Tuesday 22 October 2019

There really should be laws against this

The people-stacking slumlords are part of a wave of social evil that needs a tough response, writes Gene Kerrigan

Illustration by Tom Halliday
Illustration by Tom Halliday
Gene Kerrigan

Gene Kerrigan

The crime, the corruption and the social evils are coming at us in waves. And the very expensive defences we have in place to protect us have turned out to be bugger all use.

These days, it's almost as though there's a competition to see who can do us the greatest damage.

We have a suggestion as to how we can deal with this. It means getting serious about law and order. Trouble is, the politicians in charge are butter-soft on crime.

Much of the foul activity clusters around the housing market.

In October, Amy Molloy exposed the activities of Dublin slum landlords, on Independent.ie. And, last week, RTE's Barry O'Kelly graphically showed the recklessness with which they hunt profit.

People are stacked in minimal space, with inhuman conditions, and that scandal is intimately related to the way the property market is being allowed to operate.

Dubliners pay 55pc of their take-home pay on rent. The cost of living exceeds that of Paris or Copenhagen, it costs more to live in Cork or Galway than in Rome, Brussels, Florence or Berlin.

Huge profits are being raked in by the usual suspects.

Naively, we accept that prices "rise", as though they're borne aloft by gentle breezes. Prices don't "rise", they are set. And the people who set them reshape our lives and our country to give them the biggest possible profit.

There are couples desperate to buy, fearing they'll spend the first 15 years of their partnership in someone else's spare bedroom.

People who play by the rules find themselves out on the street because it increases someone's profit potential.

Like wolves, vultures and vermin, all seeking in their different ways to feed off the flesh of a wounded animal, the greedy come at us from all directions.

We are not humans. We are mortgage slaves and rent generators.

The function of the housing market is not to house the population - it is to extract from us the fortunes these people are intent on building.

Land hoarders push up prices; builders who hoard planning permissions do the same. Estate agents know the higher the price, the greater the commission.

We even have outfits we routinely call "vultures", who circle the rest of us, sniffing for opportunities. As though we don't have enough homegrown vultures, they've been flying in from abroad, nostrils twitching at the scent of money.

And the people we elect to govern the country give the vultures a big cead mile failte. "Vultures," our former Minister for Finance said, "you know, carry out a very good service in the ecology. They clean up dead animals that are littered across the landscape."

They've even set up Nama for the profit hogs, a multi-billion one-stop shop to service the wealthy who get to pick and choose the bits of the economic wreckage they'll buy at bargain basement rates, to flog on at vast profits, regardless of the effects on the rest of us.

Rising house prices are good for the banks, the politicians care for little else.

The more people evicted, the higher the rents you can charge those desperate to replace those you're turning out on to the streets.

The more people trying to stay off the streets, the greater the market for the filthy bastards who cram dozens into premises meant for one family - fire risk be damned.

Lawyers and accountants get rich helping the market's winners pay as little tax as possible.

The politicians put in special measures to ensure the vultures pay hardly anything.

Meanwhile, like dogs scenting our weakness, bankers have recovered from their short period of shame, to pick our pockets all over again. The fact that the police haven't already been all over the tracker mortgage scam is not at all surprising.

But, then, we know that the police are grand when tackling shoplifters, prostitutes and drunks. They have a handful of cops they can reasonably trust to handle very serious cases, such as murder - but the dysfunctional nature of the force is no secret.

Waves of white-collar crime have washed over the country since the 1970s, and the police simply didn't recognise most of it as crime.

When trusted with prosecuting one prominent banker, the system passed the job to a solicitor inexperienced in criminal work.

When informed of dangerous stacking of humans in fire traps, Dublin City Council did nothing, even as they were told again and again.

The political, policing and prosecution systems are not geared to regulate all this. Whether it's vultures evicting, bankers siphoning money or filthy bastard people-stackers putting lives at risk - it's a free market at work.

And for everyone from our Taoiseach down, a "free market" is a holy thing, to be venerated and protected with the same callous dedication the bishops of old used to protect their holy beliefs. When the media makes a fuss - which isn't often enough - there's a bit of scuttling around, some people get slapped on the wrists, but the conditions that generate the scandals remain.

Vote out the current crowd? Sure, why not - it would be fun to see them saddened to lose their state cars and drivers. But the other shower has precisely the same policies, with just little details to argue about in an effort to justify their existence as separate parties.

There are more left-wingers in the Dail, but they haven't been able to create a solid presence around which an effective opposition could grow.

Perhaps the trade unions, community groups, people who represent those most exploited by the greedy, could launch anti-corruption campaigns, fighting to end the way the establishment tolerates crime.

In tax frauds, for instance, no deals, no buying your way out of trouble. Put them in jail, lengthy sentences. Not just the occasional case, to show it can be done. Every case.

The laws against the people-stackers and the vultures would need to be complex and lengthy. They have the most lawyers.

The principle is clear: housing should be about housing, it's fine to make a living from providing it, it's fine to get a return on your investment. But turning our housing needs into ruthless money-harvesting, regardless of the effects, should be and could be criminalised.

A State that can find a case of false imprisonment in a teenager walking backwards in front of a minister should be able to handle this.

All State business with bankers should be conducted on affidavit. From a decade ago, when we were assured the banks were "adequately capitalised", just before they collapsed, we've been played for fools. Lying has become a habit. Everything they say should be on the record, under oath.

In fact, all business should be conducted on affidavit. The money-hustlers have ensured that the reputation of this country sucks - let it be known that we jail liars. And the people they pay to lie on their behalf. The fixed penalty for lying on oath - 10 years.

Lobbying should be allowed - all lobbyists would be registered, lobby boxes would be set up, wired for sound and video, and all lobbying should be in public, on the record.

Any lobbyist speaking to a politician outside a lobby box would get 10 years. Any politician answering the lobbyist would get 20.

Either we do something about it, or the waves of crime, corruption and social evil will continue to plague the lives of our children and theirs.

If you can't do the time, don't do the crime.

Sunday Independent

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