Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Times: Rent Reform - Bartolo raps Borg for 'cynical, derisory and depreciative' remarks

Scroll down for the audio clip of Tonio Borg's Speech.

"The state has to intervene to do justice with owners but also to protect tenants as regards increases in rents where expenses for repairs were incurred by owners".

Labour MP Evarist Bartolo yesterday criticised Deputy Prime Minister Tonio Borg for having been cynical, derisory and depreciative when last week he answered Opposition Leader Joseph Muscat who had mentioned gay or cohabitating couples during the debate on the rent reform legislation. He said that this was in stark contrast to what the PN had told gay people during last year's electoral campaign.

Mr Bartolo said such a tone would not have been heard in the run-up to an election. Proof of this was the PN electoral
manifesto for the 1998 election.

The PN stance had still been evident before last year's general elections, after representatives of the Malta Gay Rights Movement had met a delegation of the PN. The MGRM had submitted a list of proposals for the manifesto, but the most important for them had been the regulation and legal protection of such couples as enjoyed by married heterosexual couples.

Malta needed other legislation on civil partnerships of cohabitating or gay couples. It was the absence of such legislation that was leading Labour to call for protection of such couples.
Long-standing cohabitating couples were scared of the prospects of one of the partners' demise and the ensuing effects, which could render the surviving partner homeless.

Mr Bartolo said that one major reason for Malta's accession to the EU had been the removal of strong social prejudices for people of other-than-heterosexual orientation. But last March an EU report had said that Malta was one of seven countries in which protection from discrimination against homosexuals existed only in employment legislation.

The report, which urged that such protection be extended to other areas, specifically housing, had also said there existed no machinery in Malta for such protection.
The EU was proposing the insertion of a directive against discrimination in several aspects, including gays. The government was maintaining that the directive was still premature and that things should be allowed to mature before incorporating such a directive in Maltese law. But at the pre-election meeting with the MGRM the government had said it was in favour of such a directive.
Concluding, Mr Bartolo said that if the government had followed this line in racism and disability, for example, the legislation would still have remained unchanged.

Earlier, the opposition's spokesman on the economy and the self-employed, Gavin Gulia, called on the government to withdraw the Commercial Rent Index proposal as this might not be practical.

He agreed that commercial rents increase by 15 per cent every three years. The Bill proposed that the index would be established, with objections referred to the Rent Regulation Board as from 2013 if the index had not been established by then.

He said he was very hesitant because the Rent Regulation Board's workload was more than enough.

He suggested that as a result of another proposal - that the commercial tenement would be reclaimed by the owner after 20 years - the House would agree to a percentage increase in commercial rent for the remaining period. He claimed that this would present a clearer picture and would avoid the complexity brought about by the establishment of the index.

This, he said, would also eliminate the need to file court applications to remedy such situations.

Labour MP José Herrera said his party's position on the Bill showed that it was not opportunistic but mature and responsible. It would vote in favour of the Bill in second reading but would be presenting a number of amendments in committee stage to safeguard the social aspects in the rent reform.

The Bill, he said, should not burden low income earners so that these would not suffer any hardship. The opposition expected that in substance, the government would accept the necessary amendments to safeguard the welfare state. This would also show that both sides of the House were aiming at political consensus on non-partisan issues.

Dr Herrera proposed that the title of the Bill be changed because it affected laws and ordnances other than those established under the Civil Code.

All remaining requisition orders should be removed and the rent of such tenements should be converted accordingly so that these would be at par with rents in the private sector as established under the 1995 Act. The Bill should apply in the same manner to all rented tenements.

Dr Herrera proposed that the Bill should include legal mechanisms to protect persons inheriting leases in case of the tenant's death and, more importantly, the budget for social housing should reflect this situation.

He said the Bill was not clear regarding the protection of requisitioned clubs. He said these should be protected to a certain limit so that social life would not be disrupted. But such protection should not be left to ministerial discretion.

Owen Bonnici (PL) said the Labour Party had taken a very pragmatic stand in the debate.
He said the rights of over-60 siblings of the tenant, who had also lived in the tenement for the past four years and were therefore promised protection and succession rights, should be extended to all siblings irrespective of their age.

On commercial leases Dr Bonnici said the Bill contained very drastic changes from the present scenario. One common phenomenon in his practice was when two people entered into an agreement saying that the rent would amount to €2.33 a day and after 10 years became permanent. The word "rent" of itself showed a finite contract. The government was proposing that such agreements be reduced to 20 years' duration from June 1, 2008. He was proposing that such contracts should be transformed with provisos that such leases could not be sub-let.
Contrary to other rumours, Labour wanted protection for clubs because of their social and cultural aspects. Having said this, the onus of such protection should not be borne by the private sector, but by the government. The fact that such protection could be accorded through subsequent legislation was not reassuring in a scenario where another minister might not share the appreciation of such clubs.

Dr Bonnici said that except for an initial period of a few years, persons who were not married but lived together with the tenant at the time of the latter's demise would have no protection. Such situations shone a warning light on the need to have legislation regulating cohabitation, which was becoming more and more diffused. The Bill was obviously intended to reduce protection in such cases of civil partnership and he could not propose such protection in the Bill, but the phenomenon of cohabitation was a growing reality.

The procedure under the Rent Regulation Board must be simplified. One of the problems was the subpoena of witnesses. By comparison, the procedure in the Industrial Tribunal was much more effective, to the tune that cases under the latter were usually concluded in months while others before the Rent Regulation Board usually lasted years.

The government should look into this situation and adopt the procedures of the Rent Regulation Board, concluded Dr Bonnici.

Luciano Busuttil (PL) said everyone agreed on the removal of social injustices to property owners, but certain tenants had to be given protection to avoid further social injustice. Children under five years, even having lived for less than four years in the tenement, had to be protected under the right to inheritance.

He agreed that lease contracts be in writing and registered accordingly, adding that the Bill should oblige contractors to register.

Dr Busuttil said that certain residential rents prior to 1995 were absurd. However, the new rent of €185 had to be reviewed after embarking on a social impact assessment so that the elderly and people passing through hard times because of the current economic situation would not face additional hardship. Capping on residential leases and restrictions to ministerial discretion had to be considered. Siblings of tenants, even if under 60, had to be protected.

On commercial rents, Dr Busuttil said that the 20-year clause should not apply to situations where there existed an agreement between property owners and tenants. One also had to consider that tenants were able to absorb the revised commercial rents.

The state has to intervene to do justice with owners but also to protect tenants as regards increases in rents where expenses for repairs were incurred by owners. The time limit for institutionalised persons had to be extended; otherwise one had to check that the institutionalised person would not be in a position to return to live in the rented premises.
The debate continues today.

At the beginning of yesterday's sitting, the House unanimously resolved that Labour MP Charles Buhagiar be appointed a member on the permanent planning development committee. He replaces Anthony Zammit (PL).

[Click on the hyperlink above to view the comments]

You can listen to a short clip here.

You can listen to the whole recording here: Parliament 14/01/2009. Tonio Borg speaks after Joseph Muscat, half way through the mp3 file.

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