Official Report: Wednesday 23 February 2022


The Assembly met at 10:30 am (Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McGlone] in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes' silence.

Assembly Business

22 February 2022

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): The first item of business in the Order Paper is the consideration of Executive business not concluded on Tuesday 22 February. As all business was concluded when the Assembly adjourned yesterday, there is nothing further to consider under that item. We will move on.

Ministerial Statement

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): I have received notice from the Minister for the Economy that he wishes to make a statement. Before I call the Minister, I remind Members in the Chamber that, in light of the social distancing being observed by the parties, the Speaker's ruling that Members must be in the Chamber to hear the statement if they wish to ask a question has been relaxed. Members who are participating remotely must make sure that their name is on the speaking list if they wish to be called. Members who are present in the Chamber must also do that, and they may show their intent by rising in their place as well as by notifying the Business Office or the Speaker's Table directly. I remind Members to be concise in asking their questions. This is not an opportunity for debate, and long introductions will not be allowed. I also remind Members that, in accordance with long-established procedure, points of order are not normally taken during a statement or the period for questions afterwards.

Mr Lyons (The Minister for the Economy): In compliance with section 52 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, I wish to make a statement on the third British-Irish Council (BIC) ministerial meeting in energy sector format, which was held on Friday 4 February 2022. The Government of Jersey hosted the meeting, although proceedings were conducted virtually. Minister Hargey and I represented the Executive. Michael Matheson, Cabinet Secretary for Net Zero, Energy and Transport in the Scottish Government, and the Rt Hon Greg Hands, Minister of State for Energy, Clean Growth and Climate Change in the UK Government, jointly chaired the meeting.

The energy work sector meeting brought together Ministers with responsibility for energy policy to discuss how the eight member Administrations can continue to work together to address shared challenges such as climate change, energy efficiency and energy security. We reviewed and discussed energy policy developments in each of the eight member Administrations.

All recognised the importance of embracing local and community energy approaches; innovation in energy storage; more effective and comprehensive use of smart grids, including smart meters and smart EV charging points; the expansion of marine energy generation; improved offshore grid and interconnection capability; and new and emerging energy technologies.

We all acknowledged that member Administrations face shared challenges, including the threat of climate change, the desire to make greater progress in energy efficiency and the need to ensure energy security. There was shared recognition between us that the path that each Administration is taking towards a net zero carbon future varied according to regional strengths, political priorities and the availability of natural resources, but we noted that, by sharing information and experiences, the British-Irish Council energy work sector continued to bring important benefits and opportunities for all its members. We also noted the contribution of the British-Irish Council at COP26 in Glasgow, where a ministerial panel event to outline the importance of collaboration showcased the work of the British-Irish Council in driving effective climate policy.

The minutes from the previous British-Irish Council energy ministerial meeting that was hosted by the Scottish Government on 15 June 2018 and from the British-Irish Council energy meeting that was held prior to the thirty-second British-Irish Council summit on 28 June 2019 were approved.

Finally, Ministers thanked the energy work sector officials in each of the Administrations for their active engagement in preparing the briefing, and we endorsed the forward work plan. I commend the statement to the House.

Dr Archibald (The Chairperson of the Committee for the Economy): I thank the Minister for his statement. Obviously, we are already seeing the impact of global forces, particularly on oil and gas prices, which are impacting on families and businesses, and the current situation in Ukraine could exacerbate that. Did the Minister get a sense that there is an understanding of and a willingness for the need for support to rapidly invest in renewables in order to ensure security of indigenous supply and affordability for people? Is he engaging on that with his British ministerial counterparts in particular?

Mr Lyons: Yes. Even before the current events in Ukraine, the meeting took place at a time when we recognised the squeeze on the finances of individuals and businesses. That is why we have put renewable energy front and centre of my energy strategy. Affordability is so important, so we understand that we need to secure our energy from sources that are not volatile. What we have put in our energy strategy demonstrates that we were right to go down that route, because oil and gas prices are becoming evermore volatile. The more of our energy that we can source here in Northern Ireland, the better.

Of course, that transition is going to require investment. It is worth noting that, if we were to continue down the road of having further oil and gas infrastructure, that would require additional investment as well. It will require more money. We should be putting it into renewables because of the long-term benefit that we will get from it. Funding was discussed at the meeting, and I have constant conversations with the UK Government about how they can assist us in moving towards net zero.

Mr Weir: I thank the Minister for his statement. As the Minister indicated, energy supply has moved higher and higher up the agenda in recent weeks and even this week. Therefore, I want to ask the Minister about his discussions on offshore generation. What steps are being taken to advance energy security and security of supply in offshore generation?

Mr Lyons: That absolutely was discussed at the meeting. It is an area that we need to explore further because, in many ways, we have used a lot of land in Northern Ireland for renewable technologies. We have a limited amount of land, so we now need to look towards offshore solutions to that issue. Not only was that raised during the meeting but, in recent weeks, I met representatives from the Crown Estate, which has responsibility for the offshore areas that we would want to develop. I was able to give an update on those discussions at the meeting.

I am pleased that we are now working with the Crown Estate and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) in the UK Government to take forward those opportunities. I am delighted that we have secured support from the Crown Estate for a new approach to developing that technology.

Mr O'Toole: Minister, thank you for the update. One of the less controversial bits of the withdrawal agreement and the Northern Ireland protocol is the single electricity market on the island, but some operators are having an issue with something that was left out of the initial withdrawal agreement: guarantees of origin. That is proving a problem with moving some renewable energy from North to South, which, obviously, is really critical. Are his officials working on that with BEIS, and could it be discussed at, for example, the British-Irish Council?

Mr Lyons: That was not discussed at the British-Irish Council. I do not have an update for him on the recent conversations that have taken place, but I am more than happy to speak to my officials to see what work has been done. I am not sure that the BIC would necessarily be the most appropriate forum to discuss that and take it further. Whether that requires coordination between the UK Government and the Irish Government or between us and the UK Government, we will make sure that the appropriate work is done. If there have been discussions in the past number of days, I will be happy to update him on those.

Mr Nesbitt: The Minister mentioned electric vehicle charge points. What was he able to tell the meeting about council uptake of the £20 million pot from central government, which is backed by £350,000 from the Department for Infrastructure?

Mr Lyons: That was not raised directly at the BIC meeting, but I understand the importance of it and, in particular, the challenges that we face in Northern Ireland. I feel that, in recent years, we have gone backwards in terms of a lack of availability of EV charging points and, in some cases, EV charging points that actually work. That is why it is part of the energy strategy and why, in the energy action plan that was released this year, we have committed to publishing an EV infrastructure action plan. DFI will take that forward in coordination with my Department.

Mr Dickson: Thank you, Minister, for your statement. I note that the UK Minister who jointly chaired the meeting is responsible for clean growth; that is in the title of his role. Was there any discussion, therefore, Minister, about deterring the development of blue hydrogen or fossil fuel-derived hydrogen? There is serious concern, presumably across all the nations, that that is not a clean fuel.

Mr Lyons: I absolutely agree with the Member's points on the concern that exists about blue hydrogen. During the meeting, I was able to raise the opportunities that I think that Northern Ireland has with green hydrogen. That is certainly the way that I think that we need to go. There is great opportunity for us to progress that in Northern Ireland.

Mr O'Dowd: Minister, I note from your statement that the British-Irish Council was established by the same Act under which the North/South Ministerial Council was established. I also note that you were accompanied by Deirdre Hargey, a Sinn Féin Minister who is honouring her ministerial code and her ministerial pledge, and that the SDLP, the Ulster Unionist Party and the Alliance Party are doing the same. When will you honour your ministerial pledge and oath and return to North/South Ministerial Council meetings so that we can have a full development of cross-border, cross-island energy strategies that will help people who are facing crippling energy costs at this time?

Mr Lyons: The North/South Ministerial Council was not an item of discussion at the British-Irish Council meeting.

Mr K Buchanan: Minister, in your statement, you referred to zero carbon being achieved according to "regional strengths". What would you say our strengths are, and what are the strengths of the other regions of the United Kingdom?

Mr Lyons: In Northern Ireland, first and foremost, our strength is the level of renewable technologies that are already in place.

I noted that there was some surprise among member Administrations at the level of renewables that we have. They were surprised that, at one point in the week before the meeting took place, almost 90% of our energy had come from renewable sources. Key for us is that we are, in many ways, ahead of other member Administrations. That is not always the case, so we need to make sure that we are taking advantage of it and building on it as one of our strengths.


10.45 am

Mr McGuigan: Minister, the meeting was about energy efficiency, so I suppose that I should commend your efforts to condense the detail into a two-and-a-half-page statement. This is an island, so you would imagine that marine energy generation would be a big part of our renewable plans here, but, as we know, it has been fraught with difficulties. What is the current status of marine energy generation in the North, and what role do you see it playing in the future?

Mr Lyons: There was limited discussion on that issue at the meeting. As part of our energy strategy, however, we have committed to looking at alternative renewable energy sources. Right now, we are very much focused on wind generation. I want to look at the other potential opportunities, and marine energy has a role to play in that. As part of our energy action plan, we will look at how we can develop other sectors and ensure that there is investment in those technologies.

There are particular advantages with marine energy generation. Challenges come with it, but it is a steady supply of energy. I want to ensure that we have the technology to harness that energy for all communities in Northern Ireland. I was recently on Rathlin Island, where I saw the opportunities that could exist for people there to generate their own electricity. Having travelled there, I see huge opportunities, and that place should not be left behind.

Mr Dunne: I thank the Minister for his statement. What potential hydrogen and biomethane opportunities exist in Northern Ireland?

Mr Lyons: We had a good discussion at the meeting about hydrogen opportunities. That is another area in which, when compared with the rest of the member Administrations, we are ahead of the curve. We have huge opportunities with hydrogen, not only because so much of our energy already comes from renewables but because we need to find a way in which to store that energy, and hydrogen storage is one way in which we can do that most effectively.

If we look not only at the high level of wind generation but at the relative size of our country and at the facts that we have good interconnection between Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland and the skills in place in advanced manufacturing and technologies, we see that the future for us is very bright indeed. I want us to be ahead of the curve on that.

Another benefit that we have over the rest of the UK is our gas network, which is much more modern than that in the rest of the UK. The gas network and infrastructure will be useful as we transition from natural gas to other gases such as hydrogen. That puts us in a position to take advantage of it by ensuring not only that we can meet our green growth goals but that, at the same time, we have a cheaper and more sustainable supply of energy.

Dr Aiken: I thank the Minister for his statement. I declare interests as a member of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly (BIPA) and of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA) and its energy network, which takes me directly to my question. The meeting was hosted by the Government of Jersey. Recently, there was a threat by the French to cut off Jersey's electricity supply. Given that important international relationship, was there any discussion about security of supply and future concerns about the integrated single electricity market (I-SEM) and interrelationships, with the EU in particular?

Mr Lyons: Security of supply was, of course, a major concern for all member Administrations. There are different threats to our energy security, and that is why, as I have said a number of times, it is so important that we secure and supply as much of our energy as possible locally. All member Administrations have expressed their commitment to doing that.

Ms Á Murphy: I thank the Minister for updating us. Minister, the move to vehicles powered by non-fossil fuels is crucial in the fight against climate change.

What cooperation has there been between your Department and the Infrastructure Minister on that issue? Can you update us on the progress of the electric vehicle infrastructure task force?

Mr Lyons: Although that issue was not raised at the British-Irish Council, the importance of the move towards electric vehicles was recognised. In my energy strategy, we have made the importance of that move very clear. As I have said many times, I did not produce an energy strategy for it to sit on the shelf. We have an energy action plan and, as part of that, have committed to publishing an EV infrastructure action plan this year. That will be informed by the EV infrastructure task force, which is led primarily by the Department for Infrastructure. We will be coordinating with them and playing our role where appropriate.

Ms Armstrong: Thank you, Minister. I am an MLA for Strangford — there are three of us in the room — which is the constituency with the longest coastline, so you will understand why I am bringing you back to marine and offshore energy. Given the discussion at the British-Irish Council, what provision are you making in the coming three-year Budget to take forward tidal and wave energy projects, such as the hydrokinetic turbines that are being tested by Queen's University, GKinetic Energy and Grant's Electrical Services?

Mr Lyons: Again, that issue was not raised directly. Unfortunately, Strangford did not get a mention at the British-Irish Council meeting.

Mr Lyons: Yes. I will endeavour to rectify that at the next meeting. The specific issues that the Member talked about were not raised but, as I said to Mr McGuigan, we see potential for marine technology.

With regard to the specific question that she asked about the funding that is in place, one of the difficulties that we have with the proposed draft three-year Budget is that it does not give us much room for manoeuvre to do some of the extra things that we might want to do. However, it is important to note that it will not just be the Northern Ireland Executive or the UK Government that will invest in those technologies: there will have to be investment from the community, industry and business, if we are to meet our goals, which is clearly set out in the energy strategy.

Ms Ferguson: Thank you, Minister, for your statement. Given that the future of energy is, as we are all aware, all-Ireland in nature, will you detail what discussions you have had on that with your counterparts in the South? What are your plans with regard to the energy strategy and working with our counterparts in the South on the development of renewable energy?

Mr Lyons: I certainly recognise the importance of working with other Administrations in the BIC. One of the strengths that I have outlined is the interconnection that we have, North/South and east-west. That places us in a really good position, particularly in regard to hydrogen. I recognise that we have a single electricity market, and I want to make sure that that works, first and foremost, for our consumers, namely people in Northern Ireland. If we want that security of supply, we need to work with our neighbours, North/South and east-west, and ensure that there is support between Administrations. There will be times when we are able to generate more electricity than our neighbours and vice versa. So, it is right that we have a flexible system that allows sharing of energy, especially when it comes to renewable energy, because that will, ultimately, lead to cheaper electricity for consumers.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): That concludes questions on the statement. I ask Members to take their ease before we move to the next item of business.

Executive Committee Business

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): Depending on progress, I suggest taking a short comfort break at the end of this item of business, because the next item of business will, principally, involve the same people. We will see how it goes.

I call the Minister for Communities, Deirdre Hargey, to move the Further Consideration Stage of the Welfare Supplementary Payments (Amendment) Bill. Glaoim ar an Aire Pobal leis an Bhille a mholadh.

Moved. — [Ms Hargey (The Minister for Communities).]

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): Members will have a copy of the Marshalled List of amendments detailing the order for consideration. The amendments have been grouped for debate in the provisional grouping of amendments selected list. There is a single group of three amendments, which deal with the removal of an end date and with reporting. The amendments in that group will be debated together. Once the debate on the group is completed, any further amendments will be moved formally without further debate. If that is clear, we shall proceed.

We come to the single group of amendments for debate. With amendment No 1, it will be convenient to debate amendment Nos 2 and 3. Dá bhrí sin, glaoim ar an Aire Pobal, Deirdre Hargey, leasú uimhir a haon a mholadh in éineacht leis na leasuithe eile sa ghrúpa sin. I call the Minister for Communities, Deirdre Hargey, to move amendment No 1 and to address the other amendments in the group.

Clause 1 (End date for qualifying for particular payments)

Ms Hargey (The Minister for Communities): I beg to move amendment No 1:

In page 1, leave out clause 1 and insert—

"Time for qualifying for particular payments
1.—(1) The Welfare Reform (Northern Ireland) Order 2015 is amended as follows.
(2) In Article 137A (payments to persons affected by social sector size criteria in calculation of universal credit or housing benefit)—

(a) in paragraph (2)(a), for ‘a period which falls within the mitigation period’ substitute ‘any time on or after the relevant date’,

(b) in paragraph (3)(a), for ‘a period which falls within the mitigation period’ substitute ‘any time on or after the relevant date’,

(c) paragraph (4) is omitted,

(d) after paragraph (4) insert—
‘(4A) The relevant date is 2nd January 2017.’"

The following amendments stood on the Marshalled List:

No 2: In clause 3, page 2, line 25, leave out from "include—" to end of line 31 and insert—

"include the Department’s summary of its proposals (if any) for making, amending or revoking regulations under Article 137 or 137A of that Order." — [Ms Hargey (The Minister for Communities).]

No 3: In the long title, leave out "Change" and insert "Remove". — [Ms Hargey (The Minister for Communities).]

Ms Hargey: During Consideration Stage, three amendments were made to the Bill with cross-party support. The amendment made to clause 1 removed the end date of 31 March 2025 for the social sector size criteria — the bedroom tax — mitigation scheme. Two consequential amendments were made to clause 3, providing for a review of welfare mitigations to be completed by 31 March 2025. Further to the amendments made by the Assembly, and after consultation with the Office of the Legislative Counsel (OLC), I have agreed that some technical amendments should be tabled to the Bill. Those amendments include a new clause 1, which will avoid the need to make several separate small changes. The amendments do not alter the policy agreed by the Assembly at Consideration Stage, but rather are designed to tidy up the drafting of the Bill.

Amendment No 1 will ensure that the relevant date of 2 January 2017 is properly defined for the purposes of mitigation payments for people claiming housing benefit or universal credit. It will also avoid duplication where the mitigation period is currently referred to. The proposed new clause 1 will therefore amend article 137A of the Welfare Reform (NI) Order 2015 by removing the end date for mitigation payments in respect of the bedroom tax. This means that my Department will have the authority to make statutory mitigation payments to people affected by the bedroom tax at any time from 2 January 2017. That is the policy that was agreed by the House at Consideration Stage.


11.00 am

I think that it is well known that I do not want to see an end date in the legislation. I firmly believe that we need to protect people from the bedroom tax, and I commend the House for agreeing that we should not introduce a new cliff edge for people who depend on these payments.

The Bill will also provide assurance to the Housing Executive and housing associations. I believe that we have a collective responsibility to deliver this meaningful change before the end of the mandate. We know that the social housing stock is not available across the North to allow tenants to avoid being penalised by the bedroom tax. That is one of the reasons why there has been consistent cross-party support in the Chamber for not applying the bedroom tax in the North.

The amendment to clause 3 is purely technical in nature. It will remove any unnecessary duplication of provisions in the Welfare Reform Order and will provide for the Department for Communities to monitor and report on the ongoing operation of the welfare mitigation schemes under articles 137 and 137A. The report will therefore cover all existing welfare mitigation schemes, and it is to be laid in the Assembly before 31 March 2025. That is the position that was previously agreed by the House.

The final amendment is to the long title. The new title will reflect the fact that the end date for the bedroom tax mitigation will be removed, rather than changed.

I recommend my amendments to the House.

Ms Ferguson: As I stated at Consideration Stage, removing the end date will help to bring certainty to those receiving this payment. We have all agreed here in the House that the Tory policy of the bedroom tax is unfair and unjust. There will be no more cliff-edge scenarios for our people in our communities. It is critical that we provide people with support and certainty, particularly in these uncertain times. I welcome the fact that there remains consensus on the mitigation and in relation to the amendments proposed by the Minister. I am content with the rationale that has been provided for the amendments, some of which are technical. I am happy to support them. I look forward to the Bill's moving to its Final Stage.

Ms Hargey: I have nothing further to add. I commend the House for removing the end date at Consideration Stage. I again commend the amendments to the House.

Amendment agreed to.

Clause 3 (Monitoring and reporting as to statutory arrangements)

Amendment No 2 made:

In page 2, line 25, leave out from "include—" to end of line 31 and insert—

"include the Department’s summary of its proposals (if any) for making, amending or revoking regulations under Article 137 or 137A of that Order." — [Ms Hargey (The Minister for Communities).]

Long Title

Amendment No 3 made:

Leave out "Change" and insert "Remove". — [Ms Hargey (The Minister for Communities).]

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): That concludes the Further Consideration Stage of the Welfare Supplementary Payments(Amendment) Bill. The Bill stands referred to the Speaker. We moved through that fairly expeditiously, so there is no need for a suspension for a short comfort break. Bear with us as we get the documentation for the next item of business.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): I call the Minister for Communities, Deirdre Hargey, to move the Bill's Consideration Stage. Glaoim ar an Aire Pobal, Deirdre Hargey, leis an Bhille a mholadh.

Moved. — [Ms Hargey (The Minister for Communities).]

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): Members will have a copy of the Marshalled List of amendments detailing the order for consideration. The amendments have been grouped for debate in the provisional grouping of amendments selected list. There are two groups of amendments, and we will debate the amendments in each group in turn. The first debate will be on amendment Nos 1 to 24, which deal with rent payments and notice to quit. The second debate will be on amendment Nos 25 to 45, which deal with energy efficiency.

Again, I remind Members who wish to speak that, during the debates on the two groups of amendments, they should address all the amendments in each group on which they wish to comment. Once the debate on each group is completed, any further amendments in the group will be moved formally as we go through the Bill. The Question on each will be put without further debate. The Question on stand part will be taken at the appropriate point in the Bill. If that is clear, we shall proceed. Again, depending on progress, after a while, I will judge whether a comfort break is required.

Clauses 1 and 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 3 (Tenant to be provided with a rent receipt for payment in cash)

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): We now come to the first group of amendments for debate. With amendment No 1, it will be convenient to debate amendment No 2 through to amendment No 24. Within that group, amendment Nos 3 and 8 are consequential to amendment No 1, amendment No 7 is consequential to amendment No 3, amendment No 16 is mutually exclusive to amendment No 15, amendment No 17 is consequential to amendment No 15, amendment No 18 is consequential to amendment No 17, amendment No 20 is consequential to amendment No 19, and amendment No 23 is consequential to amendment No 22.

Arís eile, glaoim ar an Aire Pobal, Deirdre Hargey, leasú uimhir a haon a mholadh in éineacht leis na leasuithe eile sa ghrúpa. I call the Minister for Communities, Deirdre Hargey, to move amendment No 1 and to address the other amendments in the group.

Ms Hargey (The Minister for Communities): I beg to move amendment No 1:

In page 3, line 7, leave out from "let" to end of line 14 and insert—

"makes to the landlord in cash—

(a) any payment in consideration of the grant, renewal or continuance of a private tenancy, or

(b) any payment in satisfaction (or part satisfaction) of an obligation arising under a private tenancy.
(2) The landlord must provide the tenant with a written receipt for the payment stating—

(a) the date of payment;

(b) what the payment was for;

(c) the amount paid;

(d) if any amount remains outstanding, that amount;

(e) if no further amount remains outstanding, that fact.
(2A) Where a tenant pays a single sum consisting of two or more payments—

(a) the duty in paragraph (2)(c) includes a duty to state how the sum paid is apportioned between each payment, and

(b) sub-paragraphs (d) and (e) of that paragraph apply in respect of each payment.
(2B) Where, in the case of any payment, it is not possible for the person giving the receipt to state with the certainty the amount that was required to satisfy the obligation in question, sub-paragraphs (d) and (e) of paragraph (2) require the matters mentioned in them to be stated to the best of that person’s knowledge and belief."

The following amendments stood on the Marshalled List:

No 2: In page 3, line 21, leave out "If the landlord under a private tenancy fails" and insert "In the event of a failure". — [Ms Hargey (The Minister for Communities).]

No 3: In page 3, line 26, at end insert—

"(6) In this Article—
‘landlord’ includes a former landlord and (in a case falling within paragraph (1)(a)) a prospective landlord;
‘tenant’ includes a former tenant and (in a case falling within paragraph (1)(a)) a prospective tenant." — [Ms Hargey (The Minister for Communities).]

No 4: In page 3, line 29, after "5(5)" insert "(a)". — [Ms Hargey (The Minister for Communities).]

No 5: In page 3, line 32, after "5(5)" insert "(a)". — [Ms Hargey (The Minister for Communities).]

No 6: In page 3, line 36, after "5(5)" insert "(a)". — [Ms Hargey (The Minister for Communities).]

No 7: In page 4, line 1, at end insert—

"(4) In this Article ‘landlord’ has the meaning given by Article 5(6)." — [Ms Hargey (The Minister for Communities).]

No 8: In page 4, line 4, leave out from "40(4))—" to end of line 12 and insert—

"40(4)), a payment in cash was made in respect of rent for the tenancy.

(1A) If—

(a) a person is charged with an offence under Article 5(5) and a qualifying receipt was provided in accordance with Article 5(3), or

(b) a person is charged with an offence under Article 5ZA(3) and a qualifying receipt was provided at any time before the end of the period of 14 days mentioned in Article 5ZA(3) (including before the fixed penalty notice was given), paragraph (5) applies.

(2) A receipt is a qualifying receipt for the purposes of paragraph (1A) if—

(a) it complies with Article 5(2)(a), (b) and (c),

(b) it complies with Article 5(2)(d) and (e) in respect of any payment, other than the rent, that was included in the sum paid, and
(c) either condition A or condition B is met." — [Ms Hargey (The Minister for Communities).]

No 9: In page 4, line 14, leave out "no further amount" and insert—

"after the cash payment, no further amount in respect of rent". — [Ms Hargey (The Minister for Communities).]

No 10: In page 4, line 19, leave out "an amount" and insert—

"after the cash payment, an amount in respect of rent". — [Ms Hargey (The Minister for Communities).]

No 11: In page 4, line 25, after "defence" insert—

"to the offence under Article 5(5) or (as the case may be) Article 5ZA(3)". — [Ms Hargey (The Minister for Communities).]

No 12: In page 4, line 25, after "landlord" insert "(or former landlord)". — [Ms Hargey (The Minister for Communities).]

No 13: In clause 7, page 7, line 27, at end insert—

"Rent decreases
 
Rent decreases

5BA.—(1) This Article applies to any private tenancy.

(2) Where a tenancy has been in place for more than 6 months, the rent payable under a tenancy to which this Article applies must be reduced by 10% for 12 months following Royal Assent.

(3) The 10% must be calculated as an average of the 6 months directly before the reduction takes effect.
(4) On expiration of the 12 months, the rent payable must return to no more than the rate payable immediately before the reduction for a period of 3 years." — [Mr Carroll.]

No 14: In clause 7, page 8, line 16, leave out "2" and insert "3". — [Ms Hargey (The Minister for Communities).]

No 15: In clause 11, page 10, line 32, leave out subsection (4) and insert—

"(4) For paragraph (1A) substitute—

‘(1A) For the purposes of paragraph (1) the relevant period is—

(a) 28 days, if the tenancy has not been in existence for more than 6 months;

(b) 90 days, if the tenancy has been in existence for more than 6 months but not for more than one year;

(c) 120 days, if the tenancy has been in existence for more than one year but not for more than 3 years;

(d) 180 days, if the tenancy has been in existence for more than 3 years but not for more than 7 years;

(e) 196 days, if the tenancy has been in existence for more than 7 years but not for more than 8 years; and
(f) 224 days, if the tenancy has been in existence for 8 years or more." — [Ms Ferguson.]

No 16: In clause 11, page 10, line 32, leave out subsection (4) and insert—

"(4) For paragraph (1A) substitute—
‘For the purposes of paragraph (1) the relevant period is 12 weeks if the tenancy has been in existence for more than 12 weeks.’" — [Mr Carroll.]

No 17: In clause 11, page 10, line 34, leave out from "so" to "months" on line 3 on page 11 and insert "by draft affirmative procedure". — [Ms Ferguson.]

No 18: In clause 11, page 11, line 4, leave out "sub-paragraph (a) or (b) of paragraph (3)" and insert "paragraph (3)". — [Ms Ferguson.]

No 19: In clause 11, page 11, leave out lines 23 to 27 and insert—

"(2) For the purposes of paragraph (1) the relevant period is—

(a) 28 days, if the tenancy has not been in existence for more than 6 months;

(b) 35 days, if the tenancy has been in existence for more than 6 months but not for more than one year;

(c) 42 days, if the tenancy has been in existence for more than one year but not for more than 2 years;

(d) 56 days, if the tenancy has been in existence for more than two years but not for more than 4 years;

(e) 84 days, if the tenancy has been in existence for more than four years but not for more than 8 years; and
(f) 112 days, if the tenancy has been in existence for more than 8 years." — [Ms Ferguson.]

No 20: In clause 11, page 11, leave out lines 30 to 33 and insert—

"(4) The department may by regulations amend the length of notice to quit outlined in Paragraph (2) by draft affirmative procedure." — [Ms Ferguson.]

No 21: In clause 11, page 12, line 6, at end insert—

"(9A) At any time before the coming into operation of sub-paragraph (a) of Article 14(1) (as inserted by subsection (3)), paragraph (1) of that Article has effect as if, before sub-paragraph (b), there were inserted—
"(aa) it is given in writing, and". — [Ms Hargey (The Minister for Communities).]

No 22: After clause 11 insert—

"Payment options for tenants: power to make provision and duty to consult
 

11A.—(1) The Department for Communities may by regulations make provision for the purpose of ensuring that, when a private tenancy of a dwelling-house is granted, the tenant is given options as to the method of payment of rent and other sums due in respect of the tenancy.

(2) Regulations under subsection (1) may in particular—

(a) impose duties on prospective landlords to provide specified information or documents before the terms of a tenancy are agreed;

(b) require that tenancy agreements, or proposed tenancy agreements, contain specified terms or (if they are in writing) that they be in a specified form;

(c) specify methods of payment that must or must not be offered by a prospective landlord, or that may or must not be agreed by the parties, for the purposes of payment of rent or other sums due in respect of a tenancy;

(d) make provision as to the rights of tenants or landlords to vary any term of the tenancy as to the method of payment (including provision restricting or excluding any such right);

(e) make provision as to the consequences of a failure to accept, or a failure to tender, payment by a method agreed under a tenancy (including provision as to whether or not the tenant is to be regarded as being in arrears);

(f) make provision as to the consequences of a breach of a prohibition imposed by the regulations or a failure to comply with a requirement imposed by them (including provision that creates offences);

(g) amend any statutory provision (within the meaning given by section 1(f) of the Interpretation Act (Northern Ireland) 1954);

(h) may make such consequential, supplementary, transitory or transitional provision, or such savings, as the Department considers appropriate.

(3) In subsection (2), "specified" means specified in the regulations.

(4) Any offence created by virtue of subsection (2)(f)—

(a) is not to be triable on indictment or punishable with imprisonment;

(b) is not to be punishable with a fine exceeding level 4 on the standard scale.

(5) The Department must consult the following persons as to whether to exercise the power conferred by subsection (1)—

(a) district councils,

(b) such persons as appear to it to be representative of landlords,

(c) such persons as appear to it to be representative of tenants, and

(d) such other persons as it considers appropriate (which may include landlords or tenants).

(6) The Department must prepare a report on the consultation and—

(a) lay the report before the Assembly, and

(b) publish it in such manner as the Department considers appropriate.

(7) The Department must lay and publish the report under subsection (6) before the end of the period of 18 months beginning with the day on which this Act receives Royal Assent.
(8) The Department may not make regulations under subsection (1) unless a draft of the regulations has been laid before, and approved by a resolution of, the Assembly." — [Ms Hargey (The Minister for Communities).]

No 23: In clause 13, page 12, line 15, leave out "section" and insert "sections 11A and". — [Ms Hargey (The Minister for Communities).]

No 24: In clause 13, page 12, line 27, at end insert—

"(2A) Subsections (2B) and (2C) apply to the provisions of section 11, except—

(a) the provisions of that section commenced by subsection (2)(g), and

(b) subsection (3) of that section in so far as it inserts a new Article 14(1)(a) into the 2006 Order.
(2B) The provisions to which this subsection applies come into operation on the day after the day on which this Act receives Royal Assent.
(2C) But if (apart from this subsection) those provisions would come into operation before the end of the emergency period within the meaning of section 1(2) of the Private Tenancies (Coronavirus Modifications) Act (Northern Ireland) 2020, they come into operation instead at the end of that period." — [Ms Hargey (The Minister for Communities).]

Ms Hargey: First, I put on record my thanks to the Committee for Communities, the Chair and Deputy Chair, for the assistance that they have given in progressing this much-awaited Bill to Consideration Stage. The Second Stage debate showed that there is support for the Bill from all sides of the Assembly. The Committee Stage reflected that there is general agreement that the Bill is necessary and welcome. The Committee scrutiny has been robust, diligent and constructive. I believe that the amendments that we have agreed will result in a better Bill.

The first 12 amendments apply to clause 3, which introduces a requirement for a receipt to be produced for a rent payment. Whilst the Committee, in its report, was supportive of the clause, it felt that landlords should provide a receipt for any payment in cash, such as deposits or for repairs, for which the tenant is liable. I agree and was happy to add that to the Bill. That is what the first 12 amendments do. Some of them are technical. I will focus on the substantive ones.

The amendments put a duty on the landlord to provide receipts for all cash payments that relate to the granting of a tenancy and obligations during the tenancy. Amendment No 1 sets out that receipts should now detail what the payment is for, any apportionment where two or more payments in cash are made, and any amount that remains outstanding after the cash payment has been made. If no amount remains outstanding, that should also be included. Amendment Nos 3 and 7 ensure that the duty to give a receipt for cash payments applies to former and prospective landlords and tenants.

Amendment Nos 8 to 12 refer to controlled tenancies and clarify that the defence provided by amendment No 8 relates only to receipts for rent. All other receipts for cash payments made in controlled tenancies should be correct as far as is reasonably possible. Again, that will apply to former landlords. Therefore, I propose amendment Nos 1 to 12, which will place a duty on landlords to supply a receipt for all payments made in cash. I thank the Committee for suggesting the improvement to the Bill.

Amendment No 13, tabled by Gerry Carroll, seeks to amend clause 7 to introduce a rent reduction of 10% for all private tenancies longer than six months. The issue of affordability in the private rented sector is a priority for me, and I have already asked officials to begin work to look at fair and affordable rents in the private and social sectors, including looking at the important issue of caps. Unfortunately, that work could not be taken forward in the Bill due to the time constraints, but, as I have previously stated, it is a key element of the second stage of the private rented sector Bill. I have concerns that the clause would apply only retrospectively to all tenancies, which would impact signed and binding contracts and could raise concerns that would veer into contract law.

The amendment would apply only to tenancies in existence at Royal Assent. It would not apply to any new tenancies after that date, thereby creating an inequality. It would easily be avoided by a landlord ending and restarting a tenancy. It would also apply in areas where rents have fallen recently as well as where they have increased. The Member has suggested no penalty for landlords who choose to ignore it.

We will have to be realistic and stay within the confines of the law. I do not think that the amendment does that. It would also risk putting the whole Bill outside of competence and, potentially, the Bill falling. Given that we are coming to the end of the mandate, that could prove fatal for the Bill, and we would lose all the other protections that are in it. I urge caution with regard to the amendment.

Amendment No 14 relates to longer notice of rent increases. This amendment was suggested by the Committee. The Bill states that tenants ought to get two months' notice of a rent increase. The Committee agreed that it is important that tenants have time to prepare for a rent increase based on evidence presented by representatives of tenants. Three months' notice of a rent increase would be better to allow tenants to plan for the extra expenditure required. I accept the Committee's position, and I am happy to propose amendment No 14, which will increase the notice period for a landlord to give a tenant from two months to three months.

Amendment Nos 15, 17 and 18, tabled by Ciara Ferguson, seek amendments to clause 11. For landlords, that would increase the length of notice to quit that they must give a tenant depending on the length of tenancies. There would be six different notice periods lengthening to 224 days or 32 weeks once a tenancy is eight years old.

I believe in longer notice to quit periods from landlords. I have been clear in my intention to increase the notice to quit period to six months, but, for a notice period as long as that, there must be exemptions. It is unreasonable, for example, for neighbours or fellow tenants to endure antisocial behaviour for seven or eight months.

There was general agreement for that in my recent consultation on notices to quit. Over two thirds of respondents supported the introduction of exemptions aligned to a longer notice to quit period. So, I agree with the sentiment of the amendment. We need to stay within the confines of the law and ensure that we do not lose the other important and badly needed protections in the Bill.

If the amendment is carried, I will ask my officials to explore urgently what could be done at Further Consideration Stage to reduce that risk. That would at least include much more detail on the exemptions that would be needed as well as the other balancing provisions, such as longer notices for tenants. It would inevitably mean a long delay in introducing the notice periods. In that scenario, I again ask Members to support me at Further Consideration Stage.


11.15 am

Members will have seen later amendments that bring in new notice periods from the day on which the emergency coronavirus notice periods expire. It is impossible to prepare the detailed work on exemptions by then. If the Assembly were to vote for the amendment, I could not commence the new notices to quit in May. To do so would risk the entire Bill. In May, notice periods would revert to what they were before, and, for a lot of people, that would be four weeks. I have been clear, however, that I do not want to return to the previous notice to quit periods. Four weeks is an insufficient time for a notice period, and I have welcomed the support from across the Assembly on that. If the amendment is passed, I will ask my officials to urgently examine a transitional arrangement, if that is possible, that will introduce an eight-week notice to quit period until the periods outlined in amendment No 15 commence.

Amendment Nos 17 and 18 seek to amend the regulation-making powers further to amendment No 15. If amendment No 15 is passed, I will support amendment Nos 17 and 18. However, I would need to suggest considerable amendments at Further Consideration Stage to properly define the regulation-making powers needed to introduce the exemptions.

Amendment No 16, tabled by Gerry Carroll, also seeks to amend the notice to quit periods in the Bill. The 12-week notice period has been in place for almost two years because of my coronavirus legislation. The recent consultation exercise showed support for longer notice to quit periods. Amendment No 16 provides no protection for tenants who have been in a private tenancy for less than three months. The recent consultation showed support for longer notice periods for longer tenancies. This amendment would give the same protections to a tenant who has been in their home for 12 weeks as someone who has lived in their home for 12 years. As previously mentioned, further work on exemptions to any extended notice to quit period is required, and I want to do that properly. Therefore, again, I am cautious about Amendment No 16.

Amendment No 19, tabled by Ciara Ferguson, further requires tenants to give longer notice to quit periods — up to 16 weeks — than those in the Bill, which does not lengthen the notice periods that tenants have to give to landlords. Indeed, it will shorten the notice period for many tenants. We should not trap a tenant in a tenancy that they no longer need or can afford for any longer than is necessary. Tenants often leave tenancies to move to more suitable accommodation: for example, if their health deteriorates or in the event of a relationship breakdown. Amendment No 19 places a greater burden on tenants that could cause them to lose new tenancies or incur increased expense.

During the recent notice to quit consultation, several respondents cautioned against the unintended consequences of longer notice to quit periods. For instance, in a bid to secure a new property, a tenant may find themselves paying two rent bills until the notice period expires. That situation would be particularly problematic for tenants relying on benefits to pay their rent. An unduly long notice period might mean that tenancies overlap, with the tenant having to pay two rents. It would be perverse for someone to lose an offer, for example, of a social home because of the length of their notice to quit period. It would not be much better if they had to go deeper into debt to secure their home. If that is introduced, there may also need to be exemptions from longer notice periods for tenants. Again, if it is the will of the Chamber, my officials will start to work that up for Further Consideration Stage.

Amendment No 20 is a technical amendment that relates to amendment No 19, if amendment No 19 is passed. I support this amendment. It is important that the additional protections for tenants in relation to the longer notice to quit periods introduced in the Bill commence as soon as possible, ideally after the expiry of the coronavirus emergency Act if possible.

Amendment No 21 is one of two amendments that will commence the new notice periods, either right after the coronavirus Act expires on 4 May or as soon as possible after that, depending on Royal Assent. However, as I said, if amendment No 15 is made, the changes to the notice to quit periods will vary, and my Department will require much more time to commence it in the sector and to produce guidelines for landlords and tenants.

The same applies to amendment No 16, as I have explained, as more time would be required to properly develop exemptions. Therefore, if amendment Nos 15 and 16 are carried, I will not move amendment No 21.

Amendment Nos 22 and 23 relate to new clause 11A. During the scrutiny of the Bill, the Committee heard concerns from some landlords who insist on receiving cash payments, mainly for deposits and rent. The Committee asked me to consider an amendment to prevent that practice. The issue turned out to be complex, and, as it had not been raised in earlier consultations, no work or scoping had been carried out on it. However, I wish to address the concerns raised, so I have tabled amendment No 22 in order to allow consultation with a wide range of stakeholders on the issue and, on the basis of that consultation, to take a power to make regulations on payment options for tenants. I therefore propose amendment Nos 22 and 23 to address the concerns that were raised by tenant representatives during Committee Stage.

Finally in the group, I propose amendment No 24. The amendment commences the notice to quit period directly after the coronavirus notice to quit period ends on 4 May or as soon as possible if Royal Assent has not been given by then. The amendment works with amendment No 21, which I have just mentioned. As before, amendment No 24 depends on the outcomes of amendment Nos 15 and 19. If either of those amendments are carried, I will not move amendment Nos 21 and 24. Those are the group 1 amendments.

Ms P Bradley (The Chairperson of the Committee for Communities): On behalf of the Committee, I welcome the Consideration Stage of the Bill. With your indulgence, Mr Deputy Speaker, before turning to the amendments, I will say a few words about the Committee's scrutiny of the Bill. During its deliberations, the Committee bore it in mind that the private rented sector accounts for over 17% of all housing stock in Northern Ireland and that the Bill follows a series of reforms that have already been made to the regulation of the sector. We focused on the purpose of the Bill, which is to amend the Private Tenancies (Northern Ireland) Order 2006 as the first stage in a long-term programme of reform to make the private rented sector a safer and more secure housing option for a wide range of households. We also remained mindful that the sector is home to a considerable number of vulnerable households.

The Committee also aimed to consider any potential unintended consequences of the Bill by finding a balance between protecting tenants and over-regulating, which may drive landlords from the sector, thus compounding housing problems. In response to its call for evidence, the Committee received 20 replies to its online survey and a further 13 written submissions. Responses were received from private landlords and tenants, councils, student unions and tenancy deposit scheme administrators, to name but a few. The Committee held 12 oral evidence sessions and considered the Bill at 17 meetings, and its formal clause-by-clause consideration took place on 11 January 2022. We considered the range of issues raised in both written and oral evidence with departmental officials through oral briefings and follow-up written responses. Through its research and evidence, the Committee also considered the Bill in comparison with similar legislation in our neighbouring jurisdictions.

After considering its evidence, deliberating on the issues that were raised, taking advice from the Assembly Bill Office and querying many issues with departmental officials, the Committee agreed to clauses 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 8, 10, 12, 13, 14 and schedule 1.

Before turning to the specific amendments, I will take the opportunity to highlight two difficulties that the Committee faced during its deliberations. First, although the Committee finally agreed clause 9 and schedule 2, with regard to schedule 2, the Committee was put in a difficult position when, midway through deliberations, the Department produced a new enhanced schedule 2 to future-proof the legislation. I will come back to that when we debate the group 2 amendments. Secondly, during Committee Stage, the Department commenced a public consultation on the notice to quit period in clause 11. The Committee was put in an extremely difficult position. Its deliberations were severely hampered, as the consultation ended only recently and, therefore, after the Committee had reported on the Bill. Again, that is an unusual situation, and it meant that the Committee could only consider the clause as drafted. The Committee sought its own legal advice on clause 11 but decided to reserve its position to allow the consultation to run its course, although, during the formal clause-by-clause process, we strongly reiterated our frustration at the turn of events.

The Bill already offers a range of protections for tenants and landlords. We hope that, after today, a number of those protections will be further improved. Amendment Nos 1 to 12 relate to clause 3. The Committee supports the Minister's amendments, as they were requested by the Committee, and we thank the Minister for tabling them. During our deliberations, the Committee discussed many matters in connection with clause 3, including the form and status of receipts and the timely provision of receipts. However, it became clear that the key matter was that the Committee wished to see a detailed receipt provided to tenants for all appropriate payments made in whole or in part in cash in connection with the granting, renewal or continuance of a private tenancy or any payment in satisfaction or part satisfaction of an obligation arising under a private tenancy and not just rent payments. Amendment Nos 1 to 12 cover those matters to the Committee's satisfaction.

Amendment Nos 13 and 14 relate to clause 7. The Committee has no position on amendment No 13 but supports the Minister's amendment No 14, as it was requested by us. The Committee queried the proposals set out in the Bill that landlords were to give two months' notice of rent increases. Members asked why that could not be three months' notice in order to be of more benefit to those in receipt of housing benefit. Officials confirmed that three months would, indeed, offer a more practical time frame, and we thank the Minister for tabling the amendment. The Committee was concerned that the amount of any rent increase was of as much concern as the frequency of the increases. We discussed that at length and were assured that that work was being taken forward in phase 2 on fair rent.

Amendment Nos 15 to 21 relate to clause 11. I have already stated the difficult position that the Committee found itself in on the clause due to the consultation on notice-to-quit periods, which completed after the Committee was obliged to report on the Bill. The Committee, after seeking its own legal advice, agreed not to seek amendments to the clause and has no official position on the amendments. I will leave it to individual Members to comment on the amendments.

What I can say is that, on numerous occasions throughout our deliberations, members raised concerns regarding notice-to-quit periods for tenancies of less than 12 months. We were assured that the consultation addressed that for tenancies that were under 12 months and those over 12 months and up to 10 years and consulted on options for eight, 12 or 26 weeks. The Committee recommended that consideration be given to more nuanced tiers of the notice-to-quit period. The Committee was advised that the Bill provided sufficient regulation-making powers to make any required future changes to notice-to-quit periods as a result of the consultation and once further required work on exemptions had been carried out. At its meeting tomorrow, the Committee is to receive a further briefing from officials on the outcome of the consultation and the way forward.

Amendment No 22 proposes new clause 11A. The Committee felt strongly that landlords should not be able to insist on solely cash payments and should offer tenants a choice of payment methods. The Committee had lengthy discussions on the matter and felt strongly that it needed to be addressed. At first, the Committee drafted its own amendment with the Bill Office to provide a choice of payment methods. Officials were concerned about the unintended consequences of our proposals and provided the Committee with proposed new clause 11A, "Payment options for tenants: power to make provision and duty to consult", to allow for regulations to be made on the issue after a public consultation to uncover the scale of the problem and what a preferred way forward would be. The Committee accepted the proposal and supports amendment No 22. In our report, we recommend that, in advance of the consultation, the guidance on the legislation and the proposed template for landlords should lay it out clearly that it is expected that landlords will offer a choice of payment options, with a list of suitable options.


11.30 am

Amendment Nos 23 and 24 relate to clause 13. The Committee supports amendment No 23, which is required as a result of amendment No 22. I highlight the fact that the Committee has been informed of the need for the administrative amendment No 24 to ensure that there is as little disruption as possible and no gap between the current 12-week notice to quit period and the new notice to quit period in clause 11.

I will now say a few words in my capacity as a DUP MLA. I turn first to Mr Carroll's amendment, which is amendment No 13. I absolutely understand the sentiments in his amendment, but I have some concerns about it. Time and time again in the Committee, we heard about unintended consequences. One was that some of the changes that we might want to introduce could force landlords to sell their properties because of onerous requirements placed on them. I am not saying that that would happen, but a 10% reduction in rents might well lead to that. When Mr Carroll speaks, he can perhaps let us know how he expects the shortfall in landlord payments to be paid for. Does he expect the Assembly to pay them? Has he costed that? We know that many of our landlords in Northern Ireland are single-property owners with buy-to-let or buy-to-rent mortgages. We also know that many of those landlords just about cover their bills at the end of every month through their rental charges. Perhaps Mr Carroll can go into a little bit more detail on how landlord payments as a result of that 10% reduction will be met.

I move on to amendment Nos 15 and 19, standing in the name of Ciara Ferguson. Again, I absolutely get the tiered approach suggested in the amendments, and the Committee discussed the need for that time and time again. I find the amendments a little bit confusing, however. It is perhaps just the way in which they are worded and set out. I am also a little worried about them, because the Committee has not had the chance to have proper sight of the consultation on notices to quit. That will be before the Committee tomorrow, when we will get the chance to scrutinise the document and ask officials questions. I am going to wait to hear what Ciara has to say about the tiered approach, but I am very cautious about it, as I do not have all the information. I will need to scrutinise that information in order to make an informed decision. I am not saying that I would not be willing to look at something similar at Further Consideration Stage, however. I will end there, as I know that my party colleagues will have plenty more to say.

Ms Ferguson: As we are aware, this legislative change is crucial for those who are living in the private rented sector. Not only will it protect tenants by strengthening the legal requirements on the information that they receive about their tenancies but it will ensure that they receive receipts for payments that are made in cash, that they cannot be charged more than one month's rent for their deposit and that they cannot have their rent increased more than once per annum. Such practices should not be happening currently, and people should not find themselves priced out of accessing a safe, secure place to call home under this form of housing tenure. We must ensure that it is affordable and accessible to ordinary people — families and workers — and that it is safe and secure and enables people to live in dignity.

In the Bill, the ambitions to strengthen electrical safety standards and to ensure a legal requirement to provide working fire, smoke and carbon monoxide alarms are vital, along with the proposed regulations for strengthening energy efficiency standards. Those will help lower fuel costs, something that is critical at this time. We know that anyone who rents a home here spends 40% more on heating and electricity a week than they do on keeping a roof over their head. We are all in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis, which includes rising prices for heating, electricity, oil, car fuel and groceries.

It is vital that we, as MLAs, ensure that the legislation is passed and that people are protected urgently, given the impact of that on people.

As the Minister stated, we are aware that the Bill is not all-encompassing. More still needs to be done to address housing inadequacies here, including the outlawing of illegal letting fees and a strengthening of fitness standards. There should also be consideration of the grounds for eviction, tenants' rights and rent regulation.

I welcome the Minister's amendments, which have been tabled to strengthen and enhance the Private Tenancies Bill and the protections for those in the private rented sector. Those amendments have, first of all, added clarity on rent receipts and other aspects following Committee scrutiny in that area. The Minister has also included a new clause, which will enable the Department for Communities to make provision, through regulations, for tenants to be consulted and given options on the method of payment of rent. For example, those regulations may impose duties on prospective landlords to provide specified information before the terms of a tenancy are agreed. All those amendments will strengthen the Private Tenancies Bill.

Sinn Féin is supportive of the political intent behind amendment No 13, and the Minister has been very clear on her support for further work on rent regulation. Nonetheless, we recognise the concern that was raised by the Minister after she received advice on it. Amendment No 13, as it stands, is problematic insofar as it relates only to current rental contracts and thus will be retrospective. Nonetheless, we are fully supportive of the political ambition to prohibit rent increases to give hard-pressed renters a break from extortionate rents.

I ask for support for my amendments that extend the notice to quit period that is given to tenants by landlords. Sinn Féin has been vocal about the fact that the notice to quit period needs to be longer to strengthen the existing safety net by providing increased protections from eviction. At Consideration Stage, the Committee reserved its judgement on clause 11 as the outcome of the consultation on that issue was outstanding. In the subsequent publication of the consultation findings, 72% of respondents agreed that notice to quit periods should vary depending on the length of the tenancy. Several respondents suggested the adoption of a staged approach — at Committee, we spoke about a tiered approach — whereby the length of the notice to quit period reflects the length of a tenancy. That is what is ultimately being proposed in amendment No 15.

Mr Clarke: Will the Member give way?

Mr Clarke: Will the Member address what the Minister said about situations where you have a problem tenant? A problem tenant could have been in a property for more than eight years. Given the rights that amendment No 15 gives tenants, what would you say to people who live next door to difficult tenants? Is it acceptable for such tenants to stay for 224 days, as they would be able to under your amendment?

Ms Ferguson: I understand those concerns, and we had discussions about them in the Committee. That is an instance where the Department could look at including an exemption. Those concerns have definitely been discussed, and I recognise them.

Amendment No 15 continues to reflect the support for a notice period of four weeks — 28 days — for tenancies of fewer than six months. It proposes a staged approach thereafter, with differing notice periods. That would see the period extended to just over 12 weeks — 90 days — for tenancies of between six months and one year in length; to over four months — 120 days — for tenancies between one and three years; to over six months — 180 days — for tenancies between three and seven years; to over 190 days for tenancies over seven years; and eight months — 224 days — for those over eight years. That would provide tenants with strengthened protections from eviction.

Ultimately, that will ensure that tenants are better protected from eviction. That reflects the points raised by Renters' Voice and other groups on the importance of lengthier notice periods. Without those periods, people will have to scramble to find a house — any house — regardless of whether it suits their needs or whether the contract is reasonable or unreasonable. We should not have people being forced into those situations, particularly our most vulnerable and families with young children.

People deserve better, and they deserve more security to stay in their homes.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): Glaoim ar Mark Durkan teacht ar an scáileán. I call Mark Durkan via StarLeaf.

Mr Durkan: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. [Interruption.]

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): Lean ar aghaidh, Mark. Incoming from Derry. Lean ar aghaidh, Mark. An gcluin tú muid? Do you hear us?

Mr Durkan: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I apologise for that wee technical issue.

The Chair has outlined the extensive work that the Committee has done in considering this vital legislation. Other Members and the Minister have outlined the urgency with which we need the Bill passed in order to provide security to those who live in the private rented sector. We all agree that there are too many people in that sector and that we have a complete over-reliance on the sector. That is why it is so important that we get proper and robust regulation of it.

My party supports all the Minister's amendments in group 1, most of which are the fruition of extensive engagement and labour among the Committee, stakeholders and the Department. I have a few concerns about some of the other amendments, and I may seek additional clarity around them.

Looking at Mr Carroll's amendment No 13, we certainly agree that action must be taken, not just on the frequency of unfair rent increases, which the Bill will address, but on the amount of the increase. That is a point that I have raised at previous stages of this legislative process and repeatedly in the Committee. We were repeatedly told by the Minister and the Department that work is under way to explore rent controls, that that will come in a new piece of legislation in the next mandate, and that, to try to rush something through now could, potentially, or would, most likely, have unintended and undesired consequences. As I have done previously, I suggest that we look towards the Scottish model and consider implementing a provision to challenge and restrict unfair rent increases at the next stage of reform. We cannot afford to wait too long for that, and it underlines the importance of getting this place up and running again and keeping it up and running.

Mr Carroll's amendment is a wee bit unclear. I know that the Chair has expressed some concerns as to who would cover the 10% rent reduction. Is it envisaged that there would be some form of government subsidy, or is it intended that private landlords would be left to absorb that reduction? That reduction for a year and then a freeze, at today's rate, for a following three years does not recognise or reflect external economic factors such as interest rates.

The Chair pointed out our dependence on single-property landlords, who make up the bulk of our private rental estate. Those landlords — certainly, the ones I know — are not making a wile pile of profit, but they definitely cannot afford to keep on properties at a loss. Inevitably, in our view, you would end up with people selling properties. Before the Bill gets Royal Assent, you might see rental prices skyrocketing to enable landlords to absorb that 10% decrease. Either way, the impact — although unintended and not desired by Mr Carroll — will undermine stability, security and availability. At the moment, therefore, I do not think that we can support that, although we welcome the intention and look forward to working with Mr Carroll and others on establishing a proper, adequate and fair model of putting caps on rents to stop the exploitation of many who are living in private accommodation. Do not get me wrong: there are some landlords out there who, I am sure, are charging exorbitant rents and making significant profits, but this is a fairly blunt instrument that would end up causing a lot of damage.


11.45 am

On clause 11 and the amendments concerning notice to quit periods, I am baffled and a bit frustrated by the Department's decision to consult on the notice to quit when we are in the middle of scrutinising the legislation. It is putting the cart before the horse, and doing so has meant that the Committee has not been given a full picture or, in my opinion, adequate time in which to scrutinise the clause, and now these amendments, in detail. There is a lot of detail in the amendments. I am supportive of the sentiments of the amendments, which would mean that a staggered approach to notice to quit periods would be required by tenants and landlords, depending on the length of tenancy. That is essentially mirroring provision in the South, but I must point out that the North operates under distinctly different legislation. Reforms being brought forward by the Irish Government mean that renters will have the right to tenancies of unlimited duration, which will strengthen long-term security of tenure. It also has prescribed grounds for evictions. We would like to see both those provisions afforded here. In their absence, amendment Nos 15, 18 and 19 are, although well-intentioned, maybe a bit impractical. However, I am happy to hear more from the Minister on that. She said that their passage today would result in quite a bit of work being required by the Department on compatibility. I would like to hear a wee bit more on that before we make up our mind, but some within the sector have also expressed concern about the potential implications or consequences of those amendments.

Given that clause 11 as drafted is based on the functions within the Private Tenancies Order, implementing a 12-week notice to quit for landlords for tenancies over one year would be the most reasonable step to take. As alluded to earlier, we have seen over the past two years that the 12-week provision has worked well in its aim to reduce — well, in many cases, sadly, delay — homelessness in the private rented sector, but it is clear that a notice to quit period of four weeks is not an adequate time frame in which to expect any tenant, regardless of the length of their tenancy, to secure alternative accommodation. That provision must be extended and applied equally to all private tenancies, including fixed-term tenancies. We agree that notice to quit periods must be proportionate. However, the risks associated with securing a new tenancy are much greater for a tenant than they are for a landlord. Therefore a longer period should be afforded for tenancies of less than 12 months. Preferably, it should be a period of at least eight weeks. In our view, the four-week notice to quit that tenants must provide to their landlord is adequate.

In the same vein, we recognise the intent behind Mr Carroll's amendment, and while we would like to see a 12-week provision for tenancies over 12 months, we have concerns around the implications of amendment No 16 as drafted. Following consultation with Housing Rights, it is clear that it shares those concerns and believes that the amendment, as it stands, risks leaving no provision for existing tenancies of fewer than 12 weeks. It also creates some anomalies with the current Private Tenancies Order and could, potentially, present legal challenges. We are concerned, again, about unintended consequences.

Specifically, if the amendment excludes shorter tenancies from the 12-week provision, the position would revert to either common law or the default position in the Private Tenancies Bill for tenancies that are less than six months, which provides for a notice period of six weeks. As stated, we believe that, in such cases, an eight-week period would be more appropriate, but I would be happy to hear a bit more from Mr Carroll about his intention behind the amendment.

I would also be happy to hear from the Minister about her willingness, given that she expressed such willingness regarding Ms Ferguson's amendment, to work with the proposer of amendment No 13 to refine what is being proposed, if that is possible, at Further Consideration Stage to ensure that it does what I have no doubt that the proposer wants it to do without those unintended consequences.

Mr Butler: I welcome the opportunity on behalf of the Ulster Unionist Party to address the amendments in group 1, which relate to rent payments and notice to quit. We support amendment Nos 1 to 12 in the name of the Minister —

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): Will the Member move his mic a wee bit closer for the purposes of Hansard?

Mr Butler: When you are only 5’ 8", you are generally pretty close to it anyway, to be fair. It is the likes of Gerry Carroll and Mark Durkan who usually need to get a wee bit closer. Wee shorties like me normally do not have that problem.

We support amendment Nos 1 to 12 in the name of the Minister, which create and deal with the requirement to provide a receipt for all cash payments that pertain to the tenancy. That was raised by several parties, including us, at the Second Stage debate, along with many stakeholders that work in the sector.

Furthermore, we will support amendment No 14, also in the name of the Minister, which increases the notification period to be given for a rent increase from two months to three and which, as highlighted, was proposed by the Minister at the Committee's request. It is a pragmatic amendment that will require three months' notice to be given to a tenant prior to a rent increase. However, further work needs to be undertaken in phase 2 of the reforms, with consideration being given to having a private rented housing panel, similar to that in Scotland, which would assess and adjudicate on the proportionality of rent increases.

We will not support amendment No 13. While we understand and appreciate the intent, we are concerned that it could have unintended consequences. Perhaps the Minister can look at financial support for those in the private rented sector separately.

Furthermore, we will not support amendment Nos 15, 16 and 19, which propose a change to the notice to quit (NTQ) period. We would have liked to be in a position to support an enhancement to the NTQ periods. However, we feel that, without wider consideration of what, if any, exemption may be required, we are unable to support those amendments. That position is supported by housing experts with whom we have engaged. The Department's response to the recent consultation that was carried out mid-Committee Stage, which also was not helpful, stated that:

"The Department, in Clause 11 of the Private Tenancies Bill, has included provisions for a Notice to Quit period of 8 weeks for tenancies from 12 months up to 10 years and 12 weeks for tenancies over 10 years. However as there are a diversity of opinions expressed in the consultation, the Department will take forward further work and consider the need for any change by way of further consultation / legislation, in particular taking into account the need for exemptions".

Therefore, as a party, we call on the Minister to ensure that the necessary consultation is promptly carried out and taken forward early in the next mandate, perhaps.

We support amendment No 22, which adds a new clause, and amendment No 23. The new clause gives the power to introduce payment options for tenants following the consultation, if required.

Last but by no means least in group 1, we support amendment No 24, which ensures that the new notice to quit periods do not supersede the temporary coronavirus notice to quit periods until they cease.

Ms Armstrong: I thank the Minister. On behalf of Alliance, I support all the amendments in group 1 that are in the name of the Minister. The Speaker has written to us all and asked us to speak directly to the amendments, so I will move straight to those that I have issues with.

The first is amendment No 13. As others said, amendment No 13, which is in the name of Mr Gerry Carroll, is absolutely something that we would all like to see. Unfortunately, the wording of the amendment and its implications could cause difficulties for tenants as opposed to giving them a 10% reduction of their rent and then a fixed rent for three years. As those of us who sit on the Communities Committee know, that issue will be dealt with in the next piece of legislation, when we look at rent caps, but, at the moment, I do not want to have any tenants out there in breach of contract. Unfortunately, on that basis, while I absolutely agree with the sentiment, I cannot support the amendment at this time.

Amendment No 15 has been tabled by Ciara Ferguson. I get it. I have read the consultation document, and I think that the consultation was very worthwhile. I have to say that the timing was appalling because it kept it outside of the Committee's hands. I looked at Ms Ferguson's amendments and spoke with a renter about them, who said the same thing that I said when I read them. I said, "How confusing is this? What does 196 days mean in terms of months? What does 224 days mean in terms of months?". It is quite confusing, and it will need considerable changes to people's landlord contracts.

While I can absolutely support the intention of the amendment and while the consultation showed that 72% of respondents agreed that the notice to quit should vary depending on the length of tenancy, it is just too confusing. I got access to the consultation document on 15 February, and I read that somebody had put forward in the government response to the notice to quit period that it should be four weeks for nought to one year; six weeks for one to three years; eight weeks for three to five years; and 12 weeks for five to 10 years. Something like that is easy to understand, but, when you start to talk about 180 days if the tenancy has been in existence for more than three years but not more than seven years and the next thing is 196 days for between seven and eight years, it is too confusing. It is the same with a tenant's notice to quit, where it talks about a number of days without clarifying why those dates and number of days have been chosen.

I listened to the debate earlier, and I heard what the Chair of the Committee said. The Committee will have an opportunity to look at this, and I agree with Mr Durkan, who said that amendment Nos 15 and 19 need to be finessed to make them as clear as possible for tenants and landlords in Northern Ireland.

In amendment No 16, Mr Carroll wants the notice to quit period to be 12 weeks for anyone who has had a tenancy for 12 weeks. I get that. We have had this throughout coronavirus, but, as has been brought up before, it means that, as the Chair said, a person who has been living somewhere for three months will have the same notice to quit period as someone who has been living somewhere for 12 years. While I can absolutely confirm my frustration about the fact that we need to extend the notice to quit period that landlords give to tenants and the fact that we need to protect tenants who need to move from a home so that they do not have to pay double rents anywhere, I do not think that this is the way to do it.

The problem is about finessing the amendments, and I do not know whether it is an option not to move amendment Nos 15 and 19 in order that time can be given and they can be brought back at Further Consideration Stage and tightened up in line with the Minister's intentions. I had expected the Minister to go on ahead with the consultation and then to come back with the Department's amendments to clause 11. We do not have those here, and I would like the Minister to confirm later whether the Department intends to table amendments at Further Consideration Stage.

We also need to deal with exemptions. We all have cases of tenants across Northern Ireland who are in difficulties because of a problem tenant. When that happens, the landlord certainly needs to be able to evict in extreme circumstances. Those exemptions are very important.

At this stage, that is as much as I need to say. I have difficulties with amendment Nos 15 and 19. I see where they are coming from, but they need to be finessed. Unfortunately, I cannot at this stage support amendment Nos 13 and 16, which were tabled by Mr Carroll. I support the rest of the amendments in group 1.

Miss Reilly: I welcome the opportunity to speak in the Consideration Stage debate on the Private Tenancies Bill. The Bill will make the private rented sector safer and more secure for tenants. Delivering the legislation is of huge importance to those living in the private rented sector here. It is much needed and long overdue.

In our Committee's deliberations, we heard significant evidence, and I thank all those who came to the Committee and those from the Department who worked closely with us to progress the Bill to this stage.


12.00 noon

Minister Hargey has made clear, as did her predecessor, Carál Ní Chuilín, in her November 2020 housing statement, which has gone on to be defined as the biggest shake-up of our housing system in over 50 years, that it is about making sure that housing is not only affordable and accessible but safe and secure, allowing people to have a safe roof over their head and to live in dignity.

I welcome the Minister's amendments, which have been tabled to strengthen the Bill and add clarity on rent receipts and electrical safety standards. Alongside other aspects, those areas were of particular concern to Committee members during their deliberations. I thank the Minister for that clarity and for addressing those concerns.

The Minister has added a new clause that allows the Department for Communities to make provision by regulation for tenants to be informed and given options about the method of payment of rent. Such regulations may impose a duty on prospective landlords to give specified information before the terms of the tenancy are agreed.

I also support Ms Ferguson's amendments on the notice to quit period. We in Sinn Féin, as Ciara stated, have been vocal about the need for the notice to quit to be longer to strengthen the existing safety net by giving increased protection from eviction. As was mentioned, the Committee reserved its judgement on clause 11, as the consultation was still open. Its subsequent publication showed that 72% of respondents agreed that the notice to quit period should vary depending on the length of the tenancy. Several respondents suggested the adoption of a staged approach whereby the notice to quit reflects the length of the tenancy. That, ultimately, is what is proposed in the amendment, as Ciara outlined.

The staged approach in the amendment will ensure that tenants are better protected from eviction. Groups such as Renters' Voice and others raised the issue of the importance of lengthier notice periods. If such periods are not in place, people have to scramble to find a roof over their head, whether it suits them or their family's needs and regardless of whether the contract is reasonable. People deserve more security to stay in their homes.

I support the amendments tabled by the Minister and by Ms Ferguson.

Mr Frew: I will speak on the Bill and the amendments. I thoroughly enjoyed the scrutiny of the Bill and the company of members of the Committee and of the officials who came along regularly and answered all our questions in a relatively timely fashion. I thank everyone for their participation. It was very useful.

The first question to ask about the Bill is this: is it required? With the growth in the private tenancy sector, it is required in order to help to raise standards, to inject fairness and to achieve balance. When I look at the amendments, I want to see balance and fairness. That includes both sides of the sector: the tenants who need a home and the landlord who has property and allows that property to be let. I declare an interest as someone who owns a rented property.

I will go through the amendments. Early on, I was struck by clause 3, "Tenant to be provided with a rent receipt for payment in cash". My first question was this: why is anyone having to pay in cash? It strikes me that, with the professional relationship between tenant and landlord, the last thing that you would want to do is to hand over cash. Is there ever an occasion on which it would be appropriate to accept cash but not give a receipt?

Mr Clarke: I thank the Member for giving way. First, I apologise, Mr Deputy Speaker, that I failed to put it on record that I have rental properties, but it is recorded in the Register of Members' Interests.

I take the Member's point about cash — as a landlord, I do not take cash — but there are occasions on which tenants have no access to bank accounts, and cash is their only means of payment. We need to be careful not to inhibit people who have difficulty with banking.

Mr Frew: I thank the Member for that intervention. I will come on to it later in relation to the new clause in amendment No 22, because it assists with that issue.

We got the point in the Committee, after we went through it in conversation with officials, other stakeholders and interest groups. There are times when cash is handed over, and there will be times when that happens at inappropriate and inconvenient moments. There will, then, be times when the landlord or the landlord's agent will not be able to produce or pluck out a receipt there and then, yet the tenant may well insist on handing over cash. I get that, because that is a human interaction. It took me a wee while to get my head around the issue. If I were a tenant, I really would not want to hand over cash and have no proof of that exchange or transaction. It strikes me with fear to think that that may well be taking place. Whilst we know that the vast majority of landlords and tenants do things honourably, there is room and potential for things to go wrong and for mistakes to be made in cash transactions, so we need to do everything that we can in the Bill to protect that transaction.

It should of course be the case that a receipt is issued for any cash transaction and that it is given at an appropriate time. That should be the case not only for rent but for all cash transactions, whatever they may be, such as joint ventures on improvements or other aspects of the tenancy. If any cash is handed over, it must be exchanged for a detailed receipt that itemises the amounts that are on it and specifies what each amount is for. That is critical. I welcome the Minister's amendment Nos 1 to 12. They were sought by the Committee, and I thank the Minister for listening to us on the matter.

I understand why clause 7 is needed. It makes up one of the biggest bulks of the Bill. Rent increases are always problematic for anyone in any walk of life. We should raise standards, inject fairness and try to achieve balance with the Bill, but we should not distort the market. That could have deadly consequences for tenants and landlords.

I move on to Gerry Carroll's amendment, which is amendment No 13. I understand its sentiment, the gentleman's politics and why he would propose an amendment like this. My goodness, it will be useful when he drives around the good people of West Belfast and is able to say that he tried to achieve a 10% decrease in people's rent but the big bad Sinn Féin Minister stopped him. I get where the Member is coming from. However, to propose something as primitive and blunt as a 10% decrease across the board in the private tenancy sector but in no other sector is unfair. That is the first thing. Where is the equality in that? Secondly, that 10% will be worth a lot more in some areas than in others. In those other areas it will create affordability issues. Some areas are working-class, and some are more affluent. That 10% may be a lot more achievable in some areas than in others.

Mr Clarke: Will the Member give way?

Mr Frew: Yes, I will.

Mr Clarke: As the Chair of the Committee has said, 17% of rental properties are in the private rental sector and houses in the public sector are in short supply. Does the Member accept that what could happen is that, universally, landlords will put rents up to allow for that 10% reduction?

Mr Frew: Yes. Distortion of the market is highly probable, which would make things worse for tenants in the long run.

Let me flip that over to the other side and talk about landlords. There is a wide spectrum of landlords in this country. There are landlords who look to the future and put all of their savings into property. It is their right to do that. With all that money going into property — all their savings going into property — they provide a good outlet for the state by producing homes. A good lot of those landlords, however, are mortgaged to the hilt. The rent and probably a wee bit more covers their mortgage and the maintenance. For the large number of landlords in that position, a 10% decrease would probably be the difference between achieving their lifetime goal of having money from their assets to retire on and selling that property because they just cannot make it work. That will probably be one of the most devastating impacts and consequences, should the amendment pass. Those homes would be sold. Who would buy them? Who would live in them? It is true that, for any landlord, it is property but, for the tenant, it is their home. It strikes me that the one way to leave a property insecure is for the Government and MLAs to do something like making the amendment, which would decrease rent and distort the market so much and in such a blunt way that it could cause havoc throughout a growing sector that provides homes for our people, usually for the people who need those homes most.

Almost half — 48% — of those living in the private rented sector receive state financial support via housing benefit or universal credit. It might sound perverse to some, especially the left-leaning political philosophers here, that decreasing rent would not be a good idea, but I see so much danger of that leaving those tenants most vulnerable. Therefore, while I understand the sentiment and the politics, there is no way that I can support an amendment like that. A market does what a market does, and that will be different in every area of Northern Ireland. It will probably be different half a mile down the road from any particular area, given our housing state, our geographical area and the spread of our affluent areas and working-class areas. There is a patchwork of people living in our towns and villages. I cannot support amendment No 13.

That moves me on to Ciara Ferguson's amendments. I have enjoyed my time working with Ciara on the Committee. She knows that I have toyed with the idea of a tiered notice to quit. I get the concept; I really do. I am still not there on how tiered it should be, but it strikes me that this proposal is just too complicated. It is too tiered. It is tiered to the point that I do not believe that it is workable or that it could be managed in a beneficial way. I accept the concept, however, so I am happy and content to work through it to see what can be done in a tiered fashion.

As the Bill sits, more than eight weeks' — two months' — notice has to be given for a tenancy of one to 10 years. The notice to quit by a tenant of one to ten years is four weeks, and, for more than 10 years, it is 12 weeks' — three months' — notice.

I get the difference between landlord notice and tenant notice. As I said, landlords own property — the house — but tenants live in a home, and it is their only home. I get that, but there are consequences. If we extend notices to quit and tenants in the private rented sector move on — the chances are that it will be to a Housing Executive property, a housing association property or another private landlord's property — they could be stuck in the middle if they have not yet forgone their previous home but have just moved or are just about to move into their new home. There could be double jeopardy that could wipe out any savings that they have. There is real danger in lengthening notices to quit. While we want to add protection, we need to ensure that we do not cause the consequence for tenants of being hit with two rents because of the duration of the notice period.


12.15 pm

There is also the issue of antisocial behaviour, which my colleague Trevor Clarke raised. How many of us are plagued — our constituents are certainly plagued — by antisocial behaviour or problem tenants? They exist. They are real, and you have only to live beside one to know that they are real. It will destroy your life. It will destroy your home life. It will destroy your private life. You will have no privacy. The noise will be intolerable. You will not be able to rest in your sitting room. You will not be able to enjoy your kitchen. You will not be able to sleep in your bed. That is how bad it gets for some of our constituents who have problem tenants living beside them.

There should be exemptions for not only antisocial behaviour but failure to pay rent. That might be a novel concept, and not many will have spoken about it. There are people out there who do not pay their rent in a timely fashion. Should they have the same rights? Should they have the same notice to quit? I argue that they should not. We then get into the question of what diminished rights they should have and which rights should be diminished. Surely a notice to quit is one of the rights that should be considered. If landlords have tenants who are not paying their rent, they will have to give them a notice to quit, which could be 12 weeks or it could be seven and a half months. Will any landlord lie out seven and a half months without rent? There are real issues here.

There are six tiers listed in amendment No 15. That is too many. There are tiers for tenancies up to six months, one year, three years, seven years, eight years and eight years or more. That is too tiered. The durations are 28 days; 90 days, which, it is easy enough to work out, even for my primitive mind, is three months; 120 days, which is — I am getting good at this — four months; and 180 days, which is six months. We then hit 196 days. My mental maths are not great, but I think that that is about six and a half months. There is then 224 days, which is seven and a half months. How would you work out rent for that period, and, let us be honest, how would you be assured of getting that half month's rent?

While I understand the concept of tiered duration for notices to quit, I cannot for the life of me work out why we have those specific numbers of days. Why are we talking about days rather than weeks or months?

It seems to me that seven and a half months is far too long. Six and a half months is probably far too long. Why is it 196 days and 224 days? As a Member alluded to earlier, maybe that is the policy down South. Maybe that is the way it works down South: I do not know. It strikes me as really strange that, although the Minister is proposing the Bill and one of her colleagues has tabled these amendments, there seems to be an issue and the Minister is saying, "If this is passed, the Department will have to do a lot more work on this". To me, it smacks of Sinn Féin in the South showing some teeth and flexing some muscle up here. The Minister is resisting that, and it is probably right that she does so.

So I will not support amendment No 15. Whilst I understand the logic and the sentiment behind it, it is too complicated. I cannot work out the logic with regard to the time durations, both of the tenancies and the notice to quit periods. Of course, then, I cannot support the amendments that flow from that or amendment No 19, because it is the same concept. I get the concept that there should be a difference between the provisions for tenants and landlords with regard to the notice to quit period and that there should be more protection for the tenant because it is their home, as opposed to being just a property. However, again, it does not really make sense to me that, as per amendment No 19, the notice to quit period should be:

"112 days, if the tenancy has been in existence for more than 8 years."

It strikes me that you are going into three quarters of a month there.

Mr Clarke: I thank the Member for giving way. So that I cannot be accused of speaking for landlords, let me speak for tenants on that one. There are tenants in private tenancies, which are, invariably, more expensive than tenancies in the social housing sector. What that says to the tenant who, hopefully, has found a property in the social housing sector with cheaper rent is that they cannot have that house for 112 days; they will have to stay in the more expensive house for almost four months. That actually disadvantages the very people whom the Bill is intended to help.

Mr Frew: That is my point exactly, and I thank the Member for making it for me. That is why I cannot support that amendment. It does not apply balance or give protection. The Member will know that, when you are offered a house, you have a certain amount of time in which to accept it. So there is a real dilemma. Then, once you have accepted it, you will have a certain amount of time in which to move in. I know that there are protections and that you can usually work with social housing and other landlords, but there are no guarantees, especially if the choice is between two private tenancies and you are moving to the cheaper of the two. There could be a real issue for the tenant as to whether they accept the house and, if they do, when they move in. A landlord does not really want to have an empty house lying with no heating on and no one living in it, because that will have an impact on the house and the rooms in it. A house — a home — needs to be lived in. Therefore, there are real issues with the amendments.

You know me, Mr Deputy Speaker, I do not usually take pleasure in criticising any Department. However, the Bill was produced and it got to Committee Stage. At that stage, we were told that there was a consultation on the very issue of notices to quit. That strikes me as being the wrong way round. You could make excuses by saying that we are coming to the end of the mandate and want the best piece of legislation that we can produce. I get that. However, the point is that, even if you do an eight-week consultation in the middle of the scrutiny of the Bill and its legislative stages, and you find and collate that information from the consultation, we have not had time to consider the consultation findings in the Committee. Yet the Department is considering tabling amendments — maybe it has changed its mind and it is not — halfway through the Bill's legislative stages on findings that it has only just collated.

Cogs of government usually turn far too slowly for my liking, but I do not know of any other eight-week consultation that has been turned round so quickly in order to meet the target of a Further Consideration Stage of a Bill. I do not know whether that is wise government, especially when there is going to be a second phase and another look at private tenancies on a wider basis. So I urge caution. It seems strange that I am saying that because I usually want to see decisionism. I want to see Ministers and Departments make decisions, but when you have gone to the trouble of doing a consultation, why not take the time to study the findings? Why would you rush something that will probably end up being very complicated and will have a massive impact on the landlord sector and tenants in their homes and on the fact that the private rented sector is growing daily. I am not sure that that is wise, especially when we know that there is another phase coming. I am deeply concerned that the first consultation took place after the Bill had been produced, and now we are going to rush to implement the findings of that consultation and incorporate them in the Bill. It just seems to me to be rushed, maybe even perverse.

Amendment No 22 introduces a new clause. I welcome it and thank the Minister and the Department for tabling it. It goes back to the point that my colleague Trevor Clarke raised about the means to pay and the payment options. Whilst the Committee thought that, perhaps, we should ban cash payments altogether, we came to a position where the best that we could do was provide options for tenants and to ensure that they will always be offered options to pay. If they want to pay in cash, so be it. If they want to pay by bank order, so be it. If they want to pay by another means, so be it. To me, that strikes the best balance to achieve the best protection for tenants and landlords. That is important. So I welcome new clause 11A in amendment No 22 and all the other amendments that go with that, including amendment No 23 and amendment No 24, which is a commencement amendment.

Mr Carroll: I welcome the opportunity to speak to and amend the Bill, which contains measures that I and my party endorse for those in the private rented sector. It is plainly the case that Stormont has failed to protect those paying increasingly higher rents as the cost of living climbs and we continue to stagnate. Indeed, I do not believe that the Bill goes far enough in that regard, which is why I hope to amend it to secure a rent reduction and a subsequent rent freeze for tenants who are struggling to pay their landlord from month to month and are having to make unreasonable decisions about how much food they can buy or whether they can pay their bills after they have paid their rent.

There is a duty on the Executive to protect people in that situation, to recognise that there are unscrupulous landlords taking advantage of a lack of regulation and to intervene to spare people the consequences. Therefore, I call on all parties in the Executive, in particular those that claim to support greater housing rights, to support my amendments today. If passed, they would provide protection for many in need at a time when need is spiralling. It is wholly unacceptable that landlords should be able to drive up rents regardless of the current financial pressures, but that is very much the case.

Over the last few days, renters have been in touch with me about my amendments, and they have opened up about the cruel reality that they and their children face as a result. The justification is the market. Market force is something that we cannot see, touch or influence. It is allowed to wreak havoc on the lives of people here, unmanaged, unmitigated and unrelenting, and it has to stop.


12.30 pm

One single parent in west Belfast got in touch to say that she is paying £740 a month in rent, which is unbelievable. That is scandalous enough before mounting energy costs are considered. She cannot pay that. What are the Executive prepared to do to help her? She said that, if my amendments pass, it will be a great relief to her and her family. The reduction will allow extra cash for the groceries that she has been forced to scrimp on. The freeze will lift the fear of what is coming down the road. She should not have to live in the constant state of fear that she could lose her home or not be able to afford to feed her children because of the whims of the market or landlord. Thousands like her are struggling in the same way. Again, what are the Executive prepared to do to protect those people? If we cannot implement greater protection for those living in private rented accommodation during a pandemic, a cost-of-living crisis and a fuel price hike, when will the Executive step up to the mark? How bad do things have to get before measures are taken to protect renters?

At a conservative estimate, rents have gone up by 9% in the last two years in the Belfast area, although it is likely to be much greater than that such is the extent of and the reality that the commodification of housing has caused. There is already a feeling that Stormont has not done enough to shield renters, and renters' unions and activist groups have had to be formed in response to that. It begs the question: what is the response of the elected Government who are meant to represent their interests? Who do the Government really represent if they do not support the amendments that I have tabled? Do they support the renter, or will they back the landlord and the market regardless of the financial panic facing people in our communities? Frankly, if my amendments do not pass, it will strongly indicate that the House is not willing to prioritise the needs of renters.

There are recent and ample precedents for this kind of action. Rent controls have been introduced in Paris and Berlin. Why not in Belfast, Derry, Strabane and right across the North? Those are the questions that housing rights groups and renters are already asking. How will the House respond? My answer is that the Bill does not go far enough. Indeed, even if my amendments pass today, there is a damn sight further to go to protect renters. Action must begin now to improve the record of the Executive, who have allowed landlords to get away with too much for too long.

I do not know whether it is crude satire or sad to hear two landlords on the Benches opposite say, "What about the poor landlords?" You could not make it up. The idea that there is a horde of single-property landlords is a myth that needs to be dispelled. The arguments made about unintended consequences are pretty astounding. In the debate, I heard more concern from some about the interests of landlords than those of renters. The concerns that people have for renters can be alleviated in some way if the House passes my amendments.

The argument that legislation is coming at some stage down the line, frankly, does not wash. How can we expect parties to vote for proper robust legislation if they cannot vote the correct way on my modest proposals today? What hope is there for the future? I am not sure who the Minister will be after the May election; I am not sure that there will be an Assembly at all. Today, the message that I hear from Members is that renters' rights and protections will be put on hold; "Trust us, something may come in the future".

Amendment No 16, which is tabled in my name, will provide greater protection for people who have been in private rented accommodation. Obviously, it takes a long time for people to find a property, and if some tenants who have been in a property for 10 years can get 12 weeks notice, my argument is that that should apply across the board. In response to Mr Durkan, I am happy to tidy up my amendment — provide a subsequent one — at the Further Consideration Stage to provide greater protection at 12 weeks if the Minister does not do that. Again, I ask Members to support my amendments today.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): I propose, by leave of the Assembly, to suspend the sitting for 15 minutes. The sitting is, by leave, suspended. When we resume, the Minister will make her winding-up speech.

The debate stood suspended.

The sitting was suspended at 12.34 pm and resumed at 12.51 pm.

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

Debate resumed.

Ms Hargey: Thanks very much to the Chair and Deputy Chair and, indeed, the whole Communities Committee and all those in the House who have commented on this important part of the legislation.

I will cover a couple of areas that were discussed. It has been an important process. The scrutiny role and the amendments that have been tabled through working with the Committee, stakeholders and my staff team in the Department have made for better legislation. The issue with cash receipts is crucial, and I take on board the point that the Member raised about poverty being a factor that still prevails in the need for and use of cash. We can even see that in, for example, supermarkets and where some are situated and where cash is used in comparison with cash machines. That is an area that we will have to address, and I believe that strengthening the Bill with the amendments will allow us to do that.

Amendment No 13 is from Gerry Carroll, and I completely agree with the sentiments of what he is trying to do. I completely agree with fairer rents and rent controls. I have been a community and housing activist my whole life, and I have campaigned on that area on a regular basis. I have been doing housing campaigns since I was 16 years of age, and I continue to do that work as housing Minister and Minister for Communities. I completely get Mr Carroll's approach, and I wholeheartedly want to do what he proposes in order to provide further protections for those right across all our housing sectors here in the North. However, I have concerns that the Bill will not have the desired outcome of protecting people in the way that the amendment proposes. The Bill impacts only on current tenants, so, if that amendment were passed and were to get Royal Assent as part of the Bill, it would not have any impact on any new tenants who sign contracts. There is a real concern that that would bring up a huge inequality for those tenants in that sector. Also, landlords could easily end a contract and issue a new one, so there is a huge gap in the amendment that would allow landlords to get around that. Indeed, there is no penalty on landlords if they wish to take that course of action. Again, there is a huge concern about that proposal not meeting the thrust and intent, and that introduces an inequality —

Sorry, are you looking an intervention, yes?

Mr Carroll: Thanks, Minister. On your point, would you be willing to table an amendment to make sure that new tenants can avail themselves of the broad thrust of what my amendment would do?

Ms Hargey: The concern is about the competency of the amendment, given the legal advice that I have received. I completely agree with the policy intent of what you are trying to do; indeed, that is what I am trying to do. However, the Bill is progressing in a confined mandate. There are three weeks of the mandate left. The legal advice says strongly that, without the additional work that is needed on the inequalities and on what we can do to introduce a fairer rent model that has appropriate caps and reductions where necessary, progressing in the way that is proposed could cause the Bill to fall. That would mean that we lose all of the protections in the Bill.

I completely understand the thrust of what you are doing; I agree with it. On the basis of the legal advice, my concern is about the competency of the amendment, that the entire Bill would be called into question and that it may fall. I raised that concern when I introduced the Bill. We are not sitting and waiting for work to begin on phase 2. We are actively working on bringing in rent controls and looking at having a fairer rental system for tenants who face issues, including issues with letting agents, which is a huge area in which some malign and illegal practices need to be addressed.

On amendment No 15, there were comments about the notice-to-quit periods and the consultation. I have been clear throughout that I want to extend the notice to quit periods. I get a sense from all Members in the Chamber that they want something similar. I received legal advice that, where a proposal differed from what was consulted on in 2017 — I want to veer away from that — I would need to consult again. That is why there was a need to consult. However, obviously, the pandemic placed time constraints on us, and, with the shortened mandate, the Department had less time to bring forward proposals. That is why I set out in the legislation what, I felt, could be done in this mandate. I was not sitting about; I wanted to show the House that we were serious, and consultation was part of that approach.

If the House makes amendment No 15, officials could look at what can be done at Further Consideration Stage. Of course, as was clearly said, we need to look in more detail at the exemptions that would have to be applied if amendment No 15 was to be considered. As I said in my opening address, I would also need to look at transitional arrangements, such as introducing an eight-week notice to quit period until the other periods outlined in amendment No 15 are commenced. That detailed work would have to be done, but it would not be finalised in time for the Bill receiving Royal Assent. Transitional periods and protections would have to be put in place. With the ending of the Coronavirus Act, when we want the new Bill to take effect, nobody wants to revert to the four-week notice to quit period: it is far too short. I would have to look urgently at transitional arrangements and at any future amendments that would come into force and be commenced at a later stage.

I think that I have covered most of the queries and comments. I commend my amendments to the House.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendment No 2 made:

In page 3, line 21, leave out "If the landlord under a private tenancy fails" and insert "In the event of a failure". — [Ms Hargey (The Minister for Communities).]

Amendment No 3 made:

In page 3, line 26, at end insert—

"(6) In this Article—
‘landlord’ includes a former landlord and (in a case falling within paragraph (1)(a)) a prospective landlord;
‘tenant’ includes a former tenant and (in a case falling within paragraph (1)(a)) a prospective tenant." — [Ms Hargey (The Minister for Communities).]

Amendment No 4 made:

In page 3, line 29, after "5(5)" insert "(a)". — [Ms Hargey (The Minister for Communities).]

Amendment No 5 made:

In page 3, line 32, after "5(5)" insert "(a)". — [Ms Hargey (The Minister for Communities).]

Amendment No 6 made:

In page 3, line 36, after "5(5)" insert "(a)". — [Ms Hargey (The Minister for Communities).]

Amendment No 7 made:

In page 4, line 1, at end insert—

"(4) In this Article ‘landlord’ has the meaning given by Article 5(6)." — [Ms Hargey (The Minister for Communities).]

Amendment No 8 made:

In page 4, line 4, leave out from "40(4))—" to end of line 12 and insert—

"40(4)), a payment in cash was made in respect of rent for the tenancy.

(1A) If—

(a) a person is charged with an offence under Article 5(5) and a qualifying receipt was provided in accordance with Article 5(3), or

(b) a person is charged with an offence under Article 5ZA(3) and a qualifying receipt was provided at any time before the end of the period of 14 days mentioned in Article 5ZA(3) (including before the fixed penalty notice was given), paragraph (5) applies.

(2) A receipt is a qualifying receipt for the purposes of paragraph (1A) if—

(a) it complies with Article 5(2)(a), (b) and (c),

(b) it complies with Article 5(2)(d) and (e) in respect of any payment, other than the rent, that was included in the sum paid, and
(c) either condition A or condition B is met." — [Ms Hargey (The Minister for Communities).]

Amendment No 9 made:

In page 4, line 14, leave out "no further amount" and insert—

"after the cash payment, no further amount in respect of rent". — [Ms Hargey (The Minister for Communities).]

Amendment No 10 made:

In page 4, line 19, leave out "an amount" and insert—

"after the cash payment, an amount in respect of rent". — [Ms Hargey (The Minister for Communities).]

Amendment No 11 made:

In page 4, line 25, after "defence" insert—

"to the offence under Article 5(5) or (as the case may be) Article 5ZA(3)". — [Ms Hargey (The Minister for Communities).]

Amendment No 12 made:

In page 4, line 25, after "landlord" insert "(or former landlord)". — [Ms Hargey (The Minister for Communities).]

Clause 3, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 4 to 6 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 7 (Restriction on rent increases)

Amendment No 13 proposed:

In page 7, line 27, at end insert—

"Rent decreases
 
Rent decreases

5BA.—(1) This Article applies to any private tenancy.

(2) Where a tenancy has been in place for more than 6 months, the rent payable under a tenancy to which this Article applies must be reduced by 10% for 12 months following Royal Assent.

(3) The 10% must be calculated as an average of the 6 months directly before the reduction takes effect.
(4) On expiration of the 12 months, the rent payable must return to no more than the rate payable immediately before the reduction for a period of 3 years." — [Mr Carroll.]

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Some Members: Aye.

Some Members: No.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): The Question will be put again in three minutes. I remind Members that they should continue to uphold social distancing and that those who have proxy voting arrangements in place should not come to the Chamber.

Before I put the Question again. I remind Members that, if possible, it would be preferable to avoid a Division.

Question, That the amendment be made, put a second time and agreed to.

Amendment No 14 made:

In page 8, line 16, leave out "2" and insert "3". — [Ms Hargey (The Minister for Communities).]

Clause 7, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 8 to 10 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 11 (Validity requirements for notices to quit given by landlords and tenants)

Amendment No 15 proposed:

In page 10, line 32, leave out subsection (4) and insert—

"(4) For paragraph (1A) substitute—

‘(1A) For the purposes of paragraph (1) the relevant period is—

(a) 28 days, if the tenancy has not been in existence for more than 6 months;

(b) 90 days, if the tenancy has been in existence for more than 6 months but not for more than one year;

(c) 120 days, if the tenancy has been in existence for more than one year but not for more than 3 years;

(d) 180 days, if the tenancy has been in existence for more than 3 years but not for more than 7 years;

(e) 196 days, if the tenancy has been in existence for more than 7 years but not for more than 8 years; and
(f) 224 days, if the tenancy has been in existence for 8 years or more." — [Ms Ferguson.]

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Before the Assembly divides, I remind Members that, as per Standing Order 112, the Assembly has proxy voting arrangements in place. Members who have authorised another Member to vote on their behalf are not entitled to vote in person and should not enter the Lobbies. I remind all Members of the requirements for social distancing while the Division takes place. I ask Members to ensure that they retain a gap of at least 2 metres between themselves and other people when moving around the Chamber or the Rotunda, and especially in the Lobbies. Please be patient at all times, observe the signage and follow the instructions of the Lobby Clerks.

The Assembly divided.

The following Members’ votes were cast by their notified proxy in this Division:

Mr Butler voted for Dr Aiken, Mr Allen, Mrs Barton, Mr Beattie, Mr Chambers, Mr Nesbitt, Mr Stewart and Mr Swann.

Ms Bradshaw voted for Ms Armstrong, Mr Blair, Mr Dickson, Mrs Long, Mr Lyttle and Mr Muir.

Ms Bunting voted for Mr Allister, Mr M Bradley, Ms P Bradley [Teller, Noes], Mr K Buchanan, Mr T Buchanan, Mr Buckley, Mrs Cameron, Mr Clarke, Mrs Dodds, Mr Dunne, Mr Easton, Mrs Erskine, Mr Frew [Teller, Noes], Mr Givan, Mr Harvey, Mr Hilditch, Mr Humphrey, Mr Irwin, Mr Lyons, Miss McIlveen, Mr Middleton, Mr Newton, Mr Poots, Mr Robinson, Mr Storey, Mr Weir and Mr Wells.

Mr McGrath voted for Mrs S Bradley, Mr Catney, Mr Durkan, Ms Hunter, Mrs D Kelly, Ms Mallon, Mr McCrossan, Ms McLaughlin, Mr McNulty and Mr O’Toole.

Mr O’Dowd voted for Dr Archibald, Mr Boylan, Ms Brogan, Mr Delargy, Ms Dillon, Ms Dolan, Ms Ennis, Ms Ferguson, Ms Flynn, Mr Gildernew, Ms Hargey, Mr Kearney, Mr G Kelly, Ms Kimmins, Mr McAleer, Mr McGuigan, Mr McHugh, Ms A Murphy, Mr C Murphy, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mrs O’Neill, Ms Reilly [Teller, Ayes], Ms Rogan, Mr Sheehan and Ms Sheerin [Teller, Ayes].

Question accordingly agreed to.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I will not call amendment No 16 as it mutually exclusive to amendment No 15, which has been made.

Amendment No 17 made:

In page 10, line 34, leave out from "so" to "months" on line 3 on page 11 and insert "by draft affirmative procedure". — [Ms Ferguson.]

Amendment No 18 made:

In page 11, line 4, leave out "sub-paragraph (a) or (b) of paragraph (3)" and insert "paragraph (3)". — [Ms Ferguson.]

Amendment No 19 not moved.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I will not call amendment No 20 as it is consequential to amendment No 19, which was not moved.

Amendment No 21 not moved.

Clause 11, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

New Clause

Amendment No 22 made:

After clause 11 insert—

"Payment options for tenants: power to make provision and duty to consult
 

11A.—(1) The Department for Communities may by regulations make provision for the purpose of ensuring that, when a private tenancy of a dwelling-house is granted, the tenant is given options as to the method of payment of rent and other sums due in respect of the tenancy.

(2) Regulations under subsection (1) may in particular—

(a) impose duties on prospective landlords to provide specified information or documents before the terms of a tenancy are agreed;

(b) require that tenancy agreements, or proposed tenancy agreements, contain specified terms or (if they are in writing) that they be in a specified form;

(c) specify methods of payment that must or must not be offered by a prospective landlord, or that may or must not be agreed by the parties, for the purposes of payment of rent or other sums due in respect of a tenancy;

(d) make provision as to the rights of tenants or landlords to vary any term of the tenancy as to the method of payment (including provision restricting or excluding any such right);

(e) make provision as to the consequences of a failure to accept, or a failure to tender, payment by a method agreed under a tenancy (including provision as to whether or not the tenant is to be regarded as being in arrears);

(f) make provision as to the consequences of a breach of a prohibition imposed by the regulations or a failure to comply with a requirement imposed by them (including provision that creates offences);

(g) amend any statutory provision (within the meaning given by section 1(f) of the Interpretation Act (Northern Ireland) 1954);

(h) may make such consequential, supplementary, transitory or transitional provision, or such savings, as the Department considers appropriate.

(3) In subsection (2), "specified" means specified in the regulations.

(4) Any offence created by virtue of subsection (2)(f)—

(a) is not to be triable on indictment or punishable with imprisonment;

(b) is not to be punishable with a fine exceeding level 4 on the standard scale.

(5) The Department must consult the following persons as to whether to exercise the power conferred by subsection (1)—

(a) district councils,

(b) such persons as appear to it to be representative of landlords,

(c) such persons as appear to it to be representative of tenants, and

(d) such other persons as it considers appropriate (which may include landlords or tenants).

(6) The Department must prepare a report on the consultation and—

(a) lay the report before the Assembly, and

(b) publish it in such manner as the Department considers appropriate.

(7) The Department must lay and publish the report under subsection (6) before the end of the period of 18 months beginning with the day on which this Act receives Royal Assent.
(8) The Department may not make regulations under subsection (1) unless a draft of the regulations has been laid before, and approved by a resolution of, the Assembly." — [Ms Hargey (The Minister for Communities).]

New clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 12 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 13 (Commencement)

Amendment No 23 made:

In page 12, line 15, leave out "section" and insert "sections 11A and". — [Ms Hargey (The Minister for Communities).]

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Amendment No 24 has already been debated. I call the Minister for Communities to move formally amendment No 24.

Amendment No 24 not moved.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Amendment proposed to clause 13, page 12, line 27, insert words as printed on the Marshalled List. The Question is that amendment No 24 be made. All those in favour say Aye.

Some Members: Aye.

Ms Hargey: I did not move the amendment.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Sorry, I did not pick you up. I should listen more carefully, but I encourage everyone to speak up so that I can hear them. I clarify that amendment No 24 was not moved.

Clause 13, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 14 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 1 agreed to.

Schedule 2 (Energy efficiency regulations)

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): We now come to the second group of amendments for debate. With amendment No 25, it will be convenient to debate amendment Nos 26 to 45. In this group, amendment Nos 27 and 28 are consequential to amendment No 26, amendment Nos 39 and 40 are consequential to amendment No 32, amendment No 41 is consequential to amendment Nos 33 and 34, and amendment No 42 is consequential to amendment No 35.

Members may also wish to note that there are a number of paving amendments: amendment Nos 27 and 28, 30 and 31, and 33 and 34.

I call the Minister for Communities, Deirdre Hargey, to move amendment No 25 and to address the other amendments in the group.

Ms Hargey (The Minister for Communities): I beg to move amendment No 25:

In page 16, line 10, leave out sub-paragraph (a).

The following amendments stood on the Marshalled List:

No 26: In page 16, line 16, leave out paragraph (3) and insert—

"(3) Regulations under paragraph (1) may provide for the granting to a person, in respect of a dwelling-house, of—

(a) an exemption on the ground that the dwelling-house is of such description as is provided for in the regulations;

(b) an exemption that is to have effect for a period of time and is subject to the condition that specified works or measures for improving efficiency in the use of energy in the dwelling-house are carried out within that period (an ‘improvement exemption’);

(c) an exemption on such other grounds as may be provided for in the regulations.
(3A) In paragraph (3)—

(a) ‘exemption’ means an exemption from a prohibition imposed under paragraph (1);

(b) ‘specified’ means specified in the improvement exemption.
(3B) Regulations that provide for exemptions by virtue of paragraph (3) may include, in particular, provision—

(a) for exemptions to be granted by a prescribed person or prescribed persons (the ‘authority’);

(b) about the making of applications to the authority (including provision about the evidence which must or may be provided with applications);

(c) for exemptions to have effect for a specified period of time (including provision for the authority to determine that period);

(d) for a limit on the estimated cost of works or measures that may be specified in an improvement exemption (including a limit set by reference to the value of the dwelling-house or any other prescribed circumstances);

(e) for the authority to maintain a publicly-accessible register of exemptions granted;

(f) about appeals to a prescribed person or body against decisions regarding exemptions (including provision about how such appeals may be disposed of and the effect of any exemption pending the determination of an appeal);

(g) about the inspection of dwelling-houses for the purposes of an application for an exemption or for the purposes of an appeal;

(h) in a case where an application or appeal is made in respect of a dwelling-house which is (on the date the application or appeal is made) let under a private tenancy, for the applicant or appellant to be exempt from a prohibition imposed under paragraph (1)(b) in respect of the dwelling-house pending the determination of the application or appeal;

(i) about the consequences of providing false or misleading information in an application to the authority or in proceedings on an appeal (including provision creating criminal offences or invalidating exemptions);

(j) for a person who acquires an estate in a dwelling-house which is (on the date of the acquisition) let under a private tenancy to be exempt from a prohibition imposed under paragraph (1)(b) in respect of that dwelling-house for a prescribed period of time.
(3C) Regulations may provide that if—

(a) a person is granted an improvement exemption, and

(b) the person complies with prescribed conditions regarding the giving of notice to any tenant of the dwelling-house, or with such other conditions as may be prescribed, works or measures specified in the exemption are to be regarded, for the purposes of Article 12, as works that the person is under a duty to execute.
(3D) Regulations may also include such supplementary, incidental or consequential provision as the Department considers appropriate, including provision modifying any statutory provision." — [Ms Hargey (The Minister for Communities).]

No 27: In page 16, line 32, leave out from "an offence" and insert "offences". — [Ms Hargey (The Minister for Communities).]

No 28: In page 16, line 36, at end insert—

"(1A) Regulations under Article 11G may provide that a person commits an offence if—

(a) the person is granted an improvement exemption;

(b) the person fails, without reasonable excuse, to carry out the works or measures specified in the exemption within the period of time so specified;

(c) Article 11G(2) applies to the dwelling-house immediately after the expiration of that period of time; and

(d) at any time during which the exemption had effect, the person—

(i) granted a private tenancy of the dwelling-house; or

(ii) continued to let the dwelling-house out under a private tenancy that was granted before the exemption had effect.
(1B) The regulations may provide for inspections of a dwelling-house in respect of which an exemption has been granted by virtue of Article 11G(3)(b), for the purpose of investigating whether an offence created by virtue of this Article has been committed.
(1C) The regulations may set out circumstances in which a person is, or is not, to be regarded as having a reasonable excuse for the purposes of an offence created by virtue of paragraph (1A) (including circumstances where a person ceases to hold an estate in the dwelling-house)." — [Ms Hargey (The Minister for Communities).]

No 29: In page 16, line 37, leave out "virtue of paragraph (1)" and insert "regulations under Article 11G". — [Ms Hargey (The Minister for Communities).]

No 30: In page 16, line 40, after "scale" insert—

"(but, in the case of an offence in respect of a prohibition imposed under Article 11G(1)(b), this is subject to paragraphs (3) to (6))". — [Ms Hargey (The Minister for Communities).]

No 31:In page 16, line 40, at end insert—

"(3) Paragraphs (4) and (5) apply where regulations under Article 11G create an offence in respect of a prohibition imposed under Article 11G(1)(b).
(4) The regulations must provide that where—

(a) a person is convicted of an offence in respect of the granting of a private tenancy, or the letting out of a dwelling-house under a private tenancy, in breach of a prohibition imposed under Article 11G(1)(a) or (b) (‘the initial conviction’),

(b) after the initial conviction, the person continues to let out the dwelling-house, and

(c) the person is convicted of an offence in respect of that continued letting, in breach of a prohibition imposed under Article 11G(1)(b) (‘the continuing offence’), the continuing offence is to be punishable with a fine not exceeding one-hundredth of level 5 on the standard scale for every day or part of a day for which the letting continues after the initial conviction.
(5) The regulations must also provide that where—

(a) a person grants a private tenancy, or continues to let out a dwelling-house under a private tenancy, in breach of a prohibition imposed under Article 11G(1)(a) or (b),

(b) the person is given a fixed penalty notice under Article 68A in respect of an offence on the grounds of that breach,

(c) the person pays the fixed penalty stated in the notice,

(d) after payment of the fixed penalty, the person continues to let out the dwelling-house in breach of a prohibition imposed under Article 11G(1)(b), and

(e) the person is convicted of an offence in respect of that continued breach (‘the post-payment offence’), the post-payment offence is to be punishable with a fine not exceeding one-hundredth of level 5 on the standard scale for every day or part of a day for which the breach continues after payment.
(6) A fine imposed by virtue of paragraph (4) or (5) may exceed level 5 on the standard scale." — [Ms Hargey (The Minister for Communities).]

No 32: In page 16, line 42, leave out "virtue of Article 11H" and insert "regulations under Article 11G". — [Ms Hargey (The Minister for Communities).]

No 33: In page 17, line 4, leave out "virtue of Article 11H; or" and insert—

"regulations under Article 11G (but this is subject to paragraph (1A))". — [Ms Hargey (The Minister for Communities).]

No 34: In page 17, line 4, at end insert—

"(aa) after paragraph (1) insert—

‘(1A) This Article does not apply where—

(a) P has been convicted of an offence in respect of the granting of a private tenancy, or the letting out of a dwelling-house under a private tenancy, in breach of a prohibition imposed under Article 11G(1)(a) or (b) (‘the initial offence’),

(b) an authorised officer has reason to believe that, after that conviction, P has committed an offence in respect of a prohibition imposed under Article 11G(1)(b) (‘the continuing offence’), and
(c) it appears to the authorised officer that the continuing offence has been committed by P continuing to let out the dwelling-house in respect of which the initial offence was committed.’;". — [Ms Hargey (The Minister for Communities).]

No 35: In page 17, line 5, leave out paragraph (b) and insert—

"(b) after paragraph (8) insert—

‘(8A) The fixed penalty payable to a district council under this Article in respect of an offence created by regulations under Article 11G is an amount determined by the council, being an amount not exceeding one-fifth of the amount prescribed as the maximum fine for that offence; but this is subject to paragraphs (8B) and (8C).

(8B) Paragraph (8C) applies where—

(a) P grants a private tenancy, or continues to let out a dwelling-house under a private tenancy, in breach of a prohibition imposed under Article 11G(1)(a) or (b) (‘the initial breach’),

(b) P is given a fixed penalty notice under this Article in respect of an offence on the grounds of the initial breach,

(c) P pays the fixed penalty stated in the notice,

(d) an authorised officer has reason to believe that, after payment of the fixed penalty, P has committed an offence in respect of a prohibition imposed under Article 11G(1)(b) (‘the continuing offence’), and

(e) it appears to the authorised officer that the continuing offence has been committed by P continuing to let out the dwelling-house in respect of which the initial breach was committed.
(8C) Where this paragraph applies, the penalty payable is an amount determined by the council, being an amount not exceeding one-five-hundredth of the amount prescribed as the maximum fine for that offence for every day or part of a day for which it appears to the officer that the letting has continued after payment (and, accordingly, the penalty payable may exceed one-fifth of the amount prescribed as the maximum fine for that offence).’" — [Ms Hargey (The Minister for Communities).]

No 36: In page 17, line 7, after "regulations)," insert—

"(a) in paragraph (3), before ‘14’ (as inserted by section 11) insert ‘11G,’;". — [Ms Hargey (The Minister for Communities).]

No 37: In page 17, line 14, leave out "and" and insert—

"(ca) such persons as appear to the Department to be representative of tenants, and". — [Ms Hargey (The Minister for Communities).]

No 38: In page 17, line 16, after "landlords" insert "or tenants". — [Ms Hargey (The Minister for Communities).]

No 39: In schedule 3, page 19, line 6, leave out "11H" and insert "11G". — [Ms Hargey (The Minister for Communities).]

No 40: In schedule 3, page 19, line 7, leave out "11J" and insert "11I". — [Ms Hargey (The Minister for Communities).]

No 41: In schedule 3, page 19, line 9, leave out paragraph (a) and insert—

"(a) after paragraph (1)(ab) (as inserted by Schedule 2) insert—
‘(ac) an offence created by regulations under Article 11I; or’;". — [Ms Hargey (The Minister for Communities).]

No 42: In schedule 3, page 19, line 11, leave out "after ‘11H’ (as inserted by Schedule 2) insert ‘or 11J’." and insert—

"after ‘or 65A(4)’ insert ‘or an offence created by regulations under Article 11I’." — [Ms Hargey (The Minister for Communities).]

No 43: In schedule 3, page 19, line 12, at end insert—

"(za) in paragraph (2), for ‘paragraph (3)’ substitute ‘paragraphs (3) and (3A)’;". — [Ms Hargey (The Minister for Communities).]

No 44: In schedule 3, page 19, line 22, leave out "and" and insert—

"(ba) such persons as appear to the Department to be representative of tenants, and". — [Ms Hargey (The Minister for Communities).]

No 45: In schedule 3, page 19, line 24, after "landlords" insert "or tenants". — [Ms Hargey (The Minister for Communities).]

Ms Hargey: Amendment Nos 25 to 45 relate to schedules 2 and 3. Schedule 2 relates to the energy efficiency regulations. It sets out the power to detail the energy efficiency requirements of dwellings, houses that are let under a private tenancy and what the minimum level of energy performance certificate (EPC) should be. The regulations will be draft affirmative. The Assembly will have its say. Some of the amendments are more technical or work to support one another. I will now set out the intent of the substantive amendments.

When reviewing the evidence that was given at Committee, it was considered that the powers that are provided in the original schedule 2 would be too limiting. We will need to ensure that we enforce a higher level of energy efficiency. A sixth of our greenhouse gas emissions come from our homes, and a sixth of those homes are private tenancies. Private tenancies are often the least energy-efficient, and those who live in them are the least able to afford high energy bills. The schedule will enable regulations that will drive more improvements in the energy efficiency of our homes. It will reduce fuel poverty and is one essential part in a range of measures that will enable us to meet our carbon reduction targets. Fundamentally, schedule 2 introduces a prohibition on letting a home that has inadequate energy efficiency. That will not change. The amendment enables a much more comprehensive process around the policy objectives.

I tabled amendment No 26, which will allow for consideration of the types of exemptions that are in the prohibition. That will be augmented so that exemptions other than those relating to the fabric of the building can be made. In particular, it now provides for an improvement exemption. The amendment will also detail other areas that the regulations may cover, including designating an authority to oversee the exemption process and public access to lists of exemptions; more detail on exemptions, including the length of time that they would last; appeals; inspections; applications; and other related issues.

Taken together, those amendments will allow us to improve energy efficiency in the private rented sector in a way that is deliverable and avoids shocks to supply, which would increase housing stress. I emphasise that the purpose of the amendments is to enable long-term improvements to energy efficiency and to avoid having to exempt entire types of houses indefinitely.

The legislation will have real, long-term significance. Before introducing the regulations, the Department will carry out research in consultation with landlords, tenants and other relevant parties, such as the Department for the Economy, the Department of Finance and district councils.

Amendment Nos 27 to 35 set out detail regarding offences under schedule 2. Together, they will ensure that there are no loopholes and that there is a level of fine that ensures that landlords take the legislation seriously and deliver the energy efficiency improvements that they are required to.

The final amendments are either technical or put into the Bill the commitment to consult tenants. Amendment Nos 37 and 38 ensure that the Department will consult tenants' representatives before making the regulations in schedule 2. Amendment Nos 39 to 43 are consequential to schedule 3 in order to align with the 2006 Order after the amendments to schedule 2 have been made. Amendment Nos 44 and 45 ensure that the Department will consult tenants and their representatives before any regulations are made under the powers that are in schedule 3. Those are the group 2 amendments.

Ms P Bradley: Amendment Nos 25 to 38 relate to schedule 2, which is on the energy efficiency of dwellings that are let under a private tenancy. The Committee supports the Minister's amendment Nos 25 to 38. As I mentioned in my speech on group 1, although the Committee finally agreed to clause 9 and schedule 2, it was put in a difficult position as, midway through its deliberations, the Department produced a new, enhanced schedule 2 to future-proof the legislation as it was concerned that the powers as introduced were too limiting.

The Committee noted that it was unheard of and far from ideal to be presented with a new schedule in the middle of its deliberations and one on which it had taken no evidence.

The first that the Committee heard of the revised schedule was at its meeting on 2 December 2021, when officials stated that, as drafted, schedule 2, which relates to clause 9, did not fully achieve the regulations that the Department wished to enact or deliver policy objectives as intended and that proposals for a revised schedule 2 were being finalised with the Office of the Legislative Counsel.

At subsequent meetings in December, the Committee considered each amendment and its purpose in discussion with officials. The Committee accepted the positive nature of the proposals and that the schedule will be a tool to drive the decarbonisation of a significant portion of the housing stock to deliver our climate change obligations.

The Committee heard that schedule 2 gives powers to the Department to address a number of energy efficiency measures, including the relevant works carried out on premises to decarbonise and improve their energy efficiency ratings and the distribution of energy performance certificates. The Committee raised concerns that EPCs could lead to a reduction in the appropriately certified housing stock or increase the rent of the existing stock. We also raised concerns that more invasive work on rented premises to bring them up to standard had the potential to temporarily render tenants homeless. Officials informed the Committee that work could be performed gradually to avoid that occurring and that the new schedule would give the Department a structure to adhere to when improving energy efficiency standards without impacting on housing stock levels.

The Committee heard that the amendments to the schedule had led to a rewriting of the explanatory and financial memorandum. Officials also confirmed that more detailed legislation regarding energy efficiency would be considered in the next stage of reforms.

The Committee supports the Minister's amendment Nos 39 to 45 to schedule 3, which relates to electrical safety standards. Schedule 3 provides the Department with the power to make regulations imposing duties on private landlords for the purposes of ensuring that electrical safety standards are met during the period in which the property is let under the tenancy. The Committee was keen to ensure that it understood the scope of the Bill in that regard and queried with officials the frequency of electrical testing, fixed wiring checks, electrical installation condition reports and portable appliance testing (PAT). Officials responded that schedule 3 places the burden of ensuring that the rented property is protected on the landlord and that the decision was taken to exclude obligatory PAT as that requirement is not legislated for in private dwellings. Officials confirmed for us that electrical appliances provided by the landlord are covered in the Bill and that electrical safety testing would apply to appliances provided by the landlord. Officials also confirmed that the frequency of electrical testing is not in the Bill but would be in the regulations and that further work is needed to establish the more appropriate frequency of electrical testing.

At its meeting on 11 January 2022, the Committee considered the final draft revised schedule 2 and the related amendments to schedule 3 and supported both.

The Committee would have wished to see a more ambitious Bill but understands the time constraints of the current mandate. Members acknowledged that it is an important first step towards further reform in the next mandate. On behalf of the Committee, I record our sincere thanks to the individuals and organisations who provided oral or written evidence. Thanks must also go to the departmental officials who worked patiently and effectively with the Committee, providing a flow of timely and accurate information to allow the Committee to meet its legislative deadline. Finally, thanks must go to the Bill Office staff, the Research and Information Service and the Committee team, all of whom have worked so diligently to get this to the Chamber today.

Mr Durkan: I welcome the broad principles of the Bill as a first step in essential reforms in the private rented sector, although I must stress, as others have, that it is just a first step in that process. At previous stages, I have raised concerns that the Bill does not go far enough to protect private renters, particularly on affordability, landlord licensing and, crucial to this part of the debate, fitness standards. The Minister and her officials stated that many of those protections fell outside the scope of the Bill. Some have now been brought into the Bill, as have the amendments made earlier. I look forward to working through those in Committee. We are also acutely aware of the need for speed with the work and do not wish to hinder the Bill's progress and the implementation of the vital and potentially life-saving improvements. In that vein, I will get on with it.

Many of the proposed changes in the group 2 amendments relate to energy efficiency. They were advocated and agreed in principle during Committee Stage, particularly those to schedule 2. That being the case, we are content to support the Minister's amendments and welcome the fact that our concerns have been actioned and efforts made to strengthen the regulations.

I will bring my remarks to a close. The Bill is a solid yet unspectacular bit of work, but it provides a springboard to tackle the significant and outstanding challenges in subsequent mandates. I thank all the agencies in the housing sector that have helped progress this vital legislation, which will secure tangible stability and long-overdue protections for the private rented sector.

Mr Butler: I thank the Minister for tabling amendments Nos 25 to 38 to schedule 2. We welcome the move towards clearer and more robust requirements for energy efficiency and electrical safety in privately rented properties while recognising our climate responsibilities. It is, however, imperative that those standards be set at an appropriate and achievable level. Government support may be required to ensure that that can be achieved.

Private tenants deserve a home that is safe and adequately maintained to ensure that energy efficiency can be achieved. It is widely recognised that good-quality and energy-efficient homes will help in our fight to alleviate fuel poverty. They will also help tackle poor mental health in Northern Ireland. We can all testify to seeing poor-quality homes across the private and social sectors, and it is imperative that we do all that we can to improve housing quality. We welcome the inclusion of the tenants' representative and tenants themselves on the list of consultees for both those areas. We will support all the amendments in the group.

Ms Armstrong: I will not take too long, as the Speaker said that he does not want us to talk about Second Stage issues. I support all the group 2 amendments. I thank all those involved. The Bill took a long time to come through, and we are grateful that the Minister and the Department took on all the recommendations. The fact that a Committee member was an electrician meant that we were able to keep on track. As a former National Examination Board in Occupational Safety and Health (NEBOSH)-qualified health and safety officer, I believe that it is vital that we ensure that we protect citizens in private tenancies, especially after Grenfell. I thank the Department and the Minister.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I call the Minister for Communities, Deirdre Hargey, to conclude and wind on the debate.

Ms Hargey: I will not talk for long. I thank everyone for their comments. I put the amendments to the House.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendment No 26 made:

In page 16, line 16, leave out paragraph (3) and insert—

"(3) Regulations under paragraph (1) may provide for the granting to a person, in respect of a dwelling-house, of—

(a) an exemption on the ground that the dwelling-house is of such description as is provided for in the regulations;

(b) an exemption that is to have effect for a period of time and is subject to the condition that specified works or measures for improving efficiency in the use of energy in the dwelling-house are carried out within that period (an ‘improvement exemption’);

(c) an exemption on such other grounds as may be provided for in the regulations.
(3A) In paragraph (3)—

(a) ‘exemption’ means an exemption from a prohibition imposed under paragraph (1);

(b) ‘specified’ means specified in the improvement exemption.
(3B) Regulations that provide for exemptions by virtue of paragraph (3) may include, in particular, provision—

(a) for exemptions to be granted by a prescribed person or prescribed persons (the ‘authority’);

(b) about the making of applications to the authority (including provision about the evidence which must or may be provided with applications);

(c) for exemptions to have effect for a specified period of time (including provision for the authority to determine that period);

(d) for a limit on the estimated cost of works or measures that may be specified in an improvement exemption (including a limit set by reference to the value of the dwelling-house or any other prescribed circumstances);

(e) for the authority to maintain a publicly-accessible register of exemptions granted;

(f) about appeals to a prescribed person or body against decisions regarding exemptions (including provision about how such appeals may be disposed of and the effect of any exemption pending the determination of an appeal);