided some figures from different councils. However, the statistics and figures relating to many stories have yet to unfold. Registration is voluntary, and it defies logic to expect any unscrupulous landlord to register themselves voluntarily.

I do not agree with the way in which David Simpson moved the DUP amendment. Fra McCann has already said that he accepts the sentiments of the amendment, because he accepts the need to introduce regulation of the sector, and all Members who spoke in the debate agreed. Dawn Purvis’s amendment goes further and calls for mandatory registration.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

In the Minister for Social Development’s response to the debate, she referred to HMOs and the need for registration, and so forth, of other properties. Furthermore, she acknowledged that it might be 2013 before all HMOs are registered, and that further underlines the need for the mandatory regulation and registration of landlords. Such measures will ensure the proper regulation of the sector, as all Members have said is required.

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

I accept Alex Maskey’s comments. Although other Members touched on the issue, I did not realise that the registration of all HMOs will take until 2013; that is worrying.

Dawn Purvis — as well as other Members such as Fra McCann and Mickey Brady — talked about the impact that is left by an unscrupulous landlord. They also mentioned the impact that the allocation of a house to an antisocial family will have on tenants, families and the community in which the house is located. The effects of an absentee landlord were also mentioned.

In my experience, the consequences have always been dire. This system, as outlined by the Housing Rights Service, and sharing the database, will ensure that landlords with a licence, and residents, will have access to the register.

Fred Cobain recognised the work that had been undertaken. Around 11% of the entire housing stock is privately owned, and 40% of the occupants live in fuel poverty. My experience in North Belfast is that the lack of regulation and registration means that rents have increased, and, in the mouth of a credit crunch, families have to choose whether to pay their rents, heat their homes or eat. Although they were not mentioned, those are the facts — it is not a myth. Those families have to pay rent to landlords on a whim. I know of three families whose housing conditions are very bad; nevertheless, their rents continue to increase. Many Members will have similar stories to tell.

I was, therefore, disappointed with Alban Maginness’s contribution — or lack of contribution. However, I am not surprised, considering that he and his party — so-called “champions” and founder members of the civil rights movement — cannot see the principle of demanding a Government of equality and partnership. He too is from North Belfast, and I am disappointed that, although he knows the circumstances in which many of his constituents live, he still makes a cheap political point.

Anna Lo saw that there was a need to recognise the problems of this growing sector. She pointed out that some HMOs have so many living in them that they are becoming a health and safety problem. Furthermore, deregulation has meant that people, their rents, and their housing conditions are all vulnerable. We may have to wait until 2013 before the situation is rectified, and the main thrust of moving the motion was to bring that forward. We understand that proposals may be introduced in March 2009, but it is incumbent on us to ensure that the issue is raised, particularly since we have not seen any real development.

Jonathan Craig pointed out the lack of public- and private-sector housing, and he is correct. I pointed out that there are good and bad landlords and other Members referred to that fact. I welcome the fact that he supports the registration.

Mickey Brady was disappointed with David Simpson’s contribution, as he had dealt with the issue himself. However, a scheme is needed to deal with the needs of the private-rented sector.

I welcome the fact that all Members who spoke, regardless of the points they were trying to make, have not argued against the registration.

Michelle McIlveen — another good landlord from the DUP — also welcomed registration, and that appears to be the cross-party view.

In answer to a question raised by Fra McCann in May, the Minister outlined that mandatory registration was not a panacea for the problems, and she reiterated that throughout her remarks. That was one reason that Sinn Féin proposed the motion. It may not be a panacea. However, it is incumbent on us to ensure that we do all in our power to raise the standard of living by introducing legislation for regulation, particularly for those people in the private sector who find — even as we speak — that costs are rising.

The issue will be on the list of no-day-named motions, with no changes. That, too, is our prerogative. Whether there will be support from other Whips to have the motion selected will be a story for a different day. However, today’s motion garnered the support of all of the Whips; therefore, I am disappointed to hear some point-scoring from some petty individuals in the House who cannot, for some reason, embrace the sentiments of equality and partnership in Government to which they signed up in the Programme for Government.

However, I am delighted that those Members support the motion. Sinn Féin is happy to support both amendments.

Photo of David McClarty David McClarty UUP 1:45 am, 13th October 2008

Order. Before I put the Question, I again remind Members of procedure so that they are absolutely clear. If amendment No 1 is made, amendment No 2 will fall, and I will then put the Question on the motion, as amended.

Question, That amendment No 1 be made, put and agreed to.

Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to.


That this Assembly recognises the intention of the Minister for Social Development to bring forward legislation to regulate private landlords; and calls on the Minister to ensure that these regulations will tackle unfitness in the sector, whilst ensuring that unnecessary bureaucracy is avoided.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I wanted to raise this issue before the vote was held, but I could not, so I will do so now. During the debate, several Members declared an interest as landlords. What is the position as regards those who voted on the motion? Other Members may have voted today but have not declared that they are landlords, good or bad, which is a subjective interpretation.

Photo of David McClarty David McClarty UUP

There is a requirement on those who speak in a debate to declare any relevant interest. Other Members will have declared their interests in the Register of Members’ Interests.