Amendments Nos. 1 and 2 have been ruled out of order.
Electricity Costs (Domestic Electricity Accounts) Emergency Measures Bill 2022: Committee and Remaining Stages
I move amendment No. 3:
In page 4, between lines 37 and 38, to insert the following:
“(e) The Minister shall make provision in the Electricity Costs Emergency Benefit Scheme to identify those who own holiday homes or multiple properties and put in place a mechanism to ensure such individuals do not receive more than one electricity costs emergency benefit payments.
(f) The Minister shall make provision in the Electricity Costs Emergency Benefit Scheme to identify those who are renting, to ensure renters receive the benefit of the electricity costs emergency benefit payment, and the Minister shall put in place a dispute resolution mechanism to resolve any disputes between renters and their landlords or property management companies over the electricity costs emergency benefit payment.
(g) The Minister shall make provision in the Electricity Costs Emergency Benefit Scheme to ensure those who do not need the financial support from the electricity costs emergency benefit payment, can inform their electricity supplier to redirect their electricity costs emergency benefit payment to a charity that supports and helps those living in energy poverty.”.
I will speak to the amendment in my name and that of Deputy Pearse Doherty. The amendment seeks to address a number of weaknesses in the Bill. A number of amendments that were ruled out of order for various reasons also sought to improve the legislation.
This amendment seeks to deal with three issues, the first of which is the prospect of the payment being made to people who have holiday homes with potentially very little electricity use. These houses would only be used for some weeks of the year. The amendment also applies to people with multiple properties who would be in a position to receive multiple payments for their properties. At the very least, such situations do not reflect their electricity or energy use and the cost to them of electricity. This anomaly should be addressed, especially when considered in the context of the potential risk that people who are house sharing and splitting bills or whose names are not on the bill will miss out on this payment. Paragraph (f) of the amendment provides that renters would receive the benefit of the payment.
We call for a dispute resolution mechanism to be put in place. The Minister, in his Second Stage speech, indicated that such a provision will be made. When this payment is triggered, which is not happening nearly quickly enough, we need to ensure that those who are entitled to it get the benefit of it.
Paragraph (g) addresses a fundamental weakness of the measure, namely, its universal nature. It is not targeted. While the Government has made its case on that, it is a fundamental weakness. Despite other measures the Government has introduced, many people will still be below the waterline, even with this €100 payment. We are incredibly frustrated that the Government did not go further or take action earlier and that it has taken this long to reach this juncture. We set out in our pre-budget submission, and will set out in the days ahead, the course the Government should take. A fundamental part of that is a response that is reflective of the burden on individuals and families. We do not see that in the legislation. Paragraph (g) gives all those who do not need this support, including every Member of this House, an opportunity to forgo the payment and redirect towards charities working in the area of energy poverty.
The amendment would strengthen the Bill. Of the 11 amendments we submitted, ten have been ruled out of order. They also would have strengthened the Bill. I ask the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, to support the amendment and take on board the contributions made on Second Stage by Deputies from across the political spectrum, particularly the Opposition, pointing out the weakness of this Bill. I appreciate that there are constraints on the Government with regard to the targeting of this measure but those constraints were self-inflicted by the Government. It has not done the work over the years to identify those living in energy poverty and at risk of energy poverty. There is no sophistication in the architecture of the State, including Department, to direct those resources in the way they should be directed. This is down to a lack of preparation.
The Government has indicated it will make proposals which, while not a mini-budget, will address the costs of living. I ask that the weaknesses of the Bill be addressed in the suite of measures that are brought forward. Sinn Féin would be more than happy to advise in that regard.
I, too, am surprised, although I am not sure why, that ten of the 11 amendments have been ruled out of order. We are trying to reinvigorate our tourism industry. There are many good holiday home operators. While we will always have some cowboys, the vast majority of them are good. I am talking about a fear uasal i nDún Garbhán. People need to get out into the sun and the water, and get their space. They are so hard-pressed and at the pin of their collars. Some recognition should be allowed for that. This is why I support the amendment.
Let us face it; people are subletting houses. I remember older people, some of whom may have gone on to their eternal reward, telling me that when they got married they lived in a room in their parents' house or rented a room in someone's house. We are back to those days again because people cannot get onto the property ladder because they cannot afford it. One of the reasons for that is that direct Government actions in the past year have prohibited it. While I do not mean anything personal, the Minister's actions have directly contributed to the huge costs facing people trying to build a house. It is just impossible for a young couple, or any kind of a couple, to build a house now. A builder will not even give a quotation and builders suppliers will not give a quotation for more than three days because prices are going up by the week.
Students are also being exploited. They pay for their electricity through meters but there is no provision for that in the Bill.
There should be some dispute resolution mechanism. This is a feeble attempt by the Government to deal with this problem. When a tax, punitive or otherwise, is being introduced, it is applied at 12 midnight. However, we are making a big song and dance about a €113 payment. We are talking and talking about it. People cannot live. The cost of everything has gone up. We in the Rural Independent Group have looked for a mini budget because it is necessary.
The amendment is very good and I compliment Deputy O'Rourke and his colleagues on bringing it forward. We have to try to deal with this, and the public are expecting us to do so. Why are we so slow to react? Why does take departmental organisation months to act? We are nearly halfway through February. I wish everyone a happy Valentine's weekend. We have been waiting a long time for this to come through. Debates on different taxes, medical cards, grants or supports go on forever.
I redirect the Deputy to the amendment.
Why can we not exclude people who have enormous incomes? Surely there must be some way to do that? We used to use the peann luaidhe, but now we have computers. When PUP was introduced, I pleaded with the Minister concerned to address that. Anybody who is an employer knows that PRSI is now paid weekly. All of that information is on a computer. People could have been given what they were earning. Students and others working one or two nights a week who earned €100 or €120 ended up getting €350. Trying to wean people off that payment is like trying to take milk from a calf.
What happened was stupid. The press of a button would tell someone what each employee earned. There might be a few in the black market, but I am not talking about them. I am talking about legitimate businesses that paid people. We now have all kinds of problems as a result of the PUP. Some went on foreign holidays. Many people did not abuse it. The payment was too much. People should have received what they were paid. We are talking about supports, not luxuries. Why can we not separate payments like we separate the chaff from the oats? I do not mean that in a bad way; we do that at harvest time. That would mean people who do not need it will not get it. We can decide payments made to businesses that are in profit should be repaid, but it is very hard to get something back once it has been given.
As I said, the amendment refers to some mechanism for dispute resolution. The €100 will not go here nor there in terms of people's bills. Diesel, fuel, home heating oil and ESB bills have increased. There will be a €500 upfront cost for repairs to a roof under the retrofit scheme when it is introduced in October, following an assessment. People do not have that kind of money. They are on the breadline. They are struggling. The Government does not seem to get that people need money in their póca anois.
I do not know why Departments are so cumbersome that they cannot engage with people and have a humane approach. I am not knocking departmental officials, but the system is so unwieldy that we cannot seem to have that flexibility or understanding. As I said, we are too slow to react. We can react on budget night at 12 midnight, but when we want to give something back to people it takes months. I do not know when this will happen, but we are a good number of months away from the budget. Some other support packages are being considered.
We need a mini budget. The Government can deny that and keep its head in the sand, but it will have to happen because the people will starve, as I said yesterday. They are suffering every which way and cannot survive. It is not fair to our people. They have endured two years of hell. They are a resilient people, but the resilience is wearing thin at the moment. People are cross, angry and not at all happy.
I will speak on the amendment as we are on Committee Stage. I support the amendment, on behalf of the Labour Party. It relates to an issue I raised during the Second Stage debate on the Bill, namely, the need to ensure adequate integration of renters into the proposed framework in the Bill. Clearly, the rebate for householders will be welcome, but we have criticised it as being inadequate and merely a drop in the ocean when we see the soaring cost of living crisis that so many households are facing.
On Second Stage I spoke specifically about renters. We know that in Dublin Bay South as many as 44% of all properties are private rentals. Figures from daft.ie today show a chronic and historic shortage of supply of rental accommodation in Dublin, with just 712 homes are available to rent at an average rent of €2,000 per month. We know that the cost of rent is exorbitant. We also know that, therefore, in any Bill such as this which seeks to address issues with the cost of living there has to be adequate regard for renters.
That is why the amendment is crucial, because it seeks to put in place better protections for renters, specifically to ensure that the Minister will make provision to ensure that renters receive the benefit of the rebate. As I pointed out on Second Stage, we would all hope that landlords would ensure that any saving on bills is passed onto renters, but in the absence of any safeguarding measure in the Bill this could not be guaranteed. That is why it is important that a guarantee such as this is inserted into the Bill. I urge the Minister to accept the amendment. There will be a fairly united front from the Opposition in support of it.
I was dismayed to learn that ten of the 11 amendments have been ruled out of order, as Deputy O'Rourke has said. I also sought to table amendments on foot of the speech I made on Second Stage, only to be told that the deadline for accepting amendments was before the start of the Second Stage debate. I am new to the Dáil, but this struck me as a really poor procedural law. We could not, therefore, have a Second Stage debate in any meaningful way because the deadline for putting forward amendments had already passed. That is the only reason I do not have an amendment on safeguarding. We had drafted an amendment on safeguarding renters, but that was disallowed by the Bills Office. That is not necessarily the call of the Minister, but it is a flaw in the procedure. That is exacerbated by the fact that out of the 11 amendments Members managed to put forward, ten have been ruled out of order. Therefore, this is the only amendment we will have a chance to debate on the floor of the House. That is really unfortunate. It is an important amendment to support and I am glad to do so on behalf of the Labour Party. It will provide more robust safeguards for renters, which is important, in particular in the context of report today on the crucial shortage of rental properties and the 10% increase year on year in the cost of rent across the country.
I wish to emphasise that this is not just a Dublin issue; this is about the cost of rent across the country and the lack of protections for renters more generally. This amendment seeks to address that in the context of a Bill that is about addressing the extortionate rise in the cost of living.
The Oireachtas has shown from research that we have had more price volatility in the past 11 months than in the previous 12 years. This has had a serious impact on households. The rebate does not go far enough and I support the amendment which seeks to protect those in the rental market. The €100 rebate will not go far enough for a lower paid people. We need to bear in mind that those in the rental sector are constantly trying to cope with spiralling rental prices and other cost of living pressures. We need immediate action, and a €100 rebate will not address that.
Many measures are needed, and a mini budget must deliver for the most vulnerable in particular. Age Action Ireland has highlighted its concerns about elderly people and the serious impact rising costs are having on that cohort. Many countries in the European Union have introduced a range of measures to try to protect the most vulnerable and counteract the rise in electricity prices and so on, and the negative impact it is having on so many families around Europe.
For example, Austria plans to spend €1.7 billion on easing the impact on families of surging energy prices. The measures announced last week include suspending an eco-tax introduced six years ago. That adds about €33 a year to bills. The Austrian Government is also pledging to hand €300 back to those out of work. Austrian electricity prices have increased by 12.4% on last year.
Earlier this month Belgium decided to cut value added tax on electricity as part of a package to shield consumers from rising energy prices. It is also giving all households €100 relief on electricity bills and extending its social price rates. Britain's price cap will rise by 54% from 1 April, its regulator, OfGEM, announced on Thursday in its six-monthly review of prices. To limit the impact, the British Government launched a package of measures, including a £200 discount on electricity bills for all households to be repaid over five years and a £150 rebate on council tax bills for about 80% of households in England.
In December, Bulgaria's Parliament voted to freeze power and heating prices for households until the end of March in a move seen as allowing time for the new coalition Government to come up with a plan to shield households from surging energy costs.
The Irish Government needs to come up with a package that will deliver and will protect the most vulnerable in our society, including those in rented accommodation, elderly people and particularly businesses which have been very badly treated and are trying to get on their feet after Covid restrictions put them on the back foot.
The Social Democrats will be supporting the Sinn Féin amendment. It is a very important amendment and I am pleased to see it included. I also raise the issue of the short timeframe associated with the Bill. I know it includes the term "emergency measures" in its Title. There was no pre-legislative scrutiny and the timeframes are very short. I also believe it did not need to be such an emergency measure. It was clear from last September that we were facing a serious fuel crisis and a cost-of-living crisis. In September, I asked for us to have statements in the Dáil on the rising cost of energy prices, but that was not allowed. If some foresight and planning had been put in place at that point for what was clearly coming down the road, perhaps this Bill might not have needed to have been an emergency measure Bill and we could have gone through a full and proper process in dealing with it.
The amendments spell out clearly what the issues are with the Bill. When talking about the inflation crisis we are facing, the Governor of the Central Bank was very clear that there were three key drivers - transport, rent and energy costs. He also made it very clear that the inflation crisis was not impacting on everybody in the same way and that some people were suffering far more than others, particularly vulnerable people living in poverty. It is unfortunate that targeted measures were not put in place to assist the people who are in most need of this support and instead this broad-brush approach was taken.
On Second Stage, I mentioned that it was not targeted, and the explanation I was given was that from an administrative perspective it is cumbersome or difficult to work out. However, it cannot be rocket science to exclude from the scheme people with multiple houses or people who have holiday homes. It sends completely the wrong message that the 62,000 people who have holiday homes will get €100 for a home where very little energy is used and it is also their second home. That sends out a very poor message to people who are really struggling at the moment and are making choices between food on the table, fuel or perhaps paying rent or the mortgage. We need a more targeted approach.
In the long term, things like the retrofitting plan will make households more secure from energy price rises. However, for what needs to be put in place at the moment, while many people welcome this Bill, it will not be enough. The Government could introduce measures that would be highly targeted and would seek to protect people who are most vulnerable to these cost increases. I have written to the Commission for the Regulation of Utilities on this matter. It needs to extend its moratorium on disconnections which, I understand, is due to end on 11 March. There is a risk that we could have a cold snap over the next month or two which would put people in a very difficult position.
The Government should also extend the fuel allowance beyond March. It should also link it to the working family payment because many working people are struggling to meet these price increases. The exceptional needs payment should be doubled to assist those people. We also need to recognise that it is not just people in receipt of social supports who will be hit by this rising cost of energy and rising inflation. The Social Democrats have proposed that a refundable tax credit of €300 be provided for those earning €50,000 a year or less. The Government could introduce a range of measures because one measure will not be sufficient for people. Even if it were highly targeted, some people would fall outside it.
I agree with what Deputy Bacik said about those who are renting. It is important that this money is passed on to people who are renting and gets into the pockets of the people who are paying the bill and not just the ones who from an administrative perspective are receiving the payment.
I have a feeling that we will be back again seeking to extend the provisions of the Bill at some stage. I ask the Minister to look at those amendments and suggestions. We do not know what is going to happen on the global energy market. If something like this happens again, we should not fall foul of this again and we should not allow people who can afford two homes to get very valuable State support.
The fact that the Bill is not meeting people's needs and is not doing what people need it to do has opened up the discourse on the carbon tax. It has turned the carbon tax into an environmental bogeyman. People feel that carbon tax is the problem, which is taking away from the importance of the carbon tax in actually paying for retrofitting schemes and supporting people to make the just transition, allowing us to take the actions needed to address climate change. The lack of proactively by the Government on the issue has allowed for that discourse to happen which is really unfortunate.
The entire carbon tax yield needs to be paid back into climate action, allowing vulnerable people and people who need to take those measures-----
It is only the increase and not the entire carbon tax yield.
Okay, I see what the Deputy means.
We need the entire carbon tax yield to be ring-fenced and put back into measures to support families and communities to make the transition so that they can be buffered from those global energy inflationary crises that we could face.
I am glad to get a chance to speak on this amendment, but it looks like it will not be accepted by the Minister. No amendments will be accepted, similar to what happened with the climate action Bill. It looks like it is going to be "my way or the highway" when it comes to the amendments.
The discussion should be on the €100 subsidy.
It goes nowhere near where it should have gone. As I said earlier, I do not know whether the Minister has ever been in the countryside, on a farm. When they are put out for the first time, calves are often seen jumping and gadding around the place. That is what the Government has been doing for the past week. Where has the Government been for the past 12 months? The country is on its knees and the Government disappeared. Now the Government is jumping around as if there has been a crisis this week only. There has been a crisis for months and months. My colleagues in the Rural Independent Group and I have been calling on the Government to put in place protective measures for people who cannot pay their electricity bills, put fuel in the car or buy fertiliser for the farm. The Government stood idly by until maybe a few among them went back to their constituencies in recent weeks and got it in the neck. The €100 is a pittance. No one should ever disregard getting a few quid but, Lord God, people have been hit with bills. I have listened to people who have the heating turned off in their homes and who are seriously suffering because of the measures the Government has brought forward. The Government needs to bring in emergency measures and a mini-budget immediately. One hundred euro will go nowhere.
The Minister can deny all the amendments before him if he so wishes and if he does not want to co-operate with others in here - that is fine and that will be his choice - but the public will have their say at the end of the day. I am just sorry to think that those in Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are backing the Green Party in the way they are because the public will have their say on each and every one of those Deputies as well. The Government has left people perishing with the cold, unable to turn on their lights, unable to pay their electricity bills and unable to pay for home heating oil. The Government is dreaming and dreaming and hoping people will dream away with it, but most people are not. They are coming to reality, starting with a few. A fierce reality has struck them.
The carbon tax needs to be ceased immediately. Good God almighty, where does the Government think the people are finding the money? The Government must think they are millionaires with a load of money stuffed under their mattresses at home ready to throw out to the Government for pet projects around Dublin city. I am sorry, but it will not work that way. People are struggling. The Minister needs to accept some of these amendments tonight to show a clear understanding of the way people are suffering. If he does not, that is fine. We will keep pushing from this end. It took us maybe seven or eight months to get the Government to jump around the way it is doing this week. It is only now worried about the public, whereas countries such as Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands are already working on this and have put in place measures to protect their people.
I am bitterly disappointed. A €100 subsidy was a joke. Now the Government realises that. It has a tendency to make a lot of announcements and then, two or three days later, another announcement and another announcement on the same issue, as with the €1,000 to be given to the care workers, when it forgot the home-----
We are on amendment No. 3.
Yes, I am too. The Government forgot about the home helps in all this. We keep pushing and pushing. The bottom line is that the €100 subsidy is by no means enough. I urge the Minister to take on board many of the amendments put before him. Certainly, I will support those amendments. Again, it is time for a mini-budget immediately in order to keep in touch with what is going on and with the reality on the ground because people are angered and in a difficult position financially.
I wish to clarify that whether amendments are accepted or otherwise has nothing to do with the Government. That is a Bills Office issue. Similarly, I take Deputy Bacik's point about the timing of amendments, but that was not within our control.
I wish to respond to this amendment and to each of the three subsections it is proposed to insert, paragraphs (e), (f) and (g), in order. Paragraph (e) concerns criteria and system design. I emphasise that this scheme is an exceptional measure designed to be delivered directly to all domestic electricity accounts using the existing electricity billing infrastructure and without application of qualifying criteria. Using that infrastructure, it is not possible to determine whether individual premises are used for purposes other than a principal private residence. This design of the scheme is aimed to enable payments to be made at the earliest possible opportunity in 2022, without delay and in light of the exceptional rise in energy prices.
As for the proposed insertion of paragraph (f), for operational reasons, the scheme can credit only domestic electricity accounts. I understand that the majority of the 300,000 tenancies registered with the RTB hold their own domestic electricity accounts. In such instances, the payment will be applied directly to those households. Others who have tenancy agreements whereby tenants pay their actual share of each bill will benefit from the payment because the amount of the bill will be reduced by the amount of the payment. A small proportion have in place other arrangements whereby electricity costs are part of the overall rental cost. In consultation with my Department, the RTB is working on a public information campaign on this legislation. In the event of a dispute arising between a tenant and a landlord as a result of a failure to pass on the credit payment, the dispute resolution mechanisms run by the RTB are available.
I turn to the proposed insertion of paragraph (g). The scheme is being administered on the basis of the current electricity billing mechanisms and arrangements of ESB Networks and suppliers in order to facilitate the payments to be made at the earliest possible opportunity in 2022. While I acknowledge the outcome Deputy O'Rourke is trying to achieve with this amendment, a more practical solution would be for individuals who choose not to benefit from this payment to make a donation to charity. A number of NGOs do very important work to alleviate energy poverty. That would be the most practical way of ensuring that any payments under this scheme which people do not wish to retain for themselves can be quickly redirected to those who are in greater need, particularly in respect of energy poverty. I would be very supportive of that. In this way, the outcome the Deputy seeks could be realised as directly as possible and in the best interests of those living at risk of energy poverty. On that basis, I propose, unfortunately, to reject the Deputy's amendment.
As for the wider issue of protections we need to apply, the relevant Cabinet subcommittee will meet tomorrow, as has been publicised, to consider what further measures may be possible. However, we should not ignore the fact that there has been significant intervention, especially in last year's budget. I refer, for example, to the expansion of the fuel allowance scheme and the extension of its qualification criteria. That 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 allowance to support those living alone and at higher risk of poverty, and the household benefits package. The budget last year increased the weekly rate of the fuel allowance by €5 to €32 per week such that €914 would be paid to eligible households over the course of this winter. In addition, from January this year there was due to be a €20 increase, from €100 to €120, to the income threshold for qualification for the fuel allowance above the appropriate maximum rate of the contributory State pension.
Cognisant of rising fuel costs, the Minister for Social Protection asked her officials to prioritise work required in order that this change could be implemented at the same time as the increase in the fuel allowance back in October. The Department of Social Protection has completed that work, and that €120 allowable means a sum that is significantly more than the €33 weekly rate of fuel allowance. Increases were also made to the qualified child payment, the living alone allowance and the income threshold for the working family payment, exactly the sort of targeting I heard Deputies rightly call for. Those are the sorts of measures the Government has been putting in place. That will be funded by the additional carbon tax revenues of €105 million allocated in this year's budget to the Department of Social Protection.
Furthermore, the household benefits package consists of a set of allowances which help with the costs of running a household. It includes allowances towards covering electricity or gas costs. Recipients, the majority of whom are pensioners, are paid €35 per month. The Department spent approximately €265 million last year on the household benefits package. Targeted supports were also provided under the supplementary welfare allowance scheme, the exceptional needs payments and the urgent needs payments. 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 cases of ill health. This is in addition to the basic welfare and pension rates and adjustments to income tax introduced primarily as a response to the cost-of-living increases more generally and driven in part by higher energy prices.
I mention that because, where measures are taken that are targeted in that way and which benefit social welfare recipients, that should be acknowledged. Forgetting about it politically does not respect the importance that attaches to this issue. Measures such as those are needed and more may be needed. Ignoring what is in the budget and what has been done does not do service to that cause. I thank the Deputy for his amendment. I regret that the others could not be moved today. Unfortunately, I cannot accept the amendment.
Amendment No. 4 has been ruled out of order.
Amendment No. 5 has been ruled out of order.
Amendments Nos. 6 and 7 have been ruled out of order.
Amendment Nos. 8 and 9 have been ruled out of order.
Amendment No. 10 has been ruled out of order.
Amendment No. 11 has been ruled out of order.
I thank the Deputies and the Leas-Cheann Comhairle. The issue of how to protect our people in this inflationary period is very important. This inflation is caused by international events that we do not have control over. I appreciate the contributions from Deputies and their good intent in coming forward with proposals. This matter will not end with this Bill but it is a significant step in the right direction. It is very practical, immediate and deliverable. What it proposes can be done in a timeframe that will allow it to have an effect as the bills start to hit in the coming months. It addresses the core part of the problem, which is higher bills, particularly for gas, electricity and heating because of the high fossil fuel prices. I thank the Deputies for allowing us to get this Bill through. We will have to go to the Seanad and then put the Bill's provisions into action straight away to affect the bills of households right across the country.
I will finish by thanking my officials. They have done the Department and the Civil Service proud in turning it around really quickly. I thank them for their professional approach and their help in delivering the Bill. It is their Bill in terms of all the practical arrangements that had to be put in place to make it happen. I very much recognise their work as central to this whole process.