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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 15 Sep 2022

Vol. 1026 No. 2

Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

Our next important business is Leaders' Questions. I better get it right today.

I welcome the Tánaiste. I call Deputy Sorca Clarke, who is acting Sinn Féin leader for now.

I am, for the next couple of minutes anyway.

Parents up and down the country are feeling badly let down as thousands of children have been left without a place on school transport. Many parents who relied on this service have been left high and dry after being told their children no longer have seats on the school bus. Incredibly, the public and Deputies are being told by Bus Éireann that additional capacity is not being sought for pupils who did not secure a ticket for this school year. Meanwhile, other parents who applied and paid on time had their children lose out due to the unfair lottery nature of the scheme. Families that expected to realise savings of €500 will now instead have additional costs heaped on them as they try to find alternatives. We have a crazy situation where parents are being forced to give up work to get their children to school. This is an utter mess.

My constituency offices in Mullingar, Longford and Athlone have been inundated with communications from very worried families who have been relying on the service and now find themselves unable to get their children to school. I do not doubt that this has also been the case in the offices of the Tánaiste's colleagues. This has happened because of a Government idea that has been poorly thought out and lacking the necessary investment. At the root of this problem is the failure of the Government and of the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, to plan and to deliver the required additional capacity. The Minister should have anticipated the increase in demand following the introduction of free school transport. She should have worked with Bus Éireann to deliver additional capacity to ensure no child was left behind. Instead of facing up to her part in this debacle, however, the Minister spent the last few weeks in hiding. She refused to appear before the Joint Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science to provide answers and, more importantly, solutions for families, despite being offered no less than five alternative dates. This demonstrates a real lack of respect and understanding of the impact this situation is having. It is only now, when the school term is well under way, that the Minister has agreed to come before the joint committee.

Parents were also truly taken aback by the Tánaiste's reported comments at the Fine Gael meeting regarding the Government having made a mistake in waiving school transport fees. Waiving the school transport fees was not the mistake; the mistake was the failure to invest in the required additional capacity. Frankly, the Government has made an absolute bags of this situation. Families need solutions, and they need them now.

My Sinn Féin colleagues, Deputies Ó Laoghaire and O'Rourke, have consistently called for an additional 10,000 places on school transport. This is the level of investment necessary to get on top of this issue, to get children onto buses to get them to school and to give relief to those parents across the length and breadth of the country who are pulling their hair out with frustration. The worst part of this situation, though, is that the Government is not even trying to fix the problem. In black and white, Bus Éireann has stated that it is not looking at additional capacity for these children. The message has been loud and clear: no more buses are planned, simply get on with it.

How is the Government going to respond? What is the Government's plan to ensure that every child in need of a school bus place will get one? Will the Minister, Deputy Foley, pick up the phone and tell Bus Éireann to look for more capacity and more buses to provide more places to undo the existing chaos in the school transport system?

I thank the Deputy for her question. I am keen to answer it. This is my first time taking Leaders' Questions since the summer break, however, and I am conscious that I do so on the day that Thelma and her little brother Mikey, who died tragically in Westmeath, are being buried today in St. Mel's Cathedral in Longford. This brings to mind the other children in Ireland who died violently over the past few months. It was hard not to feel for the fact that we had so many tragedies involving children dying violently over the summer. Therefore, as we begin this new term, our thoughts are with the families and communities in Tallaght, Westmeath and Waterford who are grieving for loved ones taken too tragically and too soon. The deaths of children affect us all in ways that we can barely put into words. It is a sadness that cuts deeply because we know in our hearts that it is not the natural order of things. It breaks our hearts to have so much joy and laughter silenced in this way. Therefore, we pray for healing and peace in the days and months ahead. In this time of tragedy and terrible pain, we in this House share with the families and communities affected our sorrow, our compassion and our love. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a n-anamacha dílse.

Regarding the Deputy's question, I acknowledge that school transport is a vital public service. It benefits tens of thousands of pupils and families around the country. It is really important, particularly in rural areas, in ensuring that children can get to school. We are very much aware of the concerns being expressed by parents. The Deputy can be assured that this has been the biggest issue encountered in recent weeks in the constituency offices of Deputies across the Government parties, particularly in rural constituencies. This initiative was introduced as a Government measure to help with the cost of going to school, along with an increase in the back-to-school clothing and footwear allowance and the extension of the school meals programme. The decision was made to waive all fees, saving families up to €650, relative to last year. There may be a nominal fee next year, perhaps, but that is a matter for next year. I accept that the issue this year is one of capacity.

In total, 124,000 tickets have been issued as of September, and this is an increase of 21,000 on last year. Therefore, there is a lot of extra capacity, and it is not fair to say that the Minister, Deputy Foley, did not plan for that. The additional 21,000 tickets do not represent a small number but I appreciate, however, that it may not have been enough. This capacity has been secured from Bus Éireann and it continues to process applications. It is scheduling additional services in line with the scheme's eligibility criteria. The Minister, as Deputy Clarke mentioned, is going to go before the joint committee soon and she will be happy to answer any questions Deputies have, including questions and proposals they may have concerning additional capacity and engagement with Bus Éireann.

I echo the Tánaiste's expression of sympathy regarding Mikey and Thelma. Our thoughts are with the passer-by who came to their aid, those in the medical services, the staff in the hospital and all those first responders, as well as with the children of St. Cremin's National School and the Montessori institution that the children attended. Their loss has left an indelible mark, not just on Multyfarnham and Rathowen, but extending to the wider community and across the country.

The Tánaiste mentioned the importance of school transport to rural areas. He is correct about that. He referred to the concerns of parents as well. He is again correct. He also mentioned the vital nature of the service, and he is again right in this regard. I must, however, put it to him that those 21,000 additional tickets come nowhere near meeting the demand existing in rural communities. If we are serious about tackling our carbon footprint and if we want to increase accessibility to schools, then a vital part of doing that is the school transport system. It requires fundamental reform and significant investment to ensure it is fit for purpose, not only for children now but also in future. We have an utterly bizarre situation now where staff in the regional hospital in Mullingar cannot get their children to school. What does it say about us as a society and a State that we could not simply do the maths in this regard and figure out what additional capacity was needed?

I cannot be the only TD in this room whose phone started ringing the minute that announcement was made with expressions of interest from parents. I do not doubt for one second that the Minister, Deputy Foley, received those calls also. What I do not understand and do not accept is the utter failure to plan in this regard.

As I pointed out in my initial response, there was planning and additional capacity was provided. Twenty-one thousand extra tickets this year means 21,000 more children across rural Ireland on school buses this year versus last year. That is a big increase in additional capacity and would be welcomed by many families, who did not have school transport before, now availing of it.

In line with normal practice, all eligible children who completed the application and ticket registration process on time will be accommodated on school transport services where they are in operation. For those who are eligible, we are confident that they will be accommodated. Where it comes to concessionary tickets, as the Deputy will be aware, and as is always the case, that is more complicated. That requires there to be availability and that is the issue that is arising now.

As I say, the Minister, Deputy Foley, will be before the committee and will be happy to answer questions and hear suggestions from Deputies as to how we can resolve it.

I call the co-leader of the Social Democrats, Deputy Catherine Murphy.

I too would like to be associated with the Tánaiste's remarks about the awful tragedies we have seen in relation to children in the past month or so.

Energy prices are now out of control. They are obliterating the incomes of workers and families and threatening the survival of so many businesses. In June, the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, reported that a record 29% of households were in energy poverty. Following recent price hikes, that figure has already jumped to 43%. In a few weeks or months, we could be facing a catastrophe in which 70% of households are in energy poverty. This is not sustainable for either families or businesses and the immense uncertainty about how bad the crisis could get and how high prices could go is causing a huge degree of stress and anxiety.

Clearly, the energy market is broken. When markets are broken, it is the job of the State to intervene. Given the scale of this crisis, that intervention will have to be huge.

One of those interventions must be a windfall tax. It is grotesque to see the level of obscene profiteering by energy companies which is accompanying an energy crisis caused by Russia's barbaric invasion of Ukraine which is causing so much death, destruction and suffering.

While it is welcome that the EU is now moving ahead with a windfall tax, it is regrettable that it has taken so long to act. Energy companies have been making lavish profits all year. In fact, profits surged last year when energy prices soared as economies came out of lockdown and demand increased. Vermilion Energy, which owns the Corrib Gas Field, increased its profits four-fold to €152.8 million last year. The average price it received for gas in the final quarter of 2021 was more than nine times the average price for 2020. We can only assume the prices it is receiving this year are off the Richter scale.

Renewable energy companies are reaping profits they never imagined in their wildest dreams. It is not because of any innovation on their part. It is because the price of electricity produced with renewables is linked to the price of gas. The EU has now proposed capping the price renewable companies can earn to €180/MWh with the remainder being recouped by governments. It is not clear why this figure of €180/MWh was chosen. It is true it represents a halving of recent market prices but those prices were signs of a market imploding. This week gas prices fell to €200/MWh, which is still six times what was being charged last year. Is not the point of renewable energy that it is clean and much cheaper than fossil fuels?

I hope the Tánaiste can clarify some of these points. When will the Government introduce the windfall tax? Will it be backdated to capture the obscene profits that have been made this year? How much does the Government expect to raise? Why, under the EU plans, is the cap proposed on renewable energy generators so high?

I want to acknowledge that everyone in government is very much seized and very much aware of the cost-of-living crisis, how it is impacting on people's household bills and many people having to make difficult decisions about what they spend their money on over the course of the next few weeks. We see it at the pumps, we see it in our utility bills and, increasingly, we are seeing it feeding through to other bills, such as groceries.

The Government has acted already. I will not go through the list of things that we have done. It is long, as the Deputy knows. The Government will act again, into the winter and, indeed, into next year. We will be able to help people in many different ways, for example, pay increases. We have the increase in the national minimum wage. We have a public sector pay deal going through at present. We will be able to reduce income taxes in the budget. We will be able to increase the pension and other welfare payments and also we will be able to take specific action to help people with their energy bills. All of that will be ready for the package that is announced on budget day.

In relation to a windfall tax, it is our intention as a government or at least we are minded at this point to introduce a windfall tax. We need to work out the details of that but, certainly, in principle, the Government has agreed that that is something that we will pursue and it will form part of the budget. What we have to work out is how it will apply and how it will work and that is not straightforward. However, as it would apply to profits made this year, it would be backdated to the beginning of the energy crisis earlier this year because profits are taxed on an annual basis. It would, of course, apply to profits made this year hitherto. If that is what the Deputy means by "backdated", the answer is "Yes".

Quite frankly, when it comes to the EU proposals, I cannot explain them for the Deputy or interpret them. They are not Government proposals. They are proposals of the European Commission. They are not yet agreed and, quite frankly, they are not entirely clear. We need to figure them out, ideally, before budget day, because what is done at European level will impact on what we want to do here. However, the principle is there that there will be a windfall tax and we will use the proceeds from that windfall tax to help reduce the cost of energy for families and businesses.

As a footnote, the Deputy mentioned the ESRI energy poverty index. Of course, the Deputy is correct in what she says but it is important to point out that the way the ESRI calculates energy poverty is essentially anyone who spends more than 10% of his or her disposable income on energy. Quite frankly, at present, that is probably most people in the country. It is a different index to consistent poverty or deprivation, which are different things. Perhaps that particular index does not reflect the reality of the new world that we are going into which probably is one of higher energy costs.

We agree that fundamental reform of the energy market is required at EU level.

I am concerned, for example, that the decoupling of the energy prices from gas does not seem to be a priority for the EU. That crucial reform is not part of the plans that were unveiled this week and we may at best see something in 2023. The reality is that the spiralling cost of gas is what is contributing to the misery. Can the Tánaiste confirm that the Government, which opposed reform of the energy market last year, is lobbying strongly for this critical and crucial reform at EU level? Can the Tánaiste outline exactly what is our approach to the EU in relation to this and other matters that may well impact on the actual cost of energy? Why was the €180/MWh set at that level? It seems incredibly high and way more than the cost of producing the energy.

In relation to the €180/MWh, I honestly cannot answer that question. That is a question only the EU Energy Commissioner can answer. As I say, it is not agreed. It may be the case that when this action is agreed, that figure will come down. I agree with the Deputy that it seems higher than it should be but, as I say, it is an EU proposal, not a Government one and not one that has been agreed yet by the governments of the EU. The Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, will be attending those meetings. It is intended to have agreement before the end of the month but, hopefully, we will know what the shape of that agreement looks like because it will influence the decisions that we make on budget day.

I absolutely agree that we need to reform the way the EU energy market works. It made sense in the past to give wind and solar generators the best price - the price that the gas generators were getting at peak time - because that was all about encouraging investment in wind and solar, which we need and need more of.

Nobody ever anticipated, however, that gas prices would go so high. As a result, wind generators and solar generators are making profits and booking revenues they never in their wildest dreams thought they would be able to get. That is what needs to change and that is what is being worked on: a new way of pricing electricity so it is not linked to the marginal, peak price of gas. That cannot be done right away, however. It takes a while to reform a market. We therefore need interim measures as well as long-term ones.

My question to the Tánaiste today is quite simple. Will funding for North West Simon Community's early intervention and homelessness prevention pilot project be included in the forthcoming budget?

On 26 August the Government published the most recent homelessness statistics, which show that 106 individuals, including 22 child dependants, were provided with local authority-managed emergency accommodation in counties Donegal, Leitrim and Sligo during the week of 20 to 26 July 2022. The overall statistics represent an 8.1% increase month on month, with 98 people homeless in June 2022, and an increase of 13.97% year on year, with 93 people homeless in July 2021, while the increase year on year in the number of children homeless is a massive 29.1%.

In January 2022 North West Simon Community submitted proposals to provide homelessness prevention and outreach services in Donegal, Leitrim and Sligo to the three local authorities. If accepted and fully funded, the associated income, together with the agreed funding for the resettlement and tenancy support and sustainment services, RTSS, contract in County Donegal, would have put North West Simon Community in a stable financial position for the year.

As no decisions on the proposals had been notified to North West Simon Community by May 2022, the board of directors sought direct engagement with the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage to request that a special provision to secure the services be included in budget 2023. On 12 July two directors and the CEO met with officials from the Department. The officials repeated the standard explanation that the Minister defines policy, the regional management group develops homeless service plans at a local level, and the Department issues the requested funding. On this basis, it was asserted that the Department could see no reason North West Simon Community's homelessness prevention services would not be eligible for funding under section 10 of the Housing Act 1988 if included in the forthcoming north-west regional homelessness action plan.

However, when the discussion turned to the specifics of North West Simon Community's current proposals, it was acknowledged that the Department had raised questions about the rationale for a funding proposal submitted by Leitrim County Council. The implications of this acknowledgment are quite significant. First, it illustrates that the Department has made a determination on what constitutes acceptable funding for a particular type of service. Second, the Department very clearly exercises a degree of oversight of the service plans developed by individual local authorities, which far exceeds the arrangements described earlier. This belies the supposed independence of regional homeless forums. Again, it was stressed that a funding proposal for such a project could only be considered by the Department if submitted by the north-west joint homeless consultative forum's management group.

However, the immediate obstacle to adopting this approach is that it would require the three local authorities to commit additional funding in excess of €100,000 to the pilot project over three years. The recognition that the local authorities could have great difficulty allocating these additional funds is one of the key reasons for North West Simon Community developing the pilot project in the first instance.

The need for this service has never been greater. It is imperative that the Department funds the much-needed development of the North West Simon Community service to ensure that homelessness is battled in all areas of this country. My question to the Tánaiste is therefore as follows. An essential homeless service in the north west is in danger of closing before Christmas. Is this going to happen on the Government's watch?

A sum of €194 million was provided for homeless services in 2022. As the Deputy will know, the budget for 2023 is under negotiation. I am sure there will be funding for homeless services next year. There will have to be, given we have seen the fall in homelessness that had occurred now eliminated, essentially, and we are seeing very high homeless numbers again. All of that will form part of the budget negotiations currently under way. As I said, there is €194 million last year and a figure to be agreed for next year.

I cannot give the Deputy a commitment here on North West Simon Community. As he outlined in his question, funding is often allocated on a decentralised basis and there is a process to be followed. Certainly, however, any proposals that are made are reviewed. I imagine that this is something the Deputy will be able to take up directly with the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, in a different format.

There will be funding next year all right, and that seems to be case, but it will be focused on Dublin mainly. Homelessness is a nationwide problem in this country, unfortunately. The figures released for the north west showing 106 individuals and 22 child dependants are based on local authority-provided respite centres, which are full all the time, so they are not actually the real figures. There is a huge number of people in homelessness right across the north west who are couch-surfing, staying with friends, sleeping on the floor and so on and who are not counted in any figures. It is the same here in Dublin as well, but the figures here are a lot higher because there are more services here. The reality is that these homeless people will be left behind if this funding is not brought forward.

We tried to engage with the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, and to have meetings with him. Unfortunately, he did not turn up to that meeting. We met officials and so on and they were adamant that they had nothing to do with the funding, yet then they held back funding for Leitrim County Council. This is the way the Government controls funding actually getting out to local authorities. It sets up a local authority group that filters the funding applications such that they send to the Department only those applications they know will get funded, but then the Department questions and queries them. It creates this barrier and funding is not got out to the bodies that need it to help homeless people. I therefore ask the Tánaiste that funding be made available urgently to ensure that a pilot project may proceed. If that pilot project does not work, so be it, but at least let it proceed.

I understand that the meeting with the Minister was arranged but that it then clashed with the confidence motion in the Dáil. That is why the Minister was unable to attend. I am sure the meeting can be rearranged and can proceed. The Minister does chair the national homeless action committee, and some of the people involved sit on that.

As I said, budget negotiations are under way. There will of course be funding for homeless services next year.

As for the particular proposal the Deputy mentioned, North West Simon Community, I might ask the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, to come back to him on that in more detail because he would be more across it than I am.

We are just under two weeks away from the budget and we are in the middle of the worst environment of spiralling inflation and interest rates, which is piling huge, savage pressures on every man, woman and child in this country and every business sector also. Despite these challenges, we have a Government that is on the ropes and completely out of ideas. It is now clear that the Government lacks the required energy, pardon the pun, to decisively help the public and to do what is right. Instead what we witness is a complete detachment from reality and chaotic messaging by Government Ministers.

One of the scariest kites in the political sky at the moment is the Government's projected €6.7 billion tax and spending package for 2023 - regardless, in other words, of what may happen if we have another winter of continuing crisis next year. The Government has completely failed to protect households and businesses from energy price rises. It has continued to drive ahead with more inflationary carbon taxes at a time when energy prices are at their highest level ever. The Government's narrow and disjointed focus on electricity credits, which are a short-term measure, has failed to address the cost of the problem that is there now. There is the coupling of gas and electricity prices and the record level of Government-mandated energy taxes, which are taking in billions in extra income for the Department of Finance. What the Government is doing is a con job, really. It completely rejected all calls from my rural Independent colleagues and me to slash the carbon tax to 5% until this crisis ends - not for ever. The carbon tax should be axed. It is costing every household a minimum of €600 this year. I am talking about the Government's carbon tax, which it voted for, supported by the Opposition as well. The Government then imports oil from dodgy dictators when the Russian supply is cut off.

We are in the worst energy crisis and cost-of-living crisis in generations. Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party, and some Independents, like to add even more fuel taxes to be more punitive and to lump more hardship on ordinary people.

Hiking the carbon tax further in the budget at this time would be completely irresponsible and would send out a clear message that the Government and the Ministers could not care less if people freeze or starve in their houses this winter.

In reality, the carbon tax is an unfair punishment that barely affects the carbon emissions - that is the fact of it - and the Government wants to increase it. The Government voted to increase it annually without even having a debate, so get real here. The Government should stand by the people who elected us all to this Parliament and who now need help, not sending press releases and mixed messages. The Government should cut the carbon tax and all the energy taxes, which would be something tangible we could do in this House, as well as capping the big profits of the electricity companies.

It is not fair to say that the Government has not acted to help households and families with the rising cost of living. As recently as January, all the budget measures kicked in such as lower income taxes and increases in the minimum wage, the pension, weekly welfare payments, and the fuel allowance.

In spring, the Government intervened again by reducing excise on petrol and diesel, by 20 cent and 15 cent, and reducing the cost of green diesel. We reduced VAT on electricity and gas to 9%, the lowest ever rate. We gave households €200 off their electricity bill. There was also a bullet payment of the fuel allowance.

In the summer, the Government intervened again by providing increases in the student universal support Ireland, SUSI, grant for students. There was an increase in the back to school clothing and footwear allowance for those who needed it most. A public sector pay deal was agreed in recent weeks, which is about to be voted on. The increase to the national minimum wage, which was announced yesterday, is worth €1,600 per year to a person working full time on low pay.

We will take further action in the budget which will take the form of increased welfare and pension payments. The Minister, Deputy Humphreys, is examining what we can do on the fuel allowance, in particular making it available to more people. There will be a tax package meaning working people will be able to keep more of the money they earn. There will be actions to help people with energy bills in particular. What is seen from the Government is a dynamic and evolving response to what is a rapidly changing situation. That will have to continue to be the case because we do not know how high bills will go or for how long this will go on. The response is not a blank cheque. The right response would not be a blank cheque. It is dynamic response, responding to the situation as it develops and emerges.

As the Deputy knows carbon tax is not a budget measure. It has already been legislated for and the funding from it is ring-fenced for climate action, green farming, retrofitting, and many other things.

The approach taken by the Government to date, since the changes in May, is that where the carbon tax increases, it is offset by other measures. That was introduced last spring with the reduction in excise on petrol and diesel so that people do not experience that increase in their pockets.

I accept certainly that there were efforts made and some support given but if the Tánaiste calls this a dynamic response from the Government, you can call me Davy or some other name from Mars or some place. It is shocking. Why is the Government so staunchly opposed to bringing in oil from Barryroe and to gas exploration off our coasts? Will the Tánaiste accept the fact that the data centres are guzzling electricity and will continue to do so? Will he accept that the fastest way to help our citizens is to cut the energy taxes, which is a budgetary measure? The Government has a trick o' the loop job done on the carbon tax in saying that it is not a budgetary measure. Governments passed it here for ten years. Every Member, bar six or seven of us, voted for that in this House. The Government cannot con the people. It can take tangible measures instead of window dressing and moving money here and there. People are hurting. They are in an awful situation. The Government made a mess of school transport with its big announcements, which were ill-thought out or not thought out at all. So the Government's thought process seems to be divided. All it seems to want to do is keep the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, in power. Whatever he wants, the Taoiseach to be and the current Taoiseach, ask him "How high?". The Minister is destroying our nation, our families and our children, and Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Independents are supporting him and his Green Party. Independents are giving other Independents a bad name by supporting the Government on every whim.

Just to be very clear, we are not opposed to bringing more gas ashore from Corrib if there is more available-----

The Tánaiste blocked the licences.

Tánaiste without interruption.

Is the Tánaiste's memory gone? He blocked the licences.

-----and we are not opposed to Barryroe either.

Yes, you are. You voted it down recently.

I have not blocked any licence nor has the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan.

Who is telling the truth, Tánaiste?

There is an obligation on the company to honour the terms of its licence and that involves demonstrating that it has the financial wherewithal to exploit those resources.

Of course they have

They are all gone.

The Deputy mentioned cutting energy taxes. We have cut energy taxes. We took 20 cent and 15 cent off the cost of petrol and diesel-----

And tuppence on green diesel.

-----reversing several years of carbon tax increases in reality. We have cut VAT on electricity and gas to 9%.

Ask the people; they will tell you.

It is 20% in Northern Ireland and Britain. The VAT on electricity and gas in Ireland is 9% - the lowest it has ever been. As the prices of gas and electricity continue to rise, the proportion of taxes which the Government gets falls. That is the reality of the situation we are facing.