Thursday, 30 June 2022
Remediation of Dwellings Damaged By the Use of Defective Concrete Blocks Bill 2022: Second Stage
I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
The defective concrete block disaster has haunted lives in Donegal, Mayo and beyond for too long. People who built and bought family homes to make a life in saw their dreams crumble around them. Instead of a shelter from the storms of life, their homes became prisons. With no help available, they turned to the State for support. When that support was found wanting, they took their message directly to the Government through all routes available. We have listened and heard it loud and clear. The scheme that today’s legislation underpins is a dramatic leap forward towards a 100% grant scheme. I believe it goes a long way to address the fundamental concerns and needs of homeowners.
I recognise homeowners' concerns and fears around the proposed enhanced scheme. They feel their trust has been let down before. I want to assure them here today that we are committed to making this scheme work and will continually strive to ensure it is improved where that is needed. I said in August 2020 on my visit to Buncrana in Donegal that every scheme evolves, and I have no doubt this one will continue to do so.
The intense engagement with homeowner representatives over the past year has fundamentally reshaped this scheme for the better. It is a scheme of State support that is unprecedented anywhere in the world. It is the State stepping up, and rightly so, to help those who have found no other way forward. It is a light at the end of a long tunnel for families trapped in crumbling homes. Let us give this scheme a fair chance. Let us put in place a solid framework that we can build on and get people’s lives back on track.
I want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the homeowners and their representatives who have engaged with this process through the working group, Oireachtas hearings, submissions to the Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland, SCSI, and the expert group as well as frequent meetings of the homeowners' forum. That work has shaped this scheme, and where agreement could not be reached, it always shone a bright light on issues. I know they will continue to press their case and work for a scheme that delivers.
I also want to acknowledge and thank John O’Connor whom I appointed as the homeowners' liaison for his hard work and commitment to improving this scheme. The immense progress we have made to date would not have been possible without his diligence. I also thank in particular my Department officials who have worked so hard on this very complex and difficult issue. In addition, I acknowledge my Government colleagues, particularly the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, who is here beside me, Deputy Calleary and others, as well as Opposition representatives who have engaged with us through this process. They have been tireless advocates publicly and more often behind the scenes to press the case for impacted homeowners, not just over the past year but over several years. I note Deputy McHugh is here as well who has been of great assistance to us in this process also.
The administration of the current defective concrete blocks grant scheme has proven to be challenging for all involved: homeowners, engineers, local authorities and the Department. Difficulties with the consistent and appropriate application of the IS 465 standard, the financial barrier to scheme entry, the negotiated nature of the methodology by which the grant amount is determined, the significant number of judgment calls required of local authorities in what is a challenging local operating environment, and the adequacy of the grant amounts available were raised as significant issues. It was clear there was a need to make changes to the administration of the scheme to ensure it is as simple as possible for all stakeholders while ensuring adequate cost control, good governance and, most importantly, good outcomes for homeowners.
The draft Bill today follows on from the general scheme and reflects the decisions made by Government in November 2021 effectively to overhaul the previous grant scheme that was launched in January 2020. I take this opportunity to draw attention to the key decisions and differences from the old scheme and highlight the major steps forward.
In the new scheme, there is provision for 100% grants subject to an overall maximum grant of €420,000 per dwelling. This eliminates the mandatory 10% homeowner contribution under the old scheme and increases the cap from €247,500 to €420,000. Grant rates are in keeping with the construction cost report prepared by the Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland such that no homeowner will receive less funding than the construction costs recommended by SCSI in its cost report. This links the rates to an independent cost source to ensure they keep up to date with real construction costs, unlike the old scheme.
The scheme includes a Government guarantee in respect of remediation works other than full demolition or rebuild, that is, options 2 to 5, through eligibility for a second grant, if required, for a period of 40 years. That is a 40-year guarantee. Neither of those measures existed in the old scheme.
A revised application process will remove the financial barrier to scheme entry. It will only require of the homeowner to submit an initial building condition assessment at minimal cost that is recoupable on entry to the scheme. This removes the €5,000 to €7,000 entry costs in the old scheme.
An independent appeals process for applicants is being introduced, with all key decisions under the scheme appealable by homeowners. Again, this did not exist under the old scheme.
The scheme will cover alternative accommodation and storage costs and immediate repair works to a maximum value of €25,000 within the overall grant cap. Again, this did not exist under the old scheme.
Importantly, the Housing Agency is playing a key role under this enhanced scheme by taking on the financial cost of testing and assessing homes and determining on behalf of the local authorities the appropriate remediation option and the grant rate of each dwelling. Again, this did not exist under the old scheme.
There will be a damage threshold to ensure the worst-affected homes are remediated first. I assure homeowners that this threshold will be set by regulations and kept under continuous review.
The enhanced scheme will be extended beyond the current scope of principal private residences only to also cover rented dwellings registered with the Residential Tenancies Board, RTB, on or before 1 November 2021. The old scheme was principal private residences only.
The counties of Clare and Limerick will be included in the enhanced scheme upon commencement. As all present are aware, the old scheme applied to Donegal and Mayo only.
There will be a review as required of the overall grant cap and the grant rates, and adjustment, if necessary, by Government order, each year. The old scheme had no review mechanisms or criteria in place. There will be a review of the operation of the Act three years after its commencement. There was no review built into the old scheme.
Legislative provision is being made for Exchequer funding of local authority- and approved housing body-owned social homes that are affected. This was not covered under the old scheme.
Exempt development status under planning legislation will apply to remediation works carried out under the defective concrete blocks grant scheme on a like-for-like basis. This was not covered under the old scheme.
I wish to address legitimate concerns and some of the criticisms in respect of the Bill to try to dispel any uncertainty. The Government decision on 30 November 2021 called for a number of reviews to be completed to ensure this disaster does not occur again and the core problems are addressed. These included a review of the IS 465:2018 protocol, including consideration of the impact of other potential material such as pyrrhotite. It called for a review of the adequacy or otherwise of the existing foundations in homes impacted by defective concrete blocks and a review of the potential impact, if any, of full cavity wall insulation on homes susceptible to damage or damaged by defective concrete blocks. I wish to clarify that the Bill allows for the Minister to adjust, through regulations, any issues that arise from these scientific investigations. I assure the House that if a problem is found with foundations or other issues through the National Standards Authority of Ireland, NSAI, that will be dealt with.
Existing applicants under the current scheme will not be disadvantaged from being early movers and will benefit retrospectively from the increased grant amounts and allowances that will be available under the enhanced scheme. Appropriate transitional provisions will be included in the new legislation to provide a mechanism to move applications to the revised scheme once it commences.
I can confirm that the counties of Clare and Limerick have now been included in the enhanced scheme. Given the possibility that the spread of impacted homes could be wider than the four counties currently accepted into the enhanced scheme, the extension of the scheme to other local authority areas was considered as part of the wider deliberations on the scheme by the Government. I, as Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, may, with Government approval, extend the scheme to additional counties where the evidence supports such an extension. Importantly, a pathway for the admittance of other local authority areas onto the scheme is now in place and it has worked for Clare and Limerick, as evidenced by their inclusion in the Bill. I assure Deputies that my Department and I will deal promptly with any submissions received from other local authority areas that seek admittance to the scheme. The Bill provides for me, as Minister, to introduce a scheme of grant assistance for local authorities and approved housing bodies to remediate social homes in their ownership that have been impacted by defective concrete blocks.
The estimated overall cost of the enhancements to the scheme and the new scheme is €2.7 billion, which includes some 7,500 homes across the State. The additional costs reflect the construction costs, as set out by the SCSI, and inflation. I reiterate that, each year, I or another Minister will be able to vary that rate on review without having to amend the legislation.
The devastating impact of the crisis and scale of the State intervention demands that we ensure this never happens again. In October, I ordered an audit of all active quarries in Donegal by the National Building Control Office arising from concerns over compliance. On Tuesday, I received a copy of the report. I am now reviewing it with a view to publication and ensuring its recommendations are carried out. I will update the House on this matter as soon as I have concluded that review. In addition, the NSAI has been tasked with undertaking a review of the Irish standard for concrete blocks, including aggregates, to ensure it is fit for purpose. That work is now ongoing. I will appoint a senior counsel to review the causes of the mica and pyrite disaster and make recommendations on the matter. I expect to finalise terms of reference and appoint an experienced senior counsel in the coming months. I will inform the House of progress in that regard.
The clear goal of these measures is to draw a red line under this scandal and ensure no other properties are impacted in future. I appreciate concerns in respect of the need to pass the Bill before the summer recess and I thank the Oireachtas joint committee for granting a pre-legislative waiver. There has been extensive and intensive engagement with homeowner representatives and other key stakeholders on the defective concrete blocks issue through the past 12 months, including the working group on the defective concrete blocks grant scheme, which was established last June and reported in September 2021, following which the Government approved significant enhancements to the scheme. The expert group on the enhanced scheme was chaired by Mr. Paul Forde, whom I thank for his work and for lending his extensive expertise, knowledge and experience to this process. The expert group reported on a significant number of technical issues that needed to be considered and advised upon. The Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland prepared a construction cost report for remediation works under the scheme, the findings of which have been accepted in full by the Government and incorporated in the grant rates under the enhanced scheme, as I committed to do last year. Account was taken of submissions from Engineers Ireland to my Department on the issue, as well as submissions by homeowners to my Department. There was considerable ongoing engagement with homeowners through Mr. John O’Connor, former chief executive of the Housing Agency, whom I appointed as homeowner liaison officer. The National Standards Authority of Ireland engaged with a number of reviews relevant to the defective concrete blocks issue, and the Oireachtas joint committee held a special series of hearings on the legislation.
The remediation scheme needs a legislative basis and, more important, it needs to get going. We need to move forward with real progress and implement the scheme. The Bill is a real step forward. Every Deputy is keenly aware of the scale of the crisis that confronts us. The scheme is the State stepping up to the mark as we have a moral obligation to put in place practical solutions for impacted homeowners. We cannot let the perfect be the enemy of the good and we need to get a practical scheme moving. I reiterate that the scheme will evolve in future and we will continually keep it under review. We will continue to work closely with all Oireachtas Members and listen carefully to their views in this legislative process and in the operation of the scheme.
I think we can all agree it is essential the Bill passes through all Stages in the Dáil and the Seanad in a timely fashion and that the enhanced scheme can open for applications as soon as possible. Homeowners have been on a long, hard and often lonely journey since cracks first appeared in their homes. Today’s Bill may not be the end of that journey but I believe it is the beginning of the end. This Bill provides a clear pathway forward out of the nightmare that has haunted them for far too long. I commend the Bill to the House.
I welcome homeowners from Clare, Limerick, Mayo, Sligo and Donegal, who are in the Gallery today. I commend all of them, and all affected homeowners, many of whom have been campaigning for a decade. In particular, I commend them on the incredibly intense level of campaigning over the past 12 months, on the streets and on social media, and their engagement with the Minister and his officials, as well as the Opposition.
Having listened very carefully to the Minister, it is clear there is a growing gap between what he says he is doing and what is in the Bill and on offer to affected homeowners. Many of us have been talking to those homeowners since the publication of the legislation over a week ago. The emotions they are expressing to us are anger, frustration and a sense of being very badly let down. They, and we, are deeply unhappy about the rushed nature of the legislation. It has also been greatly delayed. When I raised this point with the Minister last week on the floor of this House, he said it had not been delayed. On 10 February, in the Select Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage, I asked him for an update on the legislation and he said, "I hope to publish the general scheme in March." He went on to say, "If we need amendments on Committee Stage, we can do that too." When I raised the March deadline with some of his officials, they were surprised because they were working to a deadline of the end of April. April then turned into May and May into the start of June.
Here we are with very important legislation, which every Member of this House wants to get right in the best interests of the homeowners, and we are being given an inadequate amount of time to ensure it is correct. The accelerated pre-legislative scrutiny at committee was not ideal but that was a gesture of good faith on behalf of many of us to show we did not want to delay the process. A Bill of this size and complexity getting just two hours of consideration on Committee Stage next week is a scandal. The price tag for this Bill could go up to or maybe even exceed €3 billion. Two hours of debate is negligent, if not reckless. In my considered view, and in the view of many others, this Bill is not right.
It would be very easy for the Minister to dismiss my views and those of my colleagues, or others in opposition. What I want the Minister to do is listen very carefully to the words, not of other politicians but of the homeowners themselves. First thing this morning, a joint statement was issued by the Donegal Mica Action Group, the Mayo Pyrite Action Group, the Clare Pyrite Action Group, the Limerick Pyrite Action Group and the Sligo Pyrite Action Group. I urge the Minister and his Government colleagues to listen to what they had to say. The statement reads:
We, the representatives of the homeowners, across Donegal, Mayo, Clare, Limerick and Sligo, would like to issue the following joint statement regarding the Defective Block bill scheduled to be debated in the Dail today.
It is imperative that the voice of the Homeowners, the victims of Defective materials, is heard and that [in particular] the Government TD’s, those individuals that we have voted into office, listen before it is too late.
Listen, because to date, you have not listened. We are angry, frustrated and the endless torture will not be tolerated to go on a minute further.
Over the past ten years, we have engaged endlessly with different government officials and government parties. We have entered talks bringing with us our lived experience of this nightmare. Arming each official with the practical solutions of what is needed on the ground to deliver a scheme that will rebuild our homes.
At each stage we have encountered obstacles. We had been delivered a scheme that was so flawed it proved financially unviable, and practically unworkable to be of any use for impacted homeowners.
Last summer talks were entered into again with homeowner representatives from Mayo and Donegal (other impacted counties [including Clare, Limerick etc.] were excluded from this process), under Government pretense of forming a joint working committee, which would take on board homeowner input. The aim: a joint working effort that would design a Scheme that truly provided the 100% Redress, that the full Government supported on June 15th 2021.
Sadly, this was not to be the case. Not because we homeowners did not engage but because the Dept of Housing Officials and Govt officials wasted 3 months defending their already debunked 90/10 scheme. When the Minister of Housing announced the scheme in November it showed "Lessons had not been Learned".
Presented to the press was a trojan horse, that brought with it all the media spin the Department of Housing could throw at the public. Spin that said it was indeed 100%, when it is not. Spin around a figure of €420,00 which very few will ever get. Spin about the burden to taxpayers, when we are the very taxpayers who have been left to suffer in rotting homes, built with unregulated blocks. Portraying us homeowners as greedy, as chancers. Their indifference for the people in homes built with defective blocks quite evident through the schemes many clauses and trappings.
Not to be deterred or walk away, representatives again agreed to enter discussions with government representatives. Our aim – to try and improve the new Scheme for a third time. All areas were reviewed, and solutions provided to the additional problems created by the Department. Solutions were presented for rental property and holiday home inclusion, an increase on the max grant available, inclusion of foundations, the controversial Damage Threshold assessment, to name a few. Multiple weekly meetings over 6 months were held on the pretense of designing a Scheme that would work.
This bill was due to be different. This engagement would be different from past experience. We would work together to design a Scheme that truly provided the 100% Redress, that the full Government supported on June 15th 2021.
Last week we were due to see the fruits of our labor delivered. A workable scheme that would enable the thousands of homeowners across 13 counties to move forward with their lives. Instead, what was delivered over 60 pages was contempt for us homeowners, in the same week the Housing Committee heard quarries are still producing defective materials. How can we [be expected to] trust a system which is not fit for purpose failing in its responsibility to protect victims, citizens, and taxpayers? Threats of fines and imprisonment for innocent homeowners. Minister nowhere mentioned were the equivalent fines or threats of imprisonment for the true perpetrators in this. The producers of these defective blocks, including giants of the Irish ... [construction] Industry.
We have scaled every obstacle put in our way. But it appears the government has strung us along for months. Practically every suggestion and solution presented ignored by the Department of Housing and Housing Agency officials. The voices and plight of the ordinary homeowners treated with cynical contempt by those with the power to do better by us.
Over the past week, and pressed to the wall we have worked around the clock to put forward 80 amendments to make this scheme work. 80 amendments because that are the number of failures in this bill. We the homeowners are calling on you the elected TDs to listen carefully to the amendments [when they are put forward]. They have come from the insight and suffering over long years of those who know what it means to live in these homes. The new Scheme will not work without these amendments. By ignoring us again today, you are wasting more money, destroying more lives.
While we wait on the I[ndustry] S[tandard] 465 review which we need to include all deleterious materials scientifically proven to be problematic, along with foundations, you [Minister] must ensure for us, your electorate these amendments are made. You must forget party politics and focus on what is best for your constituents no matter what their political allegiance and show the flexibility to be the change required to finally make this scheme work.
To date this government has broken all parliamentary process when trying to rush this scheme through the statutory legislative stages. You have given us no time to review the bill, no time to debate the bill, no time to even communicate and discuss the consequences of the long-term aspects of the bill to the thousands of homeowners whose lives will be destroyed by not only defective blocks, but your failure to provide true redress for the problem.
Minister let us be [very] clear, so our words are not misunderstood. If this bill is not amended, we the homeowners will not support it. We will continue our campaign and protests until it is amended, until it is fit for purpose. Fit for the citizens of this country who need to avail of it to fix their homes. It is not just our houses that this is destroying, but our daily lives, our working lives, our family lives, our physical and mental wellbeing, the very fabric of our communities.
Minister we will not give up. The time for engagement is over. Amendments are needed. It’s time that your Government and its Dept of Housing listen and deliver what has been promised.
That was signed by representatives of the homeowners across the affected counties.
Those are not the words of a politician or words that can be dismissed as political opportunism; they are the words of individuals and families who are living in homes that are crumbling around them. I urge the Minister to listen carefully to what the Opposition has to say to ensure we get this Bill correct. Homeowners are telling us that the legislation is not fit for purpose and that it is defective. They have drafted more than 80 amendments and asked Deputies to table them. Many of us have done that and more. The Minister needs to listen to what they are saying, to consider their amendments and to improve this Bill.
I want to highlight a couple of key concerns, without prejudice to the others, that we will address next week. This Bill does not provide 100% redress for the vast majority of homeowners. Martina Hegarty from Mayo made an incredibly compelling case at the committee. Many Members present heard her. She lives in a modest family home in Mayo. It is approximately 90 sq. m. She estimates, on the basis of the information available today, that she may get a grant of €169,000. On the basis of the quotation that she has been given today, before factoring in inflation, the actual cost of full remediation and replacement, as per the grant scheme, could be as high as €200,000. She does not have the difference. There is real fear in counties Mayo and Clare that if the damage threshold is based on the recommendations of the expert group, it will be particularly disadvantageous for those with pyrite, because the nature of cracking and damage manifestation is different. If there is damage to a property, it should be on the scheme. The damage threshold should only be about prioritising when those homes are worked on. I urge the Minister to consider that point carefully.
The formula for calculating the cost is deeply flawed. Not only do we need updated figures from the SCSI in advance of the opening of the schemes, specific to the counties and regions affected, the terms of reference, which the SCSI had no hand or part in producing, need to be reviewed so that we get a 100% like for like replacement, not what is currently on offer. While the 12-month review is welcome, the proposal for addressing cost inflation is capped at 10%. What happens if inflation is above that? Who picks up the tab under the scheme? The homeowner.
The exclusion of foundations is contrary to the science. I welcome what the Minister said about the NSAI's work, but it has to be accelerated. We cannot have a long gap between the opening of the scheme and that outcome. The same has to be said of the more substantive review by NSAI of IS 465. We were informed by officials that it will be delayed until the latter end of next year. That could be nine to 12 months after the scheme is opened, which is not acceptable.
One of the greatest admissions in the Bill is the fact that the downsizing option includes a penalty. Going back to Martina Hegarty's case, if she cannot afford the extra €40,000 or €50,000 to remediate and replace her home, surely she should be allowed to take the grant of €160,000 or €170,000 and, within the footprint of her existing home, build a home that is up to 20% smaller than the current one without any reduction in the grant? That was an incredibly generous compromise by the homeowners. We all expected something like that to be in the Bill. Unfortunately, it is not here. There are also concerns that homeowners will be denied demolition and rebuilding, even when that is the right option. That is a function of the mistrust that has developed between homeowners and the State. I urge the Minister to do everything possible to ensure that does not happen.
The definition of "relevant dwelling" in the legislation is far too restrictive. Apartments, group homes, nursing homes and other properties are excluded. Nobody in this House dispute that homes with families living in them, as owners or tenants, have to be the first priority, but I do not see why some pathway for the remediation of other forms of properties could not have been included under the scheme.
I welcome the inclusion of social homes and the two pilots that we were told about, where the Minister's officials are working with AHBs and Donegal County Council. Please do not allow these pilots to be slow and the subsequent roll-out of remediation for all affected public homes to be delayed. Social housing tenants should not be left living in unsafe or crumbling buildings.
The process involving the council and the Housing Agency, as outlined in the Bill, runs the risk of being slow and overly bureaucratic. All Members know about the long delays in local authorities because of understaffing. On a number of occasions, the timelines given for applicants and homeowners to respond are short compared with the more generous timelines for statutory agencies. That balance has to be struck. Even I was surprised by the large number of regulations that will be required by the Minister's officials. They have much work to do between now and the end of the year. I have the greatest respect for the efforts they make in this regard, but knowing how busy they are, I do not see how all those regulations will be drafted, approved by Government and laid before the House by the end of this year. It is important for the Government to be as honest as it can with people about the timelines. Given the delays we have had to date, anticipating further delays is not unreasonable. Homeowners need to be told when the scheme will be open.
There is much work to do on this Bill between now and the end of the Dáil term. We are committed to giving the Minister as much time as he needs and to making ourselves available as often as required to meet that deadline. The select committee can meet as often as he needs next week. We have discussed it and have made ourselves available. That will not in any way delay the passage of the legislation by the recess. I urge him to work with us on this; the homeowners urge him to work with them too. They have made clear in their statement that if the Bill is not amended, they will not support it. Of all the lines in their statement, the profundity of what they have said to us as legislators cannot go unrespected.
I urge the Minister not to make the same mistakes as his predecessors. Please do not put in place a defective scheme that does not work. Do not prolong the misery and heartache for owners and tenants living in defective buildings. Let us get it right this time. The Business Committee met today. The Government Chief Whip undertook to take back to the Government a sincere request from many of us to give us more than two or three hours next week. There is no reason our committee could not meet for six to eight hours on Wednesday. We will do that. That will still allow the Minister to complete Report and Final Stages on Wednesday evening or Thursday morning and to then proceed to the Seanad.
Going back to what I said earlier, given the impact this legislation will have on thousands of families, on all taxpayers, and the huge sum the Government will have to commit to undo the mistakes of industry and light-touch regulation in the past, the right thing to do is to give us the time on Wednesday to go through the 80 homeowners' amendments, to adequately consider them and to listen to the Minister's response and indication of willingness to take them away to be introduced in the Seanad. Let us get this legislation right. It would be a travesty of the highest order, having left families with two bad schemes, for a third scheme to repeat all of those mistakes.
None of us is playing politics or trying to create any difficulties. We want what the homeowners want, which is legislation and a remediation scheme that is right. The ball is in the Minister's hands. I ask that him to work with us, fix the Bill, pass the amendments, and give all of these homeowners and their neighbours the redress scheme they rightly deserve and so desperately need.
I will pick up from where Deputy Ó Broin finished. I absolutely agree that this is not about kicking it into next month, and certainly not next year because this issue is far too urgent for that. It is about getting it right and we believe that we can get it right. While I am not a member of the committee, I speak as someone who attends the Oireachtas Select Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage. The amendments the Labour Party will bring forward will be tabled in my name, and those in the Seanad will be in the name of my colleague Senator Rebecca Moynihan, the Labour Party housing spokesperson. This is about getting it right.
The families I speak to, including members of the Donegal diaspora who are resident and politically active in County Louth tell me that they want to get this right. I speak on a daily basis to the affected residents in Donegal. All the people I speak to frequently with my colleague, Councillor Martin Farren in Donegal, say that the residents of Donegal and Mayo, and the residents representing those affected in other counties including Clare, Limerick, Sligo and elsewhere, want to get this right and they have waited long enough. There is now an urgency about getting this done and getting it right. I certainly will provide my time to allow this to be done correctly and for adequate time to be given to consideration of important amendments.
To be fair, the Minister does not want to make any excessive claims in respect of 100% redress. The Labour Party wants to put on the record that it has always supported the campaigners' demands for 100% redress. I will feed back to the Minister his opening lines when he said: "The scheme that today’s legislation underpins is a dramatic leap forward towards a 100% grant scheme." While he did not make any excessive claims, he said that he believes "it goes a long way to address the fundamental concerns and needs of homeowners". Undoubtedly, it is a better scheme than those originally proposed. He has done some work with the campaigners, and we all have made proposals on how the schemes could be improved but it appears from correspondence that Members have received, and from the views expressed by different groups, that there is still some way to go.
Ireland is a very small country, and we all know somebody who knows somebody affected by this disaster. The Minister quite correctly pointed it out and described it as a disaster. That is exactly what it has been. The counties with the largest preponderance of mica-affected homes are Mayo and Donegal. We are aware that homes are affected in Clare, Limerick, Sligo and elsewhere. At the moment there is also a small number of homes that may be affected in County Louth, the precise extent of which has yet to be established. The Minister said the scheme may evolve in time and will have the capacity to include other counties if the need arises because the full extent of this is not fully known.
When it is concluded and it is improved, the scheme needs to be agile enough to be able to respond to issues as they arise. This crisis has touched people throughout the State. Even if one is not an affected homeowner, one's heart breaks for those who are affected. Building or buying a home is the biggest investment a person makes in his or her life. It is a place that one calls home and, as many have done, it may also be the place that one took pride in building oneself. A home may also be the place where people raise their kids. It may have been found to be dangerously unsafe, crumbling before the family's eyes, and parts of it may have already fallen away. It is a daily nightmare, and the stress and the insecurity must, frankly, be unimaginable.
Today is not the day for history lessons. It is a day for looking forward and doing our best for the people we all seek to represent. It is about getting on with the job for the people who desperately need our help but it is about getting it right too. There is still, however, a noisy bunch of ideologues and ideologically-driven commentators, who believe there should be less regulation of business and industry, fewer standards and less enforcement. They say: "Let us get rid of the red tape and all of that nonsense." I put it to them that they should sit down with the affected families in Inishowen, or anywhere else in the State, who have been affected and who are now paying the price for poor regulation and the absence of laws and enforcement. This is not an abstract issue. If a person believes that because they are not living in mica-affected home and it does not affect them, then he or she is thinking incorrectly. We all pay in the end for a lack of regulation. The taxpayers and citizens across the country need to know that the bill for a lack of regulation or poor enforcement, be it in construction or in the banks, always falls on them.
It is not just about mica; there is a pattern. For example, we have seen thousands of lives fall apart due to structural defaults and fire defects in apartments. This is another legacy of the Wild West era of "Whatever you're having yourself, sure it'll be grand." As with many other Members in this House, I have worked closely with the Construction Defects Alliance. I do not wish in any way to confuse the two issues, but we do need to see action in budget 2023 with practical supports given to the owners of between 60,000 and 100,000 affected apartments who are covered by the Construction Defects Alliance campaign. The longer this goes on unresolved and the longer that people put off doing the remediation work that needs to be done to make these homes safer, the more unsafe they will be and the more uncertainty prevails. It would be useful if the Minister in his closing remarks, if he feels it is appropriate in the context of the debate will tell us what we can expect to see with regard to the Construction Defects Alliance campaign in the budget in the autumn.
There is an onus on the Oireachtas to atone for the grievous mistakes of the recent past and to put our words into real action. The Bill and the scheme will need to be right this time for all affected homeowners, now and into the future. I discussed this with my Labour Party comrade, Councillor Martin Farren in County Donegal, earlier today. he pointed out some issues with the Bill and the scheme as it is currently presented, and some amendments that could be made to improve the operation of the scheme. There are many amendments that we will all table for discussion next week and we need time to be able to do that. First and foremost, we need to get this right and when we do, we need to move on this as soon as possible, especially for owner-occupiers. They need to be at the front of our minds. As Deputy Ó Broin correctly articulated, there is an absence of trust and a lack of confidence in the process, which is understandable, given the experience of families and campaign groups to date. Those families need certainty and people need to be confident that the State will not just support them to the end but listen to the genuine concerns at the moment. Currently, there is a lack of confidence arising from the direct experience.
As I said earlier, while I am not a member of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage, I take an interest in the conduct of the affairs of the committee. I am aware of the concerns of the joint committee members that have been expressed, which were articulated by Deputy Ó Broin earlier. It is important that these concerns are understood and appreciated by the Minister and his officials because I believe these will form the bulk of many of the amendments we expect to deal with next week. Under head 14, for example, it must be the case that updated SCSI reports on costs should be obtained with regard to the inflation factor. We simply do not know where construction inflation will settle. Under head 15, the issue of foundations simply must also be addressed, and they have to be included. On the matter of whether there might be unsafe levels of mica in the foundations, it is surely as plain as the nose on one's face that this must be established before any work commences. It must be covered by the scheme in its entirety. It is not too much to ask that heads could be put together to have a robust testing and certification scheme in place before any remediation work, which could cost up to €400,000, would commence. Under head 21, it should be self-evident that any appeals process would be independent of all the statutory actors. That makes sense. Natural justice insists that this would be the case, and public confidence demands it.
I am also attracted to the argument from a Mayo mica campaigner that a homeowner may be prepared to downsize to rebuild a smaller home within the full amount of the mica redress grant rather than having to build the exact same larger and costlier home. This proposal has merit and should be permitted, with the necessary checks and balances put in place. This makes environmental sense too with regard to the life cycle and it makes sense on every level that people should be permitted to downsize where it is appropriate, with checks and balances in place. There should be no downsizing penalty.
Some consideration could also be given to a fair grant scheme to allow for an award to be paid retrospectively where a homeowner may have had to carry our remediation work well in advance of the prospect of any remediation scheme being put in place.
It is reasonable and fair to request such an approach. There are genuinely grave concerns on the grant amounts for house size. As it stands, it seems that many of the affected families and homeowners may not be able to avail of the scheme to remediate their home and this as to be addressed in the end. Likewise, there are legitimate concerns that the cost of rebuilding mica homes under the proposed scheme would leave many homeowners tens of thousands of euro out of pocket.
These arguments have been made in good faith by the people who presented to the committee and who have been in contact with all of us as Deputies and they should not be misconstrued as an attempt to unduly benefit from the scheme as some, though not the Minister, may have put it. The Government report undertaken by the SCSI did note these concerns, yet one witness at the committee noted that we still have some affected homeowners, victims who have had their lives put on hold, being treated as “chancers” when making claims. That sort of experience should be informative for us. The committee also heard the case of Martina Hegarty from Mayo, as Deputy Ó Broin alluded to. Although hers is one of the smallest houses eligible under the scheme, she said she will still be left with a minimum of €50,000 shortfall under the proposed framework.
Residents in County Donegal tell us all the time that they want to get this right but they want to make sure that owner-occupiers are prioritised. These are people who are paying their mortgages, who live there and have no other interests anywhere else; that is their family home. Some, not all, have a sense that they are being held to ransom by others who may be investors in properties in the county looking for the best possible deal. That is something I have picked up on but I am not saying that is the general view. It is understandable that owner-occupiers want the right scheme in place as soon as possible, so they can proceed and they should not be held back by what they might describe as ephemeral concerns that are being expressed under the radar by others. The Minister may be aware of those concerns but I want to put that on the record because the ordinary homeowner is the priority here. To be fair, the landlord who is on the RTB register, who is doing things legitimately and where someone is living in that house, should also be prioritised. That is why the scheme needs to be up and running as soon as possible with owner-occupiers prioritised.
The Minister set out the financial cost to the State of the scheme His analysis is that it would cost approximately €2.7 billion, which is not an insignificant amount by any stretch of the imagination. The State has no choice other than to step in and address the issues in this Republic for taxpayers and for citizens because of the absence of regulation under the watch of the Oireachtas over recent times. This is not a long history; it happened in the recent past. Recently, I outlined how a reformed bank levy could assist in providing the resources that we need to address the cost demands in the context of this scheme and other schemes that may arise. Deputy Ó Broin mentioned accountability and holding those who are ultimately responsible for this to account. We need to hear more about that. Legal proceedings are being launched by some of the affected homeowners against those they deem responsible for this disaster. Some form of assistance should be provided to them by the State. The NSAI, and county councils may well be joined in those actions. Ultimately, they are agencies of the State and they are accountable and responsible, and in the case of State agencies, they are responsible to the Minister who, in turn, is responsible to the House.
We need to make sure that this never happens again. That is why this House needs to make a determined effort and the Government needs to learn from this and ensure that regulation is key and regulation and enforcement is implemented properly and to the standard that would be expected in a developed wealthy Republic.
Let us take the builders' register. Industry interests are essentially policing themselves again. Do we ever learn? If we cannot learn from the mica scandal, something that has come at huge expense to many thousands of families across the country, not only financially but also emotionally, psychologically and materially, then when will we ever learn? I cannot say that these mistakes or issues will never arise again. Legislation is going through these Houses and there is a proposal that will soon find its way into law where we will have a builders' register that will effectively still be regulated by the representative body for builders in this country. That is bizarre and does not stand up to scrutiny. The Minister knows my view on this and that of many Opposition Members. That is not a sustainable position.
The suppliers of defective blocks must be held to account. What committee members heard last week regarding the operation of quarries needs to be investigated and properly interrogated. Higher standards need to be put at the centre of our approach to this in the future. Lessons must be learned.
I appeal to the Minister again to work with us to give more time to take amendments next week and, indeed, the week after. I have said many times in the House and in the media that such is the challenge around the cost of living that we cannot wait until October, or it seems now late September, for a budget we need it now. Myself and my Labour Party colleagues are prepared for the House to sit longer. I cannot speak for other Members of the Opposition but I know that we are all determined to get this right. We are prepared to sit ain committee and I know the Seanad would also be prepared to sit longer if it meant getting this right and concluding this difficult journey in the right way. We all know what we need to do and the Minister needs to enable us to get there.
I welcome an important step in this legislation coming before the House. It is a crucial step in ensuring that homeowners in my own county and many other counties can get their lives back on track and try to remove themselves from the nightmare that they have been living for well over a decade.
Like every other person in Donegal, I have neighbours, family and friends affected. If someone is not affected, he or she has a brother or sister, mother or father, or a son or daughter affected. That is how pervasive, unfortunately, this disaster is in my home county, particularly in the northern half. Unfortunately, it has affected every family in the county. It has impacted their mental and physical health, the lives of children as they have grown up and marriages. It has put an immense strain on family life and on people being able to live a normal life. That is why it is so crucial that we get a scheme in place that will work for families and deliver the support they need to get their homes fixed.
I first visited a home impacted by this in late 2013 and I campaigned in opposition to get a scheme in place in as timely a manner as possible. Since gaining the privilege to work as a Cabinet Minister, following my appointment to Government, I have worked with the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, the Taoiseach and party leaders, Government colleagues and constituency colleagues from all parties to progress a Bill and to try to bring it forward as quickly as possible. I want to recognise the work of everyone who has contributed to that. I recognise the support of the Taoiseach who visited the county and put in place a working group following on from that to fully examine the issues at play and the tremendous role of the Minister in leading out on this and bringing the legislation together working with his team, including John O'Connor, Kevin Dillon, all his officials and the Office of the Attorney General. I want to particularly recognise the role of homeowners and the work that they have done while living what should have been a normal life in trying to get this issue addressed and fixed. I thank those involved in the working group.
I welcome those who are here today. It is far from the first day that many people have been outside the House, in the Dáil or in this city on this issue. I commend the work put in by Michael Doherty, Paddy Diver, Eileen Doherty and Ann Owens in the working group that was established. I commend the work and leadership of the Mica Action Group under the chairmanship of Eamon Jackson in Donegal and Martina Hegarty in Mayo. That is what it has got to get us to this stage.
There are 50 pages of legislation here and the Bill was published over a week ago. I have done all I can working within Government to try to get to the stage where it delivers an entirely different scheme, with an entirely different level of support, from the scheme that was there previously. The work the committee did last week was important and the examination and the consideration of the Dáil and Seanad will be important. I recognise and welcome the support across the Dáil to get this legislation passed by the summer recess. I note the unanimous support of the housing committee last week. I welcome that the committee structured its examination to ensure that would be possible. It will be important to have further engagement with the Business Committee to try to provide as much time as we can for this before the recess. I know several Bills are coming through the Dáil over the next two weeks and we have a very heavy schedule. However, as much time as possible should be provided to this Bill. It is important that the amendments being submitted today are given consideration and reflected upon.
This is an entirely different scheme from what was in place previously. It is based on independent assessments and costings provided by the Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland based on up-to-date building costs as recently as March. It has a cap of €420,000 versus the previous cap of €275,000. Unlike the pyrite scheme on the east coast, it facilitates rental properties - one rental property per owner. Unlike the previous scheme, the new scheme provides €15,000 for accommodation and €5,000 for storage. When the scheme is enacted, an application will cost €500 as opposed to the €6,000 or €7,000 that homeowners had to find upfront previously.
More work remains to be done. The regulations will be important. I look forward to working with the Minister and colleagues to ensure those are brought forward as quickly as possible. We need to consider the outstanding issues to be addressed in the legislation or regulations, for example, flexibility on downsizing. Also important is the National Standards Authority of Ireland's work on the new deleterious materials that have emerged such as pyrrhotite and other sulphurs. Information needs to be provided as quickly as possible so that scientific advice is available to the Government to ensure the scheme can be updated and the science follows.
In the interim period, we need enhanced engagement between the Department, Donegal County Council and other local authorities to ensure as many as possible of the applications in train can move on and that as many houses as possible can be fixed as quickly as possible.
I again thank everyone involved in getting us to this stage. More work remains to be done, but we are in a strong place now and that is thanks to the engagement of homeowners and everyone coming together to do this. It is important now to step it out and take on board the views of all in the House who recognise the importance of ensuring this Bill, providing for the scheme, is passed before the summer recess.
All of us in this House have made the choice to put ourselves before the public and become public representatives. We have made choices to make political decisions. The people in the Gallery, those with houses affected by pyrite, did not make choices to be political. However, they have been forced into this by the consequence of what has happened to them.
Unfortunately, the Bill the Minister has brought before us today does not deal with the matter sufficiently. He heard the testimony from the people in Donegal, Mayo, Sligo, Limerick and Clare. They have been left with a shortfall of between 20% and 30% to rebuild their homes which are falling in pieces around them.
It is disappointing for them and it is disappointing for the country that we are in this predicament. All of us pay taxes. The Government is about having a safety net for people. When they are in trouble and their backs are to the wall, they need to have somebody to back them up and that is the Government they elect. That should be there as a last port of call. The Minister is letting them down here. That is very clear from the testimonies that have been read out today.
Some 80 amendments to the Bill have been tabled. We often have many amendments to Bills before the House, but to have 80 is a reflection of how deficient this legislation is in delivering for the people across all these areas and indeed other counties that may yet be affected.
An abundance of houses in my constituency in County Sligo have the same problem. Homeowners have applied to the local authority and to date they have not been approved for the scheme. We need a process to ensure they are accommodated quickly. It is not just in these counties because, as we know, county boundaries do not have some kind of limits that materials cannot cross. There are no checkpoints at county boundaries to see if deficient materials are crossing into other counties. It is quite clear that many counties around the country will have the same problem with deficient materials.
We need to ensure this scheme works for everyone everywhere who finds themselves in this situation. We need to ensure priority is given to people who are owner occupiers, people who are renting houses in this situation, but also others as has been said. Nursing homes and various other public buildings will have the same problem and this scheme does not address those. It is very clear that this scheme is deficient and the Minister needs to accept that. He needs to make the space to accept all the amendments that have been tabled by various Deputies. He needs to ensure time is given to get the legislation to work.
What we have is simply wrong. We have left and right in this Chamber but we also have right and wrong in it. It is wrong that people would be wronged in this way and left with homes crumbling around them. The Government is not stepping up to the mark adequately to provide for their needs.
I am a member of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage and a member of the Business Committee. My understanding from the discussion at the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage is that the members of the committee are more than happy to meet next week for six, seven, eight or nine hours, or however long it takes to go through these amendments in detail and scrutinise them to ensure we can get the best Bill possible. Members of the committee will make themselves available to do that.
That proposal was discussed at this morning's meeting of the Business Committee. No one present made any objection to it. There was a very strong view from many of the groups and parties represented there that enough time should be allowed next week to go through the amendments. The Government Chief Whip committed to check with the Department and the Minister to see if that would be acceptable. We can meet next week for six, seven, eight or nine hours, or however long it takes to discuss the amendments properly to ensure we get the best Bill possible.
All we need is for the Minister to okay that proposal. I urge him to do so because if he approves it, we will give the six, seven, eight or nine hours needed next week at the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage to go through the Bill in detail and discuss all the amendments. I urge the Minister to give the green light so that we can do this Bill justice. Considerable work has gone into it. It is important that we get it right and do not fall short because of time at this stage. It is entirely down to the Minister to give it the okay. There are no objections from any other quarters that I am aware of.
In discussing this Bill, I want to recall the recent words of our President, Michael D. Higgins, who stated:
There is a powerful word. Home. Home. Home is about the about the outpouring of intimacies and emotions. Sometimes it is only a very simple thing but it is where personalities are developed, where relationships with others are developed. It is a place to come back to, a place to depart from.
When we talk about this Bill and defective blocks and we talk about crumbling buildings, we are talking about the place where families seek shelter and refuge.
They invest their lives and emotions to create a home. It is more than a building. When the place people call their home and their refuge becomes unsafe, and they have no place to return to to escape that stress, it creates huge pressure and puts people under immense pressure. We have all the fallout from that, including mental health problems and everything else that other Deputies and Ministers have spoken about.
The Government is bringing forward a Bill for a remediation scheme that in its estimation will cost €2.75 billion. There are four things we should expect from it at the very least. They are that there would be proper scrutiny of the Bill and every effort would be made to recover costs and go after those who are responsible. We should expect that not a single quarry would continue to operate that is producing substandard materials that lead to people's homes crumbling. We should also expect that every measure necessary is put in place to ensure this never ever happens again. That is not too much for anyone to expect.
The Minister can change the way we are scrutinising the Bill. As we speak, only two hours is being allotted next week for Committee and Remaining Stages, which means we will not be able to give it the scrutiny and put forward proposals to improve and change the Bill if needed, or to hear the Minister's response. The deadline for amendments was 11 a.m. today, before we even began Second Stage, which is not following proper process. There is the use of the guillotine and the legislation is being rammed through in a way that is utterly unacceptable.
There is a pattern developing with this Minister. When legislation is not contentious, such as the first parts of the electoral reform legislation, where we saw much consensus, we are given ample time to discuss it on Committee Stage and go through different amendments. When it comes to complex and contentious legislation, or legislation that needs proper and detailed scrutiny, we see the time allowed for discussion shoehorned into an impossible slot to give it proper attention. We know from previous experience that rushed legislation is bad legislation. I appeal to the Minister again on this. Only one person can remove the obstacles to the housing committee having nine hours or whatever amount of time it takes next week to go through the Bill on Committee Stage, and that is the Minister. I appeal to him to agree to that proposal because nobody else has objected to it.
The timelines imposed mean affected homeowners have not had a chance to study the Bill in detail, make suggestions and give the feedback they would like. We heard the statements before from affected homeowners, who engaged over the past year or number of months in good faith, working in detail through different issues. They are deeply concerned, disappointed and very frustrated that the work they have done is not reflected in this Bill. In fairness, they put their hearts and souls into the process.
We should expect the Government, if the Bill looks to do everything possible, to hold those responsible for this problem to account. The Government must hold big industry that is responsible for this disaster to account. The full cost of the remediation must be recovered. The Minister has been vocal on the issue of recovering costs and made plenty of statements about it but we still have not seen anything done. Some large Irish construction companies are currently contributing to the UK redress schemes arising out of the issues relating to cladding at Grenfell Tower and the disaster there. The equivalent company is not being held to account in Ireland at this point.
It is very important measures do not punish the entire sector because that would punish people who have complied with all the standards. This must be about holding to account those who are responsible. That is really important if we are to have accountability built into this process.
We learned at last Thursday's meeting of the housing committee - and the Minister repeated it in his opening comments - that the Government "intends" to do something about this and there is an intention to appoint a senior counsel to look into cost recovery. Incredibly, terms of reference for this work have still not been drawn up and nobody has, as of now, been appointed. There is an urgency in this because the Statute of Limitations will kick in and prevent action being taken after a certain period. There is a ten-year window and it will start to kick in with some aspects quite soon. That tells us everything we need to know about the level of urgency the Government is showing to recovering costs from those who are responsible.
The Government has been negligent with respect to rogue quarries that are still operating. We were told in last Thursday's meeting of the housing committee by Mr. Aidan O'Connell, an experienced and qualified engineer, about such quarries. He stated:
We have experience of 12 counties where we have seen damage. As of last week, we are now on county 13. That was a substantial amount of properties to be inspecting, reviewing and so forth. One of the difficulties we are having, and I understand this is a public forum, is that the quarry owners recognise they have a problem and are suppressing some of the information and some of the damage and doing side deals with homeowners to try to suppress it within the counties. Ultimately, I believe where all these locations are will come out.
I encourage people and Deputies who have knowledge of affected quarries, because I am aware of some areas in the southern part of Ireland and on the south-east coast where there are affected properties and they probably are well aware of where that material has come from, to come forward and give that information to the National Standards Authority of Ireland or Engineers Ireland.
I do know certain quarries that are still producing concrete blocks and material that is wholly unsatisfactory and they continue to do it knowing that material is still wholly unsatisfactory. I believe that some TDs and other public personnel do know that themselves and I would encourage them to try to use any of their authority to get it stopped.
That is an incredible statement and, to be frank, I am very disappointed the Minister did not address the matter in his opening remarks. He said he had ordered an audit of all active quarries in Donegal but what about the other quarries that we know, as of last Thursday, are operating around the country? I have been in touch, as I know others have, with the National Building Control Office about this, urging it to act. Why is the Minister not acting on this and why did he not address the question in his opening remarks? Why are quarries still operating and producing substandard material leading to crumbling houses, putting families and communities through all that stress? What is the Minister doing about this and why are we not hearing from him about action? Everybody in Ireland deserves to hear from the Minister about what is being done about these quarries, which are still operating. It is utterly unacceptable that the Minister with responsibility for this had nothing to say about it in his opening comments today. I urge him to address the question in his closing statement.
If this is not to happen again, there are four actions the Government should take as a matter of urgency. We need a national building control authority along the lines of the National Food Safety Authority of Ireland and we must make the inspection and certification of building and development properly independent to completely break the self-certification model that has been an absolute disaster. We must introduce latent defects insurance, although the Government opposed my recent amendments in legislation to do this. We need an independent regulator of the building industry rather than one run by the building industry, which is what is being done. Given the huge costs, stress and trauma caused by building defects and defective blocks, it is inexcusable that these measures have not been taken already.
I will touch on the assignment and subrogation of claims to the Minister, dealt with in section 29. This means homeowners will not be able to take legal actions if they sign up to the State's redress scheme. We know that so far, 34 High Court writs have been issued and hundreds more could be expected. Would it not be in the State's interest to allow homeowners to recover costs against third parties, especially for non-grantable losses or any of the costs of construction or remediation not covered by this scheme? It appears this section of the Bill will prevent homeowners from recovering those costs through legal action.
We need to know on what basis the State purports to inherit a plaintiff's rights to recover sums that are not covered by the grants for which third parties could otherwise be liable. I asked officials from the Department about this at a meeting of the Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage last Thursday. We were promised an answer but I have not received one. This is one of the problems with rushing this legislation through in that we raise legitimate questions, as we are meant to do as part of the democratic process, and we do not get answers. That is a deficit in this process.
Does blocking these legal actions mean that people who are not covered under the scheme could end up taking a legal case and get financial recourse for thousands of other homeowners? Last week, representatives of the affected homeowners informed the committee that they felt this part of the legislation was designed to put the frighteners on them and stop people pursuing a claim against anyone. While there were measures in the Bill to prevent affected homeowners from taking from legal action, there are no such measures with respect to taking on those who are responsible for this disaster.
Previous speakers mentioned the option of penalty-free downsizing. This is a very good proposal, which has been put forward as a compromise by affected homeowners. Again, we have not heard a good explanation of the reason it is not being provided for. This option makes sense given the environmental benefits it would have in terms of reduced building materials and less energy to heat homes. As such, it is in line with Government policy to tackle climate change. I ask the Government to consider allowing penalty-free downsizing and flexibility. It makes eminent sense to do so.
On the damage threshold, there is a concern that this will potentially exclude and delay thousands of homeowners in pyrite-impacted counties. The reliance on visual inspections and assessment of photographs will mean some homeowners will be excluded and core testing will only apply if owners pass the damage threshold. Concerns were articulated last week that this could mean that homeowners who have understandably taken some small measures to prevent additional water egress and the damage that causes may not meet the damage threshold as a result of the very small measures they have taken.
A scientific and evidence-based approach should be taken and should rely on core testing. This a line that is worth repeating. I do not think there is anything controversial about taking that approach. Why then is that approach not being taken and why are we not relying on core testing for assessing the damage threshold?
There are a number of other issues with this Bill and I and other Deputies have submitted a large number of amendments to it. I have concerns that the revised rates and caps are not in line with forecast inflation and that the proposals on cost inflation in the Bill are inadequate. I also have concerns that the approach taken is not following the science and does not ensure all deleterious materials are assessed and the foundations are tested.
We were told last Thursday at the housing committee that the Housing Agency, for example, has not done any testing of foundations in Donegal. Why is it that the case? Why is there an aversion to taking a scientific and evidence-based approach to that? Why are we not taking an approach that would mean that no defective concrete block homeowner is left behind?
I am concerned that the approval process is complex and has so many stages that it will not be user-friendly. We have to think of this in terms of the stress and trauma that homeowners have already gone through. Making those processes more difficult for them does not help.
There are also concerns about the power and discretion being placed in the hands of the Minister in setting regulations without scrutiny. There are concerns that the 18-month time limit may cause issues with accessing contractors and builders, especially in areas of high demand.
It is very important that we get this legislation right. Rushing it does not help at all in that regard. There must be accountability and recovery of costs from those who are responsible. The lack of action on that to date is utterly unforgivable. The rogue quarries producing substandard materials which are damaging homes and lives to this day need to be shut down and dealt with. It is completely unacceptable that the Government is not acting on that. There needs to be action now to ensure the construction sector is independently and robustly regulated to ensure issues like this never arise again. The passage through the Houses of the Regulation of Providers of Building Works and Building Control (Amendment) Bill 2022 means the sector will not be independently regulated but will regulate itself. It is incredible, after everything that has happened in this country, that the Government would do that.
I agree with the comments of Deputy Nash on the proposal from the Construction Defects Alliance. We need to see action on that in this year’s budget and I hope that the Minister will address the matter in his concluding remarks.
I reiterate that the House could give this Bill the justice and scrutiny it deserves and the time needed for the amendments if one person, the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, were to facilitate and agree to that. Nobody else has objected to the suggestion.
I welcome this opportunity to contribute to the Second Stage debate on this important legislation. The life-changing discovery by so many householders in County Clare of the presence of pyrite in their homes in recent years has exposed the fundamental flaw in the previous scheme, namely, that households in County Clare were simply excluded and had no access to grant aid and nowhere to turn for redress. The establishment of the Clare Pyrite Action Group by Dr. Martina Cleary in September 2020 has led to the welcome Government decision of 14 June 2022 to include County Clare in the new scheme we are debating today.
Affected householders in County Clare have travelled a long road to get to this point. I pay tribute to the sustained campaign of the Clare Pyrite Action Group led by its chairperson, Dr. Martina Cleary, and the vice-chairperson, Mary Hanley, working together with the director of services of Clare County Council, Anne Haugh, and her team of Siobhán McNulty and Tony Neville, together with expert engineer, Simon Beale. I also want to mention the great work of the The Clare Championjournalist, Fiona McGarry, who has covered this issue extensively over the past number of years.
The Clare Pyrite Action Group has identified 1,025 potentially impacted private homes, 17 private housing estates, five local authority housing estates and 11 large-scale public and private dwellings. I strongly believe this is a conservative estimate and many more affected homeowners will come forward given that County Clare is now eligible for this scheme.
The headline aspects of the new Bill are welcome and include the increase in the maximum grant available going from €275,000 up to €420,00 per dwelling; grant rates in keeping with the construction cost report prepared by the Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland; a Government guarantee regarding remediation works other than full demolition and rebuild, that is, options 2 to 5, through eligibility for a second grant, if required, for a period of 40 years; the introduction of an independent appeals process for applicants, with all key decisions under the scheme appealable by homeowners; alternative accommodation, storage costs and immediate repair works to a maximum value of €25,000; the Housing Agency playing a key role under the enhanced scheme by taking on the financial cost of testing and assessing homes and determining on behalf of the local authorities the appropriate remediation option and grant rate for each dwelling; the extension of the enhanced scheme beyond the current scope of the principal private residence only to cover rented dwellings registered with the Residential Tenancies Board, RTB; and exempted development status under the planning legislation for remediation works carried out under the defective concrete block scheme on a like-for-like basis.
A number of concerns were expressed to me regarding the proposed new scheme and, as with everything, the devil is in detail. Many of these matters were discussed by the working group, which was set up in June 2021 and includes affected householders from counties Donegal and Mayo. This working group did not involve County Clare homeowners. While I acknowledge that the Clare Pyrite Action Group was given a briefing on the general scheme of the Bill by officials literally days after its publication, and got the opportunity last week to appear before the Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage, that is the sum total of the group's involvement in this scheme, which is really disappointing.
The principal issues that have emerged and which were raised with me by the Clare Pyrite Action Group principally include the damage threshold. The concern from a County Clare perspective is that the proposed visual inspection of a 1.5 mm crack may leave Clare homes behind. I say this because access to core testing has enabled County Clare homeowners to make an undisputable case for inclusion in this scheme. The reality is that houses in County Clare might look visually fine, principally because homeowners have maintained the render on their homes. If a proper assessment were to take place as part of the assessment process, however, these houses will most certainly be found to be structurally unsound and dangerous. It is important that regulations that will accompany this Bill recognise this critical point and facilitate homeowners to have the right to appoint their own engineer who will work on their behalf and have access to results.
In terms of the Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland, I believe that any new reports commissioned for calculation of the rates must include County Clare in order that there is no delay in Clare homeowners entering the scheme and beginning the remediation process as soon as the scheme opens.
With regard to the appeals process, the time limitations for this must be extended to at least 90 days to afford homeowners the opportunity to prepare any additional materials, as required, to prove their case. They must also be allowed to submit additional materials rather than prohibiting them from doing so. This could, for example, be additional independent evaluations of the property or testing. Remediation options must be appropriate for the damage caused by pyrite attack, which also includes the issue of foundations. Essentially, householders cannot rebuild their homes without scientific testing and its assurance that their house foundations are sound. There is also the option with regard to downsizing, which I think needs serious consideration. We also need to pursue with vigour the quarries responsible for this scandal and hold them to account at every opportunity.
Will the Minister in his concluding remarks respond to the matters I raised today and, where necessary, will he bring forward the required amendments to this Bill and the accompanying regulations? I also believe additional time is clearly required for the Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage and its members to consider fully this legislation and the amendments that will be put forward. It is important that householders who, through no fault of their own, find themselves with crumbling homes can turn to a fit-for-purpose scheme that enables them to rebuild their homes and lives.
Homeowners in counties Donegal, Mayo, Clare, Sligo, Limerick, Tipperary and up to seven other counties are living in buildings that were built with defective blocks, foundations and other damaging materials like mica and pyrite. They are feeling the impact of light-touch regulation of building product surveillance that was introduced by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael in the 1990s. This has left many, like the families in the Gallery, to live in crumbling homes for more than a decade.
For those in County Tipperary, there is still uncertainty about the future and this is something that needs to be addressed. Indeed, the Minister said last week that further local authority areas can be added as the necessary evidence supports inclusion. This is no way to treat homeowners who are dealing with such disruption to their lives. We need to end the uncertainty.
The Bill we have seen falls far short on a number of counts, however, which is another failure on the Minister's watch. An effective scheme is one that addresses the needs of each household that is affected, and being fully encompassing is key. I will mention as an example how homeowners who opt to build a smaller home because the grant will not cover the full cost of replacement are being punished with a further reduction in the grant. The damage threshold, as designed in the Bill, will exclude many homeowners. This cannot be allowed to happen. It must be amended to allow for prioritisation of the worst-affected homes and not the exclusion of affected homes. The exclusion of large numbers of buildings such as holiday homes, community buildings and small business premises is another hole in this legislation.
I will go back to the need to scrutinise properly a Bill that will have such profound consequences for households. The Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage was practically railroaded into having to engage in what can only be described as an accelerated scrutiny of this Bill. As one homeowner said, it has been under a week since the publication of the heads and the draft text of the Bill, so there has been very little time to engage with the proposals and to format this information. To allow an extremely limited amount of time to scrutinise a Bill of this importance is a masterclass by the Government in shirking accountability. The affected mica and pyrite homeowners have submitted a significant number of amendments and are urging all Deputies on both sides of this Chamber to support these to fix the defects in the Minister's Bill. The Minister must accept these proposed changes and ensure no guillotine is imposed. It is high time to do the right thing by homeowners, listen to their concerns, get this right and help them get through the hell they are dealing with daily.
The first thing I wish to do is pay tribute to the many campaigners throughout the country, some of whom are in the Gallery. When faced with a situation where they discover the house they bought whatever number of years ago is basically crumbling around them, people could be forgiven for collapsing into despair and thinking there is nothing they can do. We are still not where we need to be but we are at the point we are now because the campaigners did not just take that approach. Their backs were to the walls and they campaigned extremely valiantly and eloquently like, for example, those who appeared before the joint committee yesterday and those who campaign persistently in massive numbers.
I had the privilege of speaking at a massive protest numbering thousands of people outside the Custom House in Dublin last October. The determination and resilience of the people there was absolutely clear. I really want to say fair play to all of them. They have also helped to raise the plight of other people who are affected by other construction defects, which I will mention later, and have shown that if people campaign, they can actually force change on the Government. They have had an enormously positive impact in this country.
The message from the campaigners, which is part of the reason the campaign has been so effective, has always been extremely clear: 100% redress and nothing less. The profoundly strong moral argument behind it, which everybody could understand, is that this is not their fault. This is not the fault of homeowners. They had no hand, act or part to blame in terms of this situation. The responsibility lies with the quarry owners, builders, developers and successive Governments that have built a Republic of developers, quarry owners and so on as opposed to one that serves the interests of ordinary working people. I will summarise the problem and then go into some more details. The problem we have at the moment is that the Bill, as presented, is in reality really quite far from 100% redress and nothing less.
In reality, there is a nice big asterisk beside the redress. It is a road to 100% redress and then a bunch of small print which has the effect of reducing the amount of redress to significantly less than 100%, meaning that homeowners will continue to be in a crisis situation.
I will read a crucial part of the statement issued by the different campaigns from across the counties that came together. It addresses the Minister:
Minister let us be clear, so our words are not misunderstood. If this bill is not amended, we the homeowners will not support it. We will continue our campaign and protests until it is amended, until it is fit for purpose.
It does not get any clearer than that. The Minister knows these people are not joking or making empty promises. They are capable of running extremely effective campaigns. At this point, we are coming to the business end of things here. This is Second Stage and the deadline for amendments has already passed. The window for the Government and the Minister to make the right decision is quickly closing and I strongly urge the Minister, primarily for the benefit of the homeowners but also in his own interest, to do the right thing, to make sure the amount of time for Committee Stage is expanded to give the Bill appropriate consideration and to agree to the amendments that will turn this into a 100% redress, nothing less scheme, which is what is required. We can recall 2017 when the then Oireachtas Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government was discussing the pyrite scheme at the time. The committee recommended: "The mission statement of the Redress Scheme should be: 'Ordinary owners who purchased in good faith should not be liable for the costs of remediation caused by the incompetence, negligence or deliberate non-compliance of others'." It is very simple in terms of what should happen. There is nothing complicated about it.
Before I go into things in a little more detail, I will first make a point for anybody who is watching this debate. When Members on this side of the House call for more time for debate on Committee Stage, there is something people should be aware of regarding what happens in the Dáil. It is not just that there will not be enough time and therefore not enough exhaustion of the issues and a chance for everybody to contribute, but that we only get as far as the Committee gets with the amendments. If it has not reached one's amendments, they just fall and are gone if they are not Government's amendments. The Government's amendments automatically pass. However, I understand we do not have Government amendments. If they are Opposition amendments, they automatically disappear in a very undemocratic way. They are just defeated. We do not even get to have a vote on them, never mind having the type of exhaustive, comprehensive discussion that is clearly necessary as a result of, first, the situation the homeowners are facing and, second, the amount of money the State is, rightly, talking about spending. That is one point.
The second point in terms of going into the details, we agree with the amendments that have been tabled by Deputy Pringle and others. I believe there are 80 in total because, as the homeowners brought forward, there are 80 different mistakes and flaws in the Bill. I will highlight a few. One is the limitation in section 5 to a small number of counties. I do not see the logic of doing that. It does not make sense to do it as we do not yet have a full assessment of where the defective blocks have been used. Section 8 of the Bill limits the scheme to homes built before 2020. Again, it does not make sense, particularly in the context of the extremely worrying evidence heard by the committee last week that there may well be defective blocks still being produced as we speak. Obviously, we have to act to ensure that this is not continuing, but it means putting a time limit for when the homes would have been bought is completely inappropriate. Similarly, limiting the scheme only to owners who bought their home before 2020 is an unfair and arbitrary line.
The issue that has been highlighted and which appears to be a vital question in respect of section 12 is leaving out the cost of replacing foundations when they are affected. Again, it does not make any sense, neither from the point of view of the homeowners who are affected by mica nor from the point of view of the State. It will not make any sense for the State to spend billions of euro and to have whatever proportion it is of those euro going into building on defective foundations which will not last and the house will have to come down and it will have to be done all over again. It would be a crime for us to go through that process.
Regarding the point about garages and walls being included, these in reality will constitute a significant reduction in the amount of money that homeowners are able to get. There is a cap on the total amount of money a homeowner could get. We have the cap, but we already have had massive amounts of inflation and there will be more by the time the scheme comes into operation, so clearly it is completely inadequate.
The point regarding no penalty for downsizing has been extremely well made by the campaigners. The idea that we should disincentivise people from downsizing their house makes no sense either from a justice point of view or from an environmental point of view. We should not be putting pressure on people. If they want to rebuild the same house they currently have, they should be facilitated with 100% redress, but if they want to downsize for whatever reason, the State should fully support them in that. It means using fewer materials and having a smaller carbon footprint. That is a good thing and in no way should they be penalised for it. There are a number of other flaws, and they are being addressed in the Opposition amendments. They include arbitrary limits in grant timings and flawed methods for calculating the redress.
The features in these debates are the fundamental points. We are in a crisis situation. We have been through the pyrite issue, now we are dealing with mica and we are going to be dealing with very significant other construction defects and problems, particularly in apartments. It is all a microcosm of the failings of the Irish political system and its Government. It is a crumbling monument to all that is wrong and has been wrong with both the Irish construction sector and the political influence of that sector. It was the predecessors of the Minister and of the Government, which also include both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael down through the years and decades, who presided over a system of self-certification and extremely low levels of regulation and who just allowed shoddy work and inadequate practices to happen all over the place with, at different levels, quarry owners, builders and so forth all operating simply with the aim of maximising their profit and cutting corners at the expense of ordinary householders in the first instance and now, necessarily, the public as a whole in terms of having to pay for a redress scheme.
I draw two conclusions from that. One is that what is necessary now is 100% redress, nothing less, paid for by the State. Then the State should mercilessly pursue those who are responsible and who created this mess, with a view to maximising the amount of return to the State. If we can prove that there has been, and the homeowners certainly believe there has been, conscious awareness and knowledge of what was happening on the part of the quarry owners, for example, the quarries should be taken out of private ownership with no compensation and into public ownership, including assets and so forth. All those assets should be used to right the wrong for which they are responsible.
The second conclusion is that we would be in a much better place to deal with this situation if we had a State construction company. We need to create a State construction company both to address the housing crisis and also to be able to address rapidly the construction defects that have been discovered and will be discovered in the future. We would be able to deal with it rapidly, as opposed to being reliant on the private market and so forth.
The final point I will make is that at different phases of this campaign the tactic of divide and rule has been used by the Government or its outriders through asking people in Dublin why they should pay for people in Donegal, Clare or wherever. Various articles in newspapers and so on have suggested some injustice is being done in that regard. I say to all the people in the counties affected that the people I represent in Dublin South-West, and the vast majority of people in Dublin and throughout the country, do not share any of those attitudes. What there is from ordinary people in Dublin and everywhere else is a sentiment of solidarity, fair play and outrage at the injustice that has been perpetrated on people who have experienced the mica issue. There is also, of course, a sense of why should these people be punished for things that are no fault of theirs but are the responsibility of quarry owners, construction companies and so on? That divide and rule tactic did not work at all. There was a major upswell of support and solidarity. The extremely effective campaigning, including the stickers and posters throughout the entire country raising awareness of this issue, played a very important role in that support. The divide and rule tactic was completely ineffective.
This makes me return to the point I referenced at the start, which is that this issue has given people confidence elsewhere. I will give an example I raised last week with the Minister. In my constituency, I am now in touch with a significant group of apartment and duplex owners. These are people in a major apartment complex where significant defects have been discovered. When I spoke in the Chamber last week, I said to the Minister they were being told they needed to pay €15,000 to deal with fire defects. Since then, they have received a quantity surveyor's report that states it could cost up to €45,000 for each apartment. These people are not able to pay that. They do not have that kind of money. There is no way that will work. It simply does not work for them, yet they were presented with the threat that fire officers would shut down access to the building. However, because of the mica campaigners, they have a sense that this is not on and this is not right. Just like the people affected by mica, this is not any responsibility of theirs, they could not possibly have known this when they bought their apartments, and they should not be left with the bill. They and others, and I am aware of another apartment block in Carrickmines, for example, are coming together to say they need redress.
I support the call that has been mentioned for tax credits in respect of these schemes, but I will make the point that such credits imply people can pay upfront. Most people do not have €15,000, never mind €45,000, in the bank. That does not work. We are now seeing a situation where we are talking about tens of thousands, if not more than 100,000, apartments in particular that were built during the Celtic tiger period, whose owners are victims of self-certification, poor regulation and shoddy building practices, exactly like those issues experienced by homeowners affected by mica. The idea these people will be able to pay upfront to deal with this is not going to work. Simply put, we will need a redress scheme, as we had for those affected by pyrite, and we absolutely had to have for those similarly affected by mica, for apartment and duplex owners affected by the shoddy construction that happened during the Celtic tiger, in particular the fire defects.
I understand the working group was due to report by the end of June, which is today. I suspect it will be another couple of weeks before it completes its report. If a tax credit is included in the budget, it is much better than nothing but it will not be enough. We are now seeing a major problem, partly as a consequence of mica and people becoming aware of it, but also due to fire inspections and so on that are being done. The same basic principle applies: it is no fault whatsoever of the homeowners. They were victims of the construction industry, the Government and the State, which poorly regulated that industry, and the State, therefore, needs to step in. We need to have redress schemes. We then need to pursue those responsible for the situation we are currently in.
I am putting the Minister on notice that, unfortunately, this will not be the last redress scheme that will be needed. I strongly encourage him to take on board the points being made and the position of the mica campaigners. I ask him to agree to the extension of the debate on Committee Stage to make sure we get to hear all the amendments and, most important, that he accepts the amendments and agrees to a genuine, 100% redress scheme and nothing less because it is what is necessary for the homeowners.
I welcome the chance to discuss this legislation. I acknowledge the significant work put in by so many people to get to this point, including the Minister, his team and his officials, but especially homeowners from Mayo, members of Mayo Pyrite Action Group, North Mayo Pyrite Group, Mica Action Group in Donegal, and similar groups from Clare, Limerick and Sligo. Last week, one of their representatives said they were ordinary homeowners put in an extraordinary situation. They led an extraordinary response, which should be acknowledged, but those that put them in that situation have to be pursued.
At last week's hearings of the Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage, I was struck by the lack of urgency around the appointment of a senior counsel to pursue the avenues into why this happened and into those who caused it. Far greater urgency needs to be invested in pursuing those matters and that investigation. When we consider that in the UK £2 billion has been put on the table by the industry in respect of the cladding situation, that is the kind of response we need to see here. We need to see a contribution, not a levy because that will be passed back, out of profits from some of the most profitable companies in the country to pay towards this and other issues, such as the apartment defects issue.
There is also a lack of response and a lack of engagement from the banks, which are among the ultimate winners in this because they have the mortgages. The owners are paying banks for their homes. The banks own those assets and they are very slow in co-operating with and assisting homeowners who are in a situation of having pyrite or mica in blocks. The banks have made it very difficult for homeowners, as have insurance companies, which are welching on contracts throughout the country because of the suspicion of the presence of pyrite, mica or pyrrhotite. Insurance companies and banks need to be brought to heel and told they have to serve the people regarding this. The Government is putting its cards on the table here and, equally, we need to see a far greater engagement with companies such as these.
I will briefly refer to a number of areas in the Bill. I have made a detailed submission to the Minister's office from Ms Martina Hegarty and Ms Josephine Murphy on behalf of the two Mayo mica groups regarding the Bill, which his officials have received and are considering. On section 5, while I welcome the inclusion of Limerick and Clare, the inclusion process is quite cumbersome. The people of County Sligo, in particular, who began the process at the same time as County Clare, have been left waiting and wondering why they have been left aside. There needs to be some sort of assistance provided from the Department to the relevant local authorities because there is a reluctance on the part of those authorities to get involved in this matter. There is also a complete lack of skills in many local authorities to engage in it.
On section 8 and the whole area of the definition of "relevant dwellings", it is important all parts of the house be included. There is a concern that some extensions may be excluded. There is also an issue around garages. There is rather fancy word for garages and things like that in the Bill. They will equally have defective blocks, which are dangerous to those in the house, and they need to be included in the scheme. It is a similar situation with boundary walls. The Minister has given me a commitment they will be included, but boundary walls in public areas of housing estates also need to be included in the scheme. They offer a serious threat.
On sections 10 and 11 and the core area of grants, the SCSI process was detailed and published last March. That would assume the process is working on the basis of construction costs in November and January. That needs to be updated before the scheme goes live. Smaller homes will cost more per square metre than larger homes. We need to look again at the hearings last week and, for example, the case of Ms Martina Hegarty, who is in a smaller house in a terrace where the costs will be greater, even though the house is smaller. Just because someone has a smaller house, he or she should not be left out of pocket. The downsizing option is a very real one that needs to be given consideration.
One frustrating thing is that the computer generally says no when it comes to many ideas. We need to think outside the box within the local authorities and Departments and give the downsizing option some sort of consideration within the limitations.
The Minister is introducing provision in this Bill to fund local authority and AHB homes. There are houses that are primary residences for vulnerable adults and people with disabilities that are owned by charities which do not have the resources to remediate their houses. A similar funding option should be made available to those charities, either by the Minister or the Department of Health, in order that those people do not lose their homes in the same way that other homeowners will not lose their homes.
There is a major blockage in the scheme. People are progressing, awaiting the conclusion of this process, but the SEAI process in terms of giving people funding to upgrade heating requirements has come to a complete halt. I have been in contact with the Minister's office. We need an urgent update on that because there are people who have had their houses demolished and are awaiting SEAI approval to proceed. They cannot proceed because the SEAI is saying that it cannot get clearance from its parent Department, which is apparently talking to the Minister's Department. This is it again - Departments working in silos and not talking to each other. Meanwhile, the homeowner suffers.
With regard to section 12 about remediation options and building conditions assessments, the committee hearings last week were deeply confusing. There was definite science and very definite people on both sides of this argument. I know it is being reviewed but there needs to be an urgency to the review of foundations. I welcome section 51 which triggers a review of the Bill following the review of IS 465. We need to give certainty with regard to foundations as soon as is possible. A presentation was made by Mr. Thomas Campbell, a qualified engineer in this space, with regard to a potential solution for the foundation issue. I forwarded it to the Minister's office. There are homeowners who want to proceed and get this over with. If they have to pay for their own foundations, some sort of commitment should be given to funding that if the science stands up.
The homeowner's professional, engineer and architect needs to be part of the process too, because that is the only element of trust in all of this. That needs to be stronger in the Bill. I have often spoken to the Minister about the damage threshold. I have serious concerns about it. We had a nightmare in Mayo last summer around a damage threshold, even though it did not exist. Being excluded from the scheme was more stressful to homeowners than being told they had pyrite in the first place. The 1.5 mm with regard to the expert group is not based on any science. I need to ensure that there will be robust engagement with people on the damage threshold and that it is not used as an exclusionary measure.
Why are all the timelines in the Bill on the homeowners? There is no timeline on the local authority. There is no timeline on the Housing Agency. I put the questions to Mr. Bob Jordan last week and, in fairness, he is committed to putting timelines and service level agreements, SLAs, in place. Timelines are needed on every side of this. Provision is also needed for force majeure cases. There are cases that will not fit into any of the definitions. There are older people, in particular, who proceeded ahead of the scheme to remediate their houses for family safety reasons. They need to be given some sort of recognition.
I acknowledge the huge changes. It is important to acknowledge them because it is getting lost in the argument today. This is a very different scheme to what it was this time last year. However, to make it the kind of scheme that works, we need to engage strongly in the regulations. Those regulations made it inaccessible on the last occasion and we need to engage strongly around some of the amendments being put forward.
This is not just a Donegal, Sligo, Clare or Mayo issue. It is a basic issue of fairness. These families are living in homes that are crumbling. They deserve our support and anything less than 100% redress is not acceptable. The State was asleep at the wheel. It was too busy squandering money in the Celtic tiger era and neglecting its responsibilities to ensure that building materials were fit for purpose.
I listened to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage last week. It is clear from the various contributors that self-regulation of manufacturers, together with inadequate local authority enforcement of standards, allowed unfit concrete blocks to enter the Irish market for years. Quarry owners, insurance companies and bond providers all washed their hands while the State looked on. All these homeowners want is their homes back on a like-for-like basis with what they have already paid. It is not unreasonable to request that and if it is done for pyrite, it can certainly be done for mica.
I struggle to understand the Government's approach. Why would it exclude foundations, which are made of the same materials as the blocks? Why exclude boundary walls, sheds and garages which have the same potential to kill a family member when they fall down? Real costs versus allowable costs at current rates represent more than an 80% grant. This leaves homeowners out tens of thousands of euro which is a shortfall the Minister knows they simply cannot afford. There must be true like-for-like replacement, including house finishes, end-to-end contract management by the State and a zero cost to the homeowner.
Instead, homeowners are offered a grant to carry out repairs, leaving them to find contractors who will work to the inadequate grants provided and at the mercy of inflation, while being choked up by red tape. The Government must provide a penalty-free downsizing option that would allow the grant based on their current home size to be redirected to building themselves a smaller one if they so wish.
I commend the work of the Mica Action Group which has been tireless in its campaign to achieve a just solution for homeowners. It has identified 35 issues in the general scheme, about which the Minister has been told, all of which render the scheme unworkable to a greater or lesser extent. This legislation is an opportunity for the Minister to do the right thing by these families and not be tone deaf. The families and their concerns have to be listened to. It is very simple. It has to be 100% redress and nothing less.
I thank the Minister for coming in. I acknowledge that he has done a lot of hard work. Instead of everything being negative, it should be very positive going forward. These are family homes. Families want to get this situation sorted out and I believe the Minister will get this sorted out. Let us stop playing a political game of football. The most important thing is getting the houses built, getting the families back in and starting to move on.
It is very important that all people who are adversely affected by the defective material in their properties get redress. Everybody has to get redress. We do not know the full impact and the lack of the regulation of construction material in Ireland is not helping the situation. I believe all counties in Ireland are having problems and all should, automatically, be allowed the allocation of funding. I spoke to the Minister a few months ago with the county manager, Ms Joan Martin, in Dundalk. We believe there are at least ten to 15 people in the county who have this problem. The Minister told us that we had to put in a submission. I spoke to the county manager again today and I know that submission has not gone in yet. However, as I said to the Minister, it is about the families and the people. It is very important. Nobody is saying that only ten or 12 counties are affected. We all know that every county has a problem. Every county should be given an opportunity to get their family home back up and running.
I talk to people on the ground, like most Deputies here. People are very sceptical and worried because a house is a house. That includes the garage and patio. People are being told to leave the foundations or the patio. One cannot do that because, naturally, much of the material in these buildings is also part of the house. It is very important that these are all part of the compensation. I spoke to many people over the past number of years who have invested in private houses and have gotten involved in the rental market. As far as I am concerned, they have the same right as other people. If one looks at these houses, they are playing a big part in the market. Most of these houses are leased out to people or the council. It is very important that these people are looked after as well.
I used the words "nervous" and "worried". People are nervous and very worried. I ask the Minister to try to make it simple. In fairness, he does not complicate things. He just tries to say them as they are and that will be very important going forward. The biggest problem I hear in my constituency office is that when it comes to application forms, people are afraid of filling them in. They are afraid to look for grants because they do not understand the system.
It is important that when people fill in the application form for the grant and put in whatever information they need, they be given a bit of scope in that. The last thing we want is for people to be refused because they did not fill the application form in correctly. It is important that the proper staff are working on this. They should talk to people and let them know what the situation is. People are panicking about getting the application in as quickly as possible and the timeframes. It was mentioned earlier that it all seems to be on the householder. It is important that the local authorities work closely with the person involved in the house.
Another big problem is that a lot of people are going together to look for engineering reports. It is very hard to get someone to put it down with paper and pen and people come looking for everything else. It is important that it is all done right. When people go into local authorities, the staff do not seem to know how much money they have to pay and they want to know how quickly they will get a response back on their applications. It is the same in politics - communication. Once people are communicated with and once they know what is happening, I do not see a serious problem. Many families are worried that someone might just knock on the door, come in and inspect the house. That is the last thing we want to do. I am not trying to be smart but these people are looking at their houses and seeing cracks in the walls and holes in the ceiling. People are house-proud and the last thing they want is someone coming to the house and knocking on the door with the family in the house and everything else. Kids are inquisitive and the last thing you want is for them to realise what is going on. I guarantee the Minister that a lot of people have not told their children exactly what is happening. They might tell them there is a new house coming. It is important that we try to get this done as soon as possible.
On the issue of foundations, the foundation of a house is like someone's life or body to them. The foundations have to go, end of story. You cannot just go in and build a house on top of deleterious material; it makes no sense whatsoever. It is very important that the foundations go.
We are talking about money, and it is important that we have the money in place so that when people start, they can get finished. The Minister is saying it is capped at €420,000 or €430,000 and it is important that money is available so that when people start doing the work, there will be a completion date coming up. There is no point in starting in January and finishing in January two years later. It is important that the money is there to finish the job. I know contractors will not be too happy to do the work unless they know the money is there.
We are having serious issues around the country with labour. I was trying to get an extension done on my house recently and I was told it would take four or five months for a simple job. Worst of all, when you go into a hardware shop to look for building material, it is nearly impossible to get it. They do not want to carry the stock because it is too expensive to carry it. There is an uncertainty about materials, labour and everything else and that is important going forward.
I mentioned Louth earlier but I ask the Minister to let the Twenty-six Counties in. The Louth county manager is active. It might not seem like a lot to include ten or 15 people but when you have your own home you should be treated the exact same as everybody else, and that is important going forward. I was in my home town of Dundalk during the week and I met a fellow who had to leave his home back in 2018. He had been living in that home with his wife since 1991 and they had a lot of great memories there. All of a sudden he saw cracks appearing from nowhere. He did not know what it was and all of a sudden the ceiling, walls and everything else were affected. In 2018, he had to physically take his wife and children out of the house. There was a problem and it was too dangerous to stay in the house but that poor wife spent 12 weeks in a centre suffering from depression. She had to leave the home that she spent the guts of 20 years building it up. People want to stay in their own homes, especially among the older generation. It is important going forward that we have a wee bit of sympathy for these people. These are their homes
I have dealt with the Minister on a number of different issues in recent weeks and he is approachable and he listens to people. I ask people to have a bit of trust in the Minister. This should not be made into a political football; it is serious. I heard another Deputy mention today that this would not be the first redress scheme and that more and more would be coming down the road. That is not fair. I know the Minister fought very hard to get the money together. The sooner we start, the better. I ask him to get it right and communicate with the people. These are family homes and if people want to downsize or upsize, they should have that option. It is important that people get their old homes into their new homes and try to get memories back as soon as possible. People just need to get their lives back together again. As an Independent Deputy, I trust him and when he says things, he does so passionately. I might get a bit of flak for supporting him but the reason I want to support him is that I know these people want to get their homes back and get their lives up and running. We have to show trust in the Minister. If he leads from the front, the people will get behind him. I look forward to working with him.
This debate, which will no doubt be well-watched by the families and individuals at the centre of the legislation, is critical. I hope the Bill brings an end to their wait for much-needed support. Last week our Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage held a special eight-hour session where we heard from industry experts, including the SCSI; the Institution of Engineers Ireland; departmental officials; the Housing Agency; and the chair of the expert working group. Most importantly, we heard from the representatives of the families affected by defective blocks, many of whom are with us today. We heard from the Mica Action Group in Donegal, the Clare Pyrite Action Group and the Mayo Pyrite Action Group.
I have seen first-hand in homes in my constituency walls bloating and cracks that often appeared overnight but that become gaping constant reminders of how insecure someone's home is. Imagine living in a home you do not feel safe in, a home where you know the creaks and the cracks are not just a house settling but a house starting to crumble. Imagine going to bed every night knowing that the structure of your home is unstable. That is the reality for many families whose homes were built by blocks that have turned out to be defective. Imagine the anger you would feel knowing the quarries are not being held to account and from having to campaign for years to access funding to remedy things. Families impacted by mica and pyrite have waited long enough. They need this legislation passed and this funding provided and they need it yesterday.
This Bill contains many welcome changes to the original scheme. It is important to acknowledge that these changes were made in response to feedback from affected homeowners and that the changes were recommended by the expert working group, chaired by Paul Forde. Those changes include the likes of retrospective inclusion; an appeals process; a legal footing for the certificate of remediation; and the Housing Agency taking on the cost of the testing. This Bill has at its core an ambition to provide a fair and equitable solution to all homeowners affected by defective blocks and that includes homeowners in Clare and Limerick now too.
I know the Minister has a wider ambition to make sure that this never happens again. That is why it was so concerning to hear from a chartered engineer in the joint committee that a quarry in the south-east is still operating at fault. This cannot be let continue. Our committee has written to the building condition assessment office to escalate this accusation because if that is still going on then there is no excusing it. I know the Minister is doing a lot of work on the regulation of providers of building works Bill and that work is crucial because if there is one thing we have learned from the nightmares that these families have been living through, it is that we cannot allow this to ever happen again. The same is true of construction companies that have left thousands of apartment owners in similar positions, including some of my constituents in apartments in Lucan, many of whom were already in debt due to remediation costs.
They need to be treated fairly too.
In terms of the fair and equitable package for homeowners we are discussing, we need to face up to the reality of inflation. The funding model for this scheme was based on a comprehensive body of work carried out by the Society of Chartered Surveyors of Ireland and I thank that society's volunteers who gave so much time and expertise to help these families. However, there is no denying that Ireland is in a different space from where we were in February. Inflation is a reality and those costs cannot be let spiral. Given how much construction costs have increased since the funding model was drawn up, it is critical we ensure payments are adequate, fair and equitable, even now, because these families need to access the right amount of money to build safe homes, the homes they deserve and should have got in the first place.
I thank Deputy Higgins for allowing me to take some of her time. I appreciate it. I welcome this overdue legislation. It has been a difficult time for a huge amount of families. Unfortunately, pyrite and mica do not stop in Donegal, Clare or Mayo. On Monday last, I visited a house in my constituency of Wexford where it was visible to me that there is either mica or pyrite. I understand this scheme will be expanded beyond the counties I mentioned through local authorities.
Families in Donegal, Clare and Mayo have gone through a horrid time in recent years. I praise my colleague, former Minister and Teachta Dála for Donegal, Deputy McHugh, who has done a huge amount of work in the area in recent years. In conversations with him, I found out exactly the extent of the problem in Donegal. When I visited the house in my constituency on Monday, it brought back some of the conversations I had with Deputy McHugh.
Deputies have raised a number of issues but we are talking about families, real people who have pride in their homes. Their homes are their castles. Those of us lucky enough to have our own home appreciate how much we love it, how much investment we put into it and the memories we have in it. The lives of these families have been turned upside-down in recent years.
I plead with the Minister of State and the Department to make this process as simple as possible for the families. There has to be accountability, as we all appreciate, but on occasions Departments design schemes that make application so cumbersome for families and homeowners that they do not apply. I ask that this be a simple process. Outside of counties Donegal, Clare and Mayo, where there is a huge issue, I ask that in County Wexford the people affected by mica or pyrite can go to the local authority to be seen and their story listened to, so they can be part and parcel of this scheme. They are afraid they are falling outside the scheme. Wexford has been mentioned as one of the potentially affected counties. I know of three cases in County Wexford where there is mica or pyrite. I plead with the Minister of State and Department that in County Wexford no homeowner will be left outside this scheme but will be part of it and treated in the same way as people in Donegal, Mayo and Clare.
Where do we start? Regulation, building product surveillance: it is fair to say they were not up to scratch, far from it. We have failed a number of people miserably. We are talking at the minute about Donegal, Mayo, Clare, Sligo, Limerick, Tipperary and up to seven more counties. I have heard a number of Teachtaí talk about my constituency of Louth. This is a small island and it is difficult to see how it will not be every county, on the basis that there are no customs posts, as a Deputy said earlier. These building materials will have made their way into every county, village and town. What does that mean? It means we have left people with crumbling homes, through no fault of their own. People need to think about that. That is your home and it is suddenly falling apart. We have all seen the pictures and videos. Many here, including I think the Minister, Deputy O'Brien, have visited some of the homes and seen the devastation. It is not going to get any better. That is why we are discussing this. The main reason is the pressure put on by the campaigners, some of whom are here today. I commend the work they have done and the pressure they have put on. What they need and want is a process that works and one they deserve. It is a system. They want a government that has their back.
We all want justice. We need to go after the quarries and block manufacturers but, first and foremost, we need to make sure we look after these people, particularly the campaigners. I have no doubt that many of them, as committed as they are, are tired and just want to see an end to this process. We need to facilitate them as much as possible. They just want to get on with their lives. We know the issues, including 100% redress and difficulties with the caps. There will be problems with the rate of inflation and there are issues if people want to downsize.
We need to make up for these gaps in this legislation. There is talk of the difficulty around foundations. Deputy Ó Broin and many others across the House have agreed they would be willing to deal with the huge amount of amendments put in to fill these gaps and offer people a process that will deliver them the homes they need, whether that is like-for-like or otherwise. We need to facilitate that so I expect the Government will be forthcoming and allow this. People have stated they have no problem putting the hours in next week to make sure. The people in the Gallery and around this country deserve it. There is nothing else. We have failed them miserably until now and have to have their back from here on in.
First, I thank the people of Limerick, Clare, Donegal, Sligo and Mayo for the unbelievable work they have done. I am sorry for what they have had to go through. I will simplify it for the Minister of State: I will talk about the foundations in this Bill. If the Minister of State had a tree in his garden and there was a problem with the leaves, would he treat the leaves or the root of the problem? In the same way, the Minister of State will stand up and walk out of here in a few minutes and, unless he has a good pair of shoes on, he will fall over. The foundation he puts himself on is his pair of shoes. The Government's approach to the foundations does not make any sense. Under no circumstances should the foundations not be included in the Bill. To test foundations, engineers will have to dig around the outside of the foundations and test to make sure they are the same density all around. Then they will have to core-test them and do different tests on them. The expense of doing all that would go a long way towards replacing the foundations. If you have to do that on top of the engineer's fees, it makes it more expensive. The real answer is to remove all foundations and put the new structure on top of new foundations.
In the housing committee last week we had the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage and the SEAI.
They told us it takes three months or so to come up with figures in respect of the building of houses. I am in the real world and I am a building contractor myself. If it took me three months to come up with a price for a house, I would not be in business. The first SEAI report I got related to the retrofit grant. It came up with costings in October. The next costings came up in February. Anyone who knows quantity surveying will know that the quantities will not have changed. All that needs to be done is for the figures to be updated with today's costs. The computer system does it all by itself. In my business, I may have to do that every week. I use the same model the Government is using but it is saying that it takes three months to update the figures.
I will give the Minister of State yesterday's figures. The maximum the Government proposes to give to people is €420,000. Is it now going to tell the people of Ireland that it is not €420,000 because it includes VAT at 13.5%? It is actually giving people €370,044.05. You then subtract €20,000 for storage and rent, if the recipients are lucky enough to be able to rent a house because we have a housing crisis. That brings the figure down to €350,044.05. With today's costs, that equates to a house of 1,944 sq. ft. However, you then have to consider today's building costs. If it can be believed, today's building costs, including the 25% increase in the cost of insulation from Kingspan to come in on 1 July, which we can plan for, means that this €350,000 will only build a house of 1,750 sq. ft.
We have forgotten one thing, however. We have forgotten that we will have to replace the bathrooms, floors and kitchens throughout the house. That is also included in the Government figures. Not only that but, when you take down the house and do all of the retrofit, you have then destroyed the sewerage system, the pipework around the house, the footpaths, the driveways, the lawns and everything else that you have taken out. If you take out a sum for remediation costs and the basic cost of replacing the bathrooms, kitchens and flooring throughout the house, it brings the €420,000 the Government has given as the maximum figure down to €300,000. This brings me to my point. At today's prices, the maximum sum the Government is allowing for only allows for a house of 1,500 sq. ft. That is what is wrong. I will return to the three months it took to update figures. It takes my business a maximum of a week because we already have the template. I do not accept the Government's figures.
Let us now move to a house in Mayo. We will use a smaller house for an example in Mayo and we will use the figures that were used earlier on. A house of 90 sq. m, which equals 969 sq. ft, would cost €197,966.70 to build. If you add €20,000 for storage and rent and a sum for the cost of finishing the house, that 90 sq. m house will cost €237,966.70 to build. I was able to come up with that using a calculator in the space of half an hour today but it takes the Government three months.
We will now go into the issue of coring, which the Government is so against. The Government representatives have stood up here to tell us about retrofit grants throughout the country. If you put insulation into the cavity of a house that has pyrite but which has not shown any signs yet, you accelerate the process. It sweats the cavity and creates a reaction, accelerating the process. Within four or five years, the walls will be in trouble. Houses are falling down all around us at the moment but, in this Bill, the Government is refusing to allow coring to be the main method by which people find out whether their houses contain pyrite. It would help in the future and save the Government money if houses were core-tested first but it does not want to do that. Why? It is because it would provide a full census of every affected house in Ireland, including those in counties which have not yet been introduced to the scheme. Several more counties are coming in and we will have more. Core testing would give a full picture but the Government does not want to see that full picture. It is common sense. The Government wants to allow houses to be retrofitted now but it will all have to be pulled down and the houses rebuilt. That is not common sense. It is a waste of money.
We must consider one more fact. Most of the houses built in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s had slate roofs. I am in building and, in any house I retrofit and renovate, the slates have to be tested, which comes at a cost. In every house I have done so far, traces of asbestos have been found in the slates. We then need a specialised unit to come out to remove the slates, bag them up and ship them to Germany and other countries, where they are dealt with. That costs approximately €10,000. The Government has not factored that into its costings. How do I know this? I am building every day. Other Independent Members, Sinn Féin, the Social Democrats and I have brought this issue to the Government through the Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage but it is not listening. Why is it so afraid that we are able to get things right while the Government, with all its expensive Departments, cannot?
This is about real live people. I ask the Minister of State to take a look into the Gallery above us. I want him to look at the children, their parents, their brothers and sisters and their uncles and aunts. They will remember the Government not listening to people who understand. No matter what the Minister of State's expensive Department does, it cannot replace the expertise of those who are in the sector doing the work every day and bringing the facts to its door.
Gabh mo leithscéal. Cheap mé go raibh an Teachta Mattie McGrath ag labhairt ar dtús. I am disappointed to see that the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage left before the Rural Independent Group's slot was reached. Perhaps he is reflecting on his bad behaviour last week. I do not know but it is disappointing to see that he is not here.
I have met many people from Donegal and Mayo outside the gates of Leinster House and have seen the looks of despair and anguish on their faces. That is why I am here today. I am a Deputy from the midlands but I believe that this is an important issue that needs to be resolved urgently because it is desperately unfair on those families. These families have been through turmoil. They need to see action. Government needs to instil confidence that it is doing its best. To date, that confidence certainly has not been instilled. Why would the Government leave foundations out of the proposed redress scheme? That is incredible but not surprising. The Minister has his own ideas.
I will read out parts of an email that were sent to me by a lady called Joy, an innocent homeowner.
How can you let the bill go through without including foundations ...? Below our feet our homes are crumbling and unable to support the walls - what is it going to take to make the government realise that a tragedy will happen? Sadly I have no doubt this will be a reality as families will be unable to avail of the scheme as it stands due to the shortfall between the grant and actual building costs. Our homes are destined to crumble down around us until it takes us, I just hope and pray that children are not harmed, maimed for life or worse ... this is the stage we are getting to and many homes should be condemned.
As our walls are weakening our ... floors are too heavy to be supported by the walls that are crumbling down around them ... where is the safest place in your opinion for me to sleep at night? ... I am sure you will agree it is a tough decision to take when going to bed at night. Sleeping on the first floor - would I be safer as I will fall to the floor below when this eventually happens? or maybe I would be safer on the ground floor of my home and take my chances that the ... slab will perhaps miss me as it falls down? I am sure you will agree this is tough call as you put your children to bed [every] night haunted by the fact of what can happen in the night and [wondering] if they will be safe.
We have done absolutely nothing wrong yet are living this nightmare daily. We are stressed and extremely anxious to hear if we can rebuild our homes and if the science and research from world leaders in this field will be listened to. How can this research and advice from these experts be ignored?
Sadly the SCSI rates will not allow me to rebuild my home as the rates leave a massive shortfall (approx €60,000 + foundations) but please, please put yourself in our shoes - how would you feel if you had built a home and the government did not regulate the block manufacturers and now we the innocent victims of this ... crisis are left to spend the rest of our days in fear of our safety or be in debt the rest of our lives. How can this possibly be fair? If you can find a builder to build at these rates please pass on my details as I have yet to find a builder who comes anywhere close [to] the SCSI rates.
The issues around cost have been pointed out by Deputy O'Donoghue, who is an expert in this field as he is a building contractor. Insulation from companies like Kingspan will increase by 25% by 1 July. These costs were not factored into the current proposal. Costs are escalating every day. We need a bit of common sense and cop on here. It should not take three months to revise the costs. That is nonsense.
Cuirim céad míle fáilte roimh na daoine sa Ghailearaí. I welcome those in the Gallery, na daoine óga agus na clanna go léir. This is heart-rending. These people came to the convention centre last year. They came to the front of the Dáil in the most dignified and profoundly professional manner. Their homes are falling down around them. There is talk of following the science. We heard a lot about science during Covid and much of that science was wrong too. Why will the Government not follow the science here? It is trying to bring us nose first into this and dip our noses into the science. This is an abject failure by the Minister and Department officials. They refuse to listen to anyone else who knows better. These people are dictating. They are unchallenged and are getting away with it. Anybody who has ever stood on a building site, and I must declare I am a plant contractor myself, knows the foundation is the most important part of any building, organisation or anything else. Leaving the foundations out of the scheme is pure mockery. There are a couple of layers of blocks that raise up the subfloors and walls and they are filled up with screed and concrete. How could the Government leave out the foundations? They will crack and crumble and crack every bit of the house. That would happen even if there was no mica or pyrite, if there were bad foundations. That has happened in many places where there poor foundations without enough steel or on bad ground. Why will the officials in the Department not take off their shoes and go out and see the houses?
This issue has been around for so long and the way this Bill is being rushed through in the final days before the summer recess is despicable. The Select Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage has offered to deal with the amendments but the Government will not allow it to. I salute Deputy O'Donoghue, who is on that committee and is willing to give his time, along with Deputy Ó Broin and others, to deal with it. It is being rushed through on shaky foundations. The Government has been warned time and again that it is on shaky ground. It has no empathy, sorrow, sympathy or respect for the ordinary people. Thank God we do not get them here, but we see houses being wrecked by earthquakes and things like that, or even in the war that is going on now. That is happening incrementally by the minute, hourly and daily in people's homes. These people were brave enough to put their hands in their pockets. They got up early in the mornings to go out to work to get a mortgage and build their own houses. Many of them built them themselves and many got contractors.
All the while the Government is turning its eyes away from the real problem, which is the big conglomerates that supplied the concrete. To think this scheme might go ahead - it probably will go ahead - and the concrete, aggregate and blocks could come from the same sandpits or rock pits they came from already beggars belief. That shows one thing. It is nothing personal to the Minister or the Minister of State. It shows this Government, and successive Governments, is and have been beholden to big business. I have attended CRH's AGMs in fancy hotels here in Dublin to fight for people who were grievously wronged by that company in the past. This has gone on all over the world, with challenges, court cases and settlements. The Government is happy to use these quarries and those belonging to some more friends of Fianna Fáil. They are untouchable. They shall not be named. You cannot go near them because they are the Government's friends. Those days are gone. The people of Donegal, Mayo, Limerick and many other counties must be looked after.
We have tabled a number of amendments, which I am sure we will not get time to move or discuss. We want to extend the scheme to Tipperary as well. The Bunratty quarry is only over the border from us in Tipperary. I collected roof tiles from there myself when I was putting an extension on my house. What is the Government at? The mockery is over. The shenanigans are over and should be over. The Government needs to get real, get down and dirty and get the proper foundations. If you only put a stone upon a stone there will be so much done but if you build a castle on bad foundations, you might as well have a sandcastle because when the first bit of rain comes, it will melt. I have met families outside the gate here, taobh amuigh den gheata, who are afraid of yellow and orange weather warnings in case the house collapses around them. Imagine living in that fear. The walls are crumbling. They showed me the aggregate in plastic bags. That morning it was in solid knobs but it had burst by the time they came here. A crusher would not crush it that well, yet the quarries are exempted. The big businesses are gone again. It goes back to PMPA and the insurance bailout, the meat conglomerates and the Goodman empire - bailed out again. We are not allowed speak about it. We have to close or eyes and not even look at the quarries. We have to keep away from them in case we might have to pay back any of the bankrolling they did for the political parties. People are more important.
Everyone knows about the bankers but they are untouchable. They paid €70 million in fines last week. Whose money was that? It was the people's money, the people they wronged by putting them on different mortgages. What kind of a banana republic is this? The people of 1916, 1921 and 1922 gave their lives and spilled their blood for this. To have this kind of a charade going on here is outrageous. This is nothing personal to the Minister of State but he is part of the Government. He is the junior Minister. The Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, ran away from the debate because he got good schooling from the masters in north Dublin, who did much havoc in this country. I am talking about former Senators, Deputies and Ministers who ended up in disgrace. This is going to end up in disgrace too. I plead with the Minister of State to take this back and make it right. Start from the foundations upwards.
Pyrite has been an issue in my constituency for a number of years. My first involvement in pyrite was in getting Limerick included in the pyrite remediation scheme, which involves pyrite in the hardcore of the foundations. Limerick City and County Council had to apply to the pyrite remediation board and we succeeded in getting it included. I saw the devastation that caused for people in their homes.
Subsequently, in June of least year it came to my notice that pyrite was in the blockwork of houses in Limerick. I asked Limerick City and County Council to apply for this current mica scheme, as it is known. In layman's terms, it is about pyrite and mica in the blockwork. That is a misunderstanding for people. Limerick City and County Council agreed to do that. I wrote to the city manager at the time, and he agreed to write to the Department to get Limerick included. I welcome that it has been included. I have seen the homes. In many cases, the gable ends are effectively falling away from the house itself. It is devastating for these people.
It has happened through no fault of their own. Limerick City and County Council did great work in a short period to come up with the criteria to get Limerick included as part of this defective blocks scheme. I have a couple of comments to make. The criteria to qualify were really about showing the issue was from the blockwork upwards. The blocks could be below or above ground. However, it was not a requirement to look at pyrite in the foundations. That has to be looked at. I do not have experience in building; I am a layman. If we rebuild houses based on a scheme that stated people just had to prove that there was pyrite in the defective blocks, both overground and underground, it does not to make sense to build on foundations that were not tested and may have pyrite. We need to include the foundations in the scheme.
We have to look at the downsizing aspect. If people are willing to reduce the size of their homes, that is not unreasonable and they should be allowed to do that. The threshold needs to be looked at. We are in a phase of rising prices. I would like those matters to be considered.
There is a human dimension here. There are both young families and older people with mortgages. Through no fault of their own, their houses are effectively crumbling. They are unsafe and need to be looked at.
We have two schemes at Limerick at the moment. The current scheme is for pyrite and defective blocks. We also have a pyrite remediation scheme, which is administered by the pyrite remediation board and provides for 100% remediation for the hardcore. It is allowed for blocks underground and overground and for hardcore, but it is not allowed for foundations. For the scheme to be a true success, we must do due diligence and ensure we are not building houses on foundations with pyrite.
Limerick is a bit behind compared with Donegal. We do not fully know the number of houses that have been impacted, which worries me. We know which quarries the materials came from. The initial working group was established in Limerick in 2021. Anything further would include the Limerick Pyrite Action Group. Anne Ryan has done terrific work in the area. Individual families come to me about it. I am always reluctant to name people and, therefore, I will not but there are tremendous engineers and staff of the council who did phenomenal work in a short time. Consequently, they were successful in getting the area to qualify.
The appeal period is not sufficiently lengthy. It should be increased to 90 days. When the Minister is examining calculations of cost, Limerick should be factored in, because the calculated rates did not include it.
I welcome the scheme, which has many good aspects. If we are to have a robust scheme, we must look at the facts presented. We must look at foundations. We have the added benefit in Limerick of having the pyrite remediation scheme for the hardcore, which is an element of the foundations, for the layman. We have the mica scheme and defective blocks scheme for pyrite in the blocks both overground and underground. We need to make sure that when they build on top of the foundations, they are addressed. The most important matter is the human dimension and helping families, as I found in Limerick. We must get this right.
I offer my sympathy, support and solidarity to those families whose homes have been affected by the mica scandal. Their campaign for justice and their bravery in the face of an unsympathetic Government is to be commended. The nub of the problem with the Bill is it does not provide 100% redress, which is not fair. Families have done their homework and they do not appreciate being told it provides 100% redress when they know exactly what it will cost them and that the Government scheme will fall short. It is unfair and disingenuous of Government to constantly seek to contradict people who are living this day and night. They are well aware of the figures and have done their homework. They have their figures correct.
The costings underpinning the grant system, both in rates per square foot and overall cap, are out of date and not relevant to all the counties impacted. These have to be updated before any scheme opens. Further, the terms of reference for the costings are also too restrictive, excluding foundations, garages and boundary walls. These must be included as they are part of the home. Finally, the industry standard underpinning the scheme, IS 465, does not including other deleterious materials such as pyrrhotite, which has to change. On this last point, regarding pyrrhotite, there are countless people across north County Dublin who can relate directly to the story of the families who are impacted by the mica scandal. They sat and watched their own homes crumble before their eyes due to pyrite. They had to campaign to secure a remediation scheme and to have that scheme be made fit for purpose. Many still cannot sell their homes and move on with their lives. They are stuck where they are. The impact of this crisis on these families has been deep and will be long-lasting.
Only yesterday, I heard from some families. I hoped the Minister would be present to hear this and to join with me to collectively make an effort. These families are living in north County Dublin where the pyrite issues were worst. They depend on a transport system to get them into town. The Fingal express has been withdrawn from them, which is another blow. They are stuck where they are. The bus service is vital. I want it to restored and the Minister for Transport to do his work with other Deputies in my area. When the people in my constituency look on the television and see the crumbling homes, they feel that sense of solidarity because they have had to live through it themselves. Many of them now find themselves in a situation where they cannot sell their homes or move on with their lives. Their families have grown and they are stuck. The impact of not getting this right will be far-reaching and will last for decades
I reiterate my complete support for the statement from homeowners’ representatives read into the record today by Deputy Ó Broin. It is a sad indictment of us in this political system and of the Government that it has come to this. Ordinary people who have invested so much in this process and in making the scheme work have had to put that statement on the record to show how the Government has ignored them. That is sad. That echoes in my mind as I speak here. I think what we are doing today is a waste of time. The deadline for amendments has passed. The Minister of State is not listening to us. He is sitting there uncomfortably. I am sure there are many other things he would rather do. This makes no difference because he will not take our issues on board or do anything. I am disgusted by what the Minister fervently presented to us today as the panacea to the problems faced by my constituents in Donegal and other affected counties to the problem of defective blocks in their homes.
It clearly is not. In his opening contribution, the Minister said: "We cannot let the perfect be the enemy of the good and we need to get a practical scheme moving." It would make you sick. The reality of the situation is with this scheme the Minister is letting inadequate be the enemy of the good.
I am disgusted at the way the Bill confirms that, despite what the Taoiseach has presented in the House, as "extensive consultations with homeowners", their concerns have not been addressed and not been listened to. The Minister and his officials sat in meetings with people for the past six months, pretended to listen to them, and then ignored them. It is obvious that all of us have been completely ignored. There is no point in claiming that just hearing them is good enough, because in ignoring them, the Minister and Government are making a judgment on what they think of the people’s concerns. They are dismissing them, and today’s Bill does that over and over again. The words of the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine earlier saying he recognises homeowners' work on this, ring increasingly hollow. It is really sad and it is sickening.
I call on Government-backing Deputies from the affected counties to finally be honest and straight with the people and admit they do not care that the party will come before the people, as they always intended. This is what is really happening here. There is also disgust at the process that has been followed to avoid proper legislative scrutiny and to minimise the opportunity for media scrutiny. That is the only reasonable conclusion I can come to for all this rush after months of delay from the Government. Let me be clear, however, that there is no surprise here. From the very start, I have said it honestly to the homeowners in Donegal that I did not believe the Government politicians were being genuine with them when they stood on platforms and promised they would resign if the Bill did not provide 100% redress. I told them that I did not believe the Minister or the Department had any intention of providing 100% redress, and, sadly, this has been shown today. I had hoped that I would be wrong and that the process would show that we can be wrong but it does not happen in this political system.
It is not just about the content of the Bill presented here; it is also about the fact that the Government is hell bent on ramming it through Committee and Remaining Stages in two hours next week. It means this debate is a total farce. It has no point in terms of the legislative principles of this House, as the deadline for the submission of amendments had passed prior to the start of the debate. What will the Minister take away from the debate? Absolutely nothing.
I and others have worked tirelessly over the past week to draft amendments, with well in excess of 150 in total submitted for this morning's deadline. They were drafted to address the concerns of the homeowners and deal with obvious flaws in the Bill as presented. It was then confirmed to me earlier today by the Bills Office that no Government amendments were submitted at all. We now know the Minister had already decided to change nothing to address the concerns of people and residents. Such contempt for the parliamentary process is hard to take for those of us who sit in this Chamber but it is insignificant when compared to the clear message the Minister and the Minister of State are sending to those watching in the Public Gallery, my constituents in Donegal and people in other counties who are watching this in the hope that there can be a better outcome for them. As I said earlier, Deputies are used to this and we expect it, but sadly it has now been shown for the people outside the House what it actually means. At the moment they are left with the false hope of the Opposition amendments to cling to. Again, I was very clear to those I spoke to that many of our amendments will be ruled out of order as being a cost on the State. Amendments of the kind needed to fix this Bill can only be brought forward by a Member of the Government. They are not going to do it, and the Minister of State knows this. Once again, I believe he should drop the charade and be honest with people. The likes of promises of a review by a senior counsel into the defective blocks saga will butter few parsnips with people in Donegal. We are still waiting on the Mulcahy report to be published by the Government. It was commissioned in 2015 and has been on the ministerial desk for the past five years. The Minister of State, Deputy Burke, knows where I think he should stick his senior counsel review. It will be just more of the same thing and will not mean anything at all.
I will be brief regarding the Bill because I know I am wasting my breath. It is rule by regulation and it is not good enough. Could the Minister of State not see the return of the sliding scale through regulation? What is to stop the Minister of State? Is it his solemn promise? I propose to mandate the inclusion of homeowners' representatives, their engineers and experts in geology and materials science, in the formulation of all regulations. They should follow the science, not the whim of officials with an eye on the purse, and not aggregate the remediation and ancillary grants. It is just unfair.
The Bill does not deal with multiple occupancy dwellings. Does the Minister of State not realise that these buildings are crumbling also and that families live in them too? If a homeowner gets remediation for only one house that he or she owns, then tenants in their other homes will be forced to live in buildings that will crumble in the future. I would seek to drop the limit of one rental property and revise the cut-off date for registration of tenancies. An opportunity for tenancies to be legitimised with the RTB must be given. This is not about landlords getting multiple grants; this is about the families who live in these properties and pay rent. It is their principal private residence, whether they own it or not.
I would also seek to extend the scheme State-wide now. In reality, this is where it will end up. There is no way the defective blocks saga is confined to counties Donegal, Mayo, Clare and Leitrim. We are aware that Sligo is affected, as are numerous other counties. The scheme must be nationwide. Why is it not nationwide? It must be some attempt by the Minister's officials to make it look as though they control costs by restricting the counties it will operate in. A person living in an affected building that is over the county boundary will have to wait years and campaign to be included while their house is collapsing around them. The scheme must include all buildings such as schools, nursing homes, hotels, shops, factory buildings and farm sheds, otherwise economic life and people’s jobs will never get back to normal.
The Bill should mandate the testing for all known iron sulphides, mandate the testing of foundations, and mandate the revision of IS 465 as the earliest cut-off date for inclusion, not January 2020. The Minister should also set realistic cut-off dates. Not many people in Inishowen are going to be able to get a builder within a year and a half when many householders are looking for builders at the same time to be included in the scheme.
The grant cut for downsizing must also be dropped. It is mean-minded and mean-spirited, as was said earlier. The base rate should be index linked from the date of the Government's big announcement back in November if the Government is genuine about this scheme meeting the homeowners' actual costs. We also call to drop the refund of third-party compensation. That is just a sickening inclusion. I would also seek the dropping of the assignment and subrogation of claims, which is another sickening inclusion, obviously written by departmental mandarins who just want to save money. The threat of fees for appeals, and the offences and penalties, must also be dropped. I ask the Government to not infantilise and criminalise the homeowners.
Only last week we heard the Taoiseach pontificate and attempt to talk down to Opposition Members saying, stating: "Since I was elected to this House, [I have] seen it primarily as a legislative assembly." I will never understand how he manages to get such statements out of his mouth even as we partake in this farce today. It takes some neck but I suppose a hard neck is what one gets having been in here for years.
I have a couple of questions for the Minister of State to address in his closing remarks - not that he will address them but I will ask them anyway. Does he intend to consider any of the Opposition amendments, seeing as the Government failed to table any? Is the Minister of State planning to vote them all down? Will he sit down with Opposition spokespersons and homeowners on Monday, for one last time, to go through the amendments and decide what the Government will accept? Will he give either of those commitments, for whatever that is worth? I do not think so. I have little faith left in the Government and less this week than last, and it was a low bar at that stage. This is a mean-spirited thing being done here today with this legislation. It is being dressed up as a €2.3 billion scheme. It will actually probably end up being a €6 billion scheme because the scheme will have to come back for a third attempt at legislation to sort this out. It will cost a hell of a lot more at that stage because the Government has arsed about and made sure that people are not listened to. This is a sad reflection of the whole thing.
I welcome that the Bill is finally being brought before Dáil Éireann. It is clearly a step in the right direction. Very few of us can imagine what it must be like for those who have been in the situation that affects homeowners in Clare, Mayo, Donegal and other parts of the State. These people are struggling to pay mortgages. Everyone is struggling to pay their mortgage and it is going to get worse next winter. Imagine having that home crumble around you and wonder whether you have any comeback. Where and how does such a homeowner come back? A person would need the wherewithal, the financial reserves and mental reserves to take on one of the biggest companies in the country, a company with huge tentacles around the world, including into the political elite of Ireland. For the affected homeowners, feeling that they are very much left on their own must be truly horrendous from a mental health perspective. I am glad that the scheme is finally being published and I welcome that. However, facets of the scheme and the Bill concern me.
It particularly concerns me that now that we finally have a Bill, we will ram it through. That is what we are going to do next Thursday. There is discussion of it today which, to be fair to the Minister, is quite long so we can discuss the generalities at length today. When it comes down to the specifics, however, we will ram it through next Thursday. That creates a suspicion in my mind. Why allow so much time for the generalities but such little time to go through the specifics? Is it because it does not add up or because there are inconsistencies? Is it because we do not want to focus on those issues? We are stuck for time at the end of the Dáil session and we always are because we have statements on this, that and the other and statements on general irrelevance, with the benefit of hindsight, during the year and then we ram all the legislation through in a fortnight. Here we are again. Poor old Michael D. Higgins will be up at night, burning the midnight oil and his candle, trying to read the legislation and get through it in time to meet the constitutional requirement of signing it in time. He did complain about it before. However, like anyone's concerns about what this Government does, it fell on deaf ears.
I raised an issue at the committee last week. I disagree respectfully with the previous speaker, with whom I am in a technical group. It is important to save money. It is very important that people are bailed out and that they are put in a position they would be in, had their home not been defective and had they not been sold defective blocks. That is hugely important and should be the first priority, which I completely accept. I do not think this scheme will do that, unfortunately. However, the second priority must be to do so in a manner that is as cheap as possible for the general taxpayers, given the multiple and competing demands. Last night we had a great deal of discussion on what those demands are and will be into the future. It is not as important as putting people back in the position they would be in had they not been sold defective concrete blocks but the next priority for me has to be saving money. I have many concerns in that regard about this scheme.
Downsizing is not allowed. If the money people get from the State does not meet the cost of rebuilding their house and if instead of building, say, a 250 sq. m house, they build a 150 sq. m house because that is all the money they are being given, they will be penalised for doing that. I do not understand that. I understand the priority of saving money but not that. People may not have the money or may be of an age where they cannot remortgage if they are in their 60s. I know of people in County Clare who are retired, who had paid off their mortgage over their lives, in service to the State, and who were looking forward to their retirement. Now they find that their home is crumbling around them and they will not get the full cost of it. They are not in a position to raise a mortgage but now the Government is telling them they cannot downsize. I ask the Minister to consider that. The relevant provision is to be found in section 17(5) of the Bill, on page 23, lines 6 to 14.
Then there is the issue of subrogation. That means that once the Minister pays out money, say, for example, €150,000, the Minister has a call on anyone's claim. I have no problem with that as an idea but I believe the way it is drafted will ensure that the only people who will pay for any of this is the Exchequer and that those who manufactured defective concrete blocks for large amounts of profit, big companies making large amounts of money, will be let off the hook by this and the poor Irish Exchequer with all the competing demands on it will be put wholly on the line because of the subrogation clause. If someone's claim is for €250,000 and the first €150,000 will go to the Minister then why would anyone sue? The first thing that anyone in a civil case will do is make an offer if there is any sort of reasonable case. If someone was looking for €250,000 he or she will be offered €150,000 and would be well advised to take that because no matter how good a case is, there are always weaknesses. There is absolutely no incentive after the scheme is in place for the homeowners to initiate cases.
As for the Minister, if the Minister has a right of action which accrues to him on the payment of the money, he may exercise it. It is a general aspiration. I would like to beef that up in a way that does not cost the State money. In an amendment I have drafted, I do not say that the Minister shall pursue every cause of action but that the Minister shall give a report in respect of every payment made on how many cases he took after two years and every year thereafter for ten years. It would keep it in focus. That report would be laid before both Houses of the Oireachtas because they are ultimately responsible for public expenditure and we are talking about more than €2 billion, which is generally accepted as being €3 billion and with inflation going as it is, it will be an awful lot more. I am not happy to sign a blank cheque on this without knowing that the Minister will at least seek to recover some money from those who manufactured defective concrete blocks for profit and made a huge amount of profit with directors' bonuses and the whole shebang and not have the Exchequer being the only entity paying for the huge damage that they caused. Moreover, we will not fully pay for that damage, as has been much elucidated in this Chamber. I would like if we were paying more and if it was 100% of the cost to the poor householders who are the victims here but we are not. To the extent that we are paying anything, I would like to know that the expenditure for that will not have to compete with the expenditure for childcare, for the hospital in Limerick, education, health, social welfare and for all the competing demands on the Exchequer while the big companies, the CRHs of this world, the listed companies, walk away scot-free and can smile to themselves while thinking, "Jesus, that was some get-out-of-jail-free card that the Dáil signed" because the Government rammed it through just because the lads were thinking about their holidays and did not really look at it. Because that is what is going to happen, I have no doubt about that. I ask that the Minster at least examine the amendments. Even if he is going to ram the Bill through, will he do me and the constituents that every Deputy here represents, namely, Deputies Alan Farrell, McHugh, Pringle, Mac Lochlainn, Ó Broin and Doherty, as well as my independent colleague from the mid-west, Deputy O'Donoghue, the courtesy of at least looking at our amendments? It is not that much to expect.
I also propose that the Minister will notify someone if he is going to take a case based on the person's cause of action that has vested in the Minister. The reason is that such people might take a piggy-back case on the back of it. If they will only get 80% of the cost of it and that will go to the Minister, they might at least be in a position to take a case at the same time to reduce costs and increase their chances of success and of being able to persuade somebody to take a case. They could take a case for the other 20%, if the Minister is going to do so. The Minister would notify the Oireachtas of how many cases he is taking - at the moment it will be shrouded in secrecy - and give reasons for the case. There may be cases where the Chief State Solicitor advises that we will not have a high likelihood of success and so be it, but at least we should make sure that every case is looked at and that we try to get back as much money from these companies as possible, rather than just throwing our hands up and exposing the Exchequer to a huge amount of money one more time, something we in this House do once a decade, and then shuffling around wondering how did that happen. It happens because people rush legislation through without sufficient analysis.
I have also put down an amendment specifying when a cause of action accrues or when the time runs from. I propose that in cases which have not yet been taken, that there is a cause of action once there is a report that says someone has defective concrete blocks. It is for a report as defined in the Bill or a report from a competent engineer. Lots of people have cracking in their houses and their houses have been cracking for five or six years. They did not know why. Are they to be penalised because they did not immediately think of something that nobody knew anything about and because they did not think it was pyrite and now the time is gone to take a case? Ought they to have known then it was pyrite? How many people knew about pyrite six years ago if there was cracking in their house? How were they supposed to take a case then? Are they to be met with a defence that they ought to have known their house had pyrite and that had they met a leading world expert from Switzerland down at the local, the expert would have said they had pyrite, because we in the defence had access to that level of expertise? By "we" I mean the CRHs of this world. My amendment proposes that the cause of action accrues from when a homeowner has a report confirming that it is pyrite. That is not unreasonable. There is a logic to it and that is what the Minister is looking for in order to bail people out. He is looking for a report, a "building condition assessment report" as defined in the Bill or an engineer's report. That is where a person's cause of action runs from.
Every case is limited in time and the homeowner must act quickly. That time is frozen. The precedent for that is the Civil Liability Act. The time is frozen from when the right vests in the Minister until he notifies the homeowner as to whether he will take a case. It enables people to take cases. It gives individuals and the Exchequer a reasonable chance of recovering some of the astronomical costs so that those who caused this problem will not walk away scot-free, smirking in their rear-view mirror as the Exchequer picks up the bill one more time.
Ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghabháil leis na daoine a bheidh ag obair ar an scéim seo agus go háirithe gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire, an Teachta Darragh O'Brien, agus leis an Aire Stáit, an Teachta Peter Burke, fá choinne na díograise agus na hoibre atá déanta ar an scéim seo thar na míosa agus le cúpla bliain anuas fosta. Tá mé ag smaoineamh ach go háirithe ar na daoine uilig ar ais sa bhaile i mo chontae féin agus síos na tíre, na daoine le míoca agus na daoine uilig le pirít fosta. Tá siad uilig ag iarraidh suaimhneas agus síocháin leis an fhadhb mhór seo. Luaim na daoine uilig a bhí ag obair ar an fheachtas thar deich mbliana agus a bhí á dhéanamh go deonach. Ba mhaith liom na daoine a bhí ann ar son na daoine atá i dtrioblóid a aithint. Táim dóchasach go bhfuilimid ag bogadh ar aghaidh chun an saol a chur le chéile arís.
In the first instance I acknowledge that the sliding scale is not mentioned in the scheme. It came in before last Christmas. It was a massive mistake and caused considerable consternation. I acknowledge the work of the Minister in listening to the campaign groups and listening to the homeowners in ensuring it is not part of this scheme.
People and families are stuck. They are in the wrong sequence of their lives and have been for the last decade. Over the weekend, one homeowner told me she had buried her head in the sand and would continue to do that until she sees light. The difficulty we have with this issue is that people have put their lives on hold. Some people have never been on a family holiday. They have put their home and family first, and put luxuries, like a first family holiday, on hold. They were looking forward to that but now that is also on hold. They have been stuck for too long. It is time to get the scheme started - properly this time. I have personally seen the damage done by the previous scheme. Regulations drafted at the eleventh hour made the scheme unaffordable, inaccessible and unworkable. I am not playing the blame game. I will not blame individuals nor do I blame one individual Department. However, I know people were trying to fight against the 90:10 scheme throughout because it was unfair and simply wrong.
Regulations for the new scheme will be worked on in the coming months. I agree with Deputy Ó Broin that it could take months. There is an onus on all of us to try to expedite that and that includes the month of August. It is important to get those regulations right and we need to fast-track them as efficiently as possible.
I ask the Minister and his officials to examine the following areas in more detail between now and the enactment of the scheme. I welcome the €25,000 for emergency works, storage and rental, factored into the cap. While I acknowledge the Minister's role in fighting for an increased cap from a proposed €350,000 to €420,000, because of inflationary pressures and because of the increased cost of the second stage especially for engineering fees, we need to consider removing the €25,000 from the cap which would give some breathing space with the overall cap. I believe that can be addressed under the regulations.
When setting the rates, I ask the Minister to consider the issue of downsizing. I know this has been raised by many Opposition and Government Members. I believe the Minister can provide this in the regulations under section 12. These are the regulations which will set out the grant rate. I want the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, and the officials present today to give strong consideration to the downsizing argument. Downsizing should be seen as a good thing as it clearly is from an environmental point of view. We should be facilitating downsizing if not encouraging it. Some people will downsize due to circumstances and some will downsize due to choice. Some people will want to build a replica of their existing home as everybody is entitled to.
I wish to raise an issue that may have been missed in these deliberations. If I am building the same house with the same specifications, I will try to salvage my kitchen and staircase, as many people are doing. I know there is still a cost with that involving getting professionals to do it as well as the cost of storage. However, if I downsize and downscale, I will have a different measurement specification and therefore the kitchen and staircase in my existing home will become redundant. In effect the families downsizing are being penalised. I ask the Minister of State to go back to his officials. I believe there is an understanding within officialdom that this may be possible. I ask for consideration to be given in this regard.
My colleague, Deputy Calleary, raised the issue of force majeureand exceptional circumstances. I am concerned that the appeal board does not have sufficient powers to take into consideration exceptional circumstances. I again raise an issue on behalf of a family in my county. This family has eight children with different health challenges and need to stay in their own home during the construction of their replacement home. I know the regulations and legislation will specify that people need to build their new house on the original footprint. In an exceptional case like this, life is not black and white. It is certainly not black and white for this family where the health challenges range from incurable blood diseases to incurable bone diseases. They do not have an alternative house to meet their needs other than in their own home at the moment.
The appeal board needs to have more flexibility. I believe it does not have enough powers. I have read section 39, which is very legalistic, as I know it must be. However, I do not believe it has the same flexibility as existed in the appeals system for the pyrite scheme. As I said earlier, life is not black and white. There is one line which refers to an "error of law or fact". Obviously, this section was drafted with a very legalistic framework. All Deputies in this House will share this experience. Every person who has contacted us over the last number of years has completely different circumstances from the other people. It is the most complex issue I have ever worked on in my 23 years in politics. There are so many different issues and circumstances that need to be looked at with clear vision. For example, individuals who bought houses after 1 January 2020 did not know the house they bought had mica. They will be able to provide proof that they did not know it had mica.
Will the appeals mechanism be good enough for their voices to be heard?
In section 19 there is a time limit for grant payment. The rules are very much for the homeowner and the onus is on the homeowner with respect to the rules imposed by the legislation. I think Deputy Calleary raised the question of needing rules on the State side, and one of the rules we need is around prompt payment. The existing scheme, the 90:10 scheme, is being utilised by a number of families and the feedback I am getting is that people are waiting sometimes for eight to 12 weeks for payments of invoices. That is totally unacceptable and it makes the scheme unsustainable. In addition, it acts as a significant disincentive to building contractors who cannot reasonably be expected to wait for long periods during remediation for payment.
In their submission to the working group last year, homeowners asked that payments be expedited in line with what normally happens with mortgage companies during a building process. Typically, payment must be made within a matter of weeks following sign-off by engineers at each stage. I am aware that within the public service the deadline for payment right across the board is 15 days, so it is important we clarify in this legislation whether that 15-day requirement will be met.
I honestly believe we must go a step further. Why should we keep it at 15 days? If I demolish my house and it costs €18,000, the house would be demolished and the material would be segregated and recycled. The contractor would finish the work and provide the invoice, so why do we even have to wait 15 days? It should be done within a period of five days. Is there anything in the regulations to ensure that happens?
It is important to point out that while I am hearing some good stories from some individual banks that they will allow people to take out a short-term loan at zero interest, these are very isolated cases. The memo to Government indicated there would be engagement with the banks and we must define what such engagement would be. What are the banks doing to step up to the plate?
What provision have we in place in the case of vulture funds that own houses now because of default? There is one example in my county and the family had no choice but to default because the house was crumbling. They moved into a rental property and the limited income they had went towards rent. The vulture fund now owns the property, which has no value because it has mica in the building. What are we doing to try to facilitate the families who through no fault of their own had to leave their homes while trying to negotiate with banks? The line in the memo to the Government specified engagement with banks but will that incorporate vulture funds as well?
On a personal level, I acknowledge the campaigners. Their commitment and endurance on a voluntary basis is not lost on people. They have put in time and, in conjunction with that, they have all gone through their own anguish about their own homes and houses. They still find the courage and determination to advocate for others, so they provide a dual role. They are still trying to get on with family life, deal with personal crises caused by mica in their homes, all while advocating for others. If there was ever a definition for altruism, that is it. How they find the time and courage to do that, I do not know, but I acknowledge it.
Paddy is outside the gates and I have met Eamon at the under-13 GAA matches. I have met Lisa at athletics on numerous occasions and tried to speak to Michael during his lunch break at his day job. I acknowledge all of them. Eileen and Ann have been at the end of the phone, night and day, for the best part of a decade. They have helped me to better understand the stress and distress caused by mica. It is not alone about the physical invasiveness in their homes but the direct impact that this matter has on health, particularly mental health.
I will continue to use my time to continue engaging with officials, which I was doing earlier today, and Government and party colleagues to make changes to this scheme. This scheme will evolve and maybe all of us will be gone from here in 20 years, although some of us may still be here. This scheme, however, will evolve and change. We must get it started and put our best foot forward in getting it right at this early stage of the legislation. I ask, once again, for the Minister to work on this through his offices. He sits around a table at the ministerial management meeting with officials on a weekly basis and I would like this matter to be kept to the fore.
We must use those regulatory mechanisms in whatever way possible to bring a bit of common sense to this and highlight once again the very important need to look at downsizing. Downsizing is not a bad thing. People who downsize will not be advantaged. People who downsize will not get more than they would have gotten. People who downsize may be disadvantaged because they will not be able to salvage as much as the people who go for the replica house. Beidh muid ar ais an tseachtain seo chugainn, gan dabht.
Perhaps uniquely in this House, I know what it is like to have a defective home, having gone through the pyrite crisis a number of years ago. I know the worry and heartache that can cause. It is a real lived experience that I know the people in the Gallery will associate with, along with thousands of people all over the country. I do not believe this problem is unique to the three counties we are discussing on an ongoing basis, namely, Donegal, Mayo and Clare.
In 2006 I got a phone call from a then neighbour, informing me that a television crew was outside her home, on my street, looking for an interview about a front-page story from that morning, and my heart sank. That morning, a newspaper article detailed the beginnings of what became known as pyritic heave or the pyrite crisis. My estate at the time had commenced sales in 2003 and in 2005, when I moved, the 350 homes were occupied. Virtually all were in some way affected. A further 700 homes in a nearby community were also affected, having been built by the same firm and having material supplied by the same quarry.
As the details of the extent of the crisis emerged, my heart sank further. The building boom and lack of regulation had struck again. Extracting defective hardcore materials from the ground and not allowing sufficient time to pass before putting it into construction projects meant that oxidisation did not have time to occur. Instead it occurred while in the floor slab of my home and that of thousands of others. Petrographic analysis was not and is still not part of the process when grading hardcore materials. Instead, the reaction happened under my floor, causing cracking in the rising walls and those of my neighbours.
My home and hundreds of others were remediated privately, following the settlement of a High Court case between Menolly Homes and Lagan Asphalt, to which I and others were extremely interested parties. The methodology for that remediation became the template for the Pyrite Resolution Board, which benefitted thousands of families on the east coast following a decision of the Government of 2011 to 2016.
Perhaps uniquely in this House, I know what it is like to live in a home that through no fault of one's own has potentially major structural issues. I could speak at great length about some of the stories from my constituents and people in Meath, Louth and beyond regarding gas pipes being at risk, among other things.
This Bill is a very important step in addressing a matter that is of utmost importance to me. Your home is your castle and having spoken to families in Donegal and Mayo in recent months, I wholeheartedly support their campaign to get homes repaired as quickly and as equitably as possible.
The Government has engaged in good faith to improve the provisions of this Bill and to expand the scope of the support for affected homeowners. As a result, we now have a much improved scheme to that launched by the former Minister, Eoghan Murphy, that moves us much closer to delivering on the important measures that will allow affected homeowners to begin to move on with their lives. There has been significant engagement with local authorities in the affected areas, with housing agencies, the NSAI and others. These consultations were undertaken in order to maximise the impact of this scheme; all of which was done with the view of helping those who have found themselves in this situation, through no fault of their own.
I repeat some of the comments made by Deputies O'Donnell and McHugh on the issue of foundations. This does not just relate to floor slabs, because this material can also get under foundations. There have been extensive investigations, including on a particular motorway in this country under which the foundations for the crossing bridges were supplied by the same quarry that supplied materials for my home. This happened a good number of years previously. Such was the extent of the lack of knowledge in the building control sections of this State that those investigations had to take place. It is odd that if we are going to clear a site, we are not going to test the foundations. The State will be putting hundreds of thousands of euros into each family home, and there is a potential risk that we will have to revisit the matter. That does not make sense to me, as somebody who had a home with pyrite in the floor slab - not the foundation, which is a different thing - because this can cause swelling, cracking, issues with gas pipes and so on. These are unintended consequences. We know of this, so let us try to resolve the matter before the legislation is passed.
I commend the members of the Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage. They put dozens, if not hundreds, of hours into this process. A number of them have spoken already today. The committee does some very important work. I know that this is not a particularly easy issue to deal with. I welcome a number of key improvements to the new scheme, namely, the development of an independent appeals mechanism for homeowners, which an important change to allow the maximum opportunity for homeowners to engage with the process.
There is a need, as has been stated by quite a number of Deputies, to pursue the perpetrators whose actions gave rise to this situation. I ask the Minister to outline what steps or mechanisms the State is taking or putting in place to recoup the significant outlay of public moneys this scheme will undoubtedly involve. Major construction companies that participated in creating this crisis should not escape consequences, and the taxpayer should not bear the ultimate cost. A plethora of companies, consultants and engineers should be on the hook for this scheme. I require the assurance that we will not, as many previous speakers indicated, simply let this slide.
The scheme is not perfect but, equally, I have not come across one that is. The pyrite scheme was far from perfect, but it has been successful in putting lives back on track. The scheme we are discussing will most likely be no different. I ask that the Minister consider some of the amendments that will be tabled on Committee Stage - I know he is expecting them - in order to potentially improve upon the significant work already undertaken by his Department and the housing committee.
I will conclude by discussing the apprehension, pain and upset that has been visited upon families. As I said earlier, I have experienced this. My circumstances were different in 2006 when this occurred, in 2011, when my home was remediated, and in 2013, when the Government scheme got up and running and was used to remediate thousands of homes in Leinster. Ten years is a long time, and the Statute of Limitations, unfortunately, has most likely kicked in for most people. The legal minds in this House will undoubtedly dwell upon that.
We talked about amending the Statute of Limitations in the past in respect of other legislation. The fact of the matter is, however - and this has been touched upon by a couple of other Deputies - that it is important for us to recognise that our role is to legislate and to bring about schemes such as this. Our role is also to ensure value for money. Notwithstanding the very important work that has to be done to remediate these homes, because these families had absolutely nothing to do with the lack of quality in the building blocks and other materials used to build their homes, we also have a responsibility to the taxpayer. It is for that reason that I have asked for clarity on what exactly the State is proposing to do. Is it going to assist individuals in the pursuit of these companies or will it pursue them? That is something we should all aspire to, particularly as our building regulation has been lacking over many decades. Even after pyrite, there were deficiencies in the changed building regulations.
Petrographic analysis, as I said, is still not done on hardcore material. Grading, pressure testing and things like that are done, but petrographic analysis is not. The argument is that it is too expensive, but there are many quarries in this country, particularly in Leinster, and it is well known that these are situated in strata of material that can cause problems if it is quarried and not left sitting for a number of months. The biggest issue, and the reason pyrite occurred in floor slabs, related to the fact that because we were in the middle of a building boom, this material was being extracted, broken up, graded, put in trucks and delivered to sites without the passage of any time. Our system is flawed to this day and we need to fix it.
In July 2011, I witnessed the Minister of State's then party leader and Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, make a famous speech about the approach of the Vatican to victims of abuse. He said: "... the Vatican's reaction was to parse and analyse it with the gimlet eye of a canon lawyer." That was a famous speech. The problem has been that the approach of too many people who worked for Government and who were elected to be in government over the years who were dealing with the victims of this disaster, which has worked its way down the west coast of Ireland, has been exactly the same. It has been cold and callous, has always been about limiting the exposure of the State and penny-pinching but has ended up costing us a fortune because of the mistakes those involved have made again and again.
That was a powerful contribution, incidentally, by Deputy Alan Farrell just now. We are looking for all of the victims of State regulation to be treated exactly the same across this State, whether it is the people who live in apartments with defects in Dublin, the victims of the pyrite disaster in Dublin and north Leinster, the people on the west coast or those in the counties we heard about, such as Wexford, for example, where problems are emerging. We want them all to receive 100% support, and not the gimlet eye again and again. They want redress and to rebuild their homes. That is all they are asking for. They were utterly failed by the State, its building controls, the regulations, the lack of oversight, the Celtic tiger, the greed and the closeness of those who were greedy to people who have sat in this Chamber over the years. We owe it to any homeowners and families who are the victims of this disaster and injustice to get them 100% redress. That is the starting point in all of these matters. If one starts from that point, one gets to justice. If one does not, one gets injustice again and again.
IS 465 is the basis for the spending billions of euros of taxpayers' money. IS 465 does not instruct us to test for pyrrhotite or to test the foundations of people's homes. How can that be? When the evidence the committee produced last Thursday is looked at, there is no answer to that question. How can that be the case? In Donegal alone, 77 properties were tested and 66 had pyrrhotite. Some 61 of those had appreciable amounts of pyrrhotite. Pyrrhotite is, in fact, the chief offender here. More tests have been done by Petrolab in Britain.
Pyrrhotite is the chief offender, yet we are not testing or basing the expenditure of billions of euro of taxpayers' money on that. It is not a deciding factor. We are not testing the foundations to make sure they are safe. We are cruelly insisting that people rebuild their homes on foundations that have not been tested. The Government talks about the use of taxpayers' money. It is reckless behaviour again and again because it is always about the gimlet eye. It is always about not starting from the position of 100% redress or from a position of justice to remedy what is a profound injustice and disaster for so many people.
The IS 465 standard is being reviewed. It is clear from the science that is emerging that there needs to be a complete transformation in a renewed standard. That has to happen in tandem with this legislation and this new scheme. How can the Government ask people to trust a system that has been shown by science, by laboratories and by internationally respected experts to be nonsense? The Government is going to risk billions of euro of taxpayers' money on a discredited standard that was not based on any discernible level of testing at the time. That was a mistake.
The people who are working on that standard need to bring in new ideas and international best practice. They need to talk to PetraLab, Dr. Andreas Leemann and other international experts in these fields in the United States and Britain. They need to have the humility to know that the standard we are working with right now is not up to specification. It is not worth risking billions of euro of people's money on.
We cruelly ask people to keep their foundations. There is a big suspicion that I share, which is about - I will say it again - the gimlet eye. If a person replaces the foundations and goes for a full rebuild, it must be rebuilt to modern building standards. God forbid the Government would allow people, when we talk about retrofitting and climate change, to put in triple glazing and modern energy-efficient systems when they rebuild their homes. Is it too much to ask that we would allow them to do that? Not even that can be allowed to happen. We want people to use the same windows and doors they already had and build homes on old foundations that have not been tested. This is the recklessness and mean-spiritedness that keeps breaking people’s hearts and it has to stop.
I will speak about penalty-free downsizing. How on earth can the Government stop somebody who is willing to downsize their home from doing so? It has said it will not give people 100% redress or make sure the costings are immediately updated when the scheme is launched. It has said it cannot give that commitment just now, although that should have been done already. Not only will the Government not do that but it will also not allow people to downsize their houses penalty-free - the cruelty of it. People have been traumatised by years of this mental anguish and turmoil. Lives have been destroyed. The Government wants them to build on foundations that have not been tested. It wants them to use windows and doors that are old. It will give them a financial penalty if they choose to downsize. For God's sake, get this right this time. Do not make the mistakes - the gimlet eye - that led to the so-called 90:10 scheme, a cruel scheme that has now been discredited by all. We have to get it right this time.
The final issue I will focus on is the Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland costing. The Government came in again. I use the word “again” because I am speaking to the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, about the words of his former party leader and former Taoiseach. The gimlet eye comes into the way the Government approaches the costings with a sliding scale. Where the hell did the sliding scale come from? They were looking for a big day but - imagine the cruelty when people had their hopes raised - all of a sudden the sliding scale was slipped in. Then, under huge pressure from homeowners across the country, the Government went back and looked at the Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland and said it would not give a commitment just yet. Maybe it will give a commitment next week that when this scheme is up and running, it will be based on real costs in the real world whereby the amount per square foot or per square metre is actually what people would have to pay in the real world. Will the Minister of State at least give that commitment when the scheme is up and running? That is the appeal.
This is my final contribution. A chartered engineer gave testimony before a committee last week that there are quarries still producing defective products and ruining people's lives. How are we in such a situation, after all these years? It is still being allowed to happen. It is still going on in this country. People are still manufacturing blocks that are destroying people's lives. There is still not legislation to bring this to an end. Not one quarry has been closed in this country despite people’s lives being destroyed. The answer was that not one quarry was closed down.
I will wrap up with this. I started with the speech by the former Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, that captured people's imagination about closing an ugly chapter in our history. Please stop using the gimlet eye. Stop the cold-heartedness. Start from the position of natural justice, which means full redress for every family, no matter where they live in this country, who have been failed by the past. Allow them to rebuild their lives. Get it right this time. Base it on science, fairness and justice. If the Government does that, the people can go home and will not have to keep protesting or sitting in the Public Gallery anymore.
My colleague, Deputy Mac Lochlainn, really summed up what is needed but also the failure of this legislation. That is why, unfortunately, we had this joint statement from the Donegal Mica Action Group, Mayo Pyrite Action Group, Clare Pyrite Action Group, Limerick Pyrite Action Group and Sligo Pyrite Action Group saying they cannot support this legislation unless there are changes to it. They outline in their statement the frustration, engagement, false dawns and false promises and how they have been led along.
Despite all of that, we have legislation that is itself defective and will not meet the needs of countless people in my county and right across the west coast and elsewhere. If we take a person-centred approach as a Dáil, we will get this right. The demand from the campaigners and families is to get it right. They have been waiting. They have had false dawns and false schemes. We need to get it right this time. I commend the campaigners. They have done an amazing job in raising this issue and bringing it to public prominence. More importantly, however, they did something that went way beyond that - they opened up their own life stories to us. They told us some secrets many families keep about people whose mental health is breaking down. People showed us the prescriptions they have now because of cracking walls and trying to keep their families together. People opened up about family relationships and personal relationships and the strains the cracks in the walls are having on those family ties. I was taken by one person we met who told us that she goes off to drive down a wee lane to cry and then comes back to the family and tries to pull it all back together.
Even if we get this legislation right today, there is still a long way to go for these families to get their homes rectified. However, the problem is that this legislation is defective. The problem is that this Government has not listened to the pleas and anguish or the solutions that have been put forward by the family campaigners over the recent period. If the Government had listened it would not have drafted this type of legislation. It would not have the types of flaws in it that require 80 amendments, which I am proud to sponsor along with my colleague, Deputy Mac Lochlainn, our spokesperson, Deputy Ó Broin, the entire Sinn Féin Party and, indeed, the Opposition Members on behalf of the homeowners. It is the homeowners who are telling us that we have to get this right.
You cannot walk the length of yourself in parts of County Donegal without meeting somebody who has been affected by mica. One cannot walk down a street without meeting somebody - the person affected or a family member - who is suffering this anguish and turmoil. We heard from and have spoken to people who are in their twilight years. They worked all the hours, days and years God sent them and paid into their pension. They are depending on a social welfare pension and now they are finding that their house - their forever home - is riddled with mica. Under this scheme, they would have to contribute tens of thousands of euro, which they simply do not have.
Another case at the other end of the spectrum is that of a young couple who got married about a year ago. They bought a new house, a big investment, just a couple of years before that. They have had their first child. It is a special time in any young couple's lives when they should be looking forward to the future with hope, but they have found that their house is also riddled with mica. They are in complete distress. In between those two cases of the pensioner and the young couple there is the spectrum of thousands of other families with real stories and real heartbreak. They are hoping the Members in this Chamber do the right thing over the next week.
We can talk about things that are tangential to this, but we have legislation here that is not fit for purpose. We need to amend it or it must be rejected and made right. That is what the families are asking us to do and that is what must be done. The stress this is putting on parents and on young people across the board is absolutely ridiculous and it has to stop. We must do the right by them. What has to be done? We need to listen to the homeowners and to those who have put forward those 80 amendments. The Government must provide additional space and time so those amendments can be debated and considered with proper time and proper scrutiny. This scheme costs a great deal of money for the taxpayer, and the taxpayers are the people who are also affected by mica in their homes, yet the Government is giving two hours for Committee and Report Stages next week. It is approximately €22 million per minute. It is ridiculous. In my ten or 11 years as finance spokesperson I have not seen a single legislative measure which has such a large bill being rushed through. It needs to stop. We must get this right on behalf of everybody.
A number of issues must be dealt with. One of the things that was not in the previous scheme is the damage threshold. Now, the Government is planning to introduce a damage threshold. It is not about prioritising when one's house will get remediated but about eligibility for the scheme. That has to go, and go without delay.
The other issue that needs to be dealt with is the square foot rate, as other Deputies have mentioned. I listened to the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy McConalogue, and to Deputy McHugh. The reality is that if they vote for this scheme without amendment, there will be hundreds of people, their neighbours, friends and people they meet in the street, who will not be able to avail of the scheme. Why? The scheme will require them to put their hands in their pockets to the tune of tens of thousands of euro, which we know they simply do not have. Ms Martina Hegarty put it well with regard to her home. She is very familiar with the scheme and with the legislation. She has been an activist on this for many years. She has one of the smallest houses going into the scheme at less than 1,000 sq. ft. Under the scheme she will have a grant of €158,000. The cost she has received from contractors is approximately €40,000 more than that.
We have heard from others, such as quantity surveyors who provided information and evidence to the committee. For example, Mr. Aidan Houton said that the estimated shortfall for a 1,000 sq. ft. house is €48,300, which is 30%. For an average one-off house in the State, which is 2,400 sq. ft., the estimated shortfall would be €69,600. We know why that happened. We know about the rates being set by the SCSI, but we also know that the game was rigged. The criteria the SCSI was asked to look at excluded this and that, such as engineers' fees and foundations. One cannot even put a carpet or a piece of tile on the floor. All of that, including walls and gardens, is excluded. That is why these families will still not be able to afford this scheme. That is the reality, and that is why they are so annoyed at what is happening here. We need to ensure it is done properly.
The downsizing penalty has been mentioned time and again. That is the best example of the cruelty this Government is portraying in regard to this campaign. These are families that do not want to downsize. Why would they? The only reason that there is a solution, which is trying to meet the State halfway, is that this will not cost the State an extra penny. As a result of this, the families say they will consider rebuilding a smaller home even though it had nothing to do with them and it was actually the Government's fault because of an era of no regulation. They are saying they will build a smaller home, but what does the Government do? It tells them that if they do that, it will cut their grant. It is absolutely cruel. Deputy McHugh mentioned that we can deal with that in a regulation. He was probably setting himself up for voting for this legislation. It is nonsense. The legislation is very clear. It is in section 17(5), which states that if there is a reduction of the internal floor area of the relevant dwelling that is being demolished, the local authority will reduce the amount of the grant approved by the Housing Agency. It is in the legislation and it needs to be removed. That is provided for in one of the amendments. Why under God would one do this? The reason they are saying they will consider downsizing is that under the scheme they do not have the €40,000 or €50,000 so they know they are locked out. The only way they can get in under the current scheme is by building a smaller house that would cost less but then enable them to get the 100%.
I could say much more about this. We need to put people at the heart of it. We need to forget about a lot of the detail that is going to be argued with regard to the standards, doing this review and that review and all the rest just for one minute. Perhaps Members in the House have relatives who are in this situation, but I will explain how I think about this. My mum is pushing on in life. If that was my mum's house, I know she would not be able to afford to rebuild it, or if it was my son and daughter who were setting off in life, they would not be able to afford it. We need to think about the people and about how they are feeling at this point. We need to do right by them, because this State did wrong by them by having an era of no-touch or light-touch regulation during the Celtic tiger economy that allowed for these types of defective blocks to be used in the construction of their homes.
The legislation before us has a number of positive aspects. Certainly, it is an improvement on what was originally proposed, which was pretty pathetic. However, like the homes affected by mica, pyrite and pyrrhotite, there are cracks in the overall structure of this legislation, and individuals and families will fall through those cracks. It is bad enough that it has happened once already to these families, but for those families to know that it could happen again as part of this remediation scheme would be unacceptable. That is why I and every other Deputy I have heard speak in this debate have asked for more time to be given for Committee Stage to discuss and tease out the various amendments. Today, the Minister has heard offers from many Deputies to have the committee sit for six, nine or whatever hours it takes to get through the amendments. I am not saying that the Minister has to accept all the amendments put forward, but there are certainly a number of crucial amendments that must be incorporated into the legislation.
I will shortly highlight what I believe are some of the crucial amendments that the Minister must incorporate into the legislation. I believe the Minister and the Government want a robust and sustainable scheme that homeowners and families can have faith in and which they believe will deal with the nightmare that many of them are living through. I will not go into detail about the day-to-day misery and heartache of many families, their anxieties, their fears and the incredible pressure that so many are facing, because I have spoken about this many times in the House. However, it is important to say that many families are listening anxiously to this debate.
They are waiting to see what will happen as this legislation passes through the Houses. They need to know that this House and the Minister of State will deliver a scheme that is fit for purpose. They need to know that whatever remediation or rebuilding is done will allow them to sleep easy in their beds. My final comment on this aspect is that while we often use the word "houses", we are in fact talking about homes. Every one of us who is lucky enough to have a home knows that when we walk through our front door and close it behind us, we feel we can leave behind, at least on a temporary basis, the worries of the world. At its best, a home should be a place of refuge, but for homeowners whose homes are affected by deleterious materials there is no refuge in their homes. There is fear and worry. We have an opportunity to change that situation over the next few weeks.
Many amendments to this legislation have been proposed. I ask the Minister of State and his officials to look carefully at those amendments and consider accepting at least some of the more important and crucial ones that were raised not just by Members of the Opposition today, but by his colleagues on the Government benches. All deleterious materials, including mica, pyrite, pyrrhotite, chalcopyrite and marcasite, or any combination of those materials, must be included in the process. That list is not exhaustive. I am not an expert but it is important that all deleterious material be included and all foundations must be included. The assessment process is part and parcel of that. I know nothing about building a house. Some people here do; I am looking at my colleague, Deputy O'Donoghue. He gave us some very powerful statements earlier that came from a place of knowledge and experience. Even I know, however, that if foundations are unstable, then the building is unstable. They must be included as part and parcel of any assessment process, which needs to be thorough and objective. That is crucial. It cannot be somebody's opinion, what something looks like, or what someone thinks. It has to be objective and needs to be based on the most up-to-date science. That will help to ensure better outcomes.
The damage threshold needs to be re-examined. Homeowners need 100% redress. While it is easy to say that as a member of the Opposition, and it slips off the tongue, the question I have to ask is how can we expect families who have paid, and are paying, huge mortgages to spend more money on making their homes habitable? We should not ask them to do that at any time but, right now, I do not need to tell the Minister of State about inflation and the major increase in the cost of living. That casts a further shadow on all those families who are concerned that the amount of money they will get will leave them short tens of thousands of euro. This State is accepting responsibility because it is responsible for lax or no regulation, and for lax or no implementation of the regulations on our Statute Book. That responsibility has to be 100% and no less.
I agree very strongly with my colleague, Deputy McNamara, and others, who called on the Minister of State to pursue those who actually caused the problem in the first place and, in certain instances, whose salaries and bonuses were paid on the backs of the misery of families whose homes are damaged and destroyed by deleterious materials. The taxpayer, and that includes the affected homeowners, will end up footing this enormous bill unless the Minister and his successor exercise their authority, which they have. It is partly written into the Bill but it needs to be strengthened because while the intentions of the Minister and the Minister of State may be good on this, they do not know what the intentions of their successors will be. That is why this part of the Bill needs to be strengthened so the State is protected from an ever-increasing bill.
Many Deputies raised the issue of downsizing because families will be penalised for this, which makes no sense from an environmental perspective and the perspective of using less building materials and engaging in less work. It means we could get through this process quicker. It could also allow families to insulate their homes to make them more energy efficient. That is a win-win. Penalising people for doing something positive is just plain wrong. There seems to be a real miserly approach to this. People are not gaining financially; there is no moral hazard here. We all know what that is. It was a phrase most of us were not familiar with before we bailed out the banks but we then all learned what moral hazard is. There is no moral hazard here. I want the Minister of State to look at that aspect again. If there is moral hazard, I ask him to please tell me where it is.
Will the National Standards Authority of Ireland, NSAI, review of IS 465 be completed before the commencement of the scheme? If not, can it be guaranteed that the outcome of the NSAI review will be fully integrated into the scheme? It will not be perfect but if we are guaranteed that will happen, it is something. We need proper testing. We need to know that what we are doing will deliver the kind of remediation families need.
I will raise issues specific to the constituency I represent, which includes Sligo, Leitrim, north Roscommon and south Donegal. Donegal is included in the scheme and, as I said, if the Minister accepts a number of the crucial amendments that I and others have submitted, that is a good start. In that context, I thank all the campaigners who have ensured that very good scientific evidence has been provided to us as public representatives in order to enable us as laypersons get a better understanding of the situation they face so we could put forward amendments that will improve the Bill and deliver for all those affected. I thank my colleagues, Deputies Pringle and Ó Broin, for their assistance in also providing amendments we could sign and support.
As far as Sligo is concerned, we are not yet officially included in this scheme. When I raised this issue with the Tánaiste approximately 12 months ago, he used the phrase "natural justice". That may be the case but people are still worried and anxious.
I met some campaigners from Sligo outside Leinster House today, as I have met campaigners from many counties over many months. Their hearts are broken, but the important truth is that many of them still hope that we might get it right. When I asked the Minister, Deputy O'Brien, about the inclusion of Sligo, I received a response from him approximately two weeks ago. He spoke of the good co-operation with Sligo local authority and of the very good work going on. I believe, from the perspective of natural justice, that we will be included.
However, the Minister and I are aware that there is a heavy responsibility on local authorities. I have asked on many occasions and written the Minister to ask that more support and resources be provided to local authorities. Local authorities have considerable expertise, but this is a new area. Is the Minister supporting local authorities? Is he giving them the kinds of resources they need now and on an ongoing basis, in order that they can represent all the homeowners in their area? Is he making it easy, or even a little bit easier, for them to present their case?
I have also written to Leitrim County Council to ask about the situation there, because I have received one or two emails from people who have concerns about homes in certain parts of County Leitrim, especially in the north of the county. Leitrim County Council informed me that, up to now, it has not been alerted to deleterious materials in homes in Leitrim. I hope that is the case, but we all know that mica and pyrite does not stop at any county boundary. Leitrim is a small county and I hope very few affected families will be affected. However, local authorities such as those in Leitrim and Roscommon need to be resourced and supported to get the information as quickly as possible, in order that families that have concerns about their homes can be included in the scheme.
A local authority in a small county has few resources and less expertise. That is simply the reality and yet those local authorities will be expected to do the same work as local authorities in larger counties. There is something inherently unfair and unjust about that. Will the Minister assure me that will not be the case, that the resources and expertise will be provided and that the Department will work with these local authorities to ensure that the homeowners, of whom I hope there will be few, will be properly represented and will know that they can get in to this scheme?
In the coming weeks, the Minister can get this right. The Opposition will support him. In respect of all those homeowners who are listening today and who will send us emails to ask what happened and what the Minister said, after listening to his speech and, it is hoped, after Committee Stage next week, I ask the Minister to make sure we can say to them that the Minister and the Government are taking those crucial amendments on board and that we believe and hope this scheme will deliver good outcomes for them and their families.
I thank all the Deputies for their contributions. I know Deputies are keenly aware of the scale of the crisis that confronts us. This scheme is the State stepping up to the mark in a voluntary capacity, in the form of a grant scheme, having accepted that there is a moral obligation on Government to put in place practical solutions for impacted homeowners. Government fully accepts that impacted homeowners have been through a very difficult time. The Minister, Deputy O'Brien, addressed that aspect in some detail in this opening remarks.
The Government also accepts that the current scheme, while well intentioned, did not work as intended and that the difficulties and challenges which arose needed to be addressed. We are also legislating for a much more enhanced, workable and fit-for-purpose grant scheme which will respond to the issues raised by homeowners and other stakeholders during extensive consultations over the past 12 months. The Minister, Deputy O'Brien, has been in County Clare and other areas to meet homeowners in their homes, in connection with this issue. I also met with many residents, along with Deputy McHugh, at the convention centre last year. I heard first hand about the anguish they were going through, their frustrations and the considerable challenge that they faced in their daily lives.
The enhanced scheme addresses the challenges and difficulties experienced with the current scheme by removing the financial barrier to the scheme entry, by having the Housing Agency carry out testing of homes and absorbing the cost; limiting homeowner outlay to between €500 and €700 for a building condition assessment, the cost of which is recoupable; conferring exempt development status on remediation works approved under the scheme; increasing the overall grant cap from €247,500 to €420,000, which is a significant increase; providing funding for alternative accommodation and storage costs and immediate repair works, up to a value of €25,000; adding the counties of Clare and Limerick to the scheme and providing a pathway for addition of other counties, if required; a simplification of the application process and a significant reduction in the administration and bureaucracy associated with the scheme.
Challenges will also be addressed in the enhanced scheme by the introduction of a damage threshold for entry to the grant scheme, which will not be set and used to prevent homeowners accessing the scheme, but to ensure they will enter the scheme at the appropriate time, in order to ensure that the worst-affected homes are prioritised; the establishment of an independent appeals process, with key decisions under the scheme now subject to an appeal; the addition of rented dwellings registered with the Residential Tenancies Board, RTB, on or before 1 November 2021, as eligible for the scheme; a certificate of remediation grounded in primary legislation; a Government guarantee in respect of remediation works, provided through the availability of a second grant option, if required, for a period of 40 years; provision for inflation, as required; confirmation of eligibility for SEAI grants for thermal upgrades and bespoke arrangements by SEAI to manage such applications and provision for the introduction of an Exchequer-funded grant scheme for local authority owned and approved housing owned social homes.
In addition to these specific enhancements, which are set out in the Bill, Government has also agreed to review the existing IS 465 standard for the assessment, testing and categorisation of homes suspected of being impacted by defective concrete blocks; review the concrete blocks standard, including the standard for aggregates; review the potential impact on foundations in homes by defective concrete blocks; review the potential impact on full cavity insulation on homes impacted by defective concrete blocks; appoint a senior counsel to consider the issue of wrongdoers and their pursuit and the expansion by the Department of Health of the MyMind service to assist vulnerable homeowners and their families with regard to mental health issues which have arisen owing to the impact of this issue.
The remediation of Remediation of Dwellings Damaged By the Use of Defective Concrete Blocks Bill 2022 can address the challenges being faced by affected homeowners. The passage of this very important legislation will mark the beginning of the end of the challenges being faced by impacted homeowners, by giving them a much enhanced and fit-for-purpose grant scheme.
The Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, will continue to work closely with all Members of the Oireachtas and listen carefully to their views. We can all agree that it is essential that this Bill passes through all Stages of the Dáil and Seanad in a timely fashion and that the enhanced scheme can be open for applications as soon as possible. I thank all Deputies for their engagement on the Bill and the Minister will respond to the specific questions and amendments proposed on Committee and Final Stages. I commend the Bill to the House.