Dáil debates

Thursday, 20 January 2022

Regulation of Providers of Building Works Bill 2022: Second Stage


3:55 pm

Photo of Darragh O'BrienDarragh O'Brien (Dublin Fingal, Fianna Fail)
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I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I am pleased to have this opportunity to present the Regulation of Providers of Building Works Bill 2022 to the House. Many examples of building failure as a result of non-compliance with building regulations have come to light in recent years and more may continue to emerge in the coming months and years. The Government's plan for housing, Housing for All, sets out an ambitious target of 300,000 new homes by the end of the decade to address our national housing crisis. As part of that plan, addressing the legacy of poor workmanship and regulatory failure while ensuring it never happens again has been a priority for the Government and me, as the Minister responsible.

The establishment of an independent working group on defective housing was a key commitment in the programme for Government. For many years, many of my colleagues from both sides of the House and I have been highlighting the plight of homeowners who were left with the consequences of poor workmanship or the supply of defective materials. I have visited homes with fire safety or structural defects in my constituency and right across the country. I have seen at first hand the relentless worry and stress that this has caused these families.

As someone who took part in negotiating the programme for Government, I was pleased, as were many people, to see a range of commitments set out in that programme in respect of tackling the issue of housing defects. I have said time and again that we must, and will, grasp this nettle and give hope to these families. The Government has not shied away from our responsibilities. Since coming into office, I have established the independent working group on defective housing and have brought forward the enhanced defective concrete blocks scheme. The independent working group encompasses key stakeholders. I pay tribute to those stakeholders in my Department, the local authorities, the Apartment Owners' Network and the Construction Defects Alliance and its member organisations. They are playing a key role in comprehensively assessing the scale of the problem and outlining solutions. The working group will report to me in the coming months. It has a timeframe to adhere to. I will work with my colleagues in government to make sure that affected owners of homes and apartments are supported appropriately. I use this opportunity to again state that very clearly in the House.

I will also take this opportunity to inform the House that the working group to examine defects in housing will be launching online surveys in the coming weeks. These will seek the views of current and former homeowners, landlords, directors of owners' management companies and property management agents on their experiences of defects relating to fire safety, structural safety and water ingress in purpose-built apartment and duplex buildings constructed in Ireland between 1991 and 2013. Views are sought from people regardless of whether such defects in those properties are currently known and where no such defects have arisen to date. The information will be used as part of work to examine the scale and nature of the problem of defects in housing. I encourage all those stakeholders to complete these online surveys to assist in the work of the working group. Further details will be publicised next week.

The issue of defective concrete blocks is very well known. This is due, in no small part, to the efforts of the homeowners in the west and north west in particular, but also those in other parts of the country. Significant enhancements to the defective concrete blocks scheme have been announced and legislation to underpin these changes is being developed in my Department and will be published this session as a matter of priority. I expect the co-operation of the House in getting that legislation, which is needed to underpin the enhanced scheme, through the House as quickly as possible. It is a commitment of €2.2 billion to the homeowners in question. Work is also ongoing with the Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland in respect of the rate. I expect to receive the results of that work in February or March.

Today's Bill forms part of a suite of measures to meet our housing needs and strengthen regulation and oversight while helping those impacted by past mistakes. The main objective of the Regulation of Providers of Building Works Bill 2021 is to develop and promote a culture of competence, good practice and compliance with the building regulations in the construction sector. It will benefit consumers and the general public and is long overdue.

The establishment of a robust, mandatory, statutory register is critical for the development of a culture of competence and compliance in the construction sector. Mandatory statutory regulation is necessary to protect the public from the risks posed by defective buildings as it is the only way to ensure that builders can only take on work they are competent to complete and registered to undertake. Stronger compliance with building standards and the broader building control reform agenda are critical to meeting key commitments made by the Government under the Construction 2020 strategy. Under Housing for All, Construction 2020 and the Action Plan for Jobs, the Government has signalled its commitment to placing the Construction Industry Register Ireland, CIRI, on a statutory footing.

Statutory registration of builders, as provided for in the proposed Bill, is seen as an essential consumer protection measure, giving those who engage a registered builder assurance that they are dealing with a competent and compliant operator. It is also seen as a critical step forward in addressing shadow economic activity in the construction sector and ensuring fairer competition for compliant operators in the industry.

CIRI was established by the Construction Industry Federation, CIF, on a voluntary basis in 2014 and approximately 800 building and contracting entities are currently included on the register. When the register is operating on a statutory footing post the passing of this legislation, it is envisaged that at least 5,000 entities will be required to register. The legislation will require providers of building services to register with CIRI. This will apply to entities or individuals who hold themselves out for consideration as a provider of building works for both residential and non-residential buildings. It does not include employees of such entities but does include sole traders. This will have a significant impact on all sections of the construction industry, from small contractors and craftspeople up to larger construction companies.

Housing for All sets a target of building an average of 33,000 dwellings per annum. The State plans to invest €20 billion over the next five years, more than €4 billion a year. This is the largest investment in housing in the history of the State. Housing for All seeks to eradicate homelessness and promote social inclusion over its lifetime. This requires a vibrant and innovative construction sector that supports the development of its existing workforce and presents an attractive and sustainable career for those preparing to enter the labour force. This legislation will set out minimum competence requirements for the sector, which will greatly help in the achievement of shared ambitions for upskilling and reskilling. It will also underpin the opportunities presented by the 27,000 new construction jobs this plan will create. It will ensure greater safety and competency for workers across the construction sector and will aid in making the sector a more attractive career for all involved.

It will also complement a number of key measures government has put in place to strengthen the arrangements in place for the control of building activity following the widespread building failures that have emerged in recent years. These measures include the revised Building Control (Amendment) Regulations 2014, the activation of registration arrangements for construction professionals provided for in the Building Control Act 2007, the development of the nationwide online building control management system and the move to risk-based, standardised inspections by local building control authorities. In addition to these reforms, I am also committed to establishing an independent building standards regulator to strengthen the oversight role of the State with the aim of further reducing the risk of building failures and enhancing public confidence in construction-related activity. I have received Cabinet approval to proceed with preparing that legislation.

I will now turn briefly to the main provisions of the Bill. It comprises 64 sections divided into seven Parts and two Schedules. Part 1 sets out standard provisions relating to the Short Title, commencement, interpretations, exemptions and general powers to make orders and regulations. It defines a "provider of building services", that is, who is covered by the Bill. The legislation will apply to any builders holding themselves out for consideration or receiving payment for carrying out building works which are subject to the building regulations. It also outlines exemptions from registration. For example, there is an exemption for electrical works as these are covered under separate legislation. Also exempt are those who do works on their own buildings. This exemption does not apply to any contractor or subcontractor engaged.

Part 2 provides for the appointment of a registration body, the requirements for such a body, the functions and obligations of the body and the transfer of functions, if required. It provides for the remuneration of the boards, registrar and staff and contains provisions in relation to funding and fees that may be charged by the registration body. It provides for the specification of fees in respect of registration and related activities and the publication of an annual report by the registration body on the discharge of its functions under the Bill.

The registration body requires the consent of the Minister to set the registration fees. The registration body is required to publish an annual report of its activities under the Act, which shall be laid before the Oireachtas. The Minister may direct the body to provide any other information required, including any document or account prepared by it. This Part also provides that the accounts of the registration body shall be audited and published as appropriate and contains provisions to provide funding from the Exchequer and policy regarding the code of practice.

Part 3 provides for the establishment of the admissions and registration board, committees of the board and the appeals committee. It provides that all members of the admissions and registration board and the appeals committee shall be appointed by the Minister and that the Minister shall have a majority of nominees on these. It also contains appropriate safeguards to ensure the independence and objectivity of the registration board and the appeals committee.

Part 4 provides for establishment of a mandatory statutory register of providers of building works to which the building regulations apply. The registration body will have delegated responsibility for the day-to-day maintenance of the register within the confines of the specific and limited parameters set out in the Bill. This Part also provides for the registration of builders, including builders specialising in specific building elements and technologies. This will be achieved by establishing different divisions and subdivisions across different elements of building works. The criteria to be used to determine the competence required is set out in this Part. Those criteria will be used to determine the specific criteria required to be considered competent to be registered in each division. Eligibility for registration can be achieved through qualifications or experience, and I wish to be clear about this point, or a combination of both. Part 4 also provides that a competent person must fulfil the criteria for registration and outlines the procedures whereby a competent person leaves an entity and how that person would be replaced. In addition, this Part provides that a subsidiary of an entity may fulfil the competence criteria for registration.

Part 5 provides for the operation of the register, and outlines prohibitions against operating as a provider of building services while not registered. It outlines the application process and the requirements for registration, and the renewal of registration. These include a requirement to complete an induction course, undertake continuous professional development, CPD, and provide evidence of tax clearance. This Part provides that the admissions and registration board may grant registration where it is satisfied the applicant is eligible and may refuse registration where it is not satisfied that is the case. It also provides for appeals of any such decisions.

Part 6 provides for the handling of complaints and appeals from applicants regarding registration decisions and from complainants in respect of the activities or conduct of registered members. It outlines the role and powers of the inspector who may investigate the complaint and the roles of the board, the appeals committee and the High Court in the imposition of sanctions. The board may impose major sanctions, for example, removal or suspension from the register. Such sanctions are subject to the appeals process and require confirmation by the High Court.

Part 7 contains some miscellaneous provisions including provisions for offences and penalties. It provides for the publication of sanctions and convictions, arrangements for restoration to the register and transitional arrangements in the event of a change in the appointment of the registration body.

Schedule 1 details the provisions applicable to oral hearings held by the admissions and registration board.

Schedule 2 contains miscellaneous matters concerning the board and appeals committee, including provisions concerning the tenure of members and the procedures to be observed at meetings.

In addition to these Parts, I will be bringing forward amendments to the Bill on Committee Stage regarding data processing and governance. These will be in line with the Data Protection Act 2018 and the Data Sharing and Governance Act 2019. I will also bring forward amendments to allow for the sharing of information by building control authorities on enforcement and prosecutions with the registration body, once it is established. Entry on the register is open to all builders, whether sole traders, partnerships or registered companies, that: demonstrate competence in construction at the appropriate level of registration; commit to the continuous development of knowledge of building practice; confirm tax compliance; declare any convictions under health and safety or building control legislation or both in any jurisdiction, not just here in the Republic; have the appropriate public liability insurance and employer's liability insurance, if it applies; undertake to adhere to a code of conduct; and complete the CIRI induction module online.

The independence and objectivity of the registration board and the appeals committee will be critical to acceptance and success in this regard. Several provisions are included in the Bill to uphold the independence of the registration system at all times. Although it is proposed that the registration body will be delegated the statutory powers and functions to independently operate and maintain the register, in practice the powers it is to be given are narrow and prescribed to guard against any potential conflict of interests.

To be fair, discussions and engagement with the industry highlighted the ready acceptance by the sector of the critical role that the register must play in re-establishing public trust in the industry. The administrative and cost burden of the proposed mandatory register on builders, and on small builders in particular, was a key element in the development of the proposed register. In this regard, the level of any fee must be approved by the Minister. The requirement for continuing professional development must be proportionate to the complexity of the work for which the builder is registered to carry out. The voluntary register has been in operation since 2014 and has approximately 800 registered members. This number will increase substantially once the register becomes mandatory, and therefore a transition period will be required to provide sufficient time for builders to adapt to their new obligations.

To ensure insofar as possible that the register will not discriminate against builders established in other jurisdictions, my Department has engaged with the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment to ensure that the registration requirements for inclusion on the register do not discriminate against those seeking registration from other EU member states and to facilitate applications from third countries. In that regard, it is provided for that the registration process may be completed online. In addition, work undertaken in other jurisdictions may be submitted to the board to demonstrate the required level of competence, as we have set out in this legislation. The minimum competence requirements and CPD obligations will ensure that existing providers of building services continue to upskill as required.

The establishment of a statutory register requiring minimum competence for providers of building services will support the development of the skills required to achieve several actions under the climate action plan. These include the delivery of 33,000 nearly zero energy building, NZEB, dwellings per year, the retrofitting of 500,000 homes to a building energy rating, BER, of B2 by 2030 and the installation of 600,000 renewable energy heating sources in both new and existing buildings.

Once the CIRI legislation is enacted and the registration body is nominated, the registration body will incur a substantial pre-commencement establishment cost. To establish the register and enable a smooth operational transition, the CIRI registration body will need sufficient funding to establish the statutory regime. An initial grant will be provided of approximately €1.8 million, which will be subject to appropriate governance in accordance with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform Circular 13/2014 regarding the management of and accountability for grants from Exchequer funds. The registration body is required to submit an annual report to the Minister and that will be laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas.

In conclusion, I emphasise the importance of this legislation. Statutory registration of builders will be an essential consumer protection measure. It will give those who engage a registered builder the assurance that they are dealing with a competent and compliant operator. The establishment of a robust, mandatory and statutory register is critical for the development of competence and compliance in the construction sector. It is a key regulatory measure in the context of the broader building control reform agenda and the Housing for All objective of delivering quality housing. I look forward to the contributions from Members on Second Stage and to working with them during the passage of this legislation through the Committee, Report and Fifth Stages of the Bill in this House and on into the Seanad.

4:15 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I call Deputy Ó Broin, who is sharing time with Deputy Gould.

Photo of Eoin Ó BroinEoin Ó Broin (Dublin Mid West, Sinn Fein)
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I thank the Minister for his opening remarks. As the Minister said, defects and shoddy building work continues to impact tens of thousands of private homeowners and social and private rental tenants across the State.

Today's news about the additional cost to taxpayers arising from building practices in our public schools once again confirms not only the legacy of light-touch building control regulation and the underfunding of council building control departments, but also the need at every opportunity to strengthen our building control and compliance system.

I want to give the legislation before us today a very cautious and heavily caveated welcome. I will outline those concerns in a moment. It is important to reflect that this legislation has an incredibly long history. The earliest versions of the construction industry register were first circulated by the then Department of Local Government in the 1960s. Members of the Department will probably be aware that in 1977 the Law Reform Commission heavily criticised those drafts and called for a fully independent and robust construction industry register. In 1997, there was a strategic review of the construction industry by the Department and other sectors and again that recommended an independent register. Phil Hogan, in his 2014 post-Priory Hall reforms, promised such a statutory register and, as the Minister said, introduced it first on a voluntary basis. The general scheme of this Bill was published in 2017 as the Minister will remember. We did pre-legislative scrutiny at that time. Finally, 60 years after the beginnings of this, it is coming before the House. I share the Minister's view that we urgently need a statutory register of construction industry professionals to ensure compliance, raise standards and, crucially, provide much-needed consumer protection.

Unfortunately it gives me no pleasure to say that the Bill before us is deeply flawed and will need significant amendment. We genuinely want to work constructively with the Minister and his officials to try to strengthen this much-needed legislation. In general, our key concerns are that in the first instance there are no clear aims or functions of the register. They are not listed as would ordinarily be the case at an earlier stage in legislation, to provide absolute clarity for the holders of the register and those individuals and organisations on it.

For this register to work it has to be completely independent. It should not under any circumstances continue to be located within the Construction Industry Federation. That was never acceptable as a voluntary register and it is not acceptable now. The reason is simple. The Construction Industry Federation is a lobby organisation for industry. It is not the appropriate mechanism to ensure full compliance with codes of conduct or indeed wider aspects of building control. I am firmly of the view that the National Building Control Office, independently established by a previous Government, would be the right location, albeit with a requirement for a significant increase in staff and resources.

The lead-in time is far too long. The voluntary register has been in place for industry to acclimatise to since 2014. If I understand the legislation and the press release that accompanied it, registration may start next year. The requirement for some of the designations will be a statutory requirement from 2024 but there is no timeline for when all of the designated construction industry individuals and professionals will actually be required to come under this. My view is very simple. They have known this was coming for a very long time. They know what the requirements are. They are very similar to what is there on the voluntary register. Once this legislation is passed, they should have to register as a matter of urgency and within a period of six to 12 months.

The inspection process is incredibly cumbersome. High Court approval at the end, particularly given that there is already a High Court appeals mechanism, is completely unnecessary. The sanctions are too limited. There is no mention, when an offence is ultimately determined, of fines, compensation or adjudication for remediation of defective works. It is also completely unclear how this legislation will relate to existing building control regulation, in particular the building control amendment regulations, and compliant enforcement. There is no requirement for building control officials or expertise on the board or the appeals committee. There is no reference to building control expertise in the competencies. I am still a little unclear as to which category of building works the provisions of this Bill will eventually apply. As the Minister knows, we have four different forms of commencement notices. Are they all included? What about works that do not require commencement notices? That is particularly relevant in the context of the large number of self-built homes the Minister is dealing with in the western seaboard counties affected by defective blocks.

On the same note, it is also deeply concerning that there is no mention of building suppliers, construction product suppliers and market surveillance. Although not in the original Bill, which was to do with construction industry professionals, I see no reason those manufacturers and suppliers of construction-specific products could not also have been brought under this legislation given that they are related.

Sinn Féin is not opposing the Bill. A bad statutory register is better than a weak voluntary register. However, given what we know about the impact of both builders and developers, I am strongly of the view that we have to do much better. We have already started working on significant numbers of amendments to address our concerns. Before I hand over to my colleague, I will go through specific concerns section by section. I do not expect the Minister to reply to every one of these in his response. I would be most grateful if the Department could respond to some of them by way of a written note to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage by way of clarification, in case my interpretation of the Bill is wrong or to provide the Minister's view.

Why are the aims and objectives of the register not listed in the Bill in an article or section very early on as would normally be the case? I just do not understand it and think it is an omission. In section 8, the appointment of the registration body, the criteria are completely arbitrary. Why can one only appoint a body for the register that has been in existence for ten years and has more than 300 employees? The only reason to have those criteria included is to ensure that it is only organisations like the Construction Industry Federation. That does not indicate competence to do the job and therefore I am not clear why those criteria are being used. They make little sense to me. It is clear that those criteria are there for the purposes of the CIF being the body that is appointed. How can that be considered independent? I am not questioning people's individual integrity or operations. However, if people want to ring this body to make a complaint, they will be ringing through to the building where the Construction Industry Federation operates and will then be diverted to the complaints officials who will be staffed, if I understand the Bill right, by employees from within the registration body. That raises all sorts of potential problems.

I am a bit confused about section 9 and why there is not an explicit reference to the public appointments system. I know in fairness to this Minister, for example, in the appointment of the chair to the board of the LDA, he rightly used the Public Appointments Service as he said he would do. However, some of his Cabinet colleagues are not so diligent in using the valuable Public Appointments Service. There have been recent controversies. Why not just name it in the Bill for the avoidance of doubt?

Section 18 allows the registration body to make its own rules. This is a very broad provision. Why, for example, is the Minister, Department, Government or indeed the Oireachtas not directly involved in that? That is something that concerns me greatly.

Section 19 has no specified role for the relevant Oireachtas committee in terms of the registration body's annual report. It is an omission and should be amended. Section 21 is in respect of the inspectors. Will they be staff members of the registration body and therefore of the Construction Industry Federation, an organisation that lobbies for the very same people the inspectors will be inspecting with all of the problems involved?

I will make the same point about section 22 in respect of the board. It would be cleaner to mention the requirement for the Public Appointments Service. Sections 22(4)(a) and 22(4)(b) seem to be contradictory. There will be group of people on the board who are not allowed to be construction industry professionals and there will be other people on the board who are allowed to be construction industry professionals and indeed will be required to be such. This seems to be a tension. It could be that I do not understand the reasons for it. I would be interested to know them. Again, section 24(10) requires the appeals committee to be independent. How can that be the case given all of the concerns about where this register and the staff involved will be located?

On section 26(12), why will all appeals not be held in public? Why are some potentially in the public interest while others are not? I would have thought all of these were in the public interest.

For example, the RTB publishes all of its determinations, not just some of them depending on the view of its board.

Is section 44(1)(f) on complaints relating to the code of conduct strong enough? Given that we do not know what the code of conduct will be, surely this provision should reference non-compliance with building control regulations, malpractice, evidence of defects, etc.

One of the oddest provisions in the Bill is section 44(4). If I as someone with a concern about the work done by a registered building professional make a complaint, it will go to mediation. That is eminently sensible. If the mediation fails, though, the complaint will automatically go to adjudication as would be the case in the RTB. I will have to make a fresh complaint. This makes no sense, will create an additional administrative burden and waste time. The complaint should go straight to determination as would be the case in the RTB and other bodies.

Regarding section 48, it makes no sense that the inspector cannot make a recommendation on sanctions. That is what happens in the RTB, albeit slightly differently. An Bord Pleanála's inspectors make recommendations. I see no logic in an inspector who knows the case and has set out the facts not being entitled to make a recommendation. The board could then make a decision on whether it accepts that recommendation, as is the case with An Bord Pleanála in respect of planning permissions.

Regarding section 49, surely oral hearings should be held during the investigative period in order to expedite matters. Why leave them until afterwards? It is an unnecessary delay, cost and concern.

Why are there no fines, compensation or remediation under section 49(8)? Obviously, striking someone off the register is significant and it is right to have two tiers but why only that sanction and not others? If a builder has been struck off for defective work, who will remediate the contracting party for shoddy work?

Something that makes no sense to me is section 53. If a determination has been made that someone is guilty of an offence and that person does not appeal it to the High Court, why should the board still need to have its determination approved by the High Court? That seems unnecessary. Of course there should be the right to a High Court appeal for the person affected by the decision - that is correct - but if he or she does not appeal, why force on the registration body and its board the cost, time and inconvenience of having to go to the court? It does not happen with the RTB or other agencies. It seems to be one of those cases where our current Attorney General, who does not like administrative justice, wants to reassert the primacy of the courts once again whereas administrative justice works very well, as we know from the RTB and other bodies.

Section 58 is on the publication of sanctions. All documentation – the decision, the sanctions and the inspector’s report – should be published.

I wish to repeat my comments on the transitional arrangements under section 59. We need clarity on the timelines. By when will everyone have to be registered?

I could be wrong in my reading of section 63 on the relationship between investigations and criminal proceedings. Are we seriously saying that, if the registration body finds a registered contractor guilty of an offence and that finding stands in the High Court, no other criminal proceedings can be taken against that individual? Would that prohibit building control officers in local authorities or the National Building Control Office from taking further action in respect of significant defects? Does that affect all proceedings in the courts, including building control enforcement? If that is the case - I hope it is not – then it presents problems.

I urge the Minister to work with us on this. He knows that I have a passionate interest in matters of building control. Like him, it is an issue I have been working on for a long time. This Bill could be very good. The additional protections for good-quality contractors and those who contract their services and live or rent in the homes they build could be even greater. Please work with us to strengthen the Bill and deal with many of the issues that other Members and I will raise. We will then have a construction industry register that is fit for purpose.

4:35 pm

Photo of Thomas GouldThomas Gould (Cork North Central, Sinn Fein)
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Like my party colleague, I cautiously welcome this Bill. It is about time we started regulating the construction industry properly but there is still a great deal of work to be done to make the Bill fit for purpose so that it delivers what we all want to see delivered.

In my city of Cork, we have a housing development on Kilmore Road in Knocknaheeny where construction stopped in early 2021 and has now resumed at a snail’s pace. The only reason for this I can get from the local authority is that there are some issues with the quality of the work. This goes to the heart of the Bill. Public money is being used to build these desperately needed public houses and there is anger in the community that I represent at housing that people badly need being delayed because of a discussion or disagreement about the quality of the work. There needs to be more transparency. Where there are issues with local authorities’ construction contracts, we need to be able to get answers. We are in the middle of a housing crisis. We cannot have the construction of homes being halted for no clear reason. There are people waiting on these houses and hoping they will get one. They are being left for months on end without construction taking place or being completed. What is being done to regulate these contracts?

I welcome the Bill but there are serious issues with it like there were with previous regulations. In 2019, the then Minister, former Deputy Eoghan Murphy, introduced regulations to try to stop short-term lets like Airbnb. We are coming into the summer and I know of people who have been given notice to quit because their landlords are going to put their homes up on Airbnb. Since the regulation was enacted, only 76 applications for Airbnb have been made across the State. If someone looked at Airbnb’s website like I did this morning, he or she would see hundreds of short-term lets. That is in clear breach of the regulation. This has to do with the point I am trying to make to the Minister – if this legislation is not strong enough or good enough, we will see the same breaches and disrespect that we see for a regulation that was only introduced just over two years ago. This issue needs to be resolved. We are seeing properties being put up on Airbnb when there should be families in them.

I wish to make a short point that goes to the heart of the Bill, that being, housing maintenance. We have seen what has happened because of a lack of building control. It has a domino effect, with housing maintenance subsequently needed. My local authority of Cork City Council has no preventative maintenance. It was stopped a number of years ago because of budgetary problems. Due to the then Government’s decision to put an embargo on staff recruitment ten years ago, local authorities have outsourced much if not all of their housing maintenance to contractors. I have people coming to my office who have been waiting not weeks or months, but years for housing maintenance to be carried out. This means that, if there are problems with houses because of how they were built or a lack of proper building controls or inspections, people will be living for years in houses that are not being maintained and have serious issues. I have raised with the council the issue of delays in reletting the voids and boarded up houses that are on every estate in Cork. It alone has 500 boarded up houses. Due to there not having been preventative maintenance of these properties, the cost of reletting them is astronomical. People have been waiting on housing maintenance for years. Some are living in disgraceful conditions because local authorities do not have the money to carry out preventative maintenance.

We want to support and work with the Minister on this Bill.

Often enough I come in here and criticise the Minister. If, however, we all pull together, we can bring forward legislation everyone can support.

4:45 pm

Photo of Gerald NashGerald Nash (Louth, Labour)
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I do not intend to take the 20 minutes available to me.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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You never know until you get going, Deputy.

Photo of Gerald NashGerald Nash (Louth, Labour)
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This is it.

Photo of Darragh O'BrienDarragh O'Brien (Dublin Fingal, Fianna Fail)
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The Deputy should not feel he has to do so.

Photo of Gerald NashGerald Nash (Louth, Labour)
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Sometimes you do not know when you take off where you will land. That is the case, I think, with most Members of this House, and that is meant with all due respect.

Deputy Gould is absolutely right about the preventative maintenance budgets of our local authorities. If we do not address that issue, we store up more trouble, ensuring that maintenance, building control and so on become bigger issues in the future. While those issues are not directly pertinent to the legislation before us, they are relevant in the overall scheme of things in the context of housing development, housing maintenance and so on.

The Labour Party gives, like previous speakers, a cautious welcome to this legislation. We know that the single biggest investment people make in their lives is the purchase of a home. Given the evidence from the mica scandal, the pyrite scandal and countless other scandals over the years, we know that building control has not been prioritised in this country, and that shames all of us. It seems there are more regulations supporting consumers buying basic, everyday products than there are regulations for citizens who wish to buy a home, who may then find themselves in difficult situations with little recourse in the form of recompense and so on when problems arise.

As I said, we cautiously welcome the Bill, but we believe it needs serious amendment. My colleague, Senator Moynihan, and I will make a number of proposals on Committee Stage and, I am sure, Report Stage to try to see the Bill evolve in the way in which I hope we all wish to see it evolve. Our view is that it is imperfect legislation. It is a large Bill. I am taken by Deputy Ó Broin's earlier remark that, to paraphrase him, even a defective statutory framework is worth more than a voluntary one. At present we have in place a voluntary system operated by the Construction Industry Federation. We in the Labour Party will compose a good deal of amendments genuinely designed to be constructive and to help to make this work in everyone's interest. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to get things right and learn from the mistakes of the past. I accept the Minister's bona fides in trying to address some of the appalling, horrific deficiencies that have cost people so much financially and in emotional heartache and distress over the years because of problems to do with defective properties, be it the mica scandal or the issues on which the Construction Defects Alliance works. We are all aware of those problems. We deal with them here far too frequently.

The Construction Industry Federation has the voluntary register, which it is now proposed to put on a statutory footing, supported by this legislation. The legislation will allow the Government to appoint a body to act as a registration body to regulate providers of building works, to allow the registration body to establish standards, competences and so on, which the Minister went into in some detail earlier, and to provide for complaints that may be made against providers. The Bill also provides a framework within which those complaints will be managed, adjudicated and so on. The Minister anticipates that, ultimately, about 5,000 individuals, companies and so on will register to be part of this registration process, and that is very welcome. We know that this is part of a wider framework contained in the Housing for All document to improve building control and the housing situation more generally. We all accept that there is an absolute requirement for stronger regulation because of the revelations and issues we deal with in our constituencies and nationally from day to day.

We in the Labour Party wish to draw the Minister's attention to what we see as a series of deficiencies in the legislation. It seems to us that there will be no obligation placed on a developer, for example, to use the services of a registered builder. It will be up to the developer whether to do that. That may have implications for the developer in time, but there does not seem to be any requirement or obligation laid out in the legislation for anybody to use registered builders. That is particularly problematic when it comes to local authorities. The Minister says he wants compliance and wants to drive better standards, but it seems that elements of this legislation are quite toothless. There is a risk of big developers using builders who are not registered and who therefore, in theory, may not have the required competence and qualifications. Significantly, if developers do not engage registered builders but decide to continue to use the services of those who may not be on the register, that has implications for competition. We have seen time and again that the minority of bad builders and poor operators in the sector are not compliant with even the sectoral employment order system set down for the construction sector to guarantee basic legal minimum standards of pay and terms and conditions. That then allows them to lowball and organise the lowest tenders for significant construction projects, undercutting good operators in the system. That is a compliance issue. The lessons should be learned as to how the sectoral employment order system operates and how the Minister can apply that to his wish to have a greater culture of compliance and higher standards in the construction sector.

Similarly, it seems to us in the Labour Party that consumers should be enabled to go after the developer where there are deficiencies in that regard. Where a developer fails to engage providers of building works who are on the register, there should be implications for the developer. The Minister might explain his position on that. I may be misreading this, and I hope I am not misrepresenting the legislation, but it seems to us that there is a lacuna in that regard because those who hold the purse strings, those who engage the contractors, have a very significant role to play in driving best practice.

I note the concerns Deputy Ó Broin expressed about the Construction Industry Federation managing this regulatory framework, the construction industry register, when it is put on a statutory footing. I have similar concerns. That said, the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland, for example, very successfully manages a registration system on a statutory basis. It is responsible for that, and it seems that some inspiration may have been drawn from that system and applied to this one. The function, role and position of architects in our society and economy, and in the construction industry more generally, involve registration of title. There is no such thing in law, though, as a building contractor. That said, the Minister seems to be quite enthusiastic, thankfully, about driving up standards and competency in the sector. That is provided for in the legislation in the form of a requirement for continuous professional development, CPD, and related matters.

I turn now to the question of the complaints procedure, which is provided for in Part 6, section 44. The person - it seems to be anyone, in our interpretation - may make a complaint to the registrar that the building provider, inter alia, is providing works while not registered or has not complied with conditions of registration, codes of practice, CPD or other requirements.

The registrar, as I understand it, refers the complaint generally to the board of investigation, unless it falls into a variety of exceptions, including that he or she thinks the issues can be resolved informally by mediation. The board then investigates and provides reports and other interventions.

What the legislation does not provide for specifically, is allowing consumers to take action directly against those building providers when they have been negatively affected by their works, the failure register or the failure to comply with registration requirements, and so on. That is a gap in the legislation. A gap also presents itself in the context of the sanctions that are available under this legislation. The sanctions that are available to the board range from "advice" or "a reprimand" to "the removal of the registered person from the register". That will be of small comfort to those whose house or apartment is falling down, is defective and they are financially hit in terms of the improvements that need to be made to the home, and if that is as a consequence of the developer engaging someone that he or she knows is not on the register. That is a real problem. The question of redress and related matters needs to be more substantially reflected in this legislation if it is to work and if the public are to have confidence in it.

I want to move on to the question of privilege. All complaints made to the board, investigations and reports by the board are absolutely privileged. That is an issue. It is of course worth being careful about how we proceed, and we want this to work, but I think the argument could be made that if someone has a series of complaints made against them and they are a serial offender, as it were, that should not be subject to absolute privilege, particularly if the stated objective of this legislation - as it is - is to protect consumers and regulate the industry. The public has a right to know who the rogue builders are and what sanctions have been taken against them. There should be an absolute entitlement to that. We have had too many problems in this country with rogue developers impacting on the lives of far too many people. I am not talking here about frivolous complaints or relatively minor complaints that may be managed in the future by the board. The Minister of State will appreciate and understand where I am coming from. This needs to be transparent if it is to be effective. The default position needs to be that information that is important is provided to the public, to allow the public to ensure that they are fully briefed on operators in the industry when they are making very significant investments in their own lives. As I said at the outset, the investment that a person will make in his or her home or apartment is probably the most significant investment that he or she will make in his or her life. People are entitled to the full protection of the State.

We know that the Building Control Act has had very few successful cases from the consumer perspective. There is a range of different problems across the sector. This legislation could work really well. It is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to get it right. I look forward to engaging with the Minister of State and his colleagues in more detail as does my colleague, Senator Moynihan, to try to get this legislation right. It is that once-in-a-generation opportunity. It is very timely. In fact, it is beyond time that we introduced comprehensive legislation to protect the rights of consumers in this context.

4:55 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Our next contributor is Deputy Lahart.

Photo of John LahartJohn Lahart (Dublin South West, Fianna Fail)
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The Ceann Comhairle took me by surprise. I wish him and the Minister of State a happy new year. I warmly welcome this Bill. I will go through bits of it at random, if I may. Words and phrases such as "mica", "pyrite", "water ingress", "water egress" and "fire defects" have become too much part of the lexicon of the experience of people who have bought their homes in the last two decades. The report of the Construction Defects Alliance, particularly in relation to the construction of apartments, is depressing. This Bill, as previous speakers indicated , is a once-in-a-generation opportunity, or perhaps a once-in-the-history-of-the-State opportunity, to get it right. Taking different points in no particular or hierarchical order, I wish to state that the role of the gatekeeper of this register has to be as solid and as foolproof as it gets. I urge the Minister of State and his officials to look at that. I am not so sure that putting the Construction Industry Federation in charge of patrolling the register would instill great confidence in me. The public have to be instilled with great confidence in this. It is a matter of fact. We have not dealt with balconies, fire defects or water ingress. To his great credit, the Minister is leading the charge on this and there will be movement on it this year. When we look at the cost of shoddy building or building with materials that should have been identified as being defective at source, we see the enormous cost that the taxpayer is going to have to shoulder over the next decade to make these homes right. We should say that this Bill will not just mark the end of it, but will represent the end of it. It should not be a stepping stone in the right direction; it should be the final destination of this.

Many of us are fortunate to own homes. I am conscious of those who do not; perhaps they are the lucky ones right now. We know, and it has been said by previous speakers, that it represents the biggest expenditure that we will ever make in our lifetime. To walk into a home - whether it is an apartment, a bungalow, a one-off house, a house in an estate or a Georgian building - and to find that it is in need of remediation and that the owner has absolutely no recourse whatsoever expect to foot the bill for remediation themselves is a scandal beyond words. This is a once-for-all opportunity to get it right. It must be tough. It must send out the strongest message to the industry that this will never again be tolerated. It must be policed and there must be implications for those who break the rules or for those who employ those who break the rules. There cannot be an arm's length position in relation to this.

On the issue of schools, I think of the schools in my constituency. I am sure there are some in the Minister of State's constituency. I looked up the CIRI website today to see if Western Building Systems is registered voluntarily on the system. I am sure that if it was, it has been removed. Is the State obliged, in its building contracts, to ensure, as part of the tender process right now under the voluntary code, that builders engaged to build our schools, community centres and libraries are actually even voluntarily registered on the existing register? Will it be a requirement, under this new register, if the State is awarding contracts for the building of schools, Government buildings, offices, Garda stations, libraries, community centres and local authority homes, for example, that those contractors who tender successfully for it must be on the register and that it is a mandatory provision that they must be on the register?

It would be an interesting trail to follow to see how many builders that have already been awarded contracts, even just this year, are on that voluntary register. While we hope, in time, that there will be 5,000 names on the statutory register, the alarming thing about the voluntary register is that there are currently 800 names on it.

I just wonder about the 800 that, I guess, take themselves seriously, operate to good standards and are proud companies of integrity whose employees have had skills passed on to them and have had generations of building behind them. Then there are the other 4,200 that just could not have been bothered to register. In other words, they could not be bothered signing up to a scheme that requires of them certain standards. I presume that electricians and gas fitters are not included because they already have a gold standard registration system in place that people can absolutely trust. This is where we need to get to with the builders.

Deputy Nash raised a very important point. Many builders are employed by developers now. Certainly in Dublin it seems that gone are the days when the builder who built 20 houses sold them to finance the next 20 houses and then sold them to finance the next 20 houses. There is not a traditional builder in Dublin now who can build without the investment of developers. Are developers covered in any shape or form by the legislation?

There is a load more I want to say, but I will get to say it on various other Stages. I warmly welcome the Bill. It is another example of initiative and leadership by the Minister and the Government. I note from my brief this was meant to have been introduced by the previous Government by 2015. It is now 2022 and look how many units have been built in those seven years. It has to be the final say on the regulation of the building industry in this country. Nothing less will do.

5:05 pm

Photo of Pádraig Mac LochlainnPádraig Mac Lochlainn (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
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We have been in the House on many occasions over the years dealing with legislation that would regulate the building and construction industry. Again and again it failed because of the closeness of whoever was in government at the time to the building industry. Again and again the building industry had influence over legislation. Where did it take us? It took us to the disaster of pyrite on the east coast and mica and pyrite on the west coast. There has been no regulation, light-touch regulation and self-regulation. This is why the points that have been made are so important. We cannot have the industry overseeing the register. We cannot have representatives of the industry on the board overseeing the register. It must be an independent register and there must be independent oversight of the industry.

I find it objectionable to see the presentation of people in Donegal, Mayo and elsewhere in the west of Ireland as looking for money for their houses. Where is the analysis of the utter failure of successive Governments to regulate the building, construction and manufacturing industries? How did we allow a scenario whereby local authorities were completely starved of resources to do that job and make sure blocks were manufactured to the proper standard? How can it be that in another jurisdiction on our island people in the building industry are observed at every stage of construction? Homes are built to a much higher standard. How is it that we could not have achieved that?

I want to make an appeal. Our people in Donegal, Mayo and elsewhere in the west of Ireland waited for many years to have a scheme on defective blocks that is 100% redress. They were failed by those who spoke in the House over the years. Those tasked with legislation in the House over the years failed those families. They are victims of legislative and regulatory failure. They cannot be abandoned anymore. We need genuine 100% redress. We need it urgently. We need the legislation to be put through these Houses as soon as possible and a scheme that gives them the opportunity to rebuild their lives. They had to go through another Christmas with this nightmare all around them, with no clarity about what the future will be. I take this opportunity to appeal to the Minister to ensure that when we deal with this legislation he is mindful of the failures of the past and to give 100% redress to our families in Donegal, Mayo and elsewhere in the west of Ireland. That is the least we owe them for the failures in legislation in the House over the years.

Photo of Cian O'CallaghanCian O'Callaghan (Dublin Bay North, Social Democrats)
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While I agree with the sentiment of Deputy Lahart on this having to be the final say, it is critical that it is not the final say because the legislation does not go far enough on building control. The other legislation the Minister has committed to for an independent building regulator authority is crucial. The Bill on its own, which is very flawed and I will table amendments to improve it, would not be sufficient. It is a small part of the architecture that is needed and decades overdue in this regard.

I agree with many of the Deputies who are aghast that the intention appears to be that this will not be an independent regulator but, rather, an industry regulator. I understand this is the standard practice in some areas. As Deputy Nash said, there are professions where it happens. This is not a standard area. It is an area where the cost of pyrite remediation is €150 million, the cost of other defects in buildings as reported today is at €160 million, the cost of faulty wastewater system is €300 million and we do not know what the cost will be of fire defects from the Celtic tiger era. It will be at least €1 billion and approximately 90,000 different homes could be affected. It is already predicted that the mica scheme will cost €2.2 billion. While all of this has to be done to correct the mistakes of the past we should not be in a situation where we are spending money that could be much better spent on other purposes, given the huge cost to the State and the taxpayer.

Much more, or just as, importantly is the massive human cost involved for people and families. There is nothing worse in terms of stress or anxiety. People invest not only the largest amount of money in their lives in their homes but also their time and emotion. It is where a newborn baby is brought home. It is where children leave for their first day in school and the place to which they return. It is where big family celebrations take place. It is where people often take their last breaths in their final days. Homes are so important. For people to have the anxiety and stress of seeing them crumble around them and having to explain to children what is happening is a huge personal cost. In my constituency it particularly affected the residents in Priory Hall. Sadly, we had the situation where Fiachra Daly died by suicide as a result of these building and fire safety defects.

After everything that has happened in this country, it is unbelievable that the proposal appears to be that this will not be independent but that it will be will run by the building industry and its representative group. That is very difficult to understand. I appeal to the Government to get this bit right and make sure it is independent. Section 8(7) prohibits a registration body being a body that promotes a political cause. Some of us would argue, with quite a good case, that those who lobby for the building industry have been involved in promoting political causes. This section of the legislation should rule them out. I take it from the commentary on the Bill to date that is not the intention of the Government. It appears the intention of the Government is to go ahead with an industry body appointed to the role. This is completely and utterly inappropriate.

We have failed utterly in this area because of a culture of light-touch regulation. This is deeply embedded in the thinking of the Irish State.

This approach has served the interests of developers and has put the interests of people and families last. As has been pointed out by Déirdre Ní Fhloinn, there have not been any convictions under the Building Control Act, partly because building control authorities are not funded or incentivised adequately to carry out proper enforcement. That is why it is very important that this Bill is not the final word and that we get the independent building control national regulator that has been promised by the Government. That is very important to go alongside this Bill, and it needs to be brought forward urgently. It is very difficult to understand why that has not been done to date.

When I was reading the Housing for All strategy straight after it had been published, one of the most objectionable lines for me - I am glad that it has been corrected since and that a decision has been made on this - was the one in objective No. 25.2 which stated that the Government would examine the merits of the creation of an independent building standards regulator. I could not understand how that still warranted examination, and I am glad that it has moved on from that position.

Before I go into the detail of the Bill, another matter which must be addressed in conjunction with this is the Statute of Limitations. The latter needs to be reformed in order that it kicks in from when a defect arises and not from when buildings were constructed. It is often the case, as many of us will know, that it can take the guts of ten years for actual building defects to become apparent to homeowners. It can take several years and can then take some time for homeowners or communities to get their heads around it and understand how to tackle the problem. Just as they are beginning to come to terms with the issue tends to be the time when the ten-year stipulation relating to the Statute of Limitations kicks in. That is disastrous and it has to be addressed.

This Bill is no substitute at all for a proper national building control authority but combined with it, if our amendments are looked at seriously and taken on board, it could be a very important tool. I certainly have concerns on the narrative around building control through the Bill, which is why we need a building control authority. What consumers can do is always going to be an issue. It is right that they will have an avenue through this but consumer-driven change has its limitations because of the level of consumers’ resources, time, ability, know-how and knowledge. We have to have a body that acts in the national interest in respect of this issue. The onus cannot be placed entirely on individual homeowners who are trying to deal with all of this and do not always know how to navigate their way around it. My concern as regards the legislation is that it could lead to a situation where enforcement - where there should be a range of different levels of enforcement used - of a lighter and less obtrusive form being used on a regular basis.

The Minister noted that eligibility for registration can be achieved through qualifications or experience, or a combination of both. There is very good reasoning behind that. Some of the best builders in this country do not necessarily have qualifications but they have experience in spades. It is also the case that some of the worst builders in this country may have years of experience, no qualifications and can be responsible for many building defects because they have not necessarily gained the knowledge they require through experience, and they certainly have not picked it up by means of qualifications. In measuring experience, it is important that there is some form of quality on that and of being able to ascertain knowledge around building regulations and building control. Experience is very important but the quality of that experience is also very important and attention needs to be given to that.

In the context of Part 2, particularly section 8, to which I have referred already, I emphasise that the history of regulation in this sector is not like that relating to other sectors. It really has been a disaster both for the State and the taxpayer, but also for individuals and communities. To use a model in other sectors and to justify that in this sector, when we have, unfortunately, had exceptional human costs in this, is not satisfactory in any way.

On Part 3, which deals with the membership of the board, this was dealt with in the pre-legislative scrutiny report where there was a recommendation that it should not be five members appointed by the Minister and five by the registration body. The Government is proposing that 50% of the board will effectively represent the interests of the industry. Where is the representation for the homeowners? Why 50% for the industry but not 50% for homeowners and people who have been affected by building defects. It is completely unbalanced. Some of that representation may be acquired through the Minister’s appointees but the Minister is going to have to do a wide range of things through his appointees. Why was the pre-legislative recommendation to increase the number of appointees from the Minister not taken on board in this? It is not acceptable to have 50% representation for the industry provided for in the legislation and not to have, especially given what has happened, representation for homeowners or people who have expertise in raising the issues relating to defects. If the industry is going to be represented, there should certainly be the same level of representation for affected homeowners. That would be a very important experience to bring to the board.

Part 5 deals with requirements for minimum levels of indemnity insurance for entry onto the register. While that is welcome, I am very concerned that this is too weak and that it does not go far enough. What is needed here, which should be abundantly clear after everything that has happened, is robust latent defects insurance to protect the consumer, the homeowner and the family who have bought the home. We have had a recent and current history of insurance schemes around homes and buildings with a whole range of loopholes and get-out clauses that simply do not cover many of the defects that emerge. On reading the legislation, there is nothing that gives me confidence that that is going to change. Yes, there will be limited indemnity insurance required for a builder but there is no guarantee that that is going to go far enough to actually protect the homeowners and the investment that they are making. In fact, the Bill states: “any act or omission of that provider of building works or employee of that provider of building works arising from the provision by either of them of building works.”, which is what is indemnified in the Bill. That is much too narrow.

What will happen is that if a person buys a home constructed using defective building materials, let us say pyrite, the homeowner would have to be able to prove that a builder or their employee, that is a direct employee, were, through their acts or omissions, responsible for that. If the responsibility lay beyond the builder and with the supplier of the materials, it would seem then that there would be no protection for people whose homes would be crumbling as a result of a defective building materials. This is what appears to me. I would welcome clarification on this if the Minister and the Department have a different view and if this could be provided to me at the end, or indeed in writing to the committee. That is a very important point because if this part of the Bill is simply going to repeat a very inadequate and unsatisfactory situation at the moment where there can be levels of indemnity and insurance, but all sorts of limits or loopholes to that which do not protect the homeowner, then that is a serious deficiency.

I have a serious problem with section 60. The maximum penalty under the Bill is 12 months in prison and-or a €500,000 fine. Penalties have to be proportionate. For plenty of building defects and smaller schemes, that may well be proportionate. It is also the case, however, that for some larger schemes, it will not be a proportionate penalty.

We have seen the situation recently where building defects can lead to costs of millions of euro, indeed, up to billions of euro, for homeowners and the State. That is not to mention the human cost. This can absolutely destroy people's lives. It can put relationships under massive strain and pressure due to the worry about it and the financial pressure. Relationships can break down as a result. It can affect people's working lives and their relationships with their children. There are massive human and personal costs from this, so why does the Bill provide that the maximum penalty is 12 months or €500,000? It can affect people for the rest of their lives. If there are very serious breaches that are running up costs of millions for people and ruining lives, those are not appropriate maximum penalties.

Section 63 adds to the problem there. I really hope my interpretation of this is wrong, but from my reading of it this is a very alarming section in the Bill. Where a complaint is made and pursued, it effectively gives a builder or a developer a get out of jail free card or, in a more extreme situation, a get out of jail after 12 months card. It appears to give a builder or developer absolute indemnity against other criminal proceedings. I hope it is clarified that this is not the case and that this does not give them any sort of absolution or protection from criminal proceedings relating to serious breaches of building regulations, fire safety defects or defects that put people's lives at risk. My reading of it is that it does, and that section 63 should not be in the Bill at all. Where did it come from? What is the thinking behind it? I await clarification on this.

I am very concerned about the timelines in the Bill. We have waited years and decades, indeed, for the history of the State, for a register of builders and building workers. The idea that registration will not be compulsory for another two years, especially given that this register has been up and running on a voluntary basis, is simply not credible. We are looking at a two-year delay on that. I am concerned about the registration requirements and who is required to register in terms of it not being wide enough. I know it can be extended in the future, but we must have a situation where everybody who is working in this area, be the person a direct employee or otherwise, should register the person's skills. If the person is registered elsewhere, that might cover it but this is in respect of people who are not.

This is related to issues regarding productivity in building construction, which is also related to affordability. We have a problem with a lack of skills. For example, the number of bricklaying and plastering apprenticeships is down by about 90% since 2004. That is affecting our supply of building workers. However, those skills are also important in terms of standards. The register should be much wider than the original one envisaged. It is not right that people who do their four-year apprenticeship are, in a sense, on the same footing as somebody who does no apprenticeship, training or skills qualifications, and that both can be working side by side in the sector without any regulation of that. Skills lead to better productivity. It is better for the builders in that they can get better wages, and it is better for affordability as well because there is much more productive, efficient building. That must be encouraged.

I am concerned about the potential risk of protectionism. The Minister's comments earlier gave some reassurance on that. It is very important that this is not, and cannot be, used as a mechanism for a closed shop. That would have a knock-on effect in terms of pricing competition and affordability. That is just another reason, a smaller reason, this must be independent. It should not be an industry-controlled register. That makes no sense at all. Quite frankly, the people who have suffered as a result of building defects over the years are not going to accept that, find it credible or get assurance from it.

5:25 pm

Photo of Emer HigginsEmer Higgins (Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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I welcome the opportunity to discuss this Bill. Building and construction regulation, or the lack thereof, has created major issues for homeowners in the past and, unfortunately, it continues to create problems. We have seen from the families impacted by mica and pyrite that issues with standards of building works and materials can have simply devastating consequences. I see at first hand in my constituency how issues with construction defects or so-called cowboy builders have created massive amounts of stress and turmoil for homeowners, with them often left with no comeback and having to foot big bills for shoddy workmanship. That is without even mentioning the safety concerns.

A member of the public recently wrote to me about the person's home. The person said:

In recent years, due to poor design and workmanship, our management company completed a repair programme for all the properties in my area, 75 balconies, to stop water ingress and rot to the wooden structures of the properties. This cost approximately €6,000 per unit, with some units having to pay for full roof replacement costing over €30,000. Recently it has come to our attention that there are some fire safety issues in one property. While the total remediation costs are not yet available, it is clear that we are looking at more substantial costs. The remedial works are invasive and they may require some residents to move out while works are being done. We have just finished the repair programme to the roof balconies. Our sinking fund is so depleted and now owners are again being asked to contribute and finance repairs due to factors outside of their control, caused by poor workmanship and an industry that is poorly regulated. We simply cannot cope.

These residents are telling me that they simply cannot cope. Many of us take for granted closing the hall door behind us and feeling safe in the structure of our home. Can the Minister imagine feeling unsafe in his home? I do not have to imagine it. I lived the experience of knowing that where I lived was deemed unsafe by fire standards, knowing that this was due to shoddy workmanship and knowing that my landlady had to foot that bill.

This Bill's ambition is to alleviate that fear for people in the future. It will provide for the establishment of the construction industry register and will allow the Government to appoint a body to regulate providers of building works, the construction industry registration body. This will definitively set out the standards and the competencies that are expected of building suppliers. That will be of great use to people when they are seeking to hire a builder to carry out work on their building. It will give people confirmation and comeback so that when building work is not carried out to a safe or acceptable standard, they will have that redress. That is a very important aspect of the Bill. It will also provide a mechanism for complaints against providers to be investigated and adjudicated. That will allow for the imposition of the correct sanctions for those who break the regulations.

The appeals committee which is provided for in the Bill will be crucial, not only to hear and determine appeals but also to impose sanctions. It is important that these standards can be upheld retrospectively. This would ensure that we are not just safeguarding against unsafe or inadequate construction work for the future, but that we are providing a pathway for redress for those previously and currently affected. The current building control regulations require the owner of a proposed building to sign a statutory form assigning a competent builder to undertake the works. However, the regulations do not require that the builder be registered with the CIR. It is currently a voluntary body with approximately 800 construction entities on the register. That register is expected to balloon and increase to at least 5,000 with statutory registration. That is very welcome. Essentially, this becomes a consumer protection issue. Providing that on a statutory footing gives consumers assurance that they are dealing with a competent and compliant provider.

That is a clear commitment that we have all agreed in Housing for All. I welcome the progress this Bill will make in delivering on that commitment because we need firm action to prevent a recurrence of housing defects that were the result of legacy matters and poor construction, workmanship, design and materials.

We cannot put a price on feeling safe in one's own home and knowing that work has been done to the highest standards. I welcome the reassurance and clarity this Bill will provide. I ask the Minister of State to examine the current position for people who have carried out or must carry out fire safety works because they need reassurance and clarity. They must know they will be supported.

Yesterday in this Chamber we spoke about violence against women and all of us across parties and both sides of the Chamber united on that. We spoke about why it is so important that the punishment fits the crime. That is how we get to a culture of zero tolerance and we must have that same zero tolerance attitude when it comes to construction defects. That means there should be appropriate sanctions and we must ensure the punishment fits the crime. I ask the Minister of State to re-examine those sanctions within this Bill. I commend the Minister of State for everything he is doing with this. This regulation will bring huge benefit to homeowners while revamping the construction sector.

5:35 pm

Photo of Johnny GuirkeJohnny Guirke (Meath West, Sinn Fein)
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The Regulation of Providers of Building Works Bill 2022 is welcome. How many times have we heard of incompetent builders leaving homeowners paying the bill after shoddy workmanship or builders getting planning permission for housing developments and not finishing those developments or housing estates before moving on, leaving the State or local authority to foot the bill in finishing the work? How many times have we heard of issues with new schools?

In 2011, the then Minister, former Deputy Phil Hogan, set up a three-person independent panel to explore options for an agreed resolution to the problems caused by the presence of pyrite and make recommendations to prevent similar cases in future. A decade later, we are still dealing with pyrite and now mica. We need consumer protection so if people hire a builder and there is a problem with the work or a company goes out of business, the homeowners would have the same consumer rights as if they had bought a kettle or fridge.

The other matter in the building industry is the cost of building materials going through the roof. The rising cost of building materials is the biggest post-Brexit worry for anybody trying to get on the property ladder. Late last year, builders or contractors could not stand over the prices they gave only three months earlier, and if they had, they would have gone out of business. A recent survey of the members of the Construction Industry Federation indicates that 77% of building companies have problems hiring skilled labour, with 47% struggling to get raw materials for jobs and 99% of respondents indicating a year-on-year increase in building materials. Of the respondents, 80% fear more increases are coming.

This all means the average cost of building a four-bedroom bungalow is €50,000 more now than it was in 2019. That is before people even start to furnish their house. I spoke with a furniture importer the other day who told me before the pandemic the company could import containers for $3,000, whereas the same container has import costs of $17,000 now. That is just the shipping cost. That means every suite of furniture in the container costs an additional €500 or €600. It costs more to ship the container than the value of what is in the container in many cases. If all these costs keep rising every month, it will have a major impact on the price of building or buying a house and push a new home further out of the reach of ordinary workers and families.

Photo of Darren O'RourkeDarren O'Rourke (Meath East, Sinn Fein)
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I welcome the opportunity to speak to this legislation, which is very important because there is a real need for oversight and accountability. The Bill commits to the establishment of a robust mandatory statutory register to develop and promote a culture of competence, good practice and compliance with building regulations within the building community and construction sector. Deputies Ó Broin and Gould have outlined Sinn Féin's concerns and the range of amendments that will be submitted, and those are important to note.

We can all agree we need a regime of registration, regulation, oversight and accountability that is fit for purpose, not just in construction but across the sector as a whole. In the couple of minutes I have I will focus on the national retrofitting programme, where the commitment from the Government is for 500,000 deep retrofits and 400,000 heat pumps. It is a very significant undertaking. There is a question that must be asked, and it has been asked across the political spectrum in good faith. It is whether we can achieve the same emissions reductions, or perhaps even more, by taking a different approach because the scale of the challenge is incredible. There has been talk of the inverse care law and it applies in this area as well; the people who most need the retrofits are least able to afford it. We know from figures released to me in yesterday's parliamentary questions replies that just ten deep retrofits were carried out under the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland scheme, with 1,730 carried out under the social housing scheme. It is a long way off 50,000 per year.

Since Christmas I have met people in sustainable energy communities across the country and they have raised legitimate concerns in good faith about the number of tradesmen and women available for this work. There is a serious shortage. There are also concerns about the skill sets as we are talking about relatively recent or new and emerging technologies. There is the example of the installation of heat pumps and the traditional skills do not apply. New skills are needed. There is also talk of dealing with tradesmen and women who are not familiar with the new technology.

I implore the Minister of State to ensure the opportunity can be grasped to increase capacity within those sectors and support sustainable energy communities. There should be increased opportunities with apprenticeships and people to deal with new technologies. Workers in the sector must be properly regulated, registered and overseen to ensure the highest standard and quality of work can be delivered so people can benefit from these retrofit programmes.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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Deputy Canney is next. Is he sharing time?

Photo of Seán CanneySeán Canney (Galway East, Independent)
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I am sharing with Deputy Tóibín, if he arrives to the Chamber.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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Otherwise you will have full control.

Photo of Seán CanneySeán Canney (Galway East, Independent)
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I will have a go at it. I thank the Minister and Minister of State for bringing forward the legislation, which is overdue because we have seen many issues in the construction industry, some of which have been the result of poor certification and workmanship with no real or effective engagement in how we take care of things when buildings are constructed, whether they are houses, public buildings or whatever. We have seen over the years issues with pyrite and now mica. There are also legacy issues relating to fire certification in apartment blocks and all that goes with it. I heard the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, speaking earlier about consumer protection. The costs to this State of the sins of the past in trying to protect consumers is and will be enormous if we rectify the legacy issues.

Having been a practitioner and then a lecturer in the construction area, I have insight into how the construction industry does and does not work. I have some comments in that respect. We must look back to see what we did in the past.

One of the biggest things we did in the past was never to give proper thought to the regulations we brought in. Paperwork seemed to be the best part of it, but the effectiveness of what we actually introduced, in terms of regulations or certifications, wilted very much and was very disappointing.

I often remember back to the times when people were building houses and the biggest thing they had to do was make sure their houses were registered with HomeBond. It was a panacea in that, if they registered with HomeBond, they were protected for a structural guarantee on their house. They paid money for that. In every housing estate you passed, you would see the HomeBond signs on the billboard that said the houses were protected, and it was also up in every window in every house. There was a sense HomeBond was going to protect people. When the real problems arose, however, HomeBond was not at all effective. The sad part about it was the banks demanded HomeBond before they would give a mortgage. You had to be registered with HomeBond before you could draw down any kind of grants that were going for the houses at the time. It was devised as something that could protect people but it did not. It failed dismally.

Funnily enough, I still come across requests all the time from mortgage holders for these same safe structural guarantees. They are at a cost of €500 or €600 to the person who is building the house or who is buying the house. Even with the Rebuilding Ireland home loan scheme the local authorities have been looking for this HomeBond to be put in place for a self-build house. I wonder what this is all about and why it is still going on. If it is not effective, why are we still using it and demanding it? Why is the State still demanding we take out this cover and spend money on something that is actually useless? It is important to state this. We cannot do more of that.

Another thing that galls me at times, which was alluded to earlier, is Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, and the number of houses we are going to retrofit to increase standard in those houses. I put it to the Minister of State there are houses where such work was carried out and it has not improved them one iota. The people carrying out that work had been employed by the SEAI to do that work. The SEAI, in its wisdom, then decided it would have an approved list of contractors to carry out the work in houses. This created elitism. A lot of small builders and contractors, including plumbers and electricians, would not touch the SEAI with a 40 ft pole because it was all about paperwork. It was not about the effectiveness of getting the work done.

I am aware of cases where people had applied for the SEAI grant, for example, to install an air to water pump in their house. They got through to the SEAI-approved contractor and got a price. They found, however, they could do it for a lot less with their own contractor who was just as competent, but because he was not SEAI approved, he could not do the work. It also worked out that the amount of grant available was less than the amount of saving the person was going to make by using his own contractor. The quality of the work done was just as good, the output was probably better, and it was done by a local contractor who could be called on any time if there was an issue with the heat system.

I believe these kinds of things create a kind of suspicion that we would bring in more regulations, that more signatures would be required and that we would require more people to certify works. Where is the accountability, however? The building control units in our local authorities are totally under resourced and are totally ineffective, yet we call them building control units. We must call this out for what it is, which is farcical. The HomeBond system has been there for years and we have been paying lip service to it without actually offering any proper solution to the problem.

This is why I mention the word "effective". If the construction industry is to be effective in regulating its business, we must have regulations and laws that are effective, enforceable and that will get people to pay the penalty when they do something wrong. My fear for all such legislation is we will have a plethora of paperwork, people will not understand what it is all about, and we will find we are flying off, as it were, with more people employed in the paperwork industry, as I call it, without actually having effective control around how we build.

Other countries do it completely differently. In the United States of America, for example, if a contractor is bringing a water supply or gas supply into a building, it opens the trench, leaves in the supply, and leaves it open with a red flag on it. The building control officer is then notified, who calls out within so many days. If it is done right, the building control officer puts a green flag on it. If it is done wrong, the red flag remains on it. That is called effectiveness whereby people do not progress with things or cover them up and say, "Ah sure it'll be all right on the day."

We have created a cost in the building of houses with the certifications we are doing at the moment. The farcical aspect is the block layer, the plasterer and the electrician all must give certifications to the architect or engineer, who will then give a certificate based on that certification, and who will then give a certificate to a builder, and the builder will certify down along the line. This has created a cost of some €10,000 onto any house, and I am not so sure this adds any value to what we are doing at the moment.

I put it to the Minister of State that we have a serious problem with regard to the building programme we have laid out in the national development plan and the building programme we are undertaking for housing in the State currently, given the way it is being cranked up. The AECOM report today indicates we are nearly back up to the boom level of output in construction at the moment. We are flying away with it but who is minding the house? Who is minding the work? Who is actually responsible? We do not have anybody. We have, in the past, relied on no certification. Then we relied on self-certification. If, for example, professional people are working for me and I ask them to certify something, it can create a conflict of interest. In no other business would there be that same conflict. We must come back from the brink and put in a building control regulation, controlled centrally and paid for by the industry.

It must be controlled and employed by central government. I would go so far as to say that, given the construction levels at the moment and the amount of capital spending we do, we need to take a leaf out of the UK's book, whereby they brought a construction adviser into the Government. This adviser has the experience and international experience, so that projects get done, are done within budget, and quality is monitored in how that is done. We spend a huge amount of money on capital works. We spend an enormous amount of money, and rightly so because we need the infrastructure we are putting in, but we are spending nothing - absolutely zilch - in how we control it and how we regulate it.

While I welcome the Bill, I am concerned we will have more of the same. I am sorry to say that. I believe there is an opportunity, following on from all of the distractions with mica, pyrite and the ongoing fire issues in a lot of buildings, not just to change things but to change the whole thing completely so that we take charge of it and so the public would have the confidence that things are being done right. I have no doubt our local authorities could be our building control units, but not if it is one person with a name over a door and that is it. The number of inspections carried out at the moment in any local authority is few and far between.

That is not because they do not want to do it, but because people are not there to do it.

How many local authorities employ architects and engineers in their building control units? Galway County Council does not have one architect or engineer on its books, and a lot of other local authorities are the same. If we have building control units, we have to ask why we do not have professionally qualified architects, engineers, quantity surveyors, service engineers and fire officers directly employed within those units. If we do not do that, and give them the power to monitor and inspect what is going on and issue instructions which have to be carried out to the letter of the law, then we are going nowhere.

How our materials are regulated and certified is part of the issue with pyrite and mica. In my day there were what were called agrément certificates for materials. How are materials controlled and inspected? Who goes out to quarries around the country to inspect the materials that are going into our concrete? What organisation is responsible for that? We need to think about that. The problems with pyrite and mica are a result of defective materials going into concrete and filling in the ground. Today, we still do not know who inspects these materials before they go into a mix in a concrete manufacturing unit.

There are samples of tests on blocks and concrete for strength and whatever else, but who carries out independent tests to determine whether blocks are fit for purpose and clean enough to use? We still do not have such an inspection regime, yet we spend billions trying to rectify the mistakes that have happened because we did not carry out inspections in the past. We have a huge mountain to climb, but if we do things properly and do not tip around the edges we will get things right. We need to have zero tolerance. We need to educate our apprentices and graduates from college about what quality really means. It means something that leaves a legacy, rather than a disaster, after them.

A lot of the work done in this country is done right, but the problem is that when work is done wrong things go horribly wrong and cost this country a huge amount of money. Any legislation that is introduced needs to have the teeth and strength to cut out the watering down of what is happening on the ground. We need people going into sites who have teeth and are able to stop work in the same manner as the Health and Safety Authority does. It can place prohibition notices on site, and the same should happen if a site is not doing things properly. Who is going to do that right now? Will this legislation do that?

We have a huge amount of work to do to make sure that the buildings we build and invest in are built to last. We should know after five or ten years that we have got things right. It will take time. This is not something that can be changed by one piece of legislation. The Minister of State is making a start by introducing this Bill, but it is only setting the agenda for what needs to be done.

I will consider tabling amendments to the Bill, but I believe wholeheartedly that we need to put a huge amount of effort into making sure that whatever we deliver in terms of legislation is effective, is preventative in terms of bad work and will penalise people who try to take shortcuts. We cannot have that. There are too many good people working in the construction industry who put their lives into construction, which is a tough business, and have a work ethic. They need to be supported by making sure that legislation is in place to back them up, and ensuring that those who are trying to cut corners or certify things incorrectly are taken out of the game. Nobody needs them.

We have plenty of certified bodies which are training members in all kinds of continuous professional development. We need the backup of legislation to make sure that whatever they are doing, they know they have the support of the Government and the law and what happened in the past will not happen in the future. I will say it again. The materials we used in our construction were the basis for the problems we had in terms of mica and pyrite. Problems will arise again if people do not inspect and interrogate certifications.

Debate adjourned.