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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 6 Oct 2021

Vol. 1012 No. 2

Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

As the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage is aware, thousands of families from the west of Ireland have had their lives torn asunder by the mica and pyrite scandal. Their homes are crumbling around them. This is a national disaster. It is an earthquake happening in slow motion. The trail of devastation winds its way through communities that share the sorrow and anger of their families, friends and neighbours. These communities range from my own in north County Donegal, down through counties Sligo, Mayo and on to Clare, Limerick and Tipperary. On Friday, the families and their supporters will again descend on Dublin to protest to get the Government to deliver 100% redress. They should not have to do this.

On June 15, the very day the families last protested in Dublin, this Dáil unanimously passed a motion instructing the Government to provide 100% redress. Four months ago, these families should have seen their nightmare finally brought to an end. It is a nightmare that has taken a heavy financial toll on them. There has been financial ruin, emotional breakdown and a real sense of abandonment by the State. Here we are in October, and the families are left with no other option but to again travel to the capital and shout as loudly as possible for the Government to hear them. Full 100% redress is the only just solution. It must cover the cost of demolition and rebuilding because that is the reality facing so many of our families. There homes must be demolished because the blocks used in their construction are crumbling like Weetabix biscuits. In many cases, only demolition and rebuilding will ensure a safe home in many cases. The Government cannot walk away from this truth. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil Deputies in the six affected counties see that truth. They all support 100% redress. Has the Minister spoken to them all? Have they told him what they have witnessed? Have they explained the condition of these houses and the misery of the families? If they have, and if he has listened, there is no way the full cost of demolition and rebuilding will be left out of redress. Last July, in a deeply moving video, The Irish Times interviewed five County Donegal families whose homes are crumbling. I wish to read the words of Sally Ruddy, taken from that video, to the Minister. Sally said:

You think heartbreak. You think that it is something with a starting point and a finishing point. But this just drags on for years and years. There is no end and there is no end in sight ...

The Minister has it in his power to bring an end to the families' agony. He can tell them they do not need to come to Dublin as they will have 100% redress. He may not have all the details but surely he can give them that assurance. The families are not going away. They have risen above the trauma and have found their strength, and it is powerful. They have won the hearts and minds of the people because the people know what is right. Do not force them to come to Dublin again this Friday. Do the right thing. End their agony. Tell them they will have 100% redress.

I thank the Deputy for raising this really important issue, which I am acutely aware of and in respect of which I have been heavily engaged. Last year, one of the first trips I took as Minister was to County Donegal. The Deputy was in attendance and we met residents in Buncrana. I went visit to homeowners at the time. I have been to visit homeowners in County Clare. This is a scheme I inherited. It was put in place in January or February 2020 and the Government and I have committed to improving it.

I genuinely thank the homeowners and their representatives for their serious engagement and the time and effort they have given voluntarily to the working group process I established following the protests in the summer.

They have engaged honestly although it has been difficult. My officials have engaged and I have also brought in the Housing Agency which will play a very important role in this. We are committed to enhancing the scheme and have made progress already. I assure Deputy Mac Lochlainn that I am not going to delay on it. I acknowledge the input to the process of my colleagues in government, both Deputies and Senators, and of Deputy Mac Lochlainn's party colleagues.

It is an absolute tragedy that people's homes are crumbling and we want to help to resolve that. When I met the group on 29 September, the day before the working group report was published, I said very clearly that the scheme that the previous Government instituted had not worked as intended, although many people gave that scheme a guarded welcome at the time. I said in Buncrana in August 2020 that all schemes evolve and change and I was committed to making sure that this happens. We have some work to do and are doing it right now. The working group report was published and I circulated it to Opposition spokespeople seeking their input. The next step is to work through options and bring proposals to the three party leaders and my Cabinet colleagues. The Government will make a decision in due course.

I respect the right of people to protest and have always done so. I gave an indicative timeline to the residents when I met them on 29 September and told them that my work would not be concluded by 8 October. In fairness, they realised and accepted that and we had a good and open discussion on it. I advise the House that we have made progress in some very significant areas already and it is important that this is recognised. Progress has been made on the issues of certification, people having recourse back to a scheme should work be done, planning exemptions and upfront costs.

Very significant changes have been proposed already and I have said that nothing, including the caps or 100% redress, is off the table. I need a Government decision on that. I will be bringing option papers to the Government in the coming days and then the Cabinet will make a decision. I will continue to engage with representatives from the affected counties on defective blocks. I have visited other counties which are also making submissions to my Department. Whatever changes we make are going to require underpinning by way of legislation because we cannot just keep changing this by way of regulation.

This is a very serious issue for thousands of families. I have met them and Deputy Mac Lochlainn represents them. I fully understand the stress and trauma they continue to go through. One of the first things I did when I became Minister was to visit Donegal to discuss the previous scheme with the residents. We are close to bringing forward significant enhancements which I have to work through. Obviously, the House, Deputy Mac Lochlainn, his party and others, including my Government colleagues, will be advised on that in the coming weeks.

At the core of this is the principle that every citizen and family in this State is treated exactly the same. The Minister is very familiar with the pyrite resolution scheme under which over 2,000 families in Dublin and north Leinster rightly received 100% redress. They did nothing wrong but were failed by the absence of State regulation and oversight. Our families in Donegal, Mayo, Sligo, Clare, Limerick and Tipperary deserve exactly the same, namely, 100% redress. The Government must send out a clear message that all of our families, no matter where they live, did nothing wrong, were profoundly failed by this State and will be treated exactly the same and that the State will learn lessons from all of this. We will learn lessons and make sure that our laws are updated and this never happens again. The families will protest on Friday and I hope to God it is the last time they have to come to this city to protest and that they get the justice they deserve. I appeal to the Minister again for 100% redress for all of our citizens, no matter where they live.

Tuigim an fadhb. I intend to bring a memorandum to Government in the coming weeks. That memorandum will be underpinned by three core principles, namely, that the enhancements and changes we make are timely, reasonable and consistent. As a republican, I believe in equality and there is absolutely no question of that. I have had experience in my constituency of defective work involving pyrite and in-fill as well as other defects.

It is also important to mention that I have established a working group on apartment defects and fire safety defects, which are a serious problem. As Minister, I made a commitment to improve this scheme and I intend to bring enhancements forward. I look forward to any genuine input from other parties on that and will consider it as part of the overall submission that I bring to Cabinet in the coming weeks. I also hope that 8 October will be the last time the residents from affected counties feel the need to come to Dublin to protest. I welcomed them in the summer and have met them since then. I fully understand what they are going through and intend to improve the situation greatly for them.

I have three specific questions for the Minister relating to people who are experiencing homelessness, the first of which is about safeguarding procedures. Recently it was reported that An Garda Síochána had detailed knowledge of credible allegations of sexual assault against vulnerable people experiencing homelessness. Despite having detailed knowledge of credible allegations since May, An Garda Síochána failed to pass on this information in a timely manner to Inner City Helping Homeless, ICHH, where the alleged perpetrator worked, thus placing vulnerable people at continued risk. Where there are credible allegations, action must be taken to protect people who are vulnerable. In other jurisdictions the police inform relevant organisations of allegations if they are deemed to be credible so that measures can be taken to protect people who are at risk. Will the Government introduce legislation to require An Garda Síochána, when it has knowledge of credible allegations of sexual assault, to pass this information on to relevant organisations where alleged perpetrators are working or volunteering?

Second, the latest figures show that the number of children and families living in emergency accommodation is increasing. Two children are becoming homeless every day and more than 8,0000 people are living in emergency accommodation. Focus Ireland has called for the introduction of annual targets for reducing homelessness. It issued this call yesterday when it reported that it had helped a record number of people at risk of entering homelessness last year. We know from the national development plan, NDP, that this Government does not like targets, budgets or deadlines. Will the Minister listen to Focus Ireland on this issue? Will he introduce annual targets for reducing homelessness and, if so, when will he publish them?

My final question is about standards in emergency accommodation funded by the State but run by private, for-profit companies. It is completely unacceptable that in emergency accommodation that is publicly funded but run to make a profit there are no checks to ensure staff are trained, properly Garda vetted and proper safeguarding procedures are in place. There have been allegations of bullying, dehumanising rules and a lack of Garda vetting of staff in some of these hostels. As the Minister is aware, there is currently a dual process in place whereby accommodation run by not-for-profit organisations is inspected to ensure compliance with national quality standards, while emergency accommodation run by companies and individuals for profit are not inspected to determine if they meet these standards. Will the Government apply the same standards, the national quality standards, to all providers of services for people who are experiencing homelessness? Will the Minister end the practice of lower and sub-minimum standards for private operators?

I thank Deputy O'Callaghan for his questions. Recent controversies involving a particular homelessness charity in Dublin have highlighted the importance of protecting vulnerable homeless people. We must keep that to the forefront of everything we do. I have previously raised concerns about the number of ad hoc groups of people who feel they may be doing good but who are not properly trained in the sector, including the charity mentioned by Deputy O'Callaghan. A Garda investigation is still ongoing into very serious allegations of sexual abuse of vulnerable people, which is abhorrent. We must make sure that standards, particularly around Garda vetting, are in place for all charities.

The body the Deputy mentioned operated outside the scope of the main homeless services, which are provided by local authorities and voluntary NGOs. I chair the homeless task force in my Department with the main homeless NGOs, those which are fully accredited, have full charitable status and are very careful and considered in ensuring their staff go through the proper training and are properly vetted. Where there are gaps, that needs to be addressed very seriously.

Issues have also been raised around the role of the Charities Regulator. Let us be frank. There are charities in this space that crop up nearly overnight. They may be given charitable status but may not have qualified people working in the sector. That is something that concerns me. I have seen it while on outreach with other groups around this city. They feel they are doing good but in many instances are not properly trained to provide the outreach that other services provide. Most important, we want to make sure that people are given a permanent home to live in and that those who need emergency accommodation are provided with accommodation that is safe and has the wrap-around supports we need.

I have seen Focus Ireland's call for annual targets. I, on behalf of the Government, have committed, under the Lisbon declaration, to eradicating homelessness by 2030. Focus Ireland and many other organisations in this sector have welcomed that. We have seen a substantial year-on-year decrease in homelessness. Over the past two months, we have seen some slight increases and we need to watch that. I have convened a meeting of my task force tomorrow. If we take the peak of homelessness in July 2018, child and family homelessness had declined by about 50% since. Progress is being made, particularly on prevention of homelessness, because the Government provided unprecedented resources, €218 million in homeless service supports, last year. In the budget next week, we will continue to support homeless services. There is a big focus on the provision of permanent homes for people. That is what we have done in our Housing for All plan as well.

I asked the Minister three specific questions. He did not answer any of them so I will put them to him again. Specifically, will the Government introduce legislation to require An Garda Síochána, when it has knowledge of credible allegations of sexual assault, to pass this information on to relevant organisations where alleged perpetrators are working or volunteering? I did not ask about Garda vetting in respect of that or anything else.

Will the Government introduce annual targets to reduce homelessness? The 2030 target is welcome but if there are not annual targets, how are we to know if we are making progress towards the 2030 target?

Will the Minister give a commitment that the national quality standards will be applied to all providers of emergency accommodation and that private, for-profit providers will no longer be exempted? I would be grateful if the Minister could actually answer those three questions.

On targets, I will assess what Focus Ireland is looking for. We have made a very significant step forward in committing to eradicating homelessness by 2030. That is significant and, in fairness to the Deputy, I think he recognises that.

In relation to private emergency accommodation, I am bringing forward new standards in coming weeks. These providers have operated under a type of standards in parallel with the national quality standards framework. New standards will be brought forward as well. The Deputy should recognise that the wrap-around services and supports in private emergency accommodation have greatly improved over the past 12 months. He has been told that directly in his interaction with those services and it needs to be acknowledged.

On Garda vetting of people who operate in emergency services, particularly around what An Garda Síochána does with complaints it receives, as housing Minister, I will not stretch into what An Garda Síochána does. However, we need to look very seriously at what happened in the recent controversies with the individual in question in Inner City Helping Homeless, learn lessons from that and listen to what people were saying at the time. That applies to all parties and housing spokespersons.

We will shortly bring forward the revised standards. I intend to do so in this session. I know the Deputy has an interest in this matter. We will get to discuss the standards in the joint committee and the House.

Like many Deputies, I drove to Leinster House this morning. I drove from Portarlington through Monasterevin and Rathangan and on to Newbridge. It is great to see building sites back open again, machinery moving very early in the morning, people moving with purpose, laying blocks and building high-quality housing to a high environmental standard. I pushed on to Tougher Service Station in Naas, which the Ceann Comhairle will know. There was a queue out the door looking for breakfast rolls. It is great to see the construction industry back up and running. I fully accept that we are at a very early stage in tackling this crisis but at least the direction of travel is good and some progress is being made.

Notwithstanding the progress being made, I have two concerns, the first of which relates to affordability. I am a believer in home ownership or at least the option of home ownership, as are most Deputies. People should be able to get a mortgage from a bank or financial institution, pay it off over 20 or 25 years and become mortgage-free in their 50s. They can then live safely for the rest of their lives and hand over their homes to the next generation. That is a good model to adopt. My concern is that the houses I passed this morning are unaffordable for many people, including soldiers, gardaí, nurses, teachers and people working in the private sector. I am familiar with the Minister's Housing for All strategy. I have been through it. It lists various principles and mechanisms but a lot of granular detail is missing. I ask the Minister to elaborate on some of the affordable housing schemes he has planned and how they will work on the ground.

My second concern is related to housing mix, which is a good thing. We should not have some housing estates for the rich and others for the poor. I am completely against any bulk purchasing of housing estates or large accommodation, particularly by vulture funds. However, I am not in favour of local authorities or approved housing bodies buying up 100% of estates either. That is not a good way to do business and is storing up problems for the future. I do not believe in concentrating a particular type of housing in a particular area. There should be a mix. I am being contacted by many constituents who want to buy a private house but cannot do so because there are so few available. When an estate is coming on stream within, say, three months, people are finding that the local authority has purchased the entire estate and they cannot buy a house.

Those are my two concerns, which relate to affordability and housing mix, respectively. I welcome that a floor of 20% social and affordable housing has been set for housing estates. That is a good thing but should there also be a ceiling? There is a minimum threshold but should there be a maximum threshold? Should we be looking for the elusive housing mix? That would be a good way to go.

I reiterate that, like the Deputy, I believe in home ownership and having it as an option for our young people and not-so-young people who are working and feel they have been forgotten about in recent years. That is why Housing for All is very important. It is the first time a Government has brought forward a multi-annual housing plan that is fully funded to the tune of over €20 billion. Of that, more than €4 billion is for affordability measures. That is real money to be able to deliver real homes for real people. More important, Housing for All is underpinned by legislation which Deputy Berry and most though not all Deputies supported, namely, the Affordable Housing Act. That Act gives real options to deliver affordable purchase for people, to be led by local authorities across the country, and to get the Land Development Agency involved and delivering affordable and social homes.

On mix, we have ensured, through the Land Development Agency Act, which the Deputy and most though not all Members of the House supported, which is fine, that 100% of lands in areas with more acute affordability issues, such as Cork and Dublin, will be used for affordable and social housing. The minimum threshold will be 50%. That is very significant. We want to give people choice and get affordable homes built, as we are targeting to do from 2022 onwards through Housing for all, which will deliver 6,000 affordable homes and 2,000 affordable cost-rental homes. We want to give options for working people, which we need to do.

The Deputy mentioned Part V provision. We have changed that already, increasing it from 10% in new developments to 20%. That additional 10% affordability measure is now in place. Underpinning all that, there must be an increase in supply. Thankfully, the anecdotal evidence we are receiving is that housing commencements are increasing and the projections for next year are good. Part of that is due to the Government's plan, Housing for All, because it gives certainty to the sector and our people that the State is making the single biggest intervention in housing in its history, fully funded right to 2026.

I have not seen any alternatives that go nearly as far as what we have done. I am acutely aware that now it is about delivery.

In relation to mixed tenure, I agree with the Deputy completely. Through measures that we have brought in, we have banned bulk buying and I am bringing forward legislation with regard to a homeowner's guarantee. This will be brought forward in the coming months, particularly for first-time buyers.

In the targets set, I do not want local authorities buying whole housing estates. In fairness, most of them are no longer doing that. In our housing targets we will set an acquisition target of 200 per year from next year with our local authorities. As a result of the measures we introduced in the Affordable Housing Act, which are underpinned by Housing For All, we will be able to have mixed tenure developments with affordable and social housing. To have mixed tenure and ensure there is choice for people, we need to increase our social house building and allow choice for those who wish to buy too.

The Land Development Agency has a number of land banks under its control, some of which are former military installations and barracks. Some 25 years ago, mostly in 1998, soldiers and their families were evicted at short notice and the land banks handed over to the State. The land is now in the custody of the Land Development Agency. If the agency develops these sites, which include Devoy Barracks in Naas, what are the Minister's thoughts on prioritising military families who are on the social housing lists in light of the historical connection to these land banks and sites?

I thank the Deputy. I will deal specifically with the Land Development Agency and former Defence Forces lands. Following on from my last reply, we have set a target of completing 10,000 new social housing builds per annum on average over the term of the plan. This in itself will make significant inroads into the social housing waiting list, which includes many former and, in some cases, current members of the Defence Forces. With regard to how the Land Development Agency will operate developments of former Defence Forces sites, I will certainly discuss the point raised by Deputy Berry with the LDA.

Underpinning this, we need to be aware that the scheme of priorities for social housing does not allow for priority to be given based on a person's occupation. Increasing dramatically the number of new social home builds will positively impact all of those who are on the social housing list. I am happy to take back the Deputy's suggestion with regard to how we may look at former Army and Defence Forces lands that are being redeveloped.

The Minister is aware that I have a background in construction and know what I am talking about when it comes to construction. I acknowledge the report of the mica working group and the urgency of getting 100% redress in a speedy fashion for the families affected in Mayo, Donegal and other counties, including Limerick. I have cases in Limerick dating from the late 1980s to 2006. All of the block materials used in the houses in question came from outside County Limerick, not from quarries in Limerick.

I will address a separate issue related to pyrite. I recently read the Surveyors Journal, which provides an update on industry news and is published by the SCSI. I have a copy with me. It states:

Once the problem is confirmed to be pyrite, a solicitor should be consulted to review the various contracts, guarantees or warranties and insurances in place, and to establish whether legal action should be taken to recover costs for the work from a third party. To date the courts have generally found that liability rests with the quarry owner.

Has the Government tried to get compensation for homeowners from wherever the blocks originated? What about the manufacturers' insurance, for example, loss of business or business interruption insurance? What about the banks' part in this? They assess risk and charge accordingly. They got this one wrong. To give the people 100% redress the Minister must go after the insurance of the quarries and banks. Insurance companies charge every householder big insurance premiums to insure their houses. If the Minister gives 100% redress, will he give a guarantee that he will go after the banks that taxpayers bailed out? It is time they paid us back.

HomeBond, in a report, has taken the view that it is not legally obliged to provide compensation and that liability for major defects only applies when a defect is the result of negligence on the part of a third party or a builder, or their subcontractors. Following previous court rulings, HomeBond has said that the quarries are liable under the Liability for Defective Products Act 1991. This is the shocking part. That statement was printed in 2012 when we had a Fine Gael-led Government. The then Minister with responsibility for housing, Deputy Alan Kelly, who is present, gives out to the Government all the time, yet he did nothing about it at the time. In 2012, the Deputy, as part of a Fine Gael-led Government, sat on their hands and did nothing about it but he can sit on the Opposition side.

The Deputy has the wrong Minister and the wrong timeline.

I have full confidence in the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, to sort out a problem handed to him by Fine Gael and the Labour Party.

I thank Deputy O'Donoghue for his questions. As I have said previously, those who are responsible should contribute towards remediation. I have engaged intensively with the Attorney General on this matter and he is working on mechanisms to ensure wrongdoing and liability on the part of quarries and other parties are fully penalised.

I recognise the report from 2012 because I was heavily involved in the pyrite scheme. There was provision in the original Act for payments to be made into the scheme. I believe HomeBond made a payment of €2 million - that was it - under the previous scheme. With Government colleagues, I intend to engage with stakeholders on this and pursue and identify those who have been found to have been responsible for this. The Government is stepping in because, as I have said previously, we have a moral responsibility. Legally, however, there are others who are responsible.

We must also look at the Statute of Limitations. This was something from the original expert report that goes back to previous times. I produced legislation at the time in the Seanad that addressed when the Statute of Limitations would start. We are doing a bit of work on that too. The Statute of Limitations would only kick in on the date on which a person receives independent verification of a defect to his or her home as opposed to when someone, who would not be an expert, believes there may be a problem.

The Deputy is correct that there are things we can do. We have also engaged a senior engineer, Mr. Ford, to issue a report on the scheme. Included in this is identifying and pursuing wrongdoing in this area. We must learn the lessons of the past with regard to standards. Where there are any revisions or changes needed to standards and process, I will bring them forward. Provision was made for a levy in the 2012 Act but a levy was never introduced, for whatever reason.

I am looking at all options but those options will not change what I plan to do with the scheme. We must pursue this, and I have said that to homeowners also who were very anxious that those who are responsible are pursued. I intend to do that as best I can legally, on behalf of the State. I will keep the Deputy informed of progress.

The Minister is welcome to Limerick to see the houses we have issues with. I have a question that might help the Minister going forward. Have the quarries found to have had pyrite in their blocks stopped making blocks? If so, how long ago did they stop? This report was done in 2012 so the quarries knew there was an issue at that time. Have those quarries been making blocks since then? Have they added to the problem, in which case they would be liable?

Going forward, people who have pyrite in their houses cannot be liable for excessive insurance policies on their houses. We must make sure that this does not happen. When the 100% redress comes, building regulations are there for a reason. If a person has an insurance claim on his or her house today, that house must be returned to the regulation of today, not the regulation of 20 or 30 years ago. The building standards state that a house must be returned to the existing regulations which stand now.

There are issues around insurance, certainly, and there are issues around certification. When work is done, it should be certified that it is carried out to a standard whereby a person can claim and get insurance again. That was not actually allowed for in the original scheme that was brought forward. We have made progress that space. I intend to bring that forward as one of my recommendations. That is why I told Deputy Mac Lochlainn earlier that I also intend one of my proposals to be to allow recourse to the scheme a second time, should that be required.

Thankfully, I have seen that in instances where pyrite is in the infill, we have not had to have work redone in that space. I have, however, also met residents that unfortunately have only seen problems occur at homes in counties Clare and Dublin 30 years after the homes had been built

And Limerick, indeed, which I will also be visiting. I will let the Deputy know when we have a submission there. There is, therefore, much work to do in this space. We have done a lot of work there too. Once the revised scheme is published, however, there will also be more works around standards and how we can help people as best we can. Recourse is really important. Those who are responsible should, in my view, be held accountable.

That concludes Leaders' Questions for today. We move straight away to Questions on Promised Legislation.