ANN-MARIE HARDIMAN recently spoke to Maeve Hogan, Chief Executive of the Property Services Regulatory Authority.
Since taking up the post of CEO of the Property Services Regulatory Authority (PSRA) in August 2015, Maeve Hogan might be said to have hit the ground running. She has a lengthy list of priorities to maximise the Authority’s efficiency and raise awareness of its dual role in relation to both the regulation of property service providers and the protection of consumers.
High on this list is an urgent need to deal with unlicensed operators. Maeve is unequivocal: “I have zero tolerance for unlicensed operators. This is a major priority for me and for the Board of the PSRA, and it’s obviously a priority for compliant property service providers as well”.
So far, there have been five successful prosecutions in the District Court for unlicensed activity and more are in the pipeline. This is a significant issue for consumers, who have no protection in the event of a problem arising where they have used an unlicensed operator.
“If the consumer uses a licensed operator, they have access to our complaints mechanism, and if clients suffer financial loss as a result of a dishonest action by the licensee, they have access to the Authority’s compensation fund. Clients of unlicensed operators have no consumer protection rights under the Act.”
The Authority favours a two-pronged approach to dealing with these issues. The first element involves increased resources, particularly in terms of staffing: “It was intended that the Authority would have a staff of 30, and we have 18 staff members at the moment. We hope to take on additional staff over the next couple of months, and we also have sanction to outsource our complaints and audit functions. That will greatly assist in the whole area of undertaking audits, and also in terms of visibility in the sector – people will see that the PSRA has resources on the ground, and that unlicensed activity will not be tolerated”.
The second, and equally vital, element is communications. The Authority has produced several newsletters for licence holders, and is currently redesigning its website to make it more user-friendly and informative. The new online licence renewal system (of which more later) will provide the Authority with an email address for every licensee, and that will considerably improve communications in the longer term. The Authority has just completed updates of its guides for both property service providers (on how to become licensed) and consumers (on what to expect from a property service provider). In addition, the Authority has just completed a guide for licensees on what to expect when selected by the Authority for an audit investigation. This guide removes any uncertainty or misunderstanding of what an audit entails and provides clarity concerning the role of the Authority’s inspector and of the licensee during the audit.
“I have zero tolerance for unlicensed operators. This is a major priority for me and for the Board of the PSRA, and it’s obviously a priority for compliant property service providers as well.”
In terms of informing consumers of their rights and responsibilities, there is a significant gap in awareness, which Maeve intends to address as a matter of urgency: “We hope to run a radio/media campaign on the benefits and significance for consumers in using a licensed property service provider. If there are unlicensed operators out there, then there are consumers who are using them. Consumers are not aware that the Authority can’t investigate their complaint because they used an unlicensed operator. Consumers need to understand what to expect from a property service provider – what are the standards and what are their rights. An enormous amount of education will be needed, and we won’t fix it in one campaign, but it is a priority”.
The campaign will advise consumers to check the Authority’s website – www.psr.ie – where they can find out whether a property service provider is licensed, and the Authority encourages consumers (and property service providers) to make complaints, anonymously if they wish, regarding unlicensed operators. Maeve states that, to date, there have been no claims on the Authority’s compensation fund, which is an excellent reflection on licensed practitioners around the country.
Undoubtedly the biggest development in terms of the Authority’s function is the move this year to online renewal of licences and payment of fees. This process is underway and Maeve is very keen to get the message out – online renewal is happening and it is mandatory.
The Authority is using www.licences.ie – an online licensing portal administered by An Post – to operate the new system. Renewal letters will issue in April, and the deadline for licences due for renewal in July is May 25. Each individual licence holder will be required to register on www.licences.ie, but in response to demand from the sector, there will be a facility for employers to pay fees on behalf of their employees (see panel above for details). The use of www.licences.ie means that the cost to the PSRA of going online will be minimal. In fact, the switch will generate savings for the Authority: “We estimate that there will be a direct saving of two clerical officers. Because the Authority is under-resourced, those savings will be assigned to other areas to address staffing shortfalls”.
With absolutely no exceptions to the online rule, Maeve and her staff are making every effort to facilitate companies and individuals to navigate the new system successfully. Information relating to renewing licences online will be available on the Authority’s website and through its newsletters. An instruction video on the Authority’s website will offer a step-by-step guide to renewing online, while temporary staff will run a help desk to address licensees’ queries. In addition, Maeve and her staff are availing of every opportunity to meet with property service providers, including a series of information sessions that will take place around the country from April (see panel on page 14). These will be open to all licensees, whether they are members of a professional body or not (according to Maeve, approximately half of all licensees are not), and while their focus will be on online renewal, the PSRA staff will welcome queries on any issues of concern. Finally, to ensure the success of the online project, opportunities will be provided in the PSRA’s office in Navan and at a location in Portlaoise, Co. Laois, for property service providers to receive direct assistance from staff of the Authority in completing their online application, including scanning and downloading documentation, and completing the online registration, renewal and payment process.
“The Authority will facilitate everyone as far as is practicable and that means we will literally have our scanners and our laptops in these locations. We’ve made it as simple as possible. We’re pulling out all the stops to show the importance that we’re attaching to this project and we want to make it a success.”
Maeve is adamant that there will be no extension to the May 25 deadline. Late applications will not be accepted, and licensees will instead have to go through the whole process of a new application. She also emphasises the importance of renewing as soon as licensees receive their invitation to renew letter.
Addressing the skills shortage
In addition to the PSRA’s priorities, Maeve is anxious to engage with the sector to address issues of importance to property service providers and their representative bodies. One of the major issues at the moment is a skills shortage in the sector, which is seen as potentially threatening recovery. The Authority is bound by its regulations with regard to the qualifications required by applicants for a licence, but Maeve points out that applicants must engage with the Authority, which assesses each application on a case-by-case basis: “The regulations clearly outline the requirements to qualify for a licence, and Paragraph (d) of those regulations gives the Authority parameters to consider other experience in the sector, but it must be relevant, recent experience. As the Regulator, I have taken a number of decisions where I have taken experience into account and, on the back of that, have issued licences”.
Such cases have included people who have exited the sector to raise a family, for example, and now wish to return: “If you engage with us and supply all relevant documentation as requested, we will respond to all enquiries. We are there to support the licensee, and if they can provide the information that’s required, and meet the criteria, there is no reason why more licences couldn’t issue”.
Maeve points out that applicants for licences must engage with the Authority and in a significant amount of cases, applicants do not respond to the Authority’s queries. Non-engagement by applicants leads to refusal of licences. Maeve refers people to www.psr.ie, and the Guide to becoming a Property Service Provider, which provides an extensive list of the qualifications accepted by the Authority.
Another suggestion has been the idea of issuing trainee licences. Maeve is open to discussion on this, but says a lot of work would be needed (as well as a change in the legislation): “My concern around a trainee licence is: what would the trainee be allowed to do? It would need to be clear that the trainee was not providing a property service as provided for under the legislation – there would have to be safeguards”.
Another priority for the Authority will be the development of a CPD programme, and there will be considerable scope here for engagement with the professional bodies: “That’s something that both the industry and the Authority are very committed to. It’s another means of continuing the professionalism of the sector – advising property service providers on best practice, and updating their training and skills”.
The Education and Qualification Committee of the Authority has proposed that nominated bodies would be engaged to provide CPD, which Maeve hopes would cover areas such as ethics, legislation/regulation, management and consumer protection. Establishing the programme will require secondary legislation, which is at an early stage of development, but Maeve hopes the scheme will be up and running by January of next year.
“The aim of the forum is to engage with operators who are on the frontline day in and day out dealing with the legislation and regulation in the sector, and with clients and clients’ concerns. This is a forum for them to meet with the regulator, outline their concerns and suggest areas for improvement”.
As stated earlier, the Authority intends to utilise additional resources to significantly increase the number of audits it carries out. Maeve welcomes this, saying: “Audits are very important and are a means of the PSRA engaging with licensees to improve standards in the sector”.
The vast majority of issues arising at audits are minor, and easily rectified. They include issues such as letters of engagement not being signed within the appropriate timeframe, or failure to include licence numbers on literature such as receipts and invoices. Maeve says that very few serious issues have arisen among licensed providers, and compliments the property service providers who have been subject to audit, who she says have been very welcoming to the staff of the Authority: “I think the sector sees audits as driving compliance and improving standards. People want to be compliant but there is a lot in the legislation and the regulations, and I hope to address those issues with the availability of guides and through CPD”.
As outlined earlier, the Authority has just completed a detailed guide for licensees on what to expect from an audit, which is available on the PSRA website.
Continuing to build strong links to the professional bodies, and to all sections of the industry, remains a priority for the Authority, and to this end Maeve is initiating a forum in the coming weeks with the aim of bringing a range of stakeholders together. She says that the SCSI has been very proactive in and supportive of its establishment: “The aim of the forum is to engage with operators who are on the frontline day in and day out dealing with the legislation and regulation in the sector, and with clients and clients’ concerns. This is a forum for them to meet with the regulator, outline their concerns and suggest areas for improvement”.
Maeve hopes that the forum will be up and running in the coming weeks, and that it will be the beginning of a real process of engagement and interaction.
The Authority is also developing a code of practice, in conjunction with secondary legislation. For Maeve, the key is accessibility: “My aim is to meet as many licensees as possible, and for licensees to engage with the Regulator, through either the representative bodies or directly. I’m very open to suggestions for improving communication. My door is open”.
Online renewals – here to stay
This year, the PSRA will move to a fully online licence renewal and payment system. For property service providers whose licences are due for renewal on July 5 (approximately 80%), renewal letters will issue in April, and the deadline for registration and renewal is May 25. There are two simple steps to the process:
- register at www.licences.ie – you will need an email address to do this; and,
- once registered, use the PIN number that accompanied your renewal invitation letter, and your licence number, to renew your licence and make payments.
Payments can be made by debit or credit card, or by electronic funds transfer (EFT). Licences.ie allows payment of employees’ licence fees and contribution to the Authority’s compensation fund to be made by their employer.
In renewing their licence online, employers must submit an accountant’s report, professional indemnity insurance (PII) certificate (if required), and a certificate of incorporation. It will not be necessary for employers to submit a tax clearance certificate, as the Authority can obtain this directly from Revenue. However, the requirement to be tax compliant remains. All documents must be scanned and submitted online via www.licences.ie – the PSRA will not accept manual submission of documents.
If employers wish to pay the licence fee and compensation fund contribution on behalf of their employees, they can do so once the employee has registered with www.licences.ie. Employers can simply go into www.licences.ie, where they will see a full list of their employees (once they have registered on www.licences.ie), and make a payment for each employee.
Dubliner with a grá for Dingle
A Dubliner from Clontarf, Maeve is, in her own words, “a career civil servant”, having spent her working life with the Department of Justice. Prior to taking up her current post, she spent a year as Chief Inspector with the Private Security Authority, where she oversaw compliance of licensees in that sector, a role, she says, that was “quite similar to the PSRA”. She also worked with the Garda Inspectorate, and was the lead on the Inspectorate’s report into the fixed-charge penalty system. In her free time she plays “a bit of golf” in Corrstown Golf Club in North County Dublin, and enjoys walking. Holidays are spent in Ireland, in her beloved holiday home in Dingle.
Ann-Marie is a journalist and sub-editor with Think Media Ltd.