Tuesday, 2 November 2021
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
The matter I raise relates to owner-occupiers who find themselves in what can only be termed desperately distressing circumstances where they face bills of up to €50,000 to address fire safety defects in their apartments. These problems are not of their own making. Many landlords are also facing these costs but they are able to offset the cost of maintenance, repairs, insurance and, crucially, management charges against their rental income. Those reliefs are not available to owner-occupiers. When Deputy Nash asked about the ability of local authorities and approved housing bodies to offset these costs, particularly the cost of remediating fire defects, it emerged that they are also excluded.
What tax reliefs and financial supports are available to owner-occupiers to help them defray the cost of remediation? Do we think it just and fair that a landlord can offset these massive costs but a homeowner, local authority or approved housing body cannot do so? What message does this send about who the Government is looking after?
I am conscious that the Government failed to do anything in this budget regarding this matter. It argued that it was premature to act in advance of the working group recommendations, which we hope to see next year. I believe there is a very clear responsibility to ensure in the Finance Bill that owner-occupiers and landlords have access to the same tax reliefs.
I am conscious that this issue is emerging at a time when we have a massive housing crisis and there are thousands across this city and country who can only dream of owning an apartment or house. Those who own apartments would say they feel very fortunate to have bought during the 2000s but they are now living in a nightmare where the apartments they call home have become a source of such stress and cost. In my constituency, Dublin Central, I know of at least six blocks with over 1,000 units that are affected by these fire defects. In some ways, this is a drop in the ocean compared with what is happening in south Dublin and other places across this country. While the issue of defects came to light in the past three or four years, it was really only this year that management companies have had to ramp up management charges to an enormous degree simply because they will have no access to insurance or will face a colossal increase in insurance.They are being forced to deal with those potentially life-threatening construction defects that exist in the apartment block. I know of one block where the owners' management company, OMC, has had to ask owners to stump up almost €50,000 over the next year. In another block, the demand has been to stump up €15,000 between now and the end of the year. Think about that. How many of us would be able to write a cheque in the morning or do a bank transfer for €15,000, between now and Christmas? Another OMC has demanded a 16-fold increase in management charges. Tax relief in itself will not help defray the totality of the costs and we know the State will have to step in. We also know that the construction industry will have to foot some of that bill, because many of its members are responsible for what is going on, but we need to see action now. The clock is ticking. People are facing these bills. They cannot let these costs and bills go into next year or the year afterwards. They need support now. I look forward to the Minister of State's response.
Táim buíoch as an deis an freagra seo a thabhairt don Seanadóir.
As the Senator has said, there are currently no specific tax-based measures targeted at the owner-occupiers of apartments with defects. However, the programme for Government does commit to examining the issue of defective housing in general. The Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, who generally deals with these matters, has established an independent working group to examine the issue of defects in housing. Officials from the Department of Finance participate in the working group. The objectives of the group are to identify the scope of relevant significant defects in housing, to evaluate the scale of housing affected including what the Senator has spoken about, to propose a means of prioritising defects, to evaluate the cost of remediation, to recommend appropriate mechanisms for resolving defects and to consider financing options in line with the programme for Government commitment to identifying options for those impacted by defects to access low-cost, long-term finance.
I understand that the working group has already agreed in its terms of reference to establish the nature of significant, widespread fire safety, structural safety and water ingress defects in purpose-built apartment buildings, including duplexes, constructed between 1991 and 2013. It will consider the wide-ranging and complex issues involved, including the scale of the issue, the nature of the issues, the methodology for characterisation of defects and the prioritisation of remedial action.
As the Senator has noted, these issues, of course, must be considered in the context of the legal rights, duties and obligations of all parties, including developers, builders and owners. This is a complex matter and deliberations of the group will be informed by consultation with a range of interested parties, homeowners, public representatives, local authorities, product manufacturers, building professionals, among others. It is likely that if there is any role for the tax system, as envisaged by the Senator, that this will fall to be considered by the Minister for Finance.
Any proposals in relation to tax expenditure measures directed at owner-occupiers of affected apartments that may arise from the working group's work would be assessed by the Department of Finance in accordance with its tax expenditure guidelines, which make clear that these should occur in limited circumstances and where it would be more efficient than a direct expenditure intervention. Under the guidelines, the introduction of new tax incentive measures should only be considered in circumstances where there is demonstrable market failure and where a tax-based incentive is more efficient than a direct expenditure intervention. Furthermore, the Minister for Finance must be mindful of the public finances and the many demands on the Exchequer. Tax reliefs lead to a narrowing of the tax base.
Finally, and again the Senator has mentioned this, any consideration of tax expenditure measures would have to occur in the context of the annual budget and Finance Bill process at the appropriate time in the coming weeks.
I thank the Minister of State for his response. I am conscious that he is here today having to read out a pre-prepared script from the Department of Finance on behalf of the Minister of Finance. To be honest, in the response, there is a lack of urgency and of recognition that there are real families and individuals facing enormous bills between now and the end of this year. This is alarming. I invite the Minister of State or any other member of the Government to come and meet these families. My big fear stems from what we know about Priory Hall. It only came to public attention and was dealt with when a man took his life. There are people here facing incredible bills. They need something urgently.Of course the Minister for Finance must be mindful of the public finances and of course any tax expenditure needs to be taken into consideration. However, it cannot just be the case that a landlord can avail of a tax relief and an owner-occupier cannot.
As I mentioned, this is possibly the first Government to have a comprehensive approach to the issue of defective housing. The working group is examining all options, including tax. Famously, with the issue of mica, it is direct expenditure which is being looked at and not tax relief because the latter would not be sufficient for the campaigners. The Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, including when he was a Member of this House, has been a champion for people affected by pyrite. We have a Minister who has huge experience in trying to address the difficulties that arise in this regard. Indeed, this is a huge issue in my constituency. The matter the Senator has raised is an issue in certain areas. Pyrite in general has been a significant issue for the past number of years. As such, we are well aware of all of this and we really want to see what can be done across Government in respect of the matter. I am sorry the Minister for Finance cannot be here today but the Senator will also understand there is a range of different Ministers here who will be giving consideration to all these matters, especially the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage. We are concerned about the position people find themselves in through no fault of their own. This really is a matter of concern to everybody across this House. The entire Government supports the process the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage has put in place through the working group.
Tax expenditures are one thing, and consideration should be given to them, but other ways of dealing with this are also being examined. Fiscal decisions will be taken in a budgetary context, but this is something the Government is very committed to and is working on. I hear what the Senator is saying. I know families in my constituency that have been affected by these issues. When the shelter a family has suddenly turns out to not be fit to shelter them, which is the basic requirement we have, it is possibly the worst thing that can happen to a particular family. I will take that back to the Minister for Finance and will continue to advocate, as I think all of us will, for families in these situations.