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Seanad Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 13 Jul 2022

Vol. 287 No. 6

Remediation of Dwellings Damaged By the Use of Defective Concrete Blocks Bill 2022: Committee Stage

Section 1 agreed to.
SECTION 2

I move amendment No. 1:

In page 6, to delete lines 17 to 20 and substitute the following:

""defective concrete blocks" means concrete blocks that contain excessive amounts of free or unbound muscovite mica or reactive pyrite or any deleterious material or combination of materials as may be prescribed under section 41;".

There is a lot of work to do here today and I do not intend to delay unduly or engage too much. There has been an extensive debate on these proposals, including in the Lower House and in committee.

Before setting out the rationale for this amendment, I want to correct the record for people outside the House. I received some correspondence indicating that a number of people are disappointed by the outcome of votes in the Seanad on this Bill. To be clear for anybody listening to this debate, I stand in solidarity with people. I share, as do many Members of this House, their genuine concerns. However, this is the first amendment to the Bill to be tabled and discussed in this House. Seanad Éireann has neither considered nor made any other amendments to date. It is important to clarify this because the information I was given is that we passed amendments and people were unhappy with them. We have not had any amendments to consider before today. I say this for the benefit of people outside the House listening to the debate. It is important they fully understand that no amendments have been either approved or rejected in the House at this point in time.

The rationale for this amendment arises from the need to ensure the definition of "defective concrete blocks" is inclusive. The definition in the legislation appears to be restrictive. The amendment will allow for greater flexibility within the approved redress scheme, as the Minister has set out. The amendment is based on suggestions from homeowners and their advocates in affected areas and counties. It is important that we take steps to ensure anyone whose home is damaged or made uninhabitable by excessive amounts of deleterious material is supported. I urge Senators to support the amendment and I look forward to the Minister's response.

I thank the Minister for coming to the House for this debate. My colleague made the point that some of us have received emails referring to our vote in favour of the Bill on Second Stage. No amendment could be moved on that Stage. Unfortunately, there are people playing politics with this issue, which involves a devastating situation for families all over the country. We want to see a resolution of the problem as quickly as possible. Playing politics certainly will not resolve the issue for anybody. It might get people favourable emails because they were able to point the figure at those of us who voted to move to Committee Stage.

However, it does not do the families on the ground any good whatsoever to use this as some sort of football. I deeply resent it because all of us-----

Let us just stick to the amendments as best we can. With due respect, the Senator is giving a Second Stage speech.

We do not have much time, I am afraid.

Just let me finish off. At the end of the day, we want to see the families compensated as best we can. I am not going to say a whole lot more. The amendment we tabled stands for itself. I ask the Minister to accept it and I am willing to listen to his response.

I thank the Minister for coming to the House. It is important to acknowledge his work and that of his officials. He has put an incredible amount of work into this. He has chosen not to play politics with it. He wanted to resolve an issue affecting significant numbers of individuals and families. I am speaking specifically to the amendment. We all value our homes. They are where we live and probably represent the biggest investment most of us ever make. We know how much money we put into them and, therefore, know why this legislation is particularly important and comprehensive. I commend the Minister and his officials on engaging with so many groups that have been affected.

Speaking specifically to the amendment, much of the focus is on mica but there are homes with defective blocks containing other materials. In Wexford, some of the affected houses had materials other than mica that caused problems. Indeed, in December 2020, Engineers Ireland identified that outside Donegal and Mayo, in Wexford, significant numbers of defective blocks may have been used. In Wexford, Mr. Nicholas Redmond and Mr. Sean Murphy, two individuals whose homes have been impacted, have been quite active in raising concerns around this issue.

I am aware the State is going after, insofar as possible, the builders, quarries and suppliers of the bricks and so on. Ultimately, we must remember that the taxpayer will be picking up the tab to ensure the homes are repaired. However, in the context of this scheme – this is why the amendment is relevant – it is a question of considering materials beyond just mica. It is a matter of defective concrete blocks generally. Deputy Darragh O’Brien wanted to be the Minister responsible for housing to ensure people could be provided with safe homes. He is doing a very good job in that regard but we have got to try to ensure everybody impacted feels they will be treated fairly. Considering the engagement the Minister has had with most of the groups, they believe that is the case. I want to make the specific case for some of those homeowners in Wexford who have also been impacted by defective blocks. I hope the Minister can give us some reassurance in his response.

Like others, I welcome the Minister to the House. I thank him for his engagement with me on the concerns I raised about residents in Clare whose homes have suffered very serious damage due to the presence of pyrite in concrete blocks. From a very early stage, he visited some of the homeowners and met the group. As time went by, Clare was included in the scheme. Having spoken to the Clare Pyrite Action Group, headed by Dr. Martina Cleary and Ms Mary Hanley, two formidable women who have worked hard to put together a comprehensive response, I have learned they still have very serious concerns. They are not questioning the Minister’s integrity at all but are concerned about how this will play out over time. They have raised some serious issues with me. It is understandable because the homeowners concerned in Clare, who are no different from those anywhere else, are concerned about their future. Some are elderly and know they are not in a position to gain access to additional borrowings to finish off a house that has to be rebuilt. People are concerned about whether the gable end will fall, leaving them without a home. Others, who have mortgages, are concerned about their ability to continue to repay those mortgages if they are unable to reside in their residences. From their perspective, there are significant gaps in the legislation. That might have been better. I am aware of the timescale and the argument the Minister rightly makes, namely, that we need to get this legislation on the books and start helping people whose homes are affected, but the difficulty in getting the legislation through before the end of this term is that it is not being thrashed out in debate in the way some would like, such that they can better understand the specific issues. I understand the Minister’s position on that fully, but it makes it a little more difficult when people do not hear the debate go on for longer. I am not suggesting we can change that now but just want to vent the concerns raised with me.

Unfortunately, I could not be here on Second Stage due to a family bereavement. The Acting Chairperson might therefore give me some latitude to outline some of the concerns. One of the main issues I hear about from Clare homeowners concerns the damage threshold. There is a belief that it will determine who will be accepted under the scheme. As yet, that damage threshold has not been determined. People are worried that when regulations on this are set, 90% of applicants could be refused. These are the concerns that have been raised with me. I am raising them to give the Minister an opportunity to address them, hopefully in the relatively short time we have.

All homes with pyrite block damage should be included in the scheme. The damage threshold, if it is to be in legislation, should be used only to prioritise the order of remediation and not prevent homes that are damaged from qualifying.

It is important to note that pyrite block damage seems to manifest more slowly than mica block damage. Therefore, it is often less dramatic visually. However, scientific evidence from core testing shows that blocks have crumbled to dust or rubble beneath the render. In Clare, people have been advised for years to cover the cracks of the walls to keep the rain out for as long as possible. They are now concerned that if the damage threshold is used in a particular way in circumstances in which they have plastered over the cracks, and if it is based on a visual inspection, they could potentially be excluded. Maybe the Minister could state whether those whose cracks manifest at a later stage will still be considered for the scheme. I will conclude on that. We might talk about other issues later.

I acknowledge the work that has gone into this scheme and its evolution since 2020, as alluded to the last day. I have never witnessed legislation evolve like this, with such access given by a Minister to his departmental officials. I sincerely thank the Minister for that access to his officials. It was useful to work with them in changing the scheme dramatically.

I acknowledge Senator Craughwell’s comments because I too would like a constructive debate today on the issues that still arise. This is our last opportunity to air and discuss them. Consider the circumstances if I am approved for stage 2 of the old scheme and have started works only for the engineer to realise the deterioration of the house has accelerated. Where an engineer believes option one should apply to the house, he does not have the ability to achieve that under the current legislation. Is there any way around that? It is a big bone of contention for many people. It was great to get to the point where those rebuilding their homes on the same sites and with the same footprints were exempted from having to obtain planning permission. As the day goes on, I would like clarity on whether an individual downsizing will also be exempted.

My next point, on the standard of blocks sold today, may not relate to this legislation and may be for another day. It is important from here in that suppliers of concrete products specify in their dockets what is in those products and the standard of the block, sill or whatever it may be.

Suppliers of concrete products should be indicating on their dockets what is in those products, such as the standard of that block, cell or whatever. Those standards should be outlined on the docket the purchaser receives. That should be their guarantee.

There are other matters I will comment on as the debate proceeds. I am not fully au fait with the position regarding external walls that are not connected to the house and garage. Such walls can also contain mica. I would like it if, somewhere along the way, the Minster could have another look at that and introduce something in respect of it, particularly as it also gives rise to a direct cost for the homeowners. There is flexibility in there somewhere. I ask that the Minister takes a look at the matter if he gets a chance.

On a point of order, are we not going amendment by amendment, because-----

Yes, we are. The point I was going to make after a very fair point from Senator Gavan is that we are on amendment No. 1. I have probably given a little bit too much latitude for people to discuss matters outside the amendments-----

Perhaps we could just get through-----

If the Senator would just let me finish. I have given people a great deal of latitude. I will not do that from now on. Senator Keogan is last up, and then we will move on to new amendments. We are finishing at 3.20 p.m., so brevity is key in order for everybody to get in.

I thank my colleague, Senator Boyhan, for bringing forward this amendment, the purpose of which is to change the definition of “defective concrete blocks”. We believe that the definitions listed in the legislation and in the amendment proposed by Sinn Féin Deputies in the Dáil do not go far enough. The current definition in the legislation is too restrictive.

Too often, there is a problem in Ireland whereby people are deprived of much needed support because they do not adhere to some strict criterion or other. We see this regarding a range of Government services, whether it be in social welfare, disability support or healthcare. We need to ensure that the same thing does not happen to everyone affected by mica or pyrite scandals. Therefore, we have made a definition as broad as possible, but within reason, to meet everyone’s concerns.

The scheme being brought in under the Bill could cost the taxpayer €3 billion over its lifetime, although many believe it could cost €8 billion or more. We must not encounter a similar controversy in the future. There are many problems with the building regulations in Ireland. The report of the expert panel on concrete blocks in 2017 outlined a serious regulatory and surveillance issue in respect of the building sector. The same could happen again. In that context, we need to ensure that anyone affected has access to proper remedies. Some in the building sector, such as Ray Brosnan, managing director of Brosnan Property Solutions, said that there is an unfair onus on manufacturers to engage in self-certification. We acknowledge this as an issue outside the amendment’s scope, but our concern at the moment is protecting homeowners.

The amendment is based on a suggestion from homeowners. If the Government does not accept it, I would ask that it please ensure that people whose homes are damaged or made uninhabitable by excessive amounts of mica or pyrite will be entitled to support. The Government can only acknowledge the contribution made by grassroots activists, particularly those in Donegal, Sligo and Mayo, have made in respect of this matter and by the many councillors who have been in touch with us on this issue. I thank them and all the concerned residents and homeowners for engaging with us to put forward these amendments on their behalf.

I acknowledge the Acting Chair’s ruling. I know that we have a number of amendments to get through. It might be helpful if I address some of the questions in the context of the overall debate as we get to other amendments.

First, I will speak directly to the amendment, which is the definition. The Bill states, "“defective concrete blocks” means concrete blocks that contain excessive amounts of free or unbound muscovite mica or reactive pyrite or a combination of both, or excessive amounts of such other deleterious material or combination of materials as may be prescribed under section 41". I put it to the Senators that this definition is broad and allows for things such as, for example, the work we are doing to scientifically test foundations. I want to put on the record of the House again what I said on Second Stage, namely, that should an issue arise that is proven scientifically, with pyrrhotite for argument’s sake, in the foundations, we will include the foundations in the scheme. I just want to be very clear in order that there is no ambiguity in relation to that statement. I made it on Second Stage in the Dáil as well. However, the definition, as proposed in the Bill – I say this respectfully to Senator Boyhan, who tabled this specific amendment – is the strongest definition we can have. It will allow us as well to broaden it should, let us say, I am using the example of the foundations or other material that are proven to have a detrimental effect to properties, that they will actually be included. I will not be accepting the amendment. I appreciate the fact that Senator Boyhan tabled it.

The consultation on this legislation started in June 2020. There was previous scheme in January 2020 that, I agree with homeowners, was deficient. One of the first things I did was visit Buncrana with Senator Blaney and the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy McConalogue. I told residents in Buncrana that schemes evolve, and I have no doubt this scheme will evolve. I will be happy to see it evolve as it operates. However, we do not get a scheme into operation unless we pass the legislation. If we do not pass this legislation, we will be back to the old scheme, which is 90% grants up to a maximum of €247,500, no guarantee, no second grant and a cost of €5,000 to €7,000 to get into the scheme. I outlined all the changes on Second Stage. They are on the record of the House. If this legislation does not pass, we will go back to operating under the old scheme. That is just the reality.

In reply to Senator Dooley, I take this opportunity-----

We might come back to that later matter on because we are just conscious of time. Perhaps the Minister could comment on it during his summation.

Okay. I will not respond to these questions.

It is just that those questions do not relate to the amendment.

It might be helpful to speak on the damage threshold.

We will get to that.

We will get to it if-----

Excuse me. I am in the Chair. Comments will be made through the Chair at every stage.

(Interruptions).

The Minister may finish briefly.

Damage threshold ensures that the worst first are remediated. It is not to keep anyone out. Genuinely. That is the way it operates. The east coast scheme has been referred to as well. It is the principle of worst first, which residents wanted and which is what I want as well. There are thousands of homes to remediate. This scheme will be in operation for a significant number of years - probably ten to 15. Other counties will come in, such as Wexford, should the submissions come in too. That is the purpose of the damage-----

We will discuss it with amendment No. 8.

I will not be accepting amendment No. 1.

Amendment put and declared lost.

Amendments Nos. 2 to 4, inclusive, are ruled out of order due to potential charge on the Revenue.

Amendments Nos. 2 to 4, inclusive, not moved.

I move amendment No. 5:

In page 6, between lines 24 and 25, to insert the following:

“ “foundations” means the lowest load-bearing part of a building, typically below ground level;”.

Since I have the opportunity, I would like to say that we should be adults in this Chamber this evening and get through this legislation respectfully for the people. This is not politics, to a certain extent; it is about the people on the ground.

Again, I believe that foundations should be included in the Bill. That is my only point.

The Minister has been very clear on this issue, to be fair. He stated on the record of this House and in the Dáil that the exercise that is being carried out by the National Standards Authority of Ireland, NSAI. If it is found that there are issues with to foundations, then foundations will be included in the scheme. That point has been very well made.

I do not believe the point is very well made in the Bill. If I did, I would not have tabled the amendment.

I thank the Senator for tabling the amendment. To be very clear again, it will be based on scientific research. The relevant research was sought and is being carried out. I understand why people want that. The process will take time. If the research, which is independent of me and my Department, indicates that there is a problem, that problem will be rectified. If there is a problem with foundations, then foundations will be included. The Senator does not understand. The definition is broad enough as it stands. We will be able to do it by way of regulation. I do not propose to accept the amendment.

Amendment put and declared lost.
Section 2 agreed to.
Sections 3 and 4 agreed to.
SECTION 5

Amendment No. 6 is out of order as it involves a charge on the Revenue.

Amendment No. 6 not moved.

Amendments No. 7, 8, 23, 24 and 50 are related and may be discussed together by agreement.

I move amendment No. 7:

In page 8, to delete lines 34 to 37 and substitute the following:

"(11) For the purposes of making a recommendation, the Housing Agency shall consult with—

(a) the local authority which made the request, and

(b) affected homeowners’ representative groups, including nominated competent building professionals (as defined in Part 2 of this Act) and/or academic professionals with expertise in the fields of geology and materials science (of the homeowners’ choice), from the administrative area of the local authority which made the request, and

(c) such other persons as it considers appropriate.".

I strongly believe that homeowner groups should be consulted as suggested in amendment No. 7. On amendment No. 8, the people should be consulted with and spoken with in regard to all aspects of the Bill.

I do not want to speak too much because we are collectively pressing votes. I will move and withdraw, if that is okay, instead of speaking to all of them because they are all related.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

I move amendment No. 8:

In page 9, line 1, after "with" to insert the following:

"affected homeowners' representative groups, including nominated competent building professionals (as defined in Part 2 of this Act) and/or academic professionals with expertise in the fields of geology and materials science (of the homeowners’ choice) from the administrative area of the local authority which made the request, and".

Amendment put and declared lost.

I move amendment No. 9:

In page 9, between lines 16 and 17, to insert the following:

"(16) The Minister shall request the National Standards Authority of Ireland to complete the review of I.S. 465:2018, in a timely manner and as far as is possible to ensure that that review is completed in time for the opening of the Defective Concrete Block Scheme as provided for in this Act.”.

IS 465:2018 outlines a protocol which can be used to assess and categorise the damaged properties, such as concrete blocks suspected of containing the minerals mica and pyrite. It is ensuring that the defective concrete blocks system is robust, and I believe that it is important. It is in the interests of everybody - the Minister and Senators elected, and the councillors who represent these communities that are affected by this problem - that this issue would be addressed.

It is a simple commonsense amendment. I do not think the Minister is against it. We may have issues around timing and when it will happen. I would urge Senators to vote in favour of this amendment.

I understand where the Senator is coming from in relation to this amendment but I would have concerns that that review has to be sufficient and widespread, and comprehensive. As such, I do not see it being done in a timespan that will allow this scheme to take off. I believe the scheme has to start now.

I have been an advocate of ensuring that the old scheme was never gotten rid of because there are many people in a logjam waiting to get their houses done. They have preparations done and they are ready to start their works. I want to see those works start within weeks. I do not believe the IS 465 review will be done before that. The Minister may inform us otherwise.

I thank the Senators for tabling the amendment.

To follow on from what Senator Blaney said, that is fundamentally the issue. There are homes that are ready now to be remediated in the coming weeks and months and many homeowners will want to move that forward.

The review is really important. Senator Boyhan's amendment proposes that the Minister request the National Standards Authority of Ireland, NSAI, to ensure that the review of IS 465 is completed in time for the opening of the defective concrete block scheme as provided for in the Bill.

My Department has begun the consultation with the National Standards Authority of Ireland on the review. While the review has begun, it has been confirmed by the NSAI that the research necessary to inform the review will take some time. It is an important review and we will need external advice on it as well. We might need some international advice on it too. It will likely be 2023 before the review is complete.

I do not think there are many here who would want to see the scheme delayed until that work was concluded. Maybe there are. What we are interested in is providing the solutions, getting the new scheme and getting people's homes fixed and not delaying it for other reasons, which I know is not the Senator in question's purpose of this amendment.

I am conscious that the Senator does not want to delay the commencement of the enhanced grant scheme given that there are homeowners who need and want to press on with the application and remediation works necessary. As I advised earlier, the Bill makes provision for a review of the Act within three months of any review of IS 465 by the NSAI and for a report of those findings and those conclusions to be provided to each House of the Oireachtas.

I am of the view that we need to push on with getting this greatly enhanced grant scheme up and running and we cannot wait until 2023 to do that. Therefore, I cannot accept the amendment.

Amendment put and declared lost.
Section 5 agreed to.
Sections 6 to 7 agreed to.
SECTION 8

Amendments Nos. 10 and 11 are ruled out of order.

Amendments No. 10 and 11 not moved.
Section 8 agreed to.
SECTION 9

Amendments Nos. 12 to 16, inclusive, are all out of order.

Amendments Nos. 12 to 16, inclusive, not moved.
Section 9 agreed to.
SECTION 10

Amendments Nos. 17 and 18 are related. Amendment No. 18 is a logical alternative to amendment No. 17. Amendments Nos. 17 and 18 may be discussed together by agreement. Is that agreed? Agreed.

I move amendment No. 17:

In page 12, between lines 39 and 40, to insert the following:

"(4) The Minister shall, within seven weeks of the passing of this Act, lay a report before both Houses of the Oireachtas on the implications of construction sector inflation on subsection (3) and whether there is a need to raise the grant cap by way of amending legislation.".

I will read the amendment into the record to make it clear what we are looking for: "The Minister shall, within seven weeks of the passing of this Act, lay a report before both Houses of the Oireachtas on the implications of construction sector inflation on subsection (3) and whether there is a need to raise the grant cap by way of amending legislation".

This is an issue that was raised by a number of Senators on Second Stage. The impact of inflation in the construction sector is a real concern. Indeed, Senator Cummins expressed concerns about inflation on Second Stage as well and I look forward to the Senator supporting our amendment.

We know from speaking to people in Donegal this week that inflation there, in terms of social housing, is running at between 12% and 13%. That is what the officials are telling us. According to the Bill as it is currently constituted, a further review of the rates that were set last January cannot happen until 12 months after this scheme opens. What that means in reality is that homeowners will be impacted by, I would say, at least 20%. In terms of the 100% redress that they are looking for, it is clear that because of construction inflation they will be down anywhere between 13% and 15% or 20%.

It makes common sense for the Minister to adopt this amendment to have a report to show him the impact of inflation and then, if necessary, take sufficient amending steps when we return in September. That is a way of addressing the issue realistically. Right now, if it is not addressed, the impact of inflation is such that the homeowners who suffered so much will be impacted.

Let me be clear. This amendment is coming from the homeowners. We are here to represent them today. Any amendments that my colleagues, Senator Ruane or I will speak to are at the request of the homeowners from Clare, Mayo, Sligo, Limerick and Donegal. This is their ask.

No one will deny the fact that there is a problem in terms of inflation in the economy in general and, most certainly, in the construction industry. I quoted a figure of 13% from the Donegal officials.

The Minister has an opportunity to amend this. Here is the choice. It is not a binary choice. The Minister has the opportunity to improve this Bill today to protect those homeowners in terms of the inflation scourge that is there at present. The Minister has the opportunity to do it with this amendment. On behalf of the homeowners who are tuning in today from all of the counties that I have mentioned and more, I hope that the Minister will do what is sensible, acknowledge there is a problem with inflation, acknowledge that problem will not be addressed by the Bill as it stands and adopt this amendment so that we can tackle it on behalf of all of the homeowners.

Everybody in this House represents the homeowners. We all speak for homeowners. We speak to homeowners. Certainly, I have been spent as much time as any other public representative in these Houses on this scheme - hundreds of hours over the past two years - and I would like to think I was doing the work on behalf of homeowners who consult with me.

I also recognise that there are those issues of inflation. I raised them here with the Minister on Second Stage. In Donegal, there is talk of 15%. I do not know the officials the Senator is talking to. I cannot get an official to tell me is it exactly 15%, is it less or is it more, but inflation is an issue. I also recognise there is an independent mechanism of setting prices but, certainly, I would acknowledge that inflation is an issue.

Together with others, I recognise, and I am sure the Minister does, the importance of ensuring that people do not get priced out of the market just as there appears to be a scheme that has the potential to help them. Inflation is certainly out of control at present. We see it in every aspect of life. Prior to the war, the pandemic and the impact that it had on disruption of supply chains have seen timber, steel, concrete - you name it - really increase and I am sure it will be necessary to put in place some kind of an escalatory mechanism to ensure that people are protected based on the grants.

I am sure the Minister will look at that because it is one of the issues that is raised on an ongoing basis.

There is obviously an issue in terms of construction inflation but it is interesting to note that this scheme is providing €165 per square foot. Sinn Féin proposed, in its housing policy and budget of last year, to build 20,000 homes at a cost of €2.9 billion. That works out as €123 per square foot. The Government is putting in place a scheme that is more than 35% higher than what Sinn Féin costed in its budget for the building 20,000 homes. Perhaps they can magically build homes for 35% less than what they proposed to provide.

It is to the amendment. We are specifically talking about cost inflation. If we accept that there is cost inflation in the market, we also have to acknowledge that if it is 35% above what Sinn Féin provided for in November 2021, then the party was not providing enough in the first place, which we all know is the case.

I look forward to the Minister's response on this. I know the scheme is adaptable in order to provide for inflation. It is important when discussing all of today's amendments that we are mindful of homeowners. I received an email from a mica-affected homeowner who stated that the reason for writing to me was because there is so much confusion around the supports for mica homeowners and this is adding to the additional stress. The onus is on all of us in the House not to confuse people about the significant package of supports being put in place by the Government to assist homeowners.

Before I call on the Minister, I am pleased to welcome Sinéad Ní Fhatharta, Paul Nevin, and Meadhbh Nevin, from County Galway. This is Paul and Meadhbh's first visit to Leinster House and they are guests of Senator Wilson. This is an important debate and they are very welcome to it.

Cuirim fíor fháilte roimh na haíonna. Section 11 provides for an increase or a decrease in the overall caps by way of a Government order. The reason for doing this is because it means we can change the amount by up to 10% for the first three years by regulation, thereby allowing the Minister flexibility which means he or she does not have to come before the Dáil or Seanad to make amendments. I am not sure whether the Senators who proposed the amendment were at the hearings held with homeowners and experts from the Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland, SCSI, who set the remediation cost per square foot. They did a superb piece of work. I thank them for the work they did independently of me and the Department. That was a big ask of the homeowners which I was happy to accede to. It was done independently of me and my Department and I accepted it in full. That work was produced four months ago in February 2022.

The SCSI was asked this question about varying the rates. Let us remember that we are operating within an overall cap of €420,000 and not €247,500, and providing 100% redress and not 90%. We are allowing for additional costs for rent and storage. What must also be mentioned is the access to the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, grants in addition to the caps, which is very significant and had not been provided for. The experts who gave testimony during the hearing were asked about this specific issue. The SCSI advised that it would not be prudent to view inflation over a short-term period such as three or four months, which I agree with, and that a 12-month period, which most people would agree with, is a far more appropriate period to consider such cost inflation. I am very satisfied that the Bill provides for that very measure.

I refer to Section 11. I will not go through the whole section as I am sure the proposing Senators have read it. It clearly states that the Government shall not:

increase the amount referred to in paragraph (a), (b) or (c) of section 10(4) by more than 10 per cent of the amount referred to in that paragraph, or where the amount in that paragraph has been increased or decreased, to an amount specified by a previous order made under subsection (1)(b), by more than 10 per cent of the amount specified.

We are allowing that variation simply by way of Government order and it is right to provide that flexibility. It is also prudent that a longer-term view is taken on that. Generally, inflation should be looked at over a 12-month period. Interestingly, we have seen the cost of certain materials decrease and flatten in recent months. We do not want the situation in which we have to come before the Houses to chase either inflation or deflation in construction product costs. Let us not forget the overall cap, which is at such a significant level that it will cover 99% of households with full 100% redress. Variation in costs is provided for within that.

The Bill rightly provides a mechanism for me, the Minister, to vary those rates by plus or minus 10% some 12 months after the passing of the Act. It provides for a decrease in costs, although I do not expect that to happen. It is better to do it by way of regulation rather than tying it into the Bill that will become an Act, which would mean if there were any future changes, we would have to come before the Houses to amend the Act. I understand the Senator's point. I respect his contribution but we are providing for that in a better way.

I thank the Acting Chairperson for allowing me to contribute. I thank the Minister for his reply, his officials for all the work they have done on the Bill, and all the homeowners who have been in contact with me and my colleagues in counties Donegal, Mayo, Clare, Sligo and other counties.

Everyone who speaks here today speaks with the best interests of the homeowners. Perhaps some of us are more motivated to deliver a package for homeowners that will allow them to reclaim their lives and restore their homes. The Bill has been the subject of a lot of talk for a very long time. It is indisputable that this legislation will replace a scheme that fell far short of what homeowners wanted and deserved. This Bill will put in place a scheme that homeowners will be able to access promptly that will give them full redress and allow them to reclaim their lives and rebuild their homes.

I have a problem with this amendment in that it calls for a review within seven weeks of the passing of the Act. It would appear that some Members do not want to see this Bill ever being passed. Even if it were delayed, prevaricated and prevented from being passed promptly, we will do everything in our power to prevent this, because we want to deliver a redress scheme for homeowners and see the passing of this Bill before the end of this sitting. Fianna Fáil Senators and the Government parties will stay here until this Bill is passed because it is vitally important that a scheme is in place for homeowners and that they are not left with a substandard scheme.

If the Bill were to pass with the proposed seven-week timeline, it would immediately become dated. We all know that it is a dynamic economic environment. Europe is at war. Russia did not just attack Ukraine. It attacked western civilisation and that has a direct impact on construction costs. We discussed and debated this at length at the Oireachtas joint committee. We have had a number of hearing on this subject. We need to accept that today's priority has to be to use our time productively to deliver a scheme for people that will allow them to reclaim their lives and rebuild their homes.

I am happy to just press the amendment.

Amendment put and declared lost.

I move amendment No. 18:

In page 12, between lines 39 and 40, to insert the following:

“(4) The Minister shall within seven weeks of the passing of this Act lay a report before both Houses of the Oireachtas on the implications of construction sector inflation on the amount referred to in subsection (3), and whether an order should be made under section 11 to increase or decrease that amount.”

Amendment put and declared lost.
Amendment No. 19 not moved.
Section 10 agreed to.
Amendments Nos. 20 to 22, inclusive, not moved.
Section 11 agreed to.
Amendments Nos. 23 and 24 not moved.
Section 12 agreed to.
Amendments Nos. 25 to 27, inclusive, not moved.
Section 13 agreed to.
Section 14 agreed to.
SECTION 15
Amendments Nos. 28 and 29 not moved.

Amendments Nos. 30 and 31 are related and may be discussed together by agreement. Is that agreed? Agreed.

I move amendment No. 30:

In page 19, to delete line 36 and substitute the following:

“(b) that the level of damage as determined by the damage threshold will determine the order of priority for the remediation of the dwelling.”.

This is a crucial amendment to the homeowners who have contacted Senators and asked us to push this amendment on their behalf. The Minister will immediately understand what this simple amendment seeks to achieve. It reads: “that the immediately that the level of damage as determined by the damage threshold will determine the order of priority for the remediation of the dwelling”. In other words, the amendment seeks to ensure that no one is excluded but that the purpose of the damage threshold is only to prioritise people. That aspect is of massive concern to the whole host of homeowners who have contacted Senators.

The visual inspection is an issue that has already been mentioned here. The Minister will be aware, for example, that in counties like my own county of Limerick, and in counties Clare and Mayo, damage by pyrite has resulted in hairline cracks but not cracks of 1.5 mm or more caused by mica so homeowners are concerned that they will be excluded. The beauty of the amendment is that it makes clear that the "damage threshold" is there to just prioritise the order. Who could possibly argue against that? The homeowners seek to ensure that there is inclusion and I hope the Minister will accept the amendment.

I get where Senator Gavan is coming from in terms of this matter. As the owner of a home damaged by mica and someone who has witnessed cracks go down the side of his wall, I can say that cracks open at a fairly sharp rate. Over two years a crack that is 1.5 mm will very quickly increase in size, and so much so that one can put one's hand through the wall. I get where the Senator is coming from but I do not see that this as an issue. As I come from an engineering background, and having talked to engineers about this matter, I do not see this as an issue but I would like someone to prioritise the houses that are in an awful shape at the moment. Furthermore, I do not want anybody to be excluded from the scheme if they have the cracks that are not as big as 1.5 mm.

At the outset, I expressed my concerns about this matter so I think that the Minister knows my concerns. There is a view, particularly regarding pyrite, that the cracking is relatively less severe when it comes to mica. I have seen many affected houses throughout my county and over time cracks manifest themselves to a greater extent, which may fall in with the prioritisation of the remediation of homes.

I would like to hear the Minister's thoughts on the following. If it turns out that elements of this scheme are not workable to a point where they help to resolve the issues for people, then will he look at the regulations? Perhaps he could have a better, closer or tighter definition at that point.

I am bit worried about a reference to 1.5 mm cracks. A couple of homeowners have informed me that they have already filled in the cracks and I gave them my thoughts on that rather than concrete information. I said that the cracks which have been refilled will generally reappear and even where walls have been entirely replastered the cracks return. In a visual inspection account will be taken of the situation. If there was extensive cracking, then a trained eye will be able to establish, according to the way that they were filled, that they were filled on the basis that the cracks were extensive prior to that. I would like that situation to be acceptable.

I thank Senator Gavan for the amendment and thank Senators for their contributions. There is mention in the very first section that the damage category ratings and thresholds exist to ensure that we can prioritise the worst homes first. We need to do that because, potentially, thousands of homes are affected so this scheme will be with us for quite some time. Also, we want people to apply to join the scheme.

The way that the amendment is structured means that if people do not apply for a couple of years but when they do join and the damage threshold is worse than someone else then the new applicant would be placed ahead of someone else who is already in the scheme. What we will do is prioritise the people in the scheme. Obviously we want people to apply to the scheme. I will prescribe the criteria by which the Housing Agency will determine the way it will assess applications, which includes the level of damage. We will do that in the regulations and it will be very clear.

I wish to advise Senators Dooley, Blaney and Gavan that once people meet the minimum thresholds of damage then it is above that when one gets into the scheme. Then, when one gets into the scheme, we must prioritise how the work is done. Obviously there is a remediation option. There are a number of options within the scheme. It is important to state that for the non-full demolition options we will allow a second access to the scheme. We are providing a guarantee on the work so options 2 to 5, as they are known.

We must manage the workload. That means not just processing applications but analysing how many people can actually do the work, and assess the capacity of the sector in the affected regions to carry out that work. I have a lot of experience of that in my own area in terms of pyrite and infill in what has been referred to as the east coast scheme, which is the removal of infill in foundations. The damage category ratings work to be able to ensure that the homes that were worst affected are done first.

Senator Dooley made a good point about filled cracks. Certainly if there are issues where people have done remediation work as a stop-gap move then that acts like a sticking plaster and does not deal with the fundamental problem that house has. In my view such a situation would not keep somebody out of the scheme. Again, I have experience of people saying they did such work.

Earlier Senator Blaney made a point that is relevant to this amendment whereby someone who is already in the scheme is given a remediation option, say, one of the non-demolition options, but when it comes time to do the work the damage looked worse. In that case, the person can get back into the scheme but that would be a second application, which would be prioritised by the Housing Agency based on the new evidence.

Would people have to submit a new application?

Yes, with the new evidence. We are not going to insist people stick with a remediation option that is not going to work. I will explain what is required in that instance. An independent engineer will have conducted an assessment and a remediation option will have been chosen. However, because of the passage of time or whatever, it is found that another remediation option is more appropriate, which could be within options 2 to 5 or, indeed, option 1, then a new application is made containing the new data, and then the applicant would rejoin the scheme with a new recommendation. That is an important point and I did not mean to miss stating that earlier.

I understand the purpose of the amendment but believe it is counterproductive. I think the amendment might prevent people from applying to the scheme until they think that the damage is bad enough. I want people to join the scheme so that we can assess the damage, work through that and plan the works. Many of the affected homes are individual homes. In County Donegal, there are a lot of individual homes that are affected thus it makes it more difficult to procure the work. There are schemes within estates. There are more affected homes in estates in counties Mayo, Limerick, Sligo, Clare and other counties so one can manage that work better. We have got to be able to see who is coming into the scheme. Those who are already in the existing scheme will benefit from the improvements in the new scheme.

That is subject to the Bill being passed by the Seanad this week and us getting the regulations drawn up and into operation with the new scheme before the end of the year.

It is inappropriate that a Minister gets to determine the level of damage to people's homes to meet the requirement for inclusion in the scheme. It should be scientific evidence that determines that level of damage. None of us in these Chambers is qualified to do such a thing.

I thank the Minister for his reply. There is an engineer from Donegal working on the scheme who has a case where the works were approved for level 2 remediation of outer wall. On starting the works, it was realised that the rate of deterioration was such that there was much more extensive damage. On further inspection, the building in question now needs level 1 remediation. The Minister has given us good news today in that regard.

There is the damage threshold of a 1.5 mm crack. I would like the Minister to take into context in a county like Donegal, which takes in a big geographical area, the availability of a contractor along with the damage threshold. I might be a priority for a house to be demolished, for example, and somebody like Senator Dooley might be further down the priority list. If Senator Dooley is in a very remote part of Donegal, a builder may be more freely available for him. The availability of builders must be brought into the damage threshold context.

I assure Senator Flynn that I am not setting the thresholds of what damage should look like or the minimum threshold. That has been informed by the expert group, which comprises experts such as scientists and people qualified in the appropriate areas. There was reference to the 1.5 mm threshold and it is a recommendation from the expert group. We will set the threshold on the basis of these hearings, including feedback in the Seanad, Dáil and other forums. It is the right course of action. Ultimately, we are elected to decide what schemes we bring forward and what legislation we introduce. This is informed by expert opinion and it is why we had the expert group and homeowners' liaison group established. It is why we had hearings before the joint committee.

We will prescribe the thresholds by way of regulation. This allows flexibility into the future to deal with the very matters Senators Dooley and Blaney have mentioned today, and so if we find a bump in the road, we can fix it. That is really where we are. In that context, I will not accept the amendment.

Amendment put:
The Committee divided: Tá, 13; Níl, 30.

  • Boyhan, Victor.
  • Boylan, Lynn.
  • Flynn, Eileen.
  • Gavan, Paul.
  • Higgins, Alice-Mary.
  • Keogan, Sharon.
  • Moynihan, Rebecca.
  • Mullen, Rónán.
  • Ó Donnghaile, Niall.
  • Ruane, Lynn.
  • Sherlock, Marie.
  • Wall, Mark.
  • Warfield, Fintan.

Níl

  • Ahearn, Garret.
  • Blaney, Niall.
  • Buttimer, Jerry.
  • Byrne, Maria.
  • Carrigy, Micheál.
  • Casey, Pat.
  • Cassells, Shane.
  • Chambers, Lisa.
  • Clifford-Lee, Lorraine.
  • Conway, Martin.
  • Cummins, John.
  • Currie, Emer.
  • Davitt, Aidan.
  • Doherty, Regina.
  • Dolan, Aisling.
  • Fitzpatrick, Mary.
  • Gallagher, Robbie.
  • Horkan, Gerry.
  • Kyne, Seán.
  • Lombard, Tim.
  • Martin, Vincent P.
  • McGahon, John.
  • McGreehan, Erin.
  • Murphy, Eugene.
  • O'Loughlin, Fiona.
  • O'Reilly, Joe.
  • O'Reilly, Pauline.
  • Seery Kearney, Mary.
  • Ward, Barry.
  • Wilson, Diarmuid.
Tellers: Tá, Senators Paul Gavan and Eileen Flynn; Níl, Senators Seán Kyne and Robbie Gallagher.
Amendment declared lost.
Amendment No. 31 not moved.
Section 15 agreed to.
SECTION 16
Amendment No. 32 not moved.

Amendments Nos. 33 to 35, inclusive, have been ruled out of order as they involve a potential charge on the Exchequer.

Amendments Nos. 33 to 35, inclusive, not moved.

Amendments Nos. 36 and 38 are related and amendment No. 38 is a logical alternative to amendment No. 36. The amendments may be discussed together by agreement. Is that agreed? Agreed.

I move amendment No. 36:

In page 22, between lines 20 and 21, to insert the following:

"(11) Within seven weeks of the passing of this Act the Minister shall lay before both Houses of the Oireachtas a report examining whether an exceptional circumstances grounds for the awarding of a remediation grant under the scheme, as provided for in section 17 of the Pyrite Resolution Act of 2013, should be introduced by way of amending legislation.".

This amendment relates to the exceptional circumstances that were provided for in the Pyrite Resolution Act 2013.

This amendment seeks just to echo that in order that the people who will access this remediation fund will be treated the same as those who have accessed the pyrite scheme. As Senator Gavan said earlier, all these amendments are put forward on behalf of the families. They give real examples. In the case of a row of terraced houses, for example, if the first and third houses have defective blocks but the house in the middle does not, and if demolition is required on the two affected houses, the person in the middle house should be able to avail of the scheme due to the exceptional circumstances. That was provided for under the pyrite remediation scheme, so I look forward to hearing the Minister's explanation as to why it is not provided for in this Bill and I encourage him to accept the amendment.

Senator Moynihan, do you wish to speak to amendment No. 38?

It is the same point. Essentially, it seeks to allow for exceptional circumstances that were applicable under the Pyrite Resolution Act to apply to this Bill as well. Amendment No. 38 is therefore relatively self-explanatory.

I have not purposely compared the pyrite remediation scheme for the east coast and this Bill. They are very different schemes. There are additional items in this scheme, particularly in respect of second properties, second grant options registered with the Residential Tenancies Board, RTB, increased costs and grant amounts. It is therefore a substantially better scheme than the east coast scheme.

I did talk on Second Stage, however, about the issue we had with multi-unit developments, being apartments, and the need to return to consideration of them. We will do apartments; we just have to find a mechanism to do them. There is the question as to how they might be included under this scheme. There are complex ownership and owners' management company issues. We will work on that to make sure that a smaller number of apartments are excluded.

I have included separate schemes for approved housing bodies and for social housing, so we will do them too. People said at the start of this process that they would not be included, but they will be.

As for exceptional circumstances, I will give similar consideration to this clause, which might apply to the example Senators Blaney and Boylan and others have raised with me of a terraced house between two other houses being done. There were some difficulties under the east coast scheme, to which reference has been made, with getting the middle terraced house done if it did not reach the damage threshold. The exceptional circumstances clause, which is very straight in the operation of that scheme, has not been applied as often as it should have been. I want to make sure that whatever exceptional circumstance clause we have in this Bill is done appropriately. I am not sure how au fait the Senator who proposes amendment No. 36 is with the infill scheme and its operation, but exceptional circumstances did not apply. Even in respect of the appeals process, not one appeal was granted under exceptional circumstances. That is not a situation I want just by tying something into legislation to say "job done". That is not job done. I want to make sure we have something that actually operates.

The seven-week timeframe, I say respectfully to Senator Moynihan, is not realistic. We will not have this done within seven weeks. I will attempt to have that done through the regulations and as the scheme moves on. I intend to include multi-unit developments, that is, duplexes and apartments, and I will include the issue of exceptional circumstances. It is not as simple as putting a seven-week timeframe into the Bill and, as a result, getting this done. We want to be realistic in our approach. I want to do that and we will do it. Some issues have to be worked through. In that context, I cannot accept either amendment.

May I ask for a clarification from the Minister? While it is welcome that he will look at multi-unit developments, terraced houses and approved housing bodies, AHBs, does he anticipate that that will be done through regulation or will we have to table further amendments to the Bill in the autumn? If the latter, I would like an indicative timeline as to when any amendments will be tabled and included.

I think we should be able to deal with multi-unit developments and apartments and the exceptional circumstances clause through regulation. If that requires a small amendment to an Act, which it may, we will do that. We have not bottomed that out, but I am putting on record here, as I did in the Dáil, that it is my absolute intention that both those elements be dealt with. We just have not concluded the work on ownership of apartments. If I had, I would be bringing that forward. We have issues with some multi-unit developments. There are owners' management companies for most, there are landlords who are not resident here and there are other things like that that need to be worked through. I am confident we will be able to do so.

Timeframe-wise, I would like to be able to get this bottomed out in the coming months. We will not leave it because it is important. I do not want to hinder the operation of the scheme. I am conscious as well that we have many hundreds of applications under the old scheme, for want of a better phrase, that we can now move on and move through the process. I want to get those done.

We will not stop working on other improvements to this. I do not believe that amendment No. 36 is needed in the Bill itself. Also, I would not be able to stick to the seven-week timeframe so I cannot accede to it, but I intend for us to deal with these matters.

Amendment put:
The Committee divided: Tá, 13; Níl, 26.

  • Black, Frances.
  • Boyhan, Victor.
  • Boylan, Lynn.
  • Craughwell, Gerard P.
  • Flynn, Eileen.
  • Gavan, Paul.
  • Higgins, Alice-Mary.
  • Keogan, Sharon.
  • Moynihan, Rebecca.
  • Ó Donnghaile, Niall.
  • Ruane, Lynn.
  • Wall, Mark.
  • Warfield, Fintan.

Níl

  • Ahearn, Garret.
  • Blaney, Niall.
  • Buttimer, Jerry.
  • Byrne, Maria.
  • Carrigy, Micheál.
  • Chambers, Lisa.
  • Clifford-Lee, Lorraine.
  • Conway, Martin.
  • Cummins, John.
  • Currie, Emer.
  • Davitt, Aidan.
  • Dolan, Aisling.
  • Gallagher, Robbie.
  • Horkan, Gerry.
  • Kyne, Seán.
  • Lombard, Tim.
  • Martin, Vincent P.
  • McGahon, John.
  • McGreehan, Erin.
  • Murphy, Eugene.
  • O'Loughlin, Fiona.
  • O'Reilly, Joe.
  • O'Reilly, Pauline.
  • Seery Kearney, Mary.
  • Ward, Barry.
  • Wilson, Diarmuid.
Tellers: Tá, Senators Paul Gavan and Eileen Flynn; Níl, Senators Seán Kyne and Robbie Gallagher.
Amendment declared lost.

I move amendment No. 37:

In page 22, between lines 20 and 21, to insert the following:

“(11) Within seven weeks of the passing of this Act the Minister shall lay before both Houses of the Oireachtas a report on the issue of providing retrospective grants in cases where relevant owners had to replace or remediate relevant dwellings prior to the introduction of the grant scheme.”

What we are calling for is that within seven weeks of the passing of this Act, the Minister shall lay before both Houses of the Oireachtas a report on the issue of providing retrospective grants in cases where relevant owners had to replace or remediate relevant dwellings prior to the introduction of the grant scheme. We are looking for some element of retrospection on behalf of the families; this is another of the amendments from the families where the homeowners have singled out on what they want to see change in the Bill. It was mentioned by Senator Dooley earlier. We all know of cases where people have taken remedial actions, simply on health and safety grounds in many cases. There has to be a retrospective element in this Bill. It is a key ask of the homeowners involved. I hope the Minister will accept this amendment.

I will now address amendment No. 37. Retrospective application of benefits of the enhanced scheme will apply to applicants under the current scheme. Retrospectively including homes which were remediated before the grant scheme and the IS 465 standard would, if it was introduced, be extremely complex. It is genuinely not clear how many such homes are in this situation. In the absence of the IS 465 standard it is not clear what analysis was carried out on those homes before they were remediated or on what basis the remediation option which was carried out was grounded. We do not know if there are any in this position or to what standard any works were actually done or who took the decision to do those works. I am not talking about the emergency works piece to which Senator Dooley referred. We have an additional grant there for shoring-up work and that type of thing. This really refers to homes that have been remediated but what I would say is such homeowners would be eligible if they say they did a remediation job. I do not know if any have done a full remediation to be honest. If the Senator knows, he certainly should let me know because we have not been able to quantify that. Such homeowners would be eligible to apply for a grant under the current or enhanced scheme in respect of any additional works which may be required to the home arising from damage associated with the use of defective concrete blocks in its construction. It is standard practice with grant schemes that work carried out prior to the grant scheme being put in place or prior to an application having been made would not be eligible for funding. However they would be able to reapply back into the scheme but we have no sense of any full remediations, who did the work - not who decided because obviously if it was done, the homeowner may have in good faith decided to - but who did the work and to what standard, were they qualified to do the work, all of those things. We have an additional grant in the new scheme for cases where shoring-up work has been done to keep a home safe. We have received applications for that as well. I take it in this instance that where a home is not fully remediated and some emergency works were done, that home would still be able to come in to the enhanced scheme. Therefore I am not accepting the amendment.

Amendment put:
The Committee divided: Tá, 12; Níl, 29.

  • Black, Frances.
  • Boyhan, Victor.
  • Boylan, Lynn.
  • Flynn, Eileen.
  • Gavan, Paul.
  • Higgins, Alice-Mary.
  • Keogan, Sharon.
  • Moynihan, Rebecca.
  • Ó Donnghaile, Niall.
  • Ruane, Lynn.
  • Sherlock, Marie.
  • Warfield, Fintan.

Níl

  • Ahearn, Garret.
  • Blaney, Niall.
  • Buttimer, Jerry.
  • Byrne, Malcolm.
  • Byrne, Maria.
  • Cassells, Shane.
  • Chambers, Lisa.
  • Clifford-Lee, Lorraine.
  • Conway, Martin.
  • Craughwell, Gerard P.
  • Cummins, John.
  • Currie, Emer.
  • Davitt, Aidan.
  • Doherty, Regina.
  • Dolan, Aisling.
  • Gallagher, Robbie.
  • Horkan, Gerry.
  • Kyne, Seán.
  • Lombard, Tim.
  • Martin, Vincent P.
  • McGahon, John.
  • McGreehan, Erin.
  • Murphy, Eugene.
  • O'Loughlin, Fiona.
  • O'Reilly, Joe.
  • O'Reilly, Pauline.
  • Seery Kearney, Mary.
  • Ward, Barry.
  • Wilson, Diarmuid.
Tellers: Tá, Senators Paul Gavan and Eileen Flynn; Níl, Senators Seán Kyne and Robbie Gallagher.
Amendment declared lost.

I move amendment No. 38:

In page 22, between lines 20 and 21, to insert the following:“(11) Within seven weeks of the passing of this Act the Minister shall lay before both Houses of the Oireachtas a report on whether grounds for the awarding of a remediation grant in exceptional circumstances, as was provided for in section 17 of the Pyrite Resolution Act 2013, should be introduced.”.

Amendment put and declared lost.
Amendment No. 39 not moved.
Section 16 agreed to.
SECTION 17

Amendment No. 40 has been ruled out of order. Amendment No. 41 in the name of Senators Boylan, Gavan, Ó Donnghaile and Warfield. Amendments Nos. 41 and 43 are related. Amendment No. 43 is a logical alternative to amendment No. 41. Amendments Nos. 41 and 43 may be discussed together by agreement. Is that agreed? Agreed.

Amendment No. 40 not moved.

I move amendment No. 41:

In page 23, between lines 12 and 13, to insert the following:

“(6) Within seven weeks of the passing of this Act the Minister shall lay before both Houses of the Oireachtas a report on the implications of subsection (5) on relevant owners and whether there is a need for amending the Act to allow for a reduction in the internal floor area of the dwelling demolished without any reduction in the amount of the remediation option grant approved by the Housing Agency.”.

This relates to the downsizing penalty which we keep hearing does not exist but saying it does not exist does not make it true. An example of how this penalty is working is a homeowner in Mayo who has a home of 90 sq. m who gets a remediation grant of €169,000 but the cost of rebuilding that home is valued at €200,000. There is clearly a shortfall of €31,000 but remember these are ordinary homeowners, people who in some cases are already retired or are not working for one reason or another, or are close to retirement age. As a huge compromise on their part, they are offering to downsize their home so they can at least rebuild within the budget of the €169,000.

Misinformation has been put out there that homeowners are trying to make money on this. They are not seeking to pocket the difference. All they are asking is that they not be penalised for not having the financial ability to match the difference, or it may be that they do not wish to get into debt. Some of them may be coming up to retirement age. In effect, there is a penalty as the Bill stands. This is about people who are making a significant compromise. They built their dream home but are accepting a much smaller house in order to stay within the budget. There are other Members who wish to speak to the amendment. It is a critical issue. It would be deeply unfair to allow the section to stand as it is.

I do not fully subscribe to the amendment as put forward. There has been spin in respect of the scheme and this is part of it. The scheme covers 100% of the cost. It was a big step to get the Minister to allow downsizing. Many applicants want to downsize and it is good that they are allowed to do so under the Bill. I refer to what I said earlier, however, in respect of whether a planning exemption exists for those on the same footprint. Those who are downsizing need to know whether the exemption applying to those rebuilding will also apply to them if they downsize.

When homeowners were before the Oireachtas joint committee a few weeks ago, this issue was raised. I discussed it with one of witnesses, a gentlemen from Donegal, for quite some time after we concluded the proceedings. I understood the point being made that, on the face of it, in the case of a 120 sq. m home, the State was committing to put redress in place for that figure, so why not allow a homeowner changing to a 90 sq. m. dwelling to avail of the figure relating to 120 sq. m. It was only when I took the issue away and examined it that I came to the conclusion that, although I appreciate the points being made, the difficulty for the State and the Government is that a person who has a 90 sq. m home in the first instance would essentially be getting less to build the home than a person who previously had a home of 120 sq. m. That is where the difficulty arises. It is being done on a square foot basis and that is the challenge. To frame it as there being a penalty is to use the wrong phraseology. What the State is putting in place is a remediation scheme on a square foot basis and, regardless of what a person had previously or decides to build now, he or she is getting the amount of funding required to build a property of that size and get his or her life back on track. While I was happy to engage with the homeowners at the committee, and fully understood the points that were made, the difficulty arises as two householders who, in essence, would be building the same size house would get two different sums in redress. How is that fair?

I urge the Minister to accept this amendment, more so than many others. When the grant does not completely cover the cost of reconstructing people's houses, homeowners should be able to downsize in order to fit the cost of the grant they are awarded. I am thinking in particular of pensioners and others of older age who are not entitled to a loan, as my colleagues pointed out. All present know that once one hits the age of 40, it is very difficult to get a loan from a bank. The last time I mentioned a person by name, I was told I should not do so, but this amendment came to us from the horse's mouth, if you wish. I urge the Minister to accept the amendment.

I thank the Senators for their contributions and for the amendment. All present recognise the massive leap forward being made with this scheme. That has been acknowledged by homeowners, as well as by all parties and Independents. It is a scheme that is vastly different from the one in place from January 2020 - unrecognisably so. Fundamentally, it gives 100% redress based on independent rates that are set at up to €161 per square foot. I understand the argument on this matter but we are not penalising anyone. There is no downsizing penalty. If a person has a house of a particular size and wishes to replace that house, he or she will be able to do so at the rates that have been set, which are slightly above those in the SCSI cost report. In the case of a two-bedroom terraced house, the SCSI cost report gave a figure of €149,668. We are allowing €152,000. For a three-bedroom semi-detached house, the SCSI report gave a figure of €165,000, whereas we are allowing €169,000. In the case of a four-bedroom semi-detached house, the report indicated a figure of €193,000. We are allowing €195,000. That goes all the way up to a four-bedroom single rural two-storey house, in which case the grant recommended by the SCSI is €339,150 but we are allowing €341,150. The only exception relates to the €420,000 cap. Up to that, there is the €25,000 in other assistance. That is for a two-storey house with five or more bedrooms. Basically, that is a grant of €420,000. On top of that, as I stated earlier, we are allowing access and are changing the SEAI scheme to allow people to apply for that scheme even if they did so previously. That allows for further enhancements.

What Senator Cummins stated is true. The amendment would create a two-tier system. If a person gets a grant of €400,000 but then builds a house for €300,000, is the State supposed to step in to say on what the other €100,000 is to be spent? Should it have to go back and check what it is spent on? The amendment would create a series of complications. I understand the point but there is no penalty in the context of this aspect of the scheme. If a person wishes to build a smaller home for economic reasons, such as the future cost of managing the home, he or she will get a grant on a like-for-like basis. The rates are there and the person will get 100% redress. That is what we intend to happen. As was mentioned earlier, we are allowing the ability to track construction inflation with a review every 12 months and, three years after the passing of the Act, a full review of the scheme.

Most people to whom I have spoken wish to replace the house they have. That is the case for the vast bulk of those affected. It is one-for-one on a like-for-like basis. People who decide they want a smaller house will not be penalised but will be paid at €161 per square foot. The original rate last October or November was €145 per square foot. We are allowing that headway.

As regards Senator Blaney's point on planning for smaller homes on the same footprint, we do not intend that there will be planning for them, as long as they are on the same footprint.

They will be exempt as well.

Yes, that is the intention. There is no downsizing penalty. The scheme is fair and appropriate. Fundamentally, we are doing this because we want to help people to rebuild their homes and get their lives back on track. We need to be honest with people. This scheme will work. It will probably cost at least €2.7 billion of Exchequer funding, and rightly so.

All of the people affected are taxpayers too. We have to be able to manage a scheme that is workable. All of the replacement costs have been set independently of me and the Department. This would create a series of difficulties. It would create a two-tier system within each category of homes. From my interaction it is a small portion of people who are looking at this option. If someone wants to downsize, of course they can do so. They will not be penalised. Their home will be replaced and they will have a home at the size they want and the State will pay for it. There is no penalty there. I cannot accept the amendment.

The amount per square metre does not provide a pathway to 100% redress and the Minister knows this. The gap is tens of thousands of euro. People are not downsizing to reduce the maintenance. They are downsizing because they cannot rebuild the house with the grant they have and they are trying to cut their cloth to suit their measure by rebuilding the house at a smaller size.

I do not want to go back and forth because there has been a pretty constructive debate but that is incorrect. It is totally and utterly incorrect. It might suit to make the charge to create an issue. There is not an issue. The rates have been set independently. Dealing with inflation is built in by way of the review. I have already quoted the specific rates that are there. They are set independently of us to replace homes on a like-for-like basis to 100% redress. This is what we committed to do and it is what we have done. This is why we need to get the legislation passed. We all have a responsibility to be honest with people, not to put out misinformation and not to try to sow discontent.

(Interruptions).

Is there an intervention from the Public Gallery?

I apologise to the Minister for that.

Deputy Mac Lochlainn has not been allowed to speak all week for other reasons.

We have a responsibility to people to be very honest with them and get behind the scheme to make it work for them. Anyone who looks at this in a fair and clear way will see the financial commitment behind the scheme is extremely robust. I said to Senators earlier, and I said to Deputies in the other House, that the scheme will evolve further. There is no question of this. I said it in Buncrana when I was there with Senator Blaney and the Minister, Deputy McConalogue. This is a greatly improved scheme that will deliver 100% redress. There is no downsizing penalty.

That is just not true.

Does Sinn Féin think houses can be built for €123 per square foot?

(Interruptions).

There must be no interventions from the Gallery. Only Senators and the Minister are allowed to speak. Everyone in the room knows this.

I have made my point. I have tried to address the amendment tabled. The debate heretofore has been very constructive and respectful. The most recent intervention moved away from that. Our job is to get a new scheme in place that will fix people's homes and get their lives back on track. This is absolutely the basis to do this. I will not accept the amendment.

Amendment put:
The Seanad divided: Tá, 9; Níl, 28.

  • Black, Frances.
  • Boyhan, Victor.
  • Boylan, Lynn.
  • Gavan, Paul.
  • Keogan, Sharon.
  • Moynihan, Rebecca.
  • Ó Donnghaile, Niall.
  • Ruane, Lynn.
  • Wall, Mark.

Níl

  • Ahearn, Garret.
  • Blaney, Niall.
  • Buttimer, Jerry.
  • Byrne, Malcolm.
  • Byrne, Maria.
  • Carrigy, Micheál.
  • Cassells, Shane.
  • Chambers, Lisa.
  • Clifford-Lee, Lorraine.
  • Conway, Martin.
  • Craughwell, Gerard P.
  • Crowe, Ollie.
  • Cummins, John.
  • Currie, Emer.
  • Davitt, Aidan.
  • Doherty, Regina.
  • Dolan, Aisling.
  • Gallagher, Robbie.
  • Horkan, Gerry.
  • Kyne, Seán.
  • Lombard, Tim.
  • Martin, Vincent P.
  • McGahon, John.
  • McGreehan, Erin.
  • O'Reilly, Joe.
  • O'Reilly, Pauline.
  • Seery Kearney, Mary.
  • Ward, Barry.
Tellers: Tá, Senators Paul Gavan and Lynn Boylan; Níl, Senators Seán Kyne and Robbie Gallagher.
Amendment declared lost.

I welcome those in the Distinguished Visitors Gallery who are guests of Senator Garret Ahearn. I welcome Mairéad McCormack and service users from the Irish Wheelchair Association, which is, as Members are aware, a nominating body to Seanad Éireann. They are all most welcome.

Amendment No. 42 has been ruled out of order.

Amendment No. 42 not moved.

I move amendment No. 43:

In page 23, between lines 12 and 13, to insert the following:

“(6) Within seven weeks of the passing of this Act the Minister shall lay before both Houses of the Oireachtas a report on the implications of subsection (5) for relevant owners and whether the subsection ought to be repealed.”.

Amendment put and declared lost.

Amendment No. 44 is out of order.

Amendment No. 44 not moved.
Section 17 agreed to.
SECTION 18

Amendments Nos. 45 and 46 are out of order.

Amendments Nos. 45 and 46 not moved.
Section 18 agreed to.
SECTION 19

Amendments Nos. 47 to 49, inclusive, are related and may be discussed together by agreement. Is that agreed? Agreed. Amendment No. 48 is a physical alternative to amendment No. 47.

I move amendment No. 47:

In page 25, line 23, to delete “78 weeks” and substitute “130 weeks”.

This amendment is one that the homeowners have asked us to press. I am also genuinely mystified by this restriction stipulating that homeowners must have work done within 78 weeks. When developers get planning permission to build houses, they have up to five years to do so. There is a good reason therefore for this amendment, in which we are asking that the time allowed be extended to 130 weeks. Sometimes people do not have the money to pay for the work on their house within 78 weeks. They need more flexibility. Despite what the Minister said, we know this is not a 100% redress scheme. There is going to be a shortfall. I pointed out the shortfall in the context of inflation earlier as just one example.

There is no reason why we should not accede to the homeowners' request. I stress again that they have asked for this amendment, and they are watching, to allow them additional time. In this regard, issues could also be encountered concerning materials and the supply of labour to get the work done on a house. The attempt to box homeowners into a 78-week period to get building work done is unacceptable. I fully understand why homeowners in all the counties involved are so furious about this issue. It is a perfectly reasonable request to extend the time allowed to 130 weeks.

I am getting more concerned about this aspect. To date, the Minister has not accepted even one of our amendments. This is the last opportunity to improve this scheme and to make it better for the people impacted. They are asking us clearly for this extension of the time allowed to 130 weeks. Are the Minister and his Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael colleagues opposite really not going to listen to this reasonable and timely request?

I do not agree with this amendment for practical reasons.

We have all seen developments being undertaken and jobs being done by developers over the years. When developers are under pressure, they move around jobs. The longer we extend the period for completion and the more flexibility is given in that regard, the more a developer will move around sites. That means more pain for homeowners. The latter need certainty that their job will be done within a specified period. It is in the interest of homeowners to keep the period for commencement at 78 weeks rather than extending it. There is a massive amount of time within that to build any home, certainly at the magnitude of building in the case of the homes we are discussing. I do not support the amendment.

It is really hard to get a builder at the moment. Anyone who has tried to get someone to do any work will know how difficult it is. I am getting work done on my home and I am waiting more than a year for the builder to visit. I support the amendment.

I am concerned by some of the comments we have heard in regard to the shortfall in funding. I ask the Minister for his attention on this issue. Several speakers have claimed people will be out of pocket by tens of thousands of euro. In the case of elderly homeowners and those with disabilities who avail of the scheme, will they be able to access the housing adaptation grant, Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, grants and mobility grants to make up the shortfall? I would like the Minister to clarify that on the record of the House. I am sure there are many scared people listening to this debate, including some who are elderly or have a disability and who are afraid they will be unable to rebuild. Will they be able to avail of the grants to which I referred?

Senator Gavan stated that works must be completed within 78 weeks. In fact, the legislation provides that works necessary to carry out the approved remediation option must commence within 78 weeks. That time limit relates to commencement of works, not their completion. There is a big difference between what the Senator has said on the record and what is set out in the legislation. Perhaps he did not read it.

There are a lot of dates and so on specified in the legislation but the situation is exactly as Senator Cummins outlined. Once an applicant is approved, he or she has 78 weeks from the date of approval to commence the work. We should not forget these are urgent works. Should an applicant need another 24 weeks on top of that to commence the work, he or she will get it. That basically gives two years just to commence the urgent remediation. From commencement, approved applicants have 65 weeks in which to complete the works. Again, they can seek another 24 weeks, on top of those 65 weeks, if they need them.

I genuinely do not understand this amendment. The Senator may have misread the provisions in the legislation. The limit of 78 weeks is not to complete the works; it is to commence them. If a person is applying to the scheme, he or she wants to get the work done. We are allowing time for the whole preparatory process. As Senator Keogan mentioned, it can take time to get a contractor and so on, but there are another 24 weeks available, on top of the 78 weeks, to get the work started. Most of us want this scheme to progress and to help people to move on. Senator Gavan is talking about allowing a five-year period to get the work done. I genuinely do not get that. To clarify for Senators, there is provision for a period of 78 weeks from when a person gets grant approval to commence the work. If homeowners need another 24 weeks, that is absolutely fine. Then there is provision for a period of 65 weeks, which is well over a year, to complete the work, and a further 24 weeks may be allowed, if required. Those limits will set boundaries on the people who are doing the work, not in order to get them to rush it but to give an appropriate time in which to do it. I genuinely believe there is ample time provided and I certainly will not accept this amendment. Perhaps it was tabled in error.

Senator Keogan made a very good point. As I mentioned earlier, there will not be a shortfall. Some 99% of applicants will be fully covered under the scheme. Bar those applicants whose home will cost way above the €420,000 threshold, who make up a tiny percentage of the total, there will be 100% cover for people. In addition, people may apply for an SEAI grant, even if they applied for one before, including on that particular house. We have changed the provisions to allow that to be done. People certainly can apply for housing adaptation grants based on the criteria set down under the relevant scheme. That absolutely is applicable. However, I do not see such grants as making up any shortfall. As I set out, there will be no shortfall in almost all cases.

I hope I have explained the position in regard to timeframes. I genuinely think they are more than reasonable. The provisions give people the time they need, which is what I want to do, without elongating the period for completing the work way out further. Applicants will have 78 weeks to commence the work once their grant has been approved. I am not sure why people would wait. There could be life issues within households, which is fine, but provision for an additional 24 weeks may be availed of in such cases. Once the work commences, there is a period of 65 weeks for completion. That is a good thing because it gives both homeowners and contractors certainty. Again, if another 24 weeks are needed for completion, they will be given.

Before the debate is adjourned, I welcome to the Distinguished Visitors Gallery Ms Ariana Kelly from the Maryland House of Delegates. She is most welcome to Seanad Éireann.

Progress reported; Committee to sit again.
Cuireadh an Seanad ar fionraí ar 3.26 p.m. agus cuireadh tús leis arís ar 3.33 p.m.
Sitting suspended at 3.26 p.m. and resumed at 3.33 p.m.
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