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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 3 Feb 2022

Vol. 1017 No. 4

Electricity Costs (Domestic Electricity Accounts) Emergency Measures Bill 2022: Second Stage

I move:

"That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

Having regard to the unprecedented rise in electricity prices, I am pleased to have the opportunity to commend the Electricity Costs (Domestic Electricity Accounts) Emergency Measures Bill 2022 to the House. I will open the debate by setting the context for the actions to be taken on foot of this Bill. Although many Members will be familiar with these issues, it is important to take this opportunity to set out the complex situation we will find ourselves in with regard to energy costs and wider pressures on the cost of living. I will also describe the sections of the Bill in detail and, with regard to its main provisions, set out the background and why they are needed for the operation of the scheme. However, my overarching message today is that while the scheme which the Bill will establish is just one of a suite of measures, it is critical that it is put in place within this quarter. I seek Members' support to achieve that.

First, I will outline the main factors affecting electricity prices in Ireland. Second, I will provide an overview of the domestic and international response to rising electricity and gas prices. Third, I will reaffirm the Government's conviction that the best long-term approach for Ireland is to insulate consumers from volatility on international wholesale energy markets.

On the factors affecting Irish electricity prices, Deputies will appreciate that we face additional costs due to our geographical location, fossil fuel dependency, the small scale of the Irish market, low population density and exchange rate fluctuations. However, the most immediate factor affecting electricity prices in Ireland is the upward trend in international gas prices, which has brought them to an unprecedented high. In Europe, wholesale natural gas prices have been on an upward curve since the second half of 2020, for a variety of international reasons. Current indications are that these higher prices will continue at a significantly higher level than in early 2020 for the foreseeable future. This feeds directly through to retail electricity prices, as the wholesale price of electricity correlates strongly with the price of gas due to the fact that gas is used for electricity generation.

It is a matter of serious concern to the Government that recent electricity and gas price increases caused by these international conditions are putting increasing pressure on consumers, particularly those in a more vulnerable economic position. It is important to recognise that these price increases are not caused by Government or regulatory decisions. This is because price regulation ended many years ago. Suppliers compete with each other on price and set their own prices accordingly, as one would expect in a competitive, commercial liberalised market. Consumers can shop around and switch easily. It is important to point out that all European markets are experiencing these price increases. While Ireland has its own specific circumstances, the rise in energy costs is not unique to us.

I will now turn to the international and domestic response. In general, in terms of the overall cost of living it vital to stress that a co-ordinated, whole-of-government response is being followed. It is essential in tackling this issue. In response to rising electricity and gas prices in the EU, the European Commission published a communication in October 2021 entitled, "Tackling rising energy prices: A toolbox for action and support". The toolbox sets out the measures available to member states to mitigate the impact of the energy price rises, which, at the same time, do not cut across the EU energy legislative framework or the EU longer-term policy framework for the green transition. The Government made a number of interventions in budget 2022 in line with measures put forward in the European Commission's toolbox, such as implementing safeguards to avoid customer disconnections, providing supports for consumer empowerment and providing for a supplier of last resort in cases where suppliers exit the market in a disorderly manner. The electricity costs emergency benefit scheme to be established by this legislation is an additional measure.

The Government's primary response to tackling the impact on households of increasing energy costs has been to use the tax and social welfare system to counter rising costs of living as set out in budget 2022. The fuel allowance is one of a range of income supports paid by the Department of Social Protection, which also includes general social welfare schemes, the living alone payment increases, to support those living alone and at a higher risk of poverty, and the household benefits package. Targeted supports are also provided under the supplementary welfare allowance scheme, exceptional needs payments, ENPs, and urgent needs payments, UNPs. Under the supplementary welfare allowance scheme, a special heating supplement may be paid to assist people in certain circumstances who have special heating needs, for example, in the case of ill health. This is in addition to increases in basic welfare and pension rates. Adjustments to income tax bands have also been introduced primarily as a response to the cost of living increases more generally, driven in part by higher energy prices.

Having regard to the urgent to decarbonise, I will now outline the long-term approach for Ireland. In that context, the Government's energy efficiency and renewable energy measures are key. Government policy is driving investment in energy efficiency, investment in renewables, enhancing electricity interconnection and deepening the internal energy market. I will take energy efficiency as an example. Energy efficiency measures are not just essential to reduce emissions from our housing sector, they are also central to addressing the root causes of energy poverty and to improving health and social inclusion outcomes, while at the same time contributing to decarbonisation.

The residential energy efficiency budget for my Department in 2022 is €202 million. Financed by carbon tax revenue, €109 million of this will fund Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, schemes to provide free energy efficiency upgrades to households that are in, or are at risk of, energy poverty. More than 4,500 homes will benefit from the upgrades that will be carried out under these SEAI schemes in 2022. The Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage will invest a further €85 million as part of the local authority retrofit programme in 2022. This will deliver approximately 2,400 retrofits of local authority homes next year up to a building energy rating, BER, of B2 or cost optimal. Additionally, the review of the national development plan resulted in an unprecedented level of investment in retrofit. Some €5 billion of additional carbon tax revenues have been allocated to support residential retrofit to 2030. This means that the overall allocation for residential retrofit will be approximately €8 billion to 2030.

Alleviating energy poverty is a key consideration in the new national retrofit plan, published as part of the climate action plan last year. More generally, the Climate Action Plan 2021 commits to improving how energy poverty schemes target those most in need. As is clear from the supports relating to energy efficiency and the specific measures introduced in budget 2022, the Government is committed to protecting the most vulnerable. As we transition away from fossil fuels and progressively decarbonise, we must ensure the way we decarbonise captures this unique opportunity to improve the quality of life for all. Making our homes energy efficient not only means they are warmer, healthier and cheaper to run, but also means we are taking concrete action on social deprivation that is sustainable and enduring.

I will devote my remaining remarks to the subject matter of the Bill. Notwithstanding the other measures, the Government is determined to act quickly to help people further with these higher energy prices. The Bill provides for the establishment of a scheme for the purpose of making the electricity cost emergency benefit payment of €100 in 2022. The moneys for the scheme will be allocated by the Minister for Environment, Climate and Communication, Deputy Eamon Ryan, with the consent of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, out of moneys provided by the Oireachtas. This amount will not exceed €215 million and will be for the purpose of making a once-off €100 payment by suppliers to each domestic electricity account held by them. This is on the basis of there being approximately 2.15 million domestic electricity account holders, as indicated by the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, CRU. The CRU will provide oversight of the scheme and it will be operated by the distribution system operator, ESB Networks, ESBN.

The mechanism by which the scheme will operate is as follows. I will provide under regulations for a date, to be known as the relevant date, on which the distribution system operator will calculate the total number of domestic electricity accounts in the State, on the basis of meter point registration numbers, MPRNs. The MPRN is the unique identifier for all accounts and as such must be used to ensure the €100 payment reaches each account. ESB Networks will notify me of this number, and this will allow the calculation of the necessary allocation of moneys for the scheme. On the effective date, which will also be set out by me in regulations, ESB Networks will notify each electricity supplier of the assigned MPRN for each domestic electricity account it supplies. ESB Networks will also, on the effective date, notify suppliers of the amount of money it will transfer to them for the purposes of the scheme. I will set out in regulations the period within which ESB Networks will transfer the funds to suppliers for the sole purpose of making payments under the scheme. Following receipt of these funds, suppliers will then, within the period to be prescribed by me under regulations, credit each domestic electricity account held with them on the effective date with a payment of €100. The CRU, as an independent regulator, will have oversight of the scheme. It will put in place administrative and operational arrangements to ensure that ESB Networks and suppliers perform their functions under the scheme.

The CRU, on the basis of its existing powers to issue directions and secure compliance by licence holders with their obligations, will ensure that ESBN and suppliers perform their functions under the Bill. Suppliers and the ESBN are required to repay any moneys received by them which have not been used for the purposes of the scheme.

I would now like to refer to some particular aspects of the scheme that will be of interest to Deputies more broadly. The scheme will apply to all domestic electricity account holders, including pay-as-you-go customers. With the support of the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, my Department is working closely with the Residential Tenancies Board, RTB, to ensure that those due the payment in rented accommodation receive it. I understand that there are approximately 300,000 tenancies registered with the RTB and that the majority of these tenants either hold their own electricity accounts or pay their landlord for their electricity on the basis of an actual bill and would therefore receive the benefit directly. My Department is working with the RTB on a public information campaign to ensure that any tenants, expected to be a small minority, for whom electricity costs are not separate from overall rental cost are aware of the scheme and entitlements. In that context, in the event that a dispute should arise between a tenant and landlord, there are existing dispute resolution mechanisms provided by the RTB. The scheme can only become operational following the passing of this underpinning legislation. As Deputies will appreciate, this emergency measures Bill aims to ensure that the credit can be made to domestic electricity account holders as soon as possible.

The scheme will apply to every domestic electricity account holder using their unique MPRN to allow the payment to be credited to individual bills. This does mean that premises, other than principal residences such as holiday homes with a domestic electricity account will be included in the scheme. The scheme uses the above single eligibility criteria to enable payments to be made at the earliest possible opportunity in 2022. The scheme does not have additional eligibility criteria. For example, it is not means tested because the application of such criteria would override the automatic nature of the current scheme, require input from customers through formal applications and cross checking by administrators, which would significantly delay the roll out of the payments. Therefore, the automatic crediting of all residential customer accounts is the most effective immediate term methodology.

The CRU has advised that to implement the scheme in the timeframe required, suppliers will use existing billing systems to process the credit. The CRU has considered the question of an opt-out for people who do not wish to receive the payment. However, the scale of work required to the billing system would be of an order that would significantly delay the issuing of this payment to all electricity users. While I do appreciate people's views on this, I also feel it is important to move ahead with administering the scheme so that people receive their payments as quickly as possible.

I will provide a section-by-section summary of the Bill. There are ten sections. Section 1 is a standard provision which provides for definitions.

Section 2 provides for the establishment of the scheme, to be operated on a once-off basis. It also provides the basis for the estimation of the amount required, as well as for the allocation of the moneys for the scheme up to €215 million, with the consent of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform.

Section 3 provides the legislative basis for the transfer of the moneys, to be €100 for each domestic electricity account in the State, for the operation of the scheme by the Minister, with the consent of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, to the distribution system operator.

Sections 4 and 5 provide for the functions of the distribution system operator and suppliers, respectively, for the purposes of the operation of the scheme. Section 6 provides for the amendment of section 9 of the Electricity Regulation Act to create functions for the CRU, including for the purposes of oversight of the functions of the distribution system operator and suppliers, and to ensure that the administrative and operational arrangements necessary for the functioning of the scheme are in place.

Section 7 deals with an amendment to the Taxes Consolidation Act 1997. This amendment is to exempt the electricity costs emergency benefit payment from income tax.

Section 8 provides for the Minister to make regulations, with the consent of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, to set out the dates and period for the operation of the scheme as well as to provide for additional functions of the distribution system operator, electricity suppliers, and such administrative and operational matters as may be required for the efficient operation of the scheme.

Section 9 provides that the distribution system operator and electricity suppliers shall bear their own expenses. Section 10 contains standard provisions concerning the Short Title and commencement of the legislation.

I have outlined the main provisions of this emergency measures Bill and provided additional detail on the sections. I hope that this will be of assistance to Deputies. I look forward to an informed and meaningful debate and to working constructively with Deputies on all sides of the House.

We move now to a Sinn Féin slot. Deputy O'Rourke is sharing with his colleagues, Deputies Andrews, Mairéad Farrell, Ellis and Clarke. Is that agreed? Agreed.

I will be taking eight minutes. I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill. People are facing real hardship in their day-to-day lives with inflation and runaway living costs The Government has sat on its hands and allowed the cost-of-living crisis to grow, and indeed it has contributed to it. Rents have been spiralling out of control for years and the Government has done nothing. The Government has failed to address high childcare costs for parents and inflation is outpacing wage growth to no end. Each year the Government hikes tax on energy and then wonders why people are struggling to heat their homes. These policy failures are now coming together into a crippling cost-of-living crisis. The Government is completely out of touch with reality and is either unwilling or unable to take the necessary action to tackle the costs that are having a detrimental impact on workers and families across the State.

Of course the €100 electricity discount is welcome, but it will not make a dent in the financial challenge households are facing. It does not go far enough. Everyone knows that, including apparently the Government, if leaks from parliamentary party meetings in morning news reports are anything to go by. The Tánaiste acknowledged as much on Leaders' Questions earlier. Budget 2022 did not go far enough to protect people. The Government says it is making plans to do something about it. There has been talk from the Government to the effect of "If we knew then what we know now", but the truth is the Government did know then what it knows now because Sinn Féin and many others were shouting it from the rooftops. I raised it with the Minister of State three times in the previous term alone on Priority Questions, starting in July. Sinn Féin's alternative budget set out enhanced payments in social welfare, fuel allowance and a utility debt discretionary fund. The Government failed to heed any of it. The EU introduced its toolkit in October in recognition of the crisis and giving a green light to do something about it. Two months later, in the days before Christmas, the Government said it had a plan. Here we are on 3 February hoping that people might get grace to the value of €100 in a month or two. Families are in crisis and it is deepening one. When someone sounds the alarm in October you do not respond by saying I will see you in March or April. We know that inflation hits the poorest hardest and that the CSO's data are not reflective of this. We do not have accurate data on fuel poverty because this Government and that which preceded it failed to design measures for it. Anyone who bothers to listen knows that families have been put to the pin of their collars and beyond. They are in crisis and this Government knowingly delayed action. The €100 is welcome but it does not go anywhere near far enough. Much more needs to be done to help people. This Bill, if suitably amended, can act as a start, albeit a very late one.

We in Sinn Féin are not happy with the current draft of the Bill and we have submitted numerous amendments for consideration on Committee Stage. In the first instance, we are concerned that this Bill is drafted in such a way as to permit only one payment. That does not reflect the crisis we are in. A once-off discount is short-sighted and it is clear that more needs to be done. There are no indications that the energy price hikes are going to stop any time soon. With political instability in Ukraine and Russia, international gas prices could increase further this year. Our amendments would give the Minister power to make further payments to households, removing the need for more primary legislation down the line and ensuring that it could be done quickly.

We also want to see the Minister target these payments to households who need it most. The lack of targeting is a major weakness. This Bill is a very blunt instrument that will see millions of euro transferred to individuals who, relatively speaking, have no financial worries. It will see millionaires and others who do not need financial help get €100 from the taxpayer, while those who really need extra help will, in real and relative terms, still be below the water. We would like to see provision for those who want to forgo the payment have the option of surrendering their payment to a charity that supports and helps those living in energy poverty. It is far from an ideal approach, but it is an attempt to make this legislation better, by trying to direct payments to those most in need.

We believe holiday homes should be excluded. We cannot have a situation where a person who is lucky enough to own two homes gets €200 while a family living on the bread line can only access half that amount.

I welcome some of the comments made by the Minister of State, Deputy Ossian Smyth, but we believe protection is needed for renters in this Bill. Some tenants' energy bills are managed by their landlord or a property management company. We do not want to see a situation where the credit is applied to bills but the savings are not passed on to the tenant. Sinn Féin has put forward an amendment seeking to ensure the €100 payment is passed on to renters and providing for a right to access a dispute mechanism.

On a related point, I draw the Minister of State's attention to the issue of Travellers' access to the €100 credit. Will the Minister outline how this credit will apply to Travellers living on halting sites? The local authorities are the electricity account holder in many cases and families make payments to their local authorities. Perhaps the Minister of State will revert to me on that later.

Sinn Féin calls on the Minister of State to engage with the Society of St. Vincent de Paul on the level of need for assistance with heating and electricity costs it is experiencing to ascertain the need for a discretionary fund to assist those in utility debt and target those who need additional support most. We called for such a discretionary fund in budget 2022 in addition to proposing to allocate €30 million to extend the fuel allowance eligibility. Like other positive proposals, however, it was not taken on board.

I look forward to the Committee Stage debate. I encourage the Minister of State and Department to take on board Opposition proposals. There is an opportunity to improve on the legislation. Sinn Féin will put forward constructive amendments, as will others in the Opposition. The Minister of State and Department should take them on board.

The rising cost of energy and the overall costs of living are on the minds of everybody. When meeting residents and community groups, whether it is in Donnybrook, the inner city or Rathmines, we see that everybody is feeling the pressure as costs continue to rise. In the 12 months to December, inflation reached its highest level in 20 years. These high levels of inflation impact heavily on the daily lives of people in the State. We know who feels these sharp increases in inflation most. It is the working families who are hit hardest. These households must spend a higher proportion of their income on food and fuel. The cost of electricity has increased by 22%, the cost of gas is up 28% and home heating oil costs have risen by a staggering 53%. More families will be faced with the painful decision of having to choose between heating the house and feeding themselves.

Measures must be taken by the Government to rein in inflation increases. While some factors may be outside of the Government's control, others certainly are not. The Government needs to step in to protect families from poverty. Provisions must be put in place to support low and middle income families. If the Government stands by, inflation and energy price spikes will push working families into poverty. We need to see meaningful actions, including the expansion of the fuel allowance scheme and the extension of the fuel allowance season by a further two weeks. The eligibility threshold for the allowance also needs to be increased by 10% to include approximately 30,000 additional homes. These are not radical measures but they will make a positive impact on many who are struggling.

Already, several EU member states such as France, Italy and Spain have taken decisive action to reduce the burden of these price hikes on ordinary people. In Spain, consumers will see their average monthly bill drop by 22%. The market has failed to provide lower and more competitive prices for consumers. The Government must intervene in a meaningful way to ease the burden on the public. We cannot allow its market-led approach to continue. The Government needs to seek a special derogation to remove VAT on household energy bills. Such a move would reduce household bills by 12%. This would greatly ease the burden on so many people and give workers and their families a much-needed break.

In housing, the market-led approach backed by the policies of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil has also failed. This approach and these policies have caused the housing crisis to worsen by the month. The increases in the cost of living are a direct result of those two parties' policies. For many, the idea of owning a home seems impossible. This does devastating damage to communities, families and couples wanting to start a family. The rising cost of renting swallows a large chunk of most people's salaries and many feel suffocated by all of these rising costs. We need a ban on rent increases and rents need to be brought under control. Measures such as a refundable tax credit, equivalent to one month's rent and capped at €1,500, would be a good start. It would give renters a much-needed break. We need to see this Government standing up for ordinary working families, not standing idly by.

We are all acutely aware of the issues arising from the increases in the cost of living and the impact these have had in recent months. We have had debate after debate on this issue in the Chamber in recent weeks. We need to see strong action to help those who are struggling most. We have all seen the impact of the increases in the costs of electricity and fuel in our electricity bills. I am sure many of us got our electricity bill through the door and were surprised at the significant rise in the bills. We also see it at the petrol pumps.

The impact on lower income households has been catastrophic. It is a cause of concern and distress and there are things they must do without. These increases in prices mean they simply do not have additional spare cash lying around to help them to pay for this. All Members are seeing this in our clinics and when knocking on doors. I hold a weekly clinic and I knock on doors every week. The main issue that keeps coming up is that people are just not able to pay for things. One man told me this week that he had to sleep in the kitchen to keep warm. He cannot use the shower in the winter months because the bathroom is the coldest room in his house so he must use an alternative place for showering. That is a cold, hard fact. Many of us would find it unimaginable to have to go through that ourselves.

This problem is not completely new. In November 2021, my colleague, Deputy Claire Kerrane, conducted a survey to which 14,000 people responded. Any Members who have conducted surveys will know that getting 14,000 respondents shows how live an issue this is. Of those who responded, 93% said they had seen a massive increase in energy prices. Of the 6,000 comments in the survey there are two statements I particularly want to read to the Minister of State. One person said:

As a pensioner, I can’t live on what’s left [each week]. I pay my electricity by card at An Post. I can’t afford groceries and eat the bare minimum. Life is very hard.

Another said:

Currently battling with high anxiety because I don’t know if I will be able to pay rent/electricity every month or pay for diesel. I’m a single mother of a 10 yr old boy … and on his Santa list he asked Santa to help his Mam be OK. Even my 10 yr old son can see I’m not OK any more.

This is the reality. We need strong and urgent action from the Government. We need to see a ban on rent increases and one month's rent going back into the renters' pockets. We need to see the discretionary fund increased and more people being able to apply for the fuel allowance.

My constituency has a varied demographic, particularly with regard to age. We have areas with a high percentage of elderly people and other areas that have a young population, with young families, single parents and so on. The constituency also has areas of economic disadvantage with high unemployment rates and families struggling to put food on the table for their children. There are also areas of the constituency that are more affluent. A number of voluntary groups in Dublin North-West work to alleviate the everyday stresses of struggling families by providing them with food parcels, clothes for their children and other essentials. Ocras Éire is one such group that does tremendous work, helping families and individuals who are homeless or struggling to provide the most basic needs for their children.

One of the most important things to provide for your family, apart from food, is a warm and comfortable home. For this to happen, it is essential for families and households to have access to an affordable supply of electricity or gas. Under normal circumstances, people in more vulnerable communities find it difficult to provide a consistent, economical or inexpensive form of energy, not just to heat their houses and apartments, but also to cook food and provide hot water for the household. It is now proving a real challenge for many families in my constituency to provide such a necessity and it greatly affects people's health and quality of life, especially the elderly.

The avalanche of price increases for electricity and gas since last year is set to continue into 2022.

This is grim news for low-income families and the unemployed who have been finding it difficult, to say the least, to make ends meet. The high rate of inflation, currently at 5.4%, is a 20-year high. Families that are already paying exorbitant energy bills will continue to do so for the foreseeable future with ever-increasing electricity and gas bills. According to Money Guide Ireland, a customer of Electric Ireland, the biggest electricity provider, would have an annual bill of €1,274 based on the average usage of 4,200 kW a year. Of course there would be an increase in the use of electricity during winter with the increased use of heaters and household utilities such as tumble dryers and washing machines. Electricity bills for winter would obviously be higher than in summer.

The Government proposes that all electricity customers, including pay-as-you-go customers, will receive a once-off payment of €100 off their energy bill, which will be automatically applied to their accounts. While this is welcome, the proposed payment is a drop in the ocean compared to the high energy bills households are already paying. It will make little difference to those vulnerable individuals and families who have to make the choice between heating the house or putting food on the table. The present arrangement that exists for people who are on disability allowance, old age pensions and other qualifying welfare payments is that they receive a discount of €35 a month on their energy costs. There are other similar allowances that can be availed of. I urge the Minister to increase such allowances substantially, particularly in view of the massive impact these energy bill increases are having on some of the most vulnerable in society. Realistically the once-off payment of €100 will not cushion the blow such increases in energy bills will have on these vulnerable people.

I have to be quite frank. When I saw this proposal initially, I thought the Government really needs to try harder. This does nothing to tackle the spiralling energy costs and multiple price hikes over the last year. While it might take the edge off the winter electricity bill, it will do nothing for the ones coming after that. We know that the spiralling cost of living in this country is leaving those most vulnerable behind and leaving them in a significant amount of debt. CSO figures show the annual rate of inflation was at a 20-year high last month. That is mostly made up of jumps in costs of energy, transport and rent.

I spoke to a constituent this week who by chance found a shopping receipt from last year for her lunches for her children every week. Every single item on that receipt had gone up, some by a couple of cent and some by considerably more. That is the impact that people are feeling every single day. The finances are simply not there to meet that ever-increasing cost of living. They are under real pressure. They need to see from Government realistic, long-term solutions that are much more far-reaching than €100 off the next electricity bill.

I want to raise another issue in respect of the universal aspect of this payment and wants versus needs. We have all come across that at some point. I do not know one person sitting in this Chamber who needs this payment. I can think of vast numbers of people in my constituency who need it. I will leave it up to Deputies' own moral compass as to whether they want this payment. There is nothing here about surrendering that money if we make the decision that we do not need it.

There is nothing in this that deals with holiday homes. My constituents will struggle to put food on the table, a roof over their heads and shoes on their kids' feet but another individual in a financial position to own two properties will get this payment twice. There is gross inequity in that as surely the Minister of State sees. I also ask that the Minister of State engage meaningfully with the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. It does tremendous work in communities the length and breadth of this country. It too are under substantial pressure from people coming to it in dire straits because of utility bill debt. Will the Minister of State engage with it?

We have heard the fuel allowance bandied about on media in recent days. The fuel allowance needs reform but while the Government is focusing on those who receive the allowance, it is completely disregarding those who do not qualify for it, who are ineligible but still have to put food on the table and a roof over their heads and still have that ESB bill coming in the door. If the Minister of State gets a couple of minutes this afternoon he should read the comments on the poll the journal.ie is running.

I welcome the opportunity to speak for the Labour Party on this Bill and to express our disappointment that this is what we are seeing from the Government as a way of addressing the crisis in the cost of living that is sweeping across the country and affecting every community. As we are coming through the crisis of the pandemic, the Government has to confront the twin crises of the climate emergency and the cost of living crisis, which has manifested so strikingly and seriously for so many families, households and individuals across the country.

While we accept that this is well meaning and that households will welcome the rebate proposed in the Bill, we are of the view that it is simply insufficient and inadequate to deal with the reality of the spiralling cost of living. We know that households are expecting, on electricity and gas alone, more than €400 of an increase on their bill this year following the price increases imposed. We know there are soaring costs associated with housing, rental, childcare, even in purchasing food and groceries. It is deeply disappointing to see Government putting forward this drop in the ocean. If I may mix metaphors, it is clutching at straws in putting forward this drop in the ocean as a way to address the crisis.

Indeed if what we are hearing in terms of leaks from the Minister of State's colleagues' parliamentary party meeting last night is correct, it appears both the Taoiseach and Tánaiste agree with our analysis that the measure as proposed in the Bill is not enough to address the cost of living crisis. It is not enough of an answer. Much more needs to be done. We are hearing all sorts of kites being flown as to what can be done by Government. It is very disappointing to see that all we are getting by way of concrete proposals and legislation is a €100 rebate. It is tokenistic. It seems somewhat random if I may say so. It is certainly not a targeted or strategic way to address the reality of increased costs of living for so many people.

This view is shared by so many of our constituents. Looking at my own emails from constituents in Dublin Bay South today, a constituent writes that she is a working mother with a two year old son. She and her husband both work. They are writing to a public representative for the first time ever, out of pure desperation. I know the Minister of State is hearing it in his own constituency as we all are. They have been involved in what she describes as excruciating bidding wars with insane prices in housing. They are trying to buy a house. They are both earning, they have relatively good incomes but they cannot afford a home. We are hearing from people renting about increased costs of rental. We are hearing from people who themselves are not struggling but who are incensed. A constituent wrote to me today saying they are growing more and more annoyed about the communications about the €100 rebate and pointing out that this initiative will cost the Government over €200 million, which could be spent in a significantly better way. My constituent describes it as a populist reactive gesture which does not help those who are in genuine poverty or genuine fuel poverty. That really sums up what we all on the Opposition benches are hearing in constituents and members of the public as to their view on this measure.

We accept that there are issues beyond the Government's control driving up the cost of living. The Russian aggression on the borders of Ukraine is clearly a case in point. Yet there is much more that can be done at domestic level through legislation or other policy interventions to address the cost of living and the impact that international issues like the Russian aggression are having on individuals and households. We are saying that the Government can do more to address the scale of the crisis. For example, one of the key reasons the cost of living and rise in fuel prices are hitting so hard is that wages have not risen. Here is a way of addressing this. Let us look at how we can address the wage issue.

We know that people on low pay and those in receipt of the minimum wage are the most affected of all by increases in the cost of living where they have seen no commensurate increases in their incomes. Here is one alternative way the Government can address this, namely, by increasing Ireland's minimum wage of €10.50 per hour to an hourly living wage of €12.90. Instead, we see a measure that is simply not strategic, not targeted and, therefore, not enough to address the cost of living for people.

The Bill is flawed in its approach to renters in particular. We will table amendments on that, as will others. Looking again at my constituency of Dublin Bay South, as many as 44% of all properties there are private rentals. That is a very large proportion of households in my constituency and my local area. In the south inner city, Portobello, Ranelagh, Rathmines and other areas in the constituency, we see large numbers of individuals and families renting. The lack of integration of renters into the proposed statutory framework of the Bill is concerning. The Minister of State addressed this in his speech. We would welcome copies of the speech in order that we might look at that. He stated that he hopes to work with, I think, the RTB on this issue. The figures we have show that as many as half or more of households that rent will have their landlord's details on the electricity bill. That needs to addressed because while clearly it is to be hoped that landlords will pass on the small saving in bills to renters, we cannot guarantee that.

As I understand it, there is an absence of safeguarding measures in the Bill. The Bill looks at fuel prices, but let us look at the crisis in the cost of living in other areas. Let us hear from the Government about measures to address that. Daft.ie tells us that rents are rising at an annual rate of 6.8% and that Dublin is the sixth most expensive capital city in the world for renters. The average rent for a one-bed unit in my constituency is €1,643 per month. Let us contrast that with stagnant wages and low pay. The only capital cities which can compete with ours on rent are cities like Hong Kong, Singapore, Washington and London. We need to ensure that renters are getting adequate safeguards. The Bill clearly does not go anywhere near addressing the issue of rent increases, but let us ensure at the very least that savings on energy bills are passed on to renters. That is a key issue.

I hope the Government will work with me and with my colleague, Senator Moynihan, our housing spokesperson, to see our renters' rights Bill passed. That Bill would deal with three key issues that clearly impact renters' experience and quality of life, including security of tenure and the cost of rent. We are calling for a three-year rent freeze and for measures to be passed to give renters greater rights to quality life and things like the right to rent an unfurnished apartment or home, which is the norm in other European cities. Our Bill would also end no-fault evictions and restrict the grounds on which a landlord can end a tenancy. What we are seeking is greater protections for renters. That in itself, particularly that three-year rent freeze, will help to address the cost of living for many, ensuring then that rents are capped and that renters have greater security.

I have talked to constituents, especially those who are coming to Ireland from other countries to work and who are appalled at the lack of protection for renters here compared with their own countries. I am told that the norm in other European cities is a three-year rental agreement. Why are we in Ireland wedded to 12-month leases? That gives nobody security. It does not give private landlords security either. I know we have many so-called accidental landlords, and I hear from many constituents in that position too. Why not move to that European norm of a three-year lease as the legal basis for rental agreements? We need to look really carefully at how we can protect renters better and ensure that we target cost of living increases in rental and tenancy costs. That is a key issue that is causing so much hardship across the country, particularly in our cities.

Last week, the Labour Party put forward a motion on the cost of living which sought to create or to propose a broader package of measures to ensure we address some of these issues - not just energy prices but also issues such as the price of accommodation, rent and house purchase. We put that motion forward also in a context in which we have seen from Oxfam figures showing that there has been a significant increase of wealth for a very small number of individuals in our society. Those figures were very striking and show that the wealth of Ireland's nine billionaires had increased by nearly 60% since March 2020 while most people have seen incomes and wages stagnate and the cost of rent, fuel and food increase. With all the talk and all the really admirable solidarity we have seen as we have gone through the Covid pandemic and the public health restrictions required by it, it is frustrating to read of these figures, particularly when we know how much fuel and energy prices are rising, how much childcare costs are rising and how much rent has risen for so many. That context makes this proposed measure feel tokenistic. It requires us to put forward a systematic approach to reducing the cost of living in all areas. That is what we sought to do in our motion last week. We were very disappointed the Government did not accept the motion in the good faith and the constructive spirit in which it was offered.

Among the measures we put forward were the introduction of an emergency energy costs relief package for households. We called for targeted support for those in energy poverty through the widening of access to the fuel allowance and the introduction of a refundable carbon tax credit for low-income households. We had proposed that measure in our alternative budget last October, so it is not a new idea but, rather, something we believe would offer a much more targeted way of addressing rising fuel costs. It would offer practical support to people while supporting the phasing out in the longer term of fossil fuels, a much more realistic approach to the task at hand than an effective subsidy of fossil fuels. Ours is a measure that seeks to address the other crisis I have mentioned, which, I know, the Minister of State and his party are very aware of, namely the climate crisis and the crisis of rising carbon emissions. We also call for a windfall levy to be imposed on excessive profits made in the energy sector to offset rising prices. We have seen such a measure introduced in other jurisdictions recently. That would look at targeting not only the cost-of-living crisis but also that key crisis of the climate.

I wish to locate the debate on the cost of living and this debate within the context of that climate crisis. It sometimes feels as if there is a rather disjointed approach to policy on the part of the Government. We heard of that disjointed or disconnected approach in the leaks from the parliamentary party meetings of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael last night, with apparently different views being put forward by the Taoiseach and Tánaiste as to how to address the cost of living, whether to increase the rebate or look at other measures. We are all agog, waiting to see what will come out of that. It is a disjointed approach, however. We see that disconnection even more when we try to link the climate crisis with the cost-of-living crisis. Let us not forget that in November and December there was a period of about six weeks when we were in this Chamber several times per week, rightly, discussing Ireland's need to meet its ambitious climate targets. I and my party support the Government in seeking to meet those ambitious targets and we support the carbon tax, but we are disappointed to see a lack of joined-up thinking when we see measures such as this come from the Government without commensurate measures to address the climate crisis, which has not gone away just because we are focusing on inflation in this debate. While being conscious that inflation is at a 20-year high, we need to ensure that the measures we are taking to address that crisis for people will also match the measures we take on the climate crisis. For example, a number of people around the country availed of the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, better energy warmer homes scheme for smaller insulation projects many years ago but are now seeking to undertake further works which would have the effect of reducing energy costs for people while also reducing emissions. Many people are excluded from the scheme because a period of ten years has not yet passed since the initial project. That is problematic. It would be easy for the Government to fix that. Doing so would address both climate and cost-of-living issues.

Last month, I submitted a parliamentary question to the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications to ask if he would amend the SEAI rules on the one home, one visit restriction on the warmer homes scheme to allow homeowners to reapply for works that were not supported by grants in the 2014 scheme, such as external wall insulation on houses in which the walls are solid and therefore ineligible, and if he would consider loosening that problematic ten-year limit. The Minister, in his reply, revealed that there were no such plans to ease the burden on lower income households, which are particularly vulnerable to energy poverty. I would like to hear more from the Minister of State about the logic of that decision. It simply does not seem logical to me and does not seem to connect with a joined up approach to Government thinking. I am conscious that Ireland is very far off our retrofitting target of 50,000 and that there is a need to accelerate rapidly the rate at which we are enabling people to retrofit homes. Lots of measures are being taken at ground level to address this.

Just last Friday I had the pleasure of officiating at a graduation ceremony for a group of people who had just finished an intensive programme in construction skills.

It was being run by the brilliant people at St. Andrew's Resource Centre on Pearse Street in co-operation with a range of State agencies, including the Dublin Port Company, which supplied the land for the course to be run. The organisers of the course, which has an excellent 63% job placement rate, are putting together a course on retrofitting and green homes with a view to upskilling sufficient numbers of people to undertake the smaller scale retrofitting projects that will make a difference to many individuals and households experiencing energy poverty. It will also make a major difference to meeting our domestic climate targets for households.

The inspirational approach being taken by those involved in this training programme is admirable and they have been supported by Ministers and Deputies from across the parties, yet they are scrabbling for funding to continue the programme. This is just one example of where we see initiatives that would greatly assist in addressing fuel poverty issues and the climate crisis but where we do not see joined-up Government thinking in supporting them.

We are proposing measures at national level through the Dáil. We are also looking for Government support for local initiatives. We believe that this sort of joined-up thinking would be preferable to the tokenistic, scattergun or even confetti approach that is being taken with the sort of measure before the House today. We need to see more targeted measures to tackle the cost of living. I cannot say that enough. We need to see radical measures like a three-year rent freeze, cuts to public transport prices and the carbon tax credit proposed in our budget. These are the types of measure that will make a real difference.

We must be conscious that the reality of low pay and job insecurity for many people is being exaggerated by the current inflation figures. That is the stark context of the €100 rebate. It is inadequate when contrasted with average heating price increases of more than €770 or when considered in light of data from the Parliamentary Budget Office suggesting that inflation will offset increases in the contributory State pension such that the purchasing power the pension carries will decrease.

Given that we are in a context of rising inflation and we are conscious of the reality of low pay and job insecurity for far too many, the more targeted package of measures that we are calling for needs to be adopted by the Government so that people do not have to make a call between paying for food and paying for energy, which is the reality for too many. We need to see more ambitious, more targeted and more strategic approaches from the Government, approaches that show joined-up thinking and a co-ordinated tackling of the two giant crises facing us, namely, the climate emergency and the crisis that is being felt by all too many in the cost of living and spiralling increases in rents, housing costs, fuel, food and, indeed, childcare, which is an issue on which I hope we will see radical measures being taken by the Government. We will be pushing for that.

This legislation is the Government's response to the excessive costs and burdens being placed on households by electricity bills. It might be a welcome reprieve for the moment at a cost of €215 million, but it does little to guarantee that we will not be here again throwing hundreds of millions of euro more of taxpayers' money at meeting bills that are far too excessive and well in excess, I might add, of genuine contributing factors like international gas prices.

As I have stated in the Dáil and media commentary, I have deep concerns about the ESB. In the first half of 2021 while businesses throughout the country struggled and hundreds of thousands of people fought to survive on the pandemic unemployment payment, the ESB announced an increase of €114 million in operating profits. Before exceptional items, its operating profit was €363 million. Equinor, one of the world’s largest players in the energy market, has pulled out of a joint arrangement with the ESB, seemingly unable to make things work in Ireland. I have challenged the ESB on several fronts - questioning its role in energy costs, how public service obligations benefit it and how it is regulated - and sought an investigation into manipulation of the energy market. Most of all, I cannot understand how we have arrived at a situation where there is such a grave lack of energy security in a country that is brimming with energy sources. I have decided to take these ESB and regulatory issues to the European Union for a state aid investigation and to the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission for an investigation of the ESB's price hikes in the wholesale energy market, which impact thereafter on householders.

In recent years, our State has proven unable to oversee the ESB. We do not seem to have been able to supervise or regulate it properly. We have also failed in developing new forms of energy supply. We know that renewable generation accounts for 40% of the energy grid, but the majority of those renewables are land-based wind projects, and when the wind stops blowing we can see its impact on the wholesale energy market and, consequently, household energy bills.

I believe that the European Commission will now ensure that the ESB is properly overseen and regulated. Since EU regulation will ensure a functioning company and market for the consumer, it will not be in the State's interests to continue to own the ESB. It has served a useful purpose over the decades and has been an asset for the State, but the time has come to have a debate on its ownership. The State has often been a pointless owner of assets and a terrible shareholder. It has also been unable to supervise the companies it owns, either lacking the technical people to see what its businesses are doing or the powers to curb them. Ownership is no longer the key determinant of how dominant companies operate. Rather, proper regulation is, and that is what the EU will insist upon. We should sell the company off and use the money to power our move into offshore wind and other industries for a green future. Of course, staff and other interested parties should be allowed to participate in the sale's proceeds, but the bulk must be used to invest in the future and ensure that we have a functioning energy market.

The availability of a rich supply of sustainable energy will be the great commodity of the future. Ireland has potential in abundance and needs to maximise its geography to its advantage in the world. It is then that we will be sure that legislation such as this will not be necessary again.

This Bill is an emergency benefits scheme to give relief to families that have been victims of significant price increases across the board. Recently in my constituency, we held an online meeting of people who were concerned about the cost of living crisis they were facing. It could be broken down into a number of areas. Energy was one of the main ones - we are trying to do something practical about it today - but the major one was the cost of housing. Rent in particular is a significant problem for people, as is the cost of childcare. For people living in rural areas who must travel to work, fuel is a significant problem. Its cost has gone through the roof.

We need to get a grip on this situation and recognise that the Government has to play an active role and try to support people through this period. I hope that it will be a short period. A concern I have about this Bill is that it is one-off legislation. We are going to the trouble of creating a Bill for a one-off payment when we should instead be providing for a regulation to allow this payment to be repeated if a similar crisis arises in future. Doing this would not place any extra cost on the Exchequer.

The Bill is a blunt instrument that gives the payment to everyone, even people who are well off and do not need it. An amendment could be made so that people in those circumstances could divert their payments to charities, which would then disburse the money to people in greater need of it.

I take slight issue with Deputy Cowen's proposal regarding the ESB. I have bad memories of Eircom, as will many of us who bought shares that ended up being worth nothing. We were told at the time that the only way to get broadband provision was to privatise the company and that the State was the block. Of all things, it was broadband that we could not get a hold of at that time. Here we are today in a very similar position. Nothing has changed. Before the State considers doing anything with the very valuable assets and companies that have been built up by hard work over many generations, any such move needs to be thought out very carefully. The mistakes of the past in that regard should never be repeated. While regulation may play a role in all of that, at the end of the day, we need hands-on State control of the company in an island economy like ours, which does not have access to neighbours that can provide energy to us as freely as would be the case if we had land borders with them. It would be a very retrograde step to go in the proposed direction.

To go back to the Bill, we support it but it does not go nearly far enough to deal with the many problems people have. At the least, it needs to be recognised that the one thing we could do very simply, and which I implore the Government and Minister to do, is to amend the legislation to allow this measure to be repeated in the future.

I have some detailed comments to make about this Bill but first I must say that I find it alarming that there are calls from the Government backbenches to sell off and privatise the ESB. Given the issues we face in terms of energy security, our climate change challenges and the cost of living, which we are now discussing, any proposals to sell off or privatise the ESB need to be strongly opposed. Privatisation would be a disaster for this country. Privatising Telecom Éireann was an absolute disaster. We would now have broadband in public ownership and rolled out nationally, which is needed for economic and social reasons, if the disastrous decision to privatise Eircom had not been taken years ago to the benefit, of course, of the people who made money out of that privatisation process. Privatisation of core public services, including energy supply and security, has been a disaster in other countries. We should not be following any proposals or suggestions to do likewise here. I strongly oppose those calls. I call on the Government Ministers and every party in this House to oppose them as well.

I welcome the opportunity to debate this Bill. The fact that this is an emergency measures Bill says a lot about how the Government has responded to rising energy costs, energy poverty and our future energy needs. There have been adequate opportunities for the Government to intervene ahead of rises in energy costs to establish short-term solutions such as income supports while adequately resourcing and funding long-term solutions such as a strategy for combating energy poverty, none of which has been done to date. My colleague, Deputy Whitmore, raised the need for Dáil statements on rising energy costs back in September, when rising energy costs were first predicted. That was more than four months ago. My colleagues in the Social Democrats and I have since consistently called for short-term income supports to support people and help buffer them from rising energy prices, pre-empting the cliff that many families could face far into the winter months. In all of that time, energy prices have shot up, with household electricity costs rising by approximately 70% from late 2020 to the end of last year. Some estimates calculate that these hikes have added an additional €1,000 to €1,300 to the average home's yearly expenses. This is nearly twice as high as previous calculations of approximately €700.

The Social Democrats has also called for families in receipt of the working family payment to be eligible for the fuel allowance and for the widening of the criteria for the means-tested energy components of the household benefits package. Unfortunately, the Government only saw fit to widen eligibility for fuel allowance to jobseekers who have been on the payment for more than 12 months, down from 15 months. Furthermore, basic social welfare payments only increased by €5 in budget 2022. There were no attempts to increase the qualified child payment to assist families with children, among other social welfare-related supports. As short-term measures go, these do not go far enough nor are they in line with the extent to which energy prices are increasing.

We also called for a moratorium on utility disconnections. While this was not granted, my colleague, Deputy Whitmore, did speak with the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, which confirmed the range of measures in place to help people struggling to pay their bills. These include switching supplier, engaging with the company, placing their name on a priority list of people suffering from a medical condition and engaging with the social welfare community officer for discretionary payment if they could not pay an upcoming bill. Of course, these are not sufficient and it is hard for people to negotiate these measures. Instead of applying a range of other short-term measures, the Government sharply focused its energy on a once-off emergency stopgap measure, which is really more about delaying and scrambling than reacting properly.

This payment is cited as being one of a suite of measures to mitigate the effects of the recent significant rises in electricity prices, which includes support through the social protection system. It is a mystery as to what this suite of measures actually comprises when existing supports have not been increased to the extent required in this situation.

Furthermore, the payment is not targeted. According to the last census, there are 62,000 holiday homes in Ireland. Under the Government's current plan to issue €100 credit to every household in the country, more than €6 million will be spent to provide financial assistance to the owners of these homes. I do not accept the argument that holiday home owners should be in receipt of Government assistance to pay their bills. I feel more work could have been done to target this payment better towards those who are really struggling with bills at the moment. The Government has stated that it cannot target this support at those most in need as it would be overly complex to do so. That contention is dubious given that the scheme was announced in December and the credit will not be paid until March, a period of four months during which a more targeted approach could have been devised.

My colleague, Deputy Whitmore, questioned the request to waive prelegislative scrutiny, through which there would have been an opportunity to look at this in more detail and come up with a solution. It could have been done quickly and in a timely manner through the Joint Committee on Environment and Climate Action. Was the removal of holiday homes ever considered? Were ways to make this payment more targeted looked into and, if so, to what extent?

In the long term, we need to think about implementing a new strategy to combat energy poverty. Such a strategy is nowhere to be seen. Despite there having already been three strategies to combat poverty, there is no movement on a fourth. A review is currently being carried out of the implementation of the strategy to combat energy poverty, which the Minister said will be completed in the coming months and will inform the next steps with regard to the development of a new strategy. My colleague, Deputy Whitmore, submitted a parliamentary question asking for an update. It was put to her that significant progress had been made since the last strategy was published in 2016. Most of these commitments relate to increasing funding for numerous retrofitting schemes, many of which are still not operational. I do not believe this can be counted as progress as it will be years before people get the full benefit of living in warmer homes. Meanwhile, many people are slipping into the fuel poverty net with little support to keep them afloat.

On this topic, we can address both the financial and environmental cost of high energy prices by making our homes more energy efficient. Energy-efficient homes help reduce our carbon footprint as they require less fuel to heat but they also help to address fuel poverty. Despite Government strategies specifically aimed at tackling energy poverty, barriers to accessing grants persist, especially for low-income households. These are the households that are most likely to use solid fuels such as coal and peat but policies have often sidelined these very households, those that need the most support. The upfront costs associated with accessing sustainable energy grants act as a barrier for those on low incomes. Too often, subsidies are only taken up by those who can afford to make the necessary investment. Retrofitting is a prime example of this. As those who need them most can often not avail of the grants due to cost, in effect, these subsidies transfer wealth to households on higher incomes. With more than 230,000 homes having the lowest building energy ratings, F and G, it is imperative that the Government support these households by redesigning these schemes to make them more accessible. According to the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, those living in homes with ratings of F or G have a much higher indicative cost. In fact, a two-bed apartment with a rating of F or G has an indicative annual cost of €2,400 to €3,000, three to four times the fuel allowance.

As a household increases in size, so too does the heating cost. A three-bedroom semi-detached house with a low energy-efficiency rating costs between €3,200 and €4,000 to heat. The fuel allowance and other social welfare supports are not increasing in line with inflation or energy costs, which means a huge cohort of people is being left behind. This is completely unacceptable.

There are other long-term initiatives that the Government needs to focus on better, including those associated with energy demand, renewable energy generation and just transition. With regard to energy demand and generation, an upgrade of the national grid must be a key element of infrastructural investment so communities, co-operatives, farms and individuals can produce renewable energy and sell what they do not use back to the national grid, thus becoming self-sustaining and contributing to meeting our national targets.

Our energy infrastructure is not fit for purpose to address the everyday energy needs of people living in Ireland, so it can hardly cater for large-scale projects such as data centres. In that context, we need to acknowledge the energy demand on an energy system that is wholly antiquated. The facts speak for themselves. The annual increase in energy demand from data centres in the past four years was the equivalent of adding 140,000 households to the power system each year. This is not sustainable and it is now threatening our energy security, investments worth billions of euro, and thousands of jobs.

My colleague, Deputy Jennifer Whitmore, has spoken many times on this issue. We do not tire of saying we need a strategy to manage the current and future energy demands in respect of data centres.

Our energy infrastructure needs rapid modernisation to meet not only our energy needs but also our climate action goals. Our renewed ambition to meet the target of having 80% of our energy generated using renewable resources by 2030 is now aligned with our climate action plan and will require an urgent overhaul of the outdated legislation facilitating the development of offshore wind farms. There are many wind farms planned for locations off the east coast that will generate a huge amount of green electricity, but the capacity will be threatened if any delays are incurred.

We need a management strategy to manage current and projected energy demand in Ireland so we can prevent energy price hikes, ensure people can afford the energy they need and assist people with their capacity to adapt to climate change and lower their carbon footprint. Right now, the Government is expecting individuals to take on too great a burden to adapt to climate change. They can barely keep afloat considering the current cost of living. This is an important point if we are to bring people with us, which we need to do.

With regard to just transition, we are at a crossroads. We need to start examining and meeting our climate action targets and our reduction targets together because the two go hand in hand. This will be important in building and maintaining public support in the years to come. If we do not do that successfully, it will threaten our capacity to have support in meeting our climate action targets. This is incredibly important. It should be a priority for all of us, particularly the Government, considering what we need to do by way of climate action in the coming years. If we do not do so properly, we will put in jeopardy the support for the many actions that will be needed.

Eliminating energy poverty and protecting people from it should comprise a key pillar of any just transition platform, which many organisations, including Social Justice Ireland, advocate. Groups such as Social Justice Ireland advocate a wide range of incentives to reflect these priorities and call for a focus on short- and long-term costs of addressing energy poverty for various groups in society.

The Minister has spoken regularly about just transition when it comes to achieving our climate change and climate action targets; however, these words can sound very hollow unless increases in social welfare payments are introduced to help people to manage the increased burden of rising energy prices, and unless there are supports for people on low incomes in general.

Significant investment across all platforms must be made to ensure our society meets its climate targets and to have a just transition. Ireland has significant work to do in this area and has consistently been one of the poorest performers in the European Union in meeting emissions targets.

To secure energy supply in the future, we need to ramp up renewable energy development and make inroads to reform the current planning regulatory environment. While it is welcome that moves to provide a scheme for households to sell solar power back to the grid are being progressed, we have an ambitious renewable electricity target to meet. The climate action plan has set out an ambitious goal of generating up to 80% of electricity from renewables by 2030. Reform of the Irish planning regulatory environment has been slow and we risk not facilitating the levels of investment needed to meet the renewable energy targets.

Meanwhile, the Government has complicated matters by prioritising the development of maritime consents without giving equal priority to looking towards Government commitments to expand Ireland’s marine protected area network from 2.13% to 30% by 2030. This will require creating a marine protected-area regime, which requires another major change to current marine environmental protection laws. Sufficient inroads have not been made to put this on a statutory footing. It is another example of the crossroads we are at, where our climate action targets are meeting social issues such as energy poverty. We need to secure our energy for the future through renewables to reduce poverty, but we need to reduce energy poverty without also damaging our environment. If we do not proceed in this way, we will risk failing to make a socially just transition to a zero-carbon economy. It is not an easy crossroads to cross but it is certain that an emergency measure like the one we are debating will do nothing to create genuine, tangible pathways for people already in energy poverty, or at risk of poverty, to move towards a socially just zero-carbon economy.

The rising cost of living is crippling many people. Constituents tell me regularly that the day-to-day costs of running a home are becoming unmanageable. The cost of electricity is without doubt one of the biggest issues for householders. The rising cost of electricity is a global trend, a trend that is creating cost-of-living issues right across the world. Here in Ireland, it is impacting renters, homeowners, young people, and pensioners. It is affecting ordinary hardworking people, whose salaries or hourly rates are not rising in line with the cost of electricity. Therefore, I really welcome this emergency measure from the Government to provide a one-off relief payment of €100 towards each household’s electricity bill. This will put €210 million back where it is needed, in people’s pockets.

I was contacted by many constituents who welcomed this measure when it was announced in December. I am really pleased we are able to move on it now. It has been hard to put together but it is really welcome. I ask the Minister of State to consider establishing a hardship fund to help families and individuals who may need additional support to meet the rising cost of living.

While I welcome the payment to help with the cost of electricity, I believe we should also be focusing on long-term sustainable options to make electricity more affordable. Ireland has huge potential to deliver renewable wind energy at a massive scale. This would give us the opportunity to create new jobs in rural towns and villages along the coast, meaning we would be investing in and renewing those communities. Ireland could produce 20% of the offshore renewable energy of the entire European Union in 20 or 30 years. Think about that for a second. Wind energy could become our biggest contributor to reducing carbon emissions and creating tens of thousands of jobs outside our core cities. It would mean creating sustainable, affordable energy streams.

In Ireland, we have one of the world’s strongest wave capacities and steady winds, which give us a unique resource, but this resource is not tapped into sufficiently. That is why I really welcomed the Maritime Area Planning Bill both on Committee Stage and when it was before the Dáil last month. The Bill will help us to achieve our renewable energy targets for 2030 and bring in a much-needed planning regime for offshore wind. While I welcome the one-off cost reduction concerning electricity bills, it is really important that we continue to work on developing sustainable electricity provisions.

I have also been contacted by some constituents who have taken steps to retrofit their homes. They are concerned over the prospect of rising energy costs given that they may be spending more time working from home.

That is why they have made that sustainable switch. While it is right for the Government to do whatever is in our power to tackle the rising cost of traditional energy, it is also an opportunity for us to encourage homeowners to make the switch to long-term, more affordable and sustainable sources of energy. We can do that by incentivising people financially.

I recently got a query from a constituent who was looking to install a new solar panel system. Altogether, with fitting and parts, the cost came to €9,000 in total. They researched all the necessary materials and components, all high-quality and all sourced in Ireland with long warranties, and found the cost came to about €3,000 for materials alone. They will receive a grant of €3,000 towards the cost, but it will still leave a shortfall of €6,000 for installation and labour, which I am told takes about two days. What is causing such overhead costs? Do we need to consider increasing the retrofit grant? What can we do to support people who want to make that sustainable switch? Not many people can afford €9,000 to install solar panels.

I welcome the interim relief that this payment will give to families who are struggling to pay their electricity bills. I welcome all further long-term actions to alleviate the cost of living for the many people who are struggling with it.

I welcome the news that both the Taoiseach and Tánaiste finally acknowledged last night that this €100 credit does not go far enough to help people who are trapped in the cost-of-living crisis. When this proposal first came up, we in Sinn Féin explained that it would not be enough. It has taken too long for the Government to realise this. It goes to show how out of touch the Government is with ordinary people and the cost-of-living crisis that ordinary families must live through every week. The crisis affects everyone. At one time, this would just affect those in poverty, in social housing and on low incomes. However, we are now hearing that this is affecting people with good jobs, including families with both parents working. The cost increases in electricity, gas, oil and rent are now crippling families and other people who are trying to work and get by.

I will give one example. Home heating oil has increased by 53%. In May of this year, the Government will introduce the carbon tax which will drive these prices up even more. What the Government is doing is a scandal and shame. During the Covid-19 crisis we all stood together, but that seems to be the only time the Government will stand with people. We have a crisis in the cost of energy for ordinary people who are trying to live. Where is the Government's €100? People need it now. Many people are in trouble today. Why is it not being delivered? Why was this kicked down the road?

This is no longer just affecting certain people; everyone is feeling it. For the first time in over two decades, the cost of living is going through the roof. However, what is really worrying is that the penny is only dropping now and the Government is still not taking the action needed. People have been feeling this for months. The Government ignores our calls, ignores people and ignores the bills that are going through the roof. Sinn Féin wants to bring forward credible solutions. We want to help people through this crisis. The first thing that should happen is a rent freeze.

This week, I was contacted by a lady who is worried about her electricity being cut off. Will the Government allow people's electricity to be cut off at this time of year? It is wrong. It is finally time for the Government to stand up and realise that this is a crisis and that it needs to act now.

I will be sharing time with Deputy Paul Murphy. People are facing additional costs to heat their homes. The estimates vary but €800 over the year is a reasonable estimate by bonkers.ie. Against that background, €100 is pathetic and insulting. It is a drop in the ocean and will not cut it. It is good the Government seems to be acknowledging that more needs to be done, as others have said. We made the point during the debate on the budget that a €5 increase and failure to expand eligibility for the fuel allowance were just not good enough.

When the scheme was first announced towards the end of the year, we were very clear in saying it was pathetic and was not enough. The Government did not understand that people were literally choosing between food and heating their homes, or between paying the rent and heating their homes. People are being hammered in every direction. A payment of €100 against that background is utterly pathetic and insulting. The Government will need to do much more now.

The one piece of advice I strongly urge the Government not to take is the shocking suggestion that came from Deputy Cowen a few moments ago. How wrong can somebody be? Deputy Cowen must be out of his mind to suggest the answer to the current spiral in energy costs is to privatise the ESB. That is the last thing we need to do. In fact, the decision to move the ESB away from being a not-for-profit entity to being essentially a commercial entity, even though it is publicly owned, was the beginning of the onward and relentless drive upwards in the cost of electricity and energy. Privatisation is the problem. The commodification of energy supply and distribution has been a total disaster.

This is the key point we need to make. Some people present inflation or a rising cost of living as if it is like the weather and it is just that the weather has changed. We need to take measures, maybe short-term measures or maybe slightly longer-term measures, to deal with change in the weather. Inflation is not a change in the weather. Inflation is one group of people robbing another group of people. We really need to get that into our heads. The ESB last year made €363 million in operating profit and that was low compared with the previous year when it made €616 million in operating profits and paid out €81 million in dividends. When the pockets of working people are looted with shocking increases in the price of electricity or gas or heating oil, somebody else is making money.

That is true on a global scale and it is true domestically in this country. Shell is crowing about its quarterly profits. Shell's quarterly global sales, mostly of gas, were €6.4 billion, a dramatic increase. It pointed out that 2020 was a bit of a tough year for it, but it is all over now and it is enjoying a bonanza. In just three months it has made €6.4 billion. Those who buy shares in Shell, as I am sure plenty of rich people in this country do, or those who have shares in any of these privatised energy companies, including some of the ones that will or are producing wind energy, are doing fine.

People who are private or public tenants have absolutely no control whatsoever over the level of insulation in their homes and, as a result, the amount of energy they need to heat them. Many social housing or private tenants are screwed and crucified. A disproportionate number of the hundreds of thousands of low-paid workers or people in receipt of disability or other social welfare benefits are being absolutely crucified just to keep themselves warm. On top of that, they have to pay rent. All of that is going into somebody else's pocket.

The decision to cut back supplies globally during Covid was done to keep up profits. It is as simple as that. It was not done based on people's energy needs, but rather to maintain profits and so that companies could keep paying dividends to people who can afford to put their extra wealth into buying shares in large corporations. That is the reality of the situation. Inflation is not caused by weather or a natural phenomenon; rather, it is one group of people using a crisis to loot the pockets of the people who can least afford it.

Our starting point has to be that recognition, and that then dictates what sort of short- and long-term measures the Government takes. In the short term, we need to control the price of energy, electricity and heating. We need to introduce price caps, just as in order to control the spiralling cost of rent we need to introduce rent controls. Anything less will not cut it. If we leave it to the market, these people will continue to ensure their profits are high, whether from energy and electricity or the rents and wealth they generate. We need controls so that the basic things that people need to survive are affordable for ordinary people. Anything less is not good enough.

Nobody else in the House seems to want to talk about this stuff. We have pointed out that under the Consumer Protection Act, the Government has the power to declare an emergency regarding the cost of energy and impose maximum unit price costs. Why will the Government not do that? My God, the Government was pouring billions into large corporations to keep them propped up during Covid, but it seems we cannot introduce the same kind of emergency measures to control the price of energy and electricity in companies that, I repeat, are making lots of profit and could well absorb that. That is what should happen, in particular when those companies are publicly owned.

My God, the Government should not make a bad situation worse and pour fuel on the fire – sorry for the pun – by privatising these entities and drive them further in the direction of profit rather than ensuring that we provide for the energy needs of people in this country. God Almighty, it is absolutely shameful. I have never been a fan of Fianna Fáil, but at least at one point it constructed Ardnacrusha, established the ESB and so on and created an energy company-----

Fine Gael is claiming the credit for that. Apologies. Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil - it does not make much difference in truth. It is the same to us. The idea was to have a State company, rather than leaving it to the private market to produce energy. A publicly owned company was created which operated on a not-for-profit basis. That is what needs to be done.

We also need to extend eligibility for the fuel allowance to the many pensioners and low-paid workers who are being absolutely crucified by energy costs. We need to dramatically reduce, or withdraw, carbon taxes. Why are tenants or low-paid workers who cannot afford, through their own resources, to retrofit their homes being punished for what other people are doing? Why are they being punished more than people who have the money to retrofit their homes? Those who have the money, as wealthy people do, can mitigate the cost of energy price hikes. It is the working people, the poor, the less well-off and public and private tenants who are being absolutely crucified by this and do not have the resources to do anything about it.

The Government should reduce the level of VAT, as the Spanish have done, and the PSO levies. Plenty of measures could be taken to deal with this. We also need to address the income inequalities which are being exacerbated by the inflation crisis, not just the 5.7% or 4.4% projected for next year because they are averages. Inflation is disproportionately higher for people who have to spend a larger proportion of their income on rent or keeping a roof over their head.

We need to provide wage increases to working people. I met a group of private security workers, a group we have not talked about much in the past while. They provide security in hospitals and on public transport. They work in all sorts of public and private buildings. They are earning €11.65 per hour. How is somebody supposed to live on that? They cannot get a miserable pay increase to bring them up to €12.05 per hour because of some ERO thing. Wages should be increased to a decent living wage like €15 per hour. Everybody should be given increases that at least match the rate of inflation so that they can cope with the increased cost of living being imposed on them.

As well as the energy side of things, we have to deal with the biggest cost for most people, which is putting a roof over their heads. That means introducing rent controls and not relying on the market to deliver housing supply, something it is proving to be completely incapable of doing. We need to deliver the scale of public affordable housing we need, which profit hungry private property investors are not willing or able to do.

I cannot think of the last time that, by the time the Government came forward on Second Stage with a proposal, it had basically publicly acknowledged it was not good enough and would not do anything. That is the state we are in now, given the comments that have been reported from yesterday's parliamentary party meetings.

On the one hand, it speaks to the scale of the crisis facing ordinary people, in terms of the rising cost of living, of which energy prices are a key driving component, and the pressure that the Government feels. On the other hand, it speaks to the inadequacy of the proposals it has to deal with that.

We can go back to the motion we put forward on the energy crisis four or five months ago, where the response of the Government was an amendment where the punchline said the market will solve all the problems and that we should rely on the free market. The free market means energy prices continue to go through the roof. The big energy companies are taking advantage of the situation to increase prices again and again and continue to make massive profits. All the Government has to offer people on the receiving end of this price gauging is €113. It is a drop on a hot stove, will be wiped out by the price increases immediately and made to appear minuscule.

The over-reliance of this Government and previous Governments on fossil fuels to power the economy has left Ireland at the mercy of global supply chain bottlenecks, as industries and countries try to boom back after the Covid pandemic lockdown and shifting global weather pattern lead to greater energy use. Price increases are compounded by the Government's strategy of making ordinary householders foot the bill for gas and electricity infrastructure instead of ensuring its paid for in a fairer and more equitable way.

It is worth comparing the price households in this country pay for gas to elsewhere in the EU. In the second half of 2019, they paid 12% above the EU average. Electricity prices were 11% above the EU average in 2019. In 2021 they were 18% above the EU average. What is the consequence of high energy prices?

It hits those who are already struggling to pay the rent and buy groceries and who must make the choice between heating and eating.

Looking at the figures for deaths from cold-related diseases or excess winter deaths as a consequence of the cold and people not being able to heat themselves properly, they are astounding. There are 2,800 people who die this way per year, and we can put that in the context of Covid-19. We were in favour of taking the best possible approach to minimise the impact of Covid-19 and deaths arising from it. Approximately 2,300 excess deaths were recorded during the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic between March 2020 and February 2021, so the number of excess winter deaths is more than the number of excess deaths from Covid-19.

Contrary to what Deputy Cowen suggested earlier, the roots of the Irish aspects of this problem lie precisely in the direction of the privatisation and deregulation that has been going on. The answer is to move in the opposite direction, as opposed to what Deputy Cowen suggests. From the 1990s onwards, the EU sought to break up state-run energy companies across Europe, such as the ESB and Bord Gáis. In 1996 and 1998, the EU introduced the first electricity and gas directives, which forced states to open their energy systems and sell power plants and infrastructure to private capitalists. The Irish Government did not then seek derogations from these directives, despite the fact the small size of the Irish market would exacerbate the worst effects of privatisation. In 1999, Fianna Fáil introduced the Electricity Regulation Act 1999, opening the market to competition, and two years later it removed the not-for-profit mandate of the ESB. Formerly public companies that were run on a not-for-profit basis were forced into a market, requiring them to behave instead like private capitalists seeking higher rates of profits.

The consequence of this has been predictably disastrous. Prices, rates of energy poverty, disconnections and the number of cold-related deaths all rose dramatically. Privatisation or "unbundling" also brought inordinate costs. Each private company involved expects a rate of profit of approximately 8% on its investment so when the price of inputs increase, it passes on those increases to maintain its rate of profit. Energy supplier companies are charged for moving energy throughout the system and such charges are passed to ordinary energy users, making up a third of the household Bill. These are special transmission use of system charges paid by suppliers to EirGrid and Gas Networks Ireland for using their transmission network and distribution use of system of tariffs paid to ESB Networks and Gas Networks Ireland to distribute energy. These charges are the third highest in the EU and, as I said, are a third of a user's bill.

Each company seeks to maximise its profit in a specific field and does not adopt an holistic approach to energy consumption. A reduction in energy usage runs counter to these companies' economic interest, and this means those interests are the opposite of the interests of society at large. The first renewable energy, in a sense, is energy efficiency or reducing the amount of energy we are using. This would get us off the track of a huge expansion in the use of data centres, although unfortunately the Government still seems to be committed to this. We should encourage users to reduce energy usage but such measures are not being adopted. Instead, the focus is on forcing households to remain locked into high energy use and prices.

Irish homes are consuming 7% more energy than the EU average due to years of hands-off housing policy, low quality standards and a painfully slow retrofitting programme. The alternative, as outlined by Deputy Boyd Barrett, is immediate price control. The Government has the power to do this but refuses to do it. Price controls could be imposed tomorrow at the stroke of two ministerial pens; they would indicate the maximum unit price for gas, electricity or oil. A second element of this is renationalisation of the energy sector, using it as a lever for a rapid transition to renewable energy. A third element is massive State investment in retrofitting. The State should borrow the required money at low cost and do this retrofitting for households at zero cost. Over time, the benefit would accrue back to the State and household. It would be an absolute win for everybody in society and our environment.

I am thankful for the opportunity to speak to the energy question for a few minutes in this Second Stage debate. I support the Bill and acknowledge, as others on both sides of the House have mentioned, that energy prices and fuel costs in general comprise one of the biggest issues facing citizens of the country and will remain so for the foreseeable future. Many previous speakers have outlined the increases that have taken place in the past few months but it is quite clear that the outlook and projections for the next six months are similarly on an upward trajectory.

I support the measure in the Bill to reduce the cost of electricity for individuals and families right across the country, I hope it or a similar measure can be used in future to ensure something like the particular spike we are experiencing now is not all transferred on to the backs of families and citizens right across the country. However, in my time in public life, we have not really in Ireland had an honest and open debate about energy policy. I disagree with many of the points made by Deputies Paul Murphy and Richard Boyd Barrett but they have certainly put forward their perspectives with their usual eloquence and energy. I do not necessarily or particularly agree with Deputy Cowen that privatisation of the ESB is the right option to consider at this point but at least he put forward his position. Everything in the current climate must be discussed. The Opposition failed in any of its criticism of Deputy Cowen to outline options. Those Members attacked the ESB and other energy providers about the cost at which they provide energy but they do not really provide any alternatives. Too often in this House and other chambers across the country, politicians of all stripes but particularly of the left and far left have portrayed an idea that there are easy options for energy.

What do I mean by that? Currently in Ireland the Corrib gas field, for example, provides 40% of our gas needs but there was a considerable amount of opposition to its development within this Chamber, with no ready alternative being proposed. I question and criticise the decision of the Government to close the peat generation plants, not because peat generation should be sustained indefinitely but because that closure was effected in advance of securing an alternative. I am not trying to portray an image that microgeneration will solve all our energy needs but there were commitments given both in the programme for Government and when the Government was formed on targets for connections and people seeing rebates when supplying into the grid rather than taking energy out of it. I know the Minister, Deputy Ryan, is talking about reaching those now but it is about a year after the original projection. If we are to bring the public with us on what needs to be done in terms of energy projection, small wins like those for microgeneration and other alternatives must be secured. I welcome the fact it is happening now but it should have happened much sooner.

All of this matter flows into the area of planning policy. Virtually every roof in the country should have a solar panel, if at all possible. My part of the country in the south east has a nickname for having more sunshine than most other parts of the country. If a business or private dwelling is installing a flush solar panel on a roof, it should not have to go through the full rigorous planning process. I welcome the initiatives of the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, and his colleagues on the review of planning legislation. Again, it is another method of ensuring we can bring the public with us.

We also have to realise, as I mentioned earlier, that while 40% of our gas comes from the Corrib field, we are on the end of the European gas pipeline. Issues and factors that are far beyond our control, issues that are now current in eastern Europe, will have an impact on energy into the future.

Every public representative has the right to oppose, object and express their view on development, whether it is in the energy field or any other. However, it is completely false to present to the public that there are soft options in terms of energy supply, because there are not. One of the things that particularly bothered me was the letter from the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, to An Bord Pleanála recently with regard to the liquefied natural gas, LNG, plant in Kerry. It is accepted by many experts in the field of energy, as well as in climate, that LNG is going to be a transitional fuel for many years to come. We have already outlawed fracking in this country. I voted for that, accept it and agree with it. However, in respect of LNG that is produced from other sources, thereby enabling us to refine it here, distribute it and not be dependent on our neighbour in the United Kingdom and giving us a level of energy security we do not have, it is wrong for a national Minister to get himself involved in an individual planning application. I know he has strong views and by all means he should express them. However, when it comes to an individual application by a private business, it is not presenting the full picture to the general public. I agree, shockingly, with Deputy Boyd Barrett and others in respect of VAT and excise and factors that are within the control of the Government in terms of easing the cost of energy and fuel. I have never been a particular supporter of nuclear energy, perhaps because I grew up near enough to Carnsore and it was always a topical issue. We have never had a proper reasoned debate about whether it is something that could be a sustainable form of energy in Ireland in the future that should be considered and a rational debate had upon on it. I thank the Ceann Comhairle. I support the aims of this Bill. I hope it can be used in the future to provide similar relief for families across country.

I also with to put on record my rejection of the suggestion from Deputy Cowen about selling off our shares in the ESB. It is sometimes referred to as selling off the family silver. That is a phrase I really disagree with. The family silver does not make money and does not pay dividends into the Irish economy. It is a myopic suggestion from Fianna Fáil that I hope will be utterly rejected. The ESB is not the equivalent of the family silver. It contributes to the Irish economy and selling it off is out of the question.

We have been talking about this Bill for a long time and with the announcement of the €100 rebate, the Government has certainly got a lot of airtime out of it but here we are, debating it. Many of my constituents in north Kildare are absolutely terrified of the electricity and gas bills arriving through the letter box. The cost of living is absolutely rocketing. When people are already pared back to the minimum, some believe there is nothing left to give up. Some people are giving up a meal and many people find themselves in similar situations. I met a pensioner last month who had his coat on, on a really cold day because he was trying to make his fuel allowance go that bit further. I spoke to a mother last week who told me she keeps the heating off during the day because she wants to have it on when the kids come in from school because they are cold from being at school where all windows are open due to the lack of HEPA filtration in the classrooms. Heat is not a luxury; it is a basic human comfort. It is appalling that people are having to be so careful about putting on the heat. Nobody should have to see their family or their children shivering from the cold in the 21st century. We are going back to the days when pensioners travelled on buses during the daytime to try to keep warm. They cannot even do that now because we are in the middle of a pandemic and as every window on the buses is open, they are freezing there, too.

This Bill is welcome insofar as it is long overdue but it could do much more for those who really need it. Those on €81,000 salary increases and earning €420,000 a year in public service jobs are going to get the same €100 rebate that families or individuals barely hanging on are going to receive. High earners do not really need the €100. Low earners need multiples of it. To maximise the impact and to highlight the emergency we are in, this payment should really be targeted. My colleague, Deputy O'Rourke, already has stated we should have a mechanism by which those who can afford it could donate their €100 to a local charity. For example, the Society of St. Vincent De Paul is very good for helping people who are suffering from energy poverty. In addition, people with holiday homes really do not need to receive a double payment. It is also important that renters get the benefit. Deputy O'Rourke mentioned Travellers who pay their electricity costs into a local authority and we must ensure that they can avail of it. I am out of time.

The Electricity Costs (Domestic Electricity Accounts) Emergency Measures Bill is basically a Government initiative to soften the blow of rising energy prices. However it is framed, it entails a once-off payment of €100 to every domestic electricity supply in the country. It is not being means-tested, as the Minister of State outlined, being too onerous for the Department to consider. As well as being paid to domestically occupied houses, the proposal is to pay it to vacant holiday homes also. One presumes the consumption of electricity will be very reduced with no occupancy. It also will be paid to the electricity account holder, which raises obvious questions in tenancy arrangements where the landlord is receiving the rebate. The Minister of State said he is hoping to engage with the Residential Tenancies Board. As I am sure he is aware, there are already significant difficulties in that sector. I do not know how that is going to work.

The Minister of State's proposal has no relationship to the energy efficiency rating of a house or to the year of a house's construction, which might point to some properties with superior energy efficiency, and therefore allow some reduction in State payment. That shows how the Bill has been rushed in the first place. Within the legislation, it appears that the measures are to provide one month's help to families or individuals who actually incur 12 months of annual energy and electricity bills. Who is most affected by rising energy costs? Certainly, low-income families, single-income families and those in substandard accommodation who are paying to heat it. Others affected include those on fixed payment means, particularly pensioners who are on fixed pensions from many years ago, the elderly and those who require constant home heating, such as those who are infirm, those with potential illness and those on blood-thinning medications who always will feel cold and require the central heating to be on all the time.

In the legislation, did the Minister of State consider the rebate position of those who are on a pay-as-you-go electricity meter? Many of these customers are already paying a higher tariff, as the Minister of State is aware, because they are pay through a meter in the first instance and second,, because they are often paying back a previous electricity bill. How are they to receive their rebate? What is the basis of this energy cost inflation? Is it Covid, supply chain interruptions, Russian tanks amassing, OPEC oil rationing, megaphone politicking threatening gas supplies to Europe or is it the re-emergence of global energy demand? These are all parts of the problem. In Ireland, have we also contributed to this domestic energy crisis? Could our decision to dispense with any more offshore gas development without considering viable alternatives be a factor? Could our decision to reduce coal and peat-burning electricity generation, again without viable alternatives, also be a factor? When we placed a carbon levy on fossil fuels, did we think that nobody in the population would notice that an increase in the cost of consumption and the cost of living would plainly follow? Did we think that when we applied additional costs to the existing costs of production that they would not be seen on every utility bill and every shopping centre receipt in the country within weeks? Was the Economics 101 lesson missed by everyone in the Minister's Department framing climate and energy policy? I believe, as I am sure members of my Regional Group do, that this single proposed initiative will not be enough to protect the most vulnerable in our society. More will need to be done to support these families in the coming months, and especially during those months when fuel consumption is high.

This situation also gives rise to a wider debate about the nature of Ireland’s developing national energy and climate policy. We are talking about wind and solar power generation, but where is it? The Maritime Area Regulatory Authority is two years away from being set up yet. We need that agency to be able to control the development of our maritime space. How long will it be before Ireland becomes a net exporter of renewable electricity or even of hydrogen fuel? Equally, how long will it be before we fit and retrofit homes to a high energy standard and allow domestic generation of electricity through wind turbines and solar arrays? I ask because we are far from that situation yet. How long do we intend to remain completely dependent on the supply of international energy, when billions of euro worth of potential energy capacity are sitting off our shores in untapped gas and wind energy resources? We seem to be strategically unable to develop these resources. Instead, we are asking foreign conglomerates to come into this country to buy the rights and, to quote the Disney movie, to then charge us to infinity and beyond for the pleasure of consuming our own resources.

We in the Regional Group tabled a motion on wind energy some months ago which was accepted by the House. Some of the measures contained therein point to the potential existing in solar, gas and wind energy generation in this country. The generation of sustainable offshore wind energy would potentially lead to an investment of more than €100 billion in our economy. The time has come for us to get serious about climate change. We have done the talking and we have decided to get the population on board by telling them that we are charging them for what we are consuming. What we are not doing, and what we are absolutely failing to undertake now, is to institute real and meaningful policy and undertake change to generate and expedite the infrastructural development required in this regard. When we look at what is going on in Portugal, Spain, Germany and Denmark, how can we be so far behind? What is the delay in getting all these policies rolled out?

I cannot say that I welcome this Bill, because the nature of the need it seeks to address is unwelcome. As already stated, we will have to do more to protect vulnerable families. I wait to hear what policies are going to be rolled out in that regard. Most importantly, the only way we can prevent future disruption to our energy supplies is to have our own sources. That means we must develop our own resources and we must get about it now.

It is interesting that we are having this debate. It is good that the original, much maligned measure to provide support to electricity users was mooted in good time. The Government now has an opportunity to tweak that measure to address issues as they emerge, because they are going to be much more severe than was anticipated some months ago. It must be remembered that the Government has not been idle. Some €48 billion had to be spent in supporting the community, the business sector, employers and employees in order to ensure that the country stayed afloat. That was money well spent. Not every country was able to do it, but it was possible to do it here.

We must recognise that it was not an easy time. Decisions had to be taken. The previous speaker made an interesting point regarding decisions. We need our own sources of energy, and we should have acted on this requirement years ago. For some unknown reason, we did not do that. The Ceann Comhairle will remember when I was targeted by people with a great deal of money who tried to ensure that I did not get re-elected because I was supporting the concept of having our own energy resources and of developing them.

Of course, there were objections in certain cases. Some of those objections were based on facts, but some were not. One thing was certain, though. That was the time to start building for our energy requirements. It was eventually decided that we would go out to sea and into the middle of the Atlantic or whatever the case may be. That is not the way to do the business. We have no chance of delivering power in ten years to the extent required from alternative energy sources, including wind generation from the Atlantic. We have no chance whatsoever of doing that because we would have needed to have that investment process already up and running eight to ten years ago.

What will we do next, then? Will we rely on our colleagues across the EU and the UK or where will we get our energy supplies at a price that we can afford when we need them? That latter point is the important aspect. I refer to being able to get energy when we need it and to how we can control the supply. The only way to control energy supplies is for us to own them. It is possible to do that. It is not rocket science. It has been done before and, undoubtedly, it can be done again. I agree with the reservations voiced by some people who say that we should not throw everything away until we have alternative sources of supply in sight and up and ready to run. We should, however, have such alternative energy resources in sight and we must invest now to bring those resources on stream. If we want something in five years’ time, we need to have started investing about four or five years previously. That is the way this works, and that is the way it will continue to work.

My request is this. We recognise now what we must do and we must plan for it. We should not obfuscate as we have tended to do in the past and come up with several reasons why we should not do things when we try to do them. I refer to being able to continue to do things in different ways. Everybody in this country has their own way of doing things. Let us take the example of the situation with national children's hospital, for example. We talked about it for 20 years. After those 20 years, we still could not come to a decision on what was the right way to go about it. We also talked about the provision of broadband for years and years, and we debated it in this House ad infinitum. When it came to reaching a conclusion, it was said that we could not have that because what was suggested was too expensive and we would have to get it done some other way.

It is not a good idea to do things on the cheap in the long term. The Ceann Comhairle and I know that well. Perhaps we have learned lessons. We may have learned how to invest in time and to do so strategically. We may also have learned to put in place the necessary measures to ensure that we do not have serious issues that we cannot handle rear up in our faces. The Ceann Comhairle can tell me how many minutes I have left.

The Deputy has none left because he is over time.

The Ceann Comhairle is just putting me out of my pain. I support the Bill. I hope it does the job it is intended to do. I also hope that we have sufficient resources to undertake whatever else might be required to address the issues in this regard and to invest as necessary.

We will give Deputy Leddin a little extra time.

Go raibh maith agat.

As Deputy Durkan was waxing lyrical, I was thinking that it was not a very wise organisation that decided to take him on in County Kildare. I call Deputy Leddin.

I am happy to have ceded some of my time to my colleague, Deputy Durkan. The €100 which is going to every electricity customer in the State is welcome. Similar schemes have been introduced in other EU countries. I am the Chair of the Joint Committee on Environment and Climate Action. Last week, the committee waived the requirement for pre-legislative scrutiny of this Bill, which is going to bring relief to struggling householders. We were guided in our decision by officials of the Department. I thank them for coming into us, briefing us and helping us with that decision. I also thank the members of the committee who took that decision in the interests of the people of Ireland who are struggling to pay their energy bills.

Listening to the debate, I heard few speakers refer to the reasons we have an energy crisis and why we are in a situation where we are making this €100 payment to electricity customers across the State. The energy crisis that we are experiencing is inexplicably linked with the security crisis looming on the other side of the Continent on the Ukraine border. Approximately 88% of all our energy is imported, and, for geopolitical reasons over which we have no control, the price of the energy that we use in Ireland has risen extraordinarily. As a result, as much as for sound climate reasons, we must wean ourselves off imported energy and especially energy imported from regions of the world which are politically unstable or, indeed, hostile to us. True energy independence and security of supply will come from developing our own indigenous energy resources. These resources are clean and renewable. We have more energy resources within the confines of our borders than we will ever be likely to need, yet we have barely started to harness them.

The events on the Ukraine border, as much as the climate crisis, compel us in Ireland to expedite our efforts. I argued a few weeks ago that it is in Europe's interest that Ireland should build up its deep water port capacity as fast as possible to stage arrays of thousands of large wind turbines off the Atlantic coast, and that our interconnection capacity should be ramped up so that we, not the Russians, can send vast amounts of clean power, not fossil fuel power, to Europe when it needs it. It would be clean power from the west to Europe, rather than dirty, carbon-intensive power from the east.

My colleague, Deputy Higgins, was correct earlier when she outlined the scale of the opportunity and said that we must accelerate it. Unlike other Deputies across the House who spoke in this debate, I believe we can realise this opportunity quickly. We have no need to rely on building new fossil fuel infrastructure or nuclear energy. Whether it is LNG infrastructure or nuclear energy, those projects will take ten or 15 years to develop. We do not have that time. We can build up our renewable resources in that timeframe.

I agree with Deputy Paul Murphy, which is probably a first for me in this House. He made the crucial point quite clearly that demand management should be a critical area of energy policy. We certainly will not agree on most issues, but if we do not invest heavily in demand management, we will essentially waste energy, be it fossil fuel or renewable. I am delighted that the national retrofit plan will be launched next Tuesday and that it will contain a series of measures to address the demand management angle.

Struggling workers and their families have had enough of token gestures. They have been insulted by an offer of a trip to Leinster House and there have been mixed messages about the pandemic bonus payment. The Government must ensure family carers, workers in organisations funded under sections 38 and 39 and workers in homeless services funded under section 10 of the Housing Act 1988 are included.

Sinn Féin will support the Bill, although it has tabled amendments. Much more needs to be done to address energy price hikes and the crippling cost of living. The Government's budget package did not go far enough. There are families in extreme poverty and they are being failed by the Government. It would be worse only for the assistance of charities such as the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. Sinn Féin has tabled a number of amendments for consideration on Committee Stage next week. We are concerned that the Bill is drafted in such a way as to permit only a single one-off payment. We have tabled amendments to change this and to give the Minister power to make further payments to households, removing the need for more rushed emergency legislation in the future and ensuring it can be delivered to desperate families as quickly as possible.

Another weakness in the Bill is the universal aspect of this payment, which will see people who do not need financial help receive it while others who need more financial help will not get anything extra. Payments such as this should be targeted. One of our amendments would include a provision for those who do not need the payment to have the option of surrendering it to a charity that supports and helps those living in energy poverty.

We believe the owners of holiday homes should not benefit from this legislation. We must ensure the payment goes to renters rather than the landlord, in whose name the account may be. There must be a dispute resolution mechanism to resolve any disputes between renters and their landlords or property management companies over the electricity costs emergency benefit payment.

Sinn Féin also calls for a report on the scheduled carbon tax increase in May. Now is the time to scrap it. The Minister must engage with the Society of St. Vincent de Paul on the levels of need for assistance with heating and electricity costs that are currently being experienced to ascertain the need for a discretionary fund to assist those in utility debt. The Government must establish an expert advisory group on energy poverty to design an appropriate way to measure and track energy poverty levels in Ireland. The cost of living has reached an unbearable level for many people, and the €100 credit for energy bills is coming very late.

Finally, it must be said that there have been many announcements with regard to the microgeneration support scheme. It will benefit those lucky enough to have renewable energy technology, but it has been announced so many times that it feels like Groundhog Day. Ironically, that was yesterday. It is time to stop pussy-footing around. The Minister of State is supposed to be a Green Party Minister of State and it is time he acted like one.

I will keep to my time as I must head back to west Cork afterwards. This Bill amounts to nothing more than tokenism. It is much too little and is way too late. It will have little to no impact.

I and my colleagues in the Rural Independent Group have been calling on the Government to act on crippling energy price hikes for more than a year. Earlier this week the Central Bank announced that it is now forecasting that inflation will surge again this year. It went on to single out energy prices as the main cause. The remarks of the Governor of the Central Bank, Mr. Gabriel Makhlouf, are even more worrying. He described the surge in costs here as "spectacular". The Government cannot conveniently ignore this research, as the Central Bank analysis clearly shows that those living in lower-income households will be disproportionately affected and will feel the pinch more this year. Overall, the spectacular cost-of-living increases we are experiencing in Ireland mean that an average family will be forced to pay an extra €3,000 to €5,000 to run their household this year.

Despite this crisis, all the Government can do is offer a €100 electricity voucher. Not only is this grossly insufficient, it is also an insult. It clearly underlines how out of touch this Administration is with the realities facing families across the country. The truth of the matter is that people cannot afford to heat their homes. That is the bottom line. The price of home heating oil has shot through the roof, as has the price of coal and imported peat briquettes. The Green Party would like us all to wrap ourselves in silver wrap. It sounds mad, and it is, but that is what is happening in homes around Ireland. People cannot afford to heat their homes in 2022. They cannot afford to put fuel in their cars. Again, I am aware that the Green Party would like us all to cycle to work or use public transport. However, in my constituency of Cork South-West people cannot cycle on the roads as there are no cycleways. Even if there were, the hedges and ditches are spilling out onto the roads, making it impossible to cycle on many of them.

We do not have public transport. In my area of Goleen, the bus leaves at 7.30 in the morning and that is it. It returns in the evening at approximately 6 p.m. That is some public transport system to be proud of, and I will talk about that later. It is not like in Dublin, where beautiful electric buses were purchased recently. However, there is a great plan to reintroduce the train to west Cork. It was announced in the past week. There was a train route to Schull in the late 1800s. Today, we cannot get a train into west Cork because it only goes as far as Cork city. This is a fantastic plan but, as with all plans that require money to be put into west Cork, I am sure it will be abandoned and shelved quite quickly by this Government, which has its mind set on using the finances of the State to keep building and pumping money into the capital.

In 2017, I pleaded with the then Government to consider bringing light rail to Bandon. The proposal would actually take it back to where there was a rail line previously, down to Skibbereen, Bantry and the like. That is the recent proposal. Surely it could have been examined at that time and the Government could have considered taking light rail there to at least open west Cork as a place of business. A couple of years later, I put another proposal to the Government to establish a park-and-ride system to take cars off the roads. The idea was to have a base in Clonakilty or Skibbereen where people could park their cars and buses running continuously would take them to the city and home again in the evening. Everybody told me it was a great idea, but it was shelved straightaway because it was west Cork and it needed a little investment and a little time.

The sad thing is that then somebody did capture that great idea. West Cork Connect, Damien Long's bus service, is a private operator. He is running a service to Cork several times a day from Skibbereen and Bantry, taking in Clonakilty, Bandon, Dunmanway and Ballineen.

He is basically a private operator. I am not here to promote any private operator but he is the only one doing it. Bus Éireann cannot provide this service. He wants to run a new service from Goleen every hour on the hour. The Department will not allow him to do so. He is not asking for money; he is asking for a licence so that he can give people an alternative to using their private vehicles and get those vehicles off the road. For the life of me, I cannot understand why the Department has not sat him down at a table, told him it is a great idea that will save the State thousands or millions of euro and agreed to work to give him some bit of a subvention to allow him to continue. It will not do so. We are trying to find a way forward so that people do not have to use their cars. I refer to the cost of using a car, as well as the other bills people have coming into their homes. This is a fabulous idea. It would be a service every hour on the hour from Skibbereen and Goleen in west Cork. If we cannot see that it is a workable plan that would not cost the State anything, then there is something seriously wrong with the way we are doing business in here.

I refer to the carbon tax. I do not know why a lot of the Deputies from Opposition parties are shouting. Sure they all voted for the carbon tax. What did they think would happen? Did they think they were going to get a Christmas present from the people of Ireland? They took money out of people's pockets. That is what they did by voting for it. They blindly supported the carbon tax. What do we find out now? The Government is buying beautiful fancy electric buses above in Dublin with the money. Rural Ireland is being punished with the carbon tax. I have said often enough that we cannot carry Dublin on our back; we can only look after ourselves to the best of our ability. The money from the carbon tax is being pushed into pet projects to get them across the line.

We do not have a proper road network in west Cork. We have shocking public transport. I will not even mention trains; they do not exist in west Cork. I have every right to stand here and be angry. There is a new plan out there for a public transport service out of west Cork but it is looking for submissions and it is hoped to have it up and running in five years or so. This is what has been going on recently. There have been announcements in respect of west Cork every day of the week for the past two or three months but they are all kicking the can down the road and promising it will happen in five or ten years' time. There is nothing happening on the ground now. We want shovels turning now on projects so that we can deliver for the people of west Cork.

There will be announcements next week in respect of the warmer homes scheme. Any announcement on that must be welcomed because I have had people come back to my constituency office who think I codded them. I filled out forms for them for the warmer homes scheme two years ago. They were eligible for it at that stage. Now they have come back to my office two years later because they still have not got it and to ask me why I promoted it. We had a fabulous scheme in Bantry several years ago that insulated the homes of the elderly. The roofs and whatever else were insulated. We were able to get into every home and get it sorted within our community. Mother of God, we now are in a situation where the Government cannot deliver on a warmer homes project. Basically, people have to stay at home and cover themselves in a bit of silver wrap and plenty of blankets because they cannot fill the fuel tank since the Government made sure to put home heating oil out of their price range but it will not deliver on the warmer homes scheme. Is it going to have another fancy announcement next week with glossy magazines and praise and everyone patting themselves on the back? I will wait and see if there is delivery. Surely to God, if a person fills out an application form and sends it away, then a date should be scheduled within two or three months for when work should commence. That is the real world we should be living in. Unfortunately, we are living in some la-la land. The Government makes continuous announcements but there is nothing happening on the ground. There is no delivery.

Fuel allowance is an issue. I know loads of people who fall between the cracks and cannot qualify for fuel allowance. It is terribly unfortunate for them. They are in very difficult financial positions and that has to be looked at further. A person who wants to avail of a warmer homes project could be €10 over the weekly income limit. It is terrible to think that person would be omitted because as a result, in spite of his or her home desperately needing to be insulated or to have whatever other work done. I am not taking away from the fabulous work that is done under the warmer homes scheme. I know Finbarr O'Sullivan, Con O'Sullivan and others are doing some fabulous work in west Cork. I am not taking away from the work that needs to be done but it needs to be delivered quickly. There are families that are suffering severely at the moment. The finances are not there.

I refer to wind and solar energy. The Minister of State talked about wind energy and that is fine. Wind energy is the future, but it should have been the future the last time the Green Party was in government. All this should have been put in place and should be standing there now. I know what is going to happen. The Government will put it in place and tell us we will feed Europe and then it will do the same as it did with fishermen's rights - it will sell them all and give them to the rest of Europe and we will end up with no profit and probably little of the wind energy delivery on this side of the world.

I was speaking to a person today who was able to buy fuel for his or her bus two years ago at €1.08. It is now costs €1.65. The person will not be able to provide a bus service if this continues. Two years ago, AdBlue cost €440 for 1,000 l but now it costs €750.

Yesterday is gone, today is here and tomorrow is yet to come.

Last November, I came to Dublin with truckers and farmers to show unity on the rising cost of fuel. I asked the Government and every Opposition Deputy to come with me and to make one change that would have made a difference for every household, whether they have a car or not. It would have made a difference for every household and every person in the country. If the Government had frozen the tax on the increase in the cost of fuel coming into this country, it would have had €8 billion to play with. What would that have meant? It would have meant a difference of approximately €40 per week for every household. It would have saved on the energy cost of getting food to the shops. It would have saved on the cost of producing food. It would have saved on the cost of people going to work. It was a short-term solution to a long-term problem. Yes, we have a problem, but I was giving a solution for people.

Yesterday, people were suffering. Today, people are suffering. Tomorrow, people will be suffering. I asked for a short-term solution. I wanted a freeze in the tax on the increase in fuel costs for six months. That would have benefited every person in the country. No matter whether people were bringing their child to the childminder's or doing anything else, it would have helped.

What is the Government's answer to this? It is to give people €100 off their ESB bill. The first thing I will do if I get €100 off my ESB bill is to give it to the first person who needs it more than I do. I am and always have been involved in a lot of charity work. I am always grateful for what I have and my health so that I am able to help others. It sickens me to look around a room and see people I asked for help when I gave the Government a short-term solution to a long-term problem but it did not listen.

I will give the Minister some facts. The State pension is €13,100 per annum. A person working full time on the minimum wage gets €21,840 per annum. Recent research by the Central Bank states that the rising costs in Ireland are spectacular and will drive the cost of living up by between €3,000 and €5,000 per annum. Why does the Government think that a €100 electricity voucher is good enough? The national average wage is €23,675 per annum. In classification terms, this means that social welfare payments and the State pension are well below the cost of living. If housing costs are added in, more than 1 million people are at risk of poverty. I do not have a third level education but I know that means 20% of the people in Ireland are going to suffer poverty as a result of the Government failing to listen. I might only have a minimum second level education but I can work it out.

I and everybody else in this country can work it out but the Government will not listen. This is a short-term solution to a long-term problem. I asked for a six month reduction period and the Government would have had €8 billion of a saving. What did the Government do? Costs went up. The price in January 2022 for natural gas is €90 per megawatt-hour. The price in 2021 was €19 per megawatt-hour. That is a €71 increase in one year for a megawatt-hour. Small businesses are crippled with the costs which have gone up by 300%.

All the Government can come up with then is a measly voucher for €100 to help people. It could have put €40 per week into every household in this country when they really needed it and, not only that, but it would have reduced their shopping bills because it would have cost less money to produce that shopping and would have given something back automatically to the people. The Government has it within its control to do that. Their answer to the cost of fuel crisis was that it was going to reduce the National Oil Reserve Agency, NORA, cost by 1%. It will take five months to reduce that. That is the Government's answer.

What does the Government get when the price of fuel or anything goes up? It gets more tax and VAT. If one earns more, one pays more. That is the rule. So while everyone in this country is suffering and in poverty and trying to survive, the Government is taking more tax. The Government then talks about the rising wage costs, which would be welcomed by everyone, but the problem is that all of the SMEs in this country are crippled. The multinationals are able to afford this but the SMEs would be in bigger trouble because the Government did not listen.

The farmers, who are putting the bread and milk on our tables are subject to more legislation, regulation and more costs. The Government seems to think that things arrive on the shelves just like that. This country represents one tenth of 1% of global emissions and it is the same sky that is over the whole world. We are importing from countries that represent 30% to 40% to 50% of these global emissions. The Government is watching everyone in this country suffer. Everyone suffers.

Europe gave the Government the toolbox with which it could have done something. It could have reduced taxes like every other European country has done but the Government would not listen to a person like me. Does it think that I am not qualified enough to tell it what is going on? The reason I am qualified enough is because I am on the ground with people in Ireland. I understand what it means for people outside of the capital to have a life. People within the capital and on the outskirts of Dublin are suffering but the Government lacks the understanding of its remit, which is that it could hold a meeting tomorrow morning and have Cabinet agreement that it would reduce the tax intake on fuel.

I am only asking that this would happen on the increase, which is the €8 billion it has taken off every person in this country, whether one is working or not. That is what this meant. I am still asking and looking for this support, for it to cap its tax intake and take it back to the 2020 prices. It can still take its tax because I know that the Government has to have tax to run a country but I also know that it does not need to tax the increase. Then, at least, if fuel prices go up, we will pay the increase in the fuel costs but we will not be paying €58 in every €100 in tax. Why not take €45 and put €23 or €24 back into the pockets of everyone on every €100 worth of fuel, which is in the Government's control.

As I said earlier, I may not have had third level education but I have the education of life. Life will tell me that this Government will get an answer when it comes to its turn. I thank the Ceann Comhairle.

I thank Deputy O'Donoghue and I call now Deputy Ó Murchú.

Gabhaim buíochas. Everyone here accepts that there is an absolute crisis here in the cost of living. We have all engaged with people and realise what they are going through. We have all seen the prices that are going through the roof whether it is people buying their regular weekly shopping, at the fuel pump, or home heating oil. It does not matter because prices are just going through the roof. We know that there are many reasons for that and that the Government does not have full control over it. We know that there are inflationary impacts on us that we cannot completely control. We know that we have issues in respect of supply chains which relate to Covid-19 and to Brexit. We note that there are very significant geopolitical problems and considerations at this point in time with Russian gas. The EU Toolkit was in place since October and there are things that we can and need to do.

We are also hampered in this State because we are living with some of our primary sins in the cost of housing, rentals in particular, and childcare. Until we address them, we will not be dealing some of the vast issues we have with poverty and the pain that people are going through at this point in time.

We have some sort of solution here with the €100 and many people will be very glad to get it. Even in respect of this piece of legislation, we need to allow for flexibility. We have amendments in there. There are differences in Government, or at least we are led to believe from leaks from parliamentary party meetings that that is the case. We have to allow that this will not cut it and that there may be a need for a further amount at a later stage. This is about mitigating the pain that is out there. This is no different from what happened during the Covid-19 pandemic period, which is about the State stepping up to the mark. We have to give full facility to be able to deliver that.

I accept that there are difficulties in targeting this and aiming it at those who need it. I am not going to say that everyone around here does not need it because we all know that that is the case. We all know that it can be difficult to specifically target something. That is an issue we need to deal with in the systems, including database systems, at later stages and times so that we will have those options open to us. Hopefully, we will not need them as much as we need it at this point in time.

There are things we can do, however. We need to look at home heating, fuel, excise and VAT and to really say that we cannot afford to add any increases in carbon tax. That is not to get into the argument on carbon taxes but is in respect of the point we find ourselves now. We have to look at what we can do in not double-paying, on holiday homes and to ensure that we can put in whatever facility for people to surrender. We need to have a conversation with the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul. There needs to be a discretionary fund. We are all reliant on community organisations such as the Society of St Vincent de Paul, the Simon Community and Save Our Homeless Dundalk, where there are many people doing great work. It is not, however, enough as the State needs to step up to the mark and it needs to offer whatever mitigations it can. We need to do it. It is not good enough. Gabhaim buíochas.

I call now Deputy Joan Collins sharing with Deputy McNamara.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle. Many people are being impacted by the sharp increase in the cost of living. The people who will be most affected by this cost of living crisis will be the 630,000 people living below the poverty line which, scandalously, includes 165,000 children and low-paid workers. These are the individuals and families faced with the stark choice to eat or heat. The Government must respond with much more than €113 off our electricity bills. Electricity has risen by 22.4% in cost but gas bills have increased by 27%, and oil heating is up by 53%. The weekly family shop has increased by an estimated €15 a week. A range of measures is needed which should be targeted at those most in need of help. The Government must look at measures adopted in other EU states, such as reductions in carbon taxes and VAT.

The €5 increase in the basic weekly welfare rates in the budget did not even compensate for the fact that there had been no increase in the previous two budgets. In effect, it was a cut. The situation must now be immediately rectified with at least another €5 increase. Even with such measures, many will still struggle to make ends meet. A targeted response, aimed at those who are most in need, must be an urgent priority. The €160 million to fund the €100 off electricity bills should be matched as part of an emergency fund to help meet exceptional payments. Such a fund could be delivered by community welfare officers based in the community, as they were during the 1980s. This could really assist individuals and families who are struggling. For some reason, a number of years ago community welfare officers were withdrawn from the communities they worked in. They should be relocated back into the communities, armed with a special fund to meet exceptional needs.

Part of this emergency response must also be a national information campaign to inform those people who are struggling of the various options available to them. For example, do people know that they can engage with their energy supplier if they fear being cut off, and if they make an arrears repayment plan or pay-as-you-go arrangement they cannot be cut off? Do people know that if they register with their supplier as having exceptional needs they cannot be cut off in the winter time? Do people know that they can apply to a community welfare officer for an exceptional payment?

Before I conclude I wish to raise a point about the fuel allowance. I raised this with the Minister last year. The so-called increase in the fuel allowance of last year brought it up to €33 per week. I have calculated that this would put €900 into people's pockets over the 28 weeks. Mr. Daragh Cassidy of the price comparison website bonkers.ie has said that some suppliers have announced price hikes that will add up to €800 to energy bills. That was at the end of last year and we know there will be more energy price hikes. In effect, the fuel allowance is paying for the price hikes in fossil fuels. The people who receive the allowance are getting the money to pay for the price increases but will still have to find the money out of their own income for the basic cost of their fuel expenditure. The increase will not really benefit them in any way. The fuel allowance should be increased, it should be expanded to all social welfare recipients, and the means test should be removed. I urge the Government to consider these suggestions as an urgent response to this crisis.

I thank Deputy Collins.

I welcome that the Government is acknowledging that spiralling energy costs will have a very detrimental effect on households across the State. They will have an equally detrimental effect on many businesses across the State and this is not being adequately addressed at all by this measure. I am not suggesting that only businesses should be helped to deal with this issue, but they do also need help with this issue.

This is just one facet of the inflationary times we are living in. I raised this some time ago. For me it is an obvious consequence of the pandemic. I would not blame anybody for the pandemic but, equally, it is considerably exacerbated by government responses to the pandemic across the world. Very few government responses have been as exaggerated and hysterical as the response of the Minister of State's Government. I appreciate that the Minister of State, Deputy Smyth, did not determine this response in any way, but he happens to be sitting in that seat right now.

On the issue of longer-term energy security, I have heard a lot of what I would consider aspirational from the Government benches, including Deputy Leddin from Limerick, with whom I would sometimes find myself in agreement. I agree and I greatly look forward to the day when Ireland is providing a huge amount of energy to other countries, and we are self-sufficient in energy. We are not there now, however, and we are not going to be there next month or next year. We are finally accepting now that we are going to have an energy crisis next month and an energy crisis next year, and that we will have a crisis about inflation next month and next year. We are hopelessly ill-equipped to deal with this.

I represent the constituency of Clare. Clare has a long and very proud history of producing energy for the State, in the form of the Shannon scheme at Ardnacrusha, which was hugely innovative when it was developed. It was one of the biggest, if not the biggest, hydroelectric stations in Europe when it was developed. Equally, Moneypoint was also developed in Clare. The two arcs of transmission that go from Moneypoint to Dublin simply could not be built now because they are pylons and we all know there is a lot of controversy around pylons with planning issues, and rightly so. However, they are there, and they are a hugely important piece of infrastructure.

Like Deputy Leddin and many other Deputies who have spoken, I greatly look forward to the days when we are bringing onshore energy from off the west coast of Ireland. We do not, however, have it now. I have spoken to people who are intimately involved in advancing this and trying to develop the potential to bring it onshore. We simply do not have the technology now to generate electricity off the west coast of Ireland. Yes the technology exists for offshore energy, but this is for anchored turbines that are probably suited for construction in the Irish Sea. If one is looking at constructing turbines off the west coast of Ireland it is a very different matter. There are huge Atlantic storms. I do not know if the Minister of State has ever experienced an Atlantic storm or the aftermath of one. I recall the former Ministers of State, Andrew Doyle and Éamon Ó Cuív, who previously sat in that seat. We went to the Aran Islands once in the immediate aftermath of such a storm. It is quite a sight to behold.

We cannot take it for granted that we are going to have the technology to harness that energy, given the huge pressures that are put on during Atlantic storms, or that we will have the technology immediately. Yes, everybody is hopeful and everybody is confident that it can be developed, but it is not there yet. Given that the technology is not there yet, why on earth are we powering down Moneypoint now? I am very proud of Clare's history in generating energy, but I am not proud that Moneypoint is belching out noxious gases into the environment. I am not at all proud of that and I greatly look forward to the day when it is replaced with clean energy, as I am sure the Minister of State is too. However, I accept the reality that it is not going to be today, it is not going to be tomorrow, it is not going to be next month or next year, and that we are going to need energy during all of those times and especially when the wind is not blowing: we also must power the incubators, the hospitals and industries when the wind is not blowing. The advantage that Moneypoint will have, hopefully, is that with hydrogen technology we will be able to bring the energy onshore, and there will be huge, vast amounts of energy that we can turn into hydrogen and store in the form of hydrogen. I welcome all of that as much as the Minister of State does.

I know that the Minister of State welcomes it but what are we going to do now other than give householders €100? With the greatest respect, what the Government is proposing is like a fart in a hurricane. It is utterly irrelevant to the scale of the problem that faces us. If we are going to accept that we are importing energy then we must accept that we are going to import coal generated energy and nuclear generated energy. I do not have the problem with nuclear energy that has been enunciated by some Deputies in this Chamber. If I did I would not turn the light on in the morning. Nuclear energy is coming into the Irish grid as we speak and has been for some time. I am sure it will be coming in for some time into the future.

I do have a problem with coal-powered energy and I look forward to the day it is replaced. I live in the real world, however, where it is not being replaced today and it will not be replaced tomorrow. Instead of generating such energy here in Ireland and instead of having some degree of energy security in the State, we are at the mercy of other states. Some of those states are close and friendly states, we hope, but others are further away, and may be regarded as far away places of which we know little. They may take a similar view of us, or they may not. It beggars belief that in the face of an energy crisis we are powering down power stations in Ireland and importing exactly the type of energy they are producing.

I cannot emphasise enough that we are not enemies on this. I am not opposing the green vision for the future. I welcome it and wish it had been done ten years ago, as does the Minister of State, where the technology exists. The technology to generate offshore energy where the turbines are anchored is around for some time now. There is nothing particularly novel about it. There is no reason we could not have more offshore energy in Ireland. We are talking about offshore energy primarily from the Irish Sea, which is going to bring objections as well because it will have to be closer to shore than the type of offshore energy we are talking about off the west coast.

We need to be realistic. The technology we are relying on to power our State is not there yet. There is an expression in many parts of Ireland - I do not know if the Minister of State is aware of it - "live, horse, and you'll get grass". That is what we are doing with regard to energy. It is simply not good enough. There is a lot of hyperbole going about, celebrating 100 years of the State. One of the first priorities was to power this nation. If we cannot power this nation ourselves, really we have no degree of independence or self-sufficiency and we have utterly failed. It seems to me the failure continues in both the aspirational approach - aspirations I agree with but we have to deal with here and now as well as how we transition to something better - and in the failure to have a larger energy debate. No matter how much wind energy we bring in, and I am hopeful the technology around converting energy into hydrogen might be the solution, we really have to look at other alternatives.

A woman came into my constituency clinic who was objecting to a wind farm. I do not object to wind farms per se but I am very concerned when they are built at a height. I live close to Slieve Aughty and I know what happened in Derrybrien. It was an absolute disgrace. The only thing that was worse than it was the State's response. It had to be brought kicking and screaming to the European Court of Justice - twice, I believe. The situation has never been remedied. Now we are proposing to do something similar. We had a recent landslide in Leitrim and we are proposing to build other wind farms at a height. Absolutely there is a place for wind energy. I asked this woman who was opposed to wind farms what she thought of coal generation. She said it was awful. I asked her about nuclear; she said it was even worse. I asked her what was the first thing she did that morning and she said she turned on the electricity. I asked her where on earth she thought her electricity comes from. I was not re-elected possibly as a result of comments like that but I stand over it.

I know it is a glib point to make but we do need power. It is going to come from somewhere. No more than talking about data centres, as long as they are not in Ireland they are not a problem. We have to be real. We have to have energy. We have to have the least environmentally damaging type of energy possible as soon as possible. In the interim, we have to be secure and we have to have energy security. We do not have it and I do not see any sign of addressing it. That is a massive concern to me.

I thank all Deputies for their insightful comments on this emergency legislation. It is emergency legislation. We are trying to address an immediate problem within this quarter and get money into people's accounts. We are in winter. A large number of aspects of this problem were touched on by different Deputies. The problem of energy poverty was raised by many. I thank Deputy Joan Collins for talking about that so eloquently. Deputy McNamara referred to the longer term issue of energy generation. When we are faced with a big problem, we have to tackle both. We have a short-term energy crisis. We have people who are cold in their homes and cannot afford to pay their bills. We also have a longer term and a medium-term problem. All of those things need to be tackled. None of the solutions will be ideal or attractive to everybody. I appreciate the Deputy's comments and I appreciate the widespread support from Deputies from all parties that we should do this, even if there are other things we should do as well. My ears and mind were open to the suggestions that were made. I thank the Deputies.

There was a broad range of contributions, including on renewables, the cost of living, and the role of the Commission for the Regulation of Utilities. I am going to keep my comments focused on this Bill. My overarching message today is that while the scheme this Bill will establish is just one of a suite of measures, it is critical it is put in place within this quarter. I seek the support of the House to achieve that. It is a matter of serious concern to Government that recent electricity and gas increases caused by international conditions are putting increasing pressure on consumers, especially those in a more vulnerable economic position. I appreciate the important points Deputies have made on the pressure being felt by many households with the rise in the cost of living. It is important to see this Bill as one of a suite of measures. It is not just that there is €100 and nothing else. A broad range of measures are being taken by the Government.

Before the previous budget and the budget before that, lengthy time was spent trying to make sure energy poverty was addressed. In the face of the changes in the carbon taxation structure, we have to be aware people are not being punished who do not have an alternative. The important points on the need to act on energy poverty will, I believe, be best moved forward in the forthcoming revision of the strategy to combat energy poverty. This will be in addition to the €109 million that has been allocated to energy efficiency upgrades and the €146 million projected to be spent on social protection measures in 2022. Alleviating energy poverty will also be a key priority in the forthcoming national retrofit framework. I welcome the support voiced for continuing to drive the long-term solutions to volatile energy markets represented by energy efficiency and renewable generation, and ensuring we grasp the real benefits of a just transition.

The Government is determined to act quickly to help people further with these higher energy prices. It is worthwhile to restate the purpose of the Bill as well as the operation of the emergency measure. The Bill provides the establishment of a scheme for the purpose of making the electricity cost emergency benefit payment of €100 in 2022. The moneys for the scheme will be allocated by the Minister, Deputy Ryan, with the consent of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, out of moneys provided by the Oireachtas. The amount will not exceed €215 million and will be for the purpose of making a once-off €100 payment by suppliers to each domestic electricity account held by them. This is on the basis of there being approximately 2.15 million domestic electricity account holders as indicated by the Commission for the Regulation of Utilities, CRU. The CRU will provide oversight of the scheme and it will be operated by the distribution system operator, ESB Networks.

The mechanism by which the scheme will operate is as follows. The Minister will provide under regulations for a date, to be known as the relevant date, on which the distribution system operator will calculate the total number of domestic electricity accounts in the State on the basis of MPRNs. The MPRN is the unique identifier for all accounts and as such must be used to ensure the €100 payment reaches each account. ESB Networks will notify me of this number and this will allow the calculation of the necessary allocation of moneys for the scheme. On the effective date, which will also be set out by me in regulations, ESB Networks will notify each electricity supplier of the assigned MPRN for each domestic electricity account it supplies and ESB Networks will, on the effective date, notify suppliers of the amount of money it will transfer to them for the purposes of the scheme. I will set out in regulations the period within which ESB Networks will transfer the funds to suppliers for the sole purpose of making payments under the scheme and, following receipt of these funds, suppliers will, within the period prescribed by me under regulations, credit each domestic electricity account held with it on the effective date with a payment of €100.

The CRU as independent regulator will have oversight of the scheme. It will put in place administrative and operational arrangements to ensure ESB Networks and suppliers perform their functions under the scheme. As is standard practice, the CRU will report to me in respect of the performance of ESB Networks and suppliers of their functions under the scheme. The CRU, on the basis of its existing powers to issue directions and secure compliance by licence holders with their obligations, will ensure ESB Networks and suppliers perform their functions under the Bill.

Under the Bill, I shall appoint an auditor and ESB Networks and suppliers will be required to make available to the auditor all books and records relating to the performance of their functions under the Bill.

Suppliers and ESB Networks are required to repay any moneys received by them which have not been used for the purposes of the scheme.

I turn to prepay, which some Members mentioned. Prepay is often associated with people who are in energy poverty. It is essential that the scheme will apply to all domestic electricity account holders, including pay-as-you-go customers. The payment will apply on a once-off, emergency basis, as has been approved by the Government. It is, however, one of a suite of near- and medium-term measures. The total allocation of €215 million is on the basis of a payment of €100 being made to each account. It is standard practice to specify in legislation the maximum amount of Oireachtas funds which can be used.

As for tenants in rental accommodation, my Department, with the support of the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, is working closely with the RTB to ensure that those in rented accommodation who are due the payment receive it. I understand that there are approximately 300,000 tenancies registered with the RTB and that the majority of those tenants either hold their own electricity account or pay their landlord for electricity based on an actual bill and would therefore receive the benefit directly. My Department is working with the RTB on a public information campaign to ensure that any tenants, expected to be a small minority, for whom electricity costs are not separate from overall rental costs are aware of the scheme and of their entitlements. In that context, should any dispute arise between a tenant and his or her landlord, there are existing dispute resolution mechanisms provided by the RTB.

The scheme can become operational only following the passing of this underpinning legislation. As Deputies will appreciate, this emergency measures Bill aims to ensure that the credit can be made to domestic electricity account holders as soon as possible. The scheme will apply to every domestic electricity account holder using his or her unique MPRN to allow the payment to be credited to individual bills. This does not mean that premises other than principal residences, such as holiday homes with a domestic electricity account, will be included in the scheme. The scheme uses the above single eligibility criteria to enable payments to be made at the earliest possible opportunity in 2022. The scheme does not have additional eligibility criteria. For example, it is not means-tested as the application of such criteria would override the automatic nature of the current scheme and would require input from customers through formal applications and cross-checking by administrators, which would significantly delay the roll-out of the payments. Therefore, the automatic crediting of all residential customer accounts is the most effective immediate-term methodology. The CRU has advised that to implement the scheme in the timeframe required, suppliers will use existing billing systems to process the credit. Payments will be credited to domestic electricity accounts. This is why the function is conferred on suppliers, as this is the existing infrastructure which applies.

The CRU has considered the question of an opt-out for people who do not wish to receive the payment; however, the scale of work required on the billing system would be of an order that would significantly delay the issue of this payment to all electricity users. While I appreciate people's views on this, I also feel it is important to move ahead with administering the scheme in order that people receive their payments as quickly as possible.

The scheme is in addition to the Government's primary response to rising energy prices, which is to use the tax and social welfare systems to counter rising costs of living, of which energy costs are one of the biggest drivers. Further consideration to tackle increases in the cost of living is under way.

As for people who are in energy poverty, targeted intervention is required. Such action is already being taken through the social welfare system. In budget 2022 we increased the weekly rate of the fuel allowance by €5 to €32 a week. There were increases to the qualified child payment, the living alone allowance and the income threshold for the working family payment. The total cost of these interventions is projected at €146 million in 2022. This will be funded by additional carbon tax funds of €105 million that have been allocated to the Department of Social Protection.

Am I running out of time?

I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Tá Céim an Choiste ordaithe don tseachtain seo chugainn, os comhair na Dála.

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