Gabhaim míle buíochas leis an gCathaoirleach Gníomhach and leis the Senators who are here as well. As I said in the Dáil, the defective concrete block disaster has haunted the lives of people in Donegal, Mayo and beyond for far too long. People who built and bought family homes have had to watch those same homes crumble before their eyes while others potentially face that prospect. With no other help available, they turned to the State for support. When the support was introduced and was found wanting, they took their message directly to the Government through all routes available. We have listened to that message and heard it loud and clear.
The scheme that today’s legislation underpins is a dramatic leap forward towards a 100% grant scheme. It goes a long way towards addressing the fundamental concerns and needs of homeowners. However, I recognise homeowners' concerns and fears. I assure them that we are committed to making this scheme work. No scheme is perfect. I have said repeatedly that schemes evolve and I am sure this one will too as the science is developed and lessons are learned. I assure Senators that I will not be found wanting if and when changes to the scheme now being legislated for are required.
The intense engagement with homeowner representatives over the past year has fundamentally reshaped this scheme for the better. It is a scheme of State support that is unprecedented anywhere in the world. It is the State stepping up to help those who have no other way forward. It is light at the end of a long tunnel for affected families. I pay tribute to the homeowners and their representatives who have engaged with this process through the working group, Oireachtas hearings, submissions to the Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland, SCSI, and the expert group and through frequent meetings of the homeowners' forum. That work has shaped this scheme and, where agreement could not be reached, it at least shone a light on the issues. I particularly acknowledge and thank John O’Connor for taking on the role of homeowner liaison and for his hard work and commitment to improving the scheme. I also thank my officials, who have worked diligently on this issue along with colleagues in local authorities. In addition, I acknowledge my Government colleagues from the impacted counties who have been tireless advocates both publicly and, more often, behind the scenes in pressing the case for impacted homeowners not just over the past year, but over several long years.
Today's draft Bill follows on from the general scheme and reflects the decisions made by the Government in November 2021. I will now draw attention to the key decisions made and the differences from the old scheme and highlight the major steps forward. There is provision for 100% grants subject to an overall maximum grant of €420,000 per dwelling; this is an increase from the €247,500 available under the current scheme. The grant rates are in keeping with the construction cost report prepared by the SCSI in February 2022 and provision has been made for a review mechanism for the overall grant cap and a review of the grant rates, as required. This was a particular request of homeowners that I acceded to. They sought independent costings and I accepted this suggestion without change. There is to be a Government guarantee in regard to remediation works other than full demolition and rebuild works through eligibility for a second grant, if required, for a period of 40 years. This 40-year guarantee is another very significant request from homeowners that we have acceded to. There will be a revised application process which removes the €5,000 to €7,000 financial barrier to scheme entry in favour of a low-cost building condition assessment report. An independent appeals process for applicants is to be introduced with all key decisions under the scheme appealable. Alternative accommodation, storage costs and immediate repair works to a maximum value of €25,000 are included within the overall grant cap. The Housing Agency will play a key role under the enhanced scheme by taking on the financial cost of testing and assessing homes and determining, on behalf of the local authorities, the appropriate remediation option and grant rate for each dwelling. A new damage threshold will help to ensure the worst affected homes are prioritised.
The enhanced scheme is extended beyond the current scope of principal private residences only and will now also cover rented dwellings registered with the Residential Tenancies Board on or before 1 November 2021. Clare and Limerick will be included in the enhanced scheme upon commencement and a pathway will be provided for other local authority areas to access the scheme, if required, through independent research and recommendations to the Minister by the Housing Agency. There will be a review of the operation of the Act three years after commencement and within three months of any revised IS 465 standard. Exempt development status under planning legislation will be granted to remediation works carried out under the defective concrete blocks grant scheme on a like-for-like basis. A parallel scheme of grant assistance will be introduced for local authority and approved housing body-owned social houses which are impacted.
I thank the chair and members of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage for facilitating a waiver of pre-legislative scrutiny, for facilitating such a long and detailed engagement with key stakeholders on 23 June and for the comprehensive feedback since received. I will now briefly address that feedback. The damage threshold is provided for in the Bill but will be prescribed in regulations. Its only purpose is to ensure that damage has occurred to dwellings before they enter the grant scheme and that the worst damaged homes are prioritised for approval under the scheme. I assure homeowners that the threshold set will not work to prevent entry to the scheme for those who need access.
The SCSI cost report was prepared in February 2022 and submitted to my Department in March, only four months ago. The grant rates are being set by reference to those rates, which provide for like-for-like works. The rates will be prescribed and kept under review to ensure they remain appropriate.
The appeals panel will comprise ten persons selected independently of my Department through a recruitment process to be run by the Public Appointments Service. All the key decisions under the scheme can be appealed by homeowners. I assure Senators that the appeals panel will operate independently.
Section 29 provides for subrogation. If a homeowner chooses to pursue a right of action in respect of the damage to a home then he or she is free to do so. However, the Bill must be framed so as to ensure that the grant does not operate as a form of double compensation. It is important that section 29 is retained, as it is so that the State can step in on behalf of the taxpayer to ensure that litigation is appropriately managed for the benefit of the public. Section 29 provides for that. If the litigation is successful, then any damages awarded above the level of the grant would go to the homeowner.
There has been a lot of discussion about downsizing in recent weeks, and I want to make clear that for the small number of homeowners who have so far expressed an interest in it, downsizing is allowed under the scheme. The grant awarded to an applicant will be appropriate to the size of home he or she intends to build, and the grant rates set will be adequate to ensure 100% of costs can be recovered for all but the very largest of homes on a like-for-like basis. The Government and I have an obligation to the Exchequer and participants in the scheme to ensure that the grants approved are appropriate to the size of home being rebuilt and that homeowners rebuilding a home of the same size are grant-aided appropriately. Setting up a two-tier grant system with different grants for the same home size would be fraught with problems. The scheme does not financially reward downsizing, but it is incorrect to state that it penalises homeowners who do so. It does not.
The Government decision of 30 November 2021 called for a number of reviews to be completed to ensure issues of concern were properly interrogated. They include: the review of the IS 465:2018 protocol, including consideration of the impact of other potentially deleterious material such as pyrrhotite; the review of the Irish standard for concrete blocks, including aggregates; the review of the adequacy or otherwise of the existing foundations in homes impacted by defective concrete blocks; and the review of the potential impact, if any, of full cavity-wall insulation on homes susceptible to damage or damaged by defective concrete blocks. The Bill does allow for the Minister to adjust the scheme through regulations to provide for any issues that arise from the scientific investigations, and that includes foundations. If it is found that there is an issue with foundations, I will include them in the scheme through regulations.
The enhanced grant scheme makes provision for retrospective payment of the benefits to early movers under the current scheme. Making provision for homeowners who completed remediation works prior to the IS 465 standard and the grant scheme having been in place is a lot more complex and would need further time for consideration of the issues involved.
I am conscious of time, so I will conclude. Every Senator is keenly aware of the scale of the crisis that confronts us. This scheme is the State stepping up to the mark, as we have a moral obligation to put in place practical solutions for impacted homeowners. I assure Senators that we will continue to work with all Members of the Oireachtas, and listen carefully to their views as we put in place regulations and guidance to ensure the enhanced scheme can open for applications as soon as possible. We have waited more than two years since the announcement of the previous scheme. We must move ahead with a new scheme that will put people's lives and homes back on track. That is why the urgency of this legislation is such that it must be passed before the summer recess, so that we can have a new scheme open in the autumn and new regulations published. I look forward to engaging with Senators here today. I will make some concluding remarks at the end of the debate.