Thursday, 8 July 2021
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
Defective Building Materials
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, the House. I acknowledge his participation and commitment, and also that of the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O’Brien, in respect of the ongoing conversations to try to bring a conclusion and successful outcome to the mica situation playing on the minds of so many people and interfering with so many plans. We must move forward in respect of the vacuum which exists regarding this matter now. Therefore, I acknowledge the Minister of State, the Minister and their team of officials on the mica action group for the work they are trying to do to make progress on this issue.
Regarding this specific issue, I forwarded the details to the Minister of State. I refer to a large family, where some of the children have medical conditions, living in a house which will need to be demolished because its structural fabric contains mica. However, this family is not in a position to be able to move out of their house. They are unable to avail of accommodation which will facilitate the large numbers of family members. The specific medical conditions involved in this case are another factor complicating the situation. Therefore, I am asking for flexibility. There is a willingness on the part of officials in Donegal County Council. They are sympathetic and understand the situation. They certainly want to facilitate this family. There is also an understanding and a certain degree of sympathy within the Department in respect of trying to facilitate some sort of arrangement to enable this family to stay living in their house until a new house is built.
The Minister of State will cite the regulations and specifics concerning houses having to be rebuilt on their original footprint. I appreciate and understand that is in the regulations. What we need to hear, however, from the Minister of State is not just a bit of common sense but also some sort of acceptance that there are going to be hard cases and exceptions concerning people trying to access the mica redress scheme. We have many examples. I refer to young men and women who had to emigrate between 2008 and 2011 through no fault of their own. Their houses are being rented out now and are not covered by the scheme. Elderly couples and people in the later stages of life cannot access mortgages. Therefore, there are hard cases and what we need to address this situation is a protocol regarding facilitating exceptions to the general rule. We have something like that in the Department of Social Protection because not everything is an exact science when dealing with individuals and families.
The Minister of State, then, will be citing the reason that what I am requesting cannot be done now. However, I ask the officials in the local authorities in Mayo and Donegal, the officials in the Housing Agency and the Department’s team of officials to sit around a table and consider a protocol which will have the requisite flexibility to deal with people’s unique circumstances. One such unique situation involves this large family. They cannot get a house that will cater to their needs while their new house is being built. The family has the land and space to build adjacent to the existing house, so I again call for flexibility in respect of such cases and an acceptance that we do have exceptional cases of this kind to deal with. My colleague, Councillor Bernard McGuinness, in Culdaff has been raising this issue with me for several weeks. The Minister of State and his officials are also aware of this issue, so hopefully we can make progress with devising some sort of protocol to bring this situation to a conclusion and to give the family peace of mind as they move through the next phase of trying to reconstruct their home and their lives. I ask that we endeavour to meet them at least halfway.
I thank Deputy McHugh for raising this very important issue and for keeping me updated with details regarding many of his constituents whose lives have been so negatively affected by the scourge of mica. The Deputy puts forward a very strong case concerning this family in a very vulnerable situation. I am acutely aware of the distress this issue with defective concrete blocks has caused to people. What happened was wrong and I assure everyone affected that Minister Darragh O'Brien and I are committed to having an effective grants scheme in place to support these people.
As Deputy McHugh outlined, there are some very difficult cases and flexibility will be required. I met dozens of families from Donegal, Mayo and beyond when the protest concerning mica took place here at the convention centre. There can be no doubt of the devastation and pain these families are experiencing because of this issue. The Government is committed to providing solutions to homeowners affected by this issue of defective concrete blocks.
The remedial options provided for under the current defective concrete block grant scheme constitute a material alteration to an existing building. This was provided to remediate the issue of defective blocks and return the building to a condition it would have been in had it not been affected by the use of mica or pyrite in the blockwork. Remedial option 1 specifically provides for the demolition of the house and its subsequent rebuild on the original foundations. I am advised that the option of building a new home outside of existing foundations would not be supported by the current legislation underpinning the grant scheme. This legislation specifically provides for the payment of a grant for the improvement of the existing dwelling and not the construction of an entirely new dwelling on a new set of foundations. Under the scheme currently formulated, homeowners choosing to build a new home in a different location on the site and not on the existing foundations would disqualify themselves from grant assistance.
However, we have established a time-bound working group with representatives from our Department, local authorities and homeowner representative groups to review quickly and address any outstanding issues relating to the operation of the defective concrete blocks scheme. Deputy McHugh has made his feelings about this case and other cases very well known to the group and to officials in our Department and he passionately articulated them when he addressed the group that came up to Dublin recently. The working group will also examine grant caps, homeowner contributions, allowable costs and qualifying works. It will be a requirement that the review be completed by 31 July and recommendations from this group will inform the changes that are required. Following receipt of the report of the working group, consultation with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform and the Attorney General's office will have to take place. Hopefully, proposals will be brought to the Government on foot of that.
I fully understand the frustrations Deputy McHugh is articulating as regards this vulnerable family. One of the reasons we get into politics is to provide solutions for vulnerable people like them. There must be flexible in some of these very difficult situations. I assure the Deputy that we will not be found wanting in trying to resolve these issues. We will do our very best. These are very difficult circumstances but we will do our very best to resolve them and I will be using my influence as best I can within the Department to resolve this issue, in conjunction with Deputy McHugh.
I thank the Ceann Comhairle. His Kildare colleague was here for a few minutes. During that protest by Donegal people, I met a friend of the Ceann Comhairle's from Kildare, who was there in sympathy with the many families from Donegal and to support them. That protest highlighted the national tragedy of this issue. Irish people from all counties now have a full understanding of what it is like because of the recent campaign. Over the last number of weeks many people have tried to put themselves in the shoes of these families in Donegal. Even though I am a Donegal man, and I know people affected in my own parish and throughout different parts of the county, it is very difficult to understand unless the person has lived it and has spent the last year and a half in lockdown while many people were upgrading and enhancing their houses. So many people with mica have had to look at cracks in the walls getting bigger and deal with that devastation.
I agree with the Ceann Comhairle that the Minister of State's response was positive. I welcome that and appreciate it. We need regulations and guidelines, because we are going to be dealing with such large amounts of taxpayers' money. That being said, we have to take on board the full nature of this national tragedy and disaster. This is about individual lives and families trying to deal with this hour by hour and day by day, living the nightmare. We as legislators owe this to them. We are united as a House. We are in unison. We want people to access this scheme and we want 100% funding because the 90% scheme is not working. We want to work this out and bring this to a conclusion. The only way we can do that is to look at families like this one in Donegal. It is a large family and they are only looking for one thing, that is, for their medical needs and personal circumstances to be taken on board. Let us work with local authority officials and Department officials to come up with a commonsense solution, taking on board this family's unique circumstances. I am hopeful that we can do that together.
I again thank Deputy McHugh for all the points he has raised. Like him, I met many of the families affected at the protest adjacent to the convention centre. I heard their stories first-hand and listened to them, which is key. I heard the frustration and the anger they have felt over the last number of years. The lockdown really put that in focus, as many people were doing up their homes and going to different hardware stores. Many of the things people enjoy within the comfort of their own homes were denied these families.
I assure the Deputy and the House that the Government is committed to improving supports for homeowners affected by defective concrete blocks and is acutely aware of the particular difficulties and unique challenges faced by many of the families. I reiterate that the current scheme is under review and the issue of qualifying works is within the scope of that review. The issue is being prioritised within the Department and as I said, the group is due to complete its report by 31 July. I understand that this can be frustrating for people but the Deputy will appreciate that we have to engage with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, as well as the Office of the Attorney General, subsequent to the report's publication, in order to devise a scheme that will work for people. It is very important that we make those critical changes. As I said, I will do my very best within the Department and will work with Donegal County Council to provide as much assistance as possible to this specific family. The Department remains in constant dialogue with Donegal County Council in an attempt to find a resolution in this specific case. It is of paramount importance that we find a solution for this family so we can enable them to access the full benefits of the scheme and allow them to live in a home that is structurally sound, in order that they can safely plan for their future and that of their children.
Deputy McHugh made reference to meeting Seán Hegarty during the protest. He is an adopted native son of Kildare at this point but he has never lost his affinity with County Donegal.