Ministerial statement on increased protection for homeowners

Date published: 15 April 2024


Introduction of urgent legislation to address the disparity of legal protection to citizens affected by defective premises

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Statement to the Assembly from Minister Gordon Lyons:

We are elected to this place to serve our constituents: to represent their interests and do what we can to help to improve their lives. As we know, that is not always easy, simple or straightforward. Progress can be frustratingly slow, and we often come up against barriers or hurdles to getting things done. However, that is not what our constituents expect. They want action to tackle the most pressing issues that they face.

I want to update the House on the action that I have been taking to deal with an issue that has come to the fore of the public's attention in recent weeks, and requires remedy. The outcome of the recent High Court case pertaining to the apartments at Victoria Square highlighted a range of issues that adversely impact on our people. It acutely highlighted the disparity that exists between the benefits that are enjoyed by citizens elsewhere in the United Kingdom and the lack of those same protections here.

However, the situation also offers the opportunity for the Assembly and Executive to, swiftly and decisively, deliver for people in Northern Ireland. Many in the Chamber will remember the horrifying scenes in London when the Grenfell Tower tragedy claimed the lives of 72 people. Following an independent review in 2018, Parliament began the process of introducing new law to provide adequate legislation and regulations to ensure that citizens and buildings are protected and safe. People in Northern Ireland deserve those same protections.

The High Court case has, however, highlighted that the Limitation (Northern Ireland) Order 1989 permits actions regarding defects in residential buildings to be taken only within a six-year period in Northern Ireland. That compares to a time frame of up to 30 years elsewhere in the United Kingdom. As Minister for Communities with responsibility for housing, I was struck by that disparity in legislation between GB and NI. It places people in Northern Ireland at a clear disadvantage compared with their counterparts in other regions of the UK. It is clear that there is an urgent need for fit-for-purpose legislation that provides improved protection to all those who live in Northern Ireland. That was clear to the public as well.

The public wanted to see action on that disparity, but it was not immediately clear which Minister would take it forward. Although the powers lay with DAERA, Minister Muir had indicated that he believed that it was incorrectly allocated to his Department. Following discussions with Minister Muir, I agreed that my Department would take responsibility for these issues and, last week, gave my consent to the transfer of functions order to move them from DAERA to Communities.

I know that the last thing that the public wanted was for Ministers to fight over who was responsible. I am pleased that my Department was able to step up and take it on. Minister Muir and I subsequently met the Finance Minister. The need for urgency and decisive action was apparent to us. We quickly agreed to a collaborative, constructive approach to achieve urgent resolution to the issues raised. I would like to pay tribute to the cross-party collegiate support and swift action taken by my ministerial colleagues in Agriculture and Finance.

I also want to thank officials in my Department who have been working on this issue. My Department acted swiftly and took on responsibility for residential building safety. The residential building safety division was tasked to bring about this improved building safety policy and legislation, which enhances the residential building safety system for the citizens of Northern Ireland. That team will need additional resources sooner than expected, in order not to delay or impact that significant work.

The extension of the limitation period for defective residential buildings is one of the matters that was already under consideration as part of the Department’s review of policy and legislation. However, I recognise the importance of that matter and the necessity to quickly bring us into line with the rest of the UK. Therefore, I am pleased to announce that I intend to bring to the Assembly and Executive, as a matter of urgency, legislation to provide the same protection associated with defective premises for citizens in Northern Ireland to that afforded elsewhere in the UK.

The proposed Bill will introduce new provisions into the Limitation (Northern Ireland) Order 1989, establishing a retrospective period of up to 30 years and a prospective period of up to 15 years in which a party can take action for defective premises. It will also introduce a new clause into the Defective Premises (Northern Ireland) Order 1975, which will allow a building that contains two or more dwellings to be treated as a single dwelling for the purpose of the order. That will be based on the provisions introduced in England and Wales by sections 134 and 135 of the Building Safety Act 2022.

In order for us to continue to deliver for people here, I am seeking the ongoing and urgent support of my Executive colleagues and this Assembly to ensure the swift passage of this legislation, which will provide Northern Ireland residents with the same recourse and protections as prescribed in other jurisdictions where a building is shown to be defective. Given the urgency, I am writing to Executive colleagues today to seek their support and approval to introduce new legislation under the accelerated passage process. The primary legislation will address the period under which action can be taken with regard to defective buildings and will address the unfair disparity that currently exists and disadvantages our people.

I do not seek consent for the accelerated passage process lightly. I fully respect the right of the Assembly to have the normal time and scrutiny processes. However, it is not right that this discrepancy between Northern Ireland and elsewhere in the UK is left unresolved. This is an issue of grave concern, and it has the potential to impact many people right across Northern Ireland. I wanted to bring this matter to the House to keep Members updated on my intentions. I am confident that we can make the desired progress on this issue, but getting it done quickly will depend on the support and consent of the Assembly and the Executive. I hope that I can count on that support in the coming weeks.

I commend the statement to the House.

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