Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

I welcome the Ceann Comhairle's remarks. He has this party's full support in the work ahead. I thank the Clerk of the Dáil and everyone involved in the work this week. There will be time this afternoon to reflect further on that report.

The report issued overnight by the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, shows that Ireland will exceed its climate change emissions targets by up to 6% for 2018, which is the third year in a row we will have exceeded those targets. We are 5 million tonnes in excess of the target to which we all signed up. The bottom line is that emissions are increasing in several sectors. Our climate response seems to be more spin than substance and is completely at odds with our international requirements. There was a small reduction in output in 2018, but that more to do with a plant being out of commission for repairs than a policy response by the Government. The EPA has again highlighted that we are likely to miss our 2020 climate commitment by well over 90%, which shows how far away we are from the Government's aspirations and spin. That failure, in turn, will result in penalties of hundreds of millions of euro that could be spent elsewhere. The analysis confirms that Ireland has "drifted off target", to quote the Tánaiste's colleague, the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Bruton, during the nine years the Government has been in office. It shows that the Government is wedded to our climate laggard tag. The Tánaiste may point to the new climate plan, but we have yet to see much of the substance behind that plan's aspirations, implementation plans that can be measured, or targets against which agencies and sectors can be held. What is the Tánaiste's response to the EPA report? Has the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment measured where the 2019 figures stand at this stage in the year? What plans does the Government have to reduce the 2019 and 2020 figures in order that we can send a signal that we are taking our responsibilities seriously?

The Ceann Comhairle will have complete support from my party in the work that needs to be done in response to the report laid before the Oireachtas today. We look forward to an appropriate debate later this afternoon on the contents of that report.

The EPA report on the 2018 emissions outcome reinforces the importance of implementing the climate action plan, which, as the Deputy will be aware, was designed and published after 2018. Ireland has drifted off target, and we must implement a decisive policy shift each and every year. That is what we are committed to doing. The 2020 budget was an important watershed in that regard. Earlier this year, the Government published the climate action plan, which sets out the actions we need to take to ensure we meet our 2030 climate commitments, putting us on a trajectory to net zero emissions by 2050.

I welcome the EPA's report today, for our plan, which is a roadmap forward to decarbonise and secure a sustainable and more resilient Ireland for future generations.

The figures released today reflect the position prior to the publication of the national climate action plan. While the EPA statement today shows that emissions have fallen for the second year in a row, the decrease is too small and is driven, as the Deputy correctly said, by some temporary occurrences, primarily the temporary closure of Moneypoint in 2018. We still saw an increase in emissions from households and in transport and agriculture last year.

I note the commitments of the EPA today, which call for the swift implementation of the action plan. This is our pathway forward and today's results underline the urgency of implementing those actions in full across the Government. Quite frankly, we will need the support of Fianna Fáil in our efforts to do that, as the Government seeks support in the House to make the changes necessary.

The Minister, Deputy Bruton, has taken a new and different approach. He has only been in office for 12 months and has made an extraordinary impact in changing the approach to climate policy in Ireland, and the Government will continue to see that plan through.

I thank the Tánaiste. The Minister, Deputy Bruton, has been in office 2011 in various Departments, a period during which a lot of the targets were missed. The Government has my party's support. It was my party that proposed that the carbon tax funding be ring-fenced for initiatives such as increasing the quality of our housing supply and a just transition for the midlands in particular. That ring-fencing must proceed. Can the Tánaiste state whether legislation is required to ensure that ring-fencing will happen? When will the ring-fencing be introduced?

The climate action plan only goes part of the way. We need to look at investing in retrofitting, in communities that need to make a just transition and in bringing people with us. I spoke to the Taoiseach yesterday about the new CAP programme. Farmers must be given the chance to lead this discussion and realise that there is something in it for them. They have to be compensated for whatever losses are coming. We cannot continue to keep publishing plans and engaging in PR opportunities in the one electric bus in the city. We need action and the EPA report should be the final wake-up call.

We are beyond a wake up call. We have an action plan and it is being implemented. The budget that has been passed, on which the Deputy made a contribution, is proof of that. We are investing more in electric vehicles. We have ambitious targets and we need to meet them. We are investing more in warmer homes and have a budget to match.

We have a commitment to have a radical change in how we manage waste from next year on. We are decarbonising the energy supply. Some 30% of our energy needs are now being provided by renewables and by 2030, that figure needs to be 70%. We have a new approach to just transition, in particular in the midlands in the context of the challenge faced by Bord na Móna. We have put money behind those new approaches.

We will appoint a just transition commissioner in order that we have somebody who is managing the transition, with a significant budget, and works with the affected sectors and people and families involved. We have set aside €7 million to restore 1,800 ha of bogs between 2020 and 2024. We are at the point of implementing an action plan. Each Department has targets it needs to meet by law. That is uncomfortable for some people but there is now a need for our action plan to be quite uncomfortable, in terms of the pressure it puts on people to deliver on the targets on which they must deliver across sectors in a way that is just and fair to the people on whom we are imposing that new policy.

I assure the Ceann Comhairle that he will have our full support for the work he is taking on in respect of what he announced at the beginning of business today.

Yesterday, 39 people were found dead in the back of a lorry in England. My thoughts are with their families and the emergency response services who had to deal with this terrible tragedy. A tweet today read, "One of those people was the last to die and watched 38 die before them". This is an unimaginable horror. We have our own tragic history in this country in that regard. The owners of coffin ships exploited Irish immigrants by cramming them into holds and under decks. Today, shipping containers and lorries are the coffin ships of the 21st century. It highlights the human tragedy of displacement and conflict. These coffin containers are what many people fleeing persecution and war have to resort to in order to get to safety. Tackling the criminal gangs behind them, who are people trafficking, must be prioritised and they must be put out of business across Europe.

Unfortunately, some people in this country peddle far right ideology and may be happy that 39 fewer immigrants will be coming to Ireland. The hatred that these people disseminate, mainly through the Internet, is regrettably taking root in some places in our society and that is what I want to talk about today. The language the far right uses and the tone of speech that it normalises has taken root among people who would otherwise be decent and reasonable. That is where the greatest danger lies. It has become acceptable for some people to talk about asylum seekers being dumped in a town. The word "dumped" insinuates something is of no value. We only dump rubbish. Legitimate concerns that people and communities have about education or health services being stretched are being twisted into reasons to be intolerant. All of us elected to public office have a duty to stand firm against this and we must educate and convince people of the dangers of that indirect prejudice and what it produces.

This issue goes beyond immigrants and minorities. It is also an issue of class because in many places around the country where there are proposals to build emergency accommodation or social housing, there are objections from communities which are excited by hysteria that they do not want those sort of people around them. That is the challenge for the Tánaiste, the Government and all parties. The Government's limited policies on social housing to provide for the underprivileged is always heralded in this Chamber, but on the ground it is the secretaries and chairs of Fine Gael branches, and even Fine Gael councillors, who lead the protests to block such housing. I have personal experience of senior members of Fine Gael, including a local councillor, whipping up hysteria, demonising people and standing as a bulwark against reason and civil discourse in favour of domination and superiority.

Fearmongering discussion about being overrun has become common and acceptable language. I even hear radio journalists speaking in those terms. We have a job of work to do in our society. We have to stand for equality and justice every day, on the hard days and the easy days. I want the Tánaiste to assure me that he is prepared to stand against prejudice and that the Government is prepared to stand against this sort of thing creeping into our society.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. On behalf of the Government, I would like to say that the tragedy which unfolded yesterday, in which 39 Chinese people, 31 men and eight women, including one teenager, died, was a reminder of how ruthless and shocking people trafficking is. This is not something which is comparable to trying to bring refugees from countries like Libya across the Mediterranean Sea. This is an issue which comes right into our own lives. The investigation under way in the UK involves An Garda Síochána, and I can assure the House that the investigation by the Essex police will have the absolute and full co-operation of the Garda.

It is also important to say that we have a national action plan to prevent and combat human trafficking in Ireland. It is comprehensive and An Garda Síochána has committed significant resources to investigating and prosecuting cases of human trafficking.

A specialised Garda unit, the human trafficking investigation and coordination unit, has been established and is very much part of that human trafficking strategy. I want to give that reassurance.

Second, I want to comment on the approach towards asylum seeker accommodation in Ireland. I commend the Deputy for what he said today, which needs to be said by more Members in this House. We have a legal obligation to protect and look after asylum applicants as we assess their applications. In my view we also have a moral obligation to ensure that they are looked after in terms of food, shelter and supports, be they medical or otherwise. We have done a reasonably good job in this country of ensuring they can integrate into broader society. It is not perfect. Direct provision is far from perfect but we are trying to improve it all the time. An increasing number of people want to come to Ireland and are coming to Ireland and claiming asylum here. This Government is looking for new accommodation for that increased number. Currently, about 1,400 asylum seekers are in hotels and bed and breakfasts because we do not have sufficient accommodation to look after them properly and we need to address that honestly across the country. This is what is happening in a number of locations.

However, there is a need to answer questions fully. When communities have concerns that are legitimate, they have a right to ask the hard questions and to have answers to those questions. Today, the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, is attending a meeting with local community representatives, councillors and some Deputies regarding the Ballinamore case referred to by the Deputy. I recognise the Deputy's role in trying to bring a context to the discussion in terms of reassuring local communities that the integration of some asylum-seeking families into their communities can be managed appropriately in a way that does not threaten anyone in the community. That is what we need to continue to do across the country when there are legitimate concerns among communities.

I understand that and I do not want to make this about the situation in Ballinamore or anywhere else, but the Tánaiste did not address my main point, which was that using direction provision centres to accommodate asylum seekers is the policy of this Government yet around the country, people from other political parties and other community organisations are saying that we must be reasonable. People from the Tánaiste's party and other parties are demonising us for doing that. We have this situation everywhere. We need to recognise that Fortress Europe is not working and that we must have a legal pathway to deal with the situation. More than anything else, we have to take responsibility. It is outrageous that hate speech is becoming normalised and is being allowed to become normalised. It is becoming normalised. It is becoming acceptable for that to happen. Those of us who are victims of it and who get the text messages and all these threats will not stand down. We will stand firm but we need to know that the people who are putting those policies in place will also stand firm. This is the question the Tánaiste did not answer today. The people and I need to hear that from him.

This Government is looking to ensure we have appropriate accommodation and invest accordingly to ensure we can look after asylum seekers properly when they come to Ireland until their asylum applications have been processed and decisions have been made. This is why the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, will attend a meeting today to answer questions and reassure people about practical things like GP services, education and health support services for vulnerable families that may have been through significant trauma in recent months that results in them being here as asylum seekers in the first place. I appeal to everyone in this House to make sure that when we contribute to those discussions and debates, we do so in a way that recognises the obligations we have as a country and tries to calm what is sometimes hysterical language in a way that is reassuring. There are legitimate questions that need to be answered but they can be answered. There are many examples of asylum seekers who have moved to towns and villages without large populations where integration has been a success story. We will continue to ensure that we fulfill our obligations to provide appropriate accommodation for vulnerable families in difficult circumstances.

A Cheann Comhairle, I welcome the strength and earnestness of your comments on voting in this House. We know we now need to act to address the genuine concerns of the general public.

There is near unanimity in this House that from an Irish perspective, there is no such thing as a good Brexit. However, there are bad Brexits and worse Brexits. In recent weeks, there was a genuine fear that Boris Johnson would pull the UK out of the EU without a deal. The threat of no deal has receded thanks to the Benn Act and the Letwin amendment, which are designed to prevent a no-deal exit, although I am not convinced that a no-deal exit is still impossible.

Last week's agreement between British and European negotiators is certainly better than no deal. The new agreement seems to guarantee an open Border, which has been our collective primary responsibility and objective in this House. Other than that, it is a worse deal than the one negotiated with Theresa May. The new political declaration sets out a vision of the UK diverging to a greater extent from the EU and its standards. The new text gives greater emphasis to respecting each other's autonomous decision making. The future role of the European Court of Justice is reduced and the UK's future relationship with the EU is no longer to be as close as possible but on the basis of a free trade agreement. This indicates that Boris Johnson wants to distance the UK from the Single Market and our customs union or even from a single customs territory, as was envisaged by Theresa May in her deal. If Boris Johnson wins the next general election, the UK is likely to move away from alignment with European rules. There is no commitment to maintaining a level playing field into the future other than not rowing back from existing shared standards. In short, it is no longer safe to assume that the UK will remain close enough to the EU rules for British-Irish trade to continue even as a semblance of what it is currently. It looks like the UK is now determined to go down a radically different path, including deregulating of industries regulated by EU rules. What analysis has the Government done or initiated to estimate the effect on our economy if the UK pursues a very different approach to the harmonisation envisaged by Theresa May and instead embarks on a much more hardline separation, as envisaged by Boris Johnson?

The deal between the UK and the EU is one we can live with. It is a deal that protects Ireland's core interests in terms of the lack of any Border infrastructure, be that live animal, sanitary and phytosanitary, customs or regulatory checks or any form of tariff. What we have managed to achieve with our partners in the EU is a negotiated deal with two different British Governments, both of which took quite a different approach under former Prime Minister Theresa May and Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Those deals had to be designed primarily around British red lines while at the same time protecting core Irish interests.

It is important to say that the revised political declaration on the level playing field issues is stronger than Deputy Howlin suggests in terms of an insistence by the EU side on a level playing field in the future should there be free trade that is tariff and quota free, which is the stated objective.

The briefing from the EU after the deal was done referred to the political declaration, stating it:

...provides for an ambitious FTA with zero tariffs and quotas between the EU and the UK. It states that robust commitments on a level playing field should ensure open and fair competition. The precise nature of commitments will be commensurate with the ambition of the future relationship and take into account the economic connectedness and geographic proximity of the UK.

If the UK wants tariff-free and quota-free trade that is as seamless as it would like it to be with the EU under an FTA, it will have to provide guarantees, sector by sector, regarding issues on a level playing field and equivalents. That is an absolute must or else the UK will not have the type of FTA that it wants. We cannot have a situation whereby the UK decides to change fundamentally its regulatory model, diverges from EU standards and, at the same time, trades into the EU uninhibited. I am afraid that is not realistic. We have to protect our market, our consumers and our businesses. I hope there will be free trade because that is in the interests of Ireland and the UK. If that is to happen, however, the issue of the level playing field will be a big part of any discussion of the future relationship. I hope we can get to that if we can get the withdrawal agreement ratified and settled and allow the UK to leave the EU in an orderly manner so that we can move onto to a transition period to resolve all of these issues.

We agreed in this House that the core issue - and Deputies from all of the benches gave incredible solidarity to the Government - was maintaining a borderless island. As the Tánaiste indicated, all trade, including animal trade, between North and South is protected. That does not, however, include east-west trade, which is the bulk of our trade. That is, or should be, a core issue for us as well. It is an area, however, that we will have less control over if the UK leaves the EU. My central point, however, is that there has been a fundamental shift in British policy from that pursued by the May Government, which we had envisaged would have close alignment into the future, to that now being pursued by the Johnson Government, which has set out on the hard Brexiteer path of separating the UK from the standards of the EU to give themselves a trading advantage.

The Tánaiste has outlined what we have all known for three years. It has, however, taken that long to dawn on the hard Brexiteers. From the very first negotiations, they thought that they could have their cake and eat it, that they could have free access and be able to carry on other trade as well. My fear is that the Johnson Government is now determined to have a no deal immediately or else in 14 months, or whenever the trade talks end, when there is a failure to agree the free trade terms outlined by the Tánaiste. What preparations are we making for that eventuality if Johnson remains Prime Minister?

I believe the British Prime Minister does want a deal. The deal he has struck with the EU is fair from an Irish perspective regarding our priorities in these negotiations. Northern Ireland has a unique set of circumstances. As part of the UK, it is leaving the EU. It is also, however, subject to a peace agreement that is 21 years old. We all know the complexities and vulnerabilities brought about by the challenges of Brexit in that regard. That is why Northern Ireland has been given a unique solution, which essentially allows it to stay, legally, within the UK customs union and single market while, at the same time, ensuring that businesses in Northern Ireland can have uninhibited access into the EU market.

We all agree on that. I was referring to the future of east-west relations.

The east-west future will be determined on the basis of the future trading agreement. There is a stated objective in the political declaration of a tariff-free, quota-free trading arrangement, which I will work towards achieving. For that to be achieved, however, the EU will, of course, insist on level playing field issues, which are mentioned specifically, whether those are environmental standards, workers' rights or climate issues. We must ensure that businesses in the UK operate to an equivalent standard to businesses in this country. Otherwise, it will simply not be a level playing field and it will not be possible, therefore, to facilitate the type of trade we would like to envisage in the future.

Are the figures from the EPA on our CO2 emissions not yet another damning indictment of the failure of this Government to take the issue of climate change seriously? Some 5 million tonnes of CO2 have been emitted above the required targets and this is the third year in a row that we have missed them. From the point of view of the public, crucially, we are now facing fines amounting to hundreds of millions of euro. That is money that could be spent on housing, health, education and actual climate measures. The Government is intending to make ordinary people pay for its policy failures on climate change with a punitive and regressive carbon tax. Even the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, stated that it is regressive. It will hit the poor and the less well off. The carbon tax has been in place for some years but has done nothing to reduce our carbon emissions.

Do these figures not demonstrate that the Government is guilty of rampant climate hypocrisy? It has blocked Deputy Bríd Smith's Bill to keep fossil fuels in the ground, which was the central demand of the secondary school students who were on the streets seeking climate action. This week, the Government proposed to the EU that a liquid natural gas, LNG, terminal be built at Shannon to import, for decades to come, poisonous, toxic fracked gas from the United States. The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Creed, this week refused to take action against the beef barons on the issue of feedlots, which are the major culprit when it comes to emissions in agriculture. He also refused to act against the dairy barons while the poor small farmers, meanwhile, who are not guilty of climate sabotage, are being thrown under the bus with the Mercosur deal. That deal was agreed with the Brazilian president, Bolsonaro, who is burning down the rain forests that produce our oxygen and flooding Europe with cheap beef at the expense of small farmers. The Government is also allowing bus fares to increase, and they will increase further following the carbon tax increase, which it should be encouraging people to use public transport but this Government is privatising it. It also consistently fails to meet afforestation targets.

Why does the Government not listen to our proposals? We have been relentless in proposing to keep fossil fuels in the ground, stop the LNG terminal at Shannon bringing in fracked gas, get rid of fares on public transport and add 1,000 more buses to the national fleet to improve our public transport system. There should also be better grants to make it affordable for people to insulate their homes and enable them to reduce their energy usage and energy bills. Grants for small farmers should also be dramatically increased so that they can move away from environmentally-damaging agricultural activities and into afforestation. We have asked the Government to do these things repeatedly. All it wants to do, however, is tax ordinary people for its failure. Is that not climate hypocrisy and climate failure?

I do not think producing a robust action plan to deliver on the targets we need to meet by 2030 is in any way hypocritical. We now have a Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Bruton, who he is leading the argument on what Ireland needs to do in this respect and, more important, how we are going to get that done. That will require all the relevant Departments, which is most of them, to set and meet targets on an annual basis. We now have a reminder from 2018 that Ireland is not on target and needs to change. In 2019, our climate action plan is responding to that to ensure we not only get back on track and but ahead of the targets we need to meet in multiple sectors, including public transport, the electrification of transport and an approach to fossil fuels that keeps them in the ground.

That is all in the future tense.

The plan also recognises that gas will be, in all likelihood, a transition fuel for the foreseeable future. As we make that transition, however, we have to ensure we also have energy security. That is something completely ignored by Deputy Boyd Barrett over and over again.

What we have is a robust and tested plan. All of the independent commentary on our climate action plan has, by and large, been positive if we can deliver on it and are getting on and implementing it. If the Deputy wants to talk about hypocrisy, anybody who opposes sending a clear signal on the cost in the next ten years is the one who is being the hypocrite in this argument. There is nobody credible of whom I am aware who is suggesting it is not good to indicate to people that each year for the next ten years the cost of using carbon will increase. We are, therefore, encouraging them through grant aid and other supports and incentives to move away from using it as a fuel. Instead, the Deputy has tried to politicise the issue in the way he does with everything, rather than taking a responsible approach and working with us to ensure we will have a just transition in moving away from the use of carbon in homes and business by families and others. The Deputy is trying to weaponise it in the way he does with everything else. That is hypocrisy.

The Government's policy is always to make the little person pay.

Whatever it is, be it water charges, property charges, parking charges or carbon taxes, the small person always pays-----

Everybody pays.

What about the people of north Kerry?

-----but the Government never asks the polluting corporations to pay. They get away scot-free. When they lobby the Government, it states it will block Deputy Bríd Smith's Bill to keep fossil fuels in the ground.

What about people living in rural areas?

The Government states it will install a terminal that will lock us into the use of toxic fracked gas for decades to come at a time when, by the way, the British energy regulator has told the Government that it can use British gas up until 2035, by which time we should have reduced our use of that fossil fuel.

Where are the grants to make it possible for somebody who needs to have his or her home insulated, who is living in a damp and cold home but does not have the money to insulate it? The Government wants to tax such a person because he or she does not have enough money to do the work.

They will actually have more money.

The Government always blames the small person and never takes on the corporations. One hundred corporations are responsible for 70% of global emissions. Where are the taxes on them? Where are the penalties to make them change their behaviour? The carbon tax which has failed to reduce emissions to date is the only measure about which the Government talks. On everything else such as public transport, it privatises and lets fares to go up. It is not serious about tackling climate change. It is merely using it as an excuse to attack ordinary people.

It is difficult to have a rational debate with somebody when he or she does not want to see the facts. If the Deputy wants to look at what we are doing to have warmer homes and cheaper energy bills, since 2016 we have increased the funding available for home upgrades threefold. That is the first point.

It is still unaffordable.

In 2020 an allocation of €146 million, a €29 million increase on the figure for last year, will be used to upgrade 24,000 homes and businesses, yet the Deputy is saying we are doing nothing.

With reference to the Shannon liquefied natural gas, LNG, plant - it is important to make this point because the Deputy does not want to hear it because it suits him to misrepresent the facts - concern has been expressed about it. It was designated as a project of common interest by the European Commission for six years in 2013 and again in 2015 and 2017. The Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Bruton, has said he will not support any grant application made by Shannon LNG to the Connecting Europe facility until a security of supply review has been completed and considered by the Government and the Dáil. He has also asked the European Commission to review the implications of importing LNG, both conventionally and unconventionally extracted, into the European Union in terms of sustainability and having a secure and competitive European energy policy.

The Minister has left it on the projects of common interest list.

The Minister has indicated that he will carry out a comprehensive energy security review which will also consider scientifically from whom and where fossil fuels are sourced during the transition to having a carbon neutral economy.

We are doing all of what the Deputy is suggesting we are not doing. We are applying the science and rationale-----

The scientists have told us that it is fracked gas. There is no other form coming from North America except fracked gas.

-----as opposed to the politics Deputy Boyd Barrett brings to these debates. It is hypocrisy.

Deputy Boyd Barrett would not make a decision based on science that would affect hundreds of people in my constituency of Kerry North.

The scientists have told us that it is fracked gas.

It is popular for the Deputy to say it.

There is no other gas available.

Ignore the people of north Kerry. Spend a week there to see what is happening.

Please, Minister.

They are living in a different universe.

The Minister of State is acting like a Healy-Rae.

They do not have a clue what is going on.

Please, Minister.

We have obviously pushed his button the wrong way.

I have been listening to this rubbish for months.

I am listening to the Minister of State and asking him to calm down. He should take it easy.

They do not have a clue what is going on in counties such as Kerry.

We do not need Deputy Bríd Smith's intervention at this stage.

I just pushed the Minister of State's button.

The Deputy should push her own.

They should read the science.