Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

Before we begin, I will read out the note on health and safety for all Members. Members and all in attendance are asked to exercise personal responsibility to protect themselves and others from the risk of contracting Covid-19. Members are strongly advised to practise good hand hygiene and to observe the chequerboard seating arrangement. They should also maintain an appropriate level of social distancing during and after the sitting. Masks, preferably of a medical grade, should be worn at all times during the sitting except when speaking. I ask for the Members' full co-operation in this regard and as we take Leaders' Questions.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Leas-Cheann Comhairle. Ar dtús báire ba mhaith liom tréaslú leo uilig atá ag troid ar son an chirt maidir leis an scannal míoca agus pirít, agus an ceart acu agus fios acu caidé mar atá ceart agus cóir. Níl dabht ar bith go raibh fáilte acu roimh cuid de na ceannlínte a bhí á bhfógairt maidin inniu, is é sin 100% tacaíochta, ach nuair a amharcann siad ar na sonraí ansin tá imní ar go leor teaghlach i nDún na nGall agus níos faide. Ba mhaith liom go bhfreagródh an Taoiseach cúpla ceist fá dtaobh de sin.

I commend all those who are fighting for justice for those who have been impacted by the mica and pyrite scandal, particularly those from my county of Donegal. Right up and down the west coast of Ireland, they opened up their hearts and opened up their homes and told us their personal stories. They told us about the impact their crumbling homes have had on them, their families and their mental health. They have fought for justice and fought for what is right. From the schoolkids who came to protest outside the gates of Leinster House to all those around the world who supported this campaign, these campaigners won the hearts and minds of the Irish nation. They have moved the Government into a position where I believe it never wanted to be and a long way from where it was.

This scandal has devastated the lives of ordinary families and is a direct consequence of the Celtic tiger era, an era of no regulation and light-touch regulation. These families have worked hard all their lives and have scrimped and saved to build homes for themselves and their families. They want what every single person would want, and that is a place that is safe and secure and a place where they can raise their families. Through no fault of their own, however, they find themselves in a nightmare situation where their houses are literally crumbling around them. They have fought hard and fought a good campaign and they deserve our praise today.

We have been here before, however, and the devil is always in the detail and in the implementation of these schemes. These families previously signed up to a scheme only to find out that it did not do what it said it would do. This time it needs to be different. In Sinn Féin's view - and we have raised this with the Taoiseach - the Housing Agency, just like it did in the north Leinster pyrite scheme, should be tasked with delivering the scheme and families should not be left to fend for themselves. However, we are already hearing contradictory reports about what is on the table. We are informed that the campaigners were told this morning, before the Cabinet meeting, that what would be on the table as redress would be €145 per square foot. We are now informed that that is only available for the first 1,000 sq. ft and on a sliding scale thereafter. I wish to press the Taoiseach on why the Cabinet made such a decision. Did it run the numbers and look at how they would affect families in Donegal and elsewhere? Is the Taoiseach aware that, in respect of the scheme that currently operates, the average cost for demolition and rebuild of a home that has been notified to Donegal County Council is €150 per square foot?

The average size of a mica-affected house in County Donegal is 2,300 sq. ft. According to the Government's sliding scale, a homeowner will have to find €45,500 to rebuild their house. In the case of the average one-off house, which comes in at just shy of 2,600 sq. ft in this State, according to the sliding scale that the Cabinet has signed off on, the homeowner will have to find €56,000. The families are asking how this could be, and where they will find the money. They thought they would get 100% redress. They thought the Government had heard them. Can the Taoiseach confirm to the Dáil and, more importantly, reassure those families that the numbers I have referenced are not those that will be applicable? If the Government runs a scheme that provides €145 for the first 1,000 sq. ft and €110 for the rest, families will have to make such a contribution.

First, I say to the Deputy that every party and every Dáil Deputy in this House is extremely well aware of and very concerned about the devastation wreaked on many families as a result of the mica scandal. The scandal is not about the absence of regulation; it is about a failure by certain operations to adhere to the regulations. We must call that out. Those responsible need to be held accountable for what transpired. That is the first point I make.

Families need their houses rebuilt. To be fair to the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, he has focused on this issue for quite some time and has worked with the working group. I went up last summer to meet with the working group. I heard their main concerns about the original scheme, which was meant in good faith. The scheme was accepted and endorsed by the Deputy's party at the time. Indeed, so satisfied was his party with the last scheme that it did not even reference it in its general election manifesto. Those are the facts. We also asked the Deputy's party leader, who cannot be here today as she is on her way to the United States, to submit the party's proposals and specific ideas around how this scheme could operate, but it decided not to send any suggestion to the working group or to the Minister.

The new scheme will improve the 90% maximum grant to a 100% grant for all remediation options 1 to 5. The maximum expenditure cap for option 1, demolition and rebuild, will be increased from €275,000, under the original scheme that the Deputy's party endorsed, to €420,000. It is estimated that the new scheme will cost over €2.2 billion. There will be a central role for the Housing Agency. There is a clearer damage calculation and the introduction of an independent appeals process. Social housing and homes will be remediated at a cost of around €180 million. There are 900 rented properties that are registered with the Residential Tenancies Board, RTB. They will also be eligible for the scheme, with one application per household permitted, to the cost to €160 million. A fixed sum of €20,000 will be allocated to each homeowner to rent alternative accommodation should they have to leave their house for reconstruction, and they will be allocated storage costs of up to €5,000. Under the scheme, €145 will be provided per square foot for the first 1,000 sq. ft.

The Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland, SCSI, has developed the methodology that will be used. It comes up with an annual average. Currently, the average rebuild cost is €138 per square foot. We are going with €145 for the first 1,000 sq. ft. That will change again in April with the publication of the new surveyors' guide. We will be guided by the SCSI and its methodology, which uses a sliding scale. If you talk to any quantity surveyor, that is perfectly understandable. There are economies of scale at play in the context of larger houses. We are absolutely adamant that the scheme should not disadvantage smaller houses, which represent the bulk of houses covered by this scheme, by the introduction of a flat rate, for example. The sliding scale is an appropriate way to do it. We need to depoliticise the methodology around the pricing and the square footage. We believe we can do that by that working with the SCSI on an annual basis. The scheme will also take into account inflation over the years. We have also built in certification and a State guarantee for remedial works, so that an applicant who chooses from options 2 to 5, does not demolish the property and does other repairs and so on will not be penalised if subsequently something untoward happens again. Such a person will have the option to apply for a second grant.

Without doubt, the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage has worked extremely hard with all of the parties to find a very comprehensive solution to this issue and to put in place the correct governance around the scheme to ensure we can deal with a very pressing and unacceptable situation for too many families in County Donegal and in other counties.

We are determined to get started on this now and to get the job done.

The devil is always in the detail. These families are going through an absolutely terrible situation. You can never realise it until you are invited into their homes, where they tell you their own story and let you into their own personal scenario. We need to ensure this scheme is fit for purpose. I have asked the Taoiseach a simple question. I have the SCSI calculator and I have just entered into it a 2,300 sq. ft home in the north west. The calculator says that it would cost €334,000 to build. These are the same numbers I gave out earlier. The problem with the Government scheme is that it drops to €110 per square foot after 1,000 sq. ft and the family will have to find €45,000. That is a big problem. These families do not have €45,000. If a family has the average one-off house, they will have to find €56,000. The SCSI calculation currently for the north west is based on a rate of €145 per sq. ft, and it does not have a drop down to €110, on which the Cabinet signed off. I ask the Taoiseach to explain this and, more importantly, to say to the families that he is wrong, and that they will not have to put their hands in their pockets for that amount to have their homes rebuilt due to something that was not their fault in the first place.

No Opposition party replied to a written request two months ago, after the working group report was published, to detail their specific position on how the scheme should be improved. You need to answer that fundamental question. You could have got involved. You could have come up with your proposals and your plan, but you had no plan and you had no proposal.

Answer the question.

The reason you did not is that you simply want to exploit this, unfortunately, for electoral and political gain. We want to provide a solution.

It is you who is playing politics.

The bottom line is that the Deputy behind Deputy Doherty endorsed the original scheme back in January 2020, a scheme we accept was not suitable. We are saying we must depoliticise the methodology around the costings here. The SCSI on an annual basis updates the square footage building costs. They accept a sliding scale. Most people involved in building and surveying accept the methodology of a sliding scale. We did not want to disadvantage the smaller houses. If you look at the property tax returns, for example, you will see that the vast majority of housing in Donegal is around the €200,000-plus mark. I accept that rebuilding costs can be more expensive than current valuations in terms of the cost of construction and so on, but it is a much more advanced scheme than the previous scheme with regard to the €20,000 grants-----

They still have to find the €50,000-----

-----and the upfront costs being dealt with. They will not have to find that money.

The State's response to the latest wave of Covid-19 can be described as haphazard and somewhat chaotic. It lacks urgency, cohesion and rationality. This is particularly evident in the approach to antigen testing, which is more like Lanigan's ball - in again and out again - than fact-based and deliberative. As we now know, the Government led pharmacists and retailers on a merry dance during negotiations to agree a subsidy for the tests, before abruptly walking off the dance floor. The Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, in a casual aside during a long interview yesterday revealed that a subsidy is no longer being contemplated, apparently because the market will provide. According to the Minister, a person can now get tests for €4 in certain supermarkets. The State's role in making tests affordable has been replaced by the market, or has it?

There are a number of glaring problems with the State's hands-off approach to the provision of antigen tests. First, I will address the issue of quality. Between June and early October, the European Commission rejected 160 separate applications from various producers of antigen tests, while six tests were removed altogether from the list during that time. Clearly, there are a lot of sub-par tests out there. There is no regulator for diagnostic tests in Ireland. The Health Products Regulatory Authority regulates medicines but it has no role in regulating antigen tests, nor does any other body. While retailers may be supplying tests at somewhat reduced rates, what assurance does the State have that these tests have been subject to any kind of quality control and are reliable?

Does the individual's personal responsibility in the fight against Covid-19 now extend to policing standards for antigen tests that may be on the market? It is also a reality that antigen tests at €3 or €4 each, when the advice is that they should be taken twice a week, are simply out of reach for many low- and middle-income workers who are already struggling to cope. The Minister for Health’s glib advice that people should simply shop around for the best price is beneath contempt.

Can the Taoiseach be clear? First, is this Government is happy for those who do not live near large discount supermarkets to pay through the nose no matter what their financial circumstances? Second, how does the State propose to ensure a consistent supply of affordable tests in the absence of having some role in their provision and supply? Third, and probably most important, does the Government have any plans to regulate diagnostic tests, specifically antigen tests, or does it also intend to foist responsibility for that work on to ordinary citizens?

The Deputy said the Government’s Covid-19 response in general was haphazard and chaotic. I would like to put that comment in context. More than 8.1 million vaccines have been administered in Ireland. We have the highest vaccination rate in the European Union, with 93.4% of the adult population fully vaccinated. The executive director today of the European Medicines Agency, EMA, outlined how Ireland has the highest vaccination rate in Europe and stated:

...the deaths per 1 million population over the last 14 days were 15. But in two other European countries with vaccination rates of less than 50% the equivalent death rates were over 250 per 1 million of [its] population.

I respectfully suggest to the Deputy that this country and this Government's performance on vaccination is anything but chaotic and haphazard. The plan this week is to administer 220,000 to 240,000 primary vaccines and, of course, the booster vaccine. Already, 800,000 booster vaccines have been administered.

Some 212,000 free lab tests were completed in the past seven days. This is the highest volume of lab tests completed to date in a seven-day period. Approximately 1.1 million tests have been conducted in the past six weeks. Total expenditure on testing and tracing during the pandemic is at approximately €846 million. Since 28 October, 93,346 - and it is closer to 100,000 as of today - close contacts have used antigen tests. We have sent out 100,000 free antigen tests to close contacts. Antigen testing of close contacts in schools has commenced and 8,000 were dispatched yesterday alone, all free of charge.

Yes, we did engage with leading retailers to achieve a price target of between €2 to €3 for antigen tests. In our view, if one takes, for example, the serial testing, which is also free, in respect of agriculture, where well over 100,000 free tests have been used in food production centres, and in universities and the third level sector, which have been using free antigen tests, we have a very targeted and effective approach. This also applies to the quality of the test where there are established tests that the major multiples adhere to. The European Commission has published a guide and has given advice to member states on the range of quality tests that are currently on the market.

The broader picture, as the Deputy knows, is that the public health authorities have not been as enthusiastic as she is I support the position on the use of antigen testing. Where we are now is a very significant advance on where we were previously during the pandemic.

I will not mention the lack of capacity in testing, chaotic scenes at vaccination centres or the lack of action on ventilation in schools. I raised questions specifically on antigen tests.

How can the Taoiseach guarantee affordability and quality? The current European direction states: "The performance of antigen tests is self-assessed by the manufacturers prior to their release." The group chaired by Professor Mary Horgan, which examined this issue, made very clear that it does not recommend specific tests for use and, therefore, it is important that we "ensure there is robust ongoing monitoring and evaluation of the performance of the test". How does the Taoiseach propose to ensure there is "ongoing robust monitoring" of these tests to ensure quality standards? At the moment, the market decides the price and, if people are chasing a low price, it is inevitable poor-quality tests will come on the market, given the lack of regulation in this area. How does the Taoiseach propose to ensure quality and affordability in regard to these tests?

First, we are living in a very fast-moving pandemic. No one, including the Deputy, at any stage suggested that we should, prior to utilisation of antigen testing, establish a regulatory framework governing them in advance. She has been an advocate for antigen testing for the past number of weeks and is of the view it should be happening much faster, etc.

It is reasonable to expect there to be regulation.

Now she has come back around the scrum to say,well, actually, slow down somewhat now and do not have it as freely available on the basis of the quality.

Does the Taoiseach not think there should be regulation?

Of course, and we need very strong communications around the types of tests people should buy.

Should there be regulation?

What is important as well is that, in key targeted areas, like schools and the food industry, we are up to 130,000 and close to 100,000 in terms of close contacts, which have been dispatched freely. In key target groups, they are free, have been free and will continue to be free.

Not for the public.

I went through all the different sectors where that currently is happening. More generally, the price range now has come way down, because of engagement, by €2 up to €3, which is a very significant advance.

Go raibh maith agat, Taoiseach.

However, we must always remember that PCR testing remains our core response and 210,000 were given out and done for free, properly so, last week.

The Taoiseach is doing nothing about quality. There is no regulation.

We are over time and I am moving on. The next speaker is Deputy Pringle of the Independent Group.

I had planned to come in here and cautiously welcome the revisions made in the so-called enhanced mica redress scheme. However, having watched the press conference given by the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, I am shocked at what is emerging, as I was by the Taoiseach's response to an earlier question. It appeared on some levels that the Government had finally listened to the victims of its failures of oversight and regulation and intended legislating for that. However, we will have to keep a watching eye over that as well. There is a touch of the ghost of Christmas past here in that when the previous iteration was cobbled together just prior to the general election, it was sold by Government Deputies in County Donegal as being much more than it was. It appears to me that Donegal families are facing the same again, despite this morning's fanfare of leaks from the Cabinet. Many of the county's mica-affected homeowners are still not sure if they can see a Christmas future under the new scheme.

I have just spoken to members of the Mica Action Group, who confirmed that when the Minister spoke to them this morning, there was no mention of a split rate or sliding scale. He talked about the price per square foot and that was it. He stated today that the sliding scale will be €110 per square foot after the first 1,000 sq. ft. This means, as was outlined earlier, that for the average 2,300 sq. ft house in Donegal, there will be a deficit of €45,000 still to be met by the homeowner, which is almost 15% of the cost. It is not a 90:10 scheme and it was not going to be. I stated in my manifesto that I was opposed to the previous mica scheme because it was not adequate to meet the needs of homeowners, which has been proven right. I also responded to the Minister's request for submissions on the scheme on 11 August this year.

It is time for the Taoiseach to be honest that he is not delivering 100% redress. He can dress it up whatever way he wants but the mica-affected homeowners will not be hoodwinked again. I think there is going to be a real soul-searching on their part. Is the Taoiseach going to have a proper scheme that will compensate families properly, so that they do not have exorbitant costs to meet under the scheme?

It is not on; they cannot afford it. That is what is going to happen. Is the Taoiseach saying that the figures I quoted are wrong? Can he show where they are wrong?

As I said at the outset, the scheme, as currently structured, will cost approximately €2.2 billion for 6,000 to 7,000 homes. That is a substantial contribution by the taxpayer of today and the future and the Exchequer to any housing remediation scheme. That needs to be acknowledged in the first instance.

The Government caused the problem.

We did not cause any problems.

I did not cause any problems. Everyone in life has responsibilities. Let us stop trying to excuse people on the ground of regulations. There are regulatory frameworks today and there were regulatory framework then. Certain people did not adhere to them. That is the point. No one will ever call that out because it does not suit them to call it out. The Government must always be the first resort.

I have no issue with sorting this out and helping families to rebuild their homes. I have been in a house where I have seen how devastating this is for families. We need to rebuild these houses, but we need to get on with it and get it done.

I have been in government for approximately 18 months of this. This has been going on for years. Deputy Pringle has been a Member for ten years. This has been going on for too long. We can have more and more campaigns, but nothing gets done in the meantime. We can get the scheme up and running. In my view, this scheme is a very good accommodation.

When we first met, homeowners had to put up all of the upfront costs themselves. That has been taken out. In addition, a €20,000 facility will be made available for rental, something which was not available in the past. A facility for storage was not available under the previous scheme. We should use the methodology used by the Society of Chartered Surveyors of Ireland, which has it will change the square footage rate on an annual basis to meet the current market position. Let us depoliticise the methodology around this. That is what the scheme provides for.

Let us look at the valuations. I accept it is not exactly the same, but in terms of the LPT, up to 36,000 homes will be valued at between zero to €200,000 in Donegal. The cap is up to €420,000. The first 1,000 sq. ft will be capped at €145 per sq. ft. That could change in April when the society updates the figures. There are no upfront costs for homeowners on this occasion. The Housing Agency will play a central role in helping homeowners to deal with this.

Why not run the whole scheme?

That is very important.

Let the Housing Agency run the whole scheme.

I do not think the existing arrangements were adequate in managing a scheme of this scale. The Government wants to do right by the homeowners. The comprehensive nature of this scheme, which includes rental properties, something that was not included in the previous scheme, is a significant advance.

There is no doubt that the scheme is an advance, but the problem is that it does not go far enough. Families are in the same situation now as they were before.

No, they are not.

Yes, they are. If they could not afford the previous scheme, they cannot afford this scheme.

That is the reality of the situation. People with 2,300 sq. ft houses have to come up with €45,000. Such houses have to be rebuilt, and under the scheme people are not allowed to change the house to qualify. People will have those costs regardless of the situation. That is the problem these families have. They are paying mortgages. As these houses are repaired, they will have to continue paying their mortgages. They will then have to find additional money to deal with this.

The Taoiseach also said they are responsible for the breach in the regulations. No, they are not.

Not them. Not the residents.

That is what the Taoiseach said.

He did. He said the people have to take responsibility for-----

Yes, those who produced the defective blocks.

That is what he said.

Take that back, please. I think the Deputy should take that back.

Okay, if that is what the Taoiseach did not say, I take it back.

I think the Deputy should take that back.

I take it back. I said it already. The reality is that lack of regulation or light-touch regulation caused this problem.

Thank you, Deputy. We are over time now. My lapse is over.

Fair enough. The reality is that light-touch regulations caused this problem and that has to be dealt with as well. Is the Taoiseach saying that people will not have to pay €45,000 for an average house?

The rationale for doing this scheme is to help homeowners to be able to rebuild their homes. That is the only rationale. This level of State intervention is unprecedented. It has never happened previously at the level it is happening now. It is because it is a social priority. In other words, we believe the residents and homeowners in Donegal, given the situation in which they find themselves, are not in a position to rebuild these homes. It is not their fault the blocks were defective. That is my point - the blocks were defective. These people did not know that. Let us be very clear here and let there not be any implication that I was blaming homeowners. That would be wrong, and anything I have said today is the contrary of that. We must help the homeowners. That is the spirit and ethos of our scheme. It is designed to enable the homeowners to rebuild their homes and to ensure they will not have expenses while they are rebuilding those homes or having them rebuilt, through the €20,000 for the rent and the storage. In the methodology we have deployed, through using the work of the Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland, that is the best approach to deal with the cost issue.

That is not the approach the Government signed off on.

We are moving on to the next speaker.

The Taoiseach is misleading the Dáil. The SCSI does not have a drop down of €110.

The Deputy knows well that are rules in respect of questions and answers.

He is hiding behind the SCSI which does not come up with the costing he has come up with.

I have to move on to the Rural Independent Group. I call Deputy Michael Collins. Deputies should allow him to speak uninterrupted.

With fuel prices at an all-time high pushing hauliers, bus operators, farmers, taxi operators and ordinary fathers and mothers from rural Ireland close to the edge and forcing what we saw last week with the closure of the capital on two occasions due to the hauliers' and farmers' peaceful protests, with more planned, will the Taoiseach explain to those people as well as the young people of rural communities what they can do if they cannot afford to put fuel in their cars? If people cannot afford to fuel a lorry or the local bus, what is the Government's solution? Everyone is looking for a solution but they hear nothing from the Government.

Look at the public transport comparison between rural Ireland, including west Cork, and Bray in County Wicklow. The only public transport that leaves the Beara Peninsula, the Sheep's Head Peninsula and the Mizen Head Peninsula is one service by Bus Éireann at approximately 7 a.m. This goes through Schull, Ballydehob, Skibbereen and Clonakilty. Now look at the transport in Bray. The DART to Dublin leaves Bray station and returns from Dublin to Bray every five minutes up until 10 a.m. After 10 a.m. the frequency is every ten minutes. From 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. there are more than 25 trips to Dublin. That does not include buses from Bray to Dublin. Mizen Head, Sheep's Head and Beara have two services in total out of the peninsulas in the same time period, with nothing coming in. The same applies from Dunmanway to Clonakilty and to places such as Drinagh, Ballinspittle and Barryroe. There are little or no public transport services.

This is a small example of an unfair society and shows the massive gap between two counties in the same country. The climate action plan and the Government's carbon tax dream bubble hit fuel the most and severely hit transport in rural communities. Instead of putting the horse before the cart, it is the other way around. Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party have hit the people of rural Ireland first, straight in the pocket to pay for pet projects in the capital. Common sense is very scarce up here. It was sadly lacking when the Government taxed fuel to put it out of the reach of the ordinary people who have no choice but to use a car to work, shop, collect their pensions, get basic food items and transport children, as the bus that leaves west Cork at 7 a.m. is the only means of public transport until 7 p.m. when it returns to Goleen. We hear proposals for a BusConnects service in rural communities, which is welcome, but it is said it will take up to five years. If this is the case, stop the carbon tax applying to rural Ireland immediately until there is a public transport service whereby people can jump on buses, the same as others in this country, every five or ten minutes, with buses coming to and going from places such as Dunmanway to Clonakilty and Ballineen to Kinsale. All these services should link with West Cork Connect, a private operator whose buses leave Bantry and Skibbereen several times a day for Cork city and back.

Will the Taoiseach promise to stop the carbon tax applying to rural Ireland immediately until there is a public transport service in place? If not, will he tell me and the people of rural Ireland what his plans are to cut the extraordinary fuel charges in this country, unlike those in any other country, at present?

First, I believe in a stronger public transport system throughout rural Ireland. The Minister for Transport and for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Ryan, published a substantive investment programme in rural transport recently which represents a significant advance on what we have had heretofore. It is very important we improve transport overall, including public transport, and give additional supports to existing transport operators in rural Ireland.

We will not have a DART, I suspect, from Bere Island or from Beara. Obviously, in areas of high population, in Wicklow, for example, there will be a greater frequency, but we need to increase frequency. I note Deputy Christopher O'Sullivan suggested to me this idea of one every hour in every village. That is a significant target, but that is the type of approach we want to move towards in respect of public transport in rural Ireland and our climate responsibilities.

The carbon tax is not the issue in terms of the current increases in fuel and energy. A global issue is fundamentally responsible for the significant increases in fuel and energy pricing. Electricity, eventually, will follow through. It is hoped that will abate in the first quarter of next year. That is what the European Central Bank and others are saying. I accept the jury is out on that. The Government has responded to this in the budget in terms of social protection and taxation measures to try to alleviate and make some contribution to help people cope with the increase in fuel. The carbon tax will deal with substantial investment in retrofitting which ultimately will give lower energy costs for homeowners across the board. It is far more sustainable into the future. However, it is not the main driver by any yardstick of the current increase in energy prices across Europe and the globe, of which Ireland is part.

We acknowledge there is a lot of pressure on people and Government is constantly keeping the situation under review in terms of what measures we could implement to try to reduce the electricity bills for householders in this country. That would be in addition to the measures that we took in the budget in terms of social protection and in terms of the taxation measures themselves. That is our position.

In the context of rural Ireland, the Deputy must acknowledge the variety of schemes we have initiated and substantially resourced in the past 12 months in terms of rural funding, capital projects, LEADER funding and CLÁR funding. Substantial schemes have been initiated across the board. The Government has demonstrated a real commitment to rural Ireland, and that is manifest in the level of resources we have allocated and which will continue. I can assure the Deputy of that.

I thank the Taoiseach for his reply, but he should not mention about LEADER funding because that is after being cut going forward. I would say the Taoiseach should stop thinking about that dream.

The public transport is the same, with the Minister, Deputy Ryan, kicking the can down the road. It might happen in the next few years, the Taoiseach is saying. A Deputy said this and a Deputy said that. There is no delivery. There is one public transport service leaving the Mizen Peninsula at 7 o'clock in the morning. Nothing is returning until 7 o'clock in the evening.

I asked the Taoiseach for solutions to this fuel crisis but he has no solutions. What do I say to the haulier operator who is paying €1,000 a month more on fuel this year than last year and cannot continue? What do I say to the local bus operators who are barely surviving? Look at West Cork Connect, an independent bus operator who goes to Cork several times a day from Skibbereen and Bantry, providing an incredible service, whom it was costing €110 on a round trip last year and is now costing €165. The Taoiseach does not seem to be able to grasp the crisis that is out there in rural Ireland as there is little or no public transport for us to avail of as the Government continues to take €57 of tax, one way or another, in every €100 spent on petrol. Will the Taoiseach immediately reverse that carbon tax increase in rural Ireland and let us know further measures, or any measures, the Government is taking to save many of those I spoke about earlier from going out of business?

I could go through all the various schemes we have announced: LEADER having gone from €44 million to €48 million, which will fund the existing programme, the new transitional programme, the community development programme - €5 million, and island infrastructure - €2 million plus. I hope we can do some good work down in Dursey Island, for example, which would be a very welcome initiative.

Good. The Taoiseach is on about another issue.

In terms of public transport, there will be a significant programme. It is not kicking the can down the road. The programme has been announced in terms of an enhanced and expanded rural transport network.

I am a great believer in public transport. My late father drover many a bus to different parts of west Cork and I am fully aware of the needs of Mizen, Glengarriff, Beara and all those areas that need a good regular bus service. They are growing and developing and we must put in alternative investments into these locations and towns in rural areas as well. We must do that right across the western seaboard. I know the Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Humphreys, and her team at the Department through the rural regeneration and development fund is really expanding that.

There has been approximately €250 million allocated, covering 164 projects. That is a real and substantive allocation, which the Deputy should acknowledge from time to time. I know the Deputy must raise matters and I do not dispute that.

I asked the Taoiseach-----

There is a need sometimes for a bit of balance.

Is there any answer on the fuel question? He gave me no answer in those four minutes.

What was that? Is it the carbon tax?

It is the carbon tax and fuel taxes.

I gave an answer on fuel.

People are paying €57 in every €100 on tax.

I gave an answer on the carbon tax.

The people of rural Ireland cannot cope and the Taoiseach is walking away from it without a straight answer. He has no answer.

We are over the allotted time.

As I said to the Deputy and his colleague last week-----

He has no answer.

We are over the time.

Okay. I appreciate that.