Private Tenancies Bill: Second Stage

Executive Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 5:00 pm on 13th September 2021.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Deirdre Hargey Deirdre Hargey Sinn Féin 5:00 pm, 13th September 2021

I beg to move

That the Second Stage of the Private Tenancies Bill [NIA 32/17-22] be agreed.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

In accordance with convention, the Business Committee has not allocated any time limit to the debate. I call on the Minister for Communities to open the debate on the Bill.

Photo of Deirdre Hargey Deirdre Hargey Sinn Féin

Thanks very much, and I thank the Chamber. By way of background, the Bill will make the private rented sector safer and more secure for tenants. I believe that every Member will welcome its introduction, particularly as more people live in that sector, including many vulnerable people, older people and young families.

I acknowledge that landlords provide an important source of housing. I am particularly grateful for the actions of many landlords to help and support their tenants throughout the pandemic. The overwhelming majority of landlords want to provide good, safe homes for their tenants, and doing that is the basis of their business. However, it is also true that there are bad landlords out there. The aim of these measures is to protect tenants and give them assurance that they can live in a safe, secure home.

Housing is a huge issue, and many people would like to see the Bill go further with increased regulation in the sector. I assure them that I also want to do more, which is why the Bill is only the first phase of a programme to improve the lives of those living in the private rented sector.

It may be helpful for Members if I spend a few minutes outlining some of the key provisions in the Bill. On the notice to quit, landlords will now be required to provide tenants with a notice giving the particulars and details relating to the tenancy. It must be free of charge and completed within 28 days of granting a tenancy. Details of what is in the notice will be prescribed in regulations made by the Department — for example, it could lay out the roles and responsibilities of landlords and tenants. Rent increases will be restricted to once a year. Where a tenant pays rent in cash, the landlord will be required to provide the tenant with a rent receipt free of charge. In order to prevent landlords from charging excessive deposits, the Bill will introduce a limit set at no more than one month's rent. The Private Tenancies Order 2006 will be amended, which will mean that there will be no time barrier on prosecuting a person who fails to comply with the set requirements of the tenancy deposit scheme.

For safety in the private rented sector, I will require that all private landlords provide fire, smoke and carbon monoxide detectors in their properties. All tenants are entitled to a safe home, and the detail of that will be brought forward in regulations. Similarly, for electrical safety, the Bill contains enabling powers to make regulations about electrical safety standards in private tenancies.

As a first step to improve thermal comfort and reduce fuel poverty, the Bill contains enabling powers to make regulations about the energy efficiency of private tenancies. People's homes should be warm and comfortable, not just because it is nice to have a warm home but because it is a healthier home. Private rented homes will be required to have a minimum energy performance certificate (EPC) rating, the detail of which will be made in regulations after the consultation. Obviously, that is a key part of the future work to deliver our carbon reduction targets by 2050. Officials are working in partnership with colleagues in the Department for the Economy to look at those areas.

As an initial step on the notice to quit, I am increasing the period that a landlord provides to a tenant to eight weeks. That will come into effect once a tenant has been in a tenancy for more than 12 months. The notice to quit will remain at 12 weeks if the tenancy is more than 10 years old. I will be honest: in many cases, eight weeks is not sufficient time for a tenant to find an affordable or suitable new home. Therefore, I have asked my officials to carry out some further work on this and to see what is possible. I understand that the length of the notice period might need to be different in different circumstances, and I have therefore included a clause in the Bill to alter the notice-to-quit period up to a maximum of six months. Of course, work to look at that is being carried out at the moment, and I am hopeful and am trying to ensure that we can get that done before the end of this mandate and get the changes made. The Bill will also change the notice that tenants have to give landlords to four weeks if the tenancy is less than 10 years. It will remain at 12 weeks if the tenancy is older than that.

As I said at the beginning of my remarks, I know that there are many who would like this Bill to go further and would want to see greater regulation of the private rented sector. I completely agree and want that also. We need to regulate letting agents and stop them charging illegal fees to tenants. We need to consider the grounds for eviction. We need to improve the oversight and work more closely with councils to deliver this locally. We need to look at the fitness standards, and we need to ensure that rents are fair.

Once the Bill has completed its passage through the Assembly, a further Bill will be considered covering areas such as the regulation of letting agents and grounds for eviction. It is also clear from the discussion with stakeholders and, indeed, with other parties that there is support for a balanced set of proposals. On that basis, I hope that Members can support this initial Bill at Second Stage.

Photo of Paula Bradley Paula Bradley DUP

On behalf of the Committee for Communities, I welcome the Bill's Second Stage. The Committee was briefed by departmental officials on 1 July 2021, and the Minister introduced the Bill just before recess. The Committee has taken a keen interest in housing matters since it was established in 2020 and, indeed, decided at a forward-planning day in September 2020 to devote considerable time to taking evidence on housing challenges.

Subsequently, we heard evidence from an economist on housing market challenges in a pre- and post-COVID world and research evidence from the UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence (CaCHE). Unfortunately, however, given the Committee's packed work programme over the past year, in connection with the COVID response and primary legislation, we have not been able to undertake as much work in this area as we would like to have done. Given that, members are now very keen to take the opportunity that the Bill's Committee Stage presents to focus on the role and regulation of the private rented sector.

In its scrutiny, the Committee will bear in mind the context in which the Bill sits, which is that our private rented sector has grown considerably over the past decade, particularly for the 25-to-34-year-old age group. It is now larger than the social housing sector and accounts for over 17% of the housing stock in Northern Ireland. This growth is likely to continue if first-time buyers are priced out of the market by rising house prices and a potential shortage of accessible mortgage products. It is also a fact that economic uncertainty, such as many are facing at this time, tends to boost demand for rental accommodation.

We will also bear in mind that almost half of private renters in Northern Ireland are in receipt of housing benefit or the housing element of universal credit. Also of concern is that there are twice as many families with children in the private rented sector than in social housing, and they deserve a safe and secure tenancy. The Committee is, of course, concerned that many are in private rented accommodation because of the shortage of social housing, and, no doubt, all Members have heard horror stories from constituents living in the private rented sector.

We cannot, however, solve all housing problems with this one Bill, and we know that some issues need to be dealt with over a longer timescale. It is only right to do what we can to ensure that good legislation is made to offer tenants better protection and make the duties of landlords and tenants clear.

Members are well aware that the journey to this Bill, like many of the Bills that we debate, has been fairly long, and I think that is helpful to briefly remind the House of that history. Back in 2010, we had the Department for Social Development's private rented sector strategy, 'Building Sound Foundations', which introduced a tenancy deposit and landlord registration schemes. Then the housing strategy action plan 2012-17 committed the Department to undertaking a review of the role and regulations of the private rented sector. The Department carried out that review in two stages. First, consultation on a discussion paper was completed in February 2016, and that was followed by engagement with stakeholder groups. Secondly, recommendations were set out on how the sector could improve its support for a wider range of households. The Department then established a working group to look at the key issues, resulting in the 2017 proposals for change document, which made proposals in areas of housing supply, affordability, security of tenure, tenancy management, property standards and dispute resolution.

The Committee is aware that the Bill deals with a number of those issues but does not address them all. Nevertheless, we will consider the Bill in the context of the background that I have just outlined and as a key step in the right direction, with the aim of better protecting tenants by ensuring that landlords and agents meet government regulations about the quality and safety of the accommodation offered.

The Committee notes that the proposals in the Bill fall mainly in the areas of tenancy management, rental payments and deposits, property standards and security of tenure. Among the changes that the Bill will bring are a requirement for all private tenants to receive a written tenancy agreement; restrictions on rent increases; an increase in the eviction notice period from the current four-week minimum; a limit on deposits; an obligation on private landlords, for the first time, to provide smoke and carbon monoxide detectors and to carry out periodical electrical safety checks; and new powers to councils to introduce and enforce minimum energy efficiency standards in private rented homes.

The Committee supports the aim of the need to future-proof the private rented sector and to call time on the minority of rogue landlords operating in the sector. The Bill proposes welcome changes, but, as Members know, the devil is often in the detail. That is why I look forward to the scrutiny of the Bill at its Committee Stage, ensuring that we hear from key organisations, and making sure that the voices of tenants are heard. Although the Committee understands the need for the Bill to have a focused scope, Members can rest assured that, if our scrutiny uncovers gaps in the proposals or any vital aspects that have been overlooked, we will not hesitate to seek clarification and propose amendments. Our track record on detailed scrutiny, with the recent licensing Bill, speaks for itself in that regard. We will bring the same vigour to our scrutiny of this Bill. Overall, the Committee is supportive of the principles of the Bill, and members look forward to working with the Department and stakeholders in the weeks ahead.

Photo of Sinéad Ennis Sinéad Ennis Sinn Féin

The right to a good-quality, affordable and secure home is a fundamental human right, which upholds all other aspects regarding health outcomes, educational attainment, suitability for work, childcare, and much more. It is crucial that that is delivered within the private rented sector, too.

Undoubtedly, a key aspect of the proposed Bill, for many in the private rented sector, will be the extension of the notice to quit period. As the Minister outlined, a clause in the Bill provides the potential to alter the notice period to a maximum of six months. Citizens in the private rented sector deserve to live in dignity, security and peace, as much as people in any other sector. When asked to leave a property, it often means transferring all postal addresses, finding alternative work and medical practitioners, and much more. For those with families, that can, perhaps, involve finding alternative educational facilities, childcare arrangements and support networks. That is an immense pressure in and of itself, and we must ensure that people are better supported within the private rented sector so that no person has to pack up their life with little or no prior notice. As a result of the pandemic, the notice to quit period has been extended to 12 weeks, and that will be the case until May 2022, but the shift in demographic within our private rented sector makes it all the more important that we try to ensure that the legislation is strengthened further. NISRA statistics from June 2021 indicate that 14% of the households that present as homeless are homeless due to a loss of rented accommodation.

The Bill also requires that all private landlords provide fire, smoke and carbon monoxide detectors and that their properties meet electrical safety standards. The right to adequate housing is recognised in international human rights law. Crucially, in the midst of a housing crisis, prices can continue to increase as standards drop, and the Bill must help to protect tenants through mechanisms such as those mentioned.

The UN has outlined that:

"housing is not adequate if it does not guarantee physical safety or provide adequate space, as well as protection against the cold, damp, heat, rain, wind, other threats to health and structural hazards."

The Bill aims to provide thermal comfort and, simultaneously, reduce fuel poverty, as it contains enabling powers to make regulations concerning the minimum energy efficiency standards of private tenancies. Oftentimes, when you scroll through the likes of PropertyPal, you see that many homes in the private rented sector have a low energy performance certificate (EPC) rating, meaning that it will cost more for tenants to heat their homes and maintain warmth as a result of poor insulation. Therefore, homes in the private rented sector will be required to have a minimum EPC rating. Sinn Féin believes that that should be a matter of absolute priority, in light of the fact that fuel poverty is linked to socio-economic circumstances and housing quality. Energy retrofit measures will mean more energy efficient homes and warmer homes. Thus, ambitious targets should be set to meet energy rating standards in the private rented sector. The benefits are cross-cutting: cut costs for tenants, tackle fuel poverty, improve living standards through better health outcomes, comfort and energy efficiency, and deliver carbon reduction targets by 2050.

The Bill is necessary. It provides renters in the private rented sector with some increased protections. The Bill will ensure that those in the private rented sector have access to a high quality, safe and secure home.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party 5:15 pm, 13th September 2021

I welcome the chance to speak at the Second Stage of the Private Tenancies Bill. I thank all the organisations and individuals in the housing and advice sectors who have helped to push and progress this vital legislation, which will see essential and long overdue improvements to and protections for the private rented sector.

The importance of secure, stable housing has never been felt more keenly than during the COVID pandemic. I welcome the emergency housing legislation introduced by the Minister in that time, including the extension of the notice to quit period from four weeks to 12 weeks for private renters. It is clear that such protections will continue to play an important role in the months ahead, as the economic fallout of the pandemic unfolds and we come to terms with the pressures being placed on an already struggling sector.

The right to shelter is, above all else, the solid foundation needed for the building blocks of a successful society. It is a starting point from which people and families build their lives, making for happy, healthy, thriving communities. The past 18 months have underscored the value of housing and the central role that it plays in all of our lives. I very much welcome the Bill's content as the first step of many necessary improvements towards the better safety, security and quality of the private rented sector.

The private rented sector across these islands has grown exponentially in recent years. However, the North has experienced the greatest level of growth. The private rented sector has now overtaken the social housing sector, helping to meet housing need and accounting for over 17% of all housing stock here. That is staggering. It is clear that neither standards nor the Executive have managed to keep in step with that growth. To date, no specific legislation has been put in place to protect private renters, many of whom have been pushed into the sector by the lack of social housing stock. The bulk of the private rented sector consists of young families. It is mostly lone parent households, who will have been most adversely impacted by COVID and whose financial outlook may be even more precarious given the Tory plan to remove the universal credit uplift at the end of the month.

I have spoken with Housing Rights and others in recent weeks. They attest to the fact that a disproportionate number of calls to their advice line come from private renters. No doubt that was heightened during the pandemic. It is imperative that individuals and families who rent privately are safeguarded through legislation, so that we can ensure more affordable, safe and secure tenancies.

I turn to the detail of the Bill. As my Committee colleagues and the Minister have already referenced, this legislation is much needed and not before time. It will afford private renters a safety net that will improve the usually precarious nature of private tenancies. Clause 10 is a prime example of that precariousness, with private rental properties often not held to the same safety standards employed elsewhere in the housing sector. Electrical safety standards regulations will play a vital role, allowing Northern Ireland to keep pace with a rapidly growing sector. I appreciate that most good landlords ensure the upkeep of electrical wiring in their properties, but we cannot ignore the fact that neglect and resulting electrical hazards are fast becoming a problem for private tenants. I hope that that provision also provides peace of mind to private renters.

The current climate is testament to the need for this important piece of work. Rising property values here mean rising rents in an already costly market. Clause 7, which will see restrictions on rent increases limited to once every 12 months, is a welcome step. Similar legislation was introduced in Scotland at the end of 2017 under the Private Housing Tenancies (Scotland) Act 2016, whereby a landlord can increase the rent no more than once a year and must give tenants at least three months' notice of any increase. Again, we fall behind our counterparts in protecting our citizens. However, we can use this intervening period as a learning space.

We have witnessed the outworking of the Scottish policy, and there have been some issues with landlords effectively now issuing annual rent increases, which they did not do beforehand. Some apparently believe that it is a requirement under a private residential tenancy (PRT). Clause 7 could result in a similar unintended consequences, so it is crucial that that change is communicated and marketed adequately to limit confusion and opportunism. I hope that there is also room in the clause to look at how we might place a cap on the size or scale of any rent increase, and I look forward to fleshing that out with my colleagues at Committee.

Likewise, in recent months, our constituency offices and the independent advice sector have witnessed a worrying trend: increasing numbers of private tenants receiving notices to quit. In some instances, landlords have taken advantage of the booming housing market and decided to sell up. I am cognisant that those circumstances do not apply in all notice to quit cases; however, it is clear that such practices are placing strain on an already crumbling housing system. I am glad that Minister Hargey has listened to calls to extend until May next year the 12-week notice to quit enhancement introduced in response to the COVID pandemic. Thank you for that, Minister.

On clause 11, the notice to quit enhancements are welcome, but the Bill could and should go further. I would like to see the 12-week period applied to all tenancies of over a year. We have been operating like that under the current emergency legislation, so perhaps that can help to address any concerns that the Minister's officials may have about consultation and so forth. Shorter-term tenancies should go to eight weeks rather than four, and we would like to see that in the Bill. I welcome the Minister's commitment to protect some up to eight weeks, but the issue is how that looks in the Bill.

There are concerns that the 12-month tenancy stipulation could inadvertently create a practice whereby some landlords may curtail the length of tenancies, thus exploiting a potential loophole in the legislation to avoid the enhanced notice to quit periods. As the economic impact of the pandemic deepens, it is vital that those protections be extended to strengthen security of tenure for all private renters. I have witnessed first-hand the increasing numbers of individuals and families receiving notices to quit, and the interim extension will, no doubt, prove vital in the months ahead. The Minister and her Department must utilise everything at their disposal to protect tenants and should at least consider such oversights as we proceed.

There remains the bigger issue of local housing allowance (LHA) rates for private tenants falling well short of their actual rental costs, given that rents have increased. Coupled with the freezing of LHA rates in April, we have a perfect storm whereby inadequate welfare support is forcing families from their homes due to affordability issues. That cap must be removed in order to secure tangible stability in private tenancies.

On clause 13, while I appreciate that a commencement date is at the Department's discretion, a time frame needs to be placed on the introduction of this vital legislation. As I have said, the North is already several steps behind other jurisdictions in providing protections. The Bill will undoubtedly strengthen protections, but the simple fact remains that many individuals and families have been forced into the sector in the first place due to the dearth of social housing stock. That further underlines the need for the urgent implementation of a housing supply strategy, which, I hope, will operate in parallel with the Bill to address and tackle the housing crisis properly.

Overall, the SDLP is supportive of the broad principles of the Private Tenancies Bill, which, as I have said and will say again, will provide security, stability and predictability for tenants, as well as safeguards for landlords. I look forward to the opportunity afforded at Committee Stage to make improvements to some of the clauses therein. I am cognisant of the time limits placed on the Department and acknowledge that action to tackle all the issues in the private rented sector may not be advanced in the current mandate. Nevertheless, the Bill is a solid body of work and provides a springboard for tackling outstanding matters in subsequent mandates. I support the Bill.

Photo of Andy Allen Andy Allen UUP

I declare an interest as a private-sector landlord.

I thank the Minister and her officials for bringing forward this important legislation, which is the first substantive change to our private tenancies legislation in nearly a decade, outside of the COVID regulations, which were very welcome to protect and support tenants during the period that we have come through.

As the Chair pointed out, the Communities Committee has a keen interest in housing matters. Owing to COVID, we have not been able to devote the time to them that we would have liked, but we will give the Bill our full scrutiny, as we did with the Licensing and Registration of Clubs (Amendment) Bill and will do with the range of other Bills that come before the Committee. We will not be put under the cosh, and we will afford the time necessary to scrutinise the Bill properly. I will not mince my words when touching on some of the clauses.

I welcome clause 1, which deals with tenants being given notice regarding certain matters. It is astounding the number of tenants who come into my constituency office who do not know their rights. They do not have details of their particulars. When I ask them for a copy of their tenancy agreement, many have not even been given a copy of it. It is therefore very welcome that that will have to be provided within 28 days.

Clause 3 deals with the requirement to provide a tenant with a receipt for each rent payment in cash. I ask the Minister whether there is scope for that requirement to cover any other cash payment.

Clause 4 places a limit on the tenancy deposit amount, which is an area that has caused me great frustration. I have worked with and supported many constituents who have been required to provide up to three times their rent as a deposit. That is simply unaffordable. It is not justifiable. A deposit of £1,500 or £1,600 is not affordable, so I welcome the clause's inclusion.

Clauses 8, 9 and 10 concern increased safety. None of us will have missed the announcement of the rise in energy costs in the past couple of weeks, so clause 9, on energy efficiency regulations, is crucial. We cannot have a circumstance in which the private rented sector, as others have said, across our three housing tenures — owner-occupier, social and private rented — makes up 17%. It is larger than our social housing sector, but the arguments about our social housing sector are well rehearsed. We are in the midst of a housing crisis, and until such a time as we can build adequate levels of housing — at least 5,000 homes a year — to accommodate people who need housing, we will continue to see people going to the private rented sector. It is therefore vital that we provide the necessary security of tenure, support and safeguards.

Clause 11 is important, and I welcome the Minister's comments on it. Eight weeks does not go far enough, however, and we need to look at how much further we can extend that.

Speaking as the Ulster Unionist Party's communities spokesperson, I broadly welcome the Bill's Second Stage. I look forward to seeing the legislation go through Committee Stage, to hearing from a broad range of stakeholders and renters and to looking at how we can further shape the Bill.

Photo of Kellie Armstrong Kellie Armstrong Alliance 5:30 pm, 13th September 2021

Thank you, Minister, for bringing the Bill's Second Stage to the House.

When you are the fifth Member to speak, you are lucky in that colleagues will have said quite a lot of what you wanted to say. Throughout the debate, I was smiling as people picked up parts that I was going to talk about. I will not rehash stuff, but some of it may come up again as I speak.

We all know, as the Chair of the Committee said, that 70% of housing stock is private rentals, so we have a huge swathe of people living in private accommodation across Northern Ireland. Why is that the case? As others have said, we need more social housing. The Minister is committed to providing that, but other issues are impacting on that. Planning takes an extraordinary amount of time to get processed. That means that more and more people, instead of being able to get a social house, are having to turn to what private rentals are out there.

I am not down on all landlords. Not all landlords are bad landlords; indeed, most landlords who are looking at the Bill — I suppose that I should be pointing at Mr Allen of the Ulster Unionists — are good and will welcome it as proposed. It will not cause them a lot of difficulties, because, in most cases, they already deliver what the Minister is pointing out in the legislation.

I certainly look forward to working with the Minister and the rest of the Committee to fine-tune the legislation. We know that areas are missing from the Bill. One is the legislation on letting fees. Even after the judgement in the 2017 Loughran case and the joint statement from the Department for Communities and the Department of Finance in 2020, illegal fees are still being charged. Minister, can you, in your summing up, assure the House that the issue of letting fees will be dealt with in the second piece of legislation, which is where the Department intends to deal with, among other things, a cap on rents? However, there are a number of —

Photo of Andy Allen Andy Allen UUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Andy Allen Andy Allen UUP

The Member may well be about to raise the important issue of homelessness. Often, MLAs from across the House have constituents coming into their constituency offices regarding homelessness and, in particular, the 28 days that must have passed before the Housing Executive can press "Go" to progress their application. We need to look at that vital area.

Photo of Kellie Armstrong Kellie Armstrong Alliance

I thank the Member for that intervention. It is something that I have considered. During Committee discussions with officials, one of the things that I raised was the need to ensure that the definition of homelessness, which is covered by different legislation, will be brought into line with whatever the agreement is on the minimum notice that a landlord must give. The last thing we want is for people to be given the minimum amount of notice, whether it is eight weeks, 12 weeks or whatever it may be, and that person is not deemed homeless until they have four weeks left. Finding a house in four weeks is impossible. That puts pressure on the Housing Executive and on a family.

There are some issues with clauses on which I would like clarification, Minister. Maybe you can address those or officials can bring them to the Committee. Where the Bill requires notice to be served in writing, it is important to clarify whether the notice period relates to the date on the notice or the date on which the tenant receives the notice. That is important, as the letter may not reach the tenant for a number of weeks. Tenants need as much time as possible to comply with a notice, especially in the case of an end to a tenancy, so that they can find a new place to live. It would be good to get that clarification, especially in legislation. That may be dealt with through regulations, but I would prefer it if the Minister could provide clarification and put it in legislation.

Under clause 3, "Tenant to be provided with a rent receipt for payment in cash", which Mr Allen has already mentioned, I would like to see a receipt provided by the landlord for any cash payments. Also in clause 3, what is meant in new article 5(3)(b) by "reasonably possible" with regard to receipts needs to be clarified. It would be preferable that a time limit of, for example, four weeks was put on the landlord to provide a receipt.

I agree with the limit on tenancy deposit outlined in clause 4. That means that a deposit would be restricted to the equivalent of one month's rent.

Under clause 6, I look forward to discussing how a landlord who has continually offended in relation to tenancy deposits may have a restriction or even a bar placed on their ability to be a private landlord.

I agree with the restriction on rent increases outlined in clause 7. It means that rents cannot be increased within 12 months of taking up a tenancy or within 12 months of the last increase. However, I have concerns about the requirement to give written notice in new article 5D, as described in clause 7, as it needs, as I have said before, to be clear when the notice period applies from. Is it the date on the landlord's letter or the date on which the tenant receives the letter? There could be a significant gap between those dates, and, if we are only talking about weeks, that could cause a family a lot of problems.

New article 11B in clause 8 deals with a landlord's duty to cover

"fire, smoke and carbon monoxide alarms"

The word "etc" is missing. We do not know what type of alarms there will be in the future. Instead of having to change the legislation to cover whatever alarms are required in the future, we could just add "etc", as it is earlier in the Bill.

Under clause 11, it would be useful to know why the notice given by landlords is different to that being asked of tenants. Clause 11(5) confirms that, if the tenancy has lasted more than 12 months but fewer than 10 years, the relevant notice period can be more than eight weeks but not more than six months. If you have been a tenant for more than 10 years, the relevant period rises to more than 12 weeks. Under clause 11(7), tenants have to give four weeks' notice if their tenancy has lasted between 12 months and 10 years and 12 weeks if it has lasted more than 10 years. Why is that not the same? Can we not have a minimum and a maximum period for tenants in the same way as it is broken down for landlords?

What about protection for tenants who have been living in their home for fewer than 12 months? Over the past year, we have seen how a breakout clause would help students, so I ask the Minister whether we can add something for people who have been living in a place for fewer than 12 months. The extension to the notice periods certainly helped to prevent evictions during the pandemic, so I thank the Minister for that. The periods of notice she is talking about are worth exploring to see if they are enough.

I find the commencement of the Act in clause 13 to be a little strange, which Mark Durkan talked about. There needs to be a commencement date for the whole Act — for example, it could be six months from Royal Assent — because we will be moving into a new mandate and it would be good to see the legislation properly enacted, especially given the work that will go on to get it passed.

The schedules need to have clarity on electrical standards. I thank the electrical standards people and Housing Rights for meeting me about that part of the Bill. We need further information. For instance, what qualification will the electrician need when inspecting an alarm or the processes involved? Who will be required to inspect the premises to make sure that the alarms work? If that falls to our councils, will they charge landlords or tenants for the inspection, or will they be funded by Communities to carry out that role? The electrical safety industry has also said that there should be a confirmed period within which alarm and electrical safety inspections are carried out. Some have suggested that that should be every five years, and I am keen to know if the Minister would add a specific time frame to the safety inspections.

Can tenants' voices be added to the list of consultees in schedule 3(5), because they do not appear there? The list includes everyone but them, and, as part of co-production, it is vital that the customer's voice, which is that of the tenant, is included.

Others mentioned the carbon reduction targets. If we are going to put targets on owners in the private rental sector to retrofit their homes so that they meet future standards, how are they supposed to meet the costs of that? Will that be another cost that is passed on to the tenant at their 12-monthly rent review? We need to think about funding and supporting those private landlords to bring standards up, make homes more carbon-efficient and reduce carbon reduction targets, otherwise the tenants will face increased rents to meet landlords' needs.

Mr Durkan also mentioned the housing allowance rates. We need to review those rates in line with inflation, because, as we are seeing, the housing market is going into a boom. It would be good to make sure that our private rental tenants are not forced to pay more out of their universal credit benefit, for instance, because their housing allowance does not meet their housing costs.

Minister, as the Alliance Party spokesperson for communities, of course I will support the Bill, and I look forward to working with you to bring it forward. As others have said, we can be a bit detailed when it comes to legislation, but that is no bad thing because we make better legislation for it. This is a good setting. It is not as if we are going to change every part of your Bill — there are parts that I absolutely support — but there are some bits that we can clarify in order to help you produce good legislation that will protect our private tenants across Northern Ireland.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Members, this is Ciara Ferguson's first opportunity to speak as a private Member. I remind the House of the convention that a maiden speech is made without interruption. However, Ms Ferguson, if you choose to express views that may provoke an interruption, you are likely to forfeit that protection.

Photo of Ciara Ferguson Ciara Ferguson Sinn Féin

Thank you, Deputy Speaker. It is a great honour to rise in the Assembly this afternoon and give my maiden speech as a representative for the Foyle constituency.

I take the opportunity to pay tribute to my formidable predecessor, Martina Anderson. While working in the fields of research, community development and regeneration in the city, I have always admired Martina's tenacity, commitment and devotion to improving the lives of residents. That is not lost on me or the constituents of Foyle. It is a privilege to carry on her mandate, and I pledge today, like Martina, to the best of my ability, to help to deliver better outcomes for all the people in my constituency.

As someone who worked in housing with the Housing Executive while studying housing at Ulster University's Magee campus and as someone who lived in private rented accommodation as a student and as a parent raising three young children in the 1990s, I very much welcome the introduction of the Private Tenancies Bill, which aims to improve standards and enhance conditions for tenants who live in the private rented sector. As we know, that is the second-largest housing tenure in the North after owner-occupation.

As we also know, the private rented sector has been expanding rapidly in recent years, and it is made up of an increasing number of families, elderly people, those who have retired, people with disabilities or ill health, carers and other vulnerable groups. Indeed, in the North, 45% of single parents live in the private rented sector, and one out of every two private rented sector residents require financial support through housing benefit or universal credit to meet their housing costs.

In the current economic climate and given the ongoing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, we must do all that we can to improve protections for our most vulnerable. The right to a good, affordable and secure home is a foundational human right that upholds all aspects of health outcomes for our children and young people and families, educational attainment levels, suitability for work, childcare, social cohesion and so much more. It is fundamental that that is delivered in the private rented sector.

The Bill, which is aimed at providing good, safe and secure housing, will ultimately amend the 2006 Order and provide private rented sector residents with better protections in relation to their tenancies, such as receipts for payments made in cash and documents covering the detail of tenancy agreements. Indeed, a fundamental aspect of the legislation, which, as we know, is just one part of a much larger housing revitalisation work programme, is about ensuring that legal limits are placed on tenancy deposit amounts, alongside restricting rent increases to once per annum. Private rented sector tenants will no longer have to worry that they could face unexpected rental increases in each annual term of a tenancy agreement.

Tenants in the private rented sector often pay their rental costs while having to save for a deposit so that they can move to another property. Oftentimes, that is not a decision of their own making. By limiting the deposit to no more than one month's rent, we would not only help to protect the accessibility of the private rented sector but help to ensure that people are not being faced with extortionate deposits to secure property or being locked out of the private rented sector when prevented financially from accessing further housing tenures.

Photo of Clare Bailey Clare Bailey Green

I am not on the Committee for Communities and will not, as others have, address the schedules and clauses in the Bill, but I will keep a close eye on the Bill's progress as someone who was a lone parent, was served a notice to quit, spent time with my young children in a homeless hostel and experienced the degrading treatment and lack of rights in the sector.

We are in a housing crisis. That has been said, but we have so many crises in Northern Ireland that I really have to wonder whether we are desensitised to the meaning of the word. Over 40,000 people are on the social housing waiting list, and that figure has risen by 10% since the coronavirus pandemic hit. Many more are excluded from even being on that list, and the only option that is left to them is the private rented sector.

In my role as an MLA — many others here have also said it — I have lost count of the number of constituents who have come to me in despair after being served with eviction notices by private landlords, through no fault of their own and without any realistic prospect of being rehoused any time soon through the social sector. I know and understand the confusion, stress and panic that that causes, because I have been in that situation. I know exactly what it is like to be told that you have nowhere to go due to private rented systems in which you, as the tenant, have little say, no power and limited rights. We need to address that imbalance as a matter of urgency.

Like the Minister, I am an MLA for an area with the highest density of houses in multiple occupation and with six of the most deprived social output areas due to living environment. Those are in our constituency. I also have a long list of horror stories from those in private rented accommodation, with some landlords charging £50 for call-outs that residents neither asked for nor needed. I have had tenants living for months with gaping holes in their ceilings, with exposed wires and water leaking in. I had students who moved into a property only to find that it did not have a toilet cistern. When they reported it, the landlord just shrugged. Those stories are just the tip of the iceberg, and that is before we even look at how difficult it is becoming to access private rented accommodation.

People are now lining up outside housing for viewings and are bidding on rental prices. They have to have guarantors and provide application fees, multiple months' worth of deposits, references and credit checks. It is becoming akin to 'The Hunger Games' out there rather than just applying for a house.

Then there is the cost. The Nevin Economic Research Institute produced a working paper in 2018 that clearly identified the high housing cost burden on low-income households in the private rented sector. Rents are too high. They were too high then, and they have only increased since. Working families and young people are particularly affected by that, and they desperately need the Executive to step in. We only need to look down the road to Dublin to see what happens when the financialisation of the housing market is allowed to go unchecked and unrecognised. The anecdotal evidence suggests that we are heading in exactly the same direction and, as our colleague Andy Allen said, energy price hikes of up to 26% are being imposed on households across Northern Ireland. That was announced this week.

The Bill is absolutely necessary to try to start to get some sense of control over the sector. However, I am concerned about the level of ambition in the Department in bringing it forward. I understand the time limitations that we, as legislators, have in this mandate, and I recognise that the Minister indicated that this is only the start of a process of housing reform, but the very real fact remains that private renters are suffering now and cannot wait years for change. We knew that change was necessary for so long. We are well past the point when tinkering around the edges of the private rented sector is adequate or even sufficient.

Aspects of the Bill are good, particularly in trying to bring health and safety standards into line with best practices. I know the difficulties that were caused for fire safety standards when flats were taken out of the definition of HMOs under the Houses in Multiple Occupation Act (Northern Ireland) 2016. That meant that the Fire Service could no longer carry out its much-needed inspections in much of the Holylands area, for example. I hope that the Bill will go some way towards ensuring that all properties in the sector are held to the same standards.

The Department's ability to make regulations around the energy efficiency of homes is welcome, but of course the devil will be in the detail of those regulations. Getting that right could go some way towards significantly reducing our carbon emissions, as the Minister mentioned, and helping to alleviate fuel poverty. I hope that the Bill aims to deliver on that.

There is, however, so much more that the Bill needs to do. The four weeks' notice is grossly insufficient. Indeed, even 12 weeks' notice under the conditions that are currently granted by the Department's temporary coronavirus measures still makes it very difficult for people to try to sort out alternative accommodation. I know that the Department stated that it was unable to extend that indefinitely without consultation first, so I am pleased that it is consulting on the notice to quit period. While being given notice to quit is always going to be bad news for tenants, the very least that this Government can do is to ensure that they are given maximum time to prepare and that landlords are required to give tenants notification of their rights alongside their notice to quit.

There is nothing in the Bill to stop the unlawful charging of letting agents' fees. That is something that the Minister has already committed to addressing, and she said that her Department is working on that. It seems remiss not to use this vehicle to bring forward that simple change, while a wider review of the regulation of letting agents is ongoing. There is nothing on rent control, and I fear that many of the Bill's provisions will simply do nothing for the vast majority of those in the private rental sector here, as leases over 12 months are very rare. Indeed, the Bill may ensure that it stays that way.

That being said, it is good to hear the Minister say that she wants to do even more. I look forward to seeing the Bill being strengthened as it passes through its various stages.

Photo of Gerry Carroll Gerry Carroll People Before Profit Alliance 5:45 pm, 13th September 2021

I thank the Minister for bringing the Bill forward. The housing crisis that racks our society should be at the top of the Executive's list of priorities. As a representative of West Belfast, which is a constituency that, unfortunately, often tops the charts in terms of poverty and housing stress, I deal daily with what I can only describe as horror stories when it comes to casework arising from housing issues. Others have stated that too. Central to that problem are often those tenants who are forced to live in an exploitative private rental sector and find themselves having to pay increasingly exorbitant rents for homes that offer little protection and little security.

As others have indicated, we are talking about tens of thousands of people here, accounting for significant housing stock right across the North — tens of thousands of people who have children and many of whom are young single parents or couples. There are thousands more older households, including many retired pensioners as well as over 15,000 people who are permanently sick or disabled or are caring for a loved one. Practically half of all private tenants receive some form of state financial support, either through housing benefit or universal credit, to help them with the cost of rent. That acts as a huge state subsidy for exploitative landlords, and there is a lack of monitoring of their actions and activity. Certainly, not all landlords are bad, as people have stated today, but the system is stacked against tenants. The rights of property owners and landlords are favoured instead. That situation is in urgent need of reform, and, therefore, I welcome the opportunity to do that through the Bill. It is, obviously, still in its early stages, so I will offer some indicative thoughts today.

Much of the Bill seems very welcome, but it remains to be seen whether it goes far enough, and even the Minister alluded to that. The move to strengthen tenants' rights with regard to notice to quit is welcome. It is simply outrageous that people can build homes for themselves for years, even decades, only to be given four weeks' notice from a landlord to move out, upturning their home and the lives that they have built in them in the process.

I have witnessed many constituents being forced out in that manner over the years in circumstances that, I believe, ought to be illegal, never mind the morality of it. Therefore, I welcome the move to extend the period to enforce eight weeks after one year, 12 weeks after two years and 16 weeks after 10 years. That said, whether that is long enough is an open question. I note that the early stages of consultation on the Bill — Ms Armstrong talked about it — were notable for the lack of engagement with tenants. I look forward to further engagement in that area during the Committee process.

The move around energy efficiency is, obviously, welcome, and provisions to compel landlords to take their responsibilities seriously around smoke, fire and carbon monoxide threats are also welcome.

Perhaps the most talked-about element of the Bill will be clause 7, which relates to restrictions on rent increases. The private rental sector is notable for increasingly exploitative rents. Across the city, rent increases have been a serious problem over the past decade, especially since the housing crisis of 2008. During the pandemic, rent has shot up when, in many cases, wages have been cut.

It is outrageous that, as things stand, landlords can essentially increase rent on a whim, and there is little protection for tenants and little regulation from government. This Bill aims to resolve that by allowing rent increases to be implemented only 12 months after a tenancy has been signed or in the 12 months after a previous increase has been implemented. While that would obviously be better than the current arrangement, in which there is essentially no regulation whatsoever, it is unlikely to solve the problem, because each landlord would still be able to implement rent increases annually, none of which will need to be tied to inflation or be in line with lower rents that exist elsewhere, such as in social housing. Instead, it is likely that landlords will continue to cite market pressures in order to raise the rent in a more structured and planned way, bringing little long-term or lasting reprieve for those who are struggling to make their payments as it is.

I raise this issue now because I fear that it is where the Bill may, and indeed already appears to, fall significantly short. I hope that this Bill is not a missed opportunity to tackle the issue of exploitative rent by controlling that practice. One way to do it would be for the Minister and her Department to explore the option of, and implement, a rent cap on private landlords, forcing them to charge similar rates to those operating best practice in social housing, such as the Housing Executive. I ask the Minister whether she and her Department have explored that issue. This legislation is clearly at a relatively early stage, but that type of issue needs to be addressed in the Bill. Renters and their rights generally need to be supported. I look forward to scrutinising the Bill.

Finally, I concur with two Members — I think that it was Ms Armstrong and Ms Bailey — about letting fees. People still do not know that those fees are illegal and that they should not be charged them at all. The Minister said that she is working on that. I would like to hear the early plans for tackling it and what she is considering, even though there has been no concrete proposal so far.

Photo of Alex Easton Alex Easton DUP

This is a timely Bill to address a range of issues in the private rented sector in Northern Ireland. As we are all aware, privately renting homes in Northern Ireland is increasingly popular. There are a number of reasons for that: some are down to choice and affordability; others are due to issues with our social housing provision.

The demographic of those utilising the private rented sector has also changed. A higher number of families, older people and disabled people are now in that type of accommodation. We have all heard cases of poor quality private rental homes or tenants who have been treated unfairly. We also know that many, particularly younger people, can struggle to afford privately rented homes and may live insecurely from month to month. The review that took place several years ago was a necessary acknowledgement of the need for changes to make the privately rented sector more attractive, safe and secure for those who use it.

Clause 3 provides protection for tenants and landlords regarding receipts for rent payments made in cash. Many of the provisions appear to contain some common sense, such as the details that are required on the receipt and the fact that the receipt must be provided within a reasonable period. Tenants who do not receive a receipt, or who receive a receipt with incorrect information on it, are also protected, with guilty landlords subject to a conviction or a fixed penalty notice. Likewise, the Bill ensures that landlords are able to provide a reasonable defence against those charges.

Clause 4 sets the limit of a paid or retained deposit to no more than the value of one month's rent. The Bill sensibly sets out the meaning of one month's rent in cases where rent is not paid monthly. It also protects tenants who are overcharged by creating an offence for landlords with a fixed penalty notice attached, and by creating provision to allow the tenant to be repaid the amount that they were overcharged.

We know that the average cost of renting a home is increasing ahead of current wage levels. This Bill seeks to protect tenants from such short notice increases in their rent. The Bill states that rent cannot be increased within a year of the tenancy being granted or within a year of a previous increase in rent. This will particularly impact students, who often have year-long tenancy agreements, ensuring that there will be no increase in their rent for the duration of their tenancy. By removing that provision, clause 7 also provides protection for landlords who seek to improve their rental properties through renovation and extension.

The Bill seeks to provide tenants with certainty by requiring landlords to give notice of rental increases no less than two months before the changes take effect. The clause contains a provision for the Department to change the duration of the period in which rent is not allowed to increase, up to a maximum of two years. I am glad to see that the Bill ensures that, if such a change is proposed by the Department, landlords and tenants' representatives will be properly consulted.

Clause 11 seeks to protect tenants further, specifically regarding notices to quit, by ensuring that a reasonable time period is given, depending on how long the tenant has been renting the property, naturally increasing in length for longer tenancies. Similar protections have also been put in place for when tenants are giving notice to their landlords that they intend to move out. Those are longer notice periods than were previously required.

Clause 8 concerns fire, smoke and carbon monoxide detection. It goes without saying that this is a very important inclusion in the Bill. I know that the tragedy that occurred at Grenfell Tower will come to mind for many of us. Therefore, I am glad to see that this provision will require landlords of tenancies that have also been granted to retrospectively fit those detectors before a deadline that the Department will set in the future. The retrospective fitting of those alarms and the requirement for all new private rented homes to have those alarms are necessary to reduce the risk of harm to tenants and increase confidence in the safety of private rented accommodation. Proposed new article 11B, which will require such detectors to be kept in working order, is another common-sense inclusion in the Bill. Importantly, the Department has the power to assess the adequacy of those safety provisions. Landlords who are found not to be complying with the new regulations will be guilty of an offence. However, it is good to see that landlords are also protected in cases where damage is caused intentionally or through negligence by the tenant and that they cannot be found guilty of an offence in situations where a tenant fails to inform them of any issues with the appliances.

The Bill contains a number of clauses that give the Department the power to make regulations specifically regarding energy efficiency and electrical safety standards for private rented properties. That means that I cannot comment on those issues in detail at this time, but it is right that those areas are being explored. I am pleased to see that schedule 2 and schedule 3 require thorough consultation to take place before the regulations are laid in the Assembly. I also note in the explanatory memorandum the suggestion of potential grants or funding to assist landlords to achieve greater energy efficiency. That will assist us in achieving our climate change targets and is therefore of interest. However, it will need to be examined in detail before implementation. I am also encouraged to see that a full regulatory impact assessment will be conducted before energy efficiency regulations are introduced.

It is right that changes are made in this area. As this is a growing sector, it is only sensible that we review how private rented accommodation is regulated. These issues are impacting a growing number of people. Responses to the consultation survey showed that over 90% of tenants were supportive of the majority of the proposals. I look forward to examining the Bill in more detail.

Photo of Deirdre Hargey Deirdre Hargey Sinn Féin 6:00 pm, 13th September 2021

Thanks to all the Members who contributed to the debate. As was noted by a number of Members, the legislation has been set in the context of the housing crisis that we are going through. That housing crisis has been acknowledged by me as the Minister, by the Department and by Carál Ní Chuilín when she stood in for me last year. The legislation is also set in the context of the huge housing transformation that we are doing. We know that the system is broken. We know that, in assisting those who are living in the private rented sector, including many families and children, we need to be more ambitious with our social sector. We need to build more social homes. We need to ensure that the Housing Executive can build again. As part of the housing transformation agenda, that is a key driver and a commitment from me.

Many Members said that not everything is in this Bill. I acknowledge that. Had we had the time, I would have introduced a full Bill, in which all those things could have been concluded. I came into post only in January of last year, however. I became an MLA and a Minister in the same week. Nobody could have foreseen, at that time, that we would have the biggest global health pandemic ever, and that has stalled or slowed down a lot of work right across the Assembly. That having been said, I want to make sure that I can bring in protections for the private rented sector in this mandate, which really ends in March of next year. That is only a few months away, and I want to make sure that, in the time that we have, we bring in changes. The Committee is working with me. We are doing six or seven important pieces of legislation. All of that takes time. We saw that with the liquor licensing Bill, which we finally got through after over a decade of waiting.

I am keen to progress this Bill, but I reiterate that it is only the first part of a more substantive piece of legislation that needs to come forward. Indeed, the private rented sector is important in helping us meet housing need, and it is now bigger than the social housing sector, as some Members recognised. Many people who would previously have found themselves in a social home now live in the private rented sector. As that sector increases in size, housing a wide range and wide variety of people, it is important to make improvements and to future-proof the sector to ensure greater protection for private renters. By improving standards and conditions, the Bill will make the private rented sector a safer and more secure housing option for people living in it. Those much-needed changes will ensure a better regulated and fairer private rented sector.

The initial Bill is only the start of a longer-term programme of work to address the long-term issues that Members raised, such as letting agent regulation, grounds for eviction and fitness standards. I therefore ask for Members' support today to agree the Bill's Second Stage so that it may proceed to Committee Stage for further in-depth scrutiny.

There were many questions asked, and I will probably have missed some. Should I not capture them all now in my response, my officials are taking a note of proceedings. We will listen back to the debate, and, if I miss anything, I will make sure that we communicate with Members. Moreover, my officials will obviously be attending at Committee Stage to respond to scrutiny of the Bill.

We are in a housing crisis: that goes without saying. I want to make sure that we provide more housing, particularly social housing, but we must improve standards in the private rented sector. We want to ensure that, overall, we provide access to good-quality, secure and affordable homes. We want to make sure that those homes are safe for the families and individuals who live in them.

I am aware of how the crisis is magnified, particularly in working-class areas and super-output areas. I live in one of those, and I grew up in a social home. I still live in that inner-city working-class community. I know very well the issues faced by people living in the private rented sector and in the social rented sector. Many Members brought up the issue of speculation, and, indeed, I have gone to court to fight speculators, while working with the community in which I live. We must ensure that there is sufficient land on which to build public housing, and I will continue to do that in the time ahead. I hope to make some announcements on that shortly.

I thank the Chair of the Committee, Paula Bradshaw, for her support at this legislative stage, and I look forward to working with her and the rest of the Committee on scrutinising the Bill. As with the liquor licensing Bill, if we can improve the legislation, I am more than willing to engage. Equally, my officials and I are more than willing to sit with Members who are not on the Committee to see whether we can improve the Bill in the time allowed for it.

I touched on the housing shortage. That is having an impact on the private rented sector. Many Members will know that we are looking at infrastructure and supply issues. The call for evidence as part of our housing supply strategy closed recently.

I was in a meeting just before coming here, and we were looking at the introduction of an infrastructure commission. Housing would be a critical part of that. Having that alignment between infrastructure and housing is one of the key areas coming out of that housing supply strategy. That is a focused area that we are working to progress, particularly in areas of highest housing need where land is a particular issue. I will make an announcement on that shortly.

I agree wholeheartedly with what Sinéad said: housing is a fundamental right, and access to quality, secure and affordable homes is a must. Reducing carbon emissions is a huge challenge. Housing, and particularly the construction of homes, is a key area that we will need to look at as we try to meet the commitments set out for 2050. A private Member's Bill is also moving forward. We need to be more ambitious in our targets.

As Mark mentioned, I extended the longer notice to quit period until May 2022. Of course, I want to go further in this legislation. Work needs to be done on that. I was given legal advice not to extend it during the disaster last year. I would have extended it for two years, but I was told that there could be a legal challenge. However, we have extended it until May 2022. That is the two-year cut-off for temporary legislation. This legislation will look at that in a more coherent way.

Mark recognised the work of housing organisations, and I completely commend them. The Bill would not have been possible without them. We want to continue to engage with them and with housing activists who are out on the ground. I have been and am a housing activist in the community that I work in and more broadly, and I want to continue to liaise and engage with them in the time ahead.

We are looking at extending the notice to quit period. We need to look at the exemptions, and we are looking at models of how things have worked. We have looked at the Scottish model, we are looking at the Welsh model, and, if Members have other suggestions, I am more than happy to listen to them.

Andy, Kellie and others raised the homelessness point. I recently asked officials to review the existing legislation to ensure that it is fit for purpose, and they will come back to me before the end of this mandate with proposals or recommendations on what we need to do. We are looking at that urgently. If there are suggestions or ideas, I encourage Members to engage with officials as part of that review process to see what legislative changes we need to make.

The Department is looking at the issue of cash payments. We are happy to discuss that to see whether their use can be widened and what areas we could look at. We are happy to look at that as we start to progress through the next stages of the legislation.

Kellie raised the issue of letting fees. She had a lot of questions, and I have probably missed some of them, so apologies in advance. That issue will be dealt with in the second phase of the legislation. There is more detailed, cross-cutting work to be done, so it is not as easy as saying that we will just do it. We will look at that in the next phase, and work is ongoing. We also want to look at letting agent regulation. That is a critical area, and it is important that it is regulated.

We are also looking at the introduction of grounds for eviction, fairer rents and a rent review. We have already started work on that in the social rented sector. We are also starting work in the private rented sector. As was touched on, we are looking at broader fitness standards to ensure that homes are safe and that they are up to standard, not just for now but future-proofed in line with the climate emergency.

I have not met Ciara yet. She is away. I congratulate her and wish her luck. With regard to electrical safety details, we are looking at ways to include tenants in the regulations. More details of that will come through. Tenants will be at the heart of consultation. We are looking to see whether there is anywhere in the legislation that we could confirm that. Once we find a way to do that, we will update the Committee and individual Members who are interested in that area. We will do that in the time ahead.

Members mentioned rent control. That is a concern for me as well. Since I came into post last year, I have been trying to find ways to look at rent control and rent freezes. We are continuing that work. Some of it involves contract law. A more in-depth piece of work needs to be done. It could not be done in time for the draft legislation, but that said, I am still pushing officials to look at it urgently because I completely recognise that people's finances are being squeezed. We have already started work on that, particularly in the social sector. We will continue to do that urgently for the private rented sector. There will probably need to be a call for evidence in order to really hear the views and experiences of individuals on the ground.

I think that it was Gerry who said that letting agent fees are already banned. It is extremely disappointing that some are still acting illegally by charging those fees. In the second piece of legislation, which will cover letting agents, we will look at how we can stop that completely. As I said, we want to ensure that we regulate the sector because that is where one of the big gaps is.

I will just touch on the last points. Consultation is key. Notwithstanding the restrictions, as they begin to ease, if there are better ways to engage or other organisations and groups that can be engaged with, I know that the Committee will do that extensively, as it has for other pieces of legislation. We will continue to do that.

In conclusion, this is one part of a much bigger piece of legislation. Scrutiny will be crucial. I want to make sure that I can get as much as possible into the legislation, and if there are amendments or changes that we can bring to this first piece of legislation before the end of the mandate, I am more than happy to meet people and to talk to them to see whether we can include those. I will make my officials available to speak to people about what those would look like. Work is ongoing on the second piece of legislation. We have already started to look at that. As soon as we can provide more detail on it, we will do so. Of course, the Committee will get updates on that as part of its scrutiny role.

I commend Members for the debate and for their suggestions and observations. If I have missed any, we will follow them up. I am sure that I have missed some. Thank you. I commend the Bill to the Assembly for its approval.

Question put and agreed to. Resolved:

That the Second Stage of the Private Tenancies Bill [NIA 32/17-22] be agreed.