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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 10 Mar 2022

Vol. 1019 No. 5

Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation

What was already post-pandemic inflation has now risen even further as a result of the invasion of Ukraine by Russia. Key commodity prices are skyrocketing, such as for wheat and palm oil, on the global markets and this will impact on Irish households. Figures released by the Central Statistics Office on the increase in food prices in the past year show that bread has increased by 8%, and this is before the consequences of the war have impacted on the prices on the shelves. Price rises, as the Minister knows, do not affect everybody equally. They hit those on low and middle incomes hardest. It was reported that the Government received a briefing on the potential impact of global price rises on the economy and households. We also know that the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine met with the farming sector without any concrete proposals. Will the Minister outline to the Dáil the potential impact of food price rises, which was shared with him? What is the Government's plan to secure our food supply? Finally, what measures will the Government introduce to support households struggling with rising costs?

The energy crisis and food price rises, as mentioned, are at the centre of this. The Deputy is absolutely right that those on the lowest incomes are most at risk and the percentage of their incomes going on basic essentials, such as food and energy bills, puts them at particular risk. It is important that we look at our social welfare system in that regard.

It is very uncertain. We have been looking at inflation rates for the past three months. It was 5.7% in December and then went down to 5.1% in January. My understanding is that, according to the figures release today, the rate was 5.6% for February. It is likely, from what we are seeing because of this war in global food prices going up and increasing energy prices, there will be further pressure. The food issue is particularly serious and grave, particularly for countries in the Middle East and developing countries that are reliant on Ukrainian and Russian grain for their basic daily sustenance and survival needs. First things first, we should be looking to our overseas aid and the Department of Foreign Affairs regarding what we can do to support that.

We are out of time.

When it comes to us at home in regard to agriculture, we will also have to be careful because our system is exposed and at risk, particularly the poultry and pig sectors.

Will the Minister admit that he and the Government have been played for absolute mugs by the major fuel providers in recent days? The financial resolution passed with assent last night by all of us has had zero impact. If Deputies were aon a garage forecourt this morning, as I was, they would have seen that not only did prices not go down, but they had actually gone up. When I inquired as to whether the excise cut had been passed on, the person behind the counter told me that the price of Brent crude oil actually went up last night at the same time. That is untrue but it was what that worker was told by his boss to say, which is a very unfair position to put that worker in. Will the Government agree to call an emergency meeting of all the major fuel providers to discuss this issue? Will it have examine a true price transparency mechanism for fuel, petrol and diesel? Will it examine whether a cap on fuel prices is needed? Will it look at further cutting public transport fares?

We are not just in daily contact but in morning, afternoon and evening contact with the fuel supply industry because we have a supply issue as well as a price issue that we have to manage and we will be able to do that. The Competition and Consumer Protection Commission will look to make sure with a laser focus that all the proper approaches were taken and that there was not price gouging. It is very complicated because different forecourts have different circumstances. The excise duty applies when the fuel leaves the depot, be it in Dublin, Whitegate, Derry, Shannon, or Galway, not when it is sold at the pump. The relevant excise rate varies depending on when the fuel was purchased and the gap in time. It is also complicated because, as I said earlier, the price on the wholesale market, which tends to have a two- or three-day lag from the retail price, went up €22 on Tuesday and came down by a similar amount on Wednesday.

I acknowledge and commend the Government on the approach it has taken towards the Ukrainian refugees in the humanitarian crisis we are seeing. It is heartbreaking to see the images of women, children and elderly people trying to reach the border and queueing for hours in freezing conditions. I imagine when they get to the border, there is probably a sense of relief but also a sense of fear and sadness regarding what they are leaving behind and what lies ahead. While we have taken a good approach in this country, we have been very passive regarding what has happened on the ground in Poland. Will the Government send buses and planes to make sure that people who are coming to Ireland are supported in getting here and that we take as much stress as possible out of that journey for them and that we are there for them? That is a simple measure we could take. Will the Minister do that?

The best way we can do that, as I said earlier in response to another question, is by working with the Polish Government. We really have to follow its lead.

Germany sent 300-----

The Minister without interruption please.

Yes, but we will respond and co-ordinate with what the Polish say because the last thing they want is an ad hoc approach and a variety of different actors coming in where they have to manage and marshal what they are responsible for. It is through working with the European Commission and the Polish Government, in giving a co-ordinated response, that we will be most effective.

Will the Minister offer that?

Absolutely, but we will not send Irish trucks or buses in an unco-ordinated way that is not at their behest.

Bringing 100,000 Ukrainian people to Ireland and helping them start new lives is not an easy task for any government. It is much tougher, of course, for the refugees and it is the responsibility of the Government to remove unnecessary obstacles they may face. What steps will the Government take to ensure their qualifications are recognised and they can work here at a level for which they are qualified? What steps will it take to ensure their social insurance contributions can be taken into account here, given the difficulties that will invariably exist in accessing details? The Minister might comment on housing arrangements. Clearly, the market playbook is not going to work in that regard. Last but not least, Migrant Rights Centre Ireland constantly highlight examples of unscrupulous employers who exploit workers precisely because they are vulnerable. Workers who do not speak English are particularly vulnerable. In-person English classes for all refugees are needed, which is something the State does not even provide currently. Does the Minister agree and if so, what steps will he take to achieve it?

We do not know the exact number of refugees that will come. We do not know the duration or future path of this war. It is likely that many refugees will remain in countries close to their homeland with a view to going back. We have experience in successfully managing workers and others coming from the new accession countries in the early and middle part of the previous decade and, therefore, we should use that experience. The Minister for Social Protection has made it clear that, on arrival, those workers will receive all the support available from the State, including a personal public service number, access to relevant social welfare schemes, and full health supports, as well as the basic welcome of being fed and given the sense that they are in a secure place. We will do that. We have to see how the numbers evolve but we will make sure they are welcomed in a proper way.

To follow on from Deputy Barry, for two years the Minister's Department has been dealing with the recognition of Ukrainian licences through the Road Safety Authority, RSA. Unfortunately, we are at a stalling point where the RSA says that it has not completed the due diligence on whether a Ukrainian licence can be accepted here on a par with an EU licence. Countries in the EU that have qualified the Ukrainian licence as being comparable are Italy and Portugal.

I ask that the Minister instruct the RSA to complete its due diligence with those European countries. We must give these refugees every opportunity. Unless the Government is going to house all the refugees in the city where there is public transport, it is going to put them at a huge disadvantage in the country and rural Ireland. I heard the Minister mention caravan parks, which are generally in quite remote areas where there is no public transport. These people must be able to avail of transport and be in the same position as other residents.

We have within promised legislation the Road Traffic and Roads Bill 2021. In amendments we are seeking to introduce on Committee Stage are provisions that will help us on the licensing and recognition of licences from a variety of different locations. I look forward to discussing such arrangements the Deputy talked about when that Bill comes back from Committee Stage, which I hope will be soon.

Approval was granted for the proposed building of a new fire station for Clonakilty town, which was announced by the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, in 2020. This fire station was supposed to coincide with the building of Kanturk and Macroom fire stations, which are at this stage nearly finished.

The town of Clonakilty had to wait for years for approval of this fire station. It serves a huge population in Clonakilty, Timoleague, Barryroe and Courtmacsherry on one side and Pike and Rosscarbery on the other. The people of Clonakilty and its surrounds, as well as the fire brigade staff, deserve to be treated with some respect. They are sick of announcement after announcement and nothing happening on the ground while other fire station buildings announced at the same time have almost been completed. Can the Minister tell me today why the people of Clonakilty are being treated like second-class citizens by this Government? When will the building of the new fire station commence in Clonakilty?

God help us should a fire take place in Clonakilty. I will make sure to discuss the matter with the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, and ask him to report back to the Deputy directly on the potential progress of that station.

We saw a small acknowledgement of the cost-of-living crisis from the Government. In reality, however, it will not even begin to alleviate the pain and suffering I am seeing on the ground in County Donegal. We need action on rents too, and one aspect of that is the housing assistance payment, HAP.

HAP limits have not increased since 2016. Rents have increased significantly in that time, however. In 2021 alone, the average rent in County Donegal increased by almost 20%. I know from talking to people on the ground, such as the Donegal Travellers Project, that this is a continuing trend in 2022. The HAP rate per week is a miserly €64.51 for a single adult in shared accommodation, rising to €121 for a family of five. Most people are making significant additional payments to their landlords and, therefore, live in poverty, the alternative being homelessness. There is no hope of getting a house either because of the Government's policies. Will the Government increase the HAP limits to reflect reality or, at the very least, instruct local authorities to grant the maximum flexibility of 20% in all cases?

My understanding is that there is provision within the HAP arrangements for increased flexibility under certain circumstances, and that is the appropriate mechanism of dealing with the particular circumstances rather than a universal increase.

The risk of flooding for several large swathes of County Dublin and other coastal communities is a genuine environmental threat of which I know the Minister is acutely aware. I am sure he is also aware of the joint report on the status of Ireland's climate, which was produced in 2021, that shows sea levels have risen by 2 mm to 3 mm per year since the 1990s.

Will the Minister provide an update on the multiannual investment for flood relief schemes contained in the programme for Government? Will he support using such flood defences for the purpose of completing the coastal route of the Sutton to Sandycove cycle path, which he, I and others have long supported and campaigned for.

We should integrate coastal flood protection. We have met and discussed the particular example given by the Deputy at great length. It is a particularly sensitive habitat. It is an important special area of conservation. Dublin Bay eco biosphere is a United Nations-recognised important and sensitive site, therefore, it would not be done quickly. I believe we will have to do other measures in the interim while we go through the sensitive planning process. There is an opportunity, however, and not just in the Dublin Bay area. When we go further south, particularly along the coast from Bray to Greystones and further south to County Wicklow, there are huge issues of coastal erosion on the rail track and a huge requirement for coastal protection, which could be combined with greenways or other projects.

Petrol dealers are directly challenging the authority of this Government by not passing on the full discount to consumers, in many cases. The Government needs to show them its teeth. Instead of soft words and telephone calls, we need to ensure there are dawn raids by gardaí and that the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission, CCPC, enters these companies.

They are directly challenging the Government's authority by pocketing this money. People in this country need to flood the CCPC with complaints because it will only act if it has those complaints. There is a war situation right around Europe. If the petrol retailers get away with it, God knows who the next crowd will be. The Minister must act to protect the ordinary people of this country. He must ensure the authority of this Government and insist the reduction is passed on to them.

My understanding is that the CCPC will be issuing a statement shortly on this issue because it is leading to much public-----

I was in contact with the CCPC today and it could not give me any comfort on that.

The Deputy might just let me answer that. It will be issuing a communication, which is important, to allay public fears. If the Deputy has any particular evidence or examples-----

I will send it in.

-----he might direct them to the CCPC as well as our Department and we will follow up.

I again want to bring up the issue of Carlinn Hall, which is a communal district heating system. It was meant to be biofuel but, unfortunately, has ended up being gas.

Domestic users are supplied by Frontline Energy, which is supplied as a corporate entity from Energia and is, therefore, charged at corporate rates. There is no protection for these domestic users. It is an utterly inefficient system; 100 units of gas to gain 50 units of heat does not work in any way, shape or form.

A wider issue needs to be dealt with. The Commission for Regulation of Utilities, CRU, stated that it has no responsibility in this regard. These people are paying bills upwards of between €300 to €800 and more, however, having paid much less in previous times. It is an issue of which the Minister is well aware. He was at the launch of this facility in a previous lifetime. We need a solution.

I am aware of this situation and we have had lengthy discussions about it. The Deputy is absolutely right to point it out; it is a critical issue.

The underlying problem is that oil prices have gone up but the price of gas has gone from approximately 50p per therm two years ago - it tends to be priced in sterling - to just under £5 per therm. That is putting a lot of projects under pressure, be it gas-fired haulage or this sort of district heating system. I can see there is a very specific problem. I will ask the Department and through it have with the CRU whatever discussions are possible to help. We want to encourage district heating. We want to make district heating-----

There are a number of these throughout the State.

There have been many challenges over the past number of years and more to come. The biggest, in fact, are yet to come.

I ask the Minister to address the issue of the European Union-wide response to the issues and challenges we are facing now. Will he ensure that security of the supply of food and energy, and accommodation for refugees and our own people, are the main challenges that must be dealt with? It is better to have a unified approach than everybody having their own individual answers. Will the Minister use his influence with his European colleagues for that purpose?

I absolutely agree with the Deputy that our strength of response must be a unified one. I am sure the Taoiseach will carry out exactly that at the European Council today and tomorrow. He did us proud with that initial response in the Thursday night meeting of the Council in which we were very strong in the response in terms of sanctions and other approaches.

I will make one background point if I may. This is an example of why this is an underlying energy issue. We are providing €10 million in humanitarian aid but prior to the prices going up, Europe was spending €350 million per day importing Russian coal, oil and gas. That is the underlying strength that goes from Europe to Russia. There was an immediate humanitarian response but the main response from Europe will be, as the European Commission wrote this week, that we rid ourselves of the dependence on Russian gas by the end of this decade. That is the centre of our response.

I am sure the Minister will be aware of the awful affliction that is Huntington's disease. It is a rare disease but in actual fact, it is all too common and extremely serious. It affects not only the individuals but their families in terms of care. As a genetic disease, it also tends to run in families.

I acknowledge the work in my constituency of councillors Bernard Caldwell and Íde Cussen, who have been to the fore in campaigning on this issue and have brought it to my attention on a number of occasions. A Huntington's disease support group has been formed, bringing together key clinicians and families who have been affected.

They are looking for co-ordinated support services. They have two asks in particular. The first is to establish a working group under the joint auspices of the National Dementia Office, NDO, and the integrated care programme, if possible. Separate to that is to provide funding for supports for dedicated Huntington’s disease nurses, ideally one in Dublin and one on the west coast, to support the immediate care that they need. I know that the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, has been working with the group. I think that the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, has also. There are two specific requests that they would put to the Government. I would appreciate any comment on that.

I recently met with the Huntington's group and I met with some of the consultants who provide care for them. The office of the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, was also involved in the meeting. We are currently working with them and we are looking at the recommendations they have made.

I fully agree with the reply of the Minister, Deputy Ryan, to Deputy Durkan on energy security. What steps have his Department now taken to expedite this strategy for floating offshore wind and to bring the reality of that sooner? The legislation on maritime planning has passed. There is an opportunity for offshore fixed wind in my own constituency in Dún Laoghaire. I want to be clear that I support that for a whole range of different reasons but, primarily, for energy security and for the climate. There is also a tension about biodiversity and questions are being asked about that. Would the Minister like to comment on that?

The development of renewable offshore wind is the huge potential development for our country. It is Ardnacrusha to the power of ten in its significance, scale and importance. It will start in the coming days and in a short number of weeks. We will start the process of what is known as the relevant projects. These are the projects that have been in planning for over ten years by getting foreshore licences and other planning systems in place. They are largely on the east coast. There is one in the west. There is one in Dublin waters. That action process will kick in in the latter part of this year. That is phase one of this development.

Phase two will follow shortly afterwards. We will go further to southern and western waters where we will start to look at how we can develop the likes of hydrogen supplies on the back of this. Phase three is the big one. All this has to be delivered, in my mind, within the lifetime of this Government. This includes the contracts and the completion of those auction processes.

Phase three is the plan for the future energy and economy of this country. We will tap into our sea area, which is ten times larger than our land area, particularly to the north and west. We will get something like 30 GW, which is six or seven times the amount of power we are using at the moment, as the founding stone of our economy. This Government has to deliver all three phases in the next three years.

We got the message. Thank you, Minister.

My question is very specific in relation to decarbonisation zones. This was action 165 under the climate action plan. A message went out all the local authorities to identify an area. I understand 29 out of 31 local authorities have responded, including Galway City Council. It did everything right. It submitted the application. It identified the west side as a decarbonization zone. Yet, almost a year later, the application sits in the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, with no approval having been given. I am told by the Department that it is awaiting guidelines from the Minister, so I am delighted that he is answering this question. When will the guidelines be published? Furthermore, I am really worried not just about this delay, but about the further delays that there might be, as they are dependent on the action plans which each local authority has to produce. That is sometime in the far, distant future.

I will follow up on the specifics of that. I do not have specific timeline here. I will return to my Department and revert to the Deputy as soon as possible about when those guidelines can be delivered. I want to make sure that we act and deliver at that local level. I will come back to the Deputy as fast as I can.

The war has brought escalating oil and gas prices and a consequent cost of living challenge here in Ireland. It makes sense that we should reduce our gas and oil use for that reason alone. It also makes sense to reduce radically our fossil fuel use because money spent on oil and gas in Ireland and across Europe, whether it is spent by individuals or by the State, goes towards Vladimir Putin's war machine. That machine is slaughtering innocent Ukrainians at this moment. Reports suggest the money flowing to Russia from Europe could be up to €1 billion per day and it may be more. As the Minister said himself in response to Deputy Durkan, who is sitting beside me, money that is being spent here in Ireland on oil and gas is giving Putin the power to wage war on an innocent country. That is unconscionable. Does the Government intend to introduce a range of emergency measures, in addition to the measures that have already been introduced, not alone to save on costs, but also to stop funding Putin’s war on the Ukrainian people?

As I said to Deputy Doherty and others earlier, we have engaged in a series of measures. While the war has been happening for the recent two weeks, gas plants started to restrict the gas last year. This has been ongoing for a year. It is among a number of other reasons gas prices have become high. We will go further in the coming days, when the SEAI will come out with a public information campaign to help people understand what they could do and what efficiency measures we could introduce so that we keep the money here at home.

We will go further within the coming three or four weeks, where the SEAI, my Department and other Government Departments will come out with further measures - we discussed this in the Oireachtas committee the other day - the likes of time-of-day pricing, which might allow householders go further to save money and also to save the use of fossil fuels. Those sorts of practical measures are next up. We will have to go further.

The Government is also looking, as we said at the Oireachtas committee the other day, at task forces to accelerate the delivery of renewable heating, sustainable transport, offshore wind among a number of other things. There will be different Departments, different agencies and outside expertise coming together to set the sorts of teams we had during Covid-19. This is so we can be fast in making the changes that we need to be made.

I want to raise the matter of the N2 Clontibret to the Border road project and the concerns of Monaghan County Council around it. It has now become clear that the level of funding available within the first half of the national development plan is not sufficient to progress this important infrastructural project through planning and design. As the Minister is aware, it is part of the same project, which is the Ardee to Castleblayney road scheme. It does not make any sense that the two are divided up and that they have been split into two different projects. It makes no sense that Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, would not treat them as one project. Ultimately, it is about safety. In my mind, the two should be done in parallel, together. Can the Minister give us clarity around this? Members are seeking a meeting with the Minister around this. I would very much appreciate if he would facilitate that.

I am familiar with the road and with the project. From my understanding, we had a meeting last week with some Deputies from different parts of the country, in the south east and in the midlands regarding the N24 and N4. There were similar circumstances. The project did not have immediate additional funding to go to the next stage in the planning process. There is a difference with the N2. As I understand it, it had an original preferred route. Then there was a further revised route. It is not the case that there is frozen land and of looking at a variety of different road options. This makes it slightly different to those examples. There is an underlying issue. We have a €35 billion budget for transport in the NDP, but we have €70 billion in projects. That was before construction inflation kicked in in the last year. It will therefore not be possible for us in this decade to progress all the projects which are in the planning system or which are even within the NDP. I will continue to liaise with the Deputies and with the TII about what might be possible. Nothing has been ruled out, but we have a limited budget. We have to prioritise for bypasses and for bringing town centre first life back into town centres. I know the Deputy will also support that.

I want to raise the issue of the difficulties patients are facing in trying to access dental care through the dental treatment services scheme, DTSS. I have been contacted by many people in my own constituency. They are finding it extremely difficult to find a dental practice that is taking part in the scheme. I contacted the HSE for a list of dentists who are participating in this scheme in County Galway. I received a list of 24 in total. However, after contacting each of these practices, I understand that only 14 of those are participating in the scheme and only ten are taking on new patients through this scheme. Can the Minister tell us how often this information is being collected? What is the Department of Health doing to ensure the information is being updated to reflect the reality? Without that information, it is proving even more difficult for people to access the dental care that they need.

I thank Deputy Mairéad Farrell for her question. This has been raised many times over the last few months. The Government is aware of the importance of people's oral health and the need for them to have access to a dentist in the area in which they live.

I have an update. The Department of Health and the HSE officials met with representatives of the Irish Dental Association on 2 March, which was last week. At that meeting, the Department and the HSE proposed to increase fees across a number of items and proposed the reintroduction of scale and polish. These are interim steps. The Minister for Health hopes that the proposals that were presented to the IDA at the meeting on 2 March will stabilise and lead to an increase in the number of contractors in the DTSS. The Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, has allocated an extra €10 million this year to get this over the line. This is on top of the €56 million that is already in the budget.

We are conscious of this and hope to get a resolution as soon as possible.

It would be nice to believe the Government could absorb all the energy impact or that energy companies could be forced to absorb it but, in a small, open economy such as ours, that is fairyland talk. Could we see an immediate activation of economic resilience measures, among them an activation of the 1 million smart meters, only 40,000 of which have been activated; reasserting remote working as a priority; tackling the supply chain inefficiency that sees 25% of our food wasted; promoting vehicle sharing, given more than 90% of vehicles are idle every day; implementing lean energy; and activating 90,000 vacant homes? We have measures within our reach that we could work on immediately, and I urge the Government to develop a strategy in that area.

I might pick up on two examples the Deputy mentioned, which I very much agree we could, and should, advance. He mentioned a smart metering programme. As I said earlier in response to Deputy Leddin, the Oireachtas committee a few days ago discussed the idea of time-of-day pricing, whereby it would be possible to shift the demand. For example, if there is a load for the washing machine or the dryer, the power could be less expensive later in the day when there is less demand for fossil fuels. That is one measure which, if we work with the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, CRU, and the Department, we could accelerate and introduce as an emergency response. The Deputy is correct in that regard.

He went on to mention food waste. This week, the Cabinet agreed the general scheme of the circular economy Bill, which has undergone pre-legislative scrutiny and we now have to implement. It will implement the waste action plan, which recommended 200 actions. It relates to reducing not just fuels but also materials. Being efficient in everything we do is going to give us protection. Included in the Bill will be a new food waste strategy. We will really double down to make sure we do not waste food. At a time food is expensive and the world is at risk of running short of grain and other basic supplies, that is exactly the sort of measure we should accelerate.