"That Dáil Éireann:
— that as the second winter of the pandemic approaches, we are now contending with a cost-of-living crisis on multiple fronts;
— that the Government’s climate action policies are having a profound socio-economic impact on everyone;
— the key EirGrid report (operator of the national grid) warning that Ireland could face electricity deficits for the next five winters;
— the EirGrid prediction that low availability of power plants in Ireland was likely to contribute to the energy issues faced by the country this winter;
— that there have been at least 31 energy price hikes by suppliers this year, meaning bills skyrocketing by as much as €805 for some customers, leaving the country in the grips of an energy crisis;
— that electricity prices in Ireland are the highest in the European Union (EU), according to Eurostat;
— the warning from the Irish Road Haulage Association that the all-time high record increases in petrol and diesel are ‘crippling the sector’ and increasing all consumer goods, as a consequence of increased transport costs;
— that soaring petrol and diesel prices will continue to rise unless the Government stops heaping taxes on consumers;
— that soaring petrol and diesel prices are disproportionately affecting people in rural Ireland, who have very limited access to public transport and alternative fuel sources;
— that currently the motorist is paying approximately €1.70 for a litre of petrol, of which €1 (around 60 per cent) goes directly to the Government, mainly via excise duty, carbon taxes and VAT;
— that the Government will increase the price of petrol and diesel even further from 1st January next, when the increases from Minister Eamon Ryan’s ‘Energy Efficiency Obligation Scheme’ and ‘Biofuels Obligation Scheme’ kick in, with consumers facing a hike of a further three cents per litre;
— that the Government-imposed carbon tax (now at €41 per tonne of carbon) is having a bruising impact on the cost of home heating oil, electricity, petrol and diesel;
— that the Government’s skimpy fuel allowance increase announced in Budget 2022 is grossly insufficient;
— that research by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul (SVP), earlier this year (and before recent price hikes), reported that many people had already been cutting back on heating or electricity due to cost, including 42 per cent of people unable to work due to illness or disability; that’s almost one in three renters and 36 per cent of one-parent families;
— that Government-imposed taxes on fuel and energy are having a profound impact on all rural residents, who have no alternative but to use oil to heat their homes and to use their cars to commute to work and bring their children to school;
— that the European Commission developed a ‘toolbox’ of measures to mitigate the short-term surge, encourages member states to cut taxes and levies that typically account for around a third of energy bills;
— that the Irish Government blatantly objected to a fundamental change to the EU’s energy market, proposed by Spain and France, which would have brought about reduced energy costs and greater security of supply, through a new joint energy procurement initiative;
— that Irish produced gas has four to thirteen times less carbon intensity than the natural gas we import from the United Kingdom (UK);
— that despite the benefits of Irish produced gas for the planet over imported gas, the Government made the illogical decision to ban future gas exploration in Ireland, through the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Act 2021, which completely undermines our uncontested need for more gas-fired power generation to ensure continued security of electricity supply;
— that Ireland’s energy security is now at risk, due to frenzied Government bans on new gas explorations, by relying solely on the UK (who can control supply and price) for this country’s gas supply to heat homes and provide electricity;
— that in Spain, where energy prices increased by 35 per cent in the twelve months to August (less than in Ireland’s case), the Prime Minister, Pedro Sánchez, has dialled back prices to what Spaniards paid in 2018, by cutting taxes and capping costs; and
calls on the Government to:
— immediately act on the European Commission DIY toolbox aimed at mitigating the impact of higher energy prices, by slashing taxes and offering help to impacted households, motorists and sectors such as agriculture and road transport;
— immediately reverse the decision to increase the carbon tax in Budget 2022 and beyond, until the full impact of the energy crisis is fully understood and a cost-benefit analysis undertaken, by whatever parliamentary means necessary, including new legislation, if required;
— reduce the excise duty on all motor fuel by 50 per cent until the energy crisis abates and a proper and common-sense plan for rural public transport alternatives is put in place in every rural community, and the purchase price of electric cars is affordable to the ordinary motorist;
— reduce the excise duty on petrol (currently 62.77 cent per litre) and diesel (currently 51.9 cent per litre) by 50 per cent from now until at least the end of 2022, which alone would save up to €18 on a €100 fill up of petrol/diesel, for the regular motorist;
— reduce VAT on all motor fuels, electricity, and home heating oil to below 5 per cent until the end of 2022;
— establish a multi-million-euro discretionary fund to support energy costs for all low-income households and introduce a voucher (to be paid before Christmas) of at least €250 for every low-income household in the State;
— implement measures to ensure suppliers must commit to keeping the lights on for vulnerable and financially insecure customers and make sure that there are flexible options available for people to address energy debts;
— fully recognise that for people in energy poverty assistance is needed in the present; while retrofitting offers a long-term answer to the high bills caused by inefficient and substandard housing; it is this winter that those people need the urgent support, not in some Governmental plan in six or seven-years’ time, as well as contributing to climate action targets;
— allocate funding and implement an action plan to clear the piling backlog for applications under the home retrofitting schemes with the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland; and
— direct the Commission for the Regulation of Utilities into meaningful discussions with industry actors over how gas and coal-fuelled electricity plants, set to close their doors in the coming years, should instead be kept open to stave off a potential longer-term energy crisis."
Before I discuss this very important motion, I thank Máirín McGrath and Brian Ó Domhnaill, who have helped us to put it together. I also wish Deputy Mattie McGrath, our group leader, the very best. He continues to recuperate from a recent illness. Please God he will be back with us soon.
Some 94% of voters are concerned about the rising cost of living. Consumers are facing higher charges at the fuel pumps and for their electricity and gas bills due to the surge in energy prices. Data from pumps.ie indicate that in March 2021 petrol was €1.33 per litre and diesel was €1.24 per litre. On 7 November, just three days ago, petrol was €1.728 per litre and diesel was €1.62 per litre, more in some places. That is an average price increase of 30%. The Government in VAT alone takes 12% from that increase in the price of petrol and about 9% from the increase in the price of diesel. As the price of fuel increases, the Government gets more income.
There are a number of causes of the natural gas and oil demand surge. Europe's unilateral reduction of its nuclear power capabilities and coal power production is one cause. Chinese and other Asian coal output coming in below what is needed as the global economy recovered from Covid-19 is another. As many power plants can switch between coal and gas, global competition for natural gas supplies has kicked in.
The energy price surge in Ireland is an extraordinary and urgent situation that requires urgent action. The energy transition, ecological transition and decarbonisation the Government talks about are possible only if consumers and industries perceive the benefits of transition. In Ireland, consumers are not experiencing any such benefits. In fact, the opposite is the case, and many leading international economists are now warning that matters will get much worse. In Ireland, EirGrid is now warning that heavy industry, business and householders face real-time risks of electricity outages during morning and evening peaks. The Government has failed utterly to guarantee the security of electricity supply.
As for the financial impacts, I have no doubt that if there is a blackout in this country, the Government will be run out of the Dáil, so it should be very careful if that is the outcome the people will have to suffer. They are suffering enough in the pocket, but if they have to suffer mentally and physically because of the Government's inadequacies, I assure the Minister of State that its days are numbered. Many Government Deputies' days are numbered in any case, judging by what the people out there tell me. The financial impacts of the pandemic remain with the households and many families, having used up savings, are carrying the burden of debt from the extra costs and lower incomes of the past 18 months. Worrying numbers of people identified by research commissioned by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul at the beginning of the year reported cutting back on heating or electricity due to costs. They included 42% of people unable to work due to illness or disability, almost one in three renters and 36% of one-parent families.
Throughout this winter, those in receipt of the pandemic unemployment payment will also see their incomes reduced as the payment is gradually withdrawn. The main welfare rate onto which people will transfer has been shown to be inadequate and will remain so after it was increased by €5 in January. Data from the Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice show that in 2021 the gap between social welfare for a single adult and the cost of a basic but decent standard of living is €49 every week. For a lone parent with two children, the weekly gap is €82.
We are deeply concerned that this crisis will come to a head during the coming months as households are unable to find extra room in their budgets for escalating energy costs. For those at risk of disconnection or those on prepayment meters who cannot afford to top up, this could mean being unable to afford to stay warm and keep the lights on. That has serious health implications and is a situation that should be avoided at all costs. I ask the Minister of State, Deputy Smyth, to imagine not being able to afford to turn on the lights or the heating. There is no solution. Deputy Leddin was in the House the other day saying the Government has no solution. It has no solution, only continuing to hit people in the pocket harder and harder. We already have the highest electricity prices in the whole of Europe so we cannot just say this is a global issue. It is an Irish issue.
Household energy costs are rising at a rapid rate. The Government must now step in and protect households facing significant arrears and acute risk of disconnection by establishing an emergency response fund. The budget saw the fuel allowance extended to more people but, crucially, it still misses out on the low-earning families on working family payments. For those households a discretionary fund to alleviate energy costs and debt will be vital. Suppliers must commit to keeping the lights on for vulnerable and financially insecure customers and make sure that flexible options are available to people to address energy debts.
Weakening Ireland's economy will do nothing for the environment because our emissions are incredibly low, globally speaking, and because countries such as China can easily counteract whatever Ireland does with the flick of a switch. It is bad enough that the Taoiseach went to the COP26 conference and made a large number of economically devastating promises in an effort to blow up his image for a global crowd. He was treating Irish money like confetti thrown around at a wedding. I do not know what game he was up to. What he did not realise was the absence of any honest commitment on the part of countries such as China, Russia, India, Australia and America. We cannot blame Greta Thunberg for saying it was a whole load of "blah, blah, blah" out there. That is exactly what it was from start to finish. When the big powers are only laughing at the small boys coming into town trying to show off their muscle, we are nothing, and the way our Taoiseach carried on was a disgrace. It demonstrated how self-destructive the Government's approach is.
The increase in energy prices is also having a significant and immediate impact on the agriculture, fishing, transport and mobility sectors, resulting in higher costs for farmers, drivers, passengers, bus owners, lorry owners and freight transport users. In the long term, this will mean the destruction of Ireland, especially rural Ireland, thanks to the Green Party, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. There is a mindset change here. There is no mindset change on the part of the Green Party - we know where it stands - but there is on the part of Fine Gael. I saw a former Minister stand up here about a month ago to say agriculture must now take its cuts so we can save other sectors in our country. That was an astonishing statement from a former Fine Gael Minister. It is no wonder agriculture is worried and terrified by the way the Government is continuing.
Pensioners are finding it very difficult to keep their homes warm. The Minister of State might say they got €5, but €5 is nothing. Considering what they are trying to pay extra for a bag of coal, home heating oil and electricity, that €5 is soon gone out of their pockets. It is like giving them money with one hand and taking it away with another. I was talking to a bus owner in west Cork who runs a bus company for public transport, West Cork Connect. He told me it was costing him €110 to do a return trip.
This man is doing several return trips from Skibbereen and Bantry every day and is saving the State millions of euro every year. Taking cars off the road is great for the environment and he also has a very good time schedule. Last year, it cost him €110 to do one trip. It is now costing him €160. What is the Government doing? It will destroy the economy and country. We can forget about green policies because a continuous rise in fuel costs will stop this man operating, which will put cars back on the road. These policies are having the most unbelievable negative effect on our environment.
Carbon tax is nothing but an attack on the people of rural Ireland. I have said this often enough. It affects only one sector, which is people, including those I represent in my constituency. People are incensed. I was at a funeral on Monday and people were pulling me aside and telling me this had to stop and somebody should pull the plug because these guys are out of control. I was astonished by the number of people saying this and the anger out there. The Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Act was blindly supported in this House by Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, the Social Democrats and Sinn Féin. Nobody saw it but the devil was in the detail. These parties have turned their backs on the people. They should have looked at the detail before they signed up.
There must be an immediate cut of 5% in the VAT rate for petrol, gas, home heating oil and electricity. A once-off energy voucher worth €250 must be given to people because they are facing an immediate crisis on their doorsteps. There must also be a freeze or reversal of the carbon tax because people cannot afford it. Any Deputy who tells the House that people can well afford it should be damn well mindful of his or her seat. We also call for a 50% cut in excise duty. This is the least my colleagues and I ask for in this debate.