Seanad debates

Wednesday, 6 October 2021

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Defective Building Materials

10:30 am

Photo of Niall BlaneyNiall Blaney (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister to the House to discuss the mica and pyrite redress scheme. I thank him for the time and attention he has given us thus far and I also thank the Taoiseach and other parties to Government. The report of the working group released last week has caused an awful lot of distress to families in County Donegal and probably County Mayo. The Minister is well aware of the mental health issues and grievances of and difficulties faced by families and this seems to be adding to them in terms of the sum of €3.2 billion that has been put out there, which had not been discussed within that forum. I spoke to some members of the working group earlier. There is a feeling within the group that it is some effort to make this extortionate, which it in no way is.All they are seeking is what other members of the public received in the past and to have their homes rectified. That is the first thing I want the Minister to address in that regard.

There are many other issues in the scheme that have to be addressed, such as the regulations that currently exist and also with respect to HomeBond. This is something I want to Minister to keep at the back of his mind. They need to be addressed to ensure this does not happen in the future. There is also mention of €350,000 in the report last week. Building costs in Donegal have increased by 40% to 50% in the last nine months alone. If one were to incorporate that increase against the old ceiling of €275,000, the sum of €350,000 would not address the cost required in Donegal. I hope any new proposals in the scheme take cognisance of that.

Could the Minister inform the House when he expects to meet the three party leaders? Can he inform us of any timeline regarding any changes in the scheme that he intends to make and announce? Will planning exemption be a part of the scheme? If so and if a family wishes to downsize to a smaller scale of the same house within the original print of the house, will they be part of any such exemption? With regard to the square footage caps of the old scheme, is there an intention now to set them aside and to go purely on a cost basis? As I said, I understand the difficulties with the budget over the next week or so, but I believe the Minister can alleviate many of the fears people have with regard to, first, the timeframe for the announcement and, second, the report last week and the difficulties it has caused.

Photo of Darragh O'BrienDarragh O'Brien (Dublin Fingal, Fianna Fail)
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I thank Senator Blaney for raising this important issue. First, I commend the residents and their representatives on the input they had into the working group. I inherited the original scheme. The scheme was agreed and launched in 2020. One of the first visits I made when I was appointed Minister in summer 2020 was to Donegal, where I visited homeowners. I met residents in Buncrana, where I announced that the scheme the previous Government had brought forward would be a multi-annual scheme. I want to assure people that whatever changes happen will happen across the board.

I also said in Buncrana that day, and the Senator was there, that any scheme I have seen in the past has always evolved. It is only by engaging with the scheme that we find out what the deficiencies are and, indeed, if there are positives in it in some areas. That has occurred. I said in a statement last week after I met the residents that the scheme as it is currently constituted does not work as intended and must be greatly enhanced. As Minister, I committed to doing that. When residents of Donegal and Mayo came to Dublin in the summer I met them. I committed to setting up a time-bound working group, and I did that. The working group was to get their views on board by meeting with the most senior officials in my Department, from Secretary General, assistant secretary general to principal officers, to go through every aspect of the scheme and the issues the residents had found with it. We did that. The residents asked for an extension to the end of September, which we were happy to give, to get separate engineering advice. I brought the Housing Agency into the process. I have said from the start, even in Donegal in July 2020, that I believe the Housing Agency should have a role in this, and I still believe that. I believe it will.

The working group report was published last Friday. It was circulated to all Opposition spokespersons on Monday seeking the input of other parties into it. I am acutely aware that residents have been disappointed with aspects of the report and some of the commentary on it. I committed to the residents that their full request, as in the residents' submission, would be one of the options that would go to the Government as well and would be published as part of the working group. The other aspect was effectively a summary of the discussions that were held to date. That is there, and I wish to reiterate to all Senators that nothing is off the table. Our job now, which I said directly to the working group when I attended the meeting on 29 September, is to work through the options and through the enhancements. I will do that. In what I will bring forward to the three party leaders and to the Government I will be proposing significant enhancements to the scheme that was brought forward by the previous Government, which committed at the time to a projected expenditure of approximately €1.4 billion. Any increases or enhancements to the scheme, and this is understood by the residents too, will lead to a further increase there, and I will have to get that agreed by the Cabinet. I am committed to doing that. We are working through the details now.

The Taoiseach is in Slovenia at present. I expect to meet with the party leaders, the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, in the coming days. We are preparing a submission and a memorandum to bring forward to the Cabinet. There are a number of issues on which we have made real progress. For example, removing upfront costs has been agreed, including rent cost, as well as clarifying storage. Planning exemptions have also been agreed and, importantly, a guarantee on second grant access, something that was sought, and the role of the Housing Agency. Very significant progress has been made on many of the serious issues that were raised directly by the residents and Members of the Oireachtas, such as Senator Blaney, in Donegal and Mayo. I will bring the defective block arrangements for improvements for the scheme to the Cabinet in the coming weeks. I have to get agreement for that at the Cabinet. It is not a decision I can make alone. However, I have kept the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste, the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, and the Ministers for Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform abreast of the work we are doing and they all have been very supportive of that.

I want residents to be able to get on with their lives. I want them to have hope and trust in a scheme that they can actually access, and for them to know that in the terrible tragedy that they have been living through, which is not of their making, the Government is here to help them to get their lives back on track. I am committed to doing that. Again, I thank the Senator for raising the matter this morning.

Photo of Niall BlaneyNiall Blaney (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister for his comprehensive reply. It is very welcome, as is the Minister's first-hand engagement on the scheme from day one. It is very much appreciated. I do not believe we would be where we are today without his input and dedication. I wish to refer again to the planning exemption. Is there any further detail about that, particularly whether somebody who is downsizing can be part of it? Lastly, can the Minister give any timelines at this stage regarding the final outcome?

Photo of Darragh O'BrienDarragh O'Brien (Dublin Fingal, Fianna Fail)
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On the timeline, I do not want to delay the process at all. We have a great deal of work to do on foot of receiving the working group report. I have sought submissions and views from the Opposition parties, which I believe is important. I did that with the Housing for All plan, and many other parties sent in submissions. It is important to know that we have a consensus on this and how we are approaching it because whatever scheme is put in place will be with us for a number of years and will endure past the term of this Oireachtas into the next one. It is important to do that. I am hoping and aiming for the next two to three weeks, but I have to get Cabinet approval as well. We are working through that and I will keep the Senator and the residents fully informed of how we are going on that. I again thank them for their engagement.

With regard to planning exemptions, they are for same homes. We are looking at homes that are smaller as well. If people are right sizing for a smaller home than they had already, we are looking at being able to exempt that. We have given a firm commitment on planning exemptions for same builds. There are no upfront costs now. I will take this opportunity to say that any changes we bring forward, which are going to be significant, will apply to anybody who currently has an application in the scheme and will apply to any county that comes into the scheme. Finally, I believe this will also require legislation. I have said that to the residents' group. We cannot just keep adding counties to it. We are going to look at a wider approach because, unfortunately, it is not just Donegal and Mayo. Other counties are affected by this, and I am also mindful of others who have defects in their homes.

I will keep the Senator and the Seanad fully informed of progress. It is an absolute priority to get these changes through and to bring them to the Cabinet.

Photo of Pat CaseyPat Casey (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister for coming to the House to answer that important question.As he said, many thousands of families need a resolution to this to allow them to get on with their lives and move forward. I thank the Minister for coming in.