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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 24 Mar 2022

Vol. 1020 No. 1

Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Fuel Prices

I thank the Minister of State. I want to raise the important issue of the fuel concerns affecting all sectors in the road transport sector in Ireland, in particular smaller private bus operators. There is not a community in Ireland that is not serviced by the work undertaken by many coach hire companies. The work they do to promote tourism is very much appreciated throughout rural Ireland, as is the work they do with sporting clubs and other organisations in our communities that heavily rely on the private bus sector.

It is important to mention that millions of road journeys are provided annually in Ireland because of the coach hire business in terms of school runs. We have to acknowledge that the sector has a significant role to play in reducing traffic on our roads and encouraging people to transition to public transport. The sector is under particular pressure at the moment when it comes to increasing fuel costs.

As the Minister of State might be aware, 90% of school transport routes in the country are provided by private bus operators on behalf of Bus Éireann. However, the Coach Tourism and Transport Council of Ireland, CTTC, recently conducted a survey which showed that 95% of school transport providers cannot guarantee provision of transport for students up to June without some degree of subvention. I wanted to mention this, which was brought to my attention by the representative body for coach tourism and operators around the country, for the information of the House. That gives us an indication of how serious this particular issue is.

Progress was recently made, which was very welcome and was brought about by the hard work of the Road Haulage Association. I want to compliment its president, Eugene Drennan, and the officials working in that organisation for the efforts they have secured from Government and I want to thank the Government for coming to the table in that regard.

However, we need to do more for coach and bus operators around the country. more than 11,000 people are directly employed in the sector and it contributes over €600 million to our economy on an annual basis. When it comes to tourism and school transport, it is absolutely essential. The Government has to do more. I sincerely hope that in the absence of the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, departmental officials are listening to my contribution. I will raise this issue directly with him on his return and I ask the Minister of State to bring my contribution to his attention.

I would appreciate if the Department can take into account just how hard fuel prices are hitting smaller operators, that is, those who have fewer than 20 vehicles in their fleet. No matter what parish we go to in the country, we will always find at least one, if not many, coach companies. The Government should identify this as an issue and work specifically with the sector.

I welcome the fact that meetings with the CTTC and the Government will take place in the coming days. Overall, we must provide additional supports similar to those currently in place for the haulage sector, such as a direct subvention on a temporary basis. We need to recognise that we are now in a war situation internationally and we need to make sure that we look after this sector which, quite frankly, was thriving before the pandemic. Unfortunately, the industry was hit by the pandemic and is now being hit by high fuel prices.

The price of a barrel of oil has stabilised but unfortunately it is still high. Supply is outstripping demand, but it is only a matter of time before we return to the situation that pertained three or four weeks ago. That is highly concerning. The Government needs to act urgently.

I thank Deputy O'Connor for raising this matter and thank the Minister of State, Deputy Ossian Smyth, for being here to deal with it.

I thank Deputy O'Connor for asking about the supports available for private bus and coach operators during this wartime period which has led to elevated fuel prices. I am answering this question on behalf of my colleague, the Minister, Deputy Ryan.

I understand the Deputy's question relates specifically to the possible provision of fuel supports to the bus and coach sector similar to those recently introduced for hauliers. As the House is aware, a whole-of-government approach is being adopted in regard to the Ukrainian crisis. I am pleased to advise that a high-level group has been established in the Department of Transport to monitor and respond, as appropriate, to the crisis and its impact on the transport sector. This group is informed by other Departments, agencies and transport stakeholders and seek to ensure a co-ordinated response to the evolving situation.

As part of this process, contingency plans in the Department and across all agencies are being reviewed and refreshed, where necessary, in response to the potential impacts on the transport sector, including those related to fuel costs. As Deputies will be aware, on 9 March the Minister for Finance announced a temporary reduction in the excise duties charged on petrol, diesel and marked gas oil. Excise duty on petrol was reduced by 20 cent per litre and by 15 cent per litre of diesel, with these reductions to remain in place until 31 August 2022. This measure was introduced to help ease the burden on all citizens and businesses across the economy.

Subsequently, on 15 March the Government approved an emergency support measure for licensed hauliers in order to address the cost pressures arising from current high fuel prices. The support is targeted.

A temporary grant scheme will provide a payment of €100 per week for each heavy goods vehicle over 3.5 tonnes as listed on a road haulage operator's licence. The scheme will operate for a period of eight weeks and will be reviewed thereafter. The estimated cost to the State of the temporary response to these extraordinary circumstances is €18 million.

In responding to the Deputy's question, I wish to be clear that licensed bus and coach operators are an integral part of the overall public transport system, particularly in areas that are not covered by existing public service bus and rail services. In recognition of the important role of these operators throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, the Government has provided temporary financial supports for certain licensed commercial services with a view to protecting capacity across the public transport sector throughout the crisis. This temporary support was initially introduced for a period of six months in June 2020. However, owing to the continued impact of Covid-19 on passenger numbers and the associated drop in fare revenue, the supports have been extended on several occasions and more than €60 million has been provided to the sector to date under these schemes. In acknowledgement of the continuing difficulties facing the sector, I am pleased to inform the Deputy that the Minister, Deputy Ryan, recently approved an extension of the supports for a further three months, until 30 June 2022.

As the Deputy is aware, fuel costs have increased substantially since the commencement of the scheme in June 2020. I can confirm that the NTA has funded the operators for actual fuel costs throughout this period and will continue to do so throughout the extension of the scheme. Moreover, to ensure the continued operation of public transport service in rural areas, the NTA recently provided an additional level of subvention to support Local Link operators in the delivery of these services. These supports are provided to operators who are on fixed-rate contracts and therefore receiving no further increases to their based contracted rates. The funding has currently been provided to cover the costs for the first quarter of 2022 and this is a once-off payment initially. The situation will be monitored on an ongoing basis.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. I appreciate the information that has been brought to light and that the Minister, Deputy Ryan, is aware of it. That is welcome. It is good to hear about the extensions. However, putting it in an overall picture, we must remember that more than 41 million passengers are taken to school by coach operators. That is a staggering statistics that indicates the scale of the service provided to people across the country. Two thirds of operators have experienced fuel cost increases of more than 60% in the past 12 months. That is very concerning and enormously costly. We need to mind the gap in this regard.

A particular issue raised at the committee - unfortunately, there was little time to discuss it because of the time constraints and the number of people who were present - is the lack of alignment in State contracts and Government procurement. The committee was told by the CCTC that the lack of alignment is troubling. It is seeking to have a legally enforceable fuel variation clause introduced in school transport contracts so that operators have protection against extreme variation in fuel costs. That struck me as a sensible suggestion that we could consider, particularly from the point of view of the Department of Transport. It would be welcome if a degree of security could be provided in that area. If that is something the Minister of State can bring back to the Minister, I would appreciate it.

I am very concerned about the national oil reserve. As all present are aware, under international law the State is obligated to have a supply of 90 days for the country in the event a supply crisis was to emerge. Considering how close we came to such a crisis a number of weeks ago in the context of the security situation in Russia and Ukraine, which looks like it will deteriorate, we need to be on standby as a Government because the damage that would be done to all sectors of the economy, including the sector to which I refer, if there is a supply crisis is enormous. This is an island nation and we need to be on standby to secure and access that reserve, much of which is kept off the island of Ireland. As an island, we need to make sure we have the security in place to access that reserve if necessary.

I thank the Deputy. The first item I will address relates to procurement and State contracts. I refer to situations where a person entered a contract with the State to provide a service but the cost to the person of diesel has greatly increased. This is a specific case of a problem in procurement where inflation has made the economic reality of the contract difficult for the contractor to fulfil. An information note was produced by the Office of Government Procurement, OGP, which reports to me through the chief procurement officer, to address inflation questions, particularly in the context of the construction sector, but not on fuel. I will discuss that with the OGP and I am willing to revert to the Deputy specifically on that question.

On the issue of the National Oil Reserve Agency, NORA, I agree the value of the agency is clear to see. This is not just an Irish system; it is across the EU so that the whole of the EU has a 90-day buffer. It is incredibly important that we have it. If the Deputy has further questions on it, I will be happy to engage with him in that regard.

The Department of Transport and the National Transport Authority, NTA, regularly engage with operators on the evolving situation and the impact the Ukrainian crisis is having on operators' ability to provide public transport services. I reassure the House that CIÉ operators hedge the vast majority of their fuel in advance and, as such, are largely sheltered from the current rising fuel costs. As I outlined earlier, the commercial bus operator, CBO, supports have now been extended to the end of June 2022 and additional levels of subvention have been provided to support Local Link operators with managing the rising costs of diesel and in order to ensure the continuation of these essential services.

In addition, the Department of Transport participates in the EU contact network, which comprises all member states and representatives of the European Commission. This network, established in response to Covid-19, is now solely focused on the Ukrainian conflict. At its meetings, the network receives reports on transport-related impacts at the EU-Ukraine border, including the impact on supply chains. As the House is aware, more than 10,000 refugees from Ukraine have arrived in Ireland to date. A cross-departmental team is looking at all issues arising in the context of Ireland's response to the humanitarian crisis as residents of Ukraine seek refuge away from the war zone, including the consideration of any further measures that may be needed to assist people fleeing the conflict. In this context, the NTA recently decided to allow free travel for newly arriving Ukrainian refugees on any public service obligation public transport service from point of entry to their end destination.

The second important item that has been selected was tabled by Deputy Pringle, who wishes to discuss the decision of the United Kingdom to impose an electronic travel authorisation scheme in the context of the common travel area.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this Topical Issue matter.

I am not prepared to answer the question on the common travel area. We may have to wait for another Minister, unless we can go to another question.

Deputy Ó Broin is present. His question relates to implementation of the recommendation of the interim report on mortality among the single homeless population.

I can reply on that issue if the Ceann Comhairle so wishes. My apologies.

Deputy Pringle, my apologies.

No bother. I was going to say that the Minister of State, Deputy Smyth, is not the right Minister to answer this question anyway. That has taken away a bit of my thunder.

The Minister of State, Deputy Smyth, is very versatile.

It is not a matter under his Department. We will see who arrives in the meantime.

Homeless Persons Supports

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Smyth, who has stepped in at the last minute because the Minister of State, Deputy Burke, is detained elsewhere.

In 2019 and 2020 there was a significant increase in the number of media reports of tragic and premature deaths of people experiencing homelessness. As there is no count or record of such deaths, it was not clear whether those deaths represented an increase but, given the significant number of deaths, this House called on the then Minister at the time to commission a report to establish the extent to which this problem was growing, but also to try to understand the reasons for these premature deaths in order to try to ensure that, in future, the numbers would reduce, if not eventually be eradicated.

At the request of the then Minister, the Dublin Region Homelessness Executive commissioned an interim report on mortality among the single homeless population. Dr. Austin O'Carroll, who is one of the leaders in the field in terms of providing front-line supports to this cohort of very vulnerable men and women through his general practitioner, GP, practice in north inner city Dublin, produced the report. I have it before me. It is an important piece of work. I say this with no disrespect to anybody in the House, but we are talking about a group of people who, for the most part, the system does not care about. We need to be honest about that. These are single people, many of whom have severe levels of addiction, often interspersed with severe levels of mental ill-health. A significant number of them come from backgrounds of extreme poverty. That cycle of poverty, addiction, mental ill-health and homelessness has meant that, if we are brutally honest, they are at the very bottom of the list of political priorities for most people.

The publication of the report was groundbreaking because it acknowledged that although there were insufficient data to reach definitive conclusions, the age at which those in this group of people die is frighteningly young.

The deaths that have been occurring are, in many cases, eminently preventable if only we would learn from the mistakes of the past and improve the supports for this group of people into the future.

The report, I understand, created some considerable tensions between the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, the Dublin Region Homeless Executive, DRHE, and the HSE, which led to it being downgraded to an interim report and a promise of a HSE-funded longer-term study that has never materialised and I am not even sure if it is being produced. That speaks volumes in itself.

There are very important recommendations in Dr. O'Carroll's report, such as, for example, an increase in trauma-informed care to ensure adequate supports for this very vulnerable group of people in great need and a far greater provision of appropriate step-down and move-on accommodation. It also crucially recommended that critical incident reports, or what some people call adult safeguarding reviews which look back at the circumstances that led to such untimely and premature deaths, are also carried out. This is not to apportion blame but to learn what failed in the systems to try to ensure that these types of deaths were reduced and, potentially, eradicated in the future.

Central to Dr. O'Carroll's report was a need for greater multidisciplinary interagency working. Very often the deaths that take place are in the transition of an individual from healthcare, to mental health care, to homeless services, and in those gaps, when there is a handover, the lack of properly co-ordinated and integrated interagency care led to crises and ultimately to deaths.

What provoked me to table this request was that at the very start of this week, as I am sure Members will know, there was yet another tragic death of a young man who died in a tent in the north inner city of Dublin. We still do not know the reasons for that individual's death but, like so many others, he died far too young. I want to express my condolences to his family and to his friends but let us take this opportunity to ask what we can do to tackle the causes of these premature deaths to try to ensure that they are reduced and, ultimately, eradicated into the future.

I thank Deputy Ó Broin for raising this particular matter. We should acknowledge that Dr. Austin O’Carroll has done a considerable service for the category of people referred to in this report. Any of us who are worth our salt as public representatives will have a fundamental concern for the people who are the subject matter of this report. I now call on the Minister of State to speak.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle. I thank Deputy Ó Broin for asking this question and it is a very serious matter. I am answering this question on behalf of the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage. The Minister has asked me to express his sadness at the news of the death of a man who appears to have been sleeping in a tent in Dublin city centre. This is a tragedy and I extend my sympathies to his family.

The deaths of people availing of homeless services are of great concern and are being taken very seriously. It is important to establish the circumstances involved and that the response is based on the best knowledge and evidence available.

A review of homeless deaths was undertaken on behalf of the Dublin Region Homeless Executive by Dr. Austin O’Carroll and the review analysed the available data concerning deaths in homeless services for 2020, to identify learning for homeless and health services that could help tailor the provision of care to homeless people. Dr. O’Carroll notes that the most important step in reducing mortality among the homeless population is the reduction of long-term homelessness. The report notes that the Housing First model is the optimum approach to achieve this objective. Housing for All commits to the continued expansion of Housing First with more than 1,300 additional Housing First tenancies planned over the next five years on top of the 756 tenancies that have already been created. The report makes recommendations in the areas of data collection and analysis and a pilot study on data collection of homeless deaths nationally is being undertaken by the Health Research Board on behalf of the Department of Health. Dr. O’Carroll’s report also identifies that the co-operation between different agencies and service providers is of critical importance. Under Housing for All, a new national homeless action committee has been established with all of the key Departments, agencies and stakeholders involved. The overarching objective of the committee is to ensure that a renewed emphasis is brought to collaborating across Government to implement actions in Housing for All.

The improvement of health outcomes for socially excluded groups in society is a key priority for the Government. The HSE, through its national service plan 2022, has identified priority action areas with regard to healthcare services for people who are homeless. Among these are the development of a single integrated homeless case management team in Dublin and the implementation of the health actions in Housing for All for people who are homeless in order to provide specialist addiction and mental health services that are appropriate to their needs. Further recommendations that are currently being implemented are the continued support for the roll-out of specific harm reduction approaches such as opioid substitution treatment and increased naloxone provision. The Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage is working closely with the Department of Health, the HSE and local authorities to continue to deliver the appropriate measures to support all individuals experiencing homelessness, including those with complex needs.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. I will make just a couple of comments by way of reply and make a number of requests for him to raise with both the line Minister and also, possibly, with his colleagues who have responsibility for healthcare.

First, in respect of Housing First, the Minister of State is absolutely correct in that both the report and Government policy recognise the importance of Housing First. The difficulty is that the target for Housing First exits from homelessness has only been increased by 50 per year to 250. We have 3,000 single adults in our emergency accommodation system at present, not all of whom have the very high level of complex needs that we are talking about, but many do. Some 250 Housing First placements a year are nowhere near adequate. In many cases the support services being provided are not being adequately funded for long enough. That is important because there is a period of vulnerability for people who are going into Housing First in the period of time immediately after exiting either street homelessness, sofa-surfing or emergency accommodation because, in many cases, they are removed from what was their support and contacts network, and from their cultural capital. In many instances in other jurisdictions, that actually leads to an increase in potential mortality during that period of vulnerability and that needs to be addressed.

I welcome the fact that the Health Research Board is undertaking this work but I understand that it was meant to start this two years ago and it would be good to hear from the Minister for Health at some point about its progress.

Crucially, one of the great innovations that was made by the Dublin Region Homeless Executive and Dr. Austin O’Carroll during the Covid-19 period was the creation of medically supported shielding units, where those with the highest level of vulnerability to contract Covid-19 and, therefore, potential death, were put into new bespoke units. Not only were they protected from Covid-19, something I wish to commend the Government, the DRHE and the front-line staff on achieving, but what happened when we put these people into own-door accommodation? All aspects of their lives started to improve, not just their protection from Covid-19 but their physical and mental health, and addiction management also. These were temporary facilities and one of the things that the Government should urgently consider in the context of this debate is the making of permanent facilities as transitional accommodation, rather than moving people back into emergency accommodation.

I thank the Minister of State for his response urgent and I urge him to raise this very serious matter with the two line Ministers. I hope that we can return to this issue at a later stage for a further update. I thank the Ceann Comhairle.

I thank Deputy Ó Broin. From talking to people who work directly in homelessness services, I am told that while addiction is very commonly a factor in homelessness, it is not always the case. Sometimes it is mental health and sometimes it is simply losing one’s money and not being able to manage economically in a very expensive housing situation. On many occasions it is addiction and the way to tackle that is to address the causes of addiction and doing this requires further funding.

I will take the Deputy’s comments to the Minister of Housing, Local Government and Heritage on the need for more Housing First places which are not sufficient, given the number of people who are homeless. Additionally, I will also act on the Deputy’s request to ask the Minister for Health for a report on progress of the Health Research Board’s work in this area. I will also take on board the Deputy’s comments about the success of the shielding units and the own-door accommodation and will bring those to the Minister for Housing, Local Government, and Heritage. I thank the Ceann Comhairle and the Deputy very much.

I take it that some material has arrived from the Department of Foreign Affairs.

So it would appear, a Cheann Comhairle.

It has literally dropped out of the sky. I will be writing to Departments to ask them to cop themselves on and to respond with a bit more respect to the Topical Issue matters that have been raised here. I inform Deputy Pringle that the Minister of State, Deputy Ossian Smyth, to whom we are grateful for being here, has just been handed a file which addresses the Deputy's question. Does the Deputy wish to proceed?

I mean no offence to the Minister of State, Deputy Smyth, but I am unsure if it is really worthwhile to proceed, a Cheann Comhairle. The Minister was present in the Chamber here this morning on questions so it is not that there is not a Minister about here. I agree with the Ceann Comhairle on the contempt the Government holds for Topical Issue matters. It calls into question whether such Topical Issue matters are seriously looked at. This is an issue which is of great importance for the country as a whole and, in particular, for my own constituency.

It could have huge implications.

If you wish to table it again next week, I will give you an undertaking that the matter will be taken.

We cannot guarantee that the Minister will turn up, can we?

I will take it upon myself to guarantee that there will be an appropriate Minister here with some responsibility.

I will do that, a Cheann Comhairle.

Again, we are not in any way criticising the Minister of State, Deputy Ossian Smyth.

I echo that. It has nothing to do with the Minister of State, Deputy Ossian Smyth.

Table the matter again and I will select it next week.

The next Topical Issue is in the name of Deputy Ellis, but he is not here. It is not just Ministers who are not always turning up. We cannot wait.

It is because everything moved so fast.

I put it to you that the Opposition and the Government are provided with Whips who are remunerated from the public purse to do a particular job. One of their basic jobs is to follow the monitor and see what is happening-----

-----so I do not accept that people are not here. If I followed matters closely enough before lunch, the House suspended because there was no Minister present to deal with the First Stage of legislation.

We are now due to proceed to the Planning and Development (Protect Social Housing) Bill 2020. Is the Minister of State dealing with this?

I can be helpful on this. Before I came here for the Topical Issue, I received a telephone call from the secretary in the office of the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, to say he was on his way here and the expectation was he would be here for the Bill if all the Topical Issues were taken. I was given advance notice that the Minister of State, Deputy Ossian Smyth, was to take my Topical Issue.

Am I required to make a contribution at this point?

You will be the second speaker.

My point is the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, is on his way.

That is reasonable.

I will suspend the sitting pending the arrival of a Minister. However, if there is no Minister here at 4 o'clock, we will adjourn.

Cuireadh an Dáil ar fionraí ag 3.52 p.m. agus cuireadh tús leis arís ag 4.03 p.m.
Sitting suspended at 3.52 p.m. and resumed at 4.03 p.m.
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