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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 23 Jun 2021

Vol. 1009 No. 2

Ceisteanna - Questions

Economic Policy

Alan Kelly


1. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the status of plans for a well-being framework for Ireland. [30930/21]

Richard Boyd Barrett


2. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the progress to date by his Department in its development of a well-being framework for Ireland. [31400/21]

Alan Kelly


3. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the role of his Department in preparing the national economic recovery plan. [32052/21]

John Lahart


4. Deputy John Lahart asked the Taoiseach the work being undertaken to construct a well-being framework for Ireland. [33187/21]

Mick Barry


5. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the progress to date by his Department in developing a well-being framework for Ireland. [33210/21]

Mick Barry


6. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the role of his Department in preparing the national economic recovery plan. [33211/21]

Mary Lou McDonald


7. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach the role of his Department in preparing the national economic recovery plan. [33377/21]

Richard Boyd Barrett


8. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the role of his Department in the national economic recovery plan. [33399/21]

Paul Murphy


9. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the role of his Department in preparing the national economic recovery plan. [33402/21]

Bríd Smith


10. Deputy Bríd Smith asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the role of his Department in preparing the national economic recovery plan. [33404/21]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 10, inclusive, together.

The economic recovery plan was launched on Tuesday, 1 June. With the economy now reopening in clear phases, and vaccine roll-out comprehensively under way, the plan sets out renewed supports, investments and policies for a new stage of economic recovery, building on the unprecedented support provided to date.

The plan includes in excess of €3.5 billion in further labour market and enterprise supports and just under €1 billion additional funding under our national recovery and resilience plan. It will help to drive a jobs-rich recovery, with an overarching ambition of 2.5 million people in work by 2024. The plan expands key pandemic supports, including the employment wage subsidy scheme and pandemic unemployment payment, providing clarity and certainty for businesses and employees over the period ahead.

It also sets out our pathway to the sustainable rebuilding and renewal of our economy across four pillars; ensuring sustainable public finances, with the forthcoming summer economic statement to include further details on our deficit reduction strategy; helping people back into work through intense activation and reskilling and upskilling opportunities; rebuilding sustainable enterprises through targeted supports for recovery and by future-proofing enterprise to be more resilient, innovative and productive; and a balanced and inclusive recovery through strategic investment, balanced regional development and improving living standards.

The development of the economic recovery plan was overseen by the Cabinet committee on economic recovery and investment. It was co-ordinated through my Department and prepared in close co-operation with key Departments. The implementation of the plan will also be overseen by the Cabinet committee on economic recovery and investment. The development of new measures of well-being to assess progress are important in ensuring a balanced and inclusive economy and society. It is a commitment in the programme for Government in recognition that in order to achieve a well-rounded policy-making system there is a pressing need to move beyond uniquely economic measures. To this end, the development of a new well-being framework is a deliverable of the economic recovery plan.

In early February, the Government agreed to an approach to developing an overarching well-being framework for Ireland utilising the OECD well-being framework as a starting point and building on national work already undertaken in this area. Work on the development of the well-being framework is being led by my Department, working closely with the Departments of Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform and other Departments and agencies. There is also consultation with experts and stakeholders on development of the framework through the National Economic and Social Council, NESC.

The development of the framework will be an iterative process and evolve over time. It is intended to submit an initial report to Government in the coming weeks.

Young people have borne the brunt of the pandemic. They are stuck at home, many with parents, or are renting and paying huge rent. As the Taoiseach will be aware, the Residential Tenancies Bill (No. 2) Bill 2021 comes before the Dáil later today. This is further emergency legislation, but it will not deal with the issues in respect of which renters need a break. We need to close the loophole in regard to the 8% rent increase. The Bill, as published, does not do that. It merely extends protections for those who proactively register as financially impacted by Covid-19 and makes exceptions for people experiencing an extreme financial impact. The numbers registering as being financially impacted are very low, at approximately 475 to date, compared to the thousands of people renting who will not be covered by the Bill and will be subject to the 8% rent increase in rent pressure zones.

Many tenants, especially those living in Dublin, are already paying an average of €2,000 per month. They cannot afford an 8% increase, which will cost them an extra €160 per month or €1,920 per annum. This is not feasible or fair and it is not sustainable. What does the Government propose to do in this regard? The Labour Party has tabled amendments that seek to freeze rents for tenants up to 2023. We have also tabled another amendment to address the 8% issue. We expect the Government will not accept them, but why not? This is a crisis issue for renters, particularly young people and young people in Dublin. The Government needs to address these issues.

There are several hundred musicians and performers outside the Dáil as we speak who have come here to protest about the abysmal failure of the Government to engage with them about a roadmap back to work, clarity as to when they can get back to work and their concern about the plans to essentially make them jobseekers. As I previously told the Taoiseach, the cliff edge for them is a reduction of their pandemic unemployment payments when, as a result of Government measures around public health, they have not been able to work, they have no idea when they will be able to get back to work and potentially they will be forced to identify as jobseekers. Despite some funding being provided to this sector, these people, the vast majority of them ordinary jobbing musicians and performers, have got nothing in terms of support.

Well-being was mentioned. There is nothing that has assisted, and generally assists, our well-being more than music, performance and entertainment yet these areas have got nothing. What does the Government propose to do for the musicians and performers that will not force them over a cliff edge but will give them clarity as to when they can return to work and some financial support or compensation for the suffering they have endured for the last year and a half?

I refer to the well-worn phrase from our generation that children should be seen and not heard. While we do not associate that with the modern generation and age group 18 to 25, it seems to be very embedded still culturally. Forced to lockdown down like the rest of us, this group was treated equally in that sense even though they had least to fear. Having done that, they are last among equals when it comes to the administration of vaccines. They accept that or we, at least, think they accept that because nobody seems to speak for them.

In my previous profession I came across a phrase that had a deep impact on me, that is, "lack of expression leads to depression." When talking to the 18-to-25-year olds I get the strong impression that they feel nobody will listen to them. They are angry. The CMO has specifically informed the under 25 age group that they cannot travel this year and it looks like they will not be vaccinated until later this year. In terms of the well-being framework, I would urge the Government to follow the model of our colleague, the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, who in her deliberations over the rescheduling of the leaving certificate, ensured the students had an equal voice to that of the parents, the teachers, the management and all the stakeholders. Government needs to seek out a mechanism through which we can give this age cohort a voice and people from their own age group who will advocate for them.

Bank profits and the interests of bankers should not be allowed to dictate access to housing in this country, yet that is the direction in which the Government is going. The announcement this morning that the Government plans to sell off the State's remaining shares in Bank of Ireland means that the bottom line will become an even greater focus within that bank and that profit will be the driver to an even greater extent. This is bad news for banking jobs, young people trying to get a loan or a mortgage and those who seriously want to tackle the housing crisis.

Having said that solving the housing crisis is the priority of Government, how can the Taoiseach now justify putting access to loans, mortgages and housing 100% within Bank of Ireland into the hands of those who are concerned only about the bottom line and the maximisation of profit?

The economic recovery plan rests on four pillars. Pillar four provides for strategic investment in infrastructure and reforms that enhance our long-term capacity for growth. Capital expenditure is something I feel very strongly about, but I am concerned that the EU fiscal rules, as currently constituted, could serve to stymie badly needed capital investment and our efforts to achieve a green new deal and just transition. The European Commission is set to reopen its public consultation on reform of the fiscal rules in the coming weeks. The Commission is widely expected to put forward proposals for simplifying the rules and providing greater incentives for productive investment and changes to debt levels. These rules are almost 30 years old. As long as they have been with us so, too, have been calls for their reform. Reformist proposals include exempting public investment, cyclically adjusting the 3% ceiling, shifting from a deficit ceiling to a public debt ceiling, swapping the system of fiscal rules for fiscal standards and so on. The question is: will the reforms go far enough?

I ask the Taoiseach to outline what position the Government will take with regard to the proposed reform of the rules and if it is currently working on a submission?

The Government tells us we are to have an outdoor summer, which is very important for wellness, but over a year into a pandemic the outdoor public facilities are still entirely inadequate. I will give an example. In the South Dublin County Council area there are many beautiful parks, but the bins are overflowing, there are very few spaces for people to sit with friends and family and there are almost no toilets.

People are suffering from an underinvestment in facilities and in staff to take care of them. Last year, the Government gave an extra €80,000 to South Dublin County Council to pay for extra parks, a completely paltry figure. Are we going to get the investment we need in the South Dublin County Council area and across the country to ensure that we can have bins, public seating, accessible toilets, water fountains, proper lighting and outdoor gym facilities? That is the investment we urgently need now if we are to have this outdoor summer.

I believe the Taoiseach will agree that the River Liffey looks exceptional today. It is buzzing with boats and there is an extraordinary protest outside. I want to focus, however, on coastal small fisheries and the environment. The Taoiseach will know that, on 12 June, the mackerel quota for this type of hook and line fishing by the fishers of our small coastal communities was reached and this type of fishing was stopped. This quota is approximately 0.05% of the entire national quota. I will put this in the perspective of the total quota for the entire country for hook and line mackerel fishing. The market for mackerel caught in this way, which is the most environmentally friendly way of fishing mackerel, has recently increased. It is sustainable ecofishing involving no catching of dolphins, whales, turtles or any of the other poor creatures that get caught in the nets of the big factory ships. One of these big factory ships could use up the entire annual quota available to the hook and line fishers of the entire country in one day. This industry is of immense benefit to our coastal communities, many of which have shrunk and continue to shrink. The Taoiseach is going to have to intervene to ensure that benefit is not restricted by this small national quota and that these fishing communities are allowed to thrive. They have lost the right to fish wild salmon and spurdog and there has been a depletion in crab and lobster. They need these hook and line fisheries which, I reiterate, are eco-friendly and better for the other species in the sea. Communities rely on this entirely and I would like the Taoiseach to comment on the matter.

There were quite a number of questions. Deputy Lahart's comments on children and young people not having a sufficient voice during the pandemic struck me and resonated with me. I take his point of view on board very seriously with regard to providing for the expression of their perspectives as we move through the summer and into the autumn period, particularly with regard to the reopening of colleges, further education and third level education. We are committed to this reopening and to making sure their voices are taken on board. We are also committed to facilitating young people's return to college and their early vaccination in the third quarter. Yesterday, the Ark centre, in an innovative initiative, brought children in to communicate with Members of Dáil Éireann and the Oireachtas generally with regard to their perspective on the pandemic. This was covered on RTÉ yesterday evening. It was excellent.

Deputy Kelly raised the issues affecting the younger generation, young people and renters. I accept that renters need a break. The rent protections legislation the Minister is bringing in later is important and should be supported. It will provide for an extension of the Covid rental provisions for a further six months, until 20 January 2022. It will also involve the first ever cost-rental units, which will be rented at 25% lower than market rents. More than 400 such units will be built and occupied before the end of this year. That is a start. We need to do far more. Rent pressure zones are being reviewed and rental supports will be dealt with through new legislation. The Minister will engage late in the Dáil with the various spokespeople for the different parties. This is an issue of which I am very conscious, particularly with regard to the increases that are occurring. We have also had a decline in the number of landlords of approximately 3,000 over the past year, which is problematic in terms of supply in the marketplace.

Deputy Boyd Barrett raised an issue with regard to musicians and performers. Again, I would argue that the Government has been very supportive through a range of schemes for artists and musicians in different settings. The Ministers, Deputies Catherine Martin and Foley, have developed a new initiative in respect of artists-in-residence for schools. This is a new and significant scheme. The Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin, has engaged with all of the interests involved on an ongoing basis and will continue to do so.

Why are they outside Leinster House?

Deputy Barry referred to bank profits. As I said earlier in response to Deputy Paul Murphy, in terms of its original investment, the State realised a cash surplus in divesting its Bank of Ireland shares. There is no compelling historical evidence, which suggests that State banks do better than private sector banks. Neither model is perfect by any means. There are challenges with State banks as well although, to be frank, the percentage being divested is not one that would have resulted in significant influence with regard to bank policy or behaviour. It is approximately 13.9%. The Deputy completely exaggerated the impact of the sale of those shares as it pertains to the issue of access to mortgages or other loans. I do not see the relationship between the number of shares that are to be sold and the issues he raised.

As to the issue of the EU fiscal rules, which has been raised, the Government is engaging with and will be part of that review. Our submissions and inputs will be there. The Minister for Finance is the president of the Eurogroup and, given his position at European level, he is acutely aware of developments and movements on that front. These rules do not put in jeopardy the State's investment plans with regard to the economic recovery fund. Some of this is to be funded by the next generation funding from Europe, particularly with regard to the green economic recovery and jobs in the green economy and the digital transformation of our society in public as well as private services, towards which the plan provides resources.

With regard to the question raised as to the outdoor summer, Dublin city is actually one of the great cities for outdoor parks and facilities. There has certainly been a lot of investment in recent years and over the past 12 months to enhance those parks and public spaces and to provide additional seating and some gym facilities. I visited quite a number of them during the pandemic in both the most recent and earlier lockdowns and many people are deriving great happiness and satisfaction from the amenities available across Dublin. One of the city's strengths in comparison with other European cities is its public parks. Dublin City Council and the various other local authorities are very keen to enhance those facilities. Government will continue to support those.

With regard to hook and line fisheries, I agree that these are very important. I met with fishing representatives recently. I met with all groups on Monday and at the weekend I travelled to Castletownbere and Union Hall to meet the fishers and various interests there. I have opened the social dialogue process with fishers and, with the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, I intend to continue to engage.

Taoiseach's Meetings and Engagements

Ruairí Ó Murchú


11. Deputy Ruairí Ó Murchú asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent meeting with the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, DUP. [31501/21]

Neale Richmond


12. Deputy Neale Richmond asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his most recent engagements with the First Minister and First Minister-designate of Northern Ireland. [31659/21]

Mary Lou McDonald


13. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent meeting with the new leader of the Democratic Unionist Party. [31826/21]

Alan Kelly


14. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with the new leader of the Democratic Unionist Party. [32049/21]

Seán Haughey


15. Deputy Seán Haughey asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent engagement with political leaders in Northern Ireland. [33004/21]

Neale Richmond


16. Deputy Neale Richmond asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with the new leader of the Democratic Unionist Party. [33039/21]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 11 to 16, inclusive, together. Northern Ireland is experiencing a difficult and turbulent period and needs stability. It is very important that we all work collectively on the island, and between the two Governments, towards maintaining stability and calm heads, staying focused on what is important to the people within Northern Ireland. It is in everyone's interests that the Executive now be allowed to get on with the full range of urgent business it faces.

I wished Edwin Poots well, on a personal level, following his announcement that he will be stepping down as leader of the DUP. I had a worthwhile meeting with Mr. Poots more than a fortnight ago when we discussed quite a number of issues. I also take this opportunity to offer my congratulations to Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, who will succeed Mr. Poots as party leader, and I look forward to working with him and the other party leaders in the period ahead.

I held a meeting with Mr. Poots in Government Buildings on 3 June. He was accompanied by Paul Givan, who was subsequently appointed First Minister on 17 June. I impressed on them the importance of close co-operation between the Northern Ireland Executive and the Irish Government. We had a good discussion on the importance of the stability and good functioning of the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement. We discussed the protocol, and the genuine concerns many in the unionist community have regarding its operation. I stressed that the Government was focused on supporting practical solutions and reducing friction where possible.

The meeting of the British-Irish Council that took place in Fermanagh on 11 June gave me an opportunity to meet with then First Minister, Arlene Foster, and deputy First Minister, Michelle O'Neill, as well as a number of other ministers from the Northern Ireland Executive.

I have written to Doug Beattie to congratulate him on his selection as the new leader of the Ulster Unionist Party and I look forward to an early opportunity to meet with him. I previously had a series of phone calls with then First Minister Arlene Foster, deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill and all the party leaders in April, when we discussed the unrest on the streets of Northern Ireland and related issues.

My colleague spoke to the incoming leader of the DUP yesterday evening and Sinn Féin will continue to work in partnership with the DUP and the other parties in the Assembly. As Sinn Féin and others have consistently stated, this work includes delivering on existing agreements. Labhair mo chuid comhghleacaithe le ceannaire nua an DUP tráthnóna inné. Leanfaidh Sinn Féin ag obair i gcomhar leis an DUP agus le páirtithe eile sa Tionól. De réir mar atá ráite agam féin agus ag daoine eile go mion minic, is dlúthchuid den obair sin cur i bhfeidhm na gcomhaontuithe a rinneadh cheana.

The Northern Ireland peace process has always been very fragile. As we have seen so often, the stability of the Northern Ireland institutions cannot be taken for granted. In the immediate future, we need to ensure that a First Minister and a deputy First Minister are in place and that the current Assembly continues until the scheduled elections next year. We also need to ensure that the North-South and east-west structures provided for in the Good Friday Agreement meet regularly, with a full complement of Ministers if appropriate. We need to see the implementation of the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement and all subsequent implementing agreements, especially New Decade, New Approach, and including the measures proposed for the Irish language. Tensions in Northern Ireland are raised at present and focused on the Northern Ireland protocol. Does the Taoiseach agree that it is a time for calm heads to dial down the rhetoric, so to speak? It may seem obvious, but dialogue is the way to proceed. Does the Taoiseach agree that it is not a time for megaphone diplomacy or unilateral demands? Such dialogue has been lacking in recent years. We need to rebuild relationships on all sides and there is much work to be done.

I refer to the dynamics of Northern Ireland politics, which are changing. According to the latest Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey, which was published recently, approximately 42% of people in Northern Ireland define themselves as neither unionist nor nationalist. Many young people in Northern Ireland are more liberal and have a different outlook. Does the Taoiseach believe these societal changes will contribute to bringing about lasting peace, prosperity and progress in Northern Ireland? Does he believe the shared island initiative has a role to play in this regard? On 10 May, the shared island dialogue considered the equality and inclusivity agenda on this island. Does the Taoiseach believe this agenda is significant in the politics of Northern Ireland at this time?

I dtús báire, táim sásta comhoibriú a dhéanamh le gach aon pháirtí sa Tuaisceart agus go háirithe an DUP agus an UUP. Tá seanaithne agam ar Jeffrey Donaldson. Bhuail mé leis cheana féin i róil éagsúla a bhí againn sna blianta atá imithe tharainn. Tá sé riachtanach go mbeidh na páirtithe in ann teacht le chéile agus comhoibriú le chéile ar son mhuintir an Tuaiscirt. Is léir domsa gurb iad gnáthrudaí an tsaoil atá ag cur isteach ar dhaoine, ó thaobh cúrsaí sláinte, oideachais, eacnamaíochta, agus fostaíochta de. Is iad sin na hábhair a bhfuil muintir an Tuaiscirt buartha fúthu ag an tráth seo.

I thank Deputy Haughey for his insightful comments. I believe the potential of the Good Friday institutions, and particularly the North-South dimension of the Good Friday Agreement, needs to be fully realised and developed. The New Decade, New Approach agreement in particular offers a pathway to realising some of that. In the context of the shared island initiative, we have ring-fenced funding of approximately €500 million, of which we have already allocated approximately €13 million to the Ulster Canal, as well as funding for the Sligo-Enniskillen greenway. There will be other projects, particularly in terms of an all-island research initiative, facilitating collaboration on issues of mutual benefit to everyone living on the island, between third level institutions North and South. I am hopeful that we can develop an east-west dimension to that as well in respect of the research agenda. There will be other infrastructural projects that we will be pursuing also.

The Deputy is correct in saying that the agreements that have been reached should be honoured and that is also in respect of the Irish language. I have never been one to weaponise the Irish language. I have taught Irish and I think people want to speak Irish go nádúrtha chun taitneamh a bhaint as. Tá sé tábhachtach go mbeidh an t-atmaisféar ceart ó thaobh na Gaeilge de sa Tuaisceart ar gach taobh. Molaim go deo an méid oibre atá déanta ag Linda Ervine, mar shampla, i mBéal Feirste agus an dul chun cinn atá déanta aici chun an Ghaeilge a chur ar fáil do dhaoine sna dúichí sin.

The dialogues as part of the shared island initiative have been important and the Deputy is absolutely correct in articulating the primacy of dialogue in respect of Northern Ireland and in terms of creating space to allow progress to be made in fulfilling the Good Friday Agreement and the New Decade, New Approach commitments. That is particularly important and, with the election of a new leader, the formal process of which will be concluded at the weekend, it is very important that we create space around the issues that matter.

Deputy Haughey spoke about the changing nature of politics and the alignments in politics in Northern Ireland. That change is actually happening. My sense is that many people in Northern Ireland are concerned about bread and butter issues. It seems the biggest issue in the North at the moment is the restoration of health services. People there need to get timely access to health procedures, diagnostics and treatments, no more than in the Republic, and politics should reflect those basic concerns. Likewise, the development of integrated education is something that should be advanced and promoted within Northern Ireland. There is an emerging and growing middle ground which has different perspectives on the future.

The purpose and objective of the shared island initiative is to give a platform to new voices in terms of how the island should evolve into the future and how we should share this island together. Seamus Mallon put it memorably at the launch of his book when he said that his neighbour's family had been living next door to his homestead for around 400 years and maybe it was about time that they learned how to share that spot of ground together. It is in that spirit that the shared island dialogue is there to allow new voices, the new Irish about whom we spoke earlier, and find out what their perspective is. I refer to giving greater voice to young people, and women in particular. In various phases of the journey that Northern Ireland has been on through the past 30 years, it has been the voice of women that has been strongest in terms of the attainment of peace and the struggle to get peace back onto the streets of Northern Ireland. Inclusivity is absolutely important in terms of that broader agenda.

The protocol has created challenges and Brexit has created challenges. Of that, there is no doubt. That, in itself, will have an impact but I stress the importance of the British Government working with the European Union in a willing way to find a resolution to the protocol issue, creatively looking at the potential of a sanitary and phytosanitary measures agreement between Britain and Europe which would take out nearly 80% of the checks that potentially are involved. I refer to identifying the benefits that can accrue from the protocol in respect of foreign direct investment finding its way into Northern Ireland. The fact that the North will have access to the EU Single Market as well as the UK market creates opportunities. There is the fact that the all-island market creates opportunities in terms of the dairy industry. To pick one example, Ulster farmers sell their milk through co-ops into co-ops in the Republic. It is an important industry. It is now seamless across the island because of the presence of the protocol and the absence of any border or checks on the island of Ireland and that helps the dynamic in terms of the economy.

That said, we have to be conscious that there are issues that need to be resolved and ironed out. The trade between Northern Ireland and the UK is very important trade both ways and, therefore, there are mechanisms within the Trade and Co-operation Agreement between the UK and Europe to facilitate that, such as the joint committee especially and the specialised committees.

The process between Maroš Šefčovič and David Frost should be utilised fully to iron out those difficulties. We have made those points to the British Government. The overall points raised by Deputy Haughey were well made in terms of the importance of constant dialogue, understanding where the other person is coming from, endeavouring to create space to allow that dialogue to be meaningful and to continue, and also observing the changing nature of political views and perspectives on Northern Ireland and how that might inform the future.

Cabinet Committees

Jennifer Whitmore


17. Deputy Jennifer Whitmore asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on environment and climate change will meet next. [31558/21]

Mary Lou McDonald


18. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on environment and climate change will next meet. [33087/21]

Alan Kelly


19. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on environment and climate change last met; and when it will next meet. [33145/21]

Christopher O'Sullivan


20. Deputy Christopher O'Sullivan asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on environment and climate change is next scheduled to meet. [33360/21]

Richard Boyd Barrett


21. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on environment and climate change will meet next. [33400/21]

Paul Murphy


22. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on environment and climate change will meet next. [33403/21]

Bríd Smith


23. Deputy Bríd Smith asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on environment and climate change will meet next. [33405/21]

Mick Barry


24. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on environment and climate change will meet next. [33548/21]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 17 to 24, inclusive, together.

The Cabinet committee on environment and climate change last met on 31 May 2021 and is scheduled to meet again on 1 July 2021. This Cabinet committee oversees the implementation of the ambitious programme for Government commitments in regard to the environment and climate change. Those commitments are reflected in the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Bill 2021, which is now progressing through the legislative process. The committee also oversees implementation of the current climate action plan and the interim climate actions for 2021, as well as the work that is now under way to develop an updated climate action plan. In addition, the committee considers other aspects of environmental policy, including, for example, in regard to investment in water services and water quality.

I want to raise the issue of the end-of-waste approval process. I am not sure whether the Taoiseach is familiar with it. It is the application process by which waste is taken by a company, processed and recycled and the company can then on-sell it. It is really the essence of the circular economy. There are 34 live end-of-waste applications with the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, at this time. Unfortunately, there is a huge backlog. Only one decision on an end-of-waste application was made in 2020 and four such decisions were made in 2019. Given there are 34 live applications, it is clear there will be a significant timeframe before they are assessed. The difficulty with that is there are companies waiting for their applications to be assessed. I am aware that a number of companies are considering moving to Northern Ireland because they can get the same application assessed there in six months. It would be a shame to lose those jobs and the opportunities to invest in our circular economy. Is the Taoiseach aware of this issue and will he look into it?

Under the new climate Bill, Ireland will need to reduce its emissions by approximately 7% per annum. We have been told that capital expenditure is set to increase significantly in the coming years. I expect a sizeable chunk of that will be for green capital infrastructure. I would be interested to see a clear roadmap for how capital investment will be used to reach our targets. I have raised this issue previously but have not been given any exact details. Will the Taoiseach confirm whether this has been discussed by the Cabinet committee on environment and climate change and, if not, whether he can progress it?

I also want to refer briefly to an issue that has been raised previously by Deputy McDonald and on which no progress has been made to date. The Taoiseach is an advocate of the all-Ireland pollinator plan but his Government has taken no action to secure the future of the National Biodiversity Data Centre and its incredible staff, who deserve the bulk of the credit for the plan's success across the island of Ireland. Currently, the Heritage Council outsources the contract for the data centre. This is not a sustainable model if we are serious about tackling the biodiversity crisis. Will the Taoiseach commit to engaging with the Opposition in considering a sustainable organisational model for the data centre that will secure its future, staff and data?

The Dáil recently passed the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Bill 2021, which is among the most important legislation ever to come through the House. It is a response to the thousands of young people who marched throughout the country looking for change. It sets fairly ambitious emissions targets and I want to touch on two of the ways we will get to those targets. One is by way of a proper retrofitting programme, such as the warmer homes schemes, which allows old dwellings to be made more efficient in terms of loss of heat and energy usage. At the moment, there is a huge backlog in that scheme because of the lack of available workers with the skills to do the work. The second way is by people being given the opportunity and chance to work from home, thereby cutting down on commuting. However, for that to work, we need a proper roll-out of rural broadband, which has been delayed in many parts of my constituency. These are two elements we must tackle if we are to achieve our emissions targets.

I want to push the issue of Dublin Bay up the agenda of the Cabinet environment committee. Dublin Bay is a UNESCO biosphere and a place where fishermen-----

Sorry, I should have said "fishers". It is a place where fishers make a living in what is left of the decimated fishing industry. Critically, it is a precious public amenity where huge numbers of people swim. We have a major capacity problem with the Ringsend waste water treatment plant, which will not be dealt with until 2025. In the meantime, there are discharges of untreated sewage going on all over the bay, both from the plant and from storm overflows because of the lack of investment by Irish Water in rehabilitating our water infrastructure. There is a simple measure that could be taken to address this and I ask the Taoiseach to look into it. I put the same request to the Tánaiste last week. There is an ultraviolet treatment facility at Ringsend that is only being used three months per year, for the swimming season. Will the Taoiseach ask the Minister to instruct Irish Water to use that facility all-year round? It reduces the microbiological bacterial load of untreated effluent going into the sea and it would make a difference immediately if it were used.

I am not sure whether the Taoiseach saw the footage from ITV in Britain last week relating to the practices of Amazon. In its fulfilment centres in that country, the company is destroying up to 200,000 products, and an average of 124,000 to 130,000, per week. Those products are in perfectly good condition, from toasters to televisions to face masks. They could be used but are instead being destroyed in an effort to maximise Amazon's profits. In January next year, the company will open its first fulfilment centre in Ireland. If it adopts the same practices there, it will be destroying, and adding to landfill, hundreds of thousands of products every single week. What action is the Government taking to ensure these anti-environmental practices are not used in this country?

We have had two very worrying reports in the past two days. Yesterday, the EPA reported on our possible failure to meet our emissions targets. Today, it is reported that the application for a liquefied natural gas, LNG, facility at Shannon will progress to An Bord Pleanála. These reports highlight fatal flaws in the Government's climate policy and, indeed, the climate Bill. It is Government policy, apparently, not to support the importation of fracked gas, but it refuses to legislate to ban LNG projects, saying we have to wait for the European Union to take a stand. In the meantime, powerful fossil fuel interests proceed with their plans in this country. The Green Party at least, and perhaps the Taoiseach's party as well, will never be forgiven if LNG facilities are built in this State when the Government had a chance to ban them.

The EPA report yesterday also notes that the ludicrous target of having 1 million electric vehicles in use by 2030 will not be met. That target is unrealistic and is not the correct response to the climate crisis. Instead, we need to focus on free, frequent public transport throughout the country. It is an absolute fantasy that we can meet a target of 1 million electric vehicles in nine years. It is also undesirable. Will the Taoiseach comment on that?

The Taoiseach needs to ban LNG projects. All such projects are meant to be frozen pending an energy supply review. That decision came about under pressure from environmental campaigners and as a result of the growing awareness of the link between LNG and fracked gas and the extreme danger posed to our environment by fracking. However, the wheels have not stopped turning. We learned last night that New Fortress Energy is on the verge of applying for planning permission for a €650 million LNG terminal for Shannon at Tarbert, with the appeal proceeding to An Bord Pleanála. A representative of the local campaign group Safety Before LNG, John McElligott, said:

It seems that the door is constantly being kept open for Shannon LNG in spite of clear government policy to the contrary. This is unacceptable.

Why is the Taoiseach not heeding his point and closing that door?

Deputy Whitmore spoke first on the circular economy and the end-of-waste approval process. I will engage with the Minister in that regard. We met recently with the environmental and social pillar. We are broadening and expanding social dialogue. In that context, we met with the environmental and social pillar. We heard a good presentation on the circular economy from the NGO group. I will engage with the Minister on making sure that we can progress more speedily the end-of-waste approval process.

On Deputy Farrell's point regarding a clear roadmap ahead, the Government's economic recovery plan has been very clear in its emphasis and focus on public transport, a national retrofitting programme, biodiversity investment, particularly the all-Ireland pollinator plan, and across the board development of greenways. There has been a dramatic increase in investment under this Government. We will transform this country in terms of active travel. There is no doubt about it. Some of the funding for that will come from the carbon tax fund, which will help us to protect against fuel poverty, facilitate environmental farming schemes and to deliver to the national retrofitting programme. The programme will help many people in respect of fuel poverty and in reducing dramatically their heating emissions. It will take time but the carbon tax is an important part of that. I know the Deputy's party opposes that, but I would ask that it be reflected upon. People have aspirations for climate change, but ring-fenced funding is needed to enable step change in investments and retrofitting, public transport, active travel and the biodiversity agenda.

Deputy O'Sullivan rightly said that the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Bill 2021 will probably be the most significant legislation passed by this Oireachtas, and in the fullness of time, will be seen as such. It will entail challenges in implementation, but it represents a fundamental and profound step change in legislation.

I agree with the Deputy on the retrofitting agenda. Part of the recovery plan is not just the allocation of funding through the carbon tax fund to retrofitting, but also the allocation of additional funding for reskilling and upskilling and providing additional places so that the skills are there to step up retrofitting activity. Where a house is retrofitted, it provides enormous savings to the householder. The issue of working from home and the technology and broadband provision is essential to facilitating that. That will also have a very significant impact on our climate change agenda and targets.

I do not disagree with what Deputy Boyd Barrett said regarding Dublin Bay. I will engage with the Minister on the Ringsend treatment plant and the ultraviolet treatment system. The Deputy said that it is only used for three months of the year. I take his point and I will come back to him on that. It is an important point. Many people swim all year round.

On Deputy Murphy's point regarding Amazon, I have not seen the programme to which he referred. Amazon is building a fulfilment centre in Ireland in Dublin, which will create a significant number of jobs for many people. That cannot be ignored either in the context of that investment in Dublin by Amazon. Surely, it is in Amazon's interest, as it is in everybody' interest, to reduce waste and damage to products. I have not seen the programme so I cannot comment accurately on the points the Deputy made, other than to say that economies evolve and develop. Amazon has grown and expanded. The fulfilment centre in Dublin will create additional jobs for people in our city.

Jobs cleaning up the mess.

It will create jobs. The Deputy will try to recruit the people who get the jobs to her movement. That tends to be the cycle. To be serious about it, they are important jobs. In all of these operations, it is important that optimal practice pertains and prevails in respect of the minimisation of waste and the facilitation of the circular economy. The Minister will bring in legislation on the circular economy.

Regarding the EPA and fracked gas, we are opposed to fracked gas and the importation of it. The Government has been very clear on that. According to the European legal framework and the law in terms of single markets and competition and so on, individual member states cannot take unilateral actions in respect of enterprises. We have been very clear in our policy on LNG facilities. That remains the case. I do not necessarily agree with the Deputy in respect of electric vehicles, EVs. The target of 1 million was set in previous climate action plans. However, the dramatic impact of EVs on air quality will be enormous. Sometimes we lose sight of the air quality dimension of getting rid of fossil fuels. To me, as a former Minister for Health, it is essential.

The EPA said that the Government will not reach the target, not me.

No, the Deputy said it was not a good idea. She said that she does not agree with EVs. She said that she does not agree with the concept, which is what I took from her comments.

Public transport is the answer.

I agree on public transport as well, but people are not going to stop using cars overnight, or indeed, on an ongoing basis. EVs are far cleaner, better for one's health and better for the environment than fossil fuel driven cars.

Sitting suspended at 2.06 p.m. and resumed at 3.06 p.m.