Seanad debates

Thursday, 20 December 2018

Commencement Matters

Mica Redress Scheme

10:40 am

Photo of Pádraig MacLochlainnPádraig MacLochlainn (Sinn Fein)
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Thousands of families in the north Donegal area have been devastated by the issue of mica, a mineral in the concrete blocks in their homes. I have been in many of those homes and have spoken to the families, sometimes on a weekly and even a daily basis, in regard to what they have been enduring. It is heartbreaking. As the House knows, people's greatest ambition is to take out a mortgage and build or purchase their own home. They do that over 20, 30 or 40 years. It is a massive undertaking and probably the biggest thing they will do in their life. It is said that a person's home is their castle. No one wants to see that home crumbling around them.

I want to share a couple of stories with the Minister of State because we need to reinforce how important this is and why we urgently need timeframes for a redress scheme in 2019. I visited the home of a family where the man took us around all of the outside walls. It was a beautiful setting overlooking the Donegal countryside - a dream home. This man and his wife are hard workers. To see that man break down in tears in his kitchen, worried that the ceiling or the gable wall could fall down on his family, is something that never leaves me. There is also the story of a man in Inishowen who took his own life, no doubt because of the unbelievable financial stress of having to move out of the home and deal with all of that. I could tell the Minister of State many more stories if I had the time. What has happened is heartbreaking and devastating.

The Mica Action Group is a group of affected families who have campaigned long and hard. They are inspirational people. Their work led to the expert panel report which concluded its work in June 2017, one and a half years ago. It made firm recommendations and, having identified that as many as 5,000 homes in Donegal are affected, it stated that a protocol needs to be drawn up by the National Standards Authority of Ireland, NSAI. There was then the issue of Engineers Ireland putting together a panel of engineers who would inspect the homes and recommend the work that needs to be done. While it took too long, I understand all of that work is completed. The Government has said we will have a mica redress scheme and families can make their homes safe.

What I ask today, as we wrap up business for 2018, is to please provide me and the people of Donegal, in particular the campaigners, with a clear date as to when this scheme will be up and running, when families can apply for funding to bring in a qualified engineer to do the studies necessary and when contractors can be brought in to make their homes safe. It is vital, as we move towards Christmas, that the families affected will know this is the last Christmas they will spend in, frankly, devastation and heartbreak in what should be their happy family home. I need timeframes and confirmation today as to when this is going to happen in 2019, and reassurance that the moneys have been provided for this to happen.

Photo of Catherine ByrneCatherine Byrne (Dublin South Central, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Senator. I am taking the matter on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy. I wish to acknowledge the distressing circumstances experienced by the owners and residents of homes where defects have emerged in the blockwork. As the Senator will be aware, building defects are matters for resolution between the contracting parties involved - the homeowner, the builder, the developer and-or their respective insurers or structural guarantee or warranty scheme.

The Expert Panel on Concrete Blocks was established by the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government in 2016 to investigate problems that had emerged in the concrete blockwork of certain dwellings in counties Donegal and Mayo. The report of the expert panel was published in 2017 and included eight recommendations. The Department is actively progressing these with the relevant stakeholders, including prioritising the implementation of recommendations 1 and 2. With regard to recommendation 1, the NSAI established a technical committee to scope and fast-track the development of a standardised protocol which would inform the course of action in regard to remedial works for all affected householders.

After publishing a draft protocol for consultation, a final standardised protocol was published by NSAI on 13 November 2018. The benefit of this is that it provides a standardised approach for assessing and categorising the damage in properties where the concrete blocks are suspected to contain the minerals mica or pyrite. Previously, there was no common way for engineers or homeowners to assess the damage caused by defective concrete blocks to help decide what, if any, remedial work could be carried out. This standard does the following: it establishes a protocol for assessing and determining whether a building has been damaged by concrete blocks containing certain excessive amounts of deleterious materials; it describes methods for establishing the extent of the problem; it describes the scope of any testing required; and it categorises buildings and provides competent persons with guidance on the appropriate measures to be taken.

With regard to recommendation 2, the Department has been in contact with Engineers Ireland regarding the establishment of a register of competent engineers for the reference of homeowners or affected parties. Engineers Ireland has provided assurance that it is in the process of finalising measures to establish such a register now that the standardised protocol is in place. Engineers Ireland recently issued a call for suitably qualified engineers to participate on the register.

Over the past two years the Minister of State, Deputy Damien English, has visited Donegal and Mayo on a number of occasions and met key stakeholders, including affected homeowners, elected representatives and officials of the local authorities and other interested parties. The Government approved in principle the development of a grant scheme of financial assistance to support affected homeowners in the two counties to carry out the necessary remediation works to dwellings that have been damaged due to defective concrete blocks in budget 2019. The putting in place of such a scheme is a key priority for the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government. Work in this regard is under way and it necessarily involves discussions with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform in regard to the conditions that will apply to the scheme and the associated costs. The intention is to revert to Government early in the new year with proposals for the scheme, after which details of it will be published as soon as possible. While I do not have a date for the Senator as to when that will be, it is clear the proposed scheme will be identified early in the new year and details will be published as soon as possible.

Photo of Pádraig MacLochlainnPádraig MacLochlainn (Sinn Fein)
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I understood these proposals were to be brought to Cabinet this week and that they were delayed until the new year, so I assume it will be mid-January before they are brought forward. I met the Minister of State, Deputy English, earlier this year. We had an extensive meeting and I believe him to be genuine in his efforts to resolve the issue. The members of the Mica Action Group are impressive people. They have made a significant impact on various Ministers, in particular on the Minister of State, Deputy English.

After that meeting, I did not play politics. I gave an honest assessment that I felt they were trying to progress matters, even though I was frustrated with how long it was taking. I am not going to play politics now because is far too important for that. I ask the Minister of State to please understand that families are posting videos on social media of their houses literally falling apart. Their hearts are broken. We need to say to those families, particularly those with houses in serious distress, that this is the last Christmas they will have to endure this. They need to know that, as early as possible in 2019, there will be a scheme under way whereby people can apply and get their homes examined and made safe. That has to be the priority.

I end 2018 speaking to the Minister of State and, no doubt, the officials in the various Departments who are listening to the debate. I ask them to please make sure 2018 is the last year when we have to appeal for this and that it will be in place so families can make their homes safe. I conclude 2018 by making that appeal.

Photo of Catherine ByrneCatherine Byrne (Dublin South Central, Fine Gael)
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I reiterate that the Government has decided there will be a redress scheme, although I cannot confirm exactly when that will happen. I am a parent and I have a home. I know a home is a person's castle. I saw the horrible television programme where people were devastated, with families torn apart and, unfortunately, people passed away because of it. There is nothing like having the keys of a first home and a person being able to turn the key in the door and know they are going to live there forever. To find it crumbling down around them is heartbreaking, as the Senator said. All people want is to be helped to rebuild the home they thought was going to be their castle for the rest of their lives.

There is a genuine concern on all sides of this House and in the Dáil that these people should be helped as soon as possible. I will go back to the Minister, Deputy Murphy, and the Minister of State, Deputy English, to emphasise the fact this redress scheme needs to be put in place as soon as possible. I thank the Senator.

Sitting suspended at 11 a.m. and resumed at 11.30 a.m.