Senator Dr Keith Swanick: Cuirim céad fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. Is mór an onóir dom labhairt anseo tráthnóna mar tá an seomra seo speisialta, stairiúil agus ornáideach. Ba mhaith liom moladh a thabhairt don Chathaoirleach, an Seanadóir Denis Ó Donnabháin; don Cheann Comhairle, an Teachta Seán Ó Fearghaíl; agus do Choimisiún Thithe an Oireachtais. Our temporary move to the Ceramics Room of the National Museum will in no way inhibit the work of Seanad Éireann, and I congratulate all the staff, d
esigners, builders and technicians who have created our Chamber.
I thank the Minister of State for joining us to discuss this very timely issue. The dangers associated with carbon monoxide are promoted this week through Carbon Monoxide Awareness Week. The dangers are so immense that there is a need for constant vigilance in this area. I am increasingly concerned about landlords across the rental sector who are failing to carry out annual servicing of boilers such as oil and gas. All heat producing carbon monoxide emitting appliances need to be serviced annually. According to the HSE, on average six people die unnecessarily from carbon monoxide poisoning each year, and countless more present to their GPs and other health professionals with other symptoms from carbon monoxide poisoning, such as nausea, headaches, breathlessness and vomiting.
Owing to the fact that it is a colourless and odourless gas, carbon monoxide is highly dangerous and can kill in minutes if levels are high. In addition, large numbers of people are living in properties with poor health and safety measures in terms of heat producing, carbon monoxide emitting appliances. My Fianna Fáil Party colleague, Deputy Cowen, recently outlined a plan for an NCT-style system for the entire rental sector, and it is something which I believe is badly needed. There are regulations in place concerning gas safety and that new homes must have carbon monoxide alarms, but we need a more coherent approach from the Minister of State’s Department.
In 2017, the 31 local authorities have budgeted to collect over €435 million in rent from local authority tenants, making the State the largest residential landlord. Throughout the year I have looked into the major ambiguity that exists with the mandatory servicing of oil and gas boilers across local authorities because there appears to be some confusion surrounding this issue. I followed up directly with the chief executive of each local authority late last year and asked for the number of local authority homes in each area and the corresponding number of boilers serviced. Some of the local authorities refused to answer the questions and others failed to respond despite repeated queries from my office and from elected councillors. Some said that it was not their responsibility. Others have an excellent system in place.
To give the Minister of State an indication of the level of ambiguity, let me read just two conflicting responses from two local authorities. Meath County Council directly manages a housing stock of approximately 2,870 units, of which 1,179 contain a gas boiler and 620 an oil boiler. In the servicing regime for the said boilers, gas boilers are serviced annually while oil boilers are serviced biannually. On the other hand, Mayo County Council’s tenant handbook, which forms part of the tenancy agreement, requires all tenants of houses provided by Mayo County Council to ensure that a yearly servicing of boilers is carried out. The council is not legally required to carry out annual servicing of boilers. This is nonsensical. We have two totally conflicting and divergent situations in two different local authority areas. If this is the case where the State or local authority is the landlord, what is it like in the private sector? The Minister should query this directly with each local authority and with landlord associations, housing associations and other relevant groups. Ideally, I would sit down with the Minister and his officials to discuss this matter further as I feel there are real and practical approaches that can be taken. In Ireland, on average six people die unnecessarily per year from carbon monoxide poisoning.
Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government (Deputy John Paul Phelan):
I welcome the opportunity to answer the important query raised by Senator Swanick and I am glad to be here for the first sitting of the Seanad in its new building. I am looking at the roof and see alarms on the ceiling, though I do not know if there are also carbon monoxide detectors. It is a fantastic room and I wish Senators well in their time here. I am taking this matter on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, who is in the Dáil Chamber at the moment. This matter is particularly topical because – something I did not know until this morning – this is carbon monoxide awareness week. Perhaps that is what has prompted the Senator to bring it up as an issue today.
The presence of carbon monoxide in the home is recognised as a critical health and safety risk for households, which is why it was included as one of the new measures introduced under the revised minimum standards for rental accommodation, that is the housing standards for rented houses regulations 2017 which came into effect on 1 July this year. Article 6.6 of the regulations, on heating facilities, states that each house shall contain, where necessary, suitably located devices for the detection and alarm of carbon monoxide. The regulations also specify requirements for a range of other matters, including structural repair, sanitary facilities, heating, ventilation, fire, natural light and the safety of gas and electrical supply. With very limited exemptions, the regulations apply to local authority and voluntary housing units as well as private rented residential accommodation. All landlords are legally required to ensure that their rented properties comply with these regulations. Responsibility for enforcement of the regulations rests with the relevant local authority, supported by a dedicated stream of funding provided from part of the proceeds of the tenancy registration fees which are collected by the Residential Tenancies Board. More than €32 million has been paid to local authorities since 2004 to assist them in the performance of their functions under the housing Acts, including the inspection of rented accommodation. Since then, in excess of 185,000 inspections have been carried out.
To assist local authority inspectorate staff in determining compliance with the new standards, comprehensive guidelines have been developed and were issued to all housing authorities in August 2017. Carbon monoxide requirements are covered in much greater detail in these guidelines. The Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2009 gave local authorities legislative power to enable them to issue improvement notices and prohibition notices where landlords are in breach of their obligations. Fines for non-compliance with the new 2017 regulations were increased, with a maximum fine of €5,000 and a daily fine of €400 for each day the offence continues.
Anecdotal evidence from local authority inspectorates to date indicates that landlords, generally, have been proactive in fitting carbon monoxide detection devices in their rental properties. The strategy for the rental sector, published in December 2016, also prioritises the strengthening of the inspection capability of housing authorities to increase the number and frequency of inspections of rental properties. In addition to the updated regulations and guidelines, procedures for a more efficient, standardised and transparent inspections and enforcement approach across local authorities will be introduced, with specific ring-fenced funding for inspections provided from 2018 onwards. The target is that by 2021, 25% of all rental properties will be inspected annually.
Senator Swanick’s referred to the divergence in this respect across local authorities. The only commitment I can give here is that contact will be made with the local authorities. It is the case that in service provision across a number of sectors, local authorities vary from authority to authority in the way such provision is actioned on the ground. The prevention of carbon monoxide exposure and poisoning is an issue of such importance that there should be a more uniform approach to addressing it across the country. The Senator’s suggestion is not unreasonable.
Senator Dr. Keith Swanick: When the Minister, Deputy Naughten, was in the Seanad last December, he said: “Taking off my energy hat and putting on my climate change hat, it is important that all boilers are serviced on an annual basis because that improves their efficiency”. There is a simple solution to this issue. During the summer I drafted proposed legislation, the health and safety carbon monoxide Bill 2017. I would be happy to work on it with the Minister of State and his officials with a view to producing a solution to this issue during this important carbon monoxide awareness week.
Deputy John Paul Phelan: I will contact the Senator directly and we can meet up.