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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 24 Feb 2022

Vol. 1018 No. 6

Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Housing Provision

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, for being here for this Topical Issue debate because I know that he, the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, and the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, treat this matter with the utmost seriousness. We have had nearly two days of housing meetings with chief executives and housing directors of local authorities across the country with the Minister. I want to point out the massive ambition in this House for the delivery of public housing. We put in a lot of hard work on the Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage; at departmental level; and in the Oireachtas by all parties on the Affordable Housing Act 2021, the Land Development Agency Act 2021 and the publication of Housing for All with all the tools that are in that document. Then there is the €4 billion multi-annual budget. All of that ambition has to be translated to the local authorities; the approved housing bodies, AHBs; the Land Development Agency, LDA; and the many other bodies that will implement this plan.

Our work is not done when we pass these Bills or budgets. The work has to be continued and we have to continue to focus on almost every one of the sites in each of our constituencies to make sure our ambition is matched by the ambition of the local authorities and AHBs to deliver. The local authorities have to do far more in the delivery of social housing and far more again in the delivery of affordable housing. They have been out of this space for some time, although that is not true of all of them. Dublin City Council built thousands of homes during the Ballymun regeneration project only ten or 15 years ago so there is some legacy of building public housing within our system. They need to get back to having that sort of ambition of seeing a site and being aware that they have the policy tools, budgets and ability to deliver on them.

I mention some of the sites and some of the frustrations I have had with them. The Parkview site is being developed by Ó Cualann in partnership with Dublin City Council but there have been far too many delays in the transfer of the legal title from Dublin City Council to Ó Cualann so it can develop that site. On the Kildonan lands, much of which have been lying idle for many years, consultation has occurred and a project manager has been appointed but there is no clarity on the design and the scheme and timeline are still unclear. The Whitehall car park site has some local issues that need to be ironed out with residents. People have accepted it will be built on but there has been no progress on that site since the summer. Thankfully the majority of Dublin City Council has voted to approve the Oscar Traynor Road site. We expect a planning application but it might only be for part of that overall development so we are a long way from the completion of that project. Pre-Part 8 planning approval is expected on the port tunnel site but we still await procurement and construction and it is only for part of that site. The Coultry Gardens site has been identified for cost rental homes but there is still no clarity on who the partner will be on that. Cranogue Islands on Balbutcher Lane has thankfully been identified for affordable purchase homes but we are a long way off the pre-Part 8 becoming a Part 8 and then being constructed. I mention the Church of the Annunciation site, identified for senior citizens. The church has been demolished and the site lies idle so we need action on that site. Belclare Drive has been identified for affordable housing. It is another complex site and may be further delayed. I could go on and on about all of these sites but if we do not keep an eye on each one of them, the ambition and legislation we have will not be translated into keys in doors and homes for people. The Minister of State and I agree that this is needed and we need to make sure that the next step, delivery by local authorities and AHBs, is carried out.

I thank the Deputy for his support for the work of the Government and the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage. Increasing the supply of housing is a priority for this Government. Last September, the Government published Housing for All, which sets us on a path of delivering 300,000 new homes between now and the end of 2030, including 90,000 social homes, 36,000 affordable purchase homes and 18,000 cost rental homes. The plan is backed by historic levels of investment with in excess of €20 billion through the Exchequer, the LDA and the Housing Finance Agency over the next five years. This will provide the sector with the stability and certainty it needs to increase supply to an average of 33,000 homes per annum.

Work undertaken in the Department during 2021 identified estimated housing supply targets of 14,000 in the Dublin region for the period 2021 to 2027, with almost half, 6,800, in the Dublin City Council area. Data published by the Department today show that 1,861 new homes were commenced in January 2022. In the past 12 months, February 2021 to January 2022, commencement notices for 31,201 new homes were received. With the exception of 2020, when significant restrictions on home building existed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the number of residential homes for which commencement notices were received has increased every year since 2015, the earliest year for which comparable data is available. That is a 42% increase on the number of homes for which construction commenced in 2020. Indications are that the proportion of commencements in Dublin in 2021 is on target in accordance with the national planning framework.

Under Housing for All there will be significant investment to deliver both social and affordable housing in the Dublin region. The delivery of new social homes will be an important element of this increased delivery. Housing for All includes a target to deliver an average of 9,500 new build social homes per annum over the next five years, with annual targets increasing from 9,000 in 2022 to 10,200 in 2026. In this period, 17,750 new-build social homes will be delivered in the four local Dublin local authority areas, and over 20,000 new social homes will be built, including homes delivered through long-term leasing.

To increase housing delivery and more affordable housing, we introduced the Affordable Housing Act 2021, the first ever stand-alone affordable housing legislation. This Act established a basis for four new affordable housing measures to deliver on the programme for Government commitment to put affordability at the heart of the housing system and prioritise the increased supply of affordable homes. Housing for All provides funding for the delivery of 54,000 affordable homes nationally to 2030, including 36,000 affordable purchase and 18,000 cost rental homes. The Department is in the process of reviewing the housing development action plans from the 31 local authority areas in order to finalise regional annual affordable housing targets in the period to 2026 and this process will be completed shortly.

I welcome the Minister of State outlining some of the many things contained in Housing for All, the Affordable Housing Act 2021, the Land Development Agency Act 2021 and the many other measures that he mentioned. We need to go further and start to make sure that every local authority knows the breadth and depth of this housing plan, that every local authority knows how much is in here and that every councillor has an understanding that there are tools in this housing plan that will allow them to progress the projects which they might have been frustrated at being unable to develop. I welcome the two days we have spent with our housing directors and I know each of the Ministers will be speaking to the councillors in their parties. I also welcome the Taoiseach’s comments that local authorities and councillors have to treat this issue, in its implementation, as an emergency. We have to make sure we get to a position where we start building homes and that will involve sacrifices and challenges for all of us. The biggest challenge that is faced is by the executives in the AHBs and, particularly, in the local authorities.

More than 250 additional staff have been provided across the country but there has not been any additional staff provided to Dublin yet. That is because, as the assistant secretary general at the Department informed our committee, they are waiting for the housing needs and demands assessment to be completed and they will be in a better position at that point to identify the numbers that are required. We need additional staff in Dublin and everybody accepts that. The local authorities need to tell us how many staff they need and they need to ensure that is approved by the Department. We have to get those staff in place and get to work on all of the sites I mentioned.

Thousands of homes could be delivered in my constituency alone. That is what progress and Housing for All will look like. It will not be a list of policy instruments, but a list of sites where homes are being developed and a list of families who are able to call those places home. It will be places that we will be able to call communities. I am not criticising Government policy. I am not even criticising progress at this point, but I am saying we need to make sure that ambition is one of the core points of the local authorities in how they deliver this plan.

I thank Deputy McAuliffe for his remarks. When the housing need and demand assessment, HNDA, is submitted by local authorities, it will be looked at forensically, because it will be the guide rails in terms of where demand will be and construction will take place over the coming years.

The Deputy has, quite rightly, pointed to what citizens need to see. They need to see developments going on around them, with the prospect of and hope to have keys to their new home in their hand in order that they can have a secure tenancy for their family. The Government is working night and day and is focused on that and ensuring that people can see the 31,000 commencements that are now ongoing throughout the country. That means the skillsets of labourers, bricklayers and diggers are on site delivering those houses.

A key priority for Government is ensuring the increased supply of social and affordable homes throughout Dublin. This year, we will deliver more than 2,000 new-build social homes throughout the Dublin local authorities. Affordable housing delivery is already happening and the first affordable purchase homes will be made available shortly in Fingal County Council and South Dublin County Council. We have already delivered cost rental homes at 40% below market rates in Fingal in Dublin.

Importantly, affordable housing measures and schemes are designed to assist purchasers in meeting the costs of newly-constructed homes and increasing the overall housing supply. By significantly increasing supply we will help temper inflationary pressures on the wider housing market to benefit all home purchasers. We are working as hard as we can, in line with the sites Deputy McAuliffe pointed out, to ensure they are being realised for all our citizens.

Public Transport

I am grateful to the Minister of State for taking the debate at this hour of a Thursday evening. This is an issue where choosing the forum in which to raise it is difficult, because it involves a number of State and semi-State bodies. It is hard to ascertain directly through parliamentary questions what role the Minister can have. That is where I have combined two or three efforts into one for this evening.

The first is with regard to the timetabling of the Dublin Bus schedule in south County Dublin, namely, the 44 bus from Enniskerry to the city centre and the 47 bus from Stepaside. These two buses serve a number of schools and are a vital form of transport for school children at both national and secondary level to access their schools. However, due to small changes to the timetabling, the bus either goes too early or too late to get the kids to school on time. It is a very simple issue that all of us deal with in our constituencies every day of the week.

I have engaged with Dublin Bus and its response is that the buses are relatively full as is simply does not cut the mustard. It does not realise that Dublin Bus responsibility is as a public-service provider, as well as a company that has to ensure profits are made or losses are minimised. Therefore, I ask for an intervention to allow small tweaks. We are talking a difference of five to ten minutes to departure time of the second bus in order to allow kids to get to school via bus, get them on public transport, keep them out of the cars and not to force their parents, guardians or grandparents to take the car on the road when there is no need. It is a simple fix.

The second area I will raise is with regard to the Luas. The Luas is a wonderful facility that serves the entirety of my constituency. However, now that we have seen a return to 100% capacity, the vast majority of people returning to work and the vast majority of people having already returned to second and third level education, we see the old problems return in terms of the increase in demand. People are, increasingly, left on the platform or going on a Luas that is beyond crowded. This will only get worse.

The repeated announcements of the Minister for Transport and the previous Minister of new and expanded carriages is only enough to meet the current or, indeed, previous demand. The growing demand being added to by the large-scale construction and provision of housing throughout the south Dublin area, along the Ballyogan Road, along the Glenamuck Road, in Cherrywood and beyond, puts huge pressure on the Luas. What we see is people reluctant to take the risk of having to be left on the platform, having missed one or two carriages. It is a longer wait time, depending on where one gets on. Instead, they revert to the car and therefore, despite the 20% decrease in fares, we are not seeing them maximised.

The third area is very pressing. It looks ahead to the St. Patrick's Day festival to which we all look forward and the four-day weekend. It is the double bank holiday that was much promised. It will be the first real opportunity for many people to get out, socialise and I hope mark the end of the serious aspects of restrictions this pandemic has laid upon us. However, that comes again with pressure on public transport services, not just in south Dublin but throughout the entire city and region.

We already see late night transport squeezed to the maximum. There are not enough taxis on the road. Many drivers, for whatever reason, left the profession. Equally, the Nitelink bus service has only returned. I call for an extension of the Nitelink bus service and, crucially, for the Luas to take up Christmas timetabling with special late-night Luas services running until 3.30 a.m., such as we see in the weekends leading up to Christmas Day and over the new year period.

I thank Deputy Richmond for giving me the opportunity to discuss this issue on behalf of the Minister. From the outset, I note that the Department of Transport has responsibility for policy and overall funding with regard to public transport. However, it is not involved in the day-to-day operation of public transport services. The National Transport Authority has statutory responsibility for securing the provision of public transport services nationally and for the allocation of associated funding to the relevant transport operators.

That being said, the Government is firmly committed to enhancing and expanding our public transport service provision across the country as a means of reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the transport sector. Under the climate action plan, we have set ambitious targets for an additional 500,000 daily public transport and active-travel journeys to reduce internal combustion engine kilometres by 10% and add 1,500 EV buses to the public transport fleet, as well as expanding electrified rail services, all by 2030. A key objective is to provide all citizens with reliable and realistic sustainable mobility options.

To support this, in budget 2022, the Department of Transport secured approximately €538 million of funding for public service obligation, PSO, and Local Link services. In addition, €25 million was provided to introduce a young adult card which will enable any person aged between 19 and 23 years old to avail of an average fare discount of 50% across all public transport services. This initiative will promote modal shift among this age cohort and contribute towards a reduced reliance on private transport. This exciting initiative will, of course, benefit many young people living in south Dublin.

Further, as part of a suite of new measures being introduced by Government to help combat the rising cost of living experienced throughout the country, a 20% average fare reduction on PSO services until the end of 2022 is also due to be introduced in early May.

I reassure the Deputy that I fully realise the importance of expanding public transport options in all locations throughout the country and the national development plan provide €35 billion for transport over the coming decade, the largest investment in transport in the history of the State. This provides the necessary support to translate our ambitions for public transport into reality.

Work is ongoing on the DART+ coastal south improvements programme which will provide increased rail capacity on the south-eastern line. In addition, there is also the planned development of a new DART station at Woodbrook, between Bray and Shankill, on the existing DART line. Consideration is also being given to new park and ride zones in the area.

In terms of bus services, a major programme of bus network enhancements is being introduced over the Dublin metro area and it is planned to introduce major new orbital services in south Dublin, including four new routes, the S2, S4, S6 and S8, to serve Ballsbridge, Rathmines, Heuston, UCD, Crumlin hospital, Liffey Valley, Dundrum and Tallaght.

This year, it is planned to introduce major new orbital services in south Dublin, including four new routes, namely, the S2, S4, S6 and S8, serving Ballsbridge, Rathmines, Heuston Station, University College Dublin, UCD, Crumlin hospital, Liffey Valley, Dundrum and Tallaght orbital.

Additionally, in 2023 and 2024, four new bus spines will be introduced in the area under BusConnects. These spines will connect Malahide Road to Crumlin, Ballymun to Foxrock, Swords Road to Terenure and Blanchardstown to UCD. Collectively, these measures will not only further improve connectivity but in conjunction with the planned expansion in cycling infrastructure, will provide viable alternatives to the private car for those living in the region. I will bring the Deputy's views back to the Minister about the St. Patrick's Day festival, late-night transport, the fact that taxis are very difficult to get and also the extension of Nightlink services to the Christmas timetable.

I thank the Minister of State sincerely for that comprehensive response. I appreciate the many efforts and initiatives being taken by this Government with regard to public transport provision across the State but particularly in the Dublin region.

Having engaged, or attempted to engage, with the Minister for Transport via parliamentary questions, letters and other means, I fully appreciate the responsibilities of the Department and Government are related to policy and funding as opposed to operations, which is with the National Transport Authority, NTA.

The policy, however, must fundamentally be about serving the public and anticipating difficulties. The funding, therefore, must be intelligent to meet the basic commitments of public transport provision this Government has made. The Minister of State is not off the hook. This simply cannot be delegated to the NTA because these are three quite straightforward issues.

This is not the first time I have raised them in this Chamber or in the Oireachtas overall. Indeed, the Minister, Deputy Ryan, and I have had this discussion. Not only is he a former representative for the constituency but he is the current Teachta Dála for the wider Dublin area. He fundamentally understands these issues and that the policy of Government must be to see around the corner and spot the very obvious difficulties. I fundamentally welcome the Minister of State's update on the large-scale plans the Government has but we are looking for short-term solutions to short-term problems. They are very simple short-term solutions such as a tweaking of the bus service and the laying on of a night-time service, be it Luas, Dublin Bus or, indeed, in deference to my colleague, Deputy Alan Farrell, the DART.

We need to see those services provided. We need to see them in the next three weeks. Otherwise what are we going to see on St. Patrick's Day? One of the finest things this State did was the deregulation of the taxi industry. We need to look at large-scale, progressive policies that can address the issues at source.

I thank Deputy Richmond, who came up with some interesting views regarding serving the public and anticipating difficulties. He also mentioned the NTA and that we need to deliver short-term solutions to short-term problems. We sometimes need outside-the-box thinking and I appreciate that.

I want to advise the Deputy that the introduction of the Transport for Ireland, TFI, 90-minute fare last year, as envisaged by the BusConnects programme, has hugely benefited public transport users in south Dublin. The TFI 90-minute boundary for rail services encompasses all zone 1 to 4 journeys taken from Dublin city centre. Accordingly, it extends to cover south Dublin.

Residents can avail of this promotional fare of €2.30 when using a Leap card, allowing them the option to transfer between Dublin Bus, Luas, most DART and commuter rail and all Go-Ahead Ireland services in Dublin as long as they touch on their last journey within 90 minutes of the first. The Deputy will agree that this allows for greater enhanced integration of public transport services. That does not address the Deputy's issue of trying to ensure there are extra services, however, which as he rightly said, serve the public and address the anticipated difficulties.

The roll-out of the new orbital bus routes and spines under BusConnects, as well as extensive planned works on the DART+ coastal and DART+ south-west projects, in conjunction with the continued work on key infrastructure projects including cycling facilities, will greatly enhance the current offering of public transport and active travel services in the south Dublin region.

As I said, in tandem with this, the introduction of the young adult cards and a 20% average fare discount means that 2022 looks to be an exciting year for public transport provision across the country as we slowly return to pre-pandemic travel patterns. I hope that clarifies a few issues. I will bring the Deputy's concerns to the Minister. I thank him for raising these very interesting and informative issues.

Sustainable Development Goals

This is a welcome chance to discuss an important and substantial piece of work that issues every year from Social Justice Ireland, which tracks our attainment in terms of the sustainable progress index or sustainable development goals over of the year. I raised this issue this time last year and submitted a similar Topical Issue.

It is an important milestone and a good opportunity to take stock of where we are with regard to the sustainable development goals. It is nearly seven years ago now that Ireland played a significant and historical role in the process to agree and adopt the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development plan and sustainable development goals alongside the co-chair, which at the time was Kenya. The adoption of agenda 2030 was one of the pivotal moments of 2015, with countries from all over the world coming together and committing to do more for fair, equitable and environmentally sustainable development. We have had some positive progress in terms of the workings of the Parliament here. We have it written into standing orders of each committee now that they should consider progress on the sustainable development goals within their area although I am not sure how many committees are undertaking that work.

I will direct the Minister of State to page 36 of the Measuring Success: Sustainable Progress Index 2022 report, which gives a nice visual dashboard that in one snapshot gives an overview of how we are doing in terms of sustainable development goals. I am heartened that the arrows are tending in the correct direction. There are no areas in which we are making backwards travel. Many areas are still earmarked for concern, however. The ones that are red-listed include climate action, responsible consumption and production and partnership for the goals. I draw particular attention to goal 7, which deals with affordable and clean energy. It states that "Ireland’s CO2 emissions from energy fuels combustion/electricity output ... are one of the highest in the sample."

The heat strategy that was issued earlier this week identifies that we have a difficulty in terms of heating our homes in a sustainable way. We certainly have an issue around the affordability of heating our homes at the moment. The score for the proportion of people who are unable to keep their home adequately warm places Ireland in the middle of the rankings. I am sure that with our ambitious retrofit scheme, which again was announced last week, we will be hoping to make significant substantial improvement in that area in the 12 months ahead and beyond.

In the area of responsible consumption and production, again, we rank poorly based on this sustainable development goal. Our "recycling rate of municipal waste is very low and the indicators of circular material use ... is one of the lowest in our sample." Again, I would be hoping for significant progress on this as we introduce our circular economy. The work in front of us will be significant in tackling not only input costs but the resultant emissions.

On climate action, a key indicator used by EUROSTAT is greenhouse gas emissions. While we are making some progress in this area, we are not making it any way far or fast enough. Emissions may have fallen but we are still well above the EU average. The last of the sustainable development goals to which I will point is goal 14, which is life below water. I spoke previously in this House on an Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, report that highlighted the intense problems we have in some of our waterways. We have very few pristine rivers left. We have a particular problem where I am from in the south east in terms of the level of nitrogen that is finding its way into the waterways.

I ask the Minister of State for an update of the progress of where we are in terms of the implementation plan and co-ordination of the interdepartmental working group and how that work is ongoing within the Department.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter and welcome the opportunity to discuss Ireland's progress towards its sustainable development goals. A renewed focus is currently being given to progress Ireland's commitments to agenda 2030 for sustainable development.

Substantial progress has been achieved in recent months in respect of reviewing Ireland's implementation of agenda 2030. The Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications has overall responsibility for promoting the sustainable development goals and overseeing their coherent implementation across government.

The Department is currently developing Ireland’s second SDG national implementation plan, in which key priorities and actions have been identified to further successful SDG implementation across the Government and to promote awareness of the goals. It is intended that the draft plan will be made available shortly and that it will form the basis of discussion at the next SDG national stakeholder forum. It is important to emphasise that given the broad scope and cross-cutting nature the SDGs, the Government recognises that strong and effective governance arrangements are essential to ensure high level engagement with the 2030 agenda. For this reason, the established SDG governance arrangements of a senior officials group, which is chaired by the Department of the Taoiseach and which is supported by the interdepartmental working group chaired by the Department, will remain an integral part of the next plan. To ensure that Ireland’s reporting on SDG progress is both comprehensive and relevant to its national circumstances and level of development, the identification and management of national data is carried out by the Central Statistics Office in consultation with the SDG interdepartmental working group.

The Central Statistics Office, working in conjunction with Ordnance Survey Ireland, has developed an online GeoHive data hub to provide spatially relevant information on our progress towards targets under the SDGs. As part of this initiative, the CSO has published of individual SDG goal reports. Goals 1-11 are available online and the remaining SDG goal reports will be published in the coming months.

Social Justice Ireland has produced an index of its own design, which ranks Ireland’s performance under all 17 SDGs. I welcome the publication of the 2022 report which has measured Ireland’s economic, social and environmental performance in relation to the SDGs. The 2022 report ranks Ireland tenth out of 14 comparable countries. It is ranked ninth on the economy, eighth place in the social category and ninth on the environment. Ireland is in the top five for three of the SDGs, which are goal four, quality education, goal 11, sustainable cities and communities and goal 14, life below water. A good score on goal 16, peace and justice, indicates that Ireland is a relatively safe place to live, with reasonably good, transparent, effective and accountable institutions.

In areas that have identified where work is needed to address some important sustainability issues, significant progress has been achieved in relation to goal 7, affordable and clean energy, goal 12, responsible consumption and production and goal 13, climate action.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. I realise that this is outside of the remit of his own Ministerial work. I acknowledge that the report is not scathing. It does not necessarily paint a picture of a country that is doing badly. It is showing progress across most of the indicators and the report does acknowledge that there are areas, for example in education, where Ireland does extremely well. We should work to maintain that level of progress.

I would say that the word “shortly” is doing much heavy lifting in terms of the timeline on this. The second national implementation plan has been promised for a while. I would like to see it and I would like a concrete timeline on it. I would also like a concrete timeline on when it will be brought to the national stakeholder forum. I acknowledge what the Minister of State is saying about a broad and cross-cutting nature. I think that is one of the strengths of it. I spoke about policy coherence earlier, when we were talking about the town centres first programme. That is one of the strengths of taking an SDG-led approach to these issues.

I want to acknowledge, as I did earlier, the work of Chambers Ireland in producing a toolkit for businesses. What it does in a really meaningful way, which I think sometimes we fail to do on larger policies, is it takes a first principles approach. It does not just take the 17 SDGs, but it looks at the 169 sub-targets that are below those SDGs. It seeks to implement them in a common sense and practical way. I sometimes worry when I see Government documentation that includes SDG material that we engage in a retroactive badging. For instance, after we produce the policy document we ask beside which goals can we put the nice picture in the document. I would prefer to see us change our approach, to go back to first principles, to look at the goals, to look at the sub-goals and to design our policies accordingly to achieve that level of cross-cutting policy coherence. This would help our Departments work better to deliver for the people.

I thank the Deputy again for raising this issue. Ireland’s second SDG programme is currently being finalised. It is intended that the draft plan will be made available - I know the Deputy might not like to hear this word - shortly. However, we will try to get a timeline as quickly as possible to form the basis of discussion at the next SDG national stakeholder forum. This will allow for a final round of input from stakeholders prior to finalisation and publication.

It is important to note that the report uses official published data from international sources such as the OECD, the WHO, the United Nations etc. as well as from non-governmental organisations such as Gallup and Transparency International. The composition of the index of the Social Justice Ireland's own choosing is significant, because the choice of which indicators to include and exclude from an index will invariably impact on a given country’s ranking within that index. The report claims that data selection for this report is first informed by the UN indicators set in 2020 and that it is aligned to this indicator set as closely as possible. However, the report also acknowledges, as changes have been made in the indicator set, the rankings in this report are not directly comparable to the earlier versions of the index. As new information becomes available, the number of indicators evolves. Where possible, each SDG is covered by a minimum of four indicators. However, the report acknowledges that data coverage across the goals is unequal.

Ireland’s good performance, good health and wellbeing does not take into account the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. The impact of Covid-19 on the SDGs cannot be fully captured in this year's index. The full scale of the pandemic will likely only be evident in later editions. Again, I thank the Deputy. I hope we will have a timeline as quickly as possible.

Energy Policy

I thank the Minister of State for taking this topical issue so late in the evening. I would have much preferred that the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, took this on the basis that I spoke to him previously in relation to it this week. I have sent information on to him. He was also involved in launching this scheme once upon a time in 2007. At that time at Carlinn Hall, the idea was that it was billed as the State's largest sustainable energy development. The homes went on the market as the houses of tomorrow. Obviously, we had the Celtic tiger crash, but later a developer bought it and he developed the majority of the 234 houses, which were then sold on. The heating system is a communal heating system. It was initially to be fed by biomass, but this did not work out and it was replaced with gas. I will say this in a straightforward way: it is an utterly inefficient system. It is basically losing 50% of the units of gas. It is operated by Frontline Energy. Frontline Energy does not make any money on the gas. It makes money on a standing order. Therefore, the problem is going to get worse, because of the disgraceful invasion by the Russians of Ukraine. Beyond that, however, we are now in a scenario where people are being charged on the basis of an inefficient system, combined with the huge price of gas.

The Irish Times has done a far better job than I will about this. It spoke about Tomás and his family who are paying a bill of €575. Its equivalent the year before was €258. John and his wife are paying a €375 bill and its equivalent the year before was €180. I spoke to Anne Marie who earlier in the year got a bill of €70. It is now up to €353.38.

A number of steps need to be taken. This is straightforward. The current system is utterly inefficient and this needs to be examined from a point of building regulation. Energia charges Frontline Energy on the basis of a commercial unit rate. Communication has happened with the CRU but it has indicated it has no responsibility in respect of these types of heating systems. This is not going to work. The only thing that will work, most likely, is legislative change and there needs to be a capping. We need to accept these are residential units. Families in Dundalk are being screwed and we need a long-term solution.

We now face significant gas price increases. Much has been rumoured in recent hours and while we hope it will not come to pass it looks as though it will if some of the people I have been talking to are anything to go by. Deputy Ó Murchú outlined the specific circumstances in regard to this case but I wish to make a broader point regarding the national heat study, which was published during the week. Carlinn Hall is a poor example of the opportunity that exists for district heating, but the report makes clear the need to move to these types of system to harness the waste energy and heat from industry and the great potential in that regard.

I thank the Deputies for raising this timely issue, given what has been happening today. District heating offers the potential to make use of renewable and waste energy to heat homes and businesses as part of a range of measures to reduce carbon emissions. In Ireland, district heating currently accounts for a small share of the heating sector, estimated to be less than 1%. The Government is committed, however, to ensuring that advantage can be taken of this technology to decarbonise the built environment. The Climate Action Plan 2021 contains actions that provide a solid basis for the appropriate expansion of district heating, including the establishment of a steering group to oversee the roll-out of district heating and to ensure a robust governance framework will be put in place. These actions will also ensure consumer protection, in accordance with the legislation.

The legislative basis for the regulation of district heating is contained in the 2012 energy efficiency directive, which was transposed by SI 426/2014 and SI 646/2016. The directive contains a requirement in respect of the metering and billing of thermal energy, including district heating. It was amended through the 2018 revision and requirements for metering and billing of thermal energy were strengthened by way of that revision. The European Commission has proposed a further revision to the energy efficiency directive, which, once finalised, is expected to strengthen further consumer protection and empowerment. In addition to provisions contained within the energy efficiency directive, the 2018 renewable energy directive contains provisions for making information available to consumers in respect of energy performance and the share of renewable energy in their district heating and cooling systems.

The district heating steering group, established in line with an action set out in the climate action plan, brings together expertise from a wide range of organisations to assist with the development of district heating and to make evidence-based recommendations to the Government regarding targets for district heating. The steering group will draw on the findings of specialised working groups focused on key areas pertaining to the roll-out of district heating, including regulatory regime, planning guidance and financial options.

Under the House of Tomorrow programme, the first phase of approximately 50 homes in the Carlinn Hall development were supported by the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland. The homes were built to a higher standard of efficiency than the then building regulations and were approximately 40% more efficient than was then required. This means that, when they were launched in 2007, they were approximately 40% more efficient than they would be if they had been built to the standards of that time. The district heating network was also supplied by a central boiler, which significantly reduced the carbon footprint of the homes, given the fuel was originally biomass. I understand, however, that the fuel source has, since installation, been changed to a gas boiler.

Gas prices are not capped in Ireland, whether at a commercial or residential level, and electricity and gas markets operate within a European regulatory regime, whereby electricity and gas markets are commercial, liberalised and competitive. Nevertheless, I take on board, not least in the context of what has happened today, that prices will increase and the Deputies gave some sobering examples of the effects of the price increases on residents which I will convey to the Minister.

I appreciate the Minister of State's response and will follow up with the Minister on the matter. We all accept the benefits of district heating systems when they use overflow heat, which would otherwise be waste, but that is not the case here. From an environmental point of view, they are a complete disaster in the sense that they must use 100 units to get 50 units of heat. That is not going to work.

As anyone who has made contact with the CRU will know, it maintains it does not have responsibility in this field, and that needs to be rectified. One way or another, these people are paying an extortionate price for gas and it needs to be capped. We need to ensure the CRU can take action. There is a wider issue in respect of building regulation and heat energy assessment modelling. We cannot end up with heating systems such as this again. Long term, we will need a solution for Carlinn Hall, which I assume will mean a different form of heating system and possibly a different energy supply.

On the opportunity arising from district heating, I return to the national heat study. We have seen the example of Codema and the data centre in Tallaght. In the past, there have been town gas and other communal systems. There is an opportunity in that regard but it has to be done right and embedded appropriately. My local authority is setting up an energy agency in co-operation with Kildare County Council and Wicklow County Council. There is opportunity but it will need to be co-ordinated.

There is potential for a significant increase in the price of gas. The Government has not acted in respect of carbon tax and has indicated it cannot act on VAT. It needs to go back to the drawing board to respond to the increase in the price of gas that is on the horizon.

Deputy Ó Murchú talked about the CRU needing the power to take action and I will convey those views to the Minister. He went on to state we need a solution for Carlinn Hall and I thank both him and Deputy O’Rourke for raising that issue. Deputy O'Rourke raised the issue of the Tallaght data centre and the provision of town gas. Unfortunately, gas prices will continue to increase and we hope the Government can bring in some measures that will reduce the serious impact that will have.

The position of successive Governments for almost 20 years has been that competitive energy markets result in greater choice for consumers and businesses in terms of suppliers, products and prices and support competition to drive down prices. The CRU ended its regulation of retail prices in the electricity market in 2011 and in the gas market in 2014. Given prices are no longer regulated, they are all set by suppliers as an entirely commercial and operational matter. Each company has a different approach to pricing decisions over time and in accordance with factors such as the company's overall strategic direction and the development of its cost base.

However, as I said, all EU member states have been affected by recent high global energy prices to various degrees. Recent developments, as in what happened today, have underpinned the importance of moving away from our reliance on imported gas and instead accelerating developments of renewable energy generation across the country.

A central part of the solution lies with cost effective energy efficiency measures and accelerated deployment of renewable energy sources. It is of utmost importance to proceed swiftly with the treatment of the Fit for 55 package to achieve climate neutrality by 2050. A well-managed energy transition is not the cause, but part of the solution to keep prices affordable and predictable.

I thank both Deputies for raising this issue.

It was probably remiss of me not to state we have already started chasing this up with Energia, which is the gas supplier.

Irish Aid

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing flexibility to include a fifth Topical Issue on this important subject, especially after statements yesterday on security in Europe.

We woke up this morning to the news that a full-scale invasion had begun in Ukraine, that Ukraine had declared martial law and that explosions had been reported in multiple cities across Ukraine. At the outset, I express my utmost solidarity with Ukrainian people, in Ukraine and also here in Ireland.

Earlier today, Deputy Alan Farrell and I, and so many other Members of these Houses, met with the Ukrainian-Irish community outside Dáil Éireann. Members of our shared community, terrified for their families in Ukraine, have stood outside today in the cold, the rain and the snow. I hope that they see our solidarity with them from everybody going out, but also from the cars passing in the street beeping and supporting them.

There are extensive subway systems across Ukraine and from what we are hearing, those unable to flee at this point are going underground seeking protection and making plans to protect themselves against bombing and ballistic missiles. As we speak, Russian forces have attacked and seized control of an airport and are attempting to take control of other strategic areas.

I welcome, in particular, an Irish-Ukrainian family from my constituency to Leinster House. They are sitting in the Gallery. I spoke with them this morning. They have family in Ukraine trying to flee - trying to head south west. They are part of that traffic jam that we have seen on the television trying to leave Kyiv - people literally fleeing for the well-being of their families. These are the people and families who need safe refuge in Ireland. They are very real, raw, heartbreaking human experiences that nobody ever wants to have to think about.

This is an indefensible aggression in Europe but by no means the first such aggression. It is, as the Taoiseach said, an immoral and outrageous breach of the most fundamental principles of international law. Could the Minister outline to the House the humanitarian response that we can expect from the Government to the concerns of families here today, in particular for those Ukrainians who have been prominent critics of Russia and Putin and the scale, if possible, of the economic and other retaliation that is appropriate to this aggression that we can anticipate by the EU?

I thank Deputy Carroll MacNeill for having the foresight to put this item on the agenda and the Minister for making himself available.

Like my colleague, I woke this morning and turned on my radio and immediately felt my heart in the pit of my stomach with the horrific news that the Russian Federation had invaded the sovereign territory of Ukraine. Like any democrat or any parent, I immediately think of the women, the men and the children of that nation and the terror that they must feel as we speak.

It is an act of tyranny, an act of barbarism on the part of the Russian Federation. In particular, I am especially aggrieved with the lies that we have been told over the past number of days and weeks, even in this House in the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence, where the Russian Federation ambassador presented himself for questions.

This is a murderous rampage from a despot that will undoubtedly kill tens, if not thousands, of innocent citizens of Ukraine going about their ordinary business.

I listened very carefully to the Ukrainian ambassador on radio this morning. I could hear the emotion. It was hard not to feel the emotion that she expressed on behalf of her people and her Government.

Like my colleague, I have grave concerns for the innocents in Ukraine right now. I am pleased to have heard what the Taoiseach said earlier in relation to visas. I would like the Minister to explain that in more detail and the supports that are being offered on the ground to Irish citizens and their families who may not all be of Irish extraction.

I thank the Deputies for raising this issue.

Ireland and all of our EU partners stand in solidarity with Ukraine and the Ukrainian people on this shocking day when Russia, unprovoked, has initiated missile strikes and a ground invasion on their country. Today's invasion by Russia of Ukraine's sovereign territory and its attack on its people is an outrageous and immoral breach of the most fundamental and basic international law.

Prior to the events overnight and today, the EU had already stepped up its support to Ukraine. At the Foreign Affairs Council meeting on Monday, we decided to provide €1.2 billion of macrofinancial assistance to Ukraine. The EU is one of the largest humanitarian donors to eastern Ukraine. Since 2014, the European Union and its member states have contributed over €1 billion in humanitarian and early recovery aid to support the needs of people in the areas directly affected by the conflict and those who have had to flee that conflict.

Ireland is among a number of EU member states that responded with an offer of medical supplies. Today, the Government is working on a further package from Ireland to support the people of Ukraine and the Taoiseach will be in a position to announce this later this evening.

In response to Russia's actions, a first package of new sanctions was formally adopted yesterday. The sanctions package is wide-ranging and contains a number of elements, including an EU travel ban and an asset freeze extended to all 351 members of the Russian State Duma who voted in favour of this violation of international law, and an asset freeze and a travel ban applying to 22 key decision-makers, business figures, military officers and persons involved in leading the disinformation war against Ukraine. An asset freeze will also apply to three private banks and an entity responsible for disinformation. The package also targets the ability of the Russian state and government to access EU capital and financial markets and services. This limits Russia's ability to finance further aggression in terms of policies and actions.

New measures also target economic relations between the EU and the two breakaway regions. This includes an import ban on goods from the non-governmental controlled areas of Donetsk and Luhansk, restrictions on trade and investment related to certain economic sectors, a prohibition on the supply of tourism services and an export ban for certain goods and technologies.

All EU sanctions regulations have direct effect and as such are legally binding on all natural and legal persons in Ireland and across the EU. Private companies have an obligation to ensure that they are in full compliance with these new measures.

Sanctions will not be cost-free for this country or other EU member states, but we are left with little choice by Russia's behaviour. In light of the very serious developments overnight, the EU will move forward with a second even more wide-ranging sanctions package this evening.

A special meeting of the European Council has been called for this evening and the Taoiseach is attending. Ireland and our partners in the European Union will adopt the most severe package of sanctions that Europe has ever considered.

The Deputy also inquired about Irish citizens based in Ukraine. In light of developments, the Department of Foreign Affairs advises all Irish citizens currently in Ukraine to shelter in a secure place. However, citizens should consider leaving Ukraine if they judge it safe to do so depending on their location and prevailing circumstances, of course. It is likely that routes out of Ukraine will be severely disrupted and the road network and border crossings may face closures at short notice. Our embassy is no longer operating in Kyiv and our staff and other staff are transferring to a safe place as we speak.

Any Irish citizen requiring emergency consular assistance should contact a dedicated telephone line, 01 6131700, which has now been set up by the Department of Foreign Affairs. The Department will issue regular updates online and on our @dfatirl Twitter account as the situation develops. The Department of Foreign Affairs remains in direct and ongoing contact with Irish citizens in Ukraine who have registered with the embassy of Ireland in Kyiv, currently totalling around 70 people. The safety and security of Irish citizens and also their dependants in Ukraine are our absolute priority.

To the 4,000 Ukrainian people who call Ireland their home, our hearts are breaking with them as we stand with them today.

Ukrainian and Irish people have much in common: kindness, fairness and friendship run to the core of Ukraine. Like in Ireland, Ukrainian families are large and interconnected with a deep intergenerational bond. The Ukrainian diaspora across the world cares for and supports their family at home and I know how worried they are today. We had hoped to avoid this war. We had in fact pleaded with Russia to pull back from the brink through multiple diplomatic efforts. Those hopes and pleas were ignored and instead we see illegality, aggression and killing. I say to those in the Gallery this evening and to the other thousands of Ukrainians in Ireland that I am working with my colleague, the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, to put a structure and system in place that will allow Ukrainian citizens in Ireland to bring their families from Ukraine to Ireland if they judge that is necessary for safety reasons. We will ensure that system works and is streamlined.

Likewise, for Irish citizens who are in Ukraine who want to bring their families home with them, who may not be Irish nationals, we will also ensure that we have a process in place that will allow them to do that quickly and without impediments such as difficult visa application processes or anything like that. The Minister for Justice and my Department are working out the practicalities of how we can ensure that system will work for those here and in Ukraine who may need to flee for their safety. I look forward to taking any further questions the Deputies may have.

I allowed a certain amount of latitude because of the seriousness of the situation.

I thank the Minister for outlining the steps. We will hear more from the Taoiseach later. For the benefit of the House, the key concern for those families is getting out. Now that martial law has been declared, that is going to be very difficult for the men. I think in particular of prominent anti-Russian and anti-Putin journalists, who have spoken out so bravely in recent months and years in defence of democracy and against imperialist aggression. Those people are identifiable and they are in Ukraine. It is incredibly difficult for their families to think about that. It is so important to identify it. There have been reports of cyberattacks on car insurance companies. They would know who anyone is, what their car looks like and what the registration number is. We have seen reports from across Europe. We know the work that is going on. The key thing is about getting out in the first instance. The additional sanctions are welcome. I have run out of time. We know that so much has moved already and they need to be very effective.

I just want to mention my appreciation to Moldova, which when I last checked had taken more than 4,000 refugees on its border. That prompted this debate because we have a role to play. I am very heartened by what the Minister said. There are 4,000 Ukrainian citizens in Ireland. There is a prominent local businessman in Malahide whom I know very well, who I am very fond of because he is an absolute gentleman. It is important to me to know that there is an opportunity for families to be reunified in these circumstances. For that reason, I am very pleased to hear what the Minister outlined about his Department and the Department of Justice. I thank him for that.

As a neutral nation we cannot declare war, but we can declare financial warfare on the Russian Federation along with our European partners. That is entirely necessary for us to do. I very much look forward to what the Taoiseach has to announce this evening. We must make life as difficult as possible for businesses and for the Russian Federation Government in particular because of the absolute barbarism they unleashed upon the Ukrainian people this morning.

I can remember as an MEP travelling to Kyiv as an election observer during what was then called the Orange revolution. I remember the excitement the night before the election in Freedom Square in Kyiv and the sense of momentum and change at that time in Ukraine. Of course, there was some division too in the context of east and west, but it was a time of genuine hope for a new direction for a country that was looking west, with hopes and ambitions for the future. For those of us who have followed the ups and downs and challenges of Ukrainian politics since then, when we see what is happening there today, it really is shocking to see at the heart of Europe a level of aggression that takes us back many decades in Europe. That shows that the lessons of history on this Continent have not been learnt by some, as Russia attempts to undermine and change the political and state relationships and stability on the Continent of Europe by the actions it is taking today and the threats it is making to those outside of Ukraine also who may dare to interrupt its plans.

The role that Ireland will play will not be a neutral one. We are a neutral state. We are militarily non-aligned, but when we see the Continent that we have helped to build in terms of political stability over many decades being threatened in the way that is now happening, by Russia illegally invading its neighbour, we need to stand up and ensure that we are part of resisting that negative change on our Continent. As ever, we also need to take action on a human level and a humanitarian level in the context of supporting those who may have to leave or flee Ukraine or, through NGOs and others, support those who stay but who may need our help in the weeks and months ahead. Ireland will be very much part of a collective EU effort.

I have been in politics for 25 years and I am not sure I have ever seen anything that has united the EU in the way that this issue is currently uniting European countries that historically have very different relationships with Russia. The resolve I hear from some of my EU colleagues and from the European Commission and other institutions within the EU is one of steely determination to show that European democracy matters and that we will take the necessary actions even if they are painful ones for the EU in order to stand up to what we are seeing happening to our eastern neighbours.

I say to Ukrainians that we are going to be with you through this as much as we possibly can be. I say to our other EU colleagues, and our other partners in the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Japan, Australia and the many other countries that will be part of this collective effort, that Ireland will not be found wanting in terms of being a part of those efforts to try to reverse what we are seeing coming from Russia today in the context of what is happening in Ukraine.

The Taoiseach will have an opportunity later this evening to outline some of the detail of what I have announced in terms of what sanctions look like, what our humanitarian support package looks like - our initial one at least - and also some of the detail perhaps in terms of how we can facilitate Ukrainians to come to Ireland should they need to for safety and shelter.