Thursday, 7 October 2021
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
Defective Building Materials
The first important matter has been submitted by Deputy Joe McHugh, who wishes to discuss the devastating impact of the mica housing crisis on a particular family, details supplied, which I presume is in County Donegal. We welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Malcolm Noonan, and thank him for being here to deal with the matter.
Gabhaim buíochas leis an gCeann Comhairle fá choinne an tseans labhairt ar an ábhar iontach tábhachtach seo. Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit.
As thousands of people from all over the country descend on our capital to highlight a humanitarian matter of untold proportion, I wish the march well tomorrow and everybody a safe journey to Dublin and back home. This evening I will speak about William and Trish, who started out in secondary school together, went to university together, got married and brought up four great children, who are now young adults. William and Trish's family was forced to leave their home in 2014, seven years ago, because of mica. They moved into rental accommodation, which, by the way, has mica. As they had to pay rent, they defaulted on their mortgage. Both husband and wife went through personal bankruptcy, recorded in the High Court, solely because of mica. The family has endured incredible levels of stress over these seven years but these people continued to keep their family on the right track through education, sport and the daily challenges in raising a family these days. Trish had to take early retirement from teaching because of post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of mica.
The rub for the family is that the bank that owned the mortgage sold it to another institution after the bankruptcy case. It sold, in effect, what was a worthless property. I want to send a public message to this institution tonight publicly, as I have tried to do it diplomatically and behind the scenes. I failed in that. I want somebody from within that institution to sit down with the family and try to figure out a way for the family to get peace and restart their lives. I want the institution to find a way for the family to recover from the trauma, fear, loss and distress felt over these past seven years, all caused by mica and through no fault of their own.
We should remember that the people who will march tomorrow will send a very loud message not just about what might happen in the days, weeks and years ahead if there is not a significant intervention by the Government but also it will concern what has happened with William, Trish and others like them. It is about the stress they have endured, the pressure they have been under and the cliff edge they have approached. Now is the time for us to hear the plight and voice of so many people who find themselves in an impossible position. Tonight my message is for this particular financial institution but it is also for the Government, insurance companies and all the stakeholders that can play a role in sorting out this impossible position in which people find themselves.
We must show them the way and indicate there is hope and light at the end of this terrible tunnel. I hope to hear from the Minister of State this evening that there will be an enormous effort and emphasis over the next few days and weeks to try to bring all this to a conclusion. I emphasise again my message to the banking institution involved with this case, along with other banking institutions. I ask them to show some humanity and let us see that they can work shoulder to shoulder with people who find themselves in this very dark place.
I thank the Deputy for raising this very important matter. The story he has told is replicating itself with thousands of families across the country. I hope I can provide, by way of background, where we are now and assure the Deputy that the Government is working tirelessly to try to resolve this matter on behalf of families.
The Department is not familiar with the specific details of the case but there are a number of broader points to be made. It may be useful for the Deputy to forward the exact details of the case involved to the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, who would be eager to assist in any way he can.
The first trip taken by the Minister when he took office was to Donegal for the launch of the current scheme. He saw first-hand the impact of mica and how important it was to give homeowners who have bought or built in good faith real hope and a path forward. They have done nothing wrong but simply worked hard to buy their own home only to see it turn into a nightmare. They deserve our full support. The scheme was designed by the previous Government and signed off in January 2020. It is all too clear now that the scheme is not working as intended and needs to be overhauled to help those homeowners.
In response to concerns expressed by homeowners and a unanimous Dáil motion on the matter, culminating in the June protest march, the Minister, Deputy O'Brien, established a time-bound working group to consider the concerns being raised. The first meeting of the group was held onWednesday, 30 June 2021, with the terms of reference agreed. In total, eight meetings took place over the life of the group and numerous breakout sessions were also facilitated.
At the request of the homeowner representatives, it was agreed to extend the timeframe of the working group from the end of July to the end of September. Throughout August, the Department facilitated the homeowners' intensive engagement with the Housing Agency to flesh out the matter in greater detail. The last meeting of the working group took place on Wednesday, 29 September, with the Minister, Deputy O'Brien. He commended the effort of volunteer homeowners and the leadership role they have taken for their communities to help reach agreement on these matters.
The family representatives were disappointed with the output of the group but it fleshed out the matters involved and it will help ensure a fully informed Cabinet decision on any changes. Their views have been heard loud and clear. A final output report arising from the engagement of the working group has been commissioned and published on the Department's website, which includes Engineers Ireland correspondence, the homeowners' final position paper and the Department's observations.
Following the conclusion of the working group report, and building on a cross-party Dáil motion of June 2021, the Minister wrote to each Opposition spokesperson on housing to seek their views and input into potential changes to the scheme. The Minister has previously sought their views on major documents, such as Housing for All, and has accepted Opposition amendments on legislation, such as the Land Development Agency and Affordable Housing Acts. It should be noted that the main Opposition party did not once mention defective concrete blocks as part of its submission to Housing for All, so the letter to them on Monday was an opportunity, once again, for them to submit their views. Any responses will be considered as part of designing an improved scheme.
The Minister will now, along with the Taoiseach, Tånaiste and the Ministers for the environment, Deputy Eamon Ryan, Finance, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, and Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, with input from the Attorney General, consider proposals that can then be presented to Cabinet. The Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, intends to bring a memorandum to Cabinet in the coming weeks.
There are three key principles that will inform any changes to the scheme, that is, that they are timely, reasonable and consistent. They should be timely in the sense that since there are ongoing risks associated with the most damaged homes, a short-term solution to address this important work will be required to implement any changes and the work must be done in the most efficient and effective way. There must be reasonable, evidence-based solutions. These solutions must be justified from an engineering perspective and the costs for undertaking remediation works should be quantified. There should be a safety net for homeowners undertaking remediation should they require further work to be done on their home. The key test for remediation is that the home can be sold in future and any changes must achieve this. The changes must be consistent in that each homeowner should receive the same support for the same solution, there should be consistency within each county, and between counties, and engineers need to be clear on the criteria for assessing options and clear on the regulations that apply. I again thank the Ceann Comhairle for the additional time.
I thank the Minister of State. I appreciate his statement. I know he will talk directly to his party leader and we all look forward to the meeting between the three party leaders. His colleague, Michael White, in Moville, has contacted the mica group in the past few days.
Once again, to focus on the issue of timeliness, this has gone on too long. There is nobody more disappointed than me that the original scheme did not work out. I worked closely with the mica group on it but when a thing is not working, we all have to put up our hands and figure out a better way. I totally accept that the Minister and his officials are working on a more enhanced scheme. There was very little detail in the report presented to us last week, so it is very important that the detail will be there. I am a little concerned by the word "weeks". It does not really say when and we should really nail that down.
A strong message will come from the city centre protest tomorrow. Many people will be there, including many who are not directly affected by mica. There has been such solidarity on this issue because Irish people are good at putting their feet into other people's shoes. For any homeowners not affected by mica, it is hard to even comprehend what it is like. While many people spent their time during lockdown talking about doing up their gardens and houses, building extensions and all that, that nightmare continued for so many people.
I again thank the Minister of State for his time. It is another opportunity to keep this issue alive and on the agenda. It will be very much on the agenda tomorrow, with people power and feet on the ground. The reason I raised the issue of William and Trish and their family is that it is an example of so many families who have spent seven to ten years living that nightmare. They are out of their homes. William sent a message to me today saying he does not want to be a victim. People with mica in their homes do not want to be victims in this scenario. They want it sorted, they want 100% redress and they want the Government to do the right thing by making that scheme accessible and affordable for them. We have to move on from this.
When William and Trish look their young adult children in the eyes, they have to do so in the full knowledge that their parents did everything they could. William is a former chair of the Mica Action Group. He has done everything but he does not feel that he has. We have to bring this to a quick conclusion.
It is expected that significant changes will be made to the scheme. Progress has been made to date through the group and issues such as removing upfront costs for assessing the scheme have been agreed with homeowners, as have other issues, including rent costs for those who have had to move out of their homes. Planning permission exemptions have been agreed for like-for-like developments, as have proposals for the replacement of damaged septic tanks. In addition, a guarantee on second grant access for homes that undergo remedial work to ensure they can access supports if any future problems emerge has been agreed. This will help ensure homes can be sold in future. It is expected any new scheme will involve a commitment of more than €1.4 billion, with significant changes. In comparison with the international models, it will be one of the most comprehensive packages in the world for homeowners in similar situations.
The Government is committed, along with the Attorney General, to seeking financial contributions from liable parties. The Deputy raised this issue. I have spoken to the Minister about this and he is determined we should pursue those parties and other stakeholders to help fund any future scheme. The Government, Minister and Department are all committed to working with homeowners in order to find resolutions to the issues under review. All options remain on the table, including that of a 100% grant, and no final decision has been taken. It is the Minister's intention that the matter will be brought to the Cabinet in the coming weeks and clarity and certainty will be given to homeowners to allow them to move on with their lives.
I again reassure the Deputy that while the Minister is unable to be in the House today, it is critically important that stories, like the one the Deputy told of William and his family, are told because they deeply affect communities. He is correct about the social solidarity this issue has brought about throughout the country. There will be a large public demonstration tomorrow but I again give assurance that the Government is working tirelessly to try to resolve this issue satisfactorily to the benefit of all the families concerned.