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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 26 Apr 2022

Vol. 1021 No. 1

Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

The days of the mass harvesting of turf are over. This is best underscored by the fact that Bord na Móna has moved from its traditional brown peat business to become a leading and profitable champion of renewables. The Government's proposed outright ban on the sale of turf has caused real distress and frustration for rural communities. The proposal is unfair, unworkable and should not go ahead. The timing of the proposed ban could not be worse, as people are being hammered by the cost-of-living crisis that has seen energy bills go through the roof and that has put enormous pressure on people’s pockets. For many families in rural Ireland, turf is their one affordable way of heating their homes. Their only credible alternative is home heating oil, the price of which, as the Taoiseach knows, has doubled in the past year. Yet the Government has sat on its hands on this score. Nothing has been done to reduce these extortionate prices. In fact, the Government's actions will drive these costs higher.

It is therefore not hard to see why people in rural households are so frustrated because the Government is placing them between a rock and a hard place. It will ban the source of fuel on which they depend while, at the same time, refusing to tackle the soaring cost of the alternative. How is that fair? The ban on the sale of turf is a punishment for people who have no alternative way to heat their home. It will be particularly hard on older people and those who are on low incomes living in rural communities.

The Government's ineptitude in its handling of this proposed ban has been nothing short of astonishing. Deputies and Ministers are at sixes and sevens, sowing mass confusion and spreading mixed messages. Over the Easter break, the Tánaiste, Deputy Varadkar, and the Minister, Deputy Ryan, rode a merry-go-round of contradictions. The Minister, Deputy Ryan, said the ban was going ahead. The Tánaiste then said the ban was being paused. The Minister then responded by saying the ban is not being paused. The Government did not seem to know if it was coming or going. Then, on Sunday last, just to muddy the waters even further, the Minister, Deputy Ryan, said on the radio that the guidelines for the ban are only in draft. All the while, Government backbenchers - Deputies from Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael in rural areas - are falling over themselves to tell their constituents they do not support the proposed ban, with one going so far as to call the whole affair daft. They claim it is all the work of the Green Party and nothing to do with them. Those Deputies will have their golden opportunity this evening to show the people they represent that they are actually serious. They can put a stop to the ban on the sale of turf by voting for the Sinn Féin motion.

Tá an plean atá molta ag an Rialtas chun cosc a chur ar mhón a dhíol míchothram agus do-oibrithe.

Ní fhéadfadh an t-am a bheith níos measa, nuair atá oibrithe agus teaghlaigh ag streachailt le billí fuinnimh, atá ag ardú, a íoc. Cuireann an cosc seo pionós ar theaghlaigh thuaithe nach bhfuil aon bhealach eile acu a dtithe a théamh. Ní féidir leis an gcosc seo dul ar aghaidh.

What we need right now is clarity on what exactly has been agreed by Cabinet. Households who rely on turf to heat their homes need certainty as to what they face into. The certainty that the Taoiseach should and must give them is to make absolutely clear that this turf sale ban will go no further. I invite the Taoiseach to give that assurance to those households today.

In the first instance, in a wide ranging presentation, Deputy McDonald said the Government had been doing nothing on the cost of living. I need to disabuse her of that statement. That is a completely false statement to assert because the Government has worked extremely hard and consistently in easing - not by any means mitigating in total - the cost of living increases that have occurred in recent times. Over €2 billion has now been allocated since the budget to try to alleviate pressure on people, particularly people on the fuel allowance. There has been a 55% increase in the fuel allowance from the previous year. We are now paying out around €1,139 this year, including a €125 lump sum, another €100 that will be paid in the coming weeks and the increases in the budget. That is a fairly dramatic increase in the fuel allowance by this Government in a very short space of time. We have reduced the excise duty on petrol, diesel and green diesel until mid-October, saving motorists between €9 and €12 each time they fill their tank. We have reduced VAT from 13.5% to 9% on gas and electricity bills from the start of May until the end of October, resulting in estimated annual savings of €50 and €70, respectively, for households. This month households are seeing the €200 energy credit appearing on their bills. We will reduce the annual Public Service Obligation, PSO, levy from €58 to zero by October 2022.

What about home heating oil?

We reduced the caps for multiple children on school transport fees and have cut public transport fares by 20% until the end of the year.

What about the turf?

We will introduce the young adult card next month which will reduce fares for young people under 24 by a further 50%. We lowered the threshold for the drug payment scheme to €80 per month, benefiting over 70,000 families. We brought forward the working family payment increase announced on budget day from 1 June to 1 April.

We launched a national retrofitting programme with unprecedented grant supports for home energy upgrades and increasing numbers of free energy upgrades for those at risk of energy poverty. Today the Government approved a proposal for the abolition of inpatient charges for children under 16 from July, to alleviate the financial burden of statutory hospital charges. There is much more in terms of the work we have done for hauliers. The idea that we have done nothing is a falsehood to articulate in this House. There is much more that we have done. On the broader scale, we have engaged in exploratory dialogue with the social partners to deal strategically as a country with the unprecedented increases in energy costs arising from the war on Ukraine and other global issues.

In relation to the turf issue-----

(Interruptions).

-----Deputy McDonald said it herself, in her opening remarks, that a minority now uses turf in our country in respect of their energy needs. It is important that we protect the rights of people in rural Ireland in terms of turbary rights, people utilising turf in their own bogs and traditional practices in turf sharing. They are not being banned at all.

Granny will not go to jail, so.

There will be no restrictions on people who own their own bogs and use turf in their domestic fire or share it with neighbours. There is no ban on the gifting of peat by those with rights to harvest sod peat.

What Deputy McDonald needs to be very careful of is the fact that the big issue here is the coal industry; that is the big villain of the piece here. Back in the early 1990s, the former Minister Mary Harney introduced a ban on smoky coal that was transformative in terms of air quality in this city and other large cities around the country but I noticed that in her presentation Deputy McDonald did not mention air quality once. It is about time now that people played this fair, down the middle and had a balanced debate on it because unfortunately, there are areas around the country which are above WHO levels in terms of poor air quality and that is not acceptable. We have to take that on board. Ireland was above the European Environmental Agency, EEA, reference levels for polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon, a toxic chemical, at four monitoring sites due to the burning of solid fuels.

Thank you, Taoiseach.

What I say to Deputy McDonald and to all who have influence in Northern Ireland is that, as Deputy O'Dowd pointed out, there is an amount of smoky coal coming into the Republic with no controls.

We are way over time Taoiseach, please.

This is damaging health here. We need to deal with this too. Smoky coal is the target here, not turf.

Tell that to Eamon Ryan.

There is responsibility on all sides of the House, including Deputy McDonald-----

There is a smoking gun somewhere and you cannot see it.

-----to get off the fence in terms of what is necessary-----

It is all her fault now.

Did you not know that?

-----for the health of people.

It is all her fault.

Will Members please adhere to the time limits? We do not need Fr. Jack interrupting either.

Of course, fair and balanced debate means we have to stick to the fact. The fact is nothing has been done in respect of home heating oil. That is a fact.

Deputies

Hear, hear.

Do not attribute falsehoods to me by advancing a falsehood of your own. The cost of home heating oil has more than doubled in the past year and the Government has done nothing to intervene. In fact, its proposed course of action will drive the cost of home heating oil up further.

Deputies

Hear, hear.

To return to the turf ban-----

You are placing a carbon tax on it next week.

We have offset that. You know that.

The Taoiseach accepts what I have said. He has accepted that the ban as proposed by the Minister, Deputy Ryan, is utterly wrong and utterly unfair and will leave people in rural Ireland, particularly older people and people on lower incomes in a really difficult place. I invite the Taoiseach again to clarify that there will be no ban and that the proposed ban, whether it is the finished item or in draft form, is officially from today ditched and assurance is given to people living in rural Ireland not alone that they can harvest their own turf but that those who do not have turbary rights can access that turf to burn in their grates to heat their homes. That is what we need. We need clarity. The Taoiseach should not talk in riddles. He should tell us that the madcap, half-baked, unfair notion advanced by Eamon Ryan is now officially ditched.

It is in the programme for Government.

Thank you, Deputy.

If the Taoiseach is not prepared to do that, I remind his backbenchers they will have the opportunity to take their stand this evening by voting in favour of the Sinn Féin motion that proposes the ditching, stopping and halting of this proposed ban in its entirety. That is what we need.

Deputies

Hear, hear.

We are way over time.

I do not believe in the abolition of the carbon tax and neither does Sinn Féin.

We never said that.

It is in the motion. Sinn Féin really engages in endless duplicity on this issue. It calls for the abolition of carbon tax but it factors the revenue from carbon tax into its alternative budgets. It calls for stopping any increase in carbon tax but when we offset-----

Will the Taoiseach answer my question?

-----the impact of that carbon increase, it still plays games. The excise duty on kerosene, which is the main home heating oil, is carbon tax. Be honest about it. Be transparent about it.

Yes, we know, and you are going to increase it next week.

You never call it. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald keeps on saying "excise duty". It is carbon tax on home heating oil.

And it is going up next week.

What we decided to do is take offsetting measures-----

You are talking about turf.

-----to more than compensate for the increase which will not impact on people. The real issue here, which Deputy McDonald has not addressed-----

Is turf and you are afraid to answer it.

No, it is not, actually. It is smoky coal.

You are afraid to answer the question on a ban on turf.

The bigger issue is, and Deputy Fergus O'Dowd nailed it in November 2021 when he spoke in the Dáil, is that we need a major clampdown on the cross-Border sale of solid fuels and the appalling illegal advertising. Lots of smoky coal is coming into the Republic and it should not. The North should ban it also. The North should deal with it.

I asked about turf.

I have answered Deputy McDonald on turf.

No, you have not.

We dealt with it in-----

You were asked about turf.

Calm down, please. Just calm down. For you this is manna from heaven. It is the great issue again. Let us have hyperbole, exaggeration and so on like that. The reality is-----

You were asked about turf and you would not answer it.

I want to clarify the final point

Try and explain-----

What about Moneypoint and several thousand tonnes of coal a day?

The Deputy knows.

All of you know that anything being proposed will have no impact this winter.

So that makes it all right.

That makes it fine so.

No, but you keep on saying this is not the right time. Has it registered with you that it will not impact this winter-----

The turf is being cut now.

-----in any shape or form?

It is not being stopped right now.

He is not answering the question.

I made the point that in any event, it has been made crystal clear that people who have bogs and who normally cut their turf will be able to continue doing that.

That is not what the Taoiseach was asked.

They will continue to be able to share that with their neighbours.

He was not asked that.

The time is up.

The traditional practices in rural Ireland will continue regarding turf. The Deputies just need a bit of calm perspective and balance in all of this. We can resolve this pragmatically.

That is the Fianna Fáil position. It is good to know.

The Sinn Féin position is to get on any bandwagon it can to win a few votes. That is its position on a continuing basis.

The Taoiseach should tell his party Deputies who are running around the rural communities saying something else.

There are two sides to every argument.

Do not sue me now.

We are back in the House after a two-week recess and I would have thought people would have come back more restrained-----

We did not realise-----

----and in a position to conduct business a bit more efficiently. I remind Deputies that time is laid out by the House and I do not make up those time restrictions. The Deputies do that. If they do not like them, they should change them, but for as long as the times are laid down, Deputies should please respect the House and those time limits.

The question many people around the country are asking currently is who is running the country. Is it the Taoiseach's Government or the permanent government? We know the Secretary General of the Department of Health, Robert Watt, is in a rarefied position, not least because his pay grade is above the Taoiseach's. Does that mean he can snub or thumb his nose at attending Oireachtas committees and decline to be held accountable for decisions he takes? The same Secretary General thinks so little of the Oireachtas finance committee that he did not even bother responding to its request for a meeting tomorrow to discuss the botched appointment of Tony Holohan to a position in Trinity College Dublin.

There was a significant €20 million sum associated with this proposed secondment and the finance committee is tasked with investigating State spending so why will the Secretary General and the Minister for Health not appear before that committee? How on Earth does the Taoiseach expect Dáil committees to have any authority in their functions and, for example, convince people in semi-State sectors or the private sector to appear before them if civil servants on very high salaries refuse to do so? Who exactly is calling the shots? It is certainly not the Ministers.

We learned in yesterday's Irish Examiner that the Taoiseach's colleague, the Minister of State at the Department of Health with responsibility for disabilities, Deputy Anne Rabbitte, cannot even get a meeting with HSE managers in individual community CHO areas around the country. When the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, requested those meetings from the managers of the nine different CHO areas, she was told it was not "operationally feasible". She was contacted not just by individual managers but by the national director of community operations, who essentially told the Minister of State to get back in her box. We know disability services are in crisis and the High Court has ruled very recently that the HSE's current treatment of assessment of needs for children is illegal. The Minister of State cannot get a 40-minute meeting once a month with HSE managers.

Do Ministers in the Government have authority over the Departments they oversee? To her credit, the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, was trying to get answers and to the root of what is causing the rot in the disability sector. We know different CHO areas perform differently and there is a variety of reasons for that. Some perform way better than others so it is perfectly legitimate for the Minister of State to seek those individual meetings.

Who is running the country? Is it the Government or the permanent government? Is the Taoiseach happy that senior civil servants are snubbing invitations to Oireachtas committees? What will the Taoiseach do about civil servants refusing to meet his Ministers? Do elections and democracy matter? Who is running this country? What is happening is really frustrating many people.

At the end of the day, we have a democracy. Directly elected Members of this House pass legislation and our fundamental and basic laws on an annual and sessional basis. The power lies in this House in terms of legislation and raising issues on a timely basis. With any funding initiatives and so on, the elected Government and the Oireachtas sanction the Estimates of various Departments.

Any individual proposals, and so on, have to go through the various procedures that are laid down. There is no escaping that at the end of the day. In respect of Oireachtas committees, my understanding is that the Minister has not refused to attend, and has made this clear in communications with the Chair of the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, and Taoiseach. The Minister has said that an external review has been commissioned. From my perspective, it would seem logical that we allow the external review to conclude in a matter of weeks, which would then feed into any consideration by any Oireachtas committee. I think a number of Oireachtas committees - certainly two - have indicated an interest in the matter. It is something we need to resolve. I do not believe, as someone articulated yesterday, that the same people should go before three committees; namely, the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, and Taoiseach; the Joint Committee on Health; and potentially the Committee of Public Accounts.

Certainly, there are issues here that need to be dealt with and addressed, including from a health research perspective. The secondment of the CMO was a proposal that did not go ahead in the end. As I have said repeatedly, it is regrettable that the entire situation happened in the manner that it did. There was some merit in the idea of building up capacity and pandemic preparedness into the future and learning lessons from our experience over the last two years in relation to the pandemic, which was a once-in-a-century event. As a country, we did relatively well compared to other countries in dealing with the pandemic and the crisis. All the people involved in that, in the public health arena and elsewhere, deserve credit for that. However, there has to be due process and procedure in relation to this issue. In my view, the sensible way to proceed is to allow the external review to conclude. It will not take too long. It is a matter for the House, ultimately. I am not dictating on it. It is then a matter for the committees to proceed with it. I think we might have a more comprehensive, informed position in relation to it if we allow the review to conclude. The Minister has made it clear to me that he has no issue in coming before a committee, but he believes that there is a sequencing that would make sense.

That was a long three minutes. There was €20 million involved here. It is perfectly legitimate for the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, and Taoiseach to interrogate that. The committees are committees of this House, not committees of the Government. If there is an external review, it is an issue for the Government or the Department. As with Sláintecare, for example, an all-party approach is needed. When the head of the HSE and the Secretary General met with the Joint Committee on Health recently in relation to Sláintecare, it was very clear that they do not want to implement Sláintecare in full. The permanent government was making that decision. The permanent government is telling the Committee of Public Accounts that we cannot have a report or discuss the cost of the national children's hospital. We keep being told that lessons are being learned, yet we do not learn lessons. The Minister of State with responsibility for disability services is being refused access to the people who are on the front line on the operational side. The Taoiseach knows, as do I and everyone else in this House, that there is a very significant problem with disability services. It is absolutely improper to refuse the Minister of State access to the staff in order to interrogate the issue and understand what it is going on so it can be resolved.

First, I want to pay tribute to the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, for her commitment and ongoing work on disability issues. I did not get a chance to deal with that issue in my first three minutes. Indeed, I work with the Minister of State and, in my view, there has to be a review of the progressing disability services programme. I will be meeting with the Minister of State and the CEO of the HSE in relation to that in a while, to deal more comprehensively with disability services. The progressing disability services programme is, advertently or inadvertently, taking some resources from special schools, for example, which I do not think is an acceptable way to go. I have held this view for a long time. To be fair to the HSE, the progressing disability services programme has been progressing for quite a number of years under successive governments. It is important that we evaluate it, but also work to ensure we do not dilute existing resources in existing locations as that policy is being rolled out.

That is a particular concern of the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte. She holds monthly meetings with all nine HSE CHO disability managers in attendance, alongside the HSE headquarters management team. Nonetheless, the Minister of State should always be in a position to meet any team in any location across the country.

In regard to broader matters, it is important to point out that the issue the Deputy relates in terms of secondment was paused.

There is much backslapping and a bit of lauding going on. I am going to bring the Taoiseach very much back down to earth.

I did not feel any backslapping yet.

Despite all of the things the Taoiseach has announced, nothing has changed in the sector for carers in home care support. I have stood here many times, complaining of the issue at hand, and that is that our carers are not available to deliver the home care support service. It is not all about the fact we cannot get carers. It is about the system in general. Despite the fact we have the best paid civil servant as the head of the Department of Health and we have three Ministers all appointed in the Taoiseach's time, nothing is changing. In fact, it is getting worse. We have a Minister and two Ministers of State and we have a home care support system that cannot deliver care on a seven-day basis to a person who, up to his accident, was a 74-year-old tax-paying farmer, who was taken home by his wife and family to be cared for at home. He is now paraplegic. I have had Mr. Cummins’s name on the floor of the Dáil before. Despite the fact the accident happened and he returned home last October, he still only receives five-day care, one hour in the morning and one in the evening. I cannot get an answer from the head of that department in CHO 5, Helen McDaid. I have sent numerous emails, which are not even acknowledged, never mind addressed, and I cannot get a return phone call despite leaving several messages. Mrs. Cummins has suffered Covid and is not in the same position as she was to deliver her own care for her husband yet we cannot get an answer from CHO 5. I empathise greatly with Deputy Rabbitte not being able to get an answer, and she is the Minister of State.

I believe that, as the Head of Government, it is the Taoiseach's job to address this. Let me read him something that is even more tragic and which was on our local radio this morning. It was a call to the “Morning Mix” on Wexford local radio from Sharon Colgan. Sharon suffers with cerebral palsy and this past weekend she was left alone in a bed that she cannot get out of for 19 hours, with no food, no water and no toileting. She slept and sat in her own urine for seven hours. That is the home care support system that we have. If we cannot do better, we should be ashamed of ourselves.

I have here the rote letter that the HSE sends back every time:

The home support service operates within the constraints of available staffing resources, which impacts directly on the ability of the service to be delivered in its entirety. There are significant challenges in sourcing home support services at present.

Yes, there are: lazy admin staff. I have spoken to many carers who know what the answer is. We have staff whose clients go into hospital yet they are not put on a rota to look after anybody else. Can the Taoiseach please address this?

First, I appreciate the issues the Deputy has raised and the individual cases she has raised. It is not satisfactory that any person would have to go through that in regard to access to home care. The issue, as the Deputy knows, is not one of funding now because €150 million of additional funding was provided in 2021 to provide for 5 million more hours of home support, and that funding is being maintained in 2022. That obviously required significantly enhanced recruitment, and it has become a recruitment issue. The total number of people waiting for home support across the system has gone down from 9,000 at the start of 2020 to about 4,500 now, at the end of this month. We want to get that down to zero. That will mean recruitment and reducing and getting rid of barriers to recruitment, and there is work under way on that, as the Deputy knows, in terms of the group that has been established to deal with specific obstacles to recruiting carers, home carers in particular.

I will ask the Minister of State to work with the Deputy in respect of those two cases. Across Wexford, the numbers waiting have come down from approximately 700 to 400 and a targeted approach is being adopted.

Very significant initiatives were taken in the last budget around carers. It straddles a number of Departments, including the Department of Social Protection. We have a Minister of State dealing with the area of additional hours and home help hours in particular. Very significant progress was made in securing resources. The biggest challenge we have right now is recruiting people to work in home care capacities. That is the biggest challenge facing us. That is something on which we have to do better, notwithstanding the progress that has been made in respect of external recruitment into the country as well.

A bad workman blames his tools. The reality is that recruitment is not the only issue. The Taoiseach has been saying that for two years. I have been elected for more than two years and I have been hearing it for two years. The lists are getting longer, despite the fact that-----

They are not getting longer.

They are not.

Yes. They are getting longer in certain areas.

They are not.

The Taoiseach can shake his head all he likes. I have given him just two examples of my constituents. I could give him 102 examples but I only have three minutes. Rather than see the Taoiseach shake his head, I want to see an audit of how administration is being carried out. Most carers are tasked with delivering 26 hours. Does the Taoiseach know what the average delivery is? It is 19 hours. There are always seven hours going a-begging that nobody seems to take care of. I know this because I have talked to the previous staff. I have had exit interviews with staff who have left the HSE, which the HSE clearly does not even do.

It is about time the Taoiseach stops making excuses and blaming the tools, and starts to look at the real issues. It is not just about recruitment. There are many issues. We need key performance indicators, KPIs, for the staff to whom the Taoiseach has given the highest level of wages in this country. They are the ones who are responsible for seeing that this is working. It is not working but it is in place to keep people in their homes, to keep the taxpayer giving them value for money and to allow people to be cared for in their homes. It only works if it works.

Some 2.9 million extra hours were delivered last year. That is a KPI. The Deputy can shake her head all she likes but that happened. Some 55,000 people receive home care. Do we want to improve it? Yes. Do we want to do more? Yes. We will do more. Recruitment is a significant issue.

How many letters went out and were delivered?

I want to make the point that in addition to that, there were increases in the carer's allowance in terms of the capital disregard and so forth. Many of the initiatives that were made were welcomed by the carers' association and carers' groups at the time of the budget. The bottom line is this-----

The Taoiseach cannot decipher between spin and delivery. Some 9.5 million were sanctioned but none were delivered.

With all respect, the Deputy had her say. I respectfully suggest that the Deputy cannot decipher either. I accept that there is not a day in the week when someone will not be able to point to a particular case-----

Some 19 hours of home care and seven hours lying in her own urine.

-----but what one cannot do-----

Some seven hours lying in her own urine.

-----using an individual case, is say there has been no increase or reduction, as the Deputy has said.

It was an announcement.

There have been reductions. The Deputy has interrupted every second of my response. If she makes points, the least she can do is have the courtesy to hear the response. I have offered her-----

I have heard the response for two and a half years.

-----a meeting-----

Two and a half years.

-----with the Minister of State in respect of any individual cases-----

The Minister of State cannot get a meeting with the Taoiseach either.

-----and to deal with those. The Minister of State, Deputy Butler, has been meeting people up and down the country about this. She has been more into action-----

I thought the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, was over mental health.

-----than any Minister for elderly care whom I have seen in recent times. That is not to cast aspersions on anyone who went before the Minister of State, Deputy Butler. She is on top of her brief. She is working extremely hard to deal with this issue. She has secured the additional funding for home help hours. Recruitment is an issue. The Deputy should not try to dismiss that-----

I am not dismissing that. The Taoiseach is using it as an excuse.

-----because we have expanded so much in such a short space of time.

Over the past few months, the Minister for Transport has been making one bizarre announcement after another. The first was that Irish people should grow salad on south-facing windowsills to ensure food supplies during Covid-19. The second was to tell drivers to slow down on the motorway to save fuel. The third was to have one car in the village to which people from rural communities should cycle and use to go to work. The fourth was to stop people from burning turf and he will not arrest grannies if they do so.

All these weird announcements are, one way or another, being supported by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. It is making the country a laughing stock throughout the world. Another damaging announcement made by the Minister for Transport recently was the 20% cut in public transport fares, as well as the proposed 50% cut in fares for students and young people availing of those services. One would say this should be welcome. If it goes ahead, however, it will have a disastrous effect in rural communities, as no local commercial operator can avail of the 20% or 50% reductions. I raised this in the Dáil with the Minister as soon as he announced the 20% decrease in early April, but he still railroaded ahead with it, wiping every private operator off this decrease, leaving many of those with struggling businesses asking if they can survive.

The local commercial or private operators, as we all know, were still reeling from that shock when the Minister announced in the last fortnight that he is railroading ahead with a 50% decrease in fares for students and young people. Again, this is to be welcomed. Again he has nothing put in place for private operators to pass this decrease on to the students mainly in rural Ireland. He said that technical and funding issues were preventing him. This 50% decrease will benefit those who travel on Bus Éireann, the Luas, trains, the DART and Dublin Bus. These are all Dublin city-type transport, which I do not want to begrudge.

There are private operators, such as West Cork Connects which carries 80% of the passengers on west Cork routes, has buses leaving Skibbereen and Bantry every hour on the hour every day passing through Clonakilty and Bandon to Cork on one side and from Dunmanway, Ballineen and Innishannon and to Cork on the other. This service has opened up west Cork. This local commercial operator is employing many staff in west Cork, but it is not allowed to pass on the recent 20% decrease, or the proposed 50% decrease, to west Cork students. This is not just putting that operator's business in jeopardy, but also that of Wexford Bus, Cobh Connect, Aircoach, GoBus and Citylink. All these operators, and many more, are facing the same wipe out. This is another gaffe by the Taoiseach’s Minister.

On top of this direct hit to the young people of rural communities who depend on private operators to connect their communities, can the Taoiseach tell me why his Government wants to wipe out private operators? Unlike Bus Éireann, the Luas, Dublin Bus, the DART and the train, these private operators have to pay their own staff, fuel and daily wear-and-tear on vehicles. Instead of encouraging these operators, in the context of the so-called Connecting Ireland dream, the Government is going to disconnect transport completely in rural Ireland. Why was what should have been such a positive announcement by this anti-rural Government not held off until everyone, rural and urban, could avail of this decrease?

This Government’s decision will see private bus companies being forced out of business by State-backed cuts and leave them contemplating taking legal action. Not only is this unfair, but it is anti-competitive as well. Seeing as the Minister for Transport cannot get this right, will the Taoiseach step in and treat everyone in rural and urban Ireland the same when it comes to this decrease in fares for our youth?

I thank the Deputy for raising a range of issues. I did not quite catch the first couple. By the way, salads are good for you.

(Interruptions).

Is it alright for the pig farmers?

I do not think it is weird to enjoy a salad. I also do not think it is weird to cycle, for that matter. We need a sense of perspective and a bit of calm too.

(Interruptions).

Deputy Michael Collins welcomed, I think, the reduction in transport fares we have announced and now brought in - in the context of the cost of living - for public transport and for young people. It is very important that we reduce public transport fares, and the Minister for Transport can do that readily within the legal frameworks. It is not as easy with the private transport issue. We will continue to look at that to see how we can be supportive. The Government was very supportive of all the transport network during Covid-19 pandemic, for example. Perhaps the Deputy might also like to acknowledge that too. I refer to public and private enterprises, in transport and elsewhere. The Government therefore does not have any position that is anti private transport as suggested by the Deputy.

Also, across a broad swathe of policies, the Government is very pro-rural Ireland. The Government has invested hugely in rural Ireland across the board and we will continue to do so in a whole range of ways. The Brexit adjustment reserve fund, for example, is being worked on by the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy McConalogue, along with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath with a view to ensuring significant funding goes to the parts of rural Ireland impacted by Brexit, for example, and by challenges with the fishing industry. We have been very strong in respect of agriculture and rural development. The Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Humphreys, has been very strong regarding community hubs throughout rural Ireland. There have been substantial investments. I refer to the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, and the various funding for towns across rural Ireland in the urban regeneration and development fund, URDF, in conjunction with and complementing the work of the Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Humphreys.

If you go through any Department, very significant allocations have been made for rural Ireland. We want to rebalance the economic development of this country. We believe there is an over-concentration and we have to rebalance that into the future. We want to develop strong regional cities like Cork, Limerick, Waterford and Galway that will then strengthen the rural hinterlands of those cities. Public transport is all over west Cork as well. It does not have the same frequency but it is in most towns in west Cork and is complemented by private transport. School transport is a State-funded scheme but it is predominantly provided by private operators. The Deputy should know that. That is just the way it has always worked in terms of CIÉ outsourcing to private transport operators.

In respect of the specific issue the Deputy raised, the Minister will continue to look to see what he can do to support private operators. We should not stop implementing a good policy in reducing fares for young people in particular. I think it is a very good idea.

I thank the Taoiseach for his answer but I do not think he quite grasps what the question was all about. He spent about two minutes talking about fishing and farming. Good God, he should come down to west Cork and talk to the fishermen and farmers. He will not be long there; he will be run out of it quickly.

The Taoiseach has to be straight with the public here. Outside of Dublin the local commercial bus operators are the biggest operators in the country, carrying out 30 million passenger trips yearly, mainly in rural Ireland. In a recent meeting with the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, the private operators asked straight up why they were not included in the 20% bus decrease for young people on their buses. They were told it was for financial reasons that the Minister could not go ahead with it. To the whole country's astonishment, a few weeks later, he announces a 50% decrease, again excluding young people in rural Ireland. Where did this Minister find the money that he did not have a few weeks earlier? Was it carbon tax money robbed from the hard-working people of rural Ireland? The local commercial operators are convinced this Minister wants to wipe them out of business and basically get rid of them. One of them asked me why he does not just come out and be honest about it and not drip-feed, destroying their business day by day. Can the Taoiseach tell me today that this is not a fact? What is the exact date that local commercial bus operators will be allowed to pass on the same decrease allowed for all Dublin city travellers to students in rural communities?

Nobody wants to wipe anybody out.

That is what the Government is doing. What about the post offices?

The Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, does not want to wipe anybody out for that matter or any private transport operator. They will not be wiped out either. The fullness of time will show that. The Deputy was up in this House advocating for measures to reduce the cost of living. In the budget I thought it was a very imaginative and good move to reduce fares on public transport for young people. To me that is an excellent decision.

Is it for all of Ireland?

We should be doing more of that into the future. It is the way to go.

It should be in the country, not just the capital.

There is public transport all over the country.

The Taoiseach cannot grasp it; we do not have public transport in most rural communities.

Sorry, there is public transport in rural communities.

Where do we have it? When do we have it? I can name plenty of places in west Cork that do not have it. We have private operators and they are willing to do this but the Government is wiping them out. It is sitting on its hands.

The private transport operator is very important in rural Ireland but there is also public transport and the Deputy should not pretend there is not. It is not just Dublin, either, and the Deputy knows that too. Rural Ireland has Local Link and a whole range of initiatives that the Minister has supported and put funding into.

Has the Taoiseach travelled to those towns and villages? Can he name them?

I can because I went on public buses to west Cork.

Can he name all the towns and villages? Has he forgotten Cork?

I can name all of them - Clonakilty, Bandon and the whole way down. It is for the whole country and the Deputy knows it well.

Was the Taoiseach burning turf in Courtmacsherry?

That thankfully concludes Leaders' Questions.

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