Skip to main content
Normal View

Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage debate -
Thursday, 23 Jun 2022

Remediation of Dwellings Damaged by the Use of Defective Concrete Blocks Bill 2022: Discussion

Everybody is welcome to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage. The committee is meeting in public session to consider the Remediation of Dwellings Damaged by the Use of Defective Concrete Blocks Bill 2022. We are joined by the following witnesses: Mica Action Group Donegal is represented by Mr. Michael Doherty, Dr. Andreas Leemann, Mr. Aidan Houton and Professor Paul Dunlop, who is joining us remotely; Clare Pyrite Action Group is represented by Dr. Martina Cleary and Dr. Michael Carmody; and Mayo Pyrite Action Group is represented by Ms Martina Hegarty and Ms Josephine Murphy. We have received their opening statements and other submissions and I thank the witnesses for those. They have been circulated to members.

I remind members of the constitutional requirement that they must be physically present within the confines of the place where Parliament has chosen to sit, namely, Leinster House, in order to participate in public meetings. Witnesses attending in the committee room are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their contribution to today's meetings. This means they have an absolute defence against any defamation action for anything they say at the meeting. Both members and witnesses are expected not to abuse the privilege they enjoy. It is my duty as Chair to ensure this privilege is not abused. Therefore, if their statements are potentially defamatory in relation to an identifiable person or entity, they will be directed to discontinue their remarks. It is imperative they comply with any such direction. Members and witnesses are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official, either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

The committee welcomes the opportunity to hear from the witnesses. Our job as legislators is to ensure this Bill is fit for purpose and solves the terrible difficulties people have experienced with houses across more than the three counties represented here.

We are constrained by the fact that this is a two-hour session. I ask witnesses to confine their opening statements to five minutes, after which we will move to the members. There will be six minutes for each member to ask questions and for witnesses to answer. I always ask members to keep questions direct and to the point to give witnesses the opportunity to respond because it is the witnesses we want to hear from. If members agree to that, I think we will be able to fit everybody in. We have the full membership present or represented and other members who have joined us may wish to contribute.

We will hear first from he Donegal group, followed by the Clare group and then the Mayo group. I ask Mr. Doherty to give his opening statement on behalf of the Mica Action Group Donegal.

Mr. Michael Doherty

I am from Donegal and am the PRO of the Mica Action Group. We have around 7,000 affected homes. These primarily arose during the Celtic tiger years. Self-regulation of manufacturers, together with inadequate local authority enforcement of standards, allowed unfit concrete blocks to enter the Irish market for years. The regulations that should have protected consumers did not do so and homeowners were unknowingly exposed to defective products destined to fail on the biggest and most significant purchases of their lives.

In desperation, we chased the quarry owners, insurance companies and those that provide bonds on our homes. We chased the banks for help. No one would help us. No one was interested. We had no option but to chase the State that allowed this disaster to unfold, albeit unknowingly – or was it? In 2014, we made the State aware of the issue with evidence submitted to Donegal County Council. Minutes have been provided. It took until 2020 for a scheme to arrive. A so-called 90-10 scheme would end up akin to a 60-40 scheme, costing the average homeowner more than €100,000 for demolition and rebuild. That was if you could afford to access the scheme in the first place. That scheme was correctly rejected.

A massive campaign saw over 20,000 people arrive on the streets of Dublin on 15 June and 8 October 2021. Our demand was 100% redress, no less. As a result, the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O’Brien, set up a working group over the summer months. It was meant to facilitate a solution but instead saw the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage defend its old 90-10 scheme. No progress was made because it was thwarted and stymied by the attitude and actions of the Department. We soon realised we were seen less as victims and more as chancers or opportunists looking to get something for nothing. All we wanted were our homes back on a like-for-like basis, only what we had already paid for.

That was not an unreasonable request, especially when we look at the nearest precedent available, namely, the pyrite remediation scheme, mainly in Leinster. These homeowners were provided with true like-for-like replacement, including house finishes, end-to-end contract management by the State and zero cost to the homeowner. Instead, we are offered a grant to fix our homes, leaving us to find contractors who will work to the grants provided, which are wholly inadequate. The inflationary world we live in is all at the homeowner’s exposure, none of it at the State’s.

To further frustrate the process, the Department has red tape to the nth degree as regards terms and conditions and caps and exclusions which leave this scheme unworkable. Members will hear them tell us that the rates are independent and fair, as they came through the Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland, SCSI. The reality is that the SCSI was dictated to under the terms of reference, which create a significant difference between eligible costs and true costs. This inhibits any chance of 100% redress. Examples are 15-year-old standards leaving us to make up the differences and not even a carpet allowed for in the home by way of finish; no allowance for the replacement of foundations which are made of the same deleterious materials as are in the defective blocks; and no allowance for other defective block structures like walls and garages, all equally capable of killing members of our family as they subside and fall over time. Real costs versus allowable costs at current rates represent more like an 80% grant.

This leaves homeowners out tens of thousands of euros - a shortfall we simply cannot afford.

To compensate, homeowners requested a penalty-free downsizing option that would allow the grant based on their current home size to be redirected to building themselves a smaller home for the money. Instead, Government saw fit to hold back on the grant amount it was prepared to give and instead provide a grant against the smaller home, leaving the homeowner with the same problem and still out tens of thousands of euros, still trapped and unable to afford to rebuild.

The committee will hear of science today, or the lack of it, in the assessment and categorisation of our homes. The IS 465 protocol has not allowed for the inclusion of other pertinent deleterious materials such as pyrrhotite. It has not allowed for the testing of foundations that our experts will show is playing with fire and will ultimately cost the State more in the long run.

We have excluded homes. Many of our rental homes are not eligible. Small buy-to-let landlords cannot afford to replace these homes and their tenants have nowhere to go. Holiday and retirement homes, some inherited homes and homes occupied by vulnerable adults that are not classed as principal private residences are excluded from the scheme as it stands. These are equally innocent victims of unfit products entering the market for years. While they are not demanding they get pushed in front of others, they are rightly demanding that they are not excluded from the scheme. Prioritisation, yes; exclusion, no.

We have identified 35 different issues in the general scheme, all of which to a greater or lesser extent render the scheme unworkable. These are tabled in the submission. Many of these were heavily debated and negotiated over the past six months between homeowner representatives and officials. The negotiation was undertaken in good faith on the part of the homeowners and progress appeared to be made. However, the Department continues to attempt to exert what can only be described as coercive control over the homeowners as opposed to seeking a solution-based approach. Families are stressed to breaking point. They have endured years of uncertainty and anxiety of every possible description. The scheme should be a way out of this nightmare. Instead, its inflexible, cynical, illogical and blinkered approach is burdening homeowners with yet more stress. Where is the empathy from the State? Why would the State not allow homeowners to downsize without penalty when it comes at no additional cost? This is not 100% redress, despite what the State might claim. Homeowners will be out tens of thousands of euros with some cases amounting to six-figure sums. The caps are discriminatory and must be adjusted to take into account our current environment if not completely eliminated.

Ignoring the science is a cheap sticking-plaster solution that will drive homeowners through this nightmare not once but twice in their lifetime. Innocent victims are abandoned under current exclusions and our demand is that ultimately no homeowner with a property including defective concrete blocks, DCB, should be left behind and we want that in writing. We implore the committee to study the submissions and after today’s scrutiny, forward recommendations to the Minister that address these key issues. After ten years of heartache, allow us a path to restore our lives, a path to true 100% redress and no less.

Dr. Martina Cleary

I am the founder of the Clare Pyrite Action Group. My apologies for the late and altered opening statement. After two years of arduous campaigning for inclusion in this scheme and only two working days to prepare for the meeting on behalf of County Clare, the committee may understand it was difficult to decide exactly what to say in five minutes.

I am an ordinary homeowner put in an extraordinary situation. On 10 August 2020, I stood outside my modest bungalow in County Clare and listened to an engineer explain that there were suspected defective concrete blocks in my home. It could be pyrite or mica and only core testing would tell. The problem was serious and degenerative, and could not be repaired. It was a serious structural defect that would only worsen over time and no assistance was available to me in County Clare. Assistance was only available to homeowners in counties Mayo and Donegal. It is impossible to fully explain the impact of getting this news to somebody who has not been on this journey. It hits you in the gut. It is a sickening, prolonged and toxic anxiety. It involves sleepless nights and lying awake wondering how long you have and how much time before your home becomes dangerous. The fear of your own home grows and becomes an almost obsessional routine of checking for evolving damage. Your life changes as you become alienated from what used to be normal reality and the shadow of this is always present, disrupting your whole life, your family life and your community.

I will tell the eminent members of the committee that this problem my not yet be in their counties but it is coming. We currently know of defective concrete blocks, or suspicions of same, in 12 counties along the western and eastern seaboards. It is likely a problem in every county. The decisions the committee comes to and the recommendations it makes will be instrumental in influencing how this crisis plays out among members' constituents, neighbours, friends and family. They may have defective concrete blocks in their homes and do not realise it. Do not let the situation play out elsewhere as it did in Donegal and Mayo.

Once I recovered from the initial shock of the discovery, next came the questions. How could this happen? How could the most fundamental, taken for granted, mundane thing, that is, a humble concrete block, be crumbling inside the walls of my house? A concrete block should last for 100 years. If we are to look at our built environment, houses are intact that were built decades ago. As an academic and researcher, my default mode is to investigate and to find answers, if there are any. Somebody had to be responsible; something had to be done; something had gone wrong somewhere. That engineer admitted he had visited at least 40 to 50 houses with the same problem in the Clare-Limerick area. However, beyond that he would say no more due to what he termed a conflict of interest. This was my first but not my last encounter with what I describe as avoidance of the elephant in the room. I was to encounter many such moments in the months that followed and due to the scale and influence of our main supplier in County Clare, CRH Roadstone, I would encounter several such conflicts of interest.

On 4 September 2020, I founded the Clare Pyrite Action Group with a membership of one. I was inspired by what I learned of the action groups in Mayo and Donegal. When you find yourself in this situation, you quickly realise that the ordinary homeowner has nowhere else to go. In the first month, I tried to find help and advice from the local authority, the pyrite remediation board, local solicitors and local Deputies. I even wrote to the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage. I was passed from one office to the next and from one dead end to another. The resounding response was that there is no pyrite in County Clare and no help was available. I was alone.

However, within two months of setting up Clare Pyrite Action Group, I had been approached by 25 similarly impacted homeowners. Within six months, that number had doubled. Today, because of the research I have conducted on the ground among our membership, I am aware of 1,025 private homes with confirmed or suspected issues. The homes impacted include homes on 17 private housing estates, five local authority housing estates and 11 public and private dwellings. This is only the beginning. There is most definitely pyrite in the concrete blocks of County Clare.

On 14 June 2022, the Government finally admitted that was the case and Clare was allowed access to the DCB grant scheme. It was a milestone achievement for every person who has worked hard to secure this admission over the past two years. It is a moment to acknowledge this accomplishment after the arduous and extraordinarily difficult process through which we have been put. We have followed carefully all of the things that are happening and the response of the people in Mayo and Donegal to the issue and we are worried. We had to watch from the sidelines because we were excluded from the working group negotiations and had no input to the terms and conditions of this new scheme. Clare met the IS 465 qualification in July 2021 in the submission to the Department. We met fully and rigorously the criteria that had qualified 150 homes in Mayo for the scheme. I can only speculate, and forgive me if I am wrong, that this was a strategic and deliberate delaying strategy to ensure the interim conditions and new qualification criteria would be introduced to limit and prevent as many of us as possible from entering the scheme. I point in that regard to the damage threshold, which is of particular concern to us.

The statements of the eminently qualified witnesses who will contribute to the follow-on panels this afternoon arrived around midnight last night. As I read their biographies, I could not help but reflect on the extraordinary situation we are in today. We, the ordinary homeowners, are facing the full power of the State, all of its resources and its ability to secure the most qualified and professional voices from the most established and respected bodies in the country. They are all working on behalf of the State to ensure its position will be unquestionable and upheld. It is impossible not to feel that we, the homeowners who are the victims, are on trial, and for what? For daring to expect more? For daring to demand more? For expecting that the homes we have worked hard to pay for and continue to pay for should stay standing around us?

We expected oversight of regulation to ensure that the blocks used to build our homes would be sound and enforced. We have been let down on so many levels, particularly by the State, which continues to fail in its duty to do right by its citizens, the ordinary workers and taxpayers of this country who are impacted by this issue. That is us; the people sitting before the committee today.

I received a text message recently from an engineer who had been there on the first day-----

I ask Dr. Cleary to finish up as soon as possible. We want to hear from her and do not want to stymy what she has to tell us, but we need to stick to the time limits.

Dr. Martina Cleary

I will cut my statement short for the sake of brevity. Of particular importance to us, in County Clare, are four issues. First, is the damage threshold, which we feel has been introduced to be deliberately prohibitive. From the testing done on buildings, we know that it is only at the core testing stage that the science proves that even though the render may look fine, the blocks underneath are crumbling and rotting. I have included some visual examples of that in my submission to the committee. We are also worried about homeowner access to independent assessment and testing, which is crucial in determining the true gravity of the situation for homeowners. There is a conflict of interest right across the system, from engineers to testing companies and other professionals. We have encountered several difficulties along the way in ensuring there is an independence of testing regime. We are also concerned about the remediation options for pyrite and reactive sulphate damage. There is a sulphate attack in County Clare. The option there is demolition. That is what the experts are saying. We cannot continue to retain pyrite blocks in the buildings.

I ask Dr. Cleary to finish up there.

Dr. Martina Cleary

The final issue is resourcing and funding.

I invite Ms Hegarty to make her opening statement.

Ms Martina Hegarty

My home was built using defective concrete blocks. I am joined today by Ms Josephine Murphy, who is also impacted by the issue; and online by Mr. Thomas Campbell, a chartered engineer who has been supporting homeowners in counties Mayo and Donegal through this nightmare. We are here today because we must provide the opportunity to the people of County Mayo to finally move forward with their lives and rebuild their homes. We want to feel happy in our homes again. We want the scheme up and running. Over the next three weeks the Oireachtas will play a key role in deciding our future. We need its support in ensuring the Bill is not passed until it is fit for purpose and provides all supports necessary to homeowners to rebuild their homes. Today we welcome the opportunity to address the fundamental flaws that exist within the legislation and the scheme in general on behalf of the people of County Mayo.

As homeowners, we are acutely aware of the damage that is in our homes. There is no escape from the daily mental stress of monitoring the expansion of cracks, the appearance of new cracks and the constant worry about how we are going to be able to afford to rebuild our homes. We are extremely concerned about what lies underneath our homes. Many homeowners are reporting cracking floors and jamming doors, which indicate either issues with the foundations or possible pyrite heave, similar to that experienced by homeowners in Dublin. Many homeowners in County Mayo are very nervous about the introduction of a damage threshold. While we accept that every home entering the scheme must have damage, it is unacceptable to block homeowners from entering the scheme by introducing a damage threshold. It creates another layer of stress, as well as additional paperwork and fees, for homeowners, some of whom have been waiting up to ten years for the delivery of an effective scheme. As homeowners, we know what is needed to rebuild our homes. Over the last two years the committee has listened to our demands for 100% redress. It is not a sound bite. It is what it will take to rebuild our homes. A total of six homes have been rebuilt in County Mayo to date. We welcome the fact that those homeowners will benefit from any changes to the scheme. However, those who had no choice but to remediate before the scheme commenced have been left behind.

On 3 March this year, the Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland, SCSI, published rates that were supposed to reflect the true cost of our rebuilds, but the resulting figures were tarnished due to restrictive terms and conditions set out by the Government. The terms of reference dictated four estate-type homes and four rural-type homes, each increasing in size. The SCSI was asked to generate figures based on 2007 building regulations. The cost to employ an engineer to generate all of the paperwork necessary rebuild our homes - of up to €15,000 - was requested to be ignored. Smaller homes cannot carry the weight of these costs on a square foot rate. Boundary walls, which are a threat to the health and safety of our children, were excluded. There are others limitations which I have included in the briefing document. The SCSI is not at fault here. It completed the task with one hand tied behind its back. Since the publication of the rates, we have seen inflation rise to more than 9%, but the square foot rate of €161 on offer by the Government today will not rebuild my home. My home will be one of the smallest to enter the scheme. However, based on high-level quotes received to date, I may be up to €50,000 short of the cost to rebuild my home. We were promised that the scheme would be like for like, but no money is on offer to replace the finishes I have in my home. I have worked hard to make my house a home. It is not a like-for-like scheme. It is disingenuous to suggest that it is, just as it is false to inform the general public that we are receiving 100% redress.

As homeowners, we are being restricted by not one but two caps. The current upper grant cap is €420,000. Removing the allowance for rent, storage, and possible emergency costs, we are left with €395,000. The cap forces 33% of our homeowners into even more debt. It leaves them unable to send their children to college or unable to rebuild a granny flat for their parents. Homeowners will not be able to draw down a top-up or second mortgage as their homes are currently worthless, while many are still repaying their first mortgage. We proposed a workable solution, namely, allowing homeowners to downsize their home but receive the cost of their current footprint. Unfortunately, it was rejected by the Government. It is the only solution that provides a true pathway for homeowners to receive 100% redress. There are multiple benefits to the homeowner and the State in this approach. It enables the elderly, those planning for retirement and vulnerable adults who are living in the counties with the lowest disposable income in the country to rebuild their homes.

Our request to the committee today is to enable us to get on with it. We ask that we are provided with what we need to rebuild our homes. As homeowners, we have been placed in one of the most stressful situations of our lives. We want to escape this mental anguish. We did not create the issue, yet we are being asked to pay for it. Over the last ten years we have been actively campaigning for the scheme. We are not in this alone. There are now 12 other counties with us. This is a second attempt to deliver a workable scheme. We are not asking for compensation. We are not asking for anything extra but to be able to rebuild our homes. We need to get it right this time.

I will open the questioning to members. There are many other Members of the Oireachtas present today who are not members of the committee, so I ask Deputies and Senators to keep to the strict time limit of six minutes. I will start with the Fianna Fáil slot. I call Deputy Cathal Crowe.

I welcome the witnesses to the meeting today. From a County Clare perspective, it has been very frustrating. Whereas people from counties Donegal and Mayo have had more than two years of at least informal negotiation with the Department of Housing Local Government and Heritage and officials, the first negotiation with residents of County Clare took place on Monday of last week. Earlier, Dr. Martina Cleary was restricted to a time limit of six minutes in delivering her opening statement. I respect the fact that there are time constraints at committee meetings, but it is wrong for the issue to be condensed into six minutes, given the extent of the problem County Clare and length of the campaign to get here, which has been a two-year journey. Cracks and crumbling blocks are just a physical manifestation of the problem. The damage that has been done to the county and to the mental health of many homeowners is extensive. My colleagues and I can account for the fact that the health of homeowners has deteriorated significantly over the past year and a half, as they have faced the unknown.

I will get straight to the questions. I.S. 465:2018 is the benchmark test for getting one onto a redress scheme. Over the past 12 months in County Clare we have seen that there are flaws within the testing model itself. Five samples that Dr. Clearly, Mr. Simon Beale and I believed to confirm the presence of pyrite were sent off to a laboratory in England. Weeks later the result came back stating that there was insufficient proof. It struck me that samples were being taken from walls on the good side of a house.

To use a medical analogy, it was akin to checking a patient for a suspected brain tumour but taking a tissue sample from the big toe. They were taking the sample from the opposite end, not getting the crumbling bag of dust that they wanted and they said there was no pyrite present. Are the witnesses worried that if we stick with the current IS 465 testing of core samples, we will end up with more houses not getting near the damage threshold or any entry threshold whatever?

Dr. Martina Cleary

To correct the Deputy, the results that came back met the IS 465 criteria with exactly the same measurements, analysis and rigour that had already qualified Mayo with at least 150 houses. We specifically chose our consultant engineer because he was one of the most experienced in the country. We chose Petrolab as one of the most independent labs available. They came back and everybody was puzzled as to why the Department asked for additional criteria and testing. It stated very clearly that the analysis regime had already been met.

What we worry about is that they were changing the regime. With Clare County Council they made us go through extraordinary measures to find this causative link between pyrite in the block, oxidation and damage, which was producing gypsum and secondary minerals like thaumasite, a sulphate attack that is far more problematic. I am sure Dr. Andreas Leemann will be able to speak about that as well. It is not just pyrite we have but a secondary sulphate attack. Sulphate levels in the blocks in County Clare are far above regulation standards.

They are changing the IS 465 standards behind the scenes but what we are primarily worried about is what is worded from the working group, which is that the minimum damage is now 1.5 mm for group 2 listings. There is already an assessment regime in place and it has been working perfectly well, supervised by IS 465 engineers. They are prepared to sign off on that. However, the new group 2 is very different. The original group comprised cracking on one elevation. We often see that with the damage we see in Clare. Not all the cracks are 1.5 mm across. However, getting to the core testing stage we have numerous examples. The block under the render would be in a critical state of collapse; it is dust and rubble and it is critically dangerous.

We are very worried about the visual inspection only, which denies homeowners access to that level of core testing because it will not be available. We speculate as to whether that would even be independent. It was absolutely essential that we had independent engineers because we were worried about the results being compromised otherwise. We have several examples of that because of the scope of our supplier.

I thank Dr. Cleary. There is pre-legislative scrutiny happening at this moment and that is a very important point.

I should clarify that this is not pre-legislative scrutiny.

We are the last county to see IS 465 testing. It only happened in spring this year. It seems to be a different beast to the IS 465 testing of homeowners in Donegal and Mayo, and that point must be noted as the structure of this is put together.

I will probe further on the damage threshold of a 1.5 mm crack. On the one hand we can believe it is preparing a hierarchy for some homes to enter the redress scheme more quickly than others. Is there a fear that it will exclude some homes and the local authority, Clare County Council, will come back to some homeowners who may have painted or plastered a crack, or it just cannot be seen, and say there will not be redress for them?

Dr. Martina Cleary

Absolutely. We did not have a grant and some engineers - some IS 465 and some not - were telling Clare homeowners to cover the cracks, rake them out, fill them in or keep paint on them. There were a variety of different solutions to keep water ingress or rain out. We had no other option to try to preserve our homes. There was no grant so we were left in rotting homes trying to mend them and fix them.

If this is a visual inspection only, somebody may say there is no cracking visible. There are examples in the report I provided of homeowners and Clare County Council testing of the absolute danger these people are living with beneath a cosmetic sheen of plastic paint. There is really only a cosmetic fix and there must be core testing because it is the only way we can truly see what is underneath the render.

I thank the witnesses for being here. I will focus my questions on the Mayo witnesses. I know Ms Murphy has been dealing with this for a long time and during the course of her answers she might tell us how long it has been exactly. Ms Hegarty has been dealing with it for the past number of years as well.

I have three questions. I know our main aim is to have the scheme fit for purpose and nobody is locked out because he or she cannot afford to get into it. With regard to retrospective flexibility, I am aware one homeowner in Mayo had to replace her home because her engineer told her she was in danger of a catastrophic event. She had absolutely no option. Why do the witnesses think it important that there is a retrospective element, albeit very limited, to the scheme?

What does option 1 mean to the witnesses and how do they know other options are not acceptable? Ms Hegarty stated the only solution for pyrite impact is total demolition, including foundations. Why are homeowners in Mayo deeply concerned about the introduction of the damage threshold? That builds on what Ms Hegarty has already said.

Ms Josephine Murphy

I will deal with the foundations if that is all right. We have struggled long and hard in campaigning to have the foundations covered, and that is very important. With foundations it is important to look at IS 465:2018+A1:2020, particularly annexe D, which relates to remedial works. Table D1 on page 39 applies to Donegal only, where option 1 is to demolish an entire dwelling to foundation level and rebuild. Table D1 on page 40 applies to Mayo only and option 1 is to demolish an entire dwelling and rebuild, and the foundations are not included. Nevertheless, Mayo County Council have it in their overview under costs not covered. That is bullet point No. 4, which states that foundations are not covered and homeowners must fix them.

With regard to the IS 465 document, the expert panel on concrete blocks issued clarification notes in respect of option 1 in annexe F, stating the panel was not informed during the investigations of any failures of concrete foundations due to aggregates containing deleterious material in the concrete in foundations in Donegal or Mayo. That is true and it is an accurate statement. In 2016, nobody had undertaken exploratory works to determine whether foundations needed remediation. However, the concrete for the foundations would have been, more than likely, sourced from the same block supplier and it is imperative to prevent costs to the homeowner for any further need towards rectification. These should be remediated.

I am just conscious of the time so basically Ms Murphy is saying that if foundations are not included, people will be locked out of the scheme because they will not be able to afford to do the foundations.

Ms Josephine Murphy


Will Ms Hegarty deal with the other two questions because we are always on the clock?

Ms Martina Hegarty

The Deputy mentioned there is a homeowner in Mayo to which a retrospective process would apply. That homeowner had no choice, spending approximately €185,000 to get the home replaced. The homeowner was in a life-or-death position and could not live in the home as it was. There are people like that throughout Mayo, potentially in Clare and definitely in Donegal that have been left behind in such a scenario.

Ms Murphy spoke about foundations. With pyrite the position is clear-cut and it is in the blocks everywhere. It does not matter where the walls are in a home and nobody will insure that house unless every item of pyrite has been removed. Mr. Aidan O'Connell was part of the committee that created IS 465 and he mentioned that. There is no option but to totally demolish the home to remove the pyrite.

The damage threshold issue was adequately put by Dr. Cleary. It is the exact same in Mayo. We have questions coming back to homeowners in Mayo about why they are not sending in pictures of internal cracking when there are plasterboards on the wall. A decision will be made on homes based on a desk study and such studies contain photographs that are most likely grainy.

It makes no sense to start a process of trying to decide whether somebody's home can be fixed, based on a photograph or a piece of paper.

What happened in Mayo when 21 homeowners were refused because they did not meet the threshold?

Ms Martina Hegarty

There were 20 homeowners in Mayo last July, of whom I was one. A decision was made by Mayo County Council that there was no pattern cracking present in the homes. It was the first time that this ever happened. To be honest, nobody had a clue what was going on. We had engineers coming out to our homes to try to take additional pictures, both inside and outside, and additional information was provided-----

I am sorry to interrupt Ms Hegarty. She will get a chance to expand on that answer.

Ms Martina Hegarty

No problem.

Just to conclude-----

I do not have time. I will be strict with everybody.

I thank Deputy Higgins for allowing me to use this slot. I welcome all of the witnesses. I will direct my questions to Dr. Cleary of the Clare Pyrite Action Group. I pay tribute to her and her committee for the strong determined work they have done on behalf of homeowners in County Clare and, indeed, I will mention Clare County Council, Ms Anne Haugh and her team and the engineer, Mr. Simon Beale. It has been a long hard road. The fact that the Clare Pyrite Action Group has been locked out of informal discussions is disappointing. There is a different view to this because of the different dynamics in Clare and the impact of pyrite on houses. For those reasons, the damage threshold is an issue for pyrite homes. Dr. Cleary has elaborated a bit on that, but I will give her an opportunity to elaborate further. Will she elaborate further on the deep issues? Evidently, a visual inspection will not be enough. The core testing that was done on various homes in Clare proved, without any shadow of a doubt, that the homes had pyrite; that it was very damaging and that the integrity of the block was crumbling, even more so than if it was a mica home. Will Dr. Cleary explain that to us?

Dr. Martina Cleary

The Deputy will see from pictures in the report that the block is coming out of the wall as black mush or dust and the compressive strength is gone. However, in some instances, because the homeowner is maintaining the render, one does not always see it. The are four categories in the groupings in IS 465 as they exist up to this point in terms of the damage threshold assessment. It is perfectly functioning. It is ratified by IS 465 and Engineers Ireland stand behind it. Category 2 of that is only web-like cracking on one side. Many people will not meet this new 1.5 mm threshold. What one is doing is leaving people trapped in these groups that might look fine visually, but are structurally unsound and very dangerous.

A second thing which is manifesting in all houses, no matter which stage they are at and about which we are very worried, is black mould. Black mould ingress is coming in to the inner leaf. I have brought an expert with us, Dr. Michael Carmody, to whom I will defer, if I am allowed.

Dr. Michael Carmody

I have personal experience with defective blocks in my family home where my parents live. Cracks appeared in the block in approximately 1997. A few years later, this progressed to mould contamination, the most concerning of which is black mould. I am representing evidence of health defects on family members. We have had worsening cases of underlying asthma, rhinitis and fatigue. These symptoms will only occur in my brothers when they are staying in the home. I am also speaking today as a medical doctor to convey the health risks associated with black mould, which is affecting the interior of defective-block-affected homes at all levels of degradation.

Mould hitchhikes its way into a home. A black mould requires a continuous water supply to sustain it. It is contaminating the structural materials, which will need to be removed. Black mould is mould that produces mycotoxins. Mycotoxins are compounds that can be inhaled, ingested or transmitted via the skin and are small enough to penetrate human cell membranes and cross the human placenta and blood-brain barrier. They can inhibit protein synthesis and disrupt immune function. These actions are associated with disease causation, as well as exacerbation of existing disease.

Evidence can be supplied, as needed, for the associations that are shown in scientific literature between black mould and illness. Strong associations exist between exposure and the worsening of lung conditions such as asthma, which affects one in 13 people in Ireland, the causation of asthma and the higher medical risk to the immunocompromised person. Black mould is reported to impact or cause decline in cognitive function, a worsening of autoimmune conditions, mental health conditions, chronic fatigue and cancer. Some people are more genetically prone to the more severe mycotoxin-associated illnesses. The severity of illness is associated with duration of exposure.

Treatment of mycotoxin-induced illness often requires medication, including steroids and other immunosuppressants, which carry their own risks. N95 masks are recommended at an industrial level for workers exposed to mould. The Health and Safety Authority, the European Union, the World Health Organization and the Centres for Disease Control give a guidance on mould and black-mould contamination, to include some of the associated health risks. This is the same black mould that is present in buildings with defective blocks.

If the visual inspection does not work, what would Dr. Cleary's recommendation be, as part of this new Bill? I understand it will be dealt with in regulation.

Dr. Martina Cleary

Especially with regard to pyrite and sulphate attack, which I know is also in Donegal, access to the core testing is essential. That will be removed in the new Bill. It has been proffered as the cheaper option that will take away the €7,000 bill which was prohibitive to owners. That should never have been prohibitive in the first place. It should have been provided in a timely manner and up front. We need a variety of things in this country. We need independent laboratories. It is absolutely unthinkable that tests have to be sent abroad, because we believe that the laboratories in this country are somehow compromised in terms of the autonomy of the results coming back. There needs to be more independent research done as well.

The short answer is that we need to retain some kind of core-testing mechanism where the homeowners have the right to appoint their own engineer who will work on their behalf and has access to the results. That has been essential for us. If we did not have that, as I know Limerick did not, we would have no ground on which to stand to see what is happening and understand and interpret it. If one puts that completely into the housing authority's hands, one is putting all of the control of diagnosis of a house and remediation options completely at the discretion of the Government.

I am an Independent Deputy for Limerick. My colleague in Dublin, Senator Boyhan, and I are together in this. I am a building contractor and a blocklayer. I understand everything the witnesses are saying, but I will tell them why the core testing has to go ahead. The Government is now pushing a retrofit grant that is going out throughout the country. The grant is to insulate one's house. If one insulates a house with pyrite, it accelerates what is happening. We had 30 people here yesterday from Limerick who have pyrite in their houses and have formed a group. I get two or three phone calls per week from people, because I am a building contractor, to ask me to come to look at their houses and see what are the criteria.

When this first happened, people rang us and asked what they would do. I said to people to seal it up, until somebody got to them, because we did not know what was coming. We did not know what grant aid would be available to people and we told them to seal up the cracks to stop the water getting in, because of the pyrite issue. What has been proven in terms of people who had poor insulation in their houses, such as those houses built in the 1980s which would only have had 40 mm white insulation, is that of the houses that had pyrite and had insulation pumped into their cavities, 90% of them are showing up with pyrite in our country because insulation accelerates what is happening.

If the Government does not allow the core testing to go ahead to make sure there is not pyrite in the houses we are insulating, it is causing a bigger problem in the whole country, because it will accelerate a situation of which it has control. Core testing has to stay there. The lack of engineers we have to test this is also a big problem. The engineers that engineered people's houses on the first day, who were taking the certified blocks and stones were good enough at the time for the banks, institutions and the Government, to meet regulations when they were building their houses. They were good enough to sign off on people's houses and now they are saying they are not good enough to do testing or even be part of testing, or to do core testing and send it to an independent lab in order for us to get fast-tracked results.

On one hand, the Government is looking to insulate houses, which can accelerate the damage caused by pyrite, and, on the other, it is stopping coring to find out if homes have pyrite from going ahead. All the blocks I am talking about came from Clare, which borders Limerick. The problem lies with the quarries used at the time. Some houses have the Clare blocks and some have the Clare infill, that is, pyrite is not in their blocks but in their floors and bursting up through the floors. Some houses have it around the outside, where clause 804 was laid in order to put in the sewers and so on, which is causing the footpaths to burst up. People wonder what is wrong and whether the ground has subsided. It has not. It is the pyrite. The question comes back to the witnesses, and they have answered it a couple of times already. What is their thinking on pumped insulation going into houses that could have pyrite? In any of their cases, has that accelerated the process of pyrite showing out?

Ms Josephine Murphy

I can answer that for the Deputy. In 2013, the owner of a house applied for SEAI services. On 2 December, he got a reply stating that the services could not be rendered because of the cracks in his gable and that the SEAI would not carry them out. It was in 2013 that we found that out. In 2014, that couple found out that they had pyrite. The SEAI was offering services for cavity wall insulation in 2013 and knew that it was exacerbating the issue.

I am sorry to cut across Ms Murphy. There are a lot of houses in Limerick on which people have done remedial work because they had cracking. They have removed the plasterwork, put mesh onto those areas and got products that soak in to make the blocks harder. The problem now, however, is that when the winter comes again, the moisture will build up inside that and the whole lot will come off in a leaf. The problem you have when you build a house is that you have a wall plate that holds up your roof and, if you have a hip roof, you are putting the pressure onto the corners of your house. If you have a bungalow with an A-frame roof, it is all held together with triangulation of timber. If one of your cavities is weakened by pyrite, your house will come down around you. The Government 100% has to allow coring in order to ensure that we do not put any family in a dangerous situation. Furthermore, with the insulation grants, we have to make 100% sure that coring happens in order to make sure we do not exacerbate a problem we already have.

Dr. Martina Cleary

May I answer?

Very briefly. In 20 seconds, please.

Dr. Martina Cleary

Coring is being suggested but only on the recommendation of the housing association, that is, only at a much later stage and if one gets past the damage threshold. I have surveyed 90 houses. Fifty-six of them have this cavity wall insulation, 26 do not and others are not defined. Our report also shows that the water is crossing the cavity. It is not the insulation; it is crossing inside. I have heard proffered from an engineer in Limerick the notion that one can spray some magical potion onto blocks to restore their compressive strength. That is utter nonsense. One cannot restore-----

We will come back to that detail. The next slot is mine. I will be brief with it. I wish to ask the witnesses a question about foundations. I am unclear as to what the position on foundations is at the moment. Generally, a foundation is poured concrete in a trench, and then you build up the blockwork and put in the floor. Is it the witnesses' understanding that nothing can be done to the foundations under this scheme?

Ms Josephine Murphy

Under the new scheme-----

While Ms Murphy finds what she is looking for, I will ask a further question. Does the material that would have been used to pour the concrete and the material that would have been used to build the blocks have the same deleterious material in it?

Mr. Michael Doherty

Yes. It comes out of the same quarry. It is the same crushed rock. So the aggregate that is in the defective blocks is the same aggregate that is-----

In the poured concrete.

Mr. Michael Doherty

-----in the foundations that are yet to be tested.

Has testing been carried out on the poured concrete foundations of any house yet?

Mr. Michael Doherty

Not through the scheme. That is not allowed unless someone has gone off to do it himself or herself.

We are not aware of that from any source privately done on our-----

Ms Josephine Murphy

Part of the core testing involves taking two samples under the damp-proof course. At a meeting last week one homeowner told us that his blocks were so bad that they came up just like slurry. That is how he described them. That frightened the life out of him. If he wants to fix his foundations, the engineers need the house to be knocked and the rubble to be disposed of. Then they will go in and check his foundations, but he has to pay for that.

When the core is taken from beneath the damp-proof course, one is into the blockwork of the footage. Does that core sample go down into the poured concrete as well?

Ms Josephine Murphy


It is only the blockwork that sits on the foundations.

Ms Josephine Murphy

Yes, that is right. It is the defective blocks in the footings.

We do not have any information in respect of poured concrete foundations at this stage and whether they are contaminated or whether they are failing.

Ms Josephine Murphy


That is fine. I just wanted to clarify that in my mind.

Ms Josephine Murphy

We are finding, however, that our floors are cracking up inside.

I understand. One would take from what Ms Murphy said that if the floors are poured with the same concrete as that with which the foundations were poured a couple of weeks previously from the same concrete, there is a likelihood that there could be the same material in that sub-foundation.

Ms Josephine Murphy

Yes. That is why-----

I thank Ms Murphy for clarifying that.

I have been reading quite a bit about the question of the downsizing option. I have received a lot of emails from many residents throughout the area. Say you have a house that is 1,800 sq. ft and under the scheme you want to come back and build something that measures 1,600 sq. ft. Those are just figures off the top of my head. The idea is that the redress should be for the 1,800 sq. ft, that is, the original size, but that the smaller home can then be built back and that the offset, the cost, to build back the 1,600 sq. ft one from the allowance received from having a home of 1,800 sq. m-----

Mr. Michael Doherty

May I come in on that?

Please do.

Mr. Michael Doherty

What is so important to us is that we are not getting 100% redress. If we were getting 100% redress, we would rebuild the houses we had to the same sizes at zero cost. The reality is that our scheme is more like an 80% redress, which leaves a 20% shortfall. For example, if homeowners get a grant of €160,000, they might find they are €50,000 short and cannot get that €50,000, so they take that €160,000 and build whatever size house they can build for €160,000 and then they are not out any money and do not have to go to the bank.

I thank Mr. Doherty for clarifying that. I understand it now.

I will not take the rest of my time. We will move on. I have to follow a roster for the committee members. Is a member of the Labour Party present? I do not think so. I think they are in the Seanad. I will go to the Social Democrats. I call Deputy O'Callaghan.

I was first elected as a councillor in 2009 in an area of Dublin where a lot of pyrite was emerging in housing estates. It is terrible to see that, more than ten years on, a lot of the issues that residents in those areas were raising - the same issues of access to core testing and so on - are still not being addressed properly.

As for the general scheme and head 24, which is about subrogation of rights, does the Donegal action group think that part of the scheme might leave homeowners in a situation in which they face a choice of either pursuing class actions for justice or that they might be reluctant to sign up to this redress scheme because they have to sign away their rights? If the redress scheme is not modified, do the witnesses think that will be an issue? Will the witnesses expand on issues with costs?

Mr. Michael Doherty

Sorry. Will the Deputy repeat the first part of the question?

The first question was whether the witnesses have an opinion on section 24 of the scheme, which affects class actions and-----

Mr. Michael Doherty

I clearly do. The idea of the action being taken by some homeowners at the moment, which is a type of class action, is that it is geared to recover from the State, through the courts, the difference between the grant that is allocated and the true cost of replacing one's home. For example, if the grant is at €160,000 but the true cost of replacement is €200,000, the class action we are looking at is to recover the €40,000, not the entire amount of money because we are not looking to get the grant paid out twice. That is what it is for.

We believe this is a cynical move designed to distract people from believing it is possible to follow one of two avenues. These are in respect of the grant process and the possibility of the shortfall being made up through the class action. This seems to be designed to scare people away from taking both paths and to protect the State by having any recovered costs given to the State as opposed to the homeowner who was lost out on the money in the first place. In the example I gave, it looks like rather than the €40,000 shortfall going to the homeowner to make up the difference, which is the reason it was designed, it would be recovered by the State against the €160,000 it paid out in a grant. It is terrible to think anyone would set up a system like that. That is our big problem with it.

I will pass the question on costs over to Mr. Houton, our quantity surveyor in our local area in Donegal.t

Mr. Aidan Houton

The SCSI, which was referred to earlier, came up with eight house types it had looked at. Somebody put it well earlier in saying the SCSI had one hand tied behind its back. It was given parameters and could not price for foundations or the current regulations. It could not even include in its square-foot rate floor coverings, such as a simple carpet or laminate flooring. I looked at a 2,500 sq. ft. house, for which the SCSI had a rate of €147 per square foot. I allowed for an inflation rate of 9%, which is a conservative estimate given the volatility in the price of materials, as builders will know. Every second week, people are getting an email indicating that the prices of materials are increasing. For example, last week I received an email stating that the price of insulation will go up by between 20% and 25% on 1 July. I added 9% to account for inflation to the rate of €147 per square foot set by the SCSI for a standard four-bedroom house, one of the most common house types in Donegal. I then worked out it would cost approximately €10,000 to take out foundations, dispose of the materials and put in new foundations. This worked out at approximately €4 per square foot. Building to the current regulations adds approximately €11 per square foot. Including floor coverings, whether tiling, laminate, carpet or whatever else, would add a further €5 per square foot, giving €147, plus €13 per square foot to account for inflation, €4 per square foot to account for foundations, €11 per square foot to cover the current regulations and approximately €5 per square foot for floor coverings, it amounts to €180 per square foot. That is what it will cost to complete a 2,500 sq. ft. house from start to finish under current regulations.

The other parameter I ask the committee to consider is in regard to smaller houses. There are items that will cost the same amount regardless of house size, whether it is 2,500 sq. ft., 2,000 sq. ft. or 1,500 sq. ft. These include kitchens, stairs, fees and connecting and disconnecting electricity. The final amount was approximately €50,000. Divided by 2,500, that works out at €20 per square foot over a 2,500 sq. ft. house, €50 per square foot for 1,000 sq. ft. house. There is a €30 per square foot difference between a small house and a bigger house. It will be €180 per square foot for a 2,500 sq. ft. house but for a 1,000 sq. ft. house, it will be approximately €210 per square foot for the same specification with a smaller size. Smaller houses will cost more per square foot to build than bigger houses.

Deputy Dillon will take the next Fine Gael slot.

I welcome all our guests, especially the representatives from the Mayo Pyrite Action group, Ms Hegarty and Ms Murphy.

I will stick to the issue of costs. The proposed scheme is suggesting an upper cap of €420,000 for homeowners to rebuild homes. However, a secondary cap on the square footage rate has also been put in place. I thank Mr. Houton for his update on costs. For local builders and developers to deliver on these rebuilding challenges, what implications will this have in the current climate of high inflation in the cost of construction materials?

Ms Martina Hegarty

Mr. Houton can partly answer that question. From my perspective, anyone who picks up the phone and contacts a contractor will find that no one is willing to give a quote. Where a contractor does give a quote, it is €200 plus per square foot. My house is less than 1,000 sq. ft. in size. It is ridiculous to think it will cost me over €200,000 to rebuild my home, and the cost is only getting higher.

The problem is I will not get €200,000 from the Government. I will get approximately €160,000 and maybe even less. I may also have to pay engineering fees of €15,000. Mr. Campbell is available on video link. We have gone through, item by item, every single aspect that it will take to rebuild our homes and the rates available are not workable.

As Mr. Houton said, on the materials side, the costs are moving. One of the big concerns about the scheme is that homeowners will be tied to a timeframe to rebuild their homes. That is not doable right now. I had homeowners ringing me last night in panic because they were approved for the scheme last year. They are waiting to start their rebuild. They were hopeful, as the rest of us were, that all of the time and effort put in over the past year would be productive. They are now panicking because they have only two months left to rebuild their house.

To be honest, everything in the scheme is anti-homeowner. There are no key performance indicators, KPIs, or timelines set for any local authority or housing agency. The timelines, the criteria and every single other aspect are set for the homeowner, and they are set for the homeowner to fail.

Mr. Aidan Houton

The rates per square foot are not working. Homeowners will have to put their hands in their own pockets and they do not have that money.

On the figure the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, has put on this versus what the figure could potentially reach, I am sure everyone is concerned about what will be in the regulations when people go to build. Will the regulations be updated to reflect the current SEAI figure over time? That figure could go up or down. I would like to get the campaigners' understanding of that.

Mr. Michael Doherty

What we are being led to believe is that there should be a one-stop shop for the scheme. That is what we have been told all along. The caveat I would apply in that regard is that we have been told a lot of things over the last six months. Ms Hegarty and I have been working closely with some of the officials and much of what we understood would happen did not materialise last Tuesday. All I can tell the Deputy is what we were led to believe, which was that there will be a one-stop shop, a seamless process that will include the grants from the SEAI where a homeowner decided to seek them. That is our understanding of that.

On the costs, it is important to understand the reasons for the differences exist between what SCSI put together and what Mr. Houton sees as our prices on the ground. These can be summarised under two headings. One is that the terms of reference given to the SCSI deliberately excluded true costs and the Department decided what the eligible costs were. A figure of €15,000 in professional fees that a homeowner has to pay is not included. The cost of foundations has been left out. The Department is expecting us, on a leap of faith and without the science, to say the foundations are okay. Most homeowners want to change their foundations and will pay for that themselves. That will cost another €10,000. No finishes of any kind are provided for, not even a basic carpet. We know what it takes to finish a house. It will cost another €5,000 or €10,000 and the homeowner has to find that.

There are also boundary walls and garages. You cannot be in your new house and have your children running around in the street when walls and garages have the potential to fall down over time. These are costs that the homeowner will bear. People could very quickly spend €50,000 or €60,000 on these things but they cannot access that money. That is why we want an option for downsizing. We should not deprive people of the chance to take the grant, to take the hit on the equity in the house they already bought and paid for and to liquidate part of it to spend on building a smaller house they can afford. It would be criminal of the State to block that. That is what we are facing. If the committee is to recommend anything, it should be that people who are prepared to take the hit on the size of the home they already bought and paid for should not be deprived of a second chance to avoid going near banks and to pay for a house out of their grants, as they wish to do.

I thank Dr. Leemann for travelling here from Switzerland today. In a second, I will invite him to share with us the outcome of the testing he and Petrolab have carried out. There were some deeply worrying findings with regard to the very prominent role of pyrrhotite. I have read and listened to those findings. I will also invite Professor Dunlop to comment on his findings, the regulations that were in place in this State in 2002, 2004 and 2008 and how those regulations were not implemented or incorporated into IS 465, which underpins the current scheme and will underpin the scheme to come until it is reviewed. I suggest that Dr. Leemann and Professor Dunlop take approximately two minutes. I will then invite Mr. Aidan Houton, Mr. Michael Doherty and Mr. Thomas Campbell to speak on cost inflation. As has been talked about, the SCSI has done costings but these are based on the 2007 regulations and exclude the foundations, which is deeply worrying. Right now, the scheme would be based on the SCSI report from January 2022. Under this scheme, it is estimated that it would be late 2023 before the Minister could review this. That means that the costings will be two years old. Mr. Houton's testimony is deeply worrying. It occurs to me that when this scheme is operational, it will be necessary to base it on up-to-date SCSI costings that include foundations and meet the appropriate regulations for 2022. I ask Professor Dunlop and Dr. Leemann to speak first and then perhaps Mr. Doherty and Mr. Houton could take the second question.

Dr. Andreas Leemann

I propose that I start. I will quickly say something about the role of pyrrhotite in the concrete blocks from Donegal. Pyrrhotite is the unstable form of iron sulphate. It oxidises, which results in a first phase of expansion. This is relatively small. It is the rust that is formed from the iron. Sulphur is then released, which leads the concrete blocks to expand due to the formation of a new minerals. The first is called ettringite and then, in the second stage, another sulphate mineral that leads to the loss of the concrete's strength, thaumasite, is formed. At a given point, carbonation, that is to say the concrete taking in CO2 from the air, kicks in. This boosts the formation of thaumasite, which means a loss of strength. In the end, these two new mineral phases, ettringite and thaumasite, disappear because gypsum is formed. This is the end stage. With regard to the standards and the levels of sulphur that are allowed in aggregates, Professor Dunlop has looked into this question and can comment.

Professor Paul Dunlop

As a professional researcher at Ulster University, I was very concerned about the lack of research into this issue so I brought a team of people together. Dr. Leemann is one of these and another is Mr. Nick Scaglione from the USA. We have looked at the concrete issue independently without being restricted to the IS 465 protocols. We presented our research at the European Parliament on 23 March. We invited Engineers Ireland, the National Standards Authority of Ireland, NSAI, and people from the Department to join us and to look at the findings. It is absolutely clear from the research we have done that pyrrhotite is oxidising and releasing sulphur, which is turning into sulphuric acid and attacking the cement hydrates. We have found the process connected to the cracking of concrete blocks in Donegal. It is a real thing and cannot be ignored.

Mr. Doherty has already said that many of these homes were built during the Celtic tiger years. The regulations that were in place at that time, the European standards on aggregates for concrete, EN 12620:2002, specified very clearly that, if pyrrhotite is present in the aggregate, then 0.1% of sulphur can be released, which is a very low level. That was published by the NSAI in 2004. Its regulation was called SR 16:2004 and used the exact same wording. The NSAI updated that standard in 2008 which was then called IS EN 12620:2002+A1:2008. I know that is quite a long title but I mention it for the record. This standard said the same thing, that special attention must be given to aggregates that contain pyrrhotite and that you cannot have more than 0.1% sulphur being released into concrete.

Analysis that we have done with Dr. Leemann and Mr. Scaglione has clearly identified that in areas where there is this cracking, you find pyrrhotite being oxidised and sulphur being released. Dr. Leemann presented really good results that show sulphur being released in situ in the blocks in Donegal today. We have also shown the process whereby these secondary minerals, ettringite and thaumasite, form and expand, causing cracking. It is a really serious problem because, in Donegal, those involved in the IS 456 process have decided that the problem is mica and mica alone. People involved in the setting up of that protocol are holding on to those old ideas. We need the science to move forward.

I thank the Chairman and the secretariat for organising this meeting. I am substituting for Deputy Flaherty. I thank all of the homeowners who are here today, the committees that are behind them and all of the other homeowners behind those committees. For the benefit of anyone who has not dealt with this issue and is new to it, the mental stress everybody here and everybody they represent are under is absolutely extraordinary. You really cannot understand it until you are in the middle of it. That needs to be at the forefront of everyone's mind.

I will come back to the damage threshold and the issue of the foundations. Deputy Conway-Walsh referred earlier to Mayo County Council turning down 20 applications last summer. Some 19 of these rejections were overturned on appeal. That is relevant because the expert group's report cited Mayo County Council's work on a damage threshold as one of the reasons a damage threshold is being introduced. Will Ms Hegarty comment on what was involved in that? She was one of the homeowners in question.

With regard to the foundations issue, I know Mr. Campbell has made some proposals as to a potential solution. Will he talk us through those proposals? Will he also explain the difference between raft and strip foundations and the relevance of that difference to what is under discussion today?

Ms Martina Hegarty

What happened in Mayo last summer brings into question the whole process and the understanding that local authorities decide whether applications are eligible. Again, decisions on houses are being made based on desktop studies without anything being physically seen. Having outsourced the contract to review homes, Mayo County Council decided that there was no pattern of cracking present. Over a period of two months, we were put through what can only be described as absolute torture.

We had to get our own engineers out again to reassess our homes and put forward more evidence to say that we should be accepted onto the scheme. The only reason that we did get onto the scheme was because during the appeal process an independent engineer was brought in from outside the county. In conversations with him when he attended my home he basically said "I do not know what I am doing here". When one thinks about it, if one local authority can have one opinion on the damage threshold, what is going to happen when 12 local authorities have an opinion on the damage threshold? It is going to be unworkable. The only way to roll out the scheme effectively is to have one central hub, not 12 local authorities. I will now hand over to Mr. Campbell to speak on the foundation side.

Mr. Thomas Campbell

A common issue we have come up against in Mayo, in Donegal and other counties are situations where the home was constructed with an excessive amount of blockwork below ground level, typically greater than 900 mm below ground level. This would have been done during construction to get to a suitable bearing capacity whereby one had to excavate deeper to get to a solid area. Under the current scheme, that excessive amount of blockwork needs to be removed, replaced and built on the existing strip foundation. There are a number of practical issues with that from a construction point of view and a health and safety point of view. If it is the case that the house is in a housing estate there would be quite a deep excavation required adjacent to the public footpath and to the other properties. If it is a house in the countryside there could be excess costs around landscaping where one must take it back and dig a deeper hole. A very practical solution to this is to remove the defective blockwork, remove the infill hardcore that is there, replace the hardcore in compacted layers and then create a reinforced concrete raft up closer to ground level where one has poor ground conditions. This is what the designs do and it is a very practical solution.. By today's standards, where there is excessive blockwork below that is greater than 900 mm, and the infill stone is greater than 900 mm, one is required to put in a precast concrete slab at floor level to span between the blockwork. This is to carry the house and carry the floors because hardcore greater than 900 mm is susceptible to settlement. From a cost point of view, doing a reinforced concrete raft versus the blockwork and a precast slab would probably work out cost neutral but it is very much a more robust and practical solution from a construction and building point of view.

I thank Mr. Campbell.

Dr. Martina Cleary

My understanding from reading the expert group report is that it is two citations, which are a book and a journal that are out of date and off topic. There is also no longitudinal study as to what exactly is the work, which is not quantified, that Mayo County Council has done for establishing the whole change of a damage threshold. It returns to the lack of research substantiating any of these positions.

I thank Dr. Cleary. There is a second Green Party speaking slot now, but I will let that go because I want to make sure that everyone gets in to speak. With the second Independent Group speaking slot is Deputy O'Donoghue going to take this again?

Yes. My first question is for Mr. Houton on costings. Are all of the costings that Mr. Houton gave plus VAT?

Mr. Aidan Houton

Yes, plus VAT.

When dealing with quantity surveyors it is all plus VAT. In a 2,000 sq. ft house-----

Mr. Aidan Houton

I will just reiterate that the costings I gave are based around my local area. I am from Inishowen, but one hour up the road into Letterkenny the cost will be higher still.

I am basing the costs in our area at roughly around €180 per sq. ft. That is the cost, roughly, to build a house. So, a 2,000 sq. ft house would cost some €360,000 plus VAT. The VAT on that house would be €48,600. That VAT is the first thing the Government could waive, which might bring us back into a slight part of redress. The percentage rate that we are missing is the VAT. If anyone who has pyrite in their house could remove the VAT this would be €48,000 that would bring us closer to getting where the costings are.

Going back to the building process, I will just start with a house that has pyrite at the moment. If I come in the front gate I may see that there is a tarmac drive, if the house is lucky enough to have one. If the house must be taken down then the sewerage sytem and the footpath and everything around the house will be impacted because it will involve going down to the foundation level. This means all of the sewerage system being taken up. The €180 per sq. ft does not cover all the external works. It is just to the builder's finish. It does not include a kitchen, curtains, paint, or reinstatement of bathroom tiles. It comes up well short of the costings being given at the moment. To remove all the rubble from the site it now must go to licensed tips. One might not have a licensed tip near enough to the area so there will also be a transport cost of getting that material from the household to a licensed tip. This also adds another cost. When one works this out, it could be an extra €30 per sq. ft more by the time all of the remedial works around the house are done such as reinstating lawns. It is not a small job to take out the material that must be taken out. The Government has not looked at this and the costings have not been looked at. If the Government wants to come closer to the costs - and we have Government people here and they all want to help - then 13.5% VAT on a 2,000 sq. ft house is €48,600. This figure should be added into the redress scheme, 100% straight away. This brings us closer to where we need to get to, but they still need to raise the rates.

When the materials are purchased they are at 23% VAT. The contractor then puts 13.5% on the bottom. That is 10% more on the materials' costings that are coming in.

I remind the Deputy that there are three minutes if he wants to put a question-----

Has any of the witnesses put this into any of their submissions to the Government? Have the groups asked the Government to remove the 13.5% VAT for rebuilding costs on the houses with pyrite in order to bring them closer to getting the 100% redress they 100% need?

Mr. Michael Doherty

Yes we did. On the back of the working groups last summer, we did that and we were quickly told that in our restricted economy this would not be an option. It just would not be something they were prepared to consider. This is back to the point that the Department dictated the terms of reference. It was a no-go area and not even up for discussion. The Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland, SCSI, took the terms of reference, with all of the exclusions, and did the best job it could. I do not have an issue with them. The issue is with the terms of reference that excluded all of what should be eligible costs, such as all the elements the Deputy spoke of. That is stuff we must find for ourselves as homeowners, and that is not right.

Mr. Doherty is 100% right. That has been taken off the table but it now needs to be looked at by the Government to say that it must come back in. That is a sizeable amount of money that would go a long way to helping with redress.

Ms Josephine Murphy

We did it in 2020 after the current grant scheme became available. We put in 24 asks, one of which was to get the VAT back. It was "No. No."

That to me is absolutely disgraceful. It is one thing they could actually go along with. It is also very easy to police because an invoice could still be issued including the VAT and then it would go back to Revenue with a zero VAT rating on it for people who have pyrite or mica in their houses. It could very easily be looked at and very easily managed. It would be transparent across the board if anyone was trying to manipulate the figures. The square footage would be there and any quantity surveyor would tell if somebody had been trying to up their the square footage. The material costs and everything would be done out on spreadsheets to show what square footage was being charged. The square footage can be worked out and the VAT can be easily seen. It is one simple measure by which we could make sure that we can get the 100% redress.

Mr. Houton said that different areas have different prices. Taking into account the timelines, this issue could be extended into the fact that the contractors are just not there. There are five contractors in my area with 30 years' experience who have now pulled out of the building because they say they can no longer afford to build.

That is going to be another phase we and the Government must take into account.

I welcome all the representatives here today, in particular the group from Donegal because that is the group that we have mostly been dealing with. When I say "we", I must include the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, who has probably had more engagement with the group than any of us put together in recent years.

I thank all the members of the Mica Action Group from Donegal for contributing so much over the years to its ongoing work. The voluntary effort and the hours they have put in on behalf of homeowners in Donegal is very much appreciated. Without that work on the ground, we as politicians would not have got to where we are today. Two years ago, Professor Doherty and I were sitting in the Clanree Hotel with the Taoiseach, but we are in a very different position today. We are better informed. As time moves on, we are learning more about the difficulties. It is important that whoever is in government, the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage allows the scheme to evolve. I have no doubt that in a year's time there will be other issues and other scenarios will be realised. It is very important that we have a mechanism to allow the scheme to evolve and change.

Professor Dunlop talked about pyrite being present in the block and sulphur being released. The Donegal group is aware that we have other presentations today from the Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland, Engineers Ireland and also from the Department. To what extent has Professor Dunlop's information been shared with Engineers Ireland and what is its view of it to date? Is it in agreement with him or does it oppose it? The presentations that were made today are helpful for us. We will use them as best we can and put what we heard to the representatives of Engineers Ireland, the Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland, and the Department because this is an ever-evolving situation. Many issues have been dealt with this far, but we are not there yet. I, for one, want to get a scheme across the line before the summer recess. That is very important. I took a lot of criticism some time ago, but I stand over what I did to ensure the old scheme was not scrapped. A lot of work is happening on the ground in Donegal and possibly in some other counties whereby people could prepare for contract and go through the different stages. It is very important that they are now ready to go because it will save a lot of time. That is why I wanted to save the scheme from day one. I am glad I stood over that. I still stand by it.

Could Professor Dunlop respond on what the situation is in terms of the opinion of Engineers Ireland on the results of his investigations on pyrite?

Professor Paul Dunlop

I thank the committee for letting me in again. I would like to bring Mr. Leemann into the discussion as well. The main issue we are worried about in Donegal is not so much pyrite as pyrrhotite, which is another form of unstable iron sulphite. It is more highly reactive than pyrite and it is well known internationally, in the United States - in Massachusetts and Connecticut - and also in Quebec in Canada. Mr. Leemann has presented work that he has done in Switzerland where very high-strength concrete used in foundations and megastructures like dams fails because of oxidisation of pyrrhotite.

To date, from what I can see publicly, Engineers Ireland has been fairly quiet, but I heard its representatives speak on the radio. Dr. Martina Cleary organised an excellent conference a few weeks ago. All I can say at the moment is that there is a denial of the problem in Donegal that pyrrhotite is widespread. Mr. Campbell can speak about this as well. Some 86% of the homes in Donegal that he has sampled have appreciable levels of pyrrhotite in them. It is a major issue. People from Engineers Ireland or the NSAI, who are wedded to this old idea that mica is a problem in Donegal need to shift. There is a serious pyrrhotite issue. Pyrrhotite is classed as a geohazard. Other types of geohazards are hurricanes, earthquakes and tsunamis. This is a real problem. I accept we need more research to try to understand it, but evidence is there to show that it is a widespread issue. I will hand over to Mr. Leemann, who may have other comments to add.

Before he does, I wish to ask Professor Dunlop one more question. Investigations are ongoing by Engineers Ireland on behalf of the Department. Is pyrrhotite part of the investigation?

Professor Paul Dunlop

I know that IS 465 is being reviewed, which is very welcome. I also know that there is an understanding that pyrrhotite must be part of that review. It is excellent that it is doing that, but I have no idea who is on the panels. I just hope that they are open to the evidence that is being presented. The European seminar to which I referred discussed the many reports that are coming back from Petrolab and also from engineers on the ground who are dealing with homes in Donegal. The committee could speak to Mr. Campbell about the number of houses he has done. Dr. Ambrose McCloskey is another engineer who is on the record as saying that most of the homes he has been testing have come back with pyrrhotite. We need more research on the issue, but the small bit of research we did with Mr. Leemann clearly shows that pyrrhotite is present, and that it is oxidising and releasing sulphur and that an internal sulphate attack is happening in Donegal. It is not just a mica issue.

I thank Professor Dunlop. I know Mr. Campbell wants to come in with a comment and I will try to get him in on a later slot. Senator Cummins will take the third Fine Gael slot.

I will not take all the time because I am conscious there are Oireachtas Members present from other affected counties who have questions and I want to allow them time.

I wish to ask a question about the point Professor Doherty made in his previous contribution on downsizing and to tease it out a little bit in terms of his thinking. I understand where he is coming from in that respect but does he have concerns given that there would be planning implications in such a scenario in terms of replacing a like-for-like situation with a new house? There would be planning costs as well as professional fees and costs for other matters. In addition, there is the planning process, which could go through a local authority process and ultimately be appealed to An Bord Pleanála. I am just playing out the other side of the argument. What is Professor Doherty's view on that? Why is he not concerned in that respect if we are to go that route?

Professor Michael Doherty

The first point is the issue of inconvenience, which I accept is associated with planning permissions, including all of the ones Senator Cummins listed. But there are then non-starters, where there is no pathway forward. It is not an inconvenience, it is a non-starter when people do not have the €50,000 or €60,000 they need to rebuild a home. That has to be priority number one. That is what downsizing offers, should a homeowner decide to go that way, as long as there is not a penalty, such as they are trying to impose at the moment. That is number one.

The second issue is that when it comes to the inconvenience factor, there have been conversations already around not having to go through planning, so long as one is working off the same footprint of the home. Even if the footprint was shortened somewhat to make it a smaller home, they would largely be on the same plot as they were before and exemptions in that regard are being explored. With a bit of creativity, we could make all that work, and we would not have the level of inconvenience that a homeowner may have to put up with, but the starter for ten is that we need a way to get a home rebuilt when people do not have the €50,000 or €60,000 to bridge the shortfall. That is where penalty-free downsizing is an option and cannot be taken off the table.

I thank Professor Doherty for his response, which I fully understand. I come from that perspective myself, but what he suggests in terms of the creativity piece is fraught with danger due to potential legal challenges on planning.

I am not saying that as a block; I am just saying it as a reality. We could end up in a scenario where a homeowner wants to downsize because they want to get that project off the ground but are then challenged through the planning process. I am acutely aware of and would be very concerned about that issue for homeowners affected.

Mr. Michael Doherty

There is nothing stopping us downsizing. No one from the Department or elsewhere has said people cannot downsize. They are just saying they will not provide the money needed to do the downsizing. It is not the case that they have investigated it and found it fraught with danger and, therefore, will not allow downsizing. They will absolutely allow downsizing but will reduce the grant money and give a grant towards a smaller house. This is not a technical issue for them. It is purely a financial issue for them. Even though it is a cost-neutral option to them, they are looking for an opportunity to claw back some of the grant money they were prepared to give because the homeowners find they can do nothing else other than downsize. It is an opportunity for the State to pull back some of the money it was going to give in the first place. That is the only logical explanation. That is where we are at.

Mr. Doherty has made a valid point but I do not know how we would overcome the planning issue.

Ms Martina Hegarty

On the planning issue, have some homes in Donegal not already downsized and have had no issues?

Mr. Michael Doherty

There have indeed.

Ms Martina Hegarty

Homes in Mayo have also gone through with no issues with planning. I am a bit lost on that.

That they have not-----

Ms Martina Hegarty

There were no issues. Planning permission was granted with no problems.

I am happy to give way to other members. I am conscious of time.

I appreciate that. I call Deputy McNamara followed by Deputy Pringle. We will then have a third round with Deputy Ó Broin. I also have one brief question to ask.

The witnesses have had detailed discussions and these are just the heads of Bill. If someone gets a grant of, for example, €100,000 or €150,000, will the Government subrogate to that extent or is it fully subrogated meaning that the person cannot pursue a claim? Do people need to give back the amount they receive and keep anything over and above it or is it that they cannot pursue a claim and the Government can pursue the claim in full?

Is there any intention on the part of the Department or anybody else to pursue the DCB suppliers? Are there many cases that could be pursued? How many people in Clare, for example, who have found their houses are now defective, could have a claim they could pursue or are the majority of cases for one reason or another not legally pursuable?

Dr. Martina Cleary

Of the 90 that have been surveyed, approximately 68% have identified the supplier as CRH Roadstone Bunratty or Ryan's Toonagh. They identified that through receipts, through direct purchase, through clerks and even through connections. Those that are unknown are usually second or third home purchasers. It may be that the builder has gone out of business, is deceased or cannot be identified, or it is a development on a housing estate and they would know where the blocks came from.

Over the past two years, we have observed that very few solicitors are prepared to take on the power and might of the biggest company in the country, which is our supplier. It is the responsibility of the State to address that. There is no point in asking us, the homeowners, the questions. It is the responsibility of the State and all its legal might to answer that question. Regarding blaming the fact that it is the taxpayers' money; we are the taxpayers. This Bill will be a double charged on to us. It is the Government's responsibility to pursue these people.

That is why I asked if there was any indication of an intention to pursue the suppliers of the concrete blocks?

Mr. Michael Doherty

The first time we saw anything to do with this was last Tuesday when the general scheme was presented. It took us by surprise. We had a 61-page document to go through. It was Thursday of last week before we got all our issues discovered, raised and tabled. This is very recent - less than a week. It is quite a complex issue when it becomes legal. We have sought legal advice on it and we are still awaiting that legal advice. So far, we have been led to believe that at a high level this is something to put the frighteners on people chasing any claim from anybody. We are sorry to see that part.

There has always been talk about chasing the perpetrators but it has never found its way on to anything in black and white that we have seen. If it has, it has certainly not been pursued with any vigour. In the document again the homeowner is the easiest port of call. The homeowner seems to be the target as opposed to the quarries that allowed it or as opposed to the local authorities and their failure to regulate the standards that would have avoided this disaster in the first place.

As homeowners, we feel victimised. We feel that we are an easy target. The bigger businesses, banks and insurance companies are not being pursued with any vigour as far as we can see. In black and white in the general scheme, there we are, named again. It contains language such as jail sentences of five years and fines of €50,000 for anything deemed fraudulent. All the language we are seeing here is pointing to homeowners and how to manage these people who seem to be looking for something for nothing. I go back to the simple point: all we want is what we had and what we paid for.

I thank all the witnesses for coming here today and for their evidence. What they have gone through in Donegal and elsewhere has been very difficult.

Mr. Doherty saw the general scheme of the Bill last week. I know this is not pre-legislative scrutiny but we are talking about the upcoming Bill and what might improve it. What changes need to be made to the Bill?

Mr. Michael Doherty

There is quite a lot in that. We have suggested 35 different amendments in our submission. To catch the essence of it, we had three pillars from the beginning. The first relates to cost: 100% redress and no less. The scheme has a cap of €420,000. When the scheme was announced at the end of November last year, that cap affected 18% of our homeowners. Because of inflation, it now affects one third of our homeowners. That cap needs to go to €460,000 to stay where were at the end of November with 18% affected. If the cap is raised to €460,000 at least we are back to where we were at the end of November and 18% of our people will need to suffer a cap over and above the square-foot cap. There is one starting point.

The second one is the need for penalty-free downsizing. We cannot penalise people who are taking the grant available and trying to make the most of it to build a smaller home. That is just morally wrong. The third thing relates to the rates. The rates need to be solid. The rates need to be reviewed before we launch the scheme. We cannot launch a scheme that will hit the ground in months with figures that go back to February 2021. They need to be reviewed and up to date. A number to allow for inflation needs to be applied to that because otherwise our rates will be in arrears for the next 12 months and the homeowner carries that cost. Those are the cost issues in pillar 1.

Pillar 2 relates to the science. We have scientists and geologists here. We have a compelling case that says we have missed the elephant in the room. The elephant in the room is a deleterious material that is not even referenced in IS 465, called pyrrhotite.

It should have been referenced because there is a 2004 European standard that ought to have been included by NSAI and was not. We are suffering the consequences on the back of that. We are in a stand-off between the Department and the local authority in Donegal, where 369 applications are stalled because they do not know how to deal with pyrrhotite as IS 465 filters out everything bar pyrite and mica. That stand-off is still to be resolved and it has been running since January. We are six months into it. We need to be in a place where we can say "if in doubt take it out". I have no issue, nor has any homeowner, with NSAI doing what it needs to do to understand the science. If we have a policy of "if in doubt take it out" and there is science that removes that doubt, we have no problem with moving to a place the science says is safe to move to, but we cannot put the cart before the horse. We cannot ask homeowners to go through this twice in their lifetime with the risk of the unknown. The unknown has not yet been clarified. The Department's position is that it will have a go and if it does not work we will have a second bite because that is what the 40-year guarantee and the second grant is for. That does not deal with the mental aspects of a homeowner going through this twice. Pillar 2 is all about the science. We need to get the science right and then the 40-year State-backed guarantee is in case some other unknown evolves over time due to new learning. That is fine. We understand that.

A point was made earlier about the scheme evolving. There is a lot of learning at this point in time. The Department and the Government have a lot of information. We do not need three or four bites of this. We had a bite of it in the 90:10 scheme from January 2020. This is the enhanced scheme announced at the end of November. We have told the Government and officials what needs to happen to make this work. We do not need two or three more bites of this. We can do this right this time if the will is there to do it. If there is further learning down the road, we will take that when we need it but let us not make excuses for not doing the right thing now by saying this scheme can evolve. Let us take what we know, what needs to be done, and do it this time.

Pillar 3 is about excluded homes. There are other people who will not avail of this grant but they are equally victims. They paid for their homes and they are being excluded. There are people in second and third rentals. At the minute, the principal private residence is covered, as well as the first rental property. If people happen to have a second or third rental property, which some did for investments for the future or for pension funds, they are not eligible. We have nowhere for the families in those homes to go, not to talk about the fact the landlord is out because of it. What does he do with the second or third property? There are homeowners who bought and invested and have been part of the Mayo, Donegal or Clare landscape but are being excluded. These people bought in good faith and the Government is not looking to include them in any shape or form. These people are not saying they should be pushed to the front. They are just asking not to be left behind. If there is a revision in three years, which is being talked about, we need language in place now stating that no defective concrete block home will be left behind. For these people, it is not a case of not ever but just not today. They will take that.

I thank the witnesses for their presentations, not just for the information but the very reasonable and measured way they have brought that to the committee. I have three very specific questions. My first question is for Dr. Leemann. Given everything he knows about the kinds of deleterious materials that are in these counties, what does he think when he hears of options for just the outer leaf and not the inner leaf, or the brickwork but not the foundations? The source of the aggregate might be the same or similar for the brick and the foundations. Does he think these are credible options, based on his knowledge of the science?

We have moved away from talking about pyrite and mica exclusively to a range of other deleterious materials. Based on Mr. Campbell's understanding and the information that is out there, what is the level of prevalence of these materials in any of the affected counties that he has knowledge of?

The way this legislation is set up, the first review of the unit cost the Minister can do is 12 months after the introduction of the legislation. The legislation is due to be commenced in late autumn or early winter of this year. It would therefore be late autumn or early winter 2023 before the Minister would be allowed to revise the base rates upwards. Given what Mr. Houton knows in general about cost price inflation, and given that the original base rate was set early this year, where does he think costs will be two years after that original SCSI report? How big a gap will there be between those rates and where inflation is going to be at the latter end of 2023?

Dr. Andreas Leemann

I will first give some information about pyrrhotite. If there is pyrrhotite present in the aggregate used in the concrete, it will oxidise and create an internal sulphate attack. How fast this goes on depends on the reality of humidity. It is lower for the inner leaf than for the outer leaf. You cannot transfer the data or knowledge gained from the blocks to the foundations because the ratio between aggregate and cement content changes for foundations. There is a certain buffer of blocks to take some of the sulphur. However, it goes off stronger in blocks because there is more cement, and you can form more expansive ettringite and more thaumasite, which leads to strength loss. In principle, if it is in the concrete, pyrrhotite oxidation cannot be avoided. The question of gaining information as soon as possible to make the right decisions is not only for foundations; it is for any concrete of this quality that might have been used for stairs, garages or even bridges.

Mr. Thomas Campbell

Based on 77 final reports we have completed with scientific data, pyrrhotite was identified by the labs in 66 cases. That is 86%. The remaining 11 homes had traces of pyrite. In 61 of the 66 homes that have pyrrhotite, or 92%, there were appreciable amounts of pyrrhotite. It is there in large quantities and it is up to the scientists and the geologists to tell us how best to deal with that.

Mr. Aidan Houton

It is very hard to predict what the rates will be in a few years. All we can do is look at the last few years. They have gone up this year alone. At the beginning of July, the cost of insulation will up again by 25% to 30%.

There is another provision in the legislation stating that not only can the Minister not revise the rates, and therefore the cap, until the latter end of next year but that he is not allowed to raise them by more than 10%. I presume from what Mr. Houton has said it is highly likely that the level of inflation from January of this year to October or November next year will be way above 10%.

Mr. Aidan Houton

It is definitely feasible. It used to be that things went up by 5% or 10% throughout the whole year but from 2021 on, materials went crazy because of the volatile market. They were so hard to get. The price of the materials going up was one thing; getting them was another. If we carry on the way we are going, it might be 10% for next year.

I have a brief question, although I do not know how brief the answer will be. How long does it take before the effects can be visibly seen, if a home has been constructed with one of these deleterious materials? Do weather conditions or geographical conditions exacerbate it, such as being in a coastal area? In her opening statement, Ms Cleary said there were ten or 12 other counties where people may end up with this problem but are not aware of it yet. In fact, she said it could be an issue in all of our counties. Are there particular factors that would exacerbate the problem?

Professor Paul Dunlop

I can make a brief comment, but I would like Dr. Leemann to contribute because he is the international expert on pyrrhotite oxidisation in concrete. In terms of conditions required, all that is needed to get pyrrhotite reactions going is oxygen and moisture. We have plenty of both in Ireland. It is something that we just cannot stop. Dr. Leemann has much published research in this field.

Dr. Andreas Leemann

As Professor Dunlop mentions, moisture is very important in this context. Not all sides of a house would be affected in the same way because the level of moisture changes according to exposure. We cannot say it would take five years for damage to appear because it depends on pyrrhotite content and concrete quality. The blocks have varying concrete quality and they are not all the same. For example, there are the foundations of the houses in Connecticut. Some foundations demonstrated signs of damage after three years, while for others it took 20 years to show those signs. Translating this to Ireland, some foundations might have no problem but others are surely a ticking time bomb. We do not know exactly when it will go off. There is a difference according to pyrrhotite content, concrete quality and exposure conditions.

I wonder about the extent of the problem and if we will see more and more houses affected over the next five, ten or 15 years. It is difficult to answer that question.

I thank the witnesses for their assistance in this matter. It has been very helpful. From the testimony it is very clear how stressful and worrying the issue has been, not just over the past couple of weeks as we waited for the publication of the Bill but over the years as the witnesses have seen their houses and homes crumbling. We want to do the very best we can to try to get this right. I thank the delegations for helping with that. We have two more sessions today and we will meet representatives of the Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland, Engineers Ireland, the Department and the expert working group. That will help us form a better picture in dealing with this quite complex matter.

Sitting suspended at 3.02 p.m. and resumed at 3.30 p.m.

I welcome everyone to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage. This is our second public meeting in our examination of the Bill on dwellings damaged by the use of defective concrete blocks. From the expert working group on the scheme we are joined by Mr. Paul Forde, chair and Mr. Martin Lynch, general manager of the pyrite remediation scheme. From Engineers Ireland we are joined by Mr. Damien Owens, registrar, Mr. Alec McAllister, associate director of advocacy and engagement and Mr. Aidan O’Connell, chartered engineer. From the Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland we are joined by Mr. Kevin Brady and Mr. Micheál Mahon who are chartered quantity surveyors and Ms Sabrina Mackin who is a chartered building surveyor. Members have been circulated with the relevant papers and opening statements.

I remind members of the constitutional requirement that they must be physically present within the confines of the place where Parliament has chosen to sit, namely, Leinster House, to participate in public meetings. Witnesses attending in the committee room are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their contribution to today's meeting. This means they have an absolute defence against any defamation action for anything they say at the meeting. Members and witnesses are expected not to abuse the privilege they enjoy. It is my duty as Chair to ensure this privilege is not abused. Therefore, if their statements are potentially defamatory in relation to an identifiable person or entity, they will be directed to discontinue their remarks. It is imperative they comply with any such direction. Members and witnesses are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official, either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

I will invite Mr. Forde, Mr. Owens and Mr. Brady to make their opening statements after which we will go to a question-and-answer session with the members.

Mr. Paul Forde

I wish the Cathaoirleach and members a good afternoon. My name is Paul Forde and I am director and chairman of DBFL Consulting Engineers. Last January, I was appointed by the Department to chair the expert group on the enhanced defective concrete block scheme. The expert group created three working groups. I am happy to be here today with my colleague Mr. Martin Lynch, who is general manager of the pyrite remediation scheme and who chaired one of these groups. We thank the committee for inviting us to assist in its discussions and deliberations on the general scheme.

I have been in practice as a consulting engineer for more than 42 years and I am a founding partner of DBFL Consulting Engineers. The committee has been furnished with my qualifications and professional memberships, among which are fellow of Engineers Ireland and fellow of the Institute of Structural Engineers. I have 14 years of extensive experience in investigating and resolving pyrite problems in a wide range of buildings. I have acted as an expert witness on several occasions. I was appointed as a member of the original Pyrite Resolution Board. I chaired the technical committee that drafted IS 398-2. Of particular relevance is the fact that this part of the standard dealt with the methodology for remediation works. In 2013, Engineers Ireland appointed me to act as chair of its original assessment panel in respect of its pyrite register.

In January 2022 I was asked by the Minister to chair the expert group to advise on the proposed enhanced defective concrete blocks grant scheme. The expert group was established to consider and advise the Minister on the technical issues that needed to be resolved. These included issues such as the damage threshold for entry to the scheme, the parameters around the second grant application, an independent appeals process, a review of the certificate of remediation and consideration of the rebuild cost prepared by the Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland.

The expert group met for the first time on 27 January 2022 and delivered its report on 16 March. As I said earlier, the expert group created three working groups. The first working group, which was chaired by Martin Lynch, dealt with the damage threshold and the building condition assessment reports. The second, which was chaired by John O'Connor, dealt with the proposal to provide for a second grant to cover the possibility of future damage and to deal with the independent appeals process. The third, which I chaired, dealt with the certification of remediation works carried under the proposed enhanced scheme.

In early March, John O'Connor and I met with representatives of the Mayo and Donegal homeowners - Martina Hegarty and Michael Doherty - and discussed the terms of reference of the expert group. We met again on 9 March during which the homeowners' views on all relevant issues were discussed. At each meeting, we were very impressed by their representation, as, I am sure, the committee was earlier, and understood their concerns.

At the outset, the Minister emphasised that other longer-term technical issues required further investigation. These included matters such as a review by the NSAI of I.S. 465, which deals with buildings damaged by deleterious materials, and a review of the Irish standards in respect of concrete blocks, including aggregates. The NSAI has also been requested to examine and test foundations and to report back to the Minister. The expert group produced two reports relating to short-term technical issues in respect of which the Minister required immediate recommendations. These were the report on the enhanced defective concrete blocks grant scheme dated 16 March 2022 followed by an addendum report in respect of the SCSI rebuild costs dated 29 April 2022. The expert group's recommendations for the Minister's consideration are set out in these two reports. I understand that these reports have been made available to members. Mr. Lynch and I are happy to answer any questions members may have.

I now invite Mr. Owens to make his opening statement.

Mr. Damien Owens

I thank the committee for the invitation to participate in today's meeting on matters raised under the Remediation of Dwellings Damaged by the Use of Defective Concrete Blocks Bill. My name is Damien Owens and I am registrar of Engineers Ireland and a chartered engineer. I would like to introduce Mr. Aidan O’Connell, chartered engineer, who joining us online and who sat on the expert group on the defective concrete blocks scheme, and Mr. Alec McAllister, associate director of advocacy and engagement at Engineers Ireland.

Engineers Ireland is one of the oldest and largest representative bodies on the island of Ireland. It has more than 25,000 members. This membership incorporates all disciplines of the engineering profession in Ireland - consulting and contracting organisations, the public sector, semi-State bodies and educational institutes. Our members are organised into regional branches, engineering divisions and societies. Engineers Ireland awards the professional title of chartered engineer in line with the Institution of Civil Engineers of Ireland (Charter Amendment) Act 1969. Chartered engineers have been assessed by their peers as professionals in their field in delivering the highest standards of quality, expertise and innovation to serve the needs of society while ensuring public health and safety. They adhere to the Engineers Ireland code of ethics in all areas of their engineering practice. The registered professional title is recognised internationally and under Irish law. According to the Building Control (Amendment) Regulations (SI 9 of 2014 and code of practice, chartered engineers are one of the three professions that may act as assigned certifiers. Engineers Ireland has also established and maintains registers of suitable qualified persons in specialist areas, including IS 398 pyrite assessment and remediation, historical landfill and IS 465 mica and pyrite. Our members contribute to the development of national standards and policies with consultative groups across industry. Recent submissions include a draft code of practice for fire safety assessment of premises and buildings, a submission to the joint Oireachtas committee on professional indemnity insurance and submission on the climate action plan in May 2021.

It is important to understand the role of the engineer in the context of IS 465. IS 465 establishes a protocol for assessing and determining whether a building has been damaged by concrete blocks containing excessive amounts of certain deleterious materials - aggregate containing free or unbound muscovite mica or potentially deleterious quantities of pyrite. It describes the methods for establishing the extent of the problem and categorise dwellings, the scope of any testing required and the evaluation of the findings and provides the chartered engineer with guidance on the selection of the appropriate remedial works to be undertaken. The role of the registrant, an engineer on the IS 465 register, as set out is purely to prescribe-oversee testing and provide guidance on appropriate remedial works. By virtue of being on the IS 465 register, a registrant is not acting as an assigned certifier or in any other statutory role.

In late 2018, Engineers Ireland was requested by the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage to provide a training programme with the outcome of establishing and maintaining a register of engineers considered competent to assess buildings damaged due to precast concrete blocks containing certain deleterious materials in accordance with the standard and hold professional indemnity insurance. This register lists chartered engineers who have the necessary direct professional experience, competency and specialist training in accordance with the requirements set out in the standard. The register went live in June 2020 and in the region of 30 engineers are on the register.

Since the inception of the register, Engineers Ireland registrants have provided feedback based their experience on the operation of the defective concrete blocks scheme and surveys conducted by registrants on several hundred properties. This feedback included making the case for the extension of IS 465 and associated grant scheme beyond Donegal and Mayo on 16 December 2020 and a submission to the working group on the defective blocks grant scheme on 21 September 2021. The September 2021 submission provided a wide-ranging perspective on the operation of the scheme and highlighted areas that were perhaps discussed today such as pyrrhotite and cavity foundation. The overwhelming sentiment from registrants regarding the scheme was the lack of certainty concerning partial remediation and the liability for any second and subsequent investigation and remediation works. In addition, there was evidence that there was a potentially different mechanism of deterioration of concrete blocks. This aspect requires additional investigation to accurately characterise mechanisms of deterioration so that suitable remedies can be designed and implemented. Subsequent to these inputs, Engineers Ireland was invited to participate in the expert group on the enhanced defective concrete block grant scheme chaired by Mr. Paul Forde in February of this year. This afforded the opportunity for engineering practitioners to provide input to the revised scheme.

Engineers Ireland has worked with stakeholders to implement a register of experts for the implementation of IS 465 and provide feedback from registrants to enable continuous improvement for all stakeholders. We welcome the attention that the committee is giving to the Remediation of Dwellings Damaged by the Use of Defective Concrete Blocks Bill and we look forward to working with the committee, Government and other stakeholders towards an improved solution.

I now invite Mr. Mahon to make his opening statement.

Mr. Micheál Mahon

The SCSI is the leading professional body for chartered surveying professionals working in the property, construction and land sectors across Ireland. In addition, it operates the statutory register for the protected title of quantity surveyor and building surveyor. In addition to promoting the highest standards in surveying, we undertake research on a wide range of economic, industry and practice-related issues in the public interest to produce regular reports including relating to construction costs. Some committee members are serial attenders at our briefings.

In recognition of this construction cost expertise and the independence of the SCSI, we were requested by the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Darragh O’Brien, to provide construction cost information for the Government’s defective concrete blocks grant scheme in late 2021.

The terms of reference were agreed upon between the Department and the SCSI on 7 February 2022. These terms set out the parameters within which the SCSI would produce an independent, stand-alone construction cost report for the demolition and rebuilding of homes affected by defective concrete blocks, which was option No. 1 in the terms of reference, and also propose a cost methodology for partial remediation, which were options Nos. 2 to 5. It should be noted that the report is based on the parameters of the defective concrete blocks grant scheme as announced on 30 November 2021. The SCSI had no role in setting the parameters of the grant scheme, including, for example, in respect of which building regulations apply and the exclusion of foundations, etc., and also no role in the setting of the grant amount. The SCSI report on construction costs for the defective concrete block scheme was published on 3 March 2022 and was welcomed by all stakeholders, including the Minister, Deputy Darragh O’Brien, and the MICA Action Group. The SCSI undertook this extensive work pro bono in the public interest and was supported by a significant number of our volunteer chartered quantity surveyor and chartered building surveyor members. Hundreds of volunteer hours were involved.

Turning to the report methodology and key findings, the SCSI produced a bespoke, stand-alone report on the full demolition and rebuild costs, in the context of remediation option No. 1, for homes affected by defective concrete blocks in the north west as of February 2022. As per the terms of reference and the parameters of the scheme, while the SCSI position is that it is best practice to build to current building standards, the costs in the report are based on new for old without betterment, on pre-2008 building regulations and on excluding new foundations. Consideration of the 2014 Building Control (Amendment) Regulations, BCAR, was included, because that standard is central to quality assurance as it is of particular importance that building regulations are adhered to for all developments to ensure defective building issues are not repeated. The costs do not include fees for the scheme itself, as noted in table 2 on page 8 of the report.

Regarding the methodology, the pricing schedules were drafted by an SCSI expert working group and issued to chartered quantity surveyors based in the north west, primarily in Donegal, with direct professional experience of residential development and mica-impacted homes. The completed schedules were returned in February to provide up-to-date, relevant cost data for the report. These returns were analysed by the working group, with further input from additional chartered quantity surveyors experienced in the field. Additional cost data from the Department and the MICA Action Group were also reviewed as part of the consideration of average rebuild costs. Average rebuilding rates for eight house types, including typical estate-type homes and one-off homes, were provided, ranging from €145 per sq. ft to €165 per sq. ft, priced at February 2022 material and labour rates.

It is particularly important to note and stress that the costs outlined in our report are average costs based on agreed unit sizes and on an agreed specification, as outlined in detail in our terms of reference. In addition to option No. 1, the full demolition and rebuild approach, the SCSI considered options Nos. 2 to 5, concerning partial remediation, of the grant scheme as part of this report. The report includes a non-exhaustive list of ancillary items that would inform the construction costs. We found these elements to be extremely site-specific; therefore, we believe estimates based on gross floor area were inappropriate. I mean that expressing estimates for remediation work based on cost per sq. ft is inappropriate. A site-specific cost exercise will have to be undertaken for the specific elements to be replaced, incorporating the additional items affected in the context of those elements referred to above. The determination of how such a site-specific remediation scheme would be established is a policy matter. A model similar to the I.S. 465 register of chartered engineers, as referred to earlier, may provide a blueprint for establishing a panel of appropriately qualified professionals to undertake such work.

Regarding the impact of construction cost inflation, we were pleased to engage with this committee at the end of last month on this issue and our submission to that meeting set out our views on the current uncertainty impacting the sector. Of note is the fact that some commentators discussing residential construction cost inflation refer to the SCSI tender price index and our house rebuild calculator. These aspects, however, are not appropriate reference points for the defective concrete block scheme as the tender price index relates to commercial property, while the house rebuild calculator is intended for insurance purposes for individual estate-type houses only. For this reason, the SCSI undertook to produce a stand-alone, bespoke report for the defective concrete block scheme.

The input costs of delivering residential developments, be they single or multi-unit developments, are wide-ranging. They include hard costs, which are the construction costs, and soft costs, such as planning, enabling works, utility connections and charges, building control regulation and other statutory costs. The primary drivers for the current price inflation, though, are high price volatility across a range of building materials, particularly insulation, cement, plasterboard, metals, fuel and labour cost increases, as well as the extremely high demand for projects underway across many tiers as the industry continues to readjust in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis. Furthermore, regarding the first half of 2022, it is clear that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has impacted the price of materials previously sourced from that region, especially steel and base metals, while it has also led to a dramatic increase in fuel and energy costs.

Despite the volatility in construction costs, only a short time has passed since the SCSI defective concrete block report. If there is a requirement to determine the impact, if any, of current construction cost inflation on the rebuild figures from February, we believe that the most accurate way to do this would be to re-do the entire cost exercise in full for all eight house types. For our part, and this is noted in our report, we have undertaken to review these costs and update them in March 2023. I note as well that we previously offered to re-cost the current study that the members have in the context of applying current standards and including new foundations when required.

The SCSI welcomed the opportunity to contribute to the resolution of this critical issue. We appreciate its gravity, and we undertook this extensive work in good faith and in the public interest. We are pleased that the report has been generally positively received by stakeholders. We thank all those that contributed and we wish the committee well in its ongoing scrutiny.

I thank Mr. Mahon. We will go now to questions from the members. We can stretch the time each member has for questions and answers to seven minutes because of the attendance. It will still be helpful, however, if the members can keep their questions direct. I call Deputy Calleary.

I thank all presenters. Starting with Mr. Forde, and focusing on the recommendation of the expert group concerning the damage threshold, there is concern that this aspect is going to be used to exclude homeowners rather than anything else. This concern is exacerbated by the specific citing of work completed by Mayo County Council on the damage threshold. I am sure Mr. Forde is aware that Mayo County Council proposed to exclude 20 homeowners from the current scheme last August. On taking an independent appeal, 19 of those people won their cases. Mr. Forde may not be aware, however, that the county council, when sending out an engineer earlier this year to assess new applications from homeowners, sent someone who was not I.S. 465 qualified. In that context, he will understand that people are experiencing weariness and a lack of confidence in Mayo County Council regarding the damage threshold issue. Will Mr. Forde share the work that Mayo County Council prepared for the expert working group? It is not cited, but just referred to in the report. Will the damage threshold differ depending on whether a situation involves pyrite, mica or pyrrhotite?

This leads me on to the issue of pyrrhotite. Given Mr. Forde's experience in this area, and he is highly regarded in respect of his expertise, what is his view on this issue? We heard evidence in the last session that it is extremely prevalent and exceptionally corrosive. I would like to hear Mr. Forde's thoughts on this aspect, given his experience in this regard.

Turning to the process for admitting other counties, and we know there are at least 12 more counties involved, people in County Sligo have been waiting for some time. They are very frustrated by the process. We had the experience of people in Clare as well, who were forced to go through many hoops, as we heard about earlier. All the time this is happening - and I need everybody to understand this - it is adding to the stress experienced by each homeowner. These are homeowners, families and people whose entire lives have been turned upside down through no fault of their own. This is what we must all keep in our minds during all the work we are doing on this. This is not about facts and figures; it is about people.

Mr. Paul Forde

The Deputy posed three questions. The first dealt with the criteria for admittance, the second concerned pyrrhotite and third addressed other counties. The working group was charged with specific tasks and some of the queries the Deputy raised are outside the scope of the working group. Nevertheless, I will do my best to answer as far as I can.

I will pass the question on criteria for admittance to the scheme to Mr. Lynch because he chaired working group 1 which specifically dealt with that issue.

Mr. Simon Wall and Mr. Martin Ruane, two representatives of Mayo County Council, contributed the experiences in Mayo to the expert group. I will ask Mr. Lynch to respond to the first question, after which I will answer the second and third questions.

Mr. Martin Lynch

I am the general manager for the pyrite remediation scheme. I have been actively involved in remediation schemes since 2014 at various levels and have been involved in the successful completion of about 2,500 pyrite remediation houses since then. As Mr. Forde stated, one of the group's key tasks was to assess the entry level of a damage threshold to be considered. The scheme I manage at the moment is the pyrite remediation scheme, which is often referred to as the east coast scheme. IS 398 sets out the thresholds and damage levels to be met for entry to the pyrite remediation scheme. IS 398 has categorisation of zero damage up to a damage condition rating of 2, or DCR 2. Scheme participants who are currently accepted into the scheme must have achieved at least a DCR 2. They would have significant damage as defined in the Pyrite Resolution Act and they would also have test results, sub-floor, correlating with pyrite reactive, from a low to a significant level.

The task of the group was to review how we could manage the inflow of applications into the defective concrete blocks scheme and look at what level of damage could be perceived to create an entry point. The key objective was to be homeowner-focused, dealing initially with the worst cases of damage, bringing them to the front and dealing with them as early and as soon as possible and assisting homeowners in getting through that process. In the first three or four years of the scheme we managed in IS 398, the majority of the worst-case damaged homes were entered in and successfully remediated with all homeowners back in their homes.

We reviewed the IS 398 standard. We also looked at industry standards with regard to damage to properties. The collective agreement among the working members of the group, representatives of which are here, was that the IS 465 needed to have a qualification on a threshold, so that an entry point for the worst affected homes could be considered. The consensus was, as in the expert report, that a minimum damage of 1.5 mm of cracking to the external leaf would be set as the entry level for damage. The collective group also recommended that this be reviewed, perhaps annually, and updated to reflect the flow of applications and the level of damage that was being met with analysis of information, be it in testing results or in the information being received in the damage condition rating reports that were coming in. Those are the considerations of the working group on the damage condition threshold and how we got to the collective recommendation of 1.5 mm.

Did the group analyse the 900 applications under the current scheme? If so, how many reached the 1.5 mm threshold?

Mr. Martin Lynch

I do not have that information to hand.

Mr. Micheál Mahon

We can get a response on that.

If the officials could take a note of that and respond in writing, that would be great. We will move to the Sinn Féin side and Deputy Ó Broin.

I thank everyone for their presentations. I will focus my attention on Mr. Mahon and the Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland. Deputy Mac Lochlainn will look after the engineers when his turn comes around.

I want to put on record the enormous gratitude many of us have for the independent way the SCSI undertook that very difficult role. I know that it has to tell us that everyone very warmly welcomed it but I am sure that behind the scenes there were people quietly wishing that things were different at the time. I will not ask Mr. Mahon to comment on that.

I am particularly interested in whether the provisions of the legislation before us are fit for purpose in the context of current cost inflation. I am not asking for comment on policy matters, just the facts in terms of inflation. The scheme is set up whereby the SCSI's report from January 2022 will underpin the first set of regulations in relation to the unit cost and the ultimate cost ceiling. The Minister has made provision to review that every 12 months but the first review will be 012 months from the commencement of the Act. We understand the Act will probably be commenced in September, October or November of this year, which would mean the first review and first possible increase in those rates will be at the latter end of 2023. I know it is impossible to predict inflation but given that the Minister must also remain within a 10% cap when he or she - perhaps the Minister will be replaced - deals with the matter in the latter half of next year, how likely is it that inflation will be at or below 10% of the rate set in the report the SCSI has just done? I am asking Mr. Mahon's professional opinion on that. It is a serious question.

Mr. Micheál Mahon

It is, yes. First, I was negligent not to introduce Mr. Kevin Brady, chair of the quantity surveying committee, and Ms Sabrina Mackin, chartered building surveyor. I thank the Deputy for his kind words. Inflation, as the Deputy said, is a very difficult-----

We are very limited for time. I do not want to be rude but how likely is it, in Mr. Mahon's professional opinion, that we will be at or under 10% given that we are probably almost at that figure already?

Mr. Micheál Mahon

I would not give a percentage at this forum. The problem is that it is quite evident that there is inflation out there at the moment. There is a lot of anecdotal information about construction cost inflation. Unfortunately, there is no independent data set in which inflation has been collated. We have volunteered to redo that study in February or March 2023. We think it is best to gauge inflation over a protracted period. It is only four months since we did the report, so we would prefer to wait and see what the impact is over 12 months.

I suspect if Mr. Mahon were a gambling man, he would not be betting on it being at or below 10% but we will deal with that separately.

Mr. Micheál Mahon

As the Deputy might guess, I do not gamble.

On the review, many of us take the view that it would be much better if the Government asked SCSI to undertake an updated set of figures to coincide with the opening of the new scheme. If the Government was to ask it to do that, assuming the new scheme opens at the end of this year or the beginning of next year, would the SCSI be able to do that?

Mr. Micheál Mahon

Yes, we have volunteered to undertake such a study.

That would be separate from the March 2023 review. Would the SCSI be able to factor into that a variety of options, with an eye to what might come out of the review of IS 465, including an option with foundations, without foundations or other costs? Would that be possible?

Mr. Micheál Mahon

It should be, subject to the detail. Obviously, we would have to study the detail of the terms of reference. It should be possible, however, to answer the Deputy's question. However, there is a serious volume of work involved in undertaking that so a good lead-in of time would be required.

As a professional chartered surveyor, does Mr. Mahon believe it would be optimal to have that information at the opening of the scheme, given that we do not know what is happening with inflation? Would that be preferable in Mr. Mahon's view as a surveyor?

Mr. Micheál Mahon

I will not comment on that.

That is fine. Mr. Mahon has spoken about the March 2023 report. What is its purpose? If the Government asked the SCSI to do an updated report in advance of the opening of the scheme, what would be different in the March 2023 report to which Mr. Mahon referred earlier?

Mr. Micheál Mahon

What we volunteered to do was to undertake this report again and this would reflect the updated inflation that will have been recorded since we issued the report on 3 March this year. It would capture the inflation in the intervening period.

When Mr. Mahon's colleagues were with us previously when we dealt with construction sector inflation, it was really helpful. One sense that I got was that it is not that different materials are increasing in price but that different sized contractors experience that inflation in terms of their purchasing power from the supply chains in different ways. A big developer such as Cairn Homes, for example, is able to bulk buy and buy early. Given that this is a grant scheme and one that will rely in many ways on local contractors and suppliers, would it be fair to say that because of their more limited access to and lower purchasing power in the supply chains, they could experience cost inflation at a higher level than larger contractors?

Could we see quite abnormal cost inflations in County Clare versus County Mayo, or in different parts of those counties?

Mr. Kevin Brady

It depends on the market as a player and the number of participants and local contractors, etc., and even the procurement method as to how they go about appointing a contractor. All that influences the market.

As a general rule, if I am a sole trader with a couple of lads working for me, I am probably going to be charged more for products than, say, the big contractors who are able to bulk-buy and to buy early.

Mr. Kevin Brady

Yes, that is probably the case.

In my last question, if the Minister asked Mr. Brady to do that review in advance of the opening of the scheme, I am sure he could factor in the different costs for the different counties, of Limerick and Clare as well as the north west, which are currently in the scheme, subject to him being asked in advance by the Minister?

Mr. Micheál Mahon

It is a big undertaking. The Deputy is correct in that there are regional variations across the country in the cost of building, and even across the county. It may be even different to build in Buncrana versus Bundoran. There are regional variations. Yes is the answer but I would state that it might not necessarily be county by county but rather by region.

I presume that the sooner the Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland get the call from the Minister to undertake that survey, the better for all of us, particularly for the society’s members.

Mr. Micheál Mahon

Absolutely, yes. There is a serious volume of work to be done in that.

If there is an opportunity to come back in after my two other colleagues later, please, I will take that.

I thank Deputy Ó Broin. We move now to the Fine Gael slot and I call on Deputy Higgins to speak, please.

I thank the Chairman. I thank all of our witnesses present here today. As I did not get the opportunity to speak in the previous round although I was here, I wish also to thank all of our witnesses who were with us here this morning for sharing their own experiences.

I will start by thanking Mr. Forde and all of the members of the expert group who had a very difficult task in dealing with a very challenging and emotive situation. We have homes which should be safe and comfortable places for people to live but clearly are not. That is something that all of us in the committee want to rectify for families.

In response to the work and recommendations that the expert group put together, and the amplification it had from residents’ voices and their recommendations, there are many welcome changes in this latest iteration; most of which came from the expert group report and directly from homeowners. These are things like the taking on of the cost of testing; retrospective inclusion; the certificate of remediation having that legal footing; an appeals processl and, of course, the extension to other counties.

My first question is to ask Mr. Owens about the extension of the IS 465:2018 beyond Donegal and Mayo. Is he satisfied about how that is dealt with in this legislation?

My second question is directed to Mr. Mahon and I thank him and all of the members of his organisation for all of the work they have done on this. It has produced what he refers to as a standalone, bespoke report which is crucial to ensuring that this scheme is as fair and as equitable as possible. There are hard costs, soft costs and auxiliary items are all included, and there are very thorough costings. A great amount of work has gone into it. I, like others, am worried about the impact of inflation and I appreciate that he has offered to work on an annual basis, which is very useful. I would like to learn a little more, however. If he was asked to look at things again about how long I would like to know how long his work would take, how big a body of work it would be and would that delay matters in any way ?

Mr. Damien Owens

I thank the Deputy for the question. I will address initially the Deputy’s question on the ability of IS 465:2018 to be extended to other regions. Our members undertook a survey about a year into the operation of the scheme to get members' feedback and the evidence from members and registrants was that they had seen evidence of deterioration in other counties. Based upon that and on getting core samples done, which was evidence-based, the case was then made to extend the scheme to those counties. The key thing is that any extension is based upon evidence but that evidence will require a great deal of testing. We and our members are already seeing that there are considerable delays in having additional testing done and there is pressure on testing resources whereas, originally, a test could be completed and results could be back in three or four weeks. That is now taking several months. Mr. Brady will comment on what he has found.

Mr. Kevin Brady

It will be a very big body of work to undertake and to establish if we are to do this by region. If the scheme is extended, it will depend upon the timelines of the survey.

Putting things in context, we have been looking at this scheme since the end of the year 2021. It took two to three months to produce this report, from start to finish and that was very intensive. We were relying on volunteers, as every member who filled out the information is a volunteer. To extend the scheme, if the parameters are extended and if we have to look at regions, we will need to consider how long that will take but there will be a significant body of work to be done. Hundreds of hours were put into this report in analysing and in collecting data. It took two to three months for this current report but it depends on the parameters of any extension to the scheme or to its terms of reference.

Would it be in excess of three months, given that the society would be looking at including new areas?

Mr. Kevin Brady

Yes, that would potentially be the case, depending on the scope of any such extension.

I thank Mr. Brady.

I thank Deputy Higgins. I move on now to the Rural Independent Deputies group, Deputy O’Donoghue.

Based upon the problem which we seem to have in areas of this country at the moment with pyrite and mica, would it not be the right thing to core test every house that will be retrofitted in this country before one retrofits it? The information coming back is showing that houses in certain areas would have a minimum amount of insulation in their cavities and when their cavities are pumped with insulation, this seems to cause the moisture to cross from one cavity to another, even though the material used is breathable. This is now causing issues and is accelerating the pyrite in houses that only have pyrite.

To protect people in their houses at the moment, and to protect the country and the taxpayer, would it not be the best thing for any house that is retrofitted with pumped insulation, to have a basic core test done? At the outset, I wish to state that I have been a contractor for over 30 years and have seen this from first-hand experience. That is one of the questions I would like to have answered because if it is proven in a number of years time that this retrofitting has accelerated the deterioration of houses that have pyrite, prevention would be better than cure. Can our witnesses go on the record here and tell me, please, if they believe it should be a recommendation that before any house is pumped with insulation, a core test should be done to provide results on any house to ensure that it does not have pyrite?

The discussion we have in front of us now is about the scope but-----

I am asking our witnesses for their opinion on this matter.

That is fine but we are dealing with the Bill here.

Okay, but I am unsure if our witnesses can an answer those questions.

Mr. Kevin Brady

My apologies, Chairman, but as quantity surveyors that is not a subject matter that we would deal with-----

We will move then to the engineers, who may want to answer this question.

Mr. Kevin Brady

My apologies. That is fine.

Perhaps Mr. Forde has experience of this matter.

Mr. Paul Forde

I am happy to have a go at answering that question.

Please do, Mr. Forde.

Mr. Paul Forde

I thank the Deputy for the question and I understand its significance. There is a great deal of logic in what the Deputy is saying but the question was not within the scope of my expert group. As of itself, we did not consider it.

However, I mentioned in my opening statement that the Minister outlined a number of medium-term investigations which had to follow, whereas we dealt with items that we got through in about two months or less than that.

The National Standards Authority of Ireland, NSAI, is undertaking reviews of the standards and of IS 465:2018.

It has also been asked to investigate the impact of cavity filled insulation. There is a report or an investigation under way so it is probably best to wait until that comes through.

With Mr. Forde's vast amount of experience would he not agree that prevention would be better than cure and that a core test is done to ensure we are not accelerating the issue of pyrite in houses?

Mr. Paul Forde

It is a bit off my base. To the best of my understanding the report will investigate whether the cavity filled with insulation is doing what the Deputy is afraid of.

I will move on from that. On 8 February a retrofit grant system was launched for this country and the SCSI was present at the launch. The figures given on the day were from October. I deal with quantity surveyors on a daily and weekly basis. I understand that regions can vary and that the price per square foot can change but quantity surveyors are usually given between two and three weeks to come back with a price for a project that we might be looking at. Once you have the baseline set up on your system you can work throughout this whole country. At the moment the price per square foot in Limerick is between €172 and €180. I can tell the witnesses that because I am dealing with it on a daily basis. I understand that the witnesses are dealing with different regions. An insulation increase of 25% is coming on 1 July, news of which came to me by letter from Kingspan. I get weekly letters from suppliers to tell me about the different increases on different products. Some increases come every fortnight and some come every month. Concrete and different aggregates usually come every month but suppliers of insulation might write to me every two weeks. We have a computer system that updates that and shows, on a weekly to two-weekly basis, how fast this is moving. That is why I have not priced houses in two years. It is too dangerous to do so because one increase could take out your profit margins.

The lack of builders is also driving the price up because we do not have the tradesmen. We are ten years behind in apprenticeships. A figure of €145 per square foot does not fit with me, no matter where you are in the country. A figure of €170 to €180 per square foot is more accurate. Can the witnesses address that point?

Mr. Micheál Mahon

I am the same as the Deputy and in my day job I see these letters and price increases every day as well so I understand where he is coming from. There is no doubt that we are in unprecedented times with inflation.

I will go back to the Deputy's point on the cost per square foot. Our report clearly states that it is a snapshot in time of February 2022. The devil is in the detail and there have been some comparisons done. This needs to be compared and contrasted. People might be comparing figures that comply with the current building regulations and they might be including foundations or more site works.

I have a quick question before we run out of time. If your house burns down tomorrow morning you have to bring it back to today's regulatory standards. You do not have to go back in time to the regulations from 20 years ago or from ten years ago. You bring it up to today's standards so that is the square foot price that you would be quoted for today.

Mr. Micheál Mahon

The Deputy knows and I outlined in my introduction that we priced what was outlined in the terms of reference and we have volunteered, in the public interest, to update it.

I said that members had six minutes but they actually had seven minutes so I apologise to the opening contributors that I cut them short by a minute but we will make it up to them at the end. I will take the next slot, which is a Green Party one, and I will give myself seven minutes to be fair.

I thank the witnesses for being here and I echo Deputy Ó'Broin's words that some of the work we have received from the SCSI, including its presentations, has been helpful in the work the committee has done. We met the groups from Mayo, Donegal and Clare earlier on and there was a suggestion that the SCSI had one hand tied behind its back in this. I want to be clear that what happens is the SCSI is provided with terms of reference within which it must work. Is that what happened in this situation? Were those terms of reference pretty clear?

Mr. Micheál Mahon

The terms of reference were pretty clear. We have stressed our independence in our report and we have stated clearly that we should look at the cost of bringing buildings up to current regulations. We reviewed these remediation options but we did not pursue them because we did not feel it was possible that the costs that were expressed were costs per square foot. What we have done is we have provided a useful baseline which informs the debate. That is the reason we took it on and agreed to those terms of reference.

Can I clarify the issue around the foundations? In the last two to three days I received quite a few emails from people and from one of our representatives in Donegal stating that foundations cannot be replaced as part of this scheme. Is that correct?

Mr. Micheál Mahon

I do not know.

Ms Sabrina Mackin

Within the parameters of what we did on the terms of reference, we did not cost the replacement of foundations. The parameters of the scheme are outside what we should talk about. As a technical person I do not feel comfortable talking about this because we could talk for a half a day on whether or not the foundations should be included and that was a decision made by Government for the reasons it made it. Our report was a live snapshot of average costs that we did to try to help society. We did not include foundations.

Was it not included in what the SCSI was to look at?

Ms Sabrina Mackin


That is fine.

Mr. Paul Forde

I could offer one comment on that. I mentioned in my opening statement that the Minister recently requested that the NSAI carry out investigations and testing of foundations in the affected areas. Once that report is completed we will be in a better position to assess whether foundations need to be addressed or not.

My second and final point on this is that, to date, I am not aware of any foundation problems associated with pyrrhotite in the country. I have not heard any evidence of such occurrences. That is not to say they may never happen but I have not heard of one instance of it across the country. Nevertheless, the NSAI has been tasked with investigating and reporting.

That is helpful. I was not aware of that and I look forward to seeing the result of that. Is the NSAI testing foundations?

Mr. Paul Forde

Yes. It is fair to say that the Department is open to addressing the problem if such a problem is proven to exist. No one is looking to turn a blind eye but we need proper investigation, analysis and reporting. As I said, we are coming from a starting point where we are not aware of any such occurrences.

I agree that this should be evidence-based. If we find evidence that foundations need to be replaced it would be logical to say they should be included in the scheme; that is fine. From an engineering perspective, if you are going to replace the outer leaves - and I am referencing pictures I have seen of an outer leaf removed and of the floor being held up by scaffold, acrow props and things like that - you could replace the foundation as part of that as well then, if it had to be done.

Mr. Damien Owens

I might ask my colleague who is online, Mr. O'Connell, to come in on that one but I can confirm that, as Mr. Forde said, the Institution of Engineers Ireland has been asked by the NSAI to consult its members and to obtain their feedback vis-à-vis their experience of observations on any damage to foundations. That work is under way.

It is important to note that the standard relates to concrete blocks. It is well defined. Concrete blocks are not usually found in foundations. The foundations are not looked at and there are reasons for that. I will hand over to my colleague Mr. O'Connell to deal with the query on the outer leaf.

Mr. Aidan O'Connell

I am a chartered engineer with 15 or 16 years' experience dealing with pyrite, concrete blocks and the subfloor material used in Ireland. I have probably overseen and dealt with the repair of approximately 2,500 properties. Like Mr. Forde, I have worked on both the IS 398 and IS 465 committees within the NSAI. I agree with Mr. Forde in respect of the foundations. He has not seen any such issues. In our practice, we have seen three cases resulting from foundation damage, and that was primarily within the IS 398 theatre. The damage was superficial and required only minor repair in situ. There was no replacement or any requirement for structural repairs to the foundations. I do not believe it is likely that we will see significant damage to foundations. I am relatively comfortable with that. The answer to the Chairman's question, which may have been slightly tongue in cheek, as to whether one could replace the foundations if the balance of the property was being held up on acrow props, etc., is "No". If the foundations are significantly damaged as a result of pyrite, pyrrhotite or mica, it is a complete replacement.

I thank Mr. O'Connell. He has answered my follow-up question as to whether it would be better to knock the lot.

I will start where the Chairman left off. In the absence of testing of foundations taking place, how can Mr. O'Connell be relatively confident there will not be problems with foundations?

Mr. Aidan O'Connell

The most aggressive environment in this whole pyrite, pyrrhotite and mica amphitheatre is the IS 398 scenario, which involves contaminated stone material containing high levels of pyrite right up against existing foundations. The matrix of a concrete foundation is quite strong. There are high levels of cement and it is well compacted in the context of it being placed in situ in the foundations. In our experience to date, we have not seen any significant damage to foundations when they are placed in the most aggressive environment. That is why I have a relatively good sense in respect of foundation damage that may be arising from pyrite or mica within the concrete blocks. However, we will only get the proof of the pudding when we start repairing some of these properties - exposing foundations and examining them in volume. One cannot make a decision based on a very small catchment or number of properties.

Mr. Paul Forde

If I may add to that, like Mr. O'Connell, my practice has overseen the remediation of more than 2,000 residential units and in no cases have we had to replace foundations. I apologise if I am repeating myself, but I fall back on the fact that the NSAI has recently been charged with carrying out investigation and testing of foundations. Moving forward, it will not be based on my gut feeling or that of Mr. O'Connell but, rather, on tested foundations.

Is it not the case, however, that the vast majority of the remediations done to date related to infill? They relate particularly to the infill and the material that was going to the infill and that is why the other parts of the structure were not affected. Is that not the case?

Mr. Paul Forde

I can answer that. Mr. O'Connell may wish to come in as well. In the context of what we call the pyrite remediation or what Mr. Lynch referred to as the east coast scheme, so christened by Michael Doherty, the remediation is to remove the floor slabs and the contaminated stone. One does not have to demolish the house. It is structurally possible to deal with that structural element in its own right but, in so doing, IS 398 specifies that every piece of stone under the floor slab has to be taken out. That results in exposure of the foundations and, as part of IS 398 part 2, the foundations are inspected for signs of damage. My practice and that of Mr. O'Connell have seen 5,000 foundations between us without having to remediate any of them. I will again fall back on the NSAI report that is upcoming.

I thank the SCSI for the work it has done. The pricing it has done is based on standards and products from 15 years ago, many of which are not available now. How did it calculate the pricing on that basis?

Mr. Kevin Brady

There was a pricing schedule. It is all detailed out. There is a lot of material that is still available but, in effect, what has been costed is the material at current prices or at February 2022 rates. Much of that material, such as blocks, sills, windows and so on, is still there and that was all priced at February 2022 rates. Insulation such as 100 mm cavity wall insulation is still available and can be priced.

Based on the terms of reference pricing off which the SCSI has been working, is 100% redress possible when rebuilding a home?

Mr. Kevin Brady

That is probably outside our remit. It is a matter for the Government.

If the witnesses do not have a view on that issue, that is fine.

Mr. Micheál Mahon

As outlined and specified, we can amend or reflect up-to-date costs but it is important to note that the costs are calculated on an average basis. There are many different types of houses. We have clearly set out that we took the case of a house with a partial brick elevation. There will be houses with stone elevations. One cannot capture every house type in this exercise. It is very difficult to answer the Deputy's question, as he will appreciate.

It is welcome that the committee is hosting this hearing and that this is the second session so far. I refer to the definition of "defective blocks" within the proposed legislation. What minerals will that include? How complete a definition are we likely to have? The pyrrhotite is a defect that is new to some of us, although, obviously, not to all present. How do we ensure we are future proofing for defects that may arise?

Mr. Damien Owens

I thank the Senator. I will ask Mr. O'Connell to come in after me. I refer to the testing of the new scheme having started in earnest and core samples having been sent away. Members should not forget the core samples are tested primarily in laboratories in the UK. As I mentioned, those laboratories are now being swamped by the volume of tests they are getting. The delay in getting results back is creeping up to several months. As the results came back, it became obvious that there may be other mechanisms of deterioration and materials within those concrete blocks. Going forward, we need research into the mechanisms of deterioration and the materials that are being found. The NSAI is starting work on that We are in a unique position here. The demolition of several properties has been commenced, so we can get a full range of samples from across the property - not just the outside walls - to see where the deterioration is happening.

If we do that and have sufficient numbers of samples, and we need large numbers because, as was mentioned earlier, we should not make decisions based on very small samples, and if we can get enough samples characterised and tested, we should be able to produce characterisation graphs so that we know if there is a particular material in the block and a particular moisture level, we can predict its mechanism failure. By virtue of that, one would be able to say how a property might behave or where it is on that deterioration path, and use something rigorous and based on evidence to guide our behaviours and our responses to the deterioration.

I will hand over to my colleague, Mr. O'Connell, for his view.

Mr. Aidan O'Connell

Currently, under the existing IS 465 scheme we are concentrating on properties that have been damaged with muscovite mica and also with pyrite within the concrete blocks. It has been brought to our attention that there is a potential new causation, which is pyrrhotite, which may be a contributory factor or may be a primary proximate cause. However, there is another one as well which has not been getting as much daylight or publicity, and that is what we call weak concrete blocks in themselves and where they then undergo wetting and drying cycles during the course of their life. Over time those weak concrete blocks break down and they effectively mirror the damage that one would see by pyrite or with mica, but there is no smoking gun. One cannot put one's finger on it and say there is mica, there is pyrrhotite or there is pyrite on its own.

Ultimately, as Mr. Forde said, it is going to be the NSAI that will drive the research and drive the relevant checking. We are looking for research to be carried out on the wetting and drying cycles and we are looking for some research proposals in respect of the potential impact that pyrrhotite has on the concrete blocks. Pyrrhotite in itself is not a new issue. We knew about pyrrhotite when we were dealing with the IS 398 problems. The difference is that pyrrhotite within the infill material was reacting so fast, because of the type of lithology and the type of geology we were dealing with, that we were not really finding any damage resulting from that pyrrhotite. All I can say is that one will not find Engineers Ireland, NSAI or any of the consulting engineers dealing with this problem lacking in their enthusiasm to try to categorically come down and find the cause of the damage.

The other question is about the extent of the defective block issue across the country. Obviously, enormous credit is due to the campaign that started in Donegal. Initially we thought the problem was confined to Donegal, but then there was Mayo and now we realise that the extent is far greater. Limerick and Clare have recently been included. Many believe we are still only finding out the extent of the problem. To what extent do the witnesses believe there may be other counties affected by defective blocks and is there a possibility of including those counties in the scheme?

Mr. Aidan O'Connell

I will take this question. I went on record not long ago in newspaper and radio interviews that we have experience of 12 counties where we have seen damage. As of last week, we are now on county 13. That was a substantial amount of properties to be inspecting, reviewing and so forth. One of the difficulties we are having, and I understand this is a public forum, is that the quarry owners recognise they have a problem and are suppressing some of the information and some of the damage and doing side deals with homeowners to try to suppress it within the counties. Ultimately, I believe where all these locations are will come out. I encourage people and Deputies who have knowledge of affected quarries, because I am aware of some areas in the southern part of Ireland and on the south-east coast where there are affected properties and they probably are well aware of where that material has come from, to come forward and give that information to NSAI or Engineers Ireland.

I thank the witnesses.

I will move to the second Fine Gael slot and call Senator Cummins.

I will follow up on some of the points made in previous rounds. Am I correct that Mr. Forde said he had looked at 5,000 units with regard to the foundation issue?

Mr. Paul Forde

I give Mr. O'Connell credit for half of that.

Okay, it is split down the middle.

Mr. Paul Forde

It is approximately 2,500 each; it could be up or down 500.

To be clear-----

Mr. Paul Forde

On a serious note, we had similar results and findings.

Mr. Forde has not experienced-----

Mr. Paul Forde

Problems with the foundations per se.

Yes. Regarding the body of work being done by NSAI, does Mr. Forde have an expected date for that?

Mr. Paul Forde

I do not. The Senator may be able to find that out in the next session from the Department. It is not part of my scope.

That is fine. I will follow up on a couple of the points my colleague, Deputy Higgins, made in her contribution regarding the timelines to do the body of work and to redo it. Mr. Mahon said that two to three months was the parameter for the existing one and that he was reliant on goodwill and volunteerism to do the excellent work he has done. He must be able to put an estimate on the timeline to do an enhanced version of what he has done given the extended areas we are talking about.

Mr. Micheál Mahon

Sorry, is the Senator talking about updating?

Mr. Micheál Mahon

Is the question about updating what we have done for inflation?

Yes, and the extended areas in terms of regionalisation, as was referenced in Mr. Mahon's initial response.

Mr. Micheál Mahon

To expand it to further regions would definitely take two to three months. There is a significant body of work in that. What we produce is evidence-based research. It involves a lot of canvassing of members, collating the data, interpreting the data and going back to members. We have a triple-lock mechanism within our body where the expert group undertakes it, there is a review by a peer group and then we have a final review council before we issue it.

From what Mr. Mahon said, it sounds as if it is an extensive body of work and would take longer than three months, if it has taken that amount of time to get the existing body of work. Are we talking five months or six months?

Mr. Micheál Mahon

For clarity, obviously the devil is in the details. The Senator is talking about extending this to other regions.

Yes, and that was the question asked by Deputy Ó Broin.

Mr. Micheál Mahon

It is hard to say, but it would be of the order of three months. It might go to four months but it depends on the exact parameters of it. Regarding updating the existing one or to redo this exactly, which we have undertaken to do in March, we anticipate that would take a couple of months as well. However, the parameters are important.

Yes, they are two different points. On the eight house types that were used, they are typical house types. Mr. Mahon said that he does not view the cost per square metre as the best way to go about this. However, are the eight house types not a good barometer for what we are looking at here in terms of analysis?

Mr. Micheál Mahon

For clarity, we have no issue in expressing option 1, which is the full rebuild of houses, as a cost per square foot. Where we have the difficulty - it was in the terms of reference and we did not undertake it because we looked at it in detail - is in undertaking the remedial work options 2 to 5, calculating those and expressing them as a cost per square foot.

Many issues that arise are site-specific and can severely impact the cost per square foot.

I cannot think of a better way of looking at this than by using the eight house types. We cannot analyse every house type.

Mr. Micheál Mahon


There are hundreds of house types. Is Mr. Mahon satisfied that the eight house types are a good barometer of what we were analysing?

Mr. Micheál Mahon

Absolutely. Drive down any country road and one will see different houses. Some have stone cornicing. The eight are a good barometer, but interpolating them is not for us.

The witnesses might keep their answers brief, as I only have seven minutes. Mr. Forde spoke about the number of foundations he had observed in Dublin and north Leinster under the IS 398 pyrite scheme. He will accept that the scheme in Donegal and Mayo is different.

Mr. Paul Forde

Of course.

How many properties in Donegal and Mayo has his company been involved with directly?

Mr. Paul Forde

I have not been involved in properties in Mayo or Donegal.

Then he has been involved in properties in Donegal.

Mr. Paul Forde

No. I have not been involved in properties in Mayo or Donegal. That may be part of the reason I was asked to chair the expert group.

That is great. I just wanted to clarify. In a hospital, there is one specialist that deals with urology and another who deals with cancer. They are both under the same roof, but they are dealing with different matters. Is that fair enough to say?

Mr. Paul Forde

What I have said about foundations is based on my experience. What I have heard in my expert group through the representatives of Donegal County Council-----

That is fine. I am happy enough with that.

Mr. Paul Forde

-----and Mayo County Council, who sat on the group, is that there was no indication of foundation problems.

I thank Mr. Forde. Evidence has been given today by Dr. Leemann and Professor Dunlop. I will cite some of their work. Of the 77 properties in Donegal that have been tested, pyrite has been identified in 66. Mr. Forde stated that he was unaware of any. In 61-----

Mr. Paul Forde

Excuse me, Deputy, but I did not say that. I said that I was not aware of any foundation problems in Donegal or Mayo, as reported by the members of the expert group who sat on it representing Mayo County Council and Donegal County Council.

Mr. Paul Forde

If the Deputy does not mind, he has asked me something and I am entitled to answer. My understanding of the pyrrhotite that was reported upon - I believe by Mr. Thomas Campbell - is that it was found to be present in the blockwork.

I am sorry. Can I just ask about that?

Mr. Paul Forde

Not once have I heard of instances-----

Mr. Paul Forde

-----of pyrrhotite being present in the foundations.

I am sorry. Could I come back in? I have very little time. The foundations have not been tested for pyrrhotite; the blocks were. In 66 of the 77 properties in Donegal, it was not just pyrrhotite, but an appreciable amount of pyrrhotite, that was identified. In a separate survey by Petrolab, which is the lab in Britain conducting these tests, 97 homes that had samples sent to it for detailed geological analysis were found to have pyrrhotite. My next question is for Mr. Forde and Mr. O'Connell. How is it that the group that worked on IS 465 did not include in it testing for pyrrhotite?

Mr. Paul Forde

I will need to let Mr. O'Connell address that question because I was not on that committee. I am sorry for passing him this hand grenade.

Mr. Aidan O'Connell

Many thanks for that. At the time we examined the issue in Donegal and Mayo, it was initially identified as being a mica issue primarily in Donegal and a pyrite issue in Mayo. I have looked at a large number of the properties in Donegal and Mayo. Pyrrhotite in itself was not being identified as a problem. Currently, pyrrhotite is not identified as being a causation of the problem. It has been identified as being present. I caution the Deputy or anyone else against saying that the automatic presence of pyrrhotite or any other type of material is necessarily a cause for alarm.

May I ask another question?

Mr. Aidan O'Connell


That is enough now. May I ask another question? In terms of-----

Mr. Aidan O'Connell

No. Excuse me. It is extremely important that I say this. Pyrite can probably be found in nearly every county in Ireland, but its levels and the types of material that it is found in - the geology - are what determine whether it becomes a problem. That is why we need research to examine pyrrhotite.

I thank Mr. O'Connell. I am sorry, as I do not mean to be rude, but there is little time and I have important questions. If any of them cannot be answered, the witnesses might send a detailed written response to the committee. That would be helpful. If they need time to elaborate on an answer but feel that they are not getting enough time, they might send a detailed written response.

Do the witnesses accept that Dr. Leemann, who travelled from Switzerland today, is an internationally respected expert?

Mr. Aidan O'Connell

I do not know the gentleman, so I cannot comment.

Mr. Paul Forde

I understand that he is and I do not have an issue with what he said.

I appreciate that. This internationally respected expert believes that the pyrite in all of the blocks that he tested was a deciding factor in the devastation caused to those homes. In terms of the review of the-----

Mr. Paul Forde

I am sorry, Deputy, but I am not sure that is what he said. I tuned into the meeting and followed the whole proceedings.

He had very little time.

Mr. Paul Forde

That is not reflective of what he said.

I assure Mr. Forde that I have-----

Mr. Paul Forde

Forgive me if I misunderstood some of his answers, but I did not pick that up.

I will allow Mr. Forde to answer to clarify and then let the Deputy continue. I will give him a further 30 seconds.

These are important questions and it is important to get clear answers from the experts. Mr. Forde, please go ahead.

Mr. Paul Forde

I am sorry. I thought I had answered, but maybe I was not heard. I tuned into the meeting from its commencement and followed the entirety of the first session, and I did not pick that up from the expert. Apologies if I missed something.

Dr. Leemann had little time to speak today, so that is a fair enough point. He produced evidence in a presentation to the European Parliament to the effect that, judging by the blocks that he sampled, pyrrhotite was unfortunately the deciding factor in the devastation. There is a serious concern that pyrrhotite is the dominant issue causing the devastation in Donegal and Mayo.

IS 465 underpins the current grant scheme and the updated scheme. We are spending billions of euro in taxpayers' money to remedy these homes. Before that money is spent, do the witnesses agree that the science must be based on best international practice?

Mr. Paul Forde

That is why the Minister has requested the NSAI to carry out a review of IS 465 as well as investigations and testing of foundations. When the scientific results are available, they will be taken on board. That is my understanding of the brief given to the NSAI.

I welcome the three groups and thank them for their presentations. Moreover, I thank them for their work. Without their input, this scheme would not have the same credibility. Their work is important. The scheme has been difficult for people across the country. When people are under attack because their homes are falling down around them, there is much uncertainty. It is important that we as politicians and the witnesses as professionals treat one another with a little respect. I respect the work that the groups are doing and what they have presented to us.

It is really critical and important. Our witnesses need to be able to have their say. That said, we had a presentation this morning and it was said there was evidence in Donegal of pyrrhotite causing many of the problems. I ask our witnesses, especially the engineers, to ensure they contact the representatives present to make sure the houses that have been investigated are part of any investigations that are currently taking place by EI. It is critical.

Mr. Damien Owens

Certainly Senator, thank you for that. Even as part of work on the expert DCB scheme, our members were asked to provide samples, with names and so on redacted obviously, of reports and the findings and surveys so that information could feed into a body of knowledge. I expect similar from the experts who presented this morning. Any of their findings should find their way to a body of knowledge for the NSAI or whoever to undertake that research because until all the research is there, none of the research is there.

That is critically important. Likewise, there is the issue with the foundations because there are many homeowners in Donegal who are ready to go with the new scheme. They have the background work done and are waiting for the new scheme to happen. It has been turmoil for them but now they are afraid to go ahead because people are saying foundations are not safe. Who do we believe? There must come a point where people with background knowledge have to be trusted. Not to disassociate from anybody else's view or cut it out, but the view of the witnesses must be heard. As someone with an engineering background and being a former member of EI, I understand what they are saying but not everybody will. We as politicians have a job to do to tell people current estimations are that foundations are safe. There is no evidence to say otherwise and where there is, let us know about it and let us have it investigated, but for the moment it is safe.

I ask the witnesses to outline the difference between a foundation and a block. My understanding is a compression test is the measure of the strength of a block or of concrete, for that matter. It is between 5 N and 7 N for a block but for foundations it is probably between 30 N and 35 N. That is probably six or seven times stronger than for a block. Moreover, so many rural houses have their street in concrete as well. Is there evidence of any concrete streets breaking up or difficulties and cracking caused by any of the issues being talked about today? Generally, is the fact a foundation is so much stronger than a block and that there is so much more cement content factors in our witnesses not being as worried about foundations? What is their view?

Mr. Paul Forde

I thank the Senator. Mr. O'Connell might like to contribute and Mr. Owens might also but if I can go back, and I am sorry to repeat this, the review by the NSAI that has now commenced of foundations, involving testing, sampling and then reporting, will be scientifically-based, so that will be the ultimate arbiter of this. I do not speak for Mr. O'Connell but I think he is of a similar view. We have stated our experience and that is what it is.

Going back to the Senator's engineering background, he is spot on. If the blockwork is 7 N and the foundations are 35 N, it is largely because of the cement content. The foundation is a much denser element than the quite porous blockwork and the opportunity for moisture and so on to penetrate to the aggregate is much less than the foundation. Hence, we would expect the foundations to be significantly more resistant to attack. Mr. O'Connell might like to add to that.

Mr. Aidan O'Connell

Mr. Forde is 100% correct. I have already said the stronger matrix of the foundation is why I believe we have seen little or no damage in all the properties we have dealt with under the IS 398 scheme. What I will also say is as engineers - and please do not take this the wrong way - we are going to be working in a live laboratory, as in, I anticipate we are going to be dealing with the most severely damaged properties in Donegal, Mayo and any other county subsequently approved and included in the scheme. Being the most severely damaged properties, I expect when we examine the foundations we will get the best knowledge at that stage of what is the potential for damage to foundations for the most severely damaged dwellings that have suspect or damaged concrete blocks. At the moment, our knowledge is based on experience and what we have seen. Certainly, we will take every single piece of advice or bit of evidence from any consultant or any external body. However, realistically, the best knowledge we are probably going to find is out in the field when we are repairing properties.

May I make a quick comment on that?

I ask the Senator to be brief.

It is really important the scheme gets under way because there are so many homeowners. As a mica homeowner myself and knowing so many whose houses have mica, it is really important the scheme gets under way because it will allow people get their lives back together as well. It is not just the houses; it is personal.

I thank the Senator. To reiterate what Mr. Forde said, when the NSAI study is produced, it is about that evidence base and we should work on evidence on this. I am aware people have concerns and worries about possibilities but I propose we deal with the evidence where we can rely on that.

We move to the second Green Party slot. I have two brief questions. I will not take up the full time because I want to let others in as well. This series of three meetings has generated quite a lot of public interest in this. For members of the public looking in, what is happening these days that stops this from happening now? How have we confidence these deleterious materials are not making their way into new builds at the moment?

May I ask a question that adds on to the Chairman's?

I am just concerned. There is an impression given this is nearly naturally occurring, yet there are quarries producing blocks that have not produced any problems and there are quarries that are producing blocks that have. From the various expertise of all our witnesses, how much of this is so-called man-made and how much of it is down to specific actions that either were or were not taken? I am conscious our guests do not want to veer into specific cases but I fear as we go along this is going to be seen as a natural phenomenon when the evidence says it is not. I apologise for cutting in there.

It is an important point because we are looking at a very extensive amount to try to redress the situation. We have heard evidence today that there could be ten or 12 other counties. We do not know the extent or how long before these possibilities become apparent. I want to know what is happening out there. I do not know who can answer. Perhaps it is for the engineers.

Mr. Damien Owens

I can start and then my colleague can come in. Much of the deleterious material currently being discovered through sampling and testing relates to properties that were constructed many years ago. The provenance of some of the materials may perhaps never be known. One thing that has improved the situation is the Building Control (Amendment) Regulations 2014. They introduced a chain of control for all the materials used in the construction of properties and how they are deployed. We cannot speak about the past but certainly from 2014 onwards properties are constructed, there is a chain of control and quality control there. Mr. O'Connell may be able to-----

Maybe Mr. O'Connell could------

Chairman, there is nothing in the 2014 regulations that deals with manufacture of building products; they are about how people build on-site. The 2014 regulations do not relate to what comes out of a quarry or what goes into a block so in that sense the regulations are not in any way relevant to Deputy Calleary's question. My understanding is there have been no reforms of building product surveillance from a building control point of view in the past decade.

Mr. Damien Owens

A lot of the materials would have to be CE-----

That is a stamp. There is no inspection for it.

Mr. Damien Owens

Yes. It would have to be approved.

But that is literally a stamp; it is not an inspection to get that CE mark.

Mr. Damien Owens

No, it is not an inspection of the materials.

Sure. I am sorry for interrupting.

That is okay.

These are important points to clarify for the public looking at this debate to know there is confidence in the materials, the processes for quarrying these materials and the manufacturing materials that go into the constriction of houses. Does Mr. O'Connell wish to come in on that?

Mr. Aidan O'Connell

I do not mind. It is a difficult subject. What I do know is that in the areas that are very much under the microscope, namely, counties Donegal, Mayo, Dublin, Louth, Limerick and a few other counties, there is a large emphasis on the quarries to comply with the new regulations in terms of the maximum levels of total sulphur and mica etc. that are allowable within the aggregates that are now used in concrete and concrete blocks. The National Standards Authority of Ireland, NSAI, has done a substantial amount of work in upgrading those standards, in particular, say, the aggregates committee. But, as I said or intimated earlier, I do know certain quarries that are still producing concrete blocks and material that is wholly unsatisfactory and they continue to do it knowing that material is still wholly unsatisfactory. I believe that some TDs and other public personnel do know that themselves and I would encourage them to try to use any of their authority to get it stopped. It is only a few bad apples that are still out there. Generally, I would say the industry has improved.

Mr. Paul Forde

I will add a little bit to that. With regard to Deputy Ó Broin's comment about the C stamp, I agree with him that one can stamp anything. However, the current material specifications call for what is called a declaration of performance, DOP, which Mr. O'Connell briefly touched on. In my opinion, the product will be as good as the content of the declaration of performance. Therefore, if the DOP is missing something, be it mica content or whatever else, those items need to be addressed. The Minister requested and the NSAI has commenced on a review of the Irish standards with regard to the production of concrete, including the aggregates contained in the products. I hope that will move us to a better place.

The previous Deputy commented that we do not want to see these problems as an occurrence of nature. What I would say to that is the minerals are natural but a product is man-controlled.

I thank Mr. Forde. I have one final question. Is it reasonable to assume that blocks containing deleterious material at some point made their way across the Border into Derry or adjoining counties for construction purposes? I am sure we would have had construction companies working cross-Border. Is anybody aware of a redress scheme in Northern Ireland? Is there any learning? Is there anything in place to assist homeowners? Does it actually exist across the Border? Is anybody aware of a redress scheme that is in place?

The starting point is the developer.

Mr. Paul Forde

I am not aware of a scheme.

Has it-----

It is inspecting independently before the build.

That does not answer the question.

No, it is an important question.

Are people's homes across the Border affected? No-one seems to know the answer.

There must be because many suppliers from County Donegal would supply across the Border just as those from across the Border would supply in Donegal. There is natural trade across the Border. There has to be.

I imagine so. I do not know.

There is no scheme of which I am aware.

There is a build and control system but does that control or inspect the products?

It controls the products as well as the construction.

I am sorry; we are having our own conversation. Deputy Ó Broin would, therefore, be of the view that no homes across the Border are affected by deleterious material.

None has been brought to our attention.

That is why we have not heard of any.

Senator Blaney's point is absolutely correct. There has been much cross-Border trade in terms of blocks. What is really remarkable, and we have a very large electoral presence in the adjoining counties, is that we are not getting any reports of properties in the North having defects that were built by block manufacturers in the South. Either they are producing different types of blocks or there is a different type of inspection system.

Have inspections been done following what become apparent in County Donegal?

I apologise; I am eating into people's time.

It is interesting. It is something we should look into a little further. I have a Fianna Fáil slot and a Fine Gael slot. I do not know whether both speakers wish to share those slots. I will bring in Deputy Conway-Walsh for the third round of questions.

I am happy with that.

I thank the Chairman and Deputy Calleary very much. I think we are on the same page with much of this. This afternoon has been really interesting. I thank all the witnesses for their submissions. Coming from County Mayo, a number of questions are still outstanding for me. One thing that really struck me was when Mr. O'Connell said we are working in a live laboratory situation. The challenge for us is that we are approving or helping to finalise a scheme that needs to be able to cope with that and be flexible enough. I think we will find this in blocks and foundations in Erris and Belmullet when we go into County Mayo. We know for a fact that foundations have been built with the same blocks that were used to build houses that have been certified as having pyrite in them. We cannot reconcile the fact that the blocks would be different in the foundations than when used to build houses that have pyrite.

This is my main question. What flexibilities do the witnesses recommend we work into the scheme so that when we come to the point when the foundations need to be replaced, whether it be in weeks or months, we can do so within the terms of the scheme? By the same token, in terms of the total rebuilds that are needed, again, that has been verified across the board in County Mayo. Obviously, we are accumulating evidence all the time. With any of the homes I have seen, I have witnessed people trying to repair their homes over the last ten years and I have seen what has happened through the months and years. To me, the repairs have been useless. Who will be responsible for signing off on these homes if the work that is being done is perhaps not as insurable and is not then fit for purpose if it is proven to be the wrong decision in terms of the options that are chosen? My two main questions then are on foundations and in terms of the total rebuilds that are needed and who will be responsible for signing off on that

To whom is the Deputy's question directed?

It is perhaps to Mr. O'Connell first because he understands, as does everyone, that we are working in a live laboratory situation. How do we make the scheme flexible enough to be able to do that?

Mr. Aidan O'Connell

If the Deputy does not mind, I will take her second question first. I have quite a strong point on that with regard to the exposure of the engineers who will then be signing off on the rebuilds. Currently, I think Mr. Forde's and my practice are probably the only two practices in the country that have been able to get professional indemnity insurance to deal with pyrite remedials or works involving pyrite. I was talking to one of the leading geo-technical consultants, whom I would say is probably number one in the country, only last week and he said he cannot get professional indemnity cover for pyrite. Certainly, our own professional indemnity insurance has doubled in price singularly because of the pyrite issue. It is not because of any claims but singularly because of the pyrite issue. I see that as a huge problem and I have raised it with Engineers Ireland because getting affordable insurance, if any insurance, will be an absolute nightmare. The responsibility is supposed to be with the competent person, be it a chartered building surveyor, chartered engineer or architect to sign off on these properties. At the moment, however, my practice will certainly not be signing off on any of them because the professional indemnity insurance is going to go catastrophically high for dealing with these types of properties. That is issue No. 2.

Issue No. 1 is in relation to what happens in terms of the flexibility of the scheme. As I said, we are going to be living in a live laboratory but we will be dealing with the worst cases at the very beginning, which then means that as we progress through the scheme, we will be dealing with properties that are getting progressively worse or where we will see progressive damage. I would expect that the scheme will be flexible enough to deal with that.

Mr. Paul Forde

I will add to Mr. O'Connell's comments, albeit in the reverse order. I am not sure if there is a bit of a lack of definition between what I was saying and what the Deputy asks. When the pyrite problem first occurred in Dublin, we heard much talk of pyrite in foundations but there was no pyrite in foundations. There was pyrite in stone underneath the floor slab but that seemed to be mixed up with what Mr. O'Connell and I, along with other engineers, would call the reinforced or in situ concrete foundation. We did not come across pyrite in foundations.

The Deputy mentions the blockwork in above-ground walls having pyrite and blockwork in foundations having pyrite. We call the blockwork mentioned as part of foundations, if I understand the Deputy correctly, the rising walls. They would also be blockwork built off the in situ poured concrete foundation. There is the in situ poured concrete foundation and the rising wall built in blockwork up to ground level. There is also blockwork above ground level.

I know. I am really sorry to interrupt but I only have a few seconds. If somebody gets approved on the scheme and then finds the foundations must be replaced, how could this be integrated into the scheme? It is wonderful that Mr. Forde has confidence that no foundations will be impacted.

Mr. Paul Forde

I can try to answer-----

If there are, I must be able to assure people.

Mr. Paul Forde

As I said, the Minister has asked the NSAI to carry out that testing investigation and so on of the foundations. It is my understanding that the Department and Minister will deal with that if it turns out to be an issue.

Okay. It will be included in the scheme if foundations are found to be in need of replacement.

Mr. Paul Forde

I cannot give that undertaking but it is my understanding the purpose of the NSAI investigation is to specifically address that point. I could not imagine a position where the NSAI states there is a problem with foundations and that would not be taken on board.

The next slots are for Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. Please keep it to five minutes each.

I will take one minute.

Deputy Ó Broin will come in after that.

I come back to the question of the damage threshold. The recommendation is for it to be set at 1.5 mm. Given there was no analysis or there is no information on the existing DCB applications, how did the witnesses arrive at the 1.5 mm figure? Dare I mention whether they could give the foundation of the process in determining that figure? It is very important. The experience we have had in County Mayo is that the so-called damage threshold was exclusionary more than anything else. It is why I am so concerned about this and I want to understand how the figure and recommendation was arrived at.

Mr. Martin Lynch

As part of the task, the request was to investigate what could be set as a threshold for accepting the worst-affected homes to the scheme. As Mr. Owens mentioned, a sample of some of the redacted reports was reviewed by the expert group that gave some examples of data collated from Mayo. We also looked at our experience of having remediated approximately 2,500 houses and the damage criteria assessed against IS 398, a similar type of scheme. We also reviewed some other industry-recognised standards for determining crack width and damage to properties; they would be set out in Subsidence of Low-Rise Buildings, 3rd Edition, from the Institute of Structural Engineers in 2000 and the Building Research Establishment Digest, No. 251.

Reviewing all those documentation and bearing in mind the high level of applications that would be received by the scheme, and with the ultimate aim of bring worst-case homes to the front, looking after and prioritising them, the collective group decision was that 1.5 mm was a fair and reasonable reflection of that threshold. The group also recommended that it would be reviewed, similar to the Structural Engineers Ireland, SEI, costings on a regular basis. This would take into account whether the threshold has held, if it must be adjusted or if there is information from other studies of the NSAI on whether it is foundation or core testing from the Housing Agency that will carry out the protocol to assist us in reviewing that threshold. That will potentially happen on an annual basis or at the Minister's request. That is how we got to that recommendation.

Mr. Paul Forde

It is my understanding the Minister will be open to the possibility of different thresholds in different counties, depending on the nature of the damage.

It would be remiss of us not to ask Mr. O'Connell to elaborate on what he said about the possibility of bad practice - bad apples were referenced - continuing to this day. As somebody from Waterford, I know the south east was referenced, so would Mr. O'Connell like to expand on his comments? The implication was that Oireachtas Members may be aware of an issue. Anybody looking at today's proceedings would like to know if this practice is ongoing and some clarity on what was said in this session.

Mr. Aidan O'Connell

I need to be careful because I am outside Ireland. I am abroad so I do not have any parliamentary privilege in anything I may or may not say.

You have limited privilege so answer the question as best you can with that in mind.

Mr. Aidan O'Connell

I have personally involved with a number of cases in the south east of Ireland and at least two of those have been with the same supplier. With one of the properties, the homeowner was forced, or encouraged, to sign a non-disclosure agreement prior to receiving a cash payment to repair the property. I am not covered by that non-disclosure agreement so I do not have any difficulty in identifying the quarry in future but not in this forum. I also have other cases, with houses built in recent years, and they are demonstrating damage with the same material present in both those properties. That is in County Wexford. I also have cases in County Carlow where similar practices have happened. I have had phone calls from one or two Deputies asking if I know of problematic quarries in this area because they have seen properties with cracking, etc. They wanted to know if particular quarries were supplying materials.

I assume Mr. O'Connell does not want to expand on the assertion that Deputies are aware of the particular quarry or quarries. I am not sure which it is.

Mr. Aidan O'Connell

Not in this environment. What I am saying is that Deputies have contacted me and named particular quarries I know are problematic and are associated with the non-disclosure agreement case, for example.

That was more in a questioning sense rather than in being aware of a definite issue. It is important to have that clarity on record today. I am from the south east and I am not aware of any issues. I am certainly happy to have a conversation with Mr. O'Connell offline about that.

Mr. Aidan O'Connell

I do not know of any cases whatsoever in County Waterford.

Deputies have contacted me in relation to cases corresponding to that quarry in that county.

Anybody, whether an engineer, a politician or a member of the public, who either has information or believes there has been a breach of building control regulations should contact the National Building Control Office, NBCO, and-or the building control section of the relevant local authority, full stop. The information Mr. O'Connell has given us is very useful. I will certainly be contacting Ms Mairéad Phelan in the NBCO. I suggest that Engineers Ireland has a responsibility to pass that information on, but not in this forum, for legal reasons. I am aware of a number of quarries outside of Dublin. On foot of getting that information, I have contacted the NBCO. It has the statutory authority to inspect.

This is a very serious issue. To go back to the question Deputy Matthews asked, there have been no reforms of any aspect of the regulated regime to ensure adequate compliance with the standards for the manufacturing of building products since this issue first arose. In fairness to former Deputy Phil Hogan, when he was the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government he introduced the Building Control (Amendment) Regulations 2013. He made some changes - although they were not as strong as some of us would have liked - to the enforcement and regulation of the building process. There is nothing stopping either rogue apples or systemic problems in our system. One bad quarry, over a decade, can be responsible for the total number of damaged houses we have in County Donegal today. Whether it is a few bad apples or something more, it is really serious. I wish to put on record that the contact details of the NBCO are public. The NBCO wants to know about breaches, even from those who have heard reports second- or third-hand. It will inspect and enforce the regulations. It is such a big issue.

I will raise a small point in respect of foundations, which is important. The real issue here is not about foundations, block or infill. It is where the aggregate that produces those things comes from. It is possible that in the pyrite remediation scheme there might have been different sources of aggregate going into, for example, the infill and the foundations, whereas in some of the regional markets in the west, the same aggregate suppliers might have been sourced for the infilled foundations in the block. That would mean that the gut response, which in fairness to Mr. O'Connell and Mr. Forde they have outlined here, may be appropriate on the east coast but may not be appropriate in the west. However, we do not know whether that is the case because it was never tested. It is important to make that clear.

I have three questions, the responses to which I think will be helpful. Clearly the review of IS 465 is really important to the success of the scheme. I ask the witnesses to give us some information on where that review is at, who is involved, when the work is likely to be completed and, crucially, if it is possible for the work to be completed before the new scheme opens. That would be the optimal solution. Nobody wants to delay the scheme. If any of the witnesses has information on that, I would be very pleased to hear it.

The second question is for the representatives of Engineers Ireland and relates to the issue of insurance that Mr. O'Connell spoke about. One of my concerns in the way the scheme is designed, particularly for the remediation options and not the demolition and rebuild options, is that there may be conflicts of opinion between the engineer who was originally employed by the family to do the conditions survey and who may at a later date be asked to be the certifier for the works, and the assessment by the engineer working for the Housing Agency. Ultimately, the test of whether an engineer believes an option is the right option is if he or she is willing to certify it and put his or her liability insurance on the line. From the surveys Engineers Ireland has done of its members, are there any concerns about potential conflicts of opinion?

Finally, going back to the issue of foundations, nobody should be delayed. The inclusion of foundations in the cost of remediation is not an enormous expense. In fact, the exclusion of foundations is nothing do with the cost. Our understanding is that it has more to do with the issue around whether a provider complies with the 2008 building regulations or the 2014 regulations. Would it be a good idea to apply the precautionary principle, especially when the cost might be minimal in terms of the overall cost of the grant? Has there been any discussion of the "if in doubt, leave it out" idea?

Mr. Damien Owens

I will respond to the Deputy's first two questions. On the IS 465 review, as I understand it work is under way. Engineers Ireland has already been approached by NSAI to obtain some views from our registrants on foundations. It is also my understanding that a tender process has been completed to get research work done on the composition of the various components. It will be for geologists to do work on the characterisation of the materials. That work is under way. On the question of how long the work will take, I have no idea. There may be some indication made in the next session. To respond to the Deputy's point, I do not think the work will be completed before the new scheme opens. It will take time for the research to be completed. It should be allowed to be completed so that we can go forward acting on fact.

On the Deputy's second question on the issue of conflicts of opinion, our members sign up to a code of ethics and they should avoid conflicts of interest. The number of the current list of registrants is quite low, as I mentioned previously. That will increase as the scheme expands. The engineers working on the scheme are pretty much bound by geographic region. For example, an engineer who becomes a registrant in County Wexford is not going to do surveys in County Donegal. As the scheme expands, more and more engineers will become involved with it. That will increase the pool of opinions in the certifying and signing off process. Therefore, I do not have many concerns over conflicts of opinion. I will refer to one of the other witnesses to respond to the Deputy's last question.

Mr. Paul Forde

I will add a little to that. The work the expert group undertook, in particular regarding the certification after remediation works, attempted to provide some additional reassurance to both the homeowners and the certifying engineer by making a second grant possible. This was also done with a very firm focus on aiding the conveyancing of the remediated properties. One of the principal targets we had in relation to the certification was that it could facilitate onward conveyancing after remediation.

In relation to the quarries in County Donegal, there was more than one quarry involved in the county. On the point that was made on professional indemnity insurance, we do not want to see this becoming a bone of contention as the scheme rolls out. I have one quick question on that. What are the organisations represented actively doing with the Government, specifically the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage and his officials, to resolve the issue? We do not want to see these types of issues raising their heads. We would like to resolve them now if we can. Is there anything we can do to help resolve the insurance issue and bring the matter to a head?

Mr. Damien Owens

Insurance has been an issue for a number of years. Indeed, we made representations in this House last year on the issue of professional indemnity insurance not just in respect of pyrite but also in fire safety. It is an ongoing issue. The situation has improved slightly in respect of fire safety insurance. We are starting to see some exclusions being built into policies in relation to pyrite. We are progressing that with the industry.

That concludes our second session. I thank the witnesses for taking time to attend the meeting and sharing their expertise and knowledge of the scheme. It has been a great help to members.

Mr. Micheál Mahon

I wish to make a point relating to the discussions with Deputy Higgins and comments on the possibility that we will be asked to update our reports. I ask the committee to liaise closely with the SCSI on that. We publish regular briefings and reports within our annual timeframe. If the committee could liaise with the SCSI in relation to the optimum timing of that, it may be more appropriate. Given that it is a big undertaking, I ask that we liaise closely to ensure we can deliver it on time.

I thank the witnesses for joining us today. We will adjourn for 30 minutes before our third session, which is with representatives of the Department and the Housing Agency.

Sitting suspended at 5.40 p.m. and resumed at 6.13 p.m.

Good evening and welcome. This is the third of our sessions today to look at the Remediation of Dwellings Damaged By the Use of Defective Concrete Blocks Bill 2022. We are joined by Ms Caroline Timmons, acting assistant secretary, Mr Paul Benson, principal officer, and Mr. John Wickham, senior adviser, from the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage; and by Mr. Bob Jordan, CEO, and Mr. Peader Espey, programme manager for the defective concrete blocks grant scheme, from the Housing Agency. I thank them for joining us at this late hour. We appreciate it. We have had two previous sessions at which we met with families and representatives of homeowners affected by the issue and with the SCSI, the expert working group and Engineers Ireland, respectively. Those sessions have given us a good picture of the issues for all involved. The witnesses' opening statements have been circulated. We thank them for those.

I remind members of the constitutional requirement that they must be physically present within the confines of the place where Parliament has chosen to sit, namely, Leinster House. Witnesses attending in the committee room are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their contributions to today's meetings. This means they have an absolute defence against any defamation action for anything they say at the meeting. Both members and witnesses are expected not to abuse the privilege they enjoy. It is my duty as Chair to ensure that this privilege is not abused. Therefore, if their statements are potentially defamatory in relation to an identifiable person or entity, they will be directed to discontinue their remarks. It is imperative they comply with any such direction. Members and witnesses are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official, either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

I invite our witnesses to make their opening statements. I will start with the Department and we will then go to the Housing Agency.

Ms Caroline Timmons

Good evening, Chair and members. I am acting assistant secretary in the housing affordability, inclusion and homelessness division in the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage. I am accompanied by my colleagues, Paul Benson and John Wickham. We are pleased to attend alongside the Housing Agency and thank members for inviting us to assist the committee in its discussions and deliberations on the general scheme of the Remediation of Dwellings Damaged by the Use of Defective Concrete Blocks Bill 2022.

The general scheme of the Bill is the culmination of six months of work and stakeholder engagement since the Government decision of 30 November 2021 on this matter. I thank all who have helped bring us to this point: the Attorney General and his office, including the Office of Parliamentary Counsel, who have put considerable time into advising and guiding on the development of the scheme; the members of the expert group on technical matters, under the chairmanship of Paul Forde; the Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland, SCSI, for its report on construction costs related to remediation works under the scheme; homeowners and their representatives, who have continued to engage with the nominated liaison as the scheme has been developed; the Housing Agency, which is taking on a critical role on behalf of local authorities under the enhanced scheme; and my colleagues, who have worked extremely hard on the defective concrete blocks issue over the past six months.

The general scheme encompasses the key decisions made by Government last November. These include a 100% grant to an overall maximum amount payable to an applicant under the scheme of €420,000. Within that overall maximum grant, grant assistance is available for alternative accommodation costs at €15,000, storage costs at €5,000 and immediate repair works at €5,000. Increased grant rates in the scheme take account of a report on construction costs provided by the SCSI. I note the rates are set to ensure that homeowners will get a rate equal to or greater than those contained in the report of SCSI for remediation works under the scheme. The removal of the financial barrier to scheme entry which is a feature of the current scheme reduces the cost for homeowners from up to €7,000 to an estimated €500 to €700, which will be recoupable under the scheme by approved homeowners. A damage threshold for entry to the grant scheme will be set in order to ensure the worst-affected homes are first into the enhanced scheme and prioritised for approval and remediation. The expert group has made a recommendation in relation to the appropriate damage threshold which should apply. This is being considered by the Minister and will, when agreed, be provided for under regulations. A second grant application opportunity is being made available to homeowners who are approved for remediation options other than full demolition and rebuild. This second grant opportunity works as the form of guarantee which has been sought by homeowners and will remain available for 40 years. Review by Government of the maximum grant amount and rates will take place as appropriate. The extension of the scheme beyond owner-occupied principal private residences will include rented dwellings, to a maximum of one per homeowner, that were registered with the residential tenancies board on or before 1 November 2021. The scheme provides for the establishment of an independent appeals panel and gives clarity on the four key decisions which can be appealed by homeowners, namely, validation of an application, meeting the damage threshold, the remediation option and grant amount, and a refusal by a local authority to pay a grant. Clare and Limerick will be included in the enhanced scheme upon commencement, and further local authority areas can be added as the necessary evidence supports inclusion.

I bring to the committee's attention a number of other issues relevant to the scheme and the matters under consideration. First, a review of a number of technical standards called for by the Government has begun. These include the IS 465 standard for the assessment, testing and categorisation of impacted homes; consideration of the potential impact of other deleterious materials, for example, pyrrhotite, and the impact or otherwise of those deleterious materials on the foundations of homes impacted; the review of the Irish standard for concrete blocks, including aggregates; and the review of the potential impact, if any, of full cavity insulation on homes susceptible to damage or damaged by defective concrete blocks. The Housing Agency is being resourced to fulfil the crucial role it will play in the independent determination of the appropriate remediation option and grant amount for each home. There is the intended introduction of an Exchequer-funded scheme of assistance for local authority and approved housing body-owned social homes which are impacted. There is provision for a review of the operation of the legislation after three years or sooner if that becomes necessary on foot of a change to the IS 465 standard currently under review.

Our Department made a presentation available for circulation to committee members which provided a recap on the current scheme, the challenges and issues which arose, how those challenges are being responded to, how the new scheme will work and the essential next steps to enable it to commence, which, I hope, members find helpful. My colleagues and I are happy to answer any questions members may have or to provide further details as required.

Mr. Bob Jordan

I thank committee members for the opportunity to speak to them today. I am the CEO of the Housing Agency. I am joined by my colleague, Mr. Peadar Espey, programme manager for the defective concrete blocks grant scheme. The Housing Agency is a Government body that supports the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, local authorities, and approved housing bodies, AHBs, in the delivery of housing services and solutions. Our work is framed under three broad themes: being a centre for housing and technical knowledge, supporting the delivery of Government programmes, and building capacity to address complex issues within the housing sector.

The agency's work that is most relevant to today's discussion is our experience in delivering the pyrite remediation scheme. We have delivered that scheme on behalf of the Pyrite Resolution Board since 2014. This involves carrying out the remediation of homes damaged due to pyritic heave caused by the swelling of hardcore underground floor slabs. The Housing Agency has gained a lot of technical knowledge in delivering the scheme. We are also acutely aware of the difficulties and disruption endured by homeowners whose homes have been damaged by pyrite, and we have set out to provide a service that is sympathetic, transparent and efficient. By the end of 2021, just under 2,300 homes had been remediated. We expect to remediate a further 300 homes, approximately, this year.

On the scheme under discussion today, the Housing Agency does not have a role under the current grant scheme but we have been asked to support homeowners and local authorities under the enhanced scheme announced by the Minister last November. The local authorities are the scheme's administrators. They are responsible for processing grant applications and for communicating decisions to homeowners. The Housing Agency's role is to act as agents of the local authorities. Once a local authority has validated a homeowner's grant application, we will assess the application by conducting a technical review of the building condition assessment report prepared by the homeowner's engineer. The first step will be to determine if the home has met the damage threshold for entry to the grant scheme. If the damage threshold has been met, the second step will be to prioritise homes for assessment, sampling, testing and categorisation. The Housing Agency will then provide the local authority with the determination on the remediation option and the maximum grant amount, based on the calculation methodology and rate provided. The local authority will then inform the homeowner of the outcome of his or her application.

In respect of our work to date in preparation for the scheme, we have engaged constructively with the homeowner forum group, chaired by Mr. John O'Connor, over recent months. We provided three technical staff to the expert group and we have held frequent meetings with officials in Donegal County Council and Mayo County Council. We have also been preparing our team. There will be five whole-time technical staff working on the scheme, four of whom will be based in the north west, including programme manager Mr. Espey. They will be supported by IT, finance and administration personnel in the agency. We will keep resources under continual review based on the entry of additional local authority areas to the scheme, including Clare County Council and Limerick City and County Council.

The Housing Agency is in the process of establishing a framework of suitably qualified chartered engineers through public procurement. We have conducted a market engagement survey of IS 465 trained and registered chartered engineers to establish their interest in the scheme. This engagement has been positive. Once the framework is established, efficiencies will be generated by grouping multiple individual properties within geographical areas for assessment and testing.

As we know, the scheme is being extended to Clare and Limerick and it is envisaged other areas may end up entering the scheme. To assist the Minister in considering new areas for inclusion, the agency will be involved in assessing properties in areas where it is considered defective blocks may be present.

The Housing Agency is committed to supporting homeowners and local authorities affected by defective concrete blocks. We aim to create a simplified, cost-efficient and effective process for local authorities and homeowners. The Housing Agency will work closely with all stakeholders to build confidence and trust in the revised scheme. We will collate data and support research to ensure the scheme and stakeholders benefit from the learning we gain during delivery. I thank members for the invitation. We are happy to answer any of their questions.

We have quite a full house, which is good. I will have to limit contributions to six minutes as this is only a two-hour meeting.

I thank both deputations for coming. This has been a very worthwhile exercise and I thank them for their involvement to date. Sometimes this issue has got very heated, but we recognise the witnesses bring a very important element to ensuring the scheme works. We also appreciate the fact the scheme has evolved so much. That flexibility has resolved many issues on the ground. There are some more, which the officials will hear from members and others, but as far as I am concerned, I appreciate the changes that have taken place in the context of the evolving situation since the 90-10 scheme was announced. As time moves on, it is important the Department does not take a position that this is now it. The one thing I have learned, and I have been heavily involved in this over the past couple of years, as have others, is this situation is continually evolving. Once the scheme is adopted, I have no doubt other situations will arise. I hope the Department has the same approach as the Minister whereby there is flexibility because it is crucial to ensure these homes are protected. It is also crucial to ensure these same mistakes are not made in the future.

I have a number of questions. I will ask them together and the representatives can answer what they can. If they cannot conclude, I ask them to come back with a written reply at a later stage. When was the Department first made aware of the presence of pyrrhotite in blocks in Donegal? When was the research tender commissioned? What is the status of, or timeline for, this research? How long will it take the National Standards Authority of Ireland, NSAI, to review results to enable it to amend IS 465?

There are a few other bits and pieces regarding the legislation. Last night, one case in particular was brought to my attention where an individual was awarded stage 2 in the grant process. On examination of the building since the start of works at stage 2, the engineer realised the damage threshold has now increased to the extent that demolition is necessary. He is no longer willing to stand over the building because the legislation states the applicant cannot go to demolition. That is part of the new legislation. Will the Department take a look at that? It is in the Department's interest to ensure it considers a situation where an engineer comes along and states a building has deteriorated since testing to the extent that it is now declared fit for demolition rather than remediation. It is important the legislation allows for that because we are dealing with professional opinions as regards somebody's individual opinion. I ask the officials to reflect on that to see if something can be done about it.

Ms Caroline Timmons

I thank the Senator for the questions. In the first instance, he mentioned the need to be flexible as the scheme evolves. I will mention the fact a review within three years is already built into the general scheme. In the meantime, many things could happen. We are very conscious of IS 465 and the reviews that are ongoing. The Minister has already expressed his willingness to look at how we might need to change the scheme as time moves on. The Senator will find the Department is in the exact same position as the Minister on that front.

I will hand over to my colleague, Mr. Benson, on the matter of when the Department was first made aware of the Donegal block issue. He might also answer the question on the NSAI and give an update on that.

There is only a minute left. I have to be strict on time because we only have two hours. I ask Mr. Benson to answer that question first. We will get to questions similar to those the Senator asked.

Mr. Paul Benson

From memory, it first arose and was brought to our attention last summer during a meeting with the homeowners' working group.

It appeared in some of the test results done by homeowners and was then brought to the attention of the NSAI. The Government made a decision on 30 November 2021 instructing the NSAI to consider pyrrhotite in the review of IS 465. The NSAI has commenced that process and started that review.

A damage threshold has been included to ensure the houses that are worst affected are looked about. A situation might arise in a county as dispersed as Donegal whereby an area such as Buncrana has an awful lot of these houses versus the area where I am from that has fewer such houses. More builders may be available for a time, given that they may all be taken up with work in Buncrana. The priority might be a house in Buncrana although there is a lesser house in Donegal that could be done now. Because it is not a priority, however, it is not being done and there are builders available to do it. It needs a bit of flexibility as well. If I get a chance-----

I ask the witnesses to note Senator Blaney's observation because I have to be strict and move on. I am sorry, but we can come back to unanswered questions.

I thank the witnesses for their opening statements. I will rattle through a bunch of questions and if witnesses do not have time to respond, it would be helpful if they send a brief written response to the committee if possible. These questions are aimed at clarifying the legislation to help us scrutinise the Bill in advance of it being introduced in the Dáil next week.

In terms of head 13, will Ms Timmons or Mr. Benson talk the members through the cost underpinnings of the scheme when it opens? When is the first review of those cost underpinnings, the unit costs and the cap, likely to take place? How will that interact with the NSAI recommendations when the review is published later next year, just to give us a sense of the timelines? Crucially, what will happen if, when that review takes place, construction sector inflation as recommended by the SCSI is above the 10% cap within which the Minister is meant to remain?

I am aware that the Bill, which has not yet been published, has something different to say with respect to foundations compared with what is in head 15. It would be useful if the witnesses could outline in general terms what is in the Bill as opposed to what is in head 15. My understanding is that there may be a delay in the NSAI review and that there has been a delay in the tender process. What is the best guesstimate as to when that is likely to be completed and published?

On head 21, what will be the criteria for people to be on the appeals board, because that is not in the heads and how can we ensure independence? The local authorities and approved housing bodies are obviously very interested in head 32. Will there be a grant application process to which approved housing bodies and local authorities with defective-block buildings will be able to apply?

Some of us had expected that there might be something around a no-penalty downsizing clause within the scheme. Was it considered and if so, why was it dropped at the end? Will the witnesses reassure us that local authorities will get additional resources to be able to process the work when the new scheme opens?

Ms Caroline Timmons

When the Deputy raised the cost underpinnings, he mentioned head 13 but I think he was referring to head 14. Is that correct?

Yes. Apologies.

Ms Caroline Timmons

Regarding the cost underpinnings, obviously he is referring to the fact that we will be setting the grants rate by way of regulation. That provision sets out that the Minister can review them every 12 months and increase them by up to 10%. That is-----

It is every 12 months from the commencement of the legislation.

Ms Caroline Timmons

Yes, that is correct. The question is whether we could look at different mechanisms, such as can we commence this now. Obviously, we will set the regulations and the time may be set running. I am aware the Deputy is concerned that time may pass more quickly than when we open the scheme later in the year, which will be towards the end of the year. I understand the Deputy's points and will take it back. We will look at it and see what can be brought to bear in that respect.

The SCSI indicated to the committee that while it would have capacity problems to update its costings now, if they were given an early indication by the Department it may be possible for the SCSI to update its costings in time for the opening of the scheme at the end of this year or early next year.

Ms Caroline Timmons

We certainly listened to what the SCSI had to say earlier. We will take that back and consider the best way to address the issue the Deputy raised. I will bring in my colleague, Mr. Benson, on that point.

Mr. Paul Benson

The Bill approved by the Government is slightly different in terms of head 14 in the general scheme. It is Government approval of the overall cap and the three additional grant items, which are alternative accommodation, storage and immediate repairs. The actual grant rates will be set under regulation by the Minister with the consent of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, and that will not be subject to the 12-month period that the Government is-----

So the Minister could, before the opening of the scheme, change those from the SCSI report of January.

Mr. Paul Benson

The legal provision is in the Bill at present. Obviously, what is enacted will depend on what is in the Bill.

Ms Caroline Timmons

The Deputy asked a question about the NSAI review on foundations and he said that it might be delayed. Does Mr. Benson have the latest update on that?

Mr. Paul Benson

On the change in the Bill, as against the general scheme, the requirement to rebuild on the existing foundation is not called out explicitly in the Bill. The requirement to build on the exact location of the existing home, the relevant dwelling, is included and that leaves it open for the Minister thereafter by regulation to prescribe a different remediation option if the science comes down in favour of that. The flexibility that Senator Blaney mentioned earlier is being built into the Bill to try to cover all of these issues.

What is the timeline for the NSAI review?

Mr. Paul Benson

The NSAI has indicated that it may be 2023. We are not the parent Department as the Deputy is aware. The NSAI is carrying out that work on our behalf. There are volunteers who are doing it, as was mentioned earlier. It will take time. The NSAI has said 2023. We are hoping that some of the work can be done quicker.

Has the NSAI indicated what quarter in 2023?

Mr. Paul Benson

It will probably be late 2023, but that is for the IS 465 standard.

Late 2023? We thought it might be in the first quarter, so it is delayed. That is significant.

Mr. Paul Benson

There will be a difference between publication and us having some of the science. We are hoping the foundation issue can be progressed, that it can be dealt with quicker. It is not part of the current standard and that could be dealt with as a separate piece of work but the standard itself will take longer by the time it is published.

Will the Department be able to provide regulations on part of the review before it is completed by the NSAI?

Mr. Paul Benson

As I said, foundations are not part of the IS 465 standard. The considering of foundations is a separate piece of work that the NSAI has been asked to do by the Government. The NSAI will test foundations on various homes that have been demolished and are available to have tests performed on them.

What part will be done in late 2023?

Mr. Paul Benson

The IS 465 standard-----

Does Mr. Benson think the foundations could be done earlier?

Mr. Paul Benson

We are hoping that it can be.

Will that be in quarter 1 or quarter 2?

Mr. Paul Benson

I cannot be any more specific. The NSAI is working through those timelines with the volunteers, who have to put in their voluntary hours, and it will come back to us with timelines.

Foundations is an issue that has arisen many times today.

Mr. Paul Benson

We are very conscious of that.

It is of concern to many homeowners.

I thank the witnesses for being with us. What this is about from the Department's perspective is providing solutions to homeowners currently affected, many of whom we have heard from today, extending that right to people who might not even know they are affected and ensuring this never happens again. I have a point to make about each of those three goals. The first, on solutions to homeowners currently affected, relates to inflation which Ms Timmons touched on in her contribution. It is an issue I am keen to hear more about. As for the extension of the scheme, it has been extended to two other counties and I seek reassurance that the legislation is flexible to extend further, were we to find out anything beyond that. To alert the witnesses, we were informed in our previous session today that there is a quarry about which there are questions on how it is operating. What is the Department's response to that?

As for what Mr. Jordan spoke about, at this stage we are all familiar with the IS 465 process. One query that was raised by homeowners earlier in the session was whether that process would catch everything. Are we absolutely clear that the testing and sampling being carried out catches everything? I seek comfort in that regard. The Housing Agency goes to the local authority with its recommendations on building conditions assessment and the local authority delivers that news to the homeowners. Why is the authority the conduit? This is just a procedural question.

Ms Caroline Timmons

On the comments about inflation, as I said earlier, I will take a look at that and see what can be done, but obviously we have allowed provisions whereby the Minister can revisit that.

It is important that the Minister can review it and, with the consent of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, can increase those rates or decrease them as the situation merits. We all hope that things will change in that regard into the future.

In relation to the extension to other counties, as members will have seen in the general scheme and as will be provided for in the Bill, the Minister may by Government order designate relevant local authorities to discharge or to come into the scheme. We have already extended it to Clare and Limerick but if evidence can be provided in respect of other counties, the Minister will be more than happy to bring them into the scheme. It is a question of the science. The procedure will follow. That is the best we can say on that.

In relation to the query on quarries, I will hand over to my colleague, Mr. Wickham.

Mr. John Wickham

In relation to the marketing of construction products, legislation exists on construction products regulations. They establish the rules by which we put products on the market. To enforce that system, there is an authority over market surveillance. On a State-wide basis, the National Building Control and Market Surveillance Office leads on that, with support of the individual 31 local authorities. Anyone who is aware of defective material or non-compliant material in the marketplace should engage with those authorities as the first port of call.

Ms Caroline Timmons

There was a final query on whether testing and sampling will catch everything. I might hand over to the Housing Agency about how it intends to look at the matter of testing.

Mr. Peadar Espey

It is the intention of the Housing Agency to roll out the assessment sampling and the testing categorisation. That will be in accordance with the existing IS 465 standard. As part of that, and to inform the research, any issues are identified in the sampling stage, for example at the foundation level. If there is any deterioration or degradation, that will be identified and recorded. That information will be collated and issued to the National Standards Authority of Ireland, NSAI. Likewise, as part of the petrographic analysis that will be carried out under IS 465, if any other deleterious materials are identified and if they are relevant to the standard, again those items will be collated and issued to the NSAI to help and to inform the research.

Mr. Bob Jordan

I will answer Deputy Higgins's second question. We are stepping into the scheme as agents of the local authorities. Ultimately, it is the local authority that is communicating with the homeowner about the decision. Our determination will go to local authority. That determination will essentially be based on a recommendation from the consulting engineer.

We move next to Senator Boyhan.

At the outset, I want to thank the secretariat and the background people who have facilitated the sessions all day today. I acknowledge their input. This would not be possible without that. I welcome Ms Timmons and Mr. Jordan today. Given the time constraints, I will head up some headlines. I will ask if they could supply the committee with some written responses to them, because they are quite detailed. We have to tease out this legislation.

At the outset, I want to mention, as Deputy Ó Broin did, the idea that the local authority is responsible for processing the applications and for sending on the validation of applications, etc., to the Housing Agency. That is an issue of resources for the local authorities in question. They may grow. There are quite a few there, but there may be more. I would therefore like some commitment from the Department or some detailed statement on the funding. This will be a large body of work for some local authorities. There will be a certain amount of work for the Housing Agency. The witnesses might touch on the issues of the funding, resources and expertise that are needed.

I would like a briefing document on subrogation, how that all works and how that can be rolled out. I will not touch any more on that. In relation to the planning permission exemptions for rebuilding or for modifications of these houses, we need clarity on the issues of the exemption, which is an issue of concern. The other the issue is the excluded counties. We need to know more about the pathways for these excluded counties if they wish to be included. It is my understanding, although I am open to correction, that Limerick and Clare are going to being included. We need a pathway. We need to understand the pathway for other countries to come in, if that is an issue.

I also raise the appeals process. There is a suggestion that there will be a ten-person appeals panel put in place. At this stage, we do not understand this ten-person panel appeals process. I would like some information on that. It would be beneficial to the members of this committee, as well as to all the other people who are involved in this process today, for us to understand that.

I also raise an area that we do not talk about enough, which is the issue of support for the vulnerable householders and families, for example with counselling and support for themselves and for their extended families. This is an important aspect and it is a separate part of the compensation. Mental health is a huge issue. I talk to these people in Donegal and Mayo. This is a mental health issue because it is an absolute nightmare for them to be living in these circumstances. They are strapped for cash, their houses are crumbling all around them and the State has abandoned them. That is what it amounts to. We need to hear about that. We need a briefing memo or a note on the Department’s intentions.

Finally, I want to touch on the issue of culpability. The Minister was reported the other day as saying that there will be some sort of a levy scheme. Levies on buildings and on the construction sector are ultimately passed down to the consumer. I have some concerns about that. I understand that the Government is engaging with senior counsel. They will appoint somebody. There will be this issue to address. Who will pursue the wrongdoers here? That is what the public wants to know. They want their homes to be replaced, but they want people to be held to account. Smaller quarries or people in building, construction and the manufacturing industry have been bought out. I will not name them, but I know that two or three major conglomerates in this country have bought some of them up. Who is responsible? The public is looking at the committee today. They are aghast by the fact this is costing billions of pounds. Rightly, people need to have their homes. Yet, we have got to hold people to account. That is what the public wants. The public expects us to hold people to account.

In the last two minutes, Ms Timmons might focus on that. I have asked that there would be a memo or report on each new issue I have raised here today and for it to be circulated as early next week as possible. I know that the Department has to give consideration to it and I understand that. However, in the last two minutes, can the witnesses tell me what the Government's intentions are? What are the Department’s intentions? What knowledge do they have on how we are going to follow up and hold people to account for this absolute disaster? That is what the public wants, too.

Ms Caroline Timmons

I am taking a note of everything that the Senator has raised. We will do our best to get back to him. We are happy to do so insofar as we can. The issues he has raised are important. I would like to mention that we are more than empathetic to the issue that the Senator has raised of mental health. We agree with him 100% that it is an important issue. We have engaged with the Department of Health on that. It is providing the MyMind service to homeowners in the affected areas. The Senator brought attention to an important point. We can provide him with more details on that.

In relation to the levy scheme, it is the case the Government has agreed that a levy scheme would be considered. At the moment, the Department of Finance is considering how it might be worked and whether it can be brought under the Finance Bill 2022. However, I do not have anything more to say about that at the present time. We can update the Senator in due course as matters develop. The Minister has expressed in the past that he is keen, just as the Senator is, to get to the bottom of the issue and to pursue wrongdoers in this respect. It was agreed in November that senior counsel would be brought in review the matter. The Department has been working in the background to develop some terms of reference. We will look to progress that matter with the Minister as soon as we can. We will try to get the Bill to the end point. Then there are other matters we have to pursue in that respect.

I will briefly discuss the other matters. Deputy Ó Broin mentioned the appeals panel earlier. I wanted to point out that the Public Appointments Service, PAS, will deal with the appeals panels. It will be an independent process. We will make sure the criteria reflect that. The Senator mentioned that the local authority that is responsible for the process must be resourced. We already have many processes in place whereby local authorities need resources. We are conscious of that in our Department. If there is a need for extra resources, we will look at that in conjunction with the local authorities, which will be able to inform us of where they stand on that front. We are happy enough on that. I apologise to the Chair, because I can see the time going. We will come back on the other issues----

With the further detail.

Ms Timmons can engage with the committee or with Senator Boyhan.

I will take the next slot, which is a Green Party slot. A question was answered around the NSAI and following up on foundations.

There was mention of further evidence-gathering to detect where this may be present in other counties. What can we expect in that? Is that where people report excessive cracking? Is that how the Department will invest it or will it be more proactive than that?

Ms Caroline Timmons

This is in relation to the National Standards Authority of Ireland, NSAI, review. I will hand over to my colleague, Mr. Benson, on this one.

Mr. Paul Benson

Is the Chairman asking about additional counties coming into the scheme in the process?

I will try and clarify it a bit more. We know of the four counties that have been spoken about today. Then there was a suggestion that this could apply to ten or 12 counties. Then one of the other witnesses said this could apply everywhere. I am wondering how does the Department gather that evidence to know the extent.

Mr. Paul Benson

The pathways are set out in the Bill. Obviously, it is not as clear in the scheme. Sligo is going through that process at present. Clare and Limerick have just gone through it. It worked well for Limerick. Unfortunately, Clare took a little bit longer.

If any homeowner has a concern, he or she can contact his or her local authority, the local authority can ask the Housing Agency, through the Minister, to carry out testing on a few homes in the local authority area, and if it produces a causative link between excessive pyrite or mica and damage to the home, the homeowner can get into the scheme. Alternatively, the Minister himself can ask the Housing Agency to do that and it will carry out the testing independent of the Department and the homeowner to determine if it is excessive pyrite or mica, and the regulations will allow a county to do this.

I asked the question earlier on for members of the public who are looking in who are not impacted by this. Can Ms Timmons state how the public should have confidence that mica, pyrite or pyrrhotite is not getting into the building system at present? What processes are put in places there?

I have a further question. These materials must have gone over the Border at some stage, but how have they not revealed themselves there? I would have said there is a stronger building control there, but how is that building control enacted? Is it enacted on site when a delivery comes or through certification from the point of source? How is that done differently over the Border than here and how did they manage to completely escape any materials with deleterious content?

Ms Caroline Timmons

I would ask my colleague, Mr. Wickham, to take that.

Mr. John Wickham

I can talk about what the current system is in Ireland. We have the construction products regulation, which harmonises the rules for marketing of construction products. To supplement performances that are required on a national basis, the National Standards Authority of Ireland produces standard recommendations. They set performance limits on the chemical composition of particular aggregates and those are the limits and thresholds which specifiers, builders, etc. should look for on the declarations of performance that are an obligation of the manufacturer to produce at the outset. Those standard recommendations are then referred to in our building regulations in our technical guidance documents and they perform the prima facia evidence of compliance with regulation. Overarching enforcement of that regime is primarily with the 31 building control authorities, but now we have the strength and centralisation of market surveillance under the National Building Control and Market Surveillance Office. That has been a huge improvement in terms of looking at the extractive industries sector. Since 2021, their programme of prioritisation would have to be focused on looking at aggregates for concrete and hardcore for underneath floor slabs. It has since extended, in 2020, to focus on blocks. It is a very well resourced unit. In the past year, it would have carried out many proactive inspections.

Okay. People can have confidence that there is a good quality regime at present. There is inspection and certification. People can have confidence in that.

Mr. John Wickham

Equally, there is a supply chain responsibility. There is also a responsibility of those who choose those products to make sure that they are fit for purpose and that they are used in the right conditions. A block, by itself, does not make a wall. It is a system. It needs render, insulation and workmanship. Those are the components that ensure compliance with the building regulations.

Ten years ago or however long it may have been before that was in place, how did none of this block work end up in buildings across the Border? Is there a different inspection regime or was it the certification from here?

Mr. John Wickham

The same rules would have applied. There are many instances of product failure in other countries. It does happens. We have had a legacy of experience by working through the pyrite in the hardcore since 2013. Due to the supply-and-demand pressures of the industry at the time of the Celtic tiger some quarries lost sight of the standards. There are standards in place and they need to be adhered to.

To follow-up on the Chairman's second point about the system building control amendment regulations, BCAR, having more competent professionals involved in construction works and making sure that they aware of these standards, BCAR has led to a significant improvement and awareness of standards and, as a result, we are getting better quality buildings.

I thank Mr. Wickham. I will move on now to the Social Democrats slot. I call Deputy Cian O'Callaghan.

To follow from that, the market surveillance office, for example, only has six staff. It is hugely under resourced. Clearly, there is an issue here. We have been told in the previous session from a highly qualified and experienced engineer with expertise in this area that he is aware of at least one quarry that is still producing substandard material that is going into homes and leading to serious structural damage in homes. That is what is happening today in this country at the same time as this piece of legislation is in front of us which will involve very considerable expenditure. While I agree there have been improvements in this area, clearly it is not working. Is the Department aware that this is not working and that this is still going on and what is the Department doing about the fact that it is not working?

Mr. John Wickham

I pointed to the market surveillance office. As I stated to Deputy Emer Higgins, it is important that the person who said that does not keep that information to himself. He needs to bring it to the powers that be that are more than competent to deal with that. Non-compliance needs to be marginalised. The system is there. It needs to be enforced. That would be my advice on that.

Ms Caroline Timmons

The programme for Government commits to the creation of an independent building standards regulator. The work to progress that is ongoing at present. Obviously, the Department is progressing those pieces of work. In conjunction with the work of the surveillance office, we are conscious of trying to improve standards all of the time.

That is important. It is really needed. I would make the observation that given the massive trauma and stress this has caused families and communities across Ireland and the massive cost to the public, it is not enough for us to be reliant on stating that people should make complaints if they have knowledge. If they do not, nothing will be done about that.

I have a question in terms of the legislation. On head 24, the subrogation of rights, would it not be in the State's interest to allow homeowners to recover costs against third parties for non-grantable losses such as stress, depression and suffering that homeowners have gone through? Can homeowners still recover that through legal action or does this prevent them from doing so? On what basis does the State purport to inherit a plaintiff's rights to recover sums that are not covered by the grants for which third parties could otherwise be liable or are they still open to be able to take legal action for non-grantable costs?

Ms Caroline Timmons

Head 24 is in relation to the subrogation of rights. As the Deputy will be aware, this is an ex-gratia scheme. It is a normal part of an ex-gratia scheme that the scheme would contain a subrogation of rights and this is where the Minister steps into the shoes of the party. Therefore, the State may be able to recover some of the moneys expended at some point.

I take the point Deputy Cian O'Callaghan is making. I will have to go back and talk to our legal advisers and consult with the Attorney General's office about the point the Deputy is making. I cannot give him any further answer than that today. What I will do is bring up the issue with them and have a look at it. I will say that this is a standard piece of kit in relation to this type of legislation where it is a grant payment. Nonetheless, we will take it back and look at it, if that is all right.

Representatives of homeowners earlier today stated that they felt that this part of the legislation was designed to put the frighteners on them to stop people pursuing a claim against anyone. They felt that homeowners are being targeted in this legislation, and not quarries or anyone else with responsibility, on this.

The Minister has been vocal on the issue of recovering costs. Some Irish companies are currently contributing to the UK redress schemes arising out of the issues relating to cladding in Grenfell Tower. Can the Department tell us more about what is being done with respect to accountability and recovering costs?

Ms Caroline Timmons

I can absolutely assure the Deputy that subrogation of rights is a normal piece we include in legislation relating to ex gratia payments. There is no question of any intention to be imputed to that. I disagree with what the Deputy said because there was no intention to that effect.

The Deputy also asked about the actions that have been taken. I referred earlier to the Government's intention to appoint a senior counsel to review matters. We intend to progress that as soon as we can. The Department has been working in the background in that regard.

I referred the Deputy to the work of the Department of Finance on a potential levy on those in the construction sector.

To confirm, a senior counsel has not been appointed yet.

Ms Caroline Timmons

That is the case. We have been tasked with trying to devise appropriate terms of reference. We are gathering some of the information that we will need to progress that work. That needs to be done as soon as possible and I am sure that will be the first matter to which we will turn after we finish the Bill.

Deputy McNamara wanted to ask a brief question. We may not have time for the answer.

Ms Timmons said that if someone has a claim, the Department will be able to pursue it and recover money. How will the Department know if someone has a claim?

Ms Caroline Timmons

It is a requirement of the scheme. The person will inform the Housing Agency or the local authority at the time of application if he or she has a pursuit of anybody in being.

That is if the person has already taken a claim. How will the Department know if there is a latent claim?

Ms Caroline Timmons

If there is a latent claim and somebody does not declare it, that may have consequences for his or her participation in the scheme. People in that circumstance need to let the Housing Agency know that is the case. For the protection of the Exchequer and taxpayer, we will be ensuring that if somebody does try to recover moneys twice, we will be able to recover that as a simple contract debt. However, that will only arise in those circumstances. I am sure it will be a rare occurrence that anyone would try to pursue it twice.

If I have any time left over, I will allow my colleague, Deputy Dillon, to use it. I will follow on from our earlier session and what was said about quarries that are operating at present. While we are discussing issues that have happened in the past, defective blocks and the impact they have had on many households, I am acutely conscious of what is happening right now. Is the Department aware, through dialogue with a local authority or through the National Building Control Office, of any quarry that is producing defective materials, aggregates or blocks?

Ms Caroline Timmons

I cannot speak for the Department on that point because I have not asked the entire Department and I only work in a particular division. However, we can take that question back to the Department. I do not know if any of my colleagues want to comment at this point.

Mr. John Wickham

The Minister called for an audit of quarries in Donegal and that is nearing finalisation and a report. That has required collaboration between State agencies, Donegal County Council, the National Building Control Office, as departmental lead, and the Geological Survey of Ireland. The Minister has requested a report to be prepared for Donegal and we expect to receive that in the coming weeks. Outside that scope, the market surveillance authority, as I said before, carried out upwards of 150 quarry inspections in 2021. It has a heavy focus on the extractive industry sector. How it follows up on those individual issues is a procedural matter. I am unaware of any-----

Is Mr. Wickham aware of any issues being identified in that context?

Mr. John Wickham

There are issues of which we are aware. Education goes a long way to improving everyone's understanding from the point of view of the economic operators right down to that of those responsible for buildings. A lot is happening with regard to the review of standards. We have in recent months produced a guide to make it easily understood by everyone involved what their responsibilities are and to ensure they choose proper products, scrutinise the declarations and performance of manufacturers, and send it back those products if they do not accept them. It is important that all those in the supply chain take responsibility for putting proper materials into buildings.

What about the inspection and periodic testing of those materials? Is the Department satisfied that enough is being done to ensure we do not have a repeat of what has happened heretofore? That is the key question here. If we are not satisfied that enough is being done on scrutiny, inspection and assessment of materials that are coming out of quarries today, what do we need to do to ensure that what needs to be done will be done from now on?

Mr. John Wickham

I referred earlier to the involvement of the harmonised standards system. Within the scope of the framework of the construction products regulation, we have ensured that Ireland, as opposed to Northern Ireland, will apply third-party oversight to materials where problems may occur. That means each economic operator receives an independent audit from a notified body such as the NSAI, among others. There are upwards of ten notified bodies operating in Ireland. That gives reassurance around the factory production control with regard to the production of the aggregate and is intended to ensure that the means by which it is produced leads to a credible declaration and performance. Ireland is unique in how it has responded with a level of oversight behind the factory gates. That gives more credibility to the marketplace, reinforced with measures by the National Building Control Authority. The focus on this risk of construction products and market surveillance in this area are important.

On the guidelines and auxiliary activities within quarries, does the Department have any remit or oversight of enforcement orders against quarries with respect to adherence to the standards of the NSAI? What visibility does the Department have in that regard? Is it the director of services in the planning section or the environmental section in the local authorities who would engage with quarries? Our guests are saying it is up to the goodwill of the quarries to outline adherence to the guidelines.

Mr. John Wickham

It is not just a matter of goodwill; it is a legal responsibility. The National Building Control Office is heavily focused on the risk that is posed by the extractive industries. The standards that underpin concrete blocks are heavily technical. There are defined rules, boundaries and performance limits. Primarily, the programme of market surveillance is dictated by the national market surveillance authority in conjunction with the 31 building control authorities through regional chairs. The Department also sits on that group. Transport Infrastructure Ireland has a role. We must keep in mind that aggregate does not just go into buildings but also goes into civil engineering works. The Geological Survey of Ireland is also involved. It is the lead agency with expertise with regard to geoscience.

I must interrupt Mr. Wickham there. He may expand on that answer when Deputy Dillon's speaking slot comes around. I call Deputy Conway-Walsh.

This is a useful session for us to have at the end of the day. I want to clear up a few things that people have misinterpreted fairly quickly. Demolition and clearance are included in the scheme.

Ms Caroline Timmons


Are the materials taken away for clearance classified as contaminated in terms of disposal because obviously it is much more expensive to dispose of contaminated materials.

Ms Caroline Timmons

I am not sure. I do not know if my colleagues would have the answer.

Mr. John Wickham

I think the management of waste would primarily be a matter for the EPA. Some of this material is naturally occurring.

That is right. I do not want to take up time with it but could the Department clarify for the committee that it is not classified as contaminated because there is a big cost involved if it was to be considered that? I suggest that there is no need for it to be classified as contaminated material because it is naturally occurring.

Mr. Paul Benson

We have had discussions with the Connacht Ulster Waste Region, which is Mayo-based. It is looking at the issue of the classification of waste from these homes and what can be used and recycled to minimise costs.

I would urge that this be done because it is a way of reducing costs. There is only one home in Mayo of which I am aware that was warned about a catastrophic event if the owners did not replace their home. We are not talking about a huge amount of money. Is there flexibility within the scheme that would allow for the handful of homes that have to be done? Perhaps it is not even a handful as I know of only one in Mayo.

Ms Caroline Timmons

The scheme is really for applicants. You would have to be an applicant under the scheme. That is the way the legislation works. If there are other situations that are brought to our attention of which we are not aware, we would be happy to take the information from the Deputy and look at it.

If Ms Timmons could on humanitarian grounds, that would be great. I know Deputy Calleary will agree with me.

Ms Caroline Timmons

Unfortunately, I cannot give the Deputy any position on it but I can certainly take the information and look into it.

If Ms Timmons could do that, it would be great. Our collective aim is to make this scheme the best it can be. Regarding the damage threshold, how can we avoid families having to live in a purgatory awaiting for the damage to be sufficient? Pyrite is a terminal condition. It does not get better. The witnesses from Engineers Ireland said there would be different thresholds in different counties. Nobody is ever going to say he or she has pyrite if he or she does not have it. There is solidarity among homeowners in terms of the most damaged houses being done first. I have no concern that this would not hold throughout the scheme. Can we look at a way that ensures we are not in the same situation we were last year in Mayo? We spoke about being concerned about the mental health of and the stress being caused to homeowners. Good God almighty, stress was placed upon homeowners when they were refused permission to take part in the scheme but can we look at that to ensure that the thresholds do not exclude families and families do not have to sit there and wait for their houses to get worse and worse knowing they will never get better? We really have to look at that.

Ms Caroline Timmons

We watched the session earlier. I know that some of the speakers, including Paul Forde, would have dealt with this extensively with regard to the damage threshold. We echo the comments and views of the expert group regarding that. This is something that will be set by regulation. We will give more thought to it. There will be an ability to give more thought to it before those regulations are made. I might hand over to Mr. Benson on this.

I want to know what happens in the meantime before the NSAI review. It concerns the ones in the system and those that will come on board before them.

Mr. Paul Benson

Regarding the damage threshold?

Mr. Paul Benson

The damage threshold is not being brought in to prevent anyone from getting on to the scheme. Everyone who has excessive amounts of pyrite in their home will get on to the scheme. It is a question of trying to bring people into the scheme at the right time so that they are not in too soon or too late. One of the critical factors the expert group was asked to look at was not the just amount of damage or cracking but what the comfort levels in the home are because if they reach a critical point, you cannot leave somebody in that home waiting. The expert group has made a recommendation to the Minister, who is considering other issues. The feedback from this session will help. The Minister will make a determination as to what the damage threshold will be but it is not intended to be set at a level that will leave people sitting in homes where there is no comfort - you cannot heat them or there is noise or wind. That is not the intention.

That needs to be made clear to prevent people being excluded from the scheme. I could suggest that there be different timelines so if somebody is told he or she cannot get in now or for the next 12 months but in 18 months' time, he or she will be able to get in. We need to give people forward planning dates so that they would know because otherwise-----

Mr. Paul Benson

When the engineers on the expert group were looking at this, that damage threshold was known by everyone and the engineering practitioners were doing building condition assessments. They will be able to tell homeowners whether or not their house is at the point where they will be able to get on to the scheme. It will not be a mystery. The homeowner's engineer will be able to determine fairly quickly whether a homeowner is six months or a year away.

On that point, I am very concerned about the number suitably qualified engineers who will be available, will stick with this scheme and stand over the signing off of foundations or structures. Could Mr. Benson address how we make sure we have a sufficient number of engineers to be able to do this work? Will engineers be in a position where they will sign off on foundations if it is deemed that you have to use the existing foundation? Are we going to get any engineer to sign off on that?

Is there a brief answer to that or does Mr. Benson want to come back in later?

Mr. Paul Benson

The scheme only requires engineers to sign off on work they designed and inspected and requires the contractor to sign off on work it supervised and carried out. That is all. If they have done nothing to the foundations, they are not liable for them. They are liable for the work they actually designed and supervised.

Who is going to sign off on the foundations?

Mr. Paul Benson

The foundations issue was well articulated earlier. We can-----

I am afraid we are out of time.

I thank the witnesses for appearing before us and for their work on this issue. There is a massive lack of trust among homeowners because of the way they have been treated. Initially they ended up in the scheme. The point was made earlier by one of the homeowner representatives that all of the key performance indicators in the scheme were on the homeowner. The homeowner gets a deadline to provide information and a timescale to get it done and billed for. There is very little on the Housing Agency and the local authorities. What is the Housing Agency's view around that and putting in key performance indicators so that the homeowner will be treated with respect and will know when his or her application will be dealt with when it goes to the Housing Agency or the local authorities?

The appeals board makes a recommendation but the Housing Agency decides. If the appeals board is truly independent, it should have the power to make decisions as well rather than the Housing Agency making the ultimate decision based on the opinion of the appeals board. Can the witnesses from the Housing Agency clarify that?

My next question is for the Department. What is the timeline for the regulations if the legislation is passed before we go into recess? What is the projected timeline for the publication of the regulations of the scheme? I cannot overstate how real the issue of mental health is. It is very specific to people who live in a home with either pyrite, mica or pyrrhotite. There are homeowners who are appropriately qualified. There are homeowners affected by pyrite, mica and inevitably pyrrhotite who have appropriate qualifications relating to mental health and they should prioritised with regard to support because they have walked and are walking the walk. I do not think anyone of us here who is not in this situation truly knows what it is like to go to bed every night and wake up every morning with this problem. This brings us back to the damage threshold. I cannot describe what people went through last July and August in Mayo. It was bad enough knowing they had pyrite. To know that there was no future for them for those four weeks was cruel. There was far more distress because of that than there was as a result of finding out about pyrite. It is essential that the mental health supports are relevant to where people are.

Ms Caroline Timmons

Would the Chairman like us to start?

I do not mind. There was a question for the Housing Agency if Mr. Jordan wishes to go ahead.

Mr. Bob Jordan

I agree that we should have key performance indicators. This is why we are getting our team in place.

We have done some market engagement with engineers so that as soon as this legislation is given the green light, we will be ready to go and support homeowners. We are already looking at our scheduling. It is important for people to know when this work will happen and when it will end. We will be holding ourselves to account through KPIs but obviously we need to wait for the legislation on that.

A decision of the Housing Agency may be appealed to the appeals board. We do not have a say after that. It is completely independent of the agency. I want to be clear that no board member or staff member may be on the appeals panel.

When the appeals panel recommends acceptance, is that it?

Mr. Bob Jordan


Ms Caroline Timmons

Regarding how the Bill will work, we have mentioned that the appeals panel will be independent and appointed through the Public Appointments Service. Once it makes a decision, it can either direct it back to the Housing Agency or it can substitute its own decision for that of the Housing Agency, which ensures it has that particular power.

The Deputy asked about the timeline. Obviously, the Minister has said he would like to try to get this done by the end of the year. I caution that a large body of work remains to be done on regulations. We are very aware of the importance of the work. The team in the Department which has been doing this work has been working flat out for a number of months on this. We will be trying to get those regulations out as soon as possible to enable the scheme to become operational, hopefully by the end of the year. That is the timeline at this point.

I echo the Deputy's comments that peer support from people who have gone through it is always helpful with mental health issues. We will bring that comment back to the Department of Health. We have consulted that Department on the provisions of the MyMind service to homeowners. It would probably be a matter for them to consider whether they want to take that point on board. We would not have the expertise in that respect.

I thank the witnesses for coming in. Mr. Benson said the engineer is not responsible for the foundations he does not put in. He is wrong. The engineer is responsible for the foundations on top of which he puts a structure. He is completely wrong in the information he just gave. Any engineer who has put a structure on top of an existing foundation is required to do all the tests to the existing foundation before he designs the product for it. That means he is giving an undertaking that the foundation in place is adequate and correct for the construction of the building he is putting on top of it. He has to sign off on it. If he does not sign off on it, the insurance will not accept it. I know this because I am in construction. I am involved in renovations every day of the week and it is a standard practice. What Mr. Benson is saying is wrong.

Mr. Benson said he has been involved in the issue of pyrite since 2013. Why was a quarry making and delivering blocks around County Limerick and County Clare that now has 1,000 cases against it for houses on its own books? As I am a bricklayer by trade, I understand. Mr. Benson spoke about the difference in trades and workmanship. Every section of every building we have ever done is overseen by competent engineers and other skilled people and if it is not right, they take it down. It is all tested using certified materials.

I made a suggestion at the last committee meeting and you said you would listen to it. Ireland recently had a census. Every building that is due to get an SEAI grant gets cored, something the Department trying to drop out of this Bill. The easiest way to test for pyrite is to use a chisel and chisel areas out or use a core which gives the full details of the blocks going through. If we do not do a census of all the houses we are now retrofitting and insulation gets pumped on top of existing insulation making the mica travel from one side to the other, we will create a bigger problem for everybody down the line. That is common sense.

Others can have titles and letters after their names, but I am dealing with this on a daily basis. I can draw up plans and hand them to the structural engineer. He will specify what has to go in and he hands it back to me to carry out the work with the proper materials. In order to future-proof Ireland, the block work needs to be tested for every house that is going in for an SEAI grant, such as external insulation or cavity insulation. It is a small price to pay. We should then have a census in every county. I welcome that Limerick and Clare have been included in it now.

As I said, I have been involved in building for over 30 years. The same quarry has also provided blocks for public buildings. We are talking about homeowners, we will now be talking about schools and public buildings after this where these same blocks had been supplied. It was allowed to bring blocks from the quarry 12 months ago. It only stopped 12 months ago. It now owns most of the quarries around this country and is bringing blocks from different quarries. Thank God, I never used its blocks on any of my one-off houses.

Foundations have gone in on rafts and the material is underneath the raft foundation. Any house with an infill of over 900 mm is required to use a precast slab but most people did the infill anyway and put the precast slab over it to get rid of the void. Some people actually put a liquid screed on top of that afterwards to seal it. It depended on the specification of each individual engineer. That makes common sense. All house owners since 2002 have already paid tax on their houses at 13.5%. Any house, back to €80 per square foot in the 2000s up to whenever the rate went up, already paid €20,000 or €30,000 in tax. In this, the VAT is included in the build. On a €420,000 house, there is €49,996 VAT that is not going to them. The maximum redress is not, as Mr. Benson has said, €420,000, it is actually €370,004.40. On a 2,000 sq. ft house, it is €3,600 at today's rate of €1.80 per square foot. I know that is today's rate because I deal with it on a daily basis. That is a fact. Mr. Benson has it is €1.56 to €1.61. He is way off. In addition, the Department is taking the €50,000 tax back. We need 100% redress. The 100% redress means taking the VAT off to ensure that people can get their houses built to current standards which is what we want.

What engineer will design and build on top of a foundation he would not check out first?

Mr. Benson has about 30 seconds to answer that. I realise it requires a complex answer.

Mr. Paul Benson

I think the Deputy must have misunderstood. The question I answered was not directly related to foundations. It related to a different issue. Engineers have expressed concern about signing off on remediation offers that might be recommended by somebody else. I did not talk about foundations at all. I said that the issue of foundations had been articulated well earlier and I did not think there was any value. I understand the point he is making and he is absolutely right in what he said, but I was answering a different question.

Does Mr. Benson know the cost for a person building a house on top of an existing foundation?

Mr. Paul Benson

What the Deputy said was absolutely correct, but I think he misinterpreted the question I was answering.

It is my understanding that Mr. Benson was speaking on something else. The Deputy is quite correct in what he said, but I do not think it relates to what Mr. Benson said. I am glad we have clarified that.

This may have been covered earlier. The representative from Engineers Ireland and Paul Forde mentioned the difficulties they have getting professional indemnity insurance. They mentioned that there were only two companies in the country getting professional indemnity insurance for pyrite. I may have taken them up wrong, but that was more or less the gist of what they were saying. This question may be for Mr. Jordan. Has the Housing Agency factored that in when building the panel? Are we discussing a scheme that may not work or will not get off the ground because of a lack of any professional indemnity insurance? I suspect that position could be exacerbated by the issue with foundations and the delay in the foundation work.

Mr. Peadar Espey

In preparation for our work under the scheme, we have commissioned a market engagement survey. There are 426 trained and registered consultant engineers, chartered engineers, in the IS 465. As part of that we asked for confirmation that they would be able to obtain professional indemnity insurance.

We did get positive feedback on that. We will not determine that until we eventually go through the procurement system to try to establish the framework panel.

That is professional indemnity insurance they may already have. The specific point made by Mr. Aidan O'Connell and by Mr. Paul Forde was that when pyrite is brought into the equation, and when dealing with pyrite or mica or any other deleterious materials, it was very difficult to get insurance.

Mr. Peadar Espey

This was specifically for the scheme. It was specifically for the pyrite issue in Mayo and the mica issue in Donegal.

Ms Caroline Timmons

With regard to the Department, the question on professional indemnity insurance is for the Department of Finance rather than the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage. It is a global problem. We are aware of it, particularly after the Grenfell Tower fire and in relation to fire safety standards. It is hoped the clarity we are trying to bring in with the research we are doing now and the technical concerns coming forward will improve the situation, but we will bring the point back to the Department of Finance. If it turns out the Housing Agency does encounter problems, we will be feeding that back.

I have two points to follow on. I back the point made by Deputy Conway-Walsh about personal circumstances and finance requirements for the damage threshold. I believe it is only right that personal circumstances would come into that situation. There are many individuals who are in hard economic and personal situations. I would extend this further where certain individuals find themselves with a second home because parents have died who had applied for the scheme themselves. These people now find themselves in a situation where they have applied for one house and have been left a second house. I am not sure how to resolve that issue but it is a live one on the ground.

I also want to put on the record the concern about external boundary walls and garages. The scheme should cater for external boundary walls and garages. It is not as though the mica does not matter in those walls. As well as that, many garages actually cater for many of the needs of the house. In many circumstances the garage also houses the heating system. I would like the Department to take second look at this.

Ms Caroline Timmons

I thank the Senator. I will ask Mr. Benson to comment on this.

Mr. Paul Benson

I referred earlier to the damage threshold. The Minister has not yet set the damage threshold. There is a recommendation from the expert group. I mentioned many other considerations that also need to be discussed, including comfort levels. These will be taken on board before anything is set. The agency will then follow those and prioritise homes to be put forward for testing as a consequence of that.

On the other issue raised about boundary walls and garages, as a general rule they are not included. As the Senator will know, it is just the structure of the home. There is some flexibility within the Bill in the context of not remediating a structure that would potentially impact the structure being remediated. The agency will have some discretion around that.

Mr. Paul Benson

It is not for the stand-alone detached garage that would not impact the house. That is not included.

I just feel that is wrong because that is part of the make-up and it cannot be left to fall down on top of a kid. An accident could happen. There are many accidents that could happen in this regard. It is not about blowing this out of the water. I am just being realistic about it.

Mr. Paul Benson

I understand that completely, but the commitment has been that the priority is to remediate the principal primary residence, which includes the rental property-----

If the boundary wall or garage backs onto a green area, then that is-----

Mr. Paul Benson

There would be a review then. All of these other issues being discussed where people are excluded or maybe not eligible would be considered in that round.

I thank the witnesses for being here today. I have some brief questions. With regard to the engagement with local authorities, including Donegal County Council and Clare County Council, what commitment has the Department made around the administration of the new scheme? What current resources are in place and when will the actual scheme be up and running?

Ms Caroline Timmons

I will ask Mr. Benson to take this question.

Mr. Paul Benson

We are in regular contact with Mayo and Donegal councils, and less regularly with Clare council. We have been in more regular contact with Clare County Council recently. It has not been part of the current scheme but it is coming in when the scheme commences, which we hope is before the end of the year, assuming the legislation gets passed.

I will make one point about Mayo and Donegal councils. They will have less work to do under the enhanced scheme. The real heavy lifting in this scheme is the middle piece where somebody has to determine the remediation option and the grant amount, where the testing is arranged. That work will be gone from the local authorities but they do have other work to do with their own social housing stock and the approved housing bodies. A scheme is to be brought in for those. That will mean resources. The Department does not intend being found wanting when it comes to resources, either for the local authority or the Housing Agency. Whatever is required will be provided. It is a huge scheme with a huge cost. It will not fall for want of human resources.

The workforce plan is an important aspect, and especially when looking for recruitment through the Public Appointments Service. Delays may possibly be envisaged in getting the expertise. Again, the locations will need to be validated and the merits of them will need to be assessed. What does the Department envisage with regard to the required expertise within each local authority to ensure we have speed of assessment on applications that are delivered? What has the Department discussed around this and what does it feel is required in each local authority? Consider Mayo County Council as an example. It is under-resourced in trying to get applications processed.

Mr. Paul Benson

There is an open door with the Department around application for resources. Donegal County Council has applied over the past year, and extra resources have been sanctioned on a couple of occasions. Mayo County Council has not. If it wants to make an application, we would be glad to process it. I am sure it would get a positive response. On the longer term resources we need, the scheme is very much going to be administration-based for the local authorities, with a little bit of technical input. Most of the technical input is now moving to the Housing Agency. When it comes to paying the grants, it will be the local authority paying the grants and it will have to carry out an inspection to ensure the work has been done and that the €50,000 or so that has been claimed represents reasonably what has been spent. That would be the local authority's role. The big technical work is going to be done on local authorities' own stock and they would need significant resources to manage both their own stock and those construction projects. Local authorities are the owners and they will have to manage the projects. It will be a shift for the local authorities from what they are doing now to what they will be doing in the future. The Housing Agency will step in and take on that huge heavy lifting technical brief.

On this Bill, has the testing for selection for remedial action for social housing been agreed?

Mr. Paul Benson

No. Nothing has been agreed on it. A scheme is to be introduced. The legislation will provide for that. What is being worked on at the moment with Donegal County Council is that we will run a pilot. The council has about 30 or 40 vacant houses. It will run a pilot with one of the local approved housing bodies in Donegal to see what exactly are the administration, governance, and technical issues arising with regard to the local authority remediating its own stock. There are more than 1,000 of them and it is a huge undertaking. It is almost on the scale of the Ballymun regeneration project. That is the kind of scale we are talking about. It needs to be right and the only way to find out what the issues are, and to have answers for them when we roll out the full scheme, is to run the pilot. The work is starting on that.

We are in a housing crisis at the minute. There is a huge amount of vacancy. Even the census report we have received to date is delivering data on it. We need to move on these types of houses, which are desperately required by local authorities to be put back into use. Certainly, there should be provision for this in the Bill to move swiftly. Every local authority should look to have these types of properties remediated and put back into use.

Mr. Paul Benson

Yes, agreed.

My last question is on the body of research as it relates to this scheme. It is a huge bill of €3 billion for the taxpayer. Has the Department had any engagement with the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science about providing expertise to the level of scientific research required to go into this type of redress scheme? What type of engagement have the witnesses had with the Department?

Ms Caroline Timmons

The engagement has been with the relevant bodies as opposed to with the parent Department in that regard. Obviously, as was identified earlier, the National Standards Authority of Ireland, NSAI, is doing the main technical work on that. This is the correct body to engage with on that. Geological Survey Ireland, GSI, is the other body involved in that particular type of work. There has been no particular necessity to involve the Department to date, but we have certainly been engaging with the bodies under the Department and the agencies in terms of making sure we have the right expertise.

In terms of a State-funded project specifically to address the questions that we all want answered, the State should take the lead on this either through Science Foundation Ireland or the Department. That is something that is glaringly absent from an academic point of view.

Ms Caroline Timmons

Perhaps what the Deputy is getting at is whether there is other research outside what we have already commissioned. There is fairly heavy piece of research to be done there by the NSAI already. If there are others, we would be very open to engaging with any other Department if we need to progress that. For the present, however, we have very good co-operation from the bodies we are currently engaged with and we are happy with the reviews that are moving forward. We are just trying to get them done as speedily as possible. We are happy that the engagement has occurred and as further research is required we will reach out to any academic body that might be of assistance. Obviously, that will be subject to a call in that respect.

It is right that the State step in to try to remedy this horrendous situation for people. Equally, it is right that the Exchequer should be compensated by those who supplied dangerous material, particularly when they did so for profit. I return to what measures will be taken on the subrogation issue. The Minister said in November that recovering money for the Exchequer is a priority. Winter came to a close and two more seasons have passed since then. Terms of reference for senior counsel have not been drafted and nobody has been appointed to look at it. One of the big issues is statutes of limitation around this. Whatever chance there was of recovering money if one moved speedily, I respectfully suggest that this elapse of time does not reflect any sense of urgency on the part of the Department.

Ms Caroline Timmons

I understand what the Deputy is saying. The sense of urgency in the Department has been demonstrated by the speed with which this Bill has come to pass, which has been on a timeline I have not seen previously. The Department is doing everything it can to progress all the measures the Government agreed in November. We have been working in the background with regard to senior counsel reviewing this matter. However, it will take a little more time for us to get there and we want to get that right. I ask that the Deputy bear with us in that respect.

Ms Timmons suggested earlier that senior counsel would not be appointed until the Bill is passed. Can the two issues not travel in tandem? I assume there is more than one person working on this in the Department.

Ms Caroline Timmons

Yes, there are, but the focus currently is on getting this done as quickly as possible. We will turn to that as soon as we can. I am not negating what the Deputy is saying. He is right, and it is important that we pursue that point. We will do that as well for the Exchequer.

My time is limited so I will move to the issue of subrogation. A breach of contract claim would be to put the person back in the position the person would have been in had there not been a breach and had dangerous and substandard material not been provided. Let us say there is a claim for €250,000 and the person gets an ex gratia payment from the State of €200,000. Is the person's entire claim subrogated or is it subrogated to the limit of what the Minister has provided in the ex gratia payment?

Ms Caroline Timmons

Currently, as is constituted in the Bill, it is to the limit of the grant.

I asked earlier in the very limited time available at the end of Deputy O'Callaghan's slot how Ms Timmons would know if there was a claim and she replied that if there is a claim, she has to notify the Minister. However, if there is a subrogation clause, there is no incentive for people to take legal advice. Legal advice is not free and costs money. Why would somebody go to a solicitor, say the person has pyrite and ask if there is a realistic prospect of a claim if there is a subrogation clause? Realistically, people are not going to do that. Essentially, what the Department is doing is transferring the risk that all those quarries have of being sued onto the Exchequer. Ms Timmons can correct me if I am wrong, and I invite her to tell me that there will be a mechanism in place to see, in respect of the individual persons who receive a grant, if there is a case that can be taken on their behalf against the quarries.

Ms Caroline Timmons

If they take a case, the subrogation would allow the State to step into their shoes if they have taken a case. To the Deputy's point that there is no incentive for them to do that, I will take that point away and look at it in that regard. Obviously, it is the State's intention to pursue wrongdoers insofar as it can. The point the Deputy is making is something that I will have to examine a little further, perhaps with the advice of the Attorney General, and see if there is a position on it. I will not do that today, if that is okay, because we simply have not reached a position on it.

Ms Timmons will refer back to us. It would be obscene if the State was going to pay out €3 billion and the only recovery mechanism is a levy on the industry generally, including those who complied and those who did not comply equally. In any event, all of that levy will be transferred to homeowners, future homeowners and people who are rebuilding their homes because of a pyrite claim in the first place. Some of the wrongdoers were named earlier. One of them is one of the biggest construction companies in Ireland, CRH.

I do not think they were named.

They were, and there were others named.

They are now.

This is a company with deep pockets.

Ms Caroline Timmons

The Deputy's point is made. In that regard-----

It is a company that I assume insures its products pretty quite well and has underwriters. We are not talking necessarily about small, limited companies that might disappear overnight. There are big companies out there that are providing materials, and maybe they will defend all the claims against them, that are alleged to be dangerous. It would be horrendous if the State is the only entity that is going to pick up any of the tab for this.

Ms Caroline Timmons

The Government committed in November to pursuit of wrongdoers-----

Nothing has been done since.

Ms Caroline Timmons

-----and that point has already been answered.

To clarify, we have not been presented with any evidence against any company-----

No, it is an allegation.

Okay, it is an allegation. Deputy Mac Lochlainn is next.

I have a number of questions and I would appreciate if the witnesses could make their answers brief. If they need to elaborate, they can provide a written response to the committee, as other members suggested earlier.

Mr. Benson has confirmed that the legislation will be silent on the issue of foundations pending the outcome of the NSAI review. If homeowners wish to replace their foundations now and pay for that themselves, can they do that?

Mr. Paul Benson


Okay, that can be done.

Mr. Paul Benson

That is assuming the Bill is enacted.

Yes, if the Bill is enacted as it has been presented. If that is something they want to do, they can do it, but they have to do it on the same footprint.

The next question is about quarries. To date, has the State closed down any of the quarries that have been found to have produced defective blocks?

Mr. John Wickham

I am not aware that has been the case. A report still has to be furnished to the Minister and we look forward to seeing that in the coming weeks.

In terms of the damage threshold, a report has been submitted to the Government and it is deliberating on that. Will the damage threshold be based on a visual examination or core testing?

Mr. Paul Benson

It will not be core testing. Core testing will only be done on homes that have met the damage threshold. Then they are sent forward for core testing.

So it will be a visual examination-----

Mr. Paul Benson

It will be based on the engineer employed by the homeowners to do a building condition assessment. The homeowners will submit that. That engineer will have a fair idea of whether it has met the threshold. The agency will double-check that to make sure.

Can Mr. Espey confirm if any foundations in Donegal have been tested so far for any deleterious materials?

Mr. Peadar Espey

In the context of the work of the Housing Agency, no foundations have been tested in my short time in this role.

The NSAI is undertaking a review. We were told earlier by Engineers Ireland it would be part of that because it has been asked to assess it. Mr. Benson has confirmed, which is alarming, that the NSAI review could be late next year. The IS 465 underpins the existing grant scheme and this new updated scheme. Under IS 465, we redress families to the tune of billions of euro.

This will be big stuff when the review is done. Part of that review is to look at the foundations and deleterious materials. It has been suggested that those tests of foundations are under way. Does Mr. Espey know when testing in Donegal will begin?

Mr. Peadar Espey

With respect to the Housing Agency's role and the chartered engineers from our framework panels, when the core samples are taken from the rising blockwork below ground, the infill will be removed down to the foundation. It is a great opportunity at that stage to have a visual inspection when the core samples from the blockwork are being taken. At that stage, any information that can be seen visually in terms of deterioration or degradation of the face of the concrete on the foundation would be collated. Depending on the roll-out of the scheme and passage of the Bill, it is hoped that we can get commencement late this year. That is when that information will be collated.

We have an eminent, internationally-respected expert in the field of concrete who has conducted some tests on homes in Donegal. He has found in all of them, unfortunately, that pyrrhotite is the chief offender in terms of the distress and destruction of those homes. He said at this committee today that it would be absolutely prudent to test the foundations and not to invest in partial or full remediation on existing foundations that have not been tested. I am not asking Mr. Espey to comment. I just wanted to state that. It would be unfair to ask Mr. Espey to go into that further. We have had a good interaction.

Deputy O'Donoghue raised an issue around VAT. The cap currently stands at €420,000. As that figure includes the €20,000 relocation cost, the cap is €400,000 in real terms. Let us just work off the original figures cited by Deputy O'Donoghue. The VAT impact on €420,000 would take that figure down to €370,000 in real terms. If we deduct the €20,000 for relocation costs, the cap on what the Government is contributing in real terms is actually €350,000. These homeowners have already paid tax and VAT on the original home they built. They are being asked to pay VAT and tax for the second time. Is it not time to be honest? There has been a whole communication that the cap is €420,000 throughout country. Is it not time to say that in net terms, the cap is actually €350,000?

Mr. Paul Benson

I will not argue with Deputy Mac Lochlainn's maths. They are correct but the rates that will be set are VAT inclusive. When homeowners go to the shop to buy their products, they will have €400,000 in their back pocket.

Let it be said out loud to the country that the cap is €350,000. It is €350,000 net.

Mr. Paul Benson

No, homeowners have €400,000 in their pocket when they go to the shop, if they spend €20,000 on accommodation.

Yes, but the Government's contribution is €350,000 in net terms.

Mr. Paul Benson

I am not buying products excluding VAT.

Can somebody do further maths on that? If the figure is €350,000, what is the average home, in square footage, that will be covered by that?

Is that based on a house of 2,000 sq. ft.?

If the figure Deputy Mac Lochlainn used is what a homeowner has in spending terms, what does that equate to in square footage in a house?

Mr. Paul Benson

It depends on what sort of rates one uses.

In today's rates, it would be 1,944 sq. ft.

The Deputy is the man who would know.

When we throw figures around, we have to know the square footage.

I thank the Department and the Housing Agency for sticking with us this late in the evening. At the start, I asked Ms Timmons whether there was consideration of a no-penalty downsizing. If somebody was to get a grant of €160,000 but the full cost of demolition and rebuild was €190,000, it would seem to be reasonable that a person could take the €160,000 and build a smaller home on the same footprint. We thought that would be in the Bill but it is not. Is there a reason it is not? I would be interested to hear that. I would also be interested to hear a little more from Mr. Benson about the pilots for the local authorities and approved housing bodies. They are obviously very important. It would be useful if there were some timelines. At any stage, did the Department look at whether local rates of VAT or whether a VAT exemption would be legally permissible under the VAT rules? Obviously, that is the big question. Correct me if I am wrong, but I would have thought the primary reason for subrogation of the Bill would be to allow the State to recoup costs against its own expenditure, rather than some legal rules. Will Ms Timmons confirm that is the reason?

Ms Caroline Timmons

I will start at the end. The Deputy asked if someone does not take the case. If someone does not take the case, then the subrogation is not effective. The Deputy is absolutely right. The State would step in to recoup the costs of the grant that is paid out, on behalf of the Exchequer and the taxpayer. With regard to VAT, I am not familiar with whether we have checked whether it was legally permissible. I can check and come back to the Deputy on that. "No-penalty downsizing" is an interesting turn of phrase. There is no penalty if one downsize-----

One gets less money.

Ms Caroline Timmons

-----but one gets the grant that is applicable to the square footage of the size to which one downsizes. That is correct. One has to be careful on that.

I am being very careful but if one reduces the grant, it is essentially a form of penalty. We may not agree on that-----

Ms Caroline Timmons

We probably do not.

-----but I am choosing my words very carefully.

Ms Caroline Timmons

The Government decision was made and it did not include that piece. The important point to note for the governance of the scheme is that what we pay for under the scheme and what the grant is used to disburse are actual expenses incurred by the homeowner. Obviously, there is a system of governance. Vouched expenditure is provided to the local authority to show what has been paid. It is a very different scenario that is being proposed in which something that has not been paid for would essentially be provided to the homeowner. I have no other position with regard to the comment the Deputy is making, except to say that.

I respect that fully. I will make an appeal because there are a few weeks left for this to go. In the case that a homeowner is awarded a grant of €160,000 but, when it comes to hiring a contractor to replace like for like, it will cost €180,000, €190,000 or €200,000, I appeal to Ms Timmons, in her private conversations with her colleagues and the Minister, to consider allowing somebody to take the €160,000 and build a smaller home when he or she is not able to bridge the gap between the grant and the full cost of like-for-like replacement. That would be a reasonable request. I will not ask Ms Timmons to respond now but it should be considered.

Ms Caroline Timmons

I have no difficulty with the Deputy asking us to bring that to the attention of the Minister.

Mr. Paul Benson

We are working with Donegal County Council and one approved housing body in Donegal which we hope will be interested in taking part. Donegal County Council has made a submission. It has carried out building conditions assessments of the properties it has had to vacate and it is those that we are looking at progressing.

Is there likely to be some money in the budget this year for that or is it being discussed in the Department?

Mr. Paul Benson

Budgetary issues are not a problem. The budget that is available probably will not be spent this year because there is a serious time lag between approving a project and the authority being-----

Could local authorities and approved housing bodies expect some budgetary provision for next year to finance some of that work?

Mr. Paul Benson

If that is required, it will be accommodated within the budget that is put in place for defective concrete blocks. It will not be a showstopper.

I will clarify the figures I gave. They did not include demolition of the property. The figure does not add up to 1,900-odd square feet. Demolition costs bring us back to approximately 1,730 sq. ft. There is also the builder's finish, which does not include all of the furnishings the homeowner takes out of the house and has to put back in. In an average house, that cost is €10,000 for bathrooms and €15,000 for a kitchen. That is another €40,000 the homeowner has to come up with to refurnish the house. Will homeowners take down the tiles in existing bathrooms and put them back up again? They will not. The figures being cited in the square footage are for a builder's finish.

This means there is no paint, no carpets and nothing on the walls. The figures being quoted do not include the demolition that must be done in the properties. To go back to my earlier point, 99% of the engineers I know would never build on existing foundations-----

We have gone through that.

-----unless they had done massive research.

Mr. Paul Benson

The construction costs for remediation works under this scheme that the SCSI has come back with do not involve a builder's finish. This is clear in the report if the Deputy wants to read it. The rates he is quoting are for a builder's finish.

We have had many deliberations in recent years. There is a realisation that not only in Donegal, Mayo or Clare because of mica but nationally because of the demand for building houses there is a lack of builders. I have spoken to the head of the local employment office in Donegal who is very receptive to the idea I am going to put to the Department. I suggest there should be specific courses run by the local employment offices for builders, as they have for people who want to run their own businesses. Many people out there could become builders tomorrow but they do not have the competence or know-how. We could use people such as Deputy O'Donoghue who is a builder or retired builders to work on a tailored builder course to help us have a sufficient number of builders for the mica scheme and to build houses throughout the country. This is something the Department could take on board and consider.

Ms Caroline Timmons

It is an interesting point. It would have to interact with a number of issues not least the point on standards that was raised earlier. We will have to think about it. It is not something we can comment on now but I thank the Senator for the suggestion.

I thank the witnesses. All of the members have found the three sessions we have had today very informative and helpful. I certainly have. We are finishing quite late and I hope we are not locked in.

On behalf of the visitors to the committee I thank the Chair and the secretariat for facilitating us. We are interlopers.

I also thank the representative group who are still with us. I wish everyone a safe journey back to the north west. I also thank the secretariat because they have done a fantastic job.

The joint committee adjourned at 8.02 p.m. until 3 p.m. on Tuesday, 28 June 2022.