Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Schools Building Projects

I want to raise the issue of Danu Community Special School and its proposed relocation to Riversdale Community College. Several years ago, parents of children with additional needs in Dublin West worked hard and relentlessly to ensure their children's needs were met. They campaigned for and won the right to establish a special school in the area. The next task they faced was to find a temporary site, which they did at Hansfield Educate Together Secondary School. They then looked forward to pupils' future needs being met by the provision of a new, purpose-built school.

During negotiations on a permanent location, the Dublin and Dún Laoghaire Education and Training Board, ETB, made a commitment that a new school would be built in Dublin to accommodate Danu Community Special School. The ETB management identified Riversdale Community College as a potential location and the management of that school agreed that a section of its land would be used for a new school for Danu. A plan was put in place, involving both schools, for the construction of the new school. On a temporary basis, approximately 40% of Riverside Community College was to be used to accommodate Danu students, following an extensive refurbishment.

Recently, however, a bombshell was dropped on both schools when they were informed by the ETB that the temporary classrooms would become permanent and there would be no new school built on the lands. A huge amount of confusion, stress and distress has been caused by this decision. The parents and children at both Riversdale and Danu schools are very upset and concerned for their future. The dismissive way in which the concerns of all of those involved were treated, especially in Riversdale, is also very concerning. The school has a new and dynamic management team, the members of which I have met. It is working hard to build up the numbers and had significantly increased its first year intake for 2021. Since the bombshell was dropped on the school and all this confusion arose, it has seen some of the numbers fall off.

The current Riversdale school building is 35 years old and in dire need of refurbishment if it is to serve the students and teachers in the Corduff and Mulhuddart communities for another 35 years. There is a need to look at alternatives that put students, parents and teaching staff at the centre of the decision-making process. Students' needs must be front and centre rather than, as seems to be the case, the financial needs of the Dublin and Dún Laoghaire ETB. That is very important and it is not too late to do it. The work that was due to start in July will not, in fact, begin until September. The management of Danu Community Special School was informed just yesterday that its students will not be moving into the previously temporary, now permanent, classrooms in Riversdale school until December, rather than September. There is a window of opportunity for the management of both schools, the Dublin and Dún Laoghaire ETB and the Department to sit down together and figure out a way forward for the students, parents and boards of management of the two schools. There was an agreement in place and it was broken by only one side, namely, the ETB. The schools deserve answers and they deserve what they were promised.

I thank the Deputy for setting out what is, in his view, the chronological series of events in this case. Some of the timeline he gave is correct but I will give him a different view on a number of points. It is important to stress the Government takes the care and consideration of children with additional needs very seriously. The Deputy noted that finance is not the only issue to be considered. Funding is important, nevertheless, because it will help to build the schools we need for children with additional needs. This year, we have a budget of €2 billion and it is important it be used across the board and throughout the country.

I will deal with the Deputy's pertinent questions relating to Danu Community Special School. This is a good news story. I echo his sentiment in terms of the incredible work done by the parents in Dublin West, and the work of the Tánaiste, in setting up the school in 2019. It was originally established to cater for 40 students. The current enrolment is 23 and it will need additional capacity. As the Deputy knows, Danu school is currently situated in Hansfield Educate Together Secondary School. I am very pleased to say the latter has agreed to facilitate Danu to remain in situ on its premises until such time as phase 1 of the new project is completed. We hope to commence phase 1 as soon as possible. The design team has been appointed, the architectural planning process has started and approval has been given in the past fortnight for a contractor. The space that Hansfield Educate Together Secondary School is providing at present is not sufficient for Danu school to expand. If it wants to reach its capacity of 40 students and, indeed, exceed it in the future, which we hope it will, then it needs to move to Riversdale Community College in the first phase and share its 1,150 sq. m premises.

At that stage, there will be a review. It is not correct to say that any permanent decisions have been made in regard to any accommodation. We need to look first and foremost at the best interests of the children with additional needs. That is a given. The Department will review the long-term needs of both Danu and Riversdale schools. I have visited Riversdale and seen the location and the land that surrounds it. I believe we will be in a position, from a long-term perspective, to facilitate both schools in a way that caters for their particular needs, especially the pupils of Danu Community Special School. Children with special needs must be looked after in a very particular way and we need to ensure they will have all the supports, space and staffing they require. In phase 1, there will be six general classrooms, a staffroom, a principal's office, a general office, a meeting room, a multisensory room and a general purpose area. This provision will be of value to the students in the short term.

Reflecting on some of the answers given by the Minister of State, it is the opinion of the Danu Community Special School, Riversdale Community College and the parents that the agreement made stipulated that there would be temporary classrooms in Riversdale Community College, those classrooms would be refurbished and then a new school would be built on the site. The parents themselves strongly believe that it is not suitable for children with additional needs to be co-located in the long term in the same building as a post-primary school with more than 1,000 students attending. I spoke to those parents again just today, including to some who have been part of this process all along, and they believe that even the site which has been proposed adjacent to Riversdale Community College is not going to be a suitable site for the students concerned. Those parents have made a request in respect of the site of the current Edmund Rice school located on the site of the old Institute of Horology. The school is moving from that site in September 2022, hopefully, if the relevant building works commence soon and are completed on time.

The parents I was talking to today hope that site at the old Institute of Horology could be looked at as a much more suitable location for the Danu Community Special School because it is secluded, secure, has a peaceful and serene atmosphere around it in the Tolka Valley and is also very accessible from Blanchardstown village, which has many services. It would mean students could also learn social skills by being brought out into the village because that site is so close. The parents concerned do not believe that Riversdale Community College is an appropriate location for a permanent future site for Danu Community Special School. I gather from the Minister of State's comments that this is not a done deal in respect of a permanent site being located at Riversdale Community College and that there is potential for another site to be acquired elsewhere. It is necessary to sit down and agree on such an approach.

We agree regarding the temporary nature of the proposed move of Danu Community Special School to Riversdale Community College. However, this is still phase 1 of the process and not phase 2, which will involve the review of which I spoke concerning long-term needs. I have no doubt that the consideration of other possible sites, as mentioned by the Deputy, will be taken into account in that regard. As I said, however, Riversdale Community College has a great deal of space and land in its environs and I see no reason the two schools could not coexist there quite comfortably. As the Minister of State with responsibility for special education, it is important to me that those children with additional needs in Danu Community Special School, and those children who will be attending the school in future, be looked after and I want to ensure that they are.

For that reason, we cannot have a situation where they are remaining in Hansfield Educate Together Secondary School for any length of time, even in the short term. That is why I am glad that the contractor will start these works before 20 July at the latest. At least the children can then go into Riversdale Community College and avail of the additional space there. I state that in case there are other children with additional needs who may need a place there. The Deputy will be aware that it is always an issue to ensure that we can cater for children with special needs in respect of obtaining a place in a special school. If we can bring extra children into Danu Community Special School while that school is temporarily accommodated at Riversdale Community College, then I think we should do that. At that stage, then, a review will be undertaken of the long-term needs of Riversdale Community College and Danu Community Special School in respect of the best interests of the respective children.

Defective Building Materials

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, the House. I acknowledge his participation and commitment, and also that of the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O’Brien, in respect of the ongoing conversations to try to bring a conclusion and successful outcome to the mica situation playing on the minds of so many people and interfering with so many plans. We must move forward in respect of the vacuum which exists regarding this matter now. Therefore, I acknowledge the Minister of State, the Minister and their team of officials on the mica action group for the work they are trying to do to make progress on this issue.

Regarding this specific issue, I forwarded the details to the Minister of State. I refer to a large family, where some of the children have medical conditions, living in a house which will need to be demolished because its structural fabric contains mica. However, this family is not in a position to be able to move out of their house. They are unable to avail of accommodation which will facilitate the large numbers of family members. The specific medical conditions involved in this case are another factor complicating the situation. Therefore, I am asking for flexibility. There is a willingness on the part of officials in Donegal County Council. They are sympathetic and understand the situation. They certainly want to facilitate this family. There is also an understanding and a certain degree of sympathy within the Department in respect of trying to facilitate some sort of arrangement to enable this family to stay living in their house until a new house is built.

The Minister of State will cite the regulations and specifics concerning houses having to be rebuilt on their original footprint. I appreciate and understand that is in the regulations. What we need to hear, however, from the Minister of State is not just a bit of common sense but also some sort of acceptance that there are going to be hard cases and exceptions concerning people trying to access the mica redress scheme. We have many examples. I refer to young men and women who had to emigrate between 2008 and 2011 through no fault of their own. Their houses are being rented out now and are not covered by the scheme. Elderly couples and people in the later stages of life cannot access mortgages. Therefore, there are hard cases and what we need to address this situation is a protocol regarding facilitating exceptions to the general rule. We have something like that in the Department of Social Protection because not everything is an exact science when dealing with individuals and families.

The Minister of State, then, will be citing the reason that what I am requesting cannot be done now. However, I ask the officials in the local authorities in Mayo and Donegal, the officials in the Housing Agency and the Department’s team of officials to sit around a table and consider a protocol which will have the requisite flexibility to deal with people’s unique circumstances. One such unique situation involves this large family. They cannot get a house that will cater to their needs while their new house is being built. The family has the land and space to build adjacent to the existing house, so I again call for flexibility in respect of such cases and an acceptance that we do have exceptional cases of this kind to deal with. My colleague, Councillor Bernard McGuinness, in Culdaff has been raising this issue with me for several weeks. The Minister of State and his officials are also aware of this issue, so hopefully we can make progress with devising some sort of protocol to bring this situation to a conclusion and to give the family peace of mind as they move through the next phase of trying to reconstruct their home and their lives. I ask that we endeavour to meet them at least halfway.

I thank Deputy McHugh for raising this very important issue and for keeping me updated with details regarding many of his constituents whose lives have been so negatively affected by the scourge of mica. The Deputy puts forward a very strong case concerning this family in a very vulnerable situation. I am acutely aware of the distress this issue with defective concrete blocks has caused to people. What happened was wrong and I assure everyone affected that Minister Darragh O'Brien and I are committed to having an effective grants scheme in place to support these people.

As Deputy McHugh outlined, there are some very difficult cases and flexibility will be required. I met dozens of families from Donegal, Mayo and beyond when the protest concerning mica took place here at the convention centre. There can be no doubt of the devastation and pain these families are experiencing because of this issue. The Government is committed to providing solutions to homeowners affected by this issue of defective concrete blocks.

The remedial options provided for under the current defective concrete block grant scheme constitute a material alteration to an existing building. This was provided to remediate the issue of defective blocks and return the building to a condition it would have been in had it not been affected by the use of mica or pyrite in the blockwork. Remedial option 1 specifically provides for the demolition of the house and its subsequent rebuild on the original foundations. I am advised that the option of building a new home outside of existing foundations would not be supported by the current legislation underpinning the grant scheme. This legislation specifically provides for the payment of a grant for the improvement of the existing dwelling and not the construction of an entirely new dwelling on a new set of foundations. Under the scheme currently formulated, homeowners choosing to build a new home in a different location on the site and not on the existing foundations would disqualify themselves from grant assistance.

However, we have established a time-bound working group with representatives from our Department, local authorities and homeowner representative groups to review quickly and address any outstanding issues relating to the operation of the defective concrete blocks scheme. Deputy McHugh has made his feelings about this case and other cases very well known to the group and to officials in our Department and he passionately articulated them when he addressed the group that came up to Dublin recently. The working group will also examine grant caps, homeowner contributions, allowable costs and qualifying works. It will be a requirement that the review be completed by 31 July and recommendations from this group will inform the changes that are required. Following receipt of the report of the working group, consultation with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform and the Attorney General's office will have to take place. Hopefully, proposals will be brought to the Government on foot of that.

I fully understand the frustrations Deputy McHugh is articulating as regards this vulnerable family. One of the reasons we get into politics is to provide solutions for vulnerable people like them. There must be flexible in some of these very difficult situations. I assure the Deputy that we will not be found wanting in trying to resolve these issues. We will do our very best. These are very difficult circumstances but we will do our very best to resolve them and I will be using my influence as best I can within the Department to resolve this issue, in conjunction with Deputy McHugh.

That sounds very positive. I call Deputy McHugh.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle. His Kildare colleague was here for a few minutes. During that protest by Donegal people, I met a friend of the Ceann Comhairle's from Kildare, who was there in sympathy with the many families from Donegal and to support them. That protest highlighted the national tragedy of this issue. Irish people from all counties now have a full understanding of what it is like because of the recent campaign. Over the last number of weeks many people have tried to put themselves in the shoes of these families in Donegal. Even though I am a Donegal man, and I know people affected in my own parish and throughout different parts of the county, it is very difficult to understand unless the person has lived it and has spent the last year and a half in lockdown while many people were upgrading and enhancing their houses. So many people with mica have had to look at cracks in the walls getting bigger and deal with that devastation.

I agree with the Ceann Comhairle that the Minister of State's response was positive. I welcome that and appreciate it. We need regulations and guidelines, because we are going to be dealing with such large amounts of taxpayers' money. That being said, we have to take on board the full nature of this national tragedy and disaster. This is about individual lives and families trying to deal with this hour by hour and day by day, living the nightmare. We as legislators owe this to them. We are united as a House. We are in unison. We want people to access this scheme and we want 100% funding because the 90% scheme is not working. We want to work this out and bring this to a conclusion. The only way we can do that is to look at families like this one in Donegal. It is a large family and they are only looking for one thing, that is, for their medical needs and personal circumstances to be taken on board. Let us work with local authority officials and Department officials to come up with a commonsense solution, taking on board this family's unique circumstances. I am hopeful that we can do that together.

I again thank Deputy McHugh for all the points he has raised. Like him, I met many of the families affected at the protest adjacent to the convention centre. I heard their stories first-hand and listened to them, which is key. I heard the frustration and the anger they have felt over the last number of years. The lockdown really put that in focus, as many people were doing up their homes and going to different hardware stores. Many of the things people enjoy within the comfort of their own homes were denied these families.

I assure the Deputy and the House that the Government is committed to improving supports for homeowners affected by defective concrete blocks and is acutely aware of the particular difficulties and unique challenges faced by many of the families. I reiterate that the current scheme is under review and the issue of qualifying works is within the scope of that review. The issue is being prioritised within the Department and as I said, the group is due to complete its report by 31 July. I understand that this can be frustrating for people but the Deputy will appreciate that we have to engage with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, as well as the Office of the Attorney General, subsequent to the report's publication, in order to devise a scheme that will work for people. It is very important that we make those critical changes. As I said, I will do my very best within the Department and will work with Donegal County Council to provide as much assistance as possible to this specific family. The Department remains in constant dialogue with Donegal County Council in an attempt to find a resolution in this specific case. It is of paramount importance that we find a solution for this family so we can enable them to access the full benefits of the scheme and allow them to live in a home that is structurally sound, in order that they can safely plan for their future and that of their children.

Deputy McHugh made reference to meeting Seán Hegarty during the protest. He is an adopted native son of Kildare at this point but he has never lost his affinity with County Donegal.

Health Service Executive

I thank Deputy Pringle for his correspondence with me today in respect of this matter. I know he will tread carefully as he deals with what is obviously a sensitive issue.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle. I hope to deal with this issue in a sensitive way. I wish to discuss the Brandon report. This is something I have been raising with the HSE for some time. I had hoped it could be dealt with sensitively, delicately, privately and professionally. Unfortunately, this has not been the case and I feel I have been left with no choice but to raise this publicly.

The Brandon report contains an investigation into multiple incidents of sexual abuse that took place at Ard na Gréine disability residential home in Stranorlar, County Donegal, and details poor management at this facility. Initially, the HSE in Donegal conducted an internal report into the matter. At the same time, I had discussed this issue with the previous Minister of State, Finian McGrath, who requested a separate report from the HSE in Dublin. I am very glad I did this. It is clear that the HSE management in Donegal could not be trusted. It seems they attempted a cover-up, due to the fact that the two reports did not match up. Following this, the matter was referred on to an independent body, which drafted the Brandon report. The report was then passed on to the HSE, which has had the report since February 2020 and has chosen to take absolutely no action on it.

A whistleblower first raised this issue in 2008 and since then has been in touch with the HSE, HIQA and the Garda in relation to it. This person had great faith in whistleblower procedures and in the system but the system has let them down because I am standing here 13 years later, having exhausted all possible avenues, and still nothing has been done. This fact is incredibly concerning. I was first approached by this whistleblower in October 2016. I was appalled to hear of the shocking incidents that had taken place in this home and I was even more appalled to hear that no action had been taken on this. The whistleblower informed me of the sexual assaults of up to 19 different residents.

When HSE management was made aware of this, it isolated the alleged offender and following this the incidents stopped. The alleged offender was then inexplicably returned back among fellow residents and the abuse began again.

To my knowledge, this report has gone to the highest level in the HSE. Those at the highest level in the HSE have known about this for over a decade and they have decided not only just to sit on it, but to make an effort to cover it up. I would call on the Minister of State to find out who exactly in the HSE is aware of this report and whether this has gone to the board of the HSE.

Although these incidents took place a while ago, the cover-up is still ongoing. Not only is it completely outrageous that this has been allowed to happen, but how can we expect future whistleblowers to feel supported, protected and listened to when disclosing possible wrongdoings if this is not being acted on? How can we expect people to trust the system and trust these institutions if they are all choosing to ignore such astonishing wrongdoings?

I call on the Minister of State to address this with the upmost urgency. I call on her to read the Brandon report and investigate why action has not been taken on this issue. I call on the Minister of State to put in place procedures to ensure this does not happen again, which is most important. We must do this in order to protect the integrity of institutions and procedures in this country, and most importantly, we owe it to the families of all who have been affected. These are families that have been left in the dark and have had no acknowledgement of the terrible wrongdoings that have occurred at Ard na Gréine. These families need and deserve to see the full report and people need to be reassured that something like this can never happen again.

I thank Deputy Pringle for raising this issue, and most importantly, for bringing these matters to the attention of the HSE in 2016 on foot of concerns raised with him by a whistleblower. These concerns relate to the care and safeguarding of vulnerable service users in a HSE residential service for adults with a disability located within community healthcare organisation, CHO, 1, which comprises the counties of Donegal, Sligo, Leitrim, Cavan and Monaghan.

As the Minister of State with responsibility for disability, I stand here simply shocked at what I have learned has occurred, some of which the Deputy has also detailed. In addressing such a sensitive issue, it is important that I am as open and transparent as I can be, while also protecting the identities of vulnerable people involved. I am mindful that I do not provide further detail which would otherwise identify the location and service users concerned. In addition, it is important to note that these matters are also the subject of an ongoing Garda investigation.

In terms of a timeline of events, in December 2016, in light of concerns raised by Deputy Pringle, CHO 1 commissioned a look-back review. The purpose of the review was to investigate these concerns and a serious incident management team was established in CHO 1, consisting of the head of social care, the general manager and the disability services manager. In November 2018, the look-back review report was accepted by the HSE. It found that there were serious safeguarding concerns impacting service users in the residential service between 2003 and 2011. This resulted in open disclosure workshops being held for the staff involved in making disclosures arising out of findings in the look-back review and open disclosure meetings with the families of those affected with living relatives during November 2018.

In December 2018, in light of the findings of the look-back review, the HSE national director for quality assurance and verification commissioned the national independent review panel, NIRP, to carry out the Brandon report. A key remit of the NIRP is to seek to determine what the relevant services in the case might have done differently that could have prevented significant harm or improved the quality of life of the persons concerned. Although the NIRP is part of the HSE, it is independent of all HSE operations at both national and community level. It utilises the HSE's incident management framework to examine circumstances related to people who use community health and social care services where there are major concerns about how the services involved managed the care of an individual or group of individuals.

In August 2020, the Brandon report was submitted to the HSE. In mid-October 2020, Deputy Pringle approached me about the report. In early December 2020, I held a video call with the HSE to discuss the concerns raised with me by Deputy Pringle and sought a copy of the report. The HSE informed me at that point that a number of internal processes associated with the findings of the report were still in train and that this was not possible at that time but would be done in due course. In April 2021, in a meeting with the HSE, I was provided with a list of five recommendations stemming from the Brandon report. To ensure the recommendations were commensurate with the findings of the report, I once again requested a copy of it. Over recent weeks, both the Department and I have written to the HSE to request a copy of the report but it was not forthcoming. Earlier this week, on Tuesday, following correspondence with the HSE CEO, a redacted version of the report was finally shared with me for viewing on a screen. I understand that this process was similar to that provided to the board of the HSE, which recently also had an opportunity to view the report on a screen.

Today, I wrote to the chair of the HSE board once again seeking a physical copy of the report. From what I read on Tuesday, I found the report to be stark. The scale of the abuse detailed and the seeming breakdown of policies and procedures at the site were both appalling and devastating. The HSE has assured me that there is no ongoing risk to service users and that national governance and accountability structures to oversee implementation of the recommendations arising from the report are in place. My overarching concern is a question over whether the current system is safe and appropriate, not just in the CHO, but more broadly across all the health and social care systems, and that those who have been victims and their families are being supported.

To paraphrase from the letter I sent to the chair of the HSE board earlier today, and as the Deputy has said himself, I remain extremely concerned with the length of time that it has taken the HSE to reach a conclusion regarding the examination of these serious and significant matters, including the process of concluding the NIRP report. Therefore, I am again seeking definite confirmation of the timeline for publication of the report's findings and recommendations, as well as the process in place for engagement with the service users and families affected by these matters and the supports that have been put in place for these individuals.

I thank the Minister of State for her frank and honest response. It is quite stark that a Minister of State has to come into the House and make a speech like that in response to this issue. This should never have got to this stage and it should have been dealt with long before now. It is a serious problem when the HSE behaves like this towards a Government. We all want this to be dealt with and resolved and for the families to be protected.

It is also vitally important that a future whistleblower can feel confident that he or she can come forward and have his or her concerns listened to. I thank the Minister of State. I hope the HSE is listening to this and that it will respond now because this has gone on for too long and it cannot be allowed to continue. It is mind-boggling that the Government of the day cannot get answers from the HSE on this and cannot get a resolution to it. That is shocking and maybe it signals that there is something more wrong in an arm of the State. I know the HSE has some semblance of independence but there has to be something wrong when it will not respond in a proper and timely way. There are also other organs of the State that have questions to answer around how this was dealt with and that all has to be examined.

I want to pay tribute to the whistleblower, who has paddled their own canoe on this for years and has tried to raise it solely from the point of view of trying to improve a service and benefit the service users. That has to be commended and I would like to pay tribute to the whistleblower for that because it is important. I thank the Minister of State for her frank response. I know this will probably keep going because we will have to try to get answers from the HSE. I hope the HSE is listening to this debate and that it will come forward because that is the right, honest and decent thing to do.

I thank the Deputy for his persistence on this matter. I also acknowledge the role of the whistleblower.

I confirm to the House that I have been given an assurance by the HSE that there are new policies and processes in place in CHO 1 to manage safeguarding concerns, including in the residential service that was the subject of the Brandon report. The independent review carried out by the national independent review panel is critical and I am keen to see the learnings from the report made public and acted upon. It is also important to outline to the House that, taking account of the HSE board's governance and oversight responsibilities, I have sought, by way of letter to the chair of the HSE board earlier today, to provide the Department of Health with its consideration as to the robustness of the fitness for purpose of the HSE services on critical incident reporting; incident management processes; safeguarding systems and process; and the HSE's oversight of safeguarding systems for services provided in sections 38 and 39 organisations, including arrangements in place through service level agreements.

In addition, I have, as a matter of urgency, requested that the HSE, taking account of the HIQA national standards on safeguarding, conducts a review and audit of the current implementation of the safeguarding standards. As a Minister of State, I need the reassurance that standards on safeguarding are being met right across the country. The independent review carried out by the national independent review panel is critical and I am keen to see the learnings from the report made public and acted upon so that we can better inform how we care, support and safeguard our most vulnerable service users in the future. For any of the affected families that are watching these proceedings, I want to send my assurances that I will not stop working until the report is published.

I thank the Minister of State and Deputy Pringle for raising this matter. The Minister of State talked about the parents who may be watching these proceedings. Any members of the public watching these proceedings will wonder if they live in a democracy or an autocracy when a State agency can deliberately and protractedly frustrate the efforts of a Minister of State to get information about a fundamentally serious matter that would cause anyone with any humanity to respond with alacrity. I thank everybody in the Chamber who is involved in this matter.

Defective Building Materials

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for facilitating this important Topical Issue debate. I also thank the Minister. He has had a busy day and I appreciate that he is in the Chamber tonight during one of the final speaking slots of this week in Dáil Éireann. I hugely appreciate his attendance to deal with this matter.

Many Clare families have pyrite in their homes. Those houses are cracked and ready to fall in. Many of them are watching proceedings to hear the matter addressed on the floor on the Dáil. They are hoping for positive responses.

Many of us were outside three weeks ago when a cohort of people arrived on North Wall Quay. Many of them were from counties Donegal and Mayo. There was a smaller contingent from my own county of Clare. They were protesting about the presence of pyrite in their homes and the redress scheme that has been in place for the past 14 months or so to address it in counties Donegal and Mayo. In particular, they were highlighting some of the deficiencies in the redress scheme. We heard earlier this week that homeowners in Donegal and Mayo who are participating in that redress scheme will now benefit from six years of an exemption from paying local property tax. It is not much in the greater scheme of things but every little bit counts. It is wrong to take money from these families when they are hard pressed and their houses are, effectively, falling in around them. Thousands of protestors arrived from Donegal and Mayo. I read in the media that 45 buses came from Donegal alone. There was also a contingent from Clare.

An expert group in 2016 estimated that 5,000 houses in Ireland are affected by pyrite. That did not factor in what is emerging in County Clare. There is a group run by Dr. Martina Cleary with 52 homeowners affiliated to it. We estimate there are several hundred homes, possibly including 34 council houses, in Clare with pyrite in them, all structurally defective and at risk of serious damage or falling down. It is estimated that 1,000 council houses nationally are similarly affected and that the redress could cost anything up to €2.4 billion. That is stark.

Under the current regime, the State pays 90% of the remedial works but there is a need to move quickly to a 100% model. I noted during a previous Topical Issue debate an undertaking that the review group looking at the redress scheme at the moment will report back by the end of the month. There is a major role for quarries to play. Cassidy Brothers in Donegal are culpable of selling blocks en masse to house builders throughout Donegal. Those blocks are now crumbling. In County Clare, we too have a quarry that is still trading healthily. I do not think it has ever had a bad day of trading, not even during the recession. It has been experiencing a boom for a long time. There has to be a major role for those quarry operators when redress is fully paid out.

Those are my questions. I will come in again with some supplementary remarks. The people of Clare do not want to be the poor relations who are left without any redress. If an initiative is under way in counties Donegal and Mayo whereby those affected by pyrite will not pay local property tax this year or for five subsequent years, I do not see why Clare homeowners should lose out. I ask the Minister for Finance to look favourably on my request that a similar scheme of exemption would operate for those in County Clare who have confirmed pyrite in their homes.

I thank the Deputy for raising what I know is a very serious matter. I have experience of this issue from working with colleagues in trying to respond to the huge stress and anxiety that I know has been caused to many homeowners in Deputy Crowe's county and in counties Donegal and Mayo because of the damage that was done to their homes due to the presence of pyrite.

The case at the moment is that the exemption criterion for accessing the local property tax exemption is that a home must be accepted into the defective concrete blocks grant scheme. I understand that the scheme at the moment only applies to homeowners in Donegal and Mayo and, therefore, because the scheme only applies to those counties, the families, constituents and homeowners on behalf of whom the Deputy is raising this issue would not be able to access this exemption. However, the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage is currently looking at the Government's broader response to the issue of pyrite. Part of that review will be the breadth of the defective concrete block grant scheme. I am going to raise with the Minister the issue the Deputy has raised here. I know the Deputy will press for his constituents to be included in this scheme and thereby be in a position to access the local property tax exemption. As he said, while the exemption from local property tax is but a small contribution to the challenges those homeowners have lived with for so long, it is nonetheless important for us to give it. It is important that we recognise that the properties affected by pyrite have been affected fundamentally and have not been a home in the way these families and homeowners would want.

The case at the moment is that a homeowner needs to be in the concrete block grant scheme to avail of this exemption. The question I will raise with the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, is what should be the breadth of that scheme and how it will feed into the Government response to this issue that I know the Deputy is concerned about and raising on behalf of his constituents.

Exemption from paying local property tax is not a new phenomenon. It has been there for a number of years for new builds but also for houses in what were deemed to be unfinished estates. What we are talking about here in terms of defective blocks, pyrite and homes that are cracking from the gable end down is much different. It far outweighs any other category of exemption we have had heretofore. People in County Clare need some undertaking that when an application for a county is lodged, and it is imminent, the same positive undertakings that have been given this week from Government relating to counties Donegal and Mayo would stand in principle for those in County Clare.

Overall, something is fundamentally wrong with the redress scheme. It is cumbersome. There is a redress scheme for counties Donegal, Mayo and Limerick. There have been defective blocks in County Louth as well. It is run off on a county-by-county basis. I cannot for the life of me fathom why there is not a nationwide scheme for this. It is conceivable in any county that when someone built a house in the 1980s or 1990s, that person drove over the Border with a pick-up truck, brought 300 or 400 concrete blocks and used them in the construction of a house. People do not source materials only from within their own county. This goes around the country. The remediation scheme also needs to be a nationwide scheme, not county by county.

People in County Clare want a redress scheme more than anything and that will be coming very quickly. It should not be as cumbersome, however. The scheme in counties Donegal and Mayo took years to devise and implement and now we are seeing it is again coming up short. People are also somewhat aggrieved. I know some of this falls under the remit of the Minister, Deputy O'Brien. I appreciate that. I have been speaking to him almost daily lately.

The expert review group, which looks at some of the flaws and functionality of the redress scheme, will conclude its work by the end of the month and County Clare has been left out of that. Those people need to be very much brought into the room. In my book, there is no point in reinventing the wheel. Schemes in counties Donegal and Mayo are going to be overhauled, it is hoped to positive effect. The Clare scheme should not be left behind, however.

I am of the view that a major public building in a certain county has pyrite in it. Many people hope it does not. I hope it does for the simple reason it will advance the cause of County Clare. It will ensure we are no longer laggards and we will be going to the top of the list. I hope that is proven because in every Irish property from the traditional cottages of the 1800s, the cornerstone was where the building got its strength. In County Clare, they are cracking from the cornerstone up. You can put your hands through the gaps. If they are not dealt with, these buildings will collapse like that apartment in Miami, Florida last week in which lives were lost. That is where it is down to. I thank the Minister for his time and his reply this evening.

I thank Deputy Crowe. Some of the very important issues he raised are outside the remit of the answer I have been able to give him. I know the Minister, Deputy O'Brien, will be well aware of the issues raised by the Deputy on behalf of his constituents. I will engage with the Minister, as the Deputy has been doing. The Finance (Local Property Tax) (Amendment) Bill 2021, which will be in front of the House next week, is trying to be a nationwide scheme. It needs to be a nationwide scheme because it is a tax measure. Because of that, the access to the scheme needs to be very clear, simple and definitive, which is why access to the grant block scheme is the way in which we have designed the access criteria.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. He has acknowledged that the figures and costs involved in this are huge. Equally, however, the harm, anxiety and damage that has been caused by the presence of pyrite is equally huge. The working group that is being led by the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage will be working hard to come forward with comprehensive proposals in the coming weeks to respond to the issues raised by Deputy Crowe.