Seanad debates

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Statute of Limitations (Amendment) (Home Remediation-Pyrite) Bill 2012: Second Stage

 

11:30 am

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

I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House today to take the Bill. Pyrite is a problem affecting thousands of homeowners in his area and predominately along the east coast. I wish to start on a positive note. A good deal of focus has been brought to the problem. The figure captured by the pyrite panel is a little under 10,000 dwellings but our research suggests that the figure could be anything up to 70,000 dwellings. Anyway, we all agree it is a major problem that needs a political solution.

One of the recommendations of the pyrite panel in its report of July was an extension of the Statute of Limitations. We had prepared the Bill in advance of the publication of that report. There is a grey area and this is not the solution to the problem - I wish to be clear on that. It is only one small part of the jigsaw with regard to what needs to be done. It is not necessarily the solution but, should he wish, a homeowner should be able to take an action against the builder or quarry from the date of knowledge as it stands. There is a grey area because if someone saw a problem occur in his house in 2006 or 2007 then the Statute of Limitations would apply in many cases. This proposal was prepared my myself and Senators Averil Power, Thomas Byrne and Diarmuid Wilson. Under our proposal the Statute of Limitations would kick in from the date a homeowner received an independent, verified and approved pyrite test which showed that pyrite was prevalent above safe levels in a dwelling, whether a house or an apartment. This would give the Government more time, and time is of the essence. The longer this goes on, the more people become statute-barred from action.

We have an issue with another aspect of the Statute of Limitations, which relates to building enforcement by Fingal County Council. The council is not proceeding in 31 cases against builders on the basis that it is statute-barred. I believe this needs to be addressed, and the Bill can do that. Some small changes need to be made to the Bill but above all the purpose is to give certainly to homeowners and to demonstrate that the law is on their side should they need to go down the route of taking a builder or quarry to court.

I have held discussions with officials in the Department. I understand certain issues need to be ironed out with the Department of Justice and Equality and that it is not only a matter for the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government. I realise the Department of Justice and Equality requires additional time to examine the Bill. We do not propose to put the Bill to a vote today, but we intend to leave it on the Order Paper and give the Government a little more time. However, if some of the issues are not addressed we will re-introduce the Bill in January.

I welcome representatives of the Pyrite Action Group, the Lusk Village action group and other groups from the Dublin and the north-east region to the Visitors' Gallery. A substantial report was published in July at a committee meeting which I attended and during which I asked several questions. At this stage homeowners need to see some real action. Will the Minister of State indicate when the Department believes the pyrite resolution board will be established? We have missed several deadlines up to now. I understand there is complexity in this regard. As the Minister of State is aware, this is a progressive problem; it gets worse and worse. Will the Minister of State provide an update? When does he believe the resolution board will be established? Most importantly, has a decision been arrived at among the stakeholders? The Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Hogan, gave additional time one month ago for the stakeholders to come forward with proposed solutions. Everyone needs to know the position at this stage.

I put it to the Minister of State that I have visited houses in my area in north Dublin which are unsafe to live in. It is not only that floors have been raised and doors cannot be closed; there are also problems with underground services, particularly gas, electricity, water and sewerage.

Only a very small number of such houses have been remediated. As I said earlier, based on research conducted by Fianna Fáil, there could be upwards of 72,000 housing units affected by pyrite but less than 1,000 have been remediated to date. An overall political solution is required. The fundamental flaw in the pyrite panel's report is that it proposes a card system that would only bring about the remediation of the worst affected homes. Anyone who understands pyrite will know that the longer it is left untreated, the worse it gets. We cannot draw a line and declare that we will only fix and remediate a certain number of homes because the ones that remain will get worse over time, as the experts will affirm. We need a political commitment to the effect that all dwellings that are affected by pyrite will be remediated and we need a systematic plan for this. We also need a certified testing system and to provide assistance to homeowners to fund necessary tests. Such funding could come from the industry and those who caused this problem or failing that, at the very least, testing such be deductible against the homeowner's future tax liabilities. Most people only found out that their homes were affected by pyrite when their neighbours got independent confirmation through a pyrite test.

Anyone who has visited a house or apartment that is badly affected by pyrite will know that this is one of the most serious housing issues that this Government will face. I welcome the fact that there is focus here but what the pyrite action groups and the homeowners need is a clear timeline and a solution. If we fall short by simply saying we will remediate only the worst affected dwellings, then we are simply pushing the problem into the future. Admittedly there is a substantial cost to remediation, with estimates of up to ¤30,000 for an average dwelling. The cost is substantial but the work is highly specialised, as I have seen in those houses which have been remediated. We need to be sure that, for example, the new infill for the houses to be fixed will be properly tested. Are we going to run with the British standards for pyrite or are we going to stick with the "acceptable level" of 1% of infill, which many believe is too high? Before we move ahead with fixing the affected houses, we must ensure that we have proper standards laid down for the new infill that will be used and for the operators, that is, the people who will carry out the work. We must be sure that those carrying out the work are certified, approved and have the requisite expertise.

Local authorities have been very slow to deal with private houses in this area. Dublin City Council has dealt with affected houses in its own housing stock, as have some other local authorities. There is some evidence that this problem is not confined to the east coast. I have heard reports of cases in Mayo and Clare. It is also important to point out that the pyrite problem is not solely a housing issue. Schools, other buildings and some major infrastructure may also be affected. This issue must be dealt with without further delay. We have already missed four deadlines and I ask the Minister of State to provide information on the timeline for the establishment of the resolution board and to indicate when the proposed solutions will be published. The Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government asked the stakeholders to come up with solutions and we need to see them as soon as possible. However, if those solutions do not include a full remediation of all dwellings affected by pyrite, we will simply be pushing the problem into the future.

Specifically regarding the statute of limitations and the Bill before the House today, it will go some way towards removing a legal grey area with regard to the date of knowledge. Many people put the initial signs of pyrite down to settling, plastering cracks and so forth and it was only as matters got worse that they realised that they actually had a structural problem in their homes. Most of the homeowners in question bought their properties from 2003 onwards and many of them are now in negative equity. Indeed, for many, their homes have no value at all and will remain valueless until they are fixed and properly re-certified.

The Government must examine closely the issue of insurers such as HomeBond failing to deal with this problem. It has simply washed its hands of it. When people bought their houses, they paid for their bond and believed it would protect them against structural defects in their homes but HomeBond effectively walked away from them. We must continue to pursue insurers such as HomeBond which have not stepped up to the plate. I know of instances where HomeBond has paid for remediation works in houses that are owned by banks but it has not paid for work on houses owned by individual mortgage holders. The State should not be left alone in carrying the cost for this. The Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government is the main body overseeing the local authorities and the latter are responsible for building controls. Under the regulations governing building control and various EU regulations, the State itself will be liable for the cost of remediation unless a workable solution is found. The insurers should be paying towards this but have simply decided not to. I would like to know if there is any further update in this regard, particularly with reference to HomeBond. I know that Premier has dealt with this in a different manner, to give credit where it is due.

Regarding the number of homes affected, in my own area of north Dublin I know of at least 4,000 to 5,000 dwellings. The pyrite panel reports that the total number affected is 10,000 but that is incorrect. The figure is definitely higher and this question must be looked at again. I do not intend to push this Bill to a vote today because I appreciate that the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government and the Department of Justice and Equality have examined this issue in detail but that further work needs to be done. However, I will leave it on the Order Paper for January to give the Government more time to come back with some real timelines and real solutions. I earnestly ask the Minister of State to convey to the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government our firm belief that unless the pyrite problem is solved for all affected dwellings, the solution will only be a half measure. Having been in some of the worst affected houses, I agree they must be fixed now. I have been in houses where the floors are inverted, tiles are pushed up, sinks and toilets do not work and where there is a real danger with regard to underground services such as gas. We certainly need to prioritise and make sure that those worst affected are fixed first but we cannot close the door on all the other dwellings that are affected and that will get progressively worse as time goes by. The cost of fixing such dwellings will only increase unless the problem is tackled in a systematic way.

I thank the Minister of State for his attendance and look forward to his comments on the matter. The problem must be tackled and testing is crucially important. We must work out how we can assist people in getting their houses tested. Standards are vitally important. We have seen bad practice in the building industry in many estates over the last five to ten years and the last thing we need is unqualified operators coming in to fix the houses and not doing a proper job. We must work with the NSAI to draw up appropriate testing standards and to ensure that those who are contracted to carry out the remediation works are properly qualified.

One issue of concern for me in the pyrite panel report was the suggestion of talking to the banks that lent the original mortgages to see whether more money could be got from them by way of a loan for homeowners to fix their own houses. In most cases these properties will have no value and their mortgages will be far more than the owners could get for them at market value. Therefore, to ask individual homeowners who bought in good faith houses certified by local authorities, and who took out insurance with HomeBond and other such companies and did everything right, to go to their financial institution and borrow another ¤30,000 to fix a problem not of their making is unacceptable.

I thank the Minister of State for attending this debate and I look forward to the debate.

11:50 am

Photo of Averil PowerAveril Power (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the House for this important debate. As Senator O'Brien has pointed out, this is a short and straightforward Bill. It is designed simply to stop the clock running against families who have been affected by pyrite and to ensure there will not be a legal impediment to them getting justice and having their homes remediated.

This issue has been ongoing for a number of years. Initially, when many families first noticed cracks in their walls, they could not possibly have realised what the source was. Many people assumed these first cracks were the normal type of cracks that appear over time after moving into a building, but when they became more severe the real horror of what was happening to their homes became apparent. In the legal context, it is important that the when cases are brought forward the date of knowledge is not thrown back at people as the day they first saw a crack. Rather, it is the date on which they received an independent verified report that identified the problem as a pyrite problem rather than a normal structural building problem. This is what the Bill is designed to do.

I am sure Members on all sides have had contact with families affected by pyrite, as there are thousands of such families throughout the country. These people bought their homes in good faith and thought they were investing in a future family home, only to discover with horror that their homes have major building deficiencies. Some people cannot even live in their homes now because their floors are so bad or they have other significant problems with the house. In my area, some families have been affected in the north fringe area of Dublin North-East. People are paying mortgages on properties they feel they will never be able to sell.

I have dealt with families who took out mortgages with companies that charge excessively high rates who have found they cannot switch their mortgages to one of the banks because they will not take on the mortgages of these properties. Therefore, these people are paying punitive rates to mortgage providers and cannot change. I have seen at first hand the impact of pyrite in homes on affected families. This is an important Bill for them and we want to see it move forward and to see cross-party agreement on that. We do not intend to push the Bill to a vote today, but hope Members on all sides will support it and stress the urgency of the issue.

There is a broader issue in terms of how the testing will be carried out, how properties will be prioritised for remediation and finding a fair funding solution. I know from families I have dealt with that they were in shock when they realised HomeBond would not cover this issue. They assumed that when they bought a property with the HomeBond guarantee, it would cover this problem. We need to put a proper solution in place as soon as possible to ensure the remediation can be carried out and that the people responsible, who are liable, are brought to book and compelled to make their contribution.

In the broader context, in regard to both this issue and the issue concerning Priory Hall where there were fire and safety problems, families have found they have been left in a situation where they have had to chase builders and get involved in complex litigation, without any real backup from the State. I have debated the issue of Priory Hall here with the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Hogan, on many occasions and have debated the dereliction I believe exists in terms of Government responsibility. Not alone should we deal with the issue of pyrite, but we should look at the broader issue of how the State should support families who find they have a problem with their homes. These are the people who pay development levies, VAT and stamp duty, but when they find something has gone wrong, they are left on their own to fight these cases.

With regard to the families who have been dealing with pyrite for the past few years, we are now getting to a situation where we have the pyrite panel report published and, hopefully, a solution will be put in place for remediation. However, we need to look at the broader issue of State responsibility for supporting people who find a problem with their homes. The State, with all its might, should be the one to chase after those responsible and to recover moneys from developers, insurance and the banks. It is unfair to leave families in a situation where they must take on legal cases themselves.

I appreciate the Minister of State is standing in for the Minister, but I hope he can respond to some of the issues I and Senator O'Brien have raised. Senator O'Brien asked about the timescale involved. We understand some of the houses with the highest priority will be done earliest, but we need to ensure everybody will get assistance. How long will the process take and how will properties be prioritised? Who will pay for testing? One area of concern relates to multi-unit developments. How will the process apply there. The process is more straightforward in respect of houses, but how will it work when an entire block needs remediation?

What is the position with regard to families who have already paid out for their homes to be fixed? They felt they had no choice but to pay out as the state of their property was so bad they could not live in them without getting them fixed. Will they be refunded? Will the Minister of State give us the general timeframe as to when the process will start? When will the remediation panel be in place and begin its work?

Photo of Caít KeaneCaít Keane (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I am aware he is standing in for the Minister, but this is also his baby. I thank those who brought forward this Bill as it deals with an important issue. It is important to keep this issue and debate live and to ensure that every pressure possible is applied to ensure action is taken. On that basis, I welcome the Bill. I am not sure the Bill deals with all it should deal with in regard to the report and the recommendations, but as Senator Power said, Fianna Fáil will not push it to a vote. Looking at the recommendations put forward and the proposed red light system, I believe there are shortcomings in the Bill as it stands.

While pyrite is an important issue, it is not new to the table. Pyrite has been a huge problem for families who have had to move out of their homes and some families will still be out of their homes for Christmas due to this sad situation. The problem has been an issue since 2006 and 2007. We need to ensure legislation is enforced and to ensure that local authorities have sufficient staff to ensure this happens. This should be a priority and I ask the Minister of State to comment on this.

I understand that when the problem was mooted initially, the Department was in contact with the National Standards Authority of Ireland, which subsequently published a new amended standard recommendation on the use of aggregates as infill for civil engineering. It is fine to publish a strategy, but it needs to be implemented and there must be sufficient staff to sure it is enforced. It is important that those who sign off on contracts are aware of and comply with new regulations. We must ensure these are implemented.

The new standard recommendation came into effect on 7 December 2007 and addresses the quality standards of new homes and buildings in so far as problems relating to pyrite are concerned. If the problem had been addressed then in 2007 and if the regulations had been enforced, the situation would not be as bad as it is and the people in Priory Hall and elsewhere in north Dublin and around the country would not now find themselves in the fix they are in.

More recently, in September 2011, the Minister announced the establishment of an independent panel to explore options to find a solution to the problem of pyrite contamination. He took this action in response to the very difficult situation faced by homeowners who, through no fault of their own, had been left to deal with the consequences of pyrite in their homes. These consequences have been outlined clearly by the two Senators who have spoken. The report of the pyrite panel was published in July this year and its findings are comprehensive. While the State is not responsible for the pyrite problem, it has a duty of care to ensure the regulations are implemented, if possible, in order that those who live in these houses are not left totally out of pocket through no fault of their own. The builders and everyone else involved should be held responsible. We need to find solutions to this complex problem for homeowners.

The report of the pyrite panel contains 24 recommendations and provides the Department and the various stakeholders with a roadmap to move forward and make progress towards rapidly solving this difficult problem for homeowners. I am sure the Minister of State will comment on this. The report examines a number of factors that have contributed to the pyrite problem, the most obvious of which is the building control system which is based on the Building Control Acts. I have mentioned the building regulations. I ask the Minister of State to comment on the new building regulations and the issue of enforcement. The report of the pyrite panel states:

Traditionally, Building Regulations in Ireland dealt with hardcore [the name given to infill materials such as broken bricks and concrete which do not really absorb water or deteriorate] in a general way through fitness for purpose and performance of the elements of a building. Prior to 2008, Technical Guidance Document C stated as follows: "The hardcore bed should be at least 150mm thick and should be broken stones, broken brick or similar suitable material well compacted and clean and free from matter liable to cause damage to the concrete".
This would not have happened if the regulations, as written, had been enforced. It should not have happened. The expert panel concluded that before 2007, "there was not an effective testing and inspection regime in place in quarries to identify the presence of pyrite or to ensure that the hardcore material being supplied was of an acceptable quality". This is a fundamental aspect of the pyrite problem. It is regrettable that an adequate inspection regime was not in place at the time, as it could have prevented the damage caused to homes and much other damage also. That is the history of how the problem developed. The Government and the other stakeholders are required to try to provide relevant ways of solving the problem. We have a responsibility to the homeowners to do our best to ensure they are not discommoded further as a result of this problem.

I would like to refer specifically to a few of the 24 recommendations made in the report that are logical and in the best interests of the homeowners affected. The report recommends that a series of certificates be developed for dwellings affected by pyrite. It suggests the insurance industry should not penalise homeowners in estates where pyrite damage has been proved but should continue to provide standard insurance cover for all dwellings. I hope this issue will be addressed when the Minister brings forward his proposals. I agree with these recommendations. It is particularly important for the stakeholders who played a part in causing these problems to take responsibility for their actions. The two previous speakers have said those who are responsible for the construction of substandard buildings that do not conform to the regulations should take responsibility. Last month the Construction Industry Federation and the Irish Concrete Federation were asked to discuss proposals arising from the engagement of the financial sector at upcoming meetings. I have been told by officials in the Department that the pyrite resolution board is to be established shortly. Perhaps the Minister of State will comment on when he expects it to be up and running. How will the construction sector be forced to pay? Will a levy be introduced to ensure homeowners are not out of pocket? Some of them have left their homes, as Senator Averil Power mentioned. How will those who have engaged in remediation action on their homes be addressed?

I have read various figures for the numbers of homes affected. The report was contradicted when it was suggested information on the ground was indicating that the number in question was more than 10,300. That needs to be sorted out. If we do not know how big the problem is, how can it be dealt with by the building and insurance sectors? The only recognised method of remediation of home damage by pyrite is its removal and replacement. The report estimates that this could cost approximately ¤45,000 per house, which is not to be sneezed at. When people bought their houses, they did not expect to have another ¤45,000 on their backs within a few years. I appreciate that pyrite does not cause an immediate effect in all dwellings. However, problems might be noted down the road. While we cannot legislate for this now, we should ensure the regulations we bring forward will not prevent people from seeking redress in the future. They should not be told they cannot be included in this legislation because they did not report the problems by a certain date. Pyrite takes years to establish itself. We cannot say there is a cut-off date by which all cases have to be reported. It would cost more if everyone had to be dealt with at the same time, rather than being spaced out over time. I have mentioned the panel's recommendations with regard to insurance. It also recommended that the Statute of Limitations Act 1957 be reviewed, which is what the Bill is about. I know the Statute of Limitations covers a period of limitations. The Bill defines who will establish what pyrite actually is. Perhaps the Minister might make a statement on how he is going to deal with the different recommendations in the report. I know the Department is actively working on it.

I commend Senator Darragh O'Brien of Fianna Fáil for bringing this legislation to the House. I do not know if the amendment proposed is the way to go. It has been suggested all of the bodies and stakeholders identified in the report might come together voluntarily. I refer to the Construction Industry Federation, the Irish Concrete Federation, HomeBond, the Irish Insurance Federation and the Irish Banking Federation. HomeBond has stepped out, but it should be made step in again. The bodies I have mentioned which are directly or indirectly responsible for this problem should come together voluntarily. If they do not, they should be dragged together kicking and screaming. I do not know how that might be done, but they should be made do something. As I said, the State did not actually build the houses affected - the industry did. If it is allowed to get away with this type of thing, it will lead to more cowboys coming on stream because they know they will get away with it. They have to be shown that they will not. They should have to demonstrate where the funding needed for remediation action will come from. HomeBond was established to ensure insurance would be available for this type of remediation action when builders and buildings failed.

I will conclude by asking the Minister of State to speak about the pyrite resolution board. A report on this matter is supposed to be brought before the Government. Perhaps the Minister of State might comment on it also.

12:00 pm

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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This is an important debate. I welcome the opportunity Fianna Fáil has given to us by organising a discussion on this important issue. It is welcome that the legislation will remain on the Order Paper for further debate as this issue develops. It is a major issue for the thousands of homeowners affected. Senator Averil Power has spoken about the concerns of people she knows in her constituency. However, this serious problem affects thousands of homes. One of the issues that have been raised is the need to ascertain how many are affected. As Senator Cáit Keane said, one does not know one's home is affected until the damage happens. One cannot know in advance. In Ireland these problems generally manifest themselves after between one and nine years. I am aware that it can take up to 20 years in Canada, perhaps due to climatic reasons.

At the bottom of this issue are the actions of those who supplied the building material from quarries. As far we know, just five of the country's 1,200 quarries have been involved in the provision of pyrite material for the construction industry. The main counties or geographical areas identified as being affected are Fingal, Dublin, Kildare, Offaly and Meath.

On the question of the number of households, the report, which is very clear and independent, outlined the worst possible scenario and the figure it came up with was approximately 12,000 homes in all. However, if other homes are found to have pyrite, that will obviously have to be addressed. There is no question of the political system, either the Government or the Opposition, avoiding a proper, real and permanent resolution of this problem. That is what we are all about.

In particular, I acknowledge, as every speaker has, the very difficult and distressing situations faced by homeowners throughout the country, who, through no fault of their own, are living with the appalling legacy of building failures, including unfinished estates, dwellings affected by pyrite or dwellings and developments subject to serious fire and other safety risks. Homeowners affected by pyrite have been waiting for a considerable time, without success, for a resolution to this problem.

The purchase of a home is the largest single investment most people will make in their entire lifetime and they have a justifiable expectation that the home they buy will be a place of enjoyment for themselves and their families for many years. They would also have a belief that if serious problems arose, they would be dealt with promptly and efficiently by those who are responsible, including materials suppliers, builders-developers and the guarantee or insurance companies. However, for a significant number of homeowners affected by pyrite, living in their homes has not turned out to be the enjoyable lifelong experience they had hoped for and, in many cases, they rightly feel let down by those parties whom they believed would provide effective solutions in the event of problems.

I know all of us here empathise with those homeowners, and it was against this background that the Minister, Deputy Hogan, set up the independent Pyrite Panel in September 2011 as the first step to assist in finding a resolution to the pyrite problems for homeowners. The panel's report is one of the better reports I have read and it is very clear, concise, focused and factual. It is particularly clear in its conclusions and analysis. Nobody I have listened to has said, and the report did not suggest, that any of the parties they discussed this issue with was shifting the blame for all of the building failures onto the State and onto a supposedly light-touch regulatory system. That would be to very conveniently ignore the role and responsibilities of the primary actors involved in the delivery of "fit for purpose" building projects, including, in particular, builders-developers, construction professionals and the legal profession.

The key point made is that in terms of the training of building and construction professionals, there was no reference to the possibility of pyrite being a problem, so the professionals employed by the local authorities would have had no knowledge of this. However, as soon as knowledge became available, the issue was addressed. For example, in Fingal the issue first came to notice in June 2007, and by July and August of that year the county council had dealt with it and sent out notices to everybody concerned. Effectively, the action it took prevented further use of pyrite in construction, which is clearly acknowledged in the report.

A strong statutory framework for the regulation of construction activity exists under the Building Control Acts 1990 and 2007. The building regulations clearly set out the legal requirements for the design and construction of buildings, including those applicable to houses and extensions, while detailed technical guidance documents outline how these standards can be achieved in practice. Responsibility for compliance rests primarily with developers and builders who engage construction professionals as required to ensure the requirements are met.

During the course of its work, the Pyrite Panel compared the guidance on hardcore as set out in our national building regulations with that provided in both the UK and Canada, and it concluded that Ireland's building regulations compared favourably with those countries. Furthermore, the Pyrite Panel concluded that the guidance was reflective of the knowledge and experience available at that time in Ireland and that, on balance, it would have been unreasonable to expect that the unprecedented issue of pyrite in hardcore could have been identified by building control officers during normal inspections.

This Bill proposes to amend the existing discovery provisions of the Statute of Limitations Act 1957 to enable householders whose dwellings have been damaged by pyrite to institute a claim within a period of time commencing from the date the presence of pyrite in a dwelling or a neighbouring dwelling has been certified by an engineer. This Bill, while well-intentioned, is flawed. The amendment proposed is a very wide ranging proposal which suggests that the limitation period should run from either of two dates: (a) the date the dwelling or the other neighbouring dwelling has been certified by an engineer as containing pyrite that, in his or her opinion, has or is likely to cause structural damage to the dwelling; or (b) the date the house owner has been informed by the party who built the dwelling that the infill within the house contains pyrite that, in the opinion of the builder of the dwelling, has or is likely to cause structural damage to the dwelling.

Part (a) of the proposed amendment would alter the contractual relationship between the vendor-purchaser and the builder as it extends the responsibility beyond the subject matter of the contract. In addition, in the case of pyrite, a significant characteristic of pyritic heave in Ireland has been its unpredictability within a development, with adjacent dwellings often reacting differently. The recently published report of the Pyrite Panel alludes to this fact and discusses possible influences for this phenomena, including hardcore coming from different sources, the depth of the fill, compaction issues and so on.

Part (b), by only requiring that a house owner be informed by the builder that the infill has pyrite, alters current legal responsibilities. The law must be certain. The open nature of this proposal offends this concept as it provides no time limits in regard to liability. Such a proposal could increase the costs of doing business in the State for those involved in the construction and insurance industries. The law governing the limitation of actions must ensure that a balance is struck between the competing rights of the plaintiff to access the courts and the defendant to fair procedures.

The independent Pyrite Panel which the Minister, Deputy Hogan, established in September 2011 to explore options for the resolution of pyrite problems in private housing submitted its report to him at the end of June. The report contains the following recommendation relevant to the Statute of Limitations Act 1957:

The Panel recommends that the current legislation governing the Statute of Limitations should be reviewed with a view to ensuring that latent defects in buildings, such as those experienced from reactive pyrite, remain covered for a reasonable period during which the defects might be expected to manifest themselves. The Panel notes that work has been done by the Law Reform Commission (LRC) and it would ask that the LRC would address this issue.
I understand the Pyrite Panel had concerns that homeowners affected by pyrite could be statute-barred from taking an action against the builder or insurer because of the period it takes for pyrite to manifest itself. To date in Ireland, the rate of presentation ranges from two to nine years. While I do not believe that legal recourse is a viable option for many homeowners affected by pyrite as the resources required to sustain such actions is probably outside the financial capacity of many of the people involved, nevertheless, I believe there is merit in giving further consideration to that recommendation.

In December 2011, the Law Reform Commission published a report entitled, "Report on Limitation of Actions (Statute of Limitations)". The report examines the rules on the time limits for bringing civil claims in the court and makes 26 recommendations for the reform of the law in this area, including the date of knowledge. I believe this report should provide useful guidance in considering the recommendation in the pyrite report.

The Statute of Limitations Act 1957 comes within the remit of the Minister for Justice and Equality and, as part of the implementation of the pyrite report, officials from my Department will discuss implementation of the recommendation from the report dealing with the review of the limitation periods in the Statute of Limitations Act with colleagues in that Department. In this context, it is premature to consider the issue of the statute of limitations in isolation from all other aspects of the pyrite problem, in particular, proposals for the urgent remediation of homes affected.

The pyrite report which was published in July 2012 is clear in its view that the State was not responsible for the pyrite problem and those identified as having responsibility for delivering remediation solutions for homeowners include quarries, material suppliers, builders-developers, vendors and relevant insurance companies.

However, while the State is not responsible for the pyrite problem or liable for the costs of remediating pyrite affected dwellings, it has a role and duty to assist homeowners to find a solution to the problem. This was one of the key objectives of the Minister in setting up the independent Pyrite Panel. Many homeowners have been trying to find a solution to pyrite problems, without success, for a considerable time. There is a necessity to bring this waiting to an end and provide clarity for affected homeowners.

It should be noted that a sizeable number of dwellings have been and continue to be remediated under various processes, including by some responsible builders who are undertaking remediation works, works being undertaken under structural defects insurance and other types of insurance. I welcome the progress being made and believe this is the correct approach to addressing the pyrite problem. These processes should continue and should not be impacted on by remediation processes to be agreed for homeowners who have no other recourse for remediation open to them. I do not believe the taxpayer should be liable for the costs associated with the remediation of pyrite damaged dwellings. These costs should fall to those responsible. I welcome the panel's clear view on this matter. It is clear that the parties with direct or indirect responsibility for the pyrite problem must face up to their legal and moral responsibilities in providing solutions for homeowners.

Two issues in the pyrite report which have generated some debate are the number of suspected developments-dwellings and the categorisation of dwellings. Following a desktop study by the panel, it is estimated that there are 12,250 ground floor dwellings in 74 estates that may be affected by pyrite. These figures are significantly lower than the figures which have been speculated in the public domain. However, the figures which represented the position in March 2012 are supported by a robust methodology which is set out in the report. Having regard to the methodology used by the panel to arrive at these figures and taking account of the rate of presentation to date in Ireland, the figures represent a reasonably accurate picture of potential future exposure. No substantive basis, of which I am aware, has been put forward for the 60,000 or 70,000 dwellings quoted in some quarters.

Not all dwellings in estates where pyrite has been identified will manifest pyritic heave and significant damage. The reasons for this are outlined in the report. Recognising this position, the panel recommends a categorisation of dwellings to determine appropriate remediation approaches which are detailed in the report. I agree with the recommendation that it would be unreasonable to expect dwellings not exhibiting damage to be remediated simply because there is pyrite in the hardcore. This position is supported in the High Court judgment of Mr. Justice Charleton in the case of JEC v. lrish Asphalt which is on appeal to the Supreme Court. The pyrite report details the basis for arriving at this decision. The approach suggested by the pyrite panel to classify the dwellings into red, amber and green is a practical methodology to prioritise the remediation of affected dwellings. However, a system needs to be in place to repair such dwellings if and when they exhibit damage in the future.

Discussions on possible funding mechanisms for a remediation scheme have been ongoing with stakeholders since the Minister received the pyrite report at the end of June. While the outcome of the initial discussions was disappointing and the responses from the stakeholders did not offer the type of comprehensive and meaningful solution necessary to address the difficulties being faced by affected homeowners, there were some positive elements in the detailed responses received which have formed the basis for further constructive engagement with the parties since last June. While the discussions have taken longer than initially anticipated, it is considered that sufficient progress has been made to justify the continuation of the contacts for a short period. The discussions are now at an advanced stage and are anticipated to conclude very shortly.

The Minister has announced the establishment of a resolution board as recommended by the pyrite panel. In addition to the discussions that have taken place, the stakeholders have been invited to make final submissions, which they are now doing. These will be evaluated in conjunction with the outcome of the discussions and will inform the next steps in providing a solution for affected homeowners. The Minister is anxious to finalise this phase of the process without delay and provide homeowners with some certainty as to how it is proposed to provide for a remediation scheme.

On HomeBond, we do not accept or believe it can be allowed to walk away from its responsibilities.

12:20 pm

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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Departmental officials continue to engage with HomeBond with a view to getting it to re-enter the negotiations to solve this problem. The National Standards Authority of Ireland will set up the best standards in this regard. The pyrite resolution board will commence work in the first quarter of 2013. As stated, that may be the best time for the reintroduction of this proposal for further debate, when we can review what progress has been made. The priority system will be based on the traffic light system, with red indicating immediate work, green indicating no work is required and amber indicating continuous monitoring is required. The pyrite resolution board will oversee progress of the work. Homeowners will receive a certificate stating their homes are free of pyrite. New building regulations will require builders, architects, engineers and surveyors to sign statutory certificates. Departmental officials will continue to engage with the insurance and construction industries. A lot of progress has been made.

The Minister hopes voluntary agreement will be reached between all parties. If not, he will take the actions outlined in the report, including the introduction of a levy in this regard. It is critical that builders, HomeBond and the construction and insurance industries step up to the mark and do what is required. If they do not do so and the Minister has to act to force them to do so, confidence in the building industry will never be restored. They must step up to the mark, as we believe they will. It is hoped that when the motion comes before the House again during the first quarter of next year, we will be able to offer a progress report.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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I compliment my colleague, Senator Darragh O'Brien, on the introduction of the Bill, which is timely. As stated, one's home is one's most important possession. I welcome some of the Minister of State's unscripted statements at the end of his contribution, in particular, those relating to the establishment of the pyrite resolution board, the commencement of operations in the first quarter of next year and the desire to bring this issue back before the House to monitor progress. However, I am not clear on the proposed use of the traffic light system, on which I will comment further.

The Minister of State referred to the unpredictability of pyrite, which suggests there is no way of telling when pyritic heave could occur. As such, all dwellings should be remediated. When I originally heard about issues with pyrite in north county Dublin, I did not understand the nature of the problem. However, I gradually realised it was one involving a chemical substance, one form of which I recall was once called fool's gold because people in the 18th century were misled into believing that because of its metallic and golden appearance it was gold. The pyrite we are discussing is a naturally occurring mineral, with elements of iron and sulphur, which, when exposed to moisture, be it rain or dampness in the atmosphere, produces sulphuric acid which creates gypsum which then expands. This is dynamite in the foundations of a house and deeply worrying.

There are a number of parties involved, including the quarries which irresponsibly produced low grade material combined with pyrite and the builders, some of whom I understand have taken action against quarry owners and suppliers. We cannot exculpate completely the local authorities. Some local authority housing in Lusk contains pyrite. I would have thought that local authorities had a duty of care when advertising and inducing people to purchase houses described as affordable. How affordable are they if they are affected by pyrite?

One can have any amount of certificates, but the certificates are not worth the paper on which they are written. One hopes they will give peace of mind, but they will not assist in the sale of a house should that becomes necessary, as nobody wants them. Many local people would share my opinion in this regard. It would be entirely appropriate on budget day to introduce a measure that could be put in place immediately. I ask the Minister of State to make this clear to his colleagues, particularly those in the Cabinet who have responsibility for financial matters in order to ensure no property tax is levied on these properties. That would be outrageous for those who bought these houses in good faith. I refer not only to affordable houses but to all houses which contain pyrite. Regardless of financial circumstances, because we are all in a similar position, how can we possibly expect people to pay for the privilege of their houses being threatened with a chronic and systemic difficulty?

According to his script, the Minister of State appears to want to either shift or evade responsibility because he has stated it would be convenient for some if this matter became the responsibility of local authorities. I have no doubt that local authorities and central government have a role to play. The Minister of State made a comparison with the guidance on hardcore set out in the United Kingdom and Canada, claiming ours compared favourably. However, he was very short on specifics. How do they compare favourably? What comparisons were made? If remediation is to be applied only in areas categorised as particularly dangerous, what will happen if there is a row of houses involved or, in the case of semi-detached houses, if one house is excluded while there is a problem with a neighbouring house? The problem will affect these houses, too, but this has not been taken into account, although the Minister of State acknowledges the unpredictability of pyrite.

There is the Statute of Limitations which I realise is troubling. We dealt with this issue in dealing with the Magdalene laundries and it will arise again in dealing with the symphysiotomy issue, in respect of which there is a proposal concerning the timing of knowledge, although this may be difficult to prove. The Minister of State has stated the report makes recommendations, but he did not say what, if anything, was being done to address this issue in a practical sense. There can be talk - "We must look into this" or "There is merit in that suggestion." However, it would be much better if something was actually done, rather than having its merit acknowledged because this is something that affects people directly and on a daily basis.

The Minister of State quoted the Pyrite Panel as stating there were 12,250 buildings in question, nothing in the order of 60,000 or 70,000. However, the report states there are probably another 10,000, which is a considerable extra number. If one takes the sum of ¤45,000 for remediation purposes, that gives an idea of the measure of the problem. However, it does not only involve houses. What about the surrounding areas, including front paths and footpaths? If this material is also found in these areas, they, too, could contribute to the problem of gas leaks. I suggest this information should be directly transmitted to the gas and electricity authorities as a matter of urgency.

I have a series of questions posed by people who sought confirmation of the process of mediation and asked how it would take place, how cases would be prioritised and about the make-up of the pyrite resolution board. Has information been given on these matters? Will testing be carried out systematically and who will pay for it? How will the scheme be project managed and who will do it?

I very much welcome what the Minister of State said about HomeBond and the various insurance companies involved. It seems extraordinary, but there is a suggestion of a degree of collusion between banks and HomeBond in that the banks if they had an involvement would pressurise HomeBond to look after the repairs. If the banks can do this, surely the State could also lean on the companies to ensure they did the work. What about compensation for those who have already paid, who, having been alerted, got in early? Have they any chance of getting their money back? There is also a question of standards concerning the infill. We need to look at all of these issues and learn from the experience.

It is significant that the vast majority of instances, if not all, took place between 2002 and 2006 during the boom when there was a lack of governance and responsibility. Former Senator Joe O'Toole had connections with north County Dublin and I remember him raising the question of building standards. We were very lax; the lack of regulation was significant. After all, people are supposed to sign off on projects, including architects, engineers and planners. Presumably, they signed off in cases in which there was this problem. I refer to the inspection of houses and associated matters. Will the Minister of State give us an undertaking that houses will be inspected not only for the presence of pyrite but for fire safety and other issues? There is the example of Priory Hall. What happens if a project gets the all-clear for pyrite and six months later there is a planning problem because the buildings are found not to be fire regulations compliant? It will be back to stage one. This is an opportunity for us to insist on full certification that houses meet all planning and safety requirements. Ultimately, it is not just a matter of planning or compensation but people's welfare, peace of mind in their house and their safety and protection against injury or death.

12:30 pm

Photo of Denis LandyDenis Landy (Labour)
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I welcome the Minister of State for the debate on the Bill. I also welcome the representatives of the pyrite action group, some of whom I met earlier this year with Deputy Brendan Ryan whose work on this matter I acknowledge. He has worked with residents associations and in the Lower House has been extremely active on this issue.

I listened closely to the Minister of State's statement. As other speakers have noted, this problem started seven or eight years ago. The real action to find a solution began 20 months ago when the Government came into being. Although I respect that Senator Darragh O'Brien has brought forward the Bill, I put it to him and his colleague, Senator Averil Power, that their party was in government while the problem had been apparent for some four or five years and it took no action in the matter. Although I welcome the Bill and the efforts being made, it is not right to erase the fact that the problem has been apparent since at least 2005 and was at its height by 2008.

I am glad that the Minister of State has clarified the number of houses directly affected. During the time they were being built, builders and developers were running riot across the city, particularly in north County Dublin. They did whatever they liked in building, charged whatever they wanted and ignored every building regulation in place. The planners could not keep up with them; there were not enough of them to do the job. The professionals who signed off on projects obviously did not practise due diligence. I do not accept that the issue of pyrite was not on the horizon for professional bodies at the time. There is no excuse for signing off on such defective buildings.

I commend the Government for the head-on approach it has taken to the problem. The Pyrite Panel's report has been in the public domain for a number of weeks and clearly shows that in most cases stakeholders did not respond to the problem. Very few builders have gone back to fix it. Most ran to NAMA or went under cover, while some ran out of the country - that is the way they dealt with the problem. In the main, developers are only concerned with defending their own quarter, not with trying to fix the problem they created.

When I hear the word "HomeBond", it makes my blood boil. This organisation should be struck off as a result of the way it has treated people. When I built my house almost 13 years ago, I encountered a difficulty. I contacted HomeBond but in view of the response I received I might as well have contacted Donald Duck. HomeBond is an absolutely disgraceful organisation and it should not be allowed to continue to trade.

I am pleased by the Minister of State's indication to the effect that the Statute of Limitations has been examined by the Law Reform Commission. There is a need for movement in respect of this issue and the State must play a role in finding a solution. The first step in this regard was the establishment of the Pyrite Panel and the next will be the setting up of the resolution board. I welcome the Minister of State's confirmation to the effect that the latter will be in place by the first quarter of 2013. We can then move forward and find a solution to the problems which have arisen in respect of the properties affected by pyrite. I do not know whether there are 12,500 or 20,500 such properties but the overall number will be clearly defined. The cost in respect of this matter should fall to those responsible to pay. In the main, those responsible - both named players and others - are to be found in the construction industry. The relevant stakeholders must come forward with responses in respect of this matter. If they do not do so, they should be brought to heel. This matter has been allowed to drag on for too long. The day of judgment has come.

On this, the day on which the budget for 2013 is to be introduced, I will try to speak calmly. Members of Fianna Fáil introduced the Bill before the House in good faith. However, it was their party which allowed the building industry to run riot for 15 years. Fianna Fáil drove the country into bankruptcy, it threw away the money that would help us to solve this problem and it is now showing concern for those who are sitting in the Gallery. I do not accept what Fianna Fáil is doing. Senator Darragh O'Brien's Bill is welcome. However, I hope his action is the equivalent of him putting his foot to a ball that is already heading for the net. The Government intends to resolve this matter. In that context, what is done must represent a victory for those who have been affected. I hope that victory will become apparent in the near future.

12:40 pm

Photo of Trevor Ó ClochartaighTrevor Ó Clochartaigh (Sinn Fein)
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Ba mhaith liom fáilte a chur roimh an Aire stáit, an Teachta McGinley. Is minic a bhíonn muid ag caint ar chúrsaí Gaeilge agus Gaeltachta anseo, ach ní minic a bhíonn muid ag caint ar ghnóthaí den chineál seo. Cuirim fáilte roimh agus táimid buíoch dó as teacht isteach. Díospóireacht iontach thábhachtach í seo agus táimid i Sinn Féin i bhfábhar an Bhille seo a bheith ag teacht chun cinn. Tá sé píosa fada ag teacht i ndáiríre píre. Is é an trua go bhfuil cluiche polaitiúil á imirt anseo inniu ag an Seanadóir Landy faoin cheist seo mar sílim gur ceist í seo gur ceart go mbeadh gach duine ar ghach taobh den Teach ag tacú leí chun a dhéanamh cinnte go bhfaighfidh na daoine atá ag fulaingt de bharr an méid a tharla de bharr pyrite cothrom na féinne.

I welcome the members of the Pyrite Action Group who are in the Gallery. As I stated in Irish, it is a shame this matter is being turned into something of a political football.

Photo of Trevor Ó ClochartaighTrevor Ó Clochartaigh (Sinn Fein)
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The members of the pyrite action group and those who are suffering because a solution to their problems has not been found should be the main focus of the debate, which should not be the subject of party politics.

The Bill is a very welcome first step. Since I became a Member of the Seanad, Senator Darragh O'Brien has raised this hugely important issue on an almost weekly basis. The Bill does not provide a resolution in any sense of the word and, unfortunately, is probably just the initial step on a much longer journey. The Government must act in a much more expeditious manner in order to resolve this issue.

I agree with Senator Norris in a general sense in that this is definitely an issue in respect of which the Statute of Limitations must be addressed. However, there is also a need to address that statute in the context of the victims of the procedure known as symphysiotomy and those who were victims of the Magdalene laundries. The Government must consider lifting the statute of limitations in respect of these matters in order that people might have their rights vindicated.

The pyrite panel's report has been a long time coming and action in respect of it is still awaited. Sinn Féin supports the Bill before the House as an essential measure in ensuring that those whose homes have been affected by pyrite contamination will have the necessary repairs carried out, regardless of when those homes were built. The carrying out of such repairs should depend on the finding of pyrite within a property as a result of the carrying out of an independent test. The pyrite report, which was published earlier in the year, indicates that some 12,500 homes - excluding those not in private ownership - have been affected by pyrite. The report also indicates that while many properties require work - and many others will possibly require work in the future - approximately 850 are in need of immediate repair. The report recommends that a monitoring system be put in place in order to ensure that properties which have been identified as being affected by pyrite will be dealt with swiftly if serious problems arise in the future.

People are extremely concerned because the problems with their homes must be addressed right now. Regardless of whether we are pointing the finger at builders, at the fact that regulation was lax or at the current Government for dragging its feet, there is no doubt that people's homes must be restored to the state in which they would expect them to be. This matter must be remedied as a matter of urgency. The families living in the homes to which I refer and which sought to discover whether they were covered by their insurers were sorely disappointed when groups such as HomeBond - which behaved disgracefully and which refused to attend meetings of an Oireachtas committee on two occasions - turned them away. I welcome the comment made by the Minister of State, Deputy O'Dowd, to the effect that HomeBond will not be let off the hook and that it will be held to account for its actions in respect of this matter.

Pyrite caught the concrete industry, the construction industry and regulators by surprise. However, it should not have done so because there have been a number of serious difficulties with pyrite in other parts of the world. Any industry should work to prevent problems such as those to which I refer from arising. Many homes have been affected by pyrite; we cannot be sure that 12,000 is not a conservative estimate and that difficulties will not arise with other houses in the future. The Bill contains a good measure in respect of providing proper cover to families who discover that their homes are affected by pyrite. However, there is also a need for real regulation to ensure that pyrite-contaminated materials are not being used at present and will not be used in the future. Such regulation should include a mandatory requirement in respect of the testing of heave potential in proposed building materials and more thorough inspections at quarry, wholesale and site level.

I take this opportunity to call on the Minister of State to redouble his efforts to ensure that HomeBond will be held responsible for its actions and that it will use its large profits to assist the families it disgracefully abandoned. Will the Minister of State indicate how he proposes to proceed and what his intentions are in this regard? There is also a need for him to report on the progress made with other responsible bodies which are contributing to the repair works. We have called for the State to fill the funding gap in respect of repairs that are immediately required until the necessary arrangements are put in place. If families are left in limbo while the negotiations continue, then the State has a duty of care in the context of providing them with immediate assistance. Those to whom I refer should not be obliged to wait. Will the Minister of State indicate when the resolution committee recommended in the report of the Pyrite Panel will be established?

There is a need for cross-party support in respect of this Bill. I call on all Government Senators to support it. As already stated, it is just the first step on the road towards justice for the people whose homes have been affected by pyrite. These individuals have suffered enough stress and they should not be obliged to cope with the stress of fighting the system as well. The State should support them and ensure that remedial works are carried out to their properties now. Let us play the blame game after matters have been put to rights and these people's homes have been made fit to live in once more. Those to whom I refer should be the first priority and we can then identify the culprits who should ultimately pay the bill. The State should step up and do the right thing.

Ba mhaith liom dá dtabharfadh Seanadóirí an Rialtais tacaíocht iomlán don Bhille seo. Ní fheicim cén fáth nach ndéanfadh siad é sin. Tá an Bille ciallmhar agus féaráilte. Leis an gceart a thabhairt don Seanadóir O'Brien, thug sé neart rabhaidh go raibh sé chun teacht chun cinn leis an Bille seo. Níor tháinig sé aniar aduaidh ar an Rialtas agus ba chóir go dtabharfadh chuile duine iomlán tacaíochta dó.

Photo of Colm BurkeColm Burke (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy McGinley. His colleague, the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy O'Dowd, provided an outline of how it is proposed to deal with this matter. It is important that the resolution committee be put in place at an early date in order that it might begin to deal with the issue. I come from the legal profession and have acted for both builders and householders. In that context, I am aware that there is nothing worse than arbitration relating to a building dispute. Such arbitrations tend to drag on and the solutions always seem to be far more complicated than necessary.

This situation has been continuing for a number of years. It is important for householders that it is brought to a conclusion. There is a level of uncertainty. Many people bought houses at the top end of the market, not only have they suffered under the downturn of house prices but have this added problem in addition to the problem of trying to secure insurance in the long term. There is a question mark over the properties, should they ever wish to sell on. It is important that we try to find a solution to this problem. We will not be able to bring a solution to all of the issues that have been raised but let us try to resolve the issues where work is required on the property. The Minister has outlined the traffic lights system which require immediate remedial action. I agree with Senator O'Brien that many who are caught in this problem are not able to get the funding to do the necessary work. This is the reason it must be given priority.

We need to look at the issue of insurance. It always amazes me that insurance companies love people when they want to try to sell a policy, but when a person tries to claim, they wish that he or she would please go away. We need to readjust how the insurance companies approach that. We have had this problem when dealing with flooding in Cork. I have come across a number of problems. One person paid insurance for eight years and because they had a claim for subsidence the insurance company does not wish to cover the property for flooding, even though subsidence and flooding are not connected in any way. Insurance companies are looking for angles so as not to own up to their responsibilities. We need to deal with that issue. This has been already outlined by earlier speakers. There are many players involved in coming to a resolution of this problem. We all have a part to play through the Government, building industry, quarry owners and insurance companies. If all the parties were involved in trying to come to a solution, the problem would be dealt with earlier. We must give priority to the house owners who have suffered. It was not their fault that problems arose. They relied on the skill and judgment of builders, of the people who were supplying the materials. They relied also on the skill and judgment of the people they employed to inspect their properties and also to ensure that regulations were complied with. Questions must be asked about the first indications that the item being supplied was defective. Why was action not taken at that stage to ensure that the supply of that material would cease and that it would no longer continue to be supplied to housing estates? Who was responsible for not implementing that?

Supplying building material for building is analogous to the car manufacturer who supplies cars and is under a duty and obligation to the people who purchase the cars. It often happens that car manufacturers must recall cars so that remedial work can be carried out to make them safe. We seem to have moved from that level of care in the building industry. That is wrong. A builder contracts to provide a house for somebody and contracts that it is of merchantable quality and that people can live safely in the house. One contracts also that if there is a defect, that it is remediated within a period. The problem is that the defects are identified after the six year limit period, which we need to consider. We must be able to find a solution for the house owners at the earliest possible date so that they can go back to living in a normal way. It is important to keep the pressure on all the players.

The other issue that arises is that the insurance cover limit is specified in cases. If, for example, a quarry has ¤6.5 million insurance cover for any single event and if the quarry is supplying materials for a housing estate of 100 houses, is the fund for that entire estate confined to ¤6.5 million or ¤6.5 million for each individual house?. We need to have that matter clarified. That is one of the things that insurance companies are hiding behind, the limitation as regard the cover they provide and whether it is for the entire housing estate or for each individual house. That must be clarified as we cannot ignore it any longer. Senator O'Brien has suggested we deal with it again early in the new year. We need to keep up the momentum to bring about a solution.

12:50 pm

Photo of John KellyJohn Kelly (Labour)
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I welcome the Minister to the House. I welcome also the members of the pyrite action group. My colleague, Senator Denis Landy summed up the disgraceful handling of this issue. Senator Landy has dotted all the i's and crossed all the t's. We know who is responsible and we know where we need to end up to resolve this issue.

I have not spoken on this issue in the House, but I have the greatest sympathy for the people who are affected by it. I know that people did not know what they were buying into at an early stage. People were depending on construction professionals to guide them so that they would not make mistakes but they were led astray. This is a scandal. It was symptomatic of what was permissible by the administration that drove housing developments, leading to the boom and subsequent bust. When I categorise administration, I also categorise planning authorities as well.

From my layman's reading of it, there seems to have been three different phases in building development. When I built my house in 1994 I had to employ an engineer in order to get a mortgage. The engineer had to come out approximately six times during the building of my house and sign off at every single stage. She had to witness every stage as the work was done. If anything went wrong subsequent to getting the mortgage, I had the right to sue her. I am assuming that right exists for everybody else. Thankfully I did not have to resort to that.

Some years later, during the boom we were building houses that we did not need. There was no doubt that there seemed to have been very much light touch regulation. I was very critical of planners during that time. I had experienced great difficulty over a six month period in reaching agreement with a planner on the orientation of the house. We spent six months arguing until we agreed on a place in the middle. During the boom if a builder wanted to build 40 houses in an area, the planners were more or less encouraging him to build 80 in the same area. They were blinded by development levies as this was the only sector the local authorities were interested in at that time. Today, we are in the third phase of building development. The planners are sitting in offices with nothing to do. They have one file on their desk and they might have it between six and 12 months. They might find any number of problems. Let me give an example, a constituent of mine applied for planning permission and the planner came out and met the applicant and the engineer. There were eight areas of contention that the planner had identified. The applicant rang me and told me that he could solve the eight identified problems. All the problems were addressed by the engineer. When we spoke I told him not be to surprised if the planner would identify additional problems. Sure enough, it did happen. When he had addressed the eight problems, the planner wrote asking how he would supply water to his house, to which he responded, saying he would drill a well. The planner responded seeking a sample of the water. He replied that he would send in a sample of the water as soon as he has the planning permission as it would cost ¤6,000 to drill for water. We thought that was a logical response.

His planning application was refused on grounds that were never discussed or raised with him as a problem, the zoning. We are now back to this nonsense because the planners have nothing to do. They took their eye off the ball during the building boom. It is ironic that pyrite is known as "fools' gold". I hope the fools who introduced it and those who were complicit in it being used pay dearly for all the problems they have caused.

1:00 pm

Photo of Terry BrennanTerry Brennan (Fine Gael)
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Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit go dtí an Teach. This Bill is welcome. It is a first step in dealing with homes that have been affected by pyrite. They should be dealt with as soon as possible. How can we ensure that materials with pyrite cannot be used again in the foundations of houses or building? How can we ensure in law that developers and builders who have walked away and reneged on their responsibilities will never again get the opportunity to build again? We must cover this in the legislation.

Go raibh maith agat.

Photo of Diarmuid WilsonDiarmuid Wilson (Fianna Fail)
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I commend my Fianna Fáil colleagues Senators Darragh O'Brien, Power and Byrne for tabling this very important Bill. I thank members on both sides of the House for their contributions. I especially thank the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Fergus O'Dowd for his very comprehensive contribution to the House this afternoon.

I have to admit that when Senators O'Brien, Power and Byrne raised this issue at a Seanad group meeting, I was not exactly sure what pyrite was and what they were talking about. Unfortunately I have become very aware of what it means to many thousands of households throughout the length and breadth of the country.

Colleagues have pointed out that pyrite has affected more than 72,500 households to date. I understand that only 1,000 houses have been remediated to date. I join in calling for immediate action to be taken to remedy the situation that is causing enormous hardship to these families. It affects not only the Dublin and the east coast area, where there is the greatest concentration, but almost every county, to a lesser extent in some counties. One case, however, is a case too many.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy McGinley, to the House. May I ask him to relay the concerns expressed in the Seanad to his Cabinet colleagues. Grant aid must be provided so that the houses can be remediated. I understand it can cost up to ¤30,000, which is an enormous sum of money. In some instances, the premises might not be worth that amount. Grant aid or tax relief should be given to the people affected so that they can remedy the conditions brought about through no fault of their own.

Deputy Fergus O'Dowd mentioned that the primary source of the material came from five quarries. Has the Government investigated the possibility of pursuing the owners of these quarries for compensation through their insurance? I request an answer to that question.

Senator Norris made a suggestion that not only should houses by inspected for pyrite but also for fire and health safety. In area where Radon gas is prevalent, I suggest that it be inspected for radon gas at the same time? Radon gas is a major issue in the part of the country that I represent.

With the permission of the Cathaoirleach, I wish to reserve three minutes of my time so that the debate on the Bill can be adjourned.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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Is it agreed to adjourn the debate? Agreed.

Debate adjourned.

Sitting suspended at 1.25 p.m. and resumed at 5.30 p.m.