Wednesday, 15 June 2016
I welcome the Minister of State for housing and urban renewal, Deputy English, to the House. The normal procedure for Commencement Debates for the past five years was the Senator raising the topic would get four minutes and be given a supplementary of not more than one minute following the Minister's response. Technically, under Standing Orders, a Senator has five minutes but he or she is not permitted a supplementary so my suggestion as Cathaoirleach is that we continue with the practice of allowing four minutes and if an issue arises, permitting the Senator raising the topic to ask a brief supplementary following the Minister's response. I think it would work well so unless there is a desire on the part of Members to do otherwise, I think we should stick to standing precedent. Senator Mac Lochlainn has four minutes.
I am sure the Minister of State for housing and urban renewal will have watched the "Prime Time" documentary aired on 31 May 2016 that revealed the devastating consequences of a profound failure in State regulation regarding the manufacture of concrete blocks. The concrete block is the core component of the family home. Senator Coffey visited Donegal in his time as Minister of State and examined this issue. Essentially, family homes in Donegal are literally falling apart. Families have to decide whether they continue to live in their homes and risk the roof falling down on top of them because of the impact on the gables of their homes.
The Government set up an expert panel to look at this issue but its terms of reference are inadequate. The Government has only asked the panel to look at the issue as it pertains to private homes. I can confirm that Donegal County Council has examined hundreds of examples of its housing stock and has confirmed that very large numbers of houses are affected by this disaster for many families across the county. The issue also apparently affects schools and other public buildings, yet the Government has only asked this panel to look at the matter as it pertains to private homes. I am asking the Minister of State simply to amend the terms of reference to ensure this panel can investigate the matter as it pertains to private and public homes.
The Minister of State also needs to clarify whether the panel can recommend a redress scheme similar to the pyrite redress scheme that was rightly put in place for devastated families in Dublin and north Leinster.Families have had to make difficult choices. They had money set aside for education of their children in years to come but they have had to rebuild the outer leaf of their home. They had no choice and they could not wait for the Government to take action.
Will the Minister of State clarify those matters today? I know he will go to the county and meet families soon. I hope he will meet a delegation from Donegal County Council. He should be aware that public representatives in the Minister of State's county took action on a similar matter when pyrite had an impact. This affects hundreds or probably thousands of homes across Donegal. It was caused by a profound failure in State regulation, as it was left to manufacturers to ensure that concrete blocks were built to a required standard. I urge the Minister of State to take the opportunity today to clarify the matter and assure us he will amend those terms of reference.
I thank the Cathaoirleach and the Minister of State for being here. This is a very important issue for the people of Mayo as well. I was extremely disappointed that the "Prime Time" programme just covered Donegal as there are hundreds of homes in Mayo affected by pyrite. A representative group met officials from the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government in March 2014 and presented photographic evidence and the reports indicating beyond doubt that these houses were affected by pyrite. I know families that have had to flee their homes because of pyrite, and that is not fair. Hundreds of families in Mayo have had to stand by and watch households in the eastern part of the country be compensated. I understand the difference between pyrite being in the foundation and in blocks.
I welcome the setting up of the expert group but I am absolutely dismayed that it has indicated it will not come to Mayo until September. That is not good enough. We know the only solution to this is the demolition of buildings. Will the Minister of State consider intervening with the Central Bank so a stay can be put on the mortgages of these people who are being crucified paying mortgages while paying rent as well? Are there proper standards now in place and are we sure this is not happening this very day? Are similar materials being supplied by unregulated quarries throughout the country?
I thank both Senators for raising this important issue. In April this year, an expert panel on concrete blocks was established to investigate the problems that have emerged in the concrete blockwork of certain dwellings in Donegal and Mayo. In fairness to the Senators' colleague, Senator Paudie Coffey, that expert panel was set up quite quickly when compared with other panels in the past. We must recognise the timeframe and it is important that it is up and running, doing its work.
In May, the expert panel held meetings with the mica action group and elected members and officials from Donegal County Council to seek any information that may be available on the nature of the problems that have emerged in blockwork and affected homes. The panel's report is due in October 2016 and I look forward to receiving it so we can see where to go from there. I am aware the elected members of Donegal County Council welcomed the establishment of the expert panel during their meeting of 12 May and they have corresponded on the matter with me, requesting a meeting. I am also aware that elected members expressed the view that the panel's terms of reference were too narrow and proposed that the terms of reference be amended to include buildings owned by public authorities. However, unlike many private home owners, public authorities are generally better equipped and better resourced to investigate any problems that may have emerged with their buildings and to identify appropriate remedial solutions.
In a specific case of local authority dwellings in Donegal that may be affected by defective blockwork, it would be a matter in the first instance for the council to deal with it. As the owner of these properties and the organisation most familiar with their construction, it should investigate the nature of the problems, establish the number of dwellings affected and identify practical and cost-effective solutions that will address the problems. Subsequently, it would be a matter for the council to present a detailed business case to my Department for consideration, should capital funding for remedial works be required on foot of those investigations. This is in line with standard practice in such matters generally and in other areas as well.
For the avoidance of any doubt, my Department will examine any proposals brought forward by Donegal County Council in this matter and will work closely with the council to resolve any problems identified in the concrete blockwork of the social housing stock to facilitate the delivery of cost-effective and timely solutions. As was confirmed by the Taoiseach a few weeks ago on the floor of the Dáil, I intend to visit a number of private home owners in north Donegal next week and at some stage to visit Mayo in the near future. I can give that guarantee. As part of the visit, I will meet elected members of Donegal County Council in order to listen to their concerns about these matters. They were in touch with me via written correspondence in the past few days and I have written back with confirmation that we will meet. I hope that will happen next week.Ultimately the terms of reference involve establishing the facts behind the problems in Donegal and Mayo, engaging in consultation and outlining technical solutions for addressing the problems identified in order to assist affected homeowners. I have no proposals to amend the terms of reference of the expert panel, particularly given that it is already two months into its investigations. In this regard, I will await the outcome of the panel's report before considering what further actions may be required to assist the parties directly involved in reaching a satisfactory resolution to the problems that have arisen in the two counties.
To be very clear, the expert panel is moving quite quickly. It did not waste any time after it was set up and a chair had been appointed before visiting Donegal and it will visit Mayo as well. We will let it do its work first and we will see what comes out of that.
The Senator referred to the pyrite situation in north Dublin and County Meath. I have been very much involved in that campaign over the years. I understand what it is all about and what had to happen eventually to make it work. It took a lot of time, but those homes are being fixed and hopefully in the next 12 to 18 months all the homes affected will have been fixed. It is a step-by-step procedure but first of all we must identify exactly what is behind all this. That is the first job of the expert panel and we will take it from there.
The issue here is that we have had statutory instruments since 1949 and we have had building control regulations and standards right through the decades that followed. This is a profound failure in State regulation and it is staring the Minister of State in the face. I am sure he has watched the documentary and has seen for himself the impact of this, as has the former Minister of State, Senator Coffey.
I cannot understand why he cannot ensure that the terms of reference of this panel are amended immediately to allow it to examine the impact on the private and public housing stock. Why is that important? It is important because then the Minister of State will have a full sense of the scale of the challenge that lies ahead. He gave a vague commitment that the county council in Donegal or Mayo can submit costings and there might be a capital grant. We are talking about a significant amount of money that would be taken away from other local services in Donegal to be deployed towards this issue. Will the Minister of State amend the terms of reference?
The Minister of State has pointed out his own involvement in the pyrite campaign in his own county and well done to him on that. The families there were rightly given a pyrite redress scheme and fair play to them for the campaign they put in. Will the Minister of State make a commitment here and now that the Government will put in place a mica redress scheme to assure families in Donegal and Mayo that the nightmare they are living through will be addressed by this State and this Government, whose profound failure caused the problem in the first place?
The expert panel was set up with the task of establishing the facts. Senator Mac Lochlainn has his facts and he has assumed a particular position. That is fine. He is very much involved and was involved in this issue before I was. The "Prime Time" programme addressed certain issues as well, but a panel has been set up, independent of Senator Mac Lochlainn, me or anyone else, to establish the facts. That is the first procedure to be implemented.
If the Senator does not mind, it would be advisable for us to stay with that. It will take a couple of months for the panel to complete its work and I will engage with it and work with it and will visit the sites myself. That is the situation and it is important to establish the full facts behind this. We will take it from there. Senator Mac Lochlainn will have to understand that. Most colleagues, of all parties and none, would accept that-----
Any logical person would accept that first of all the facts must be established. Is there one reason for it or is there a combination of reasons? I understand Senator Mac Lochlainn has his view on it and that is fine, but we have an independent expert panel to inform both Houses of exactly what happened. Then we can judge what happened. In the meantime, I will go up there myself to meet residents and councillors from any party. I will meet anyone who wants to meet me. There is no problem whatsoever. The door is open. However, we will establish all the facts behind this and follow a procedure from then on. That is the best way to address this. It is the way we have implemented other schemes.
Senator Mac Lochlainn commented on the pyrite scheme and the same approach was used there: first we established the facts behind it. Each situation is different. The pyrite and the mica situation are different but we will establish the facts. That is the right way to go and I will continue the work the former Minister of State, Senator Coffey, started on this to try to find a solution to it in the end.