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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 22 Sep 2022

Vol. 1026 No. 5

Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

Energy Prices

Pearse Doherty


93. Deputy Pearse Doherty asked the Minister for Finance further to Parliamentary Question No. 177 of 14 September 2022, his views on implementing windfall taxes on energy companies that are generating unjustifiable revenues as a result of the energy crisis; the position that he has articulated on this proposal at Eurogroup level since October 2021; the work that has been undertaken in his Department relating to this measure; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [46505/22]

The energy crisis has plunged households into real hardship and uncertainty. Many people are worried about how they will make ends meet this winter. The energy crisis has been with us for some time now, with spikes in prices in bills last year. What is the Minister's current position on the levying of windfall taxes on energy companies on the back of this crisis? What position has he adopted within the Government as well as in the Eurogroup and ECOFIN since October 2021? Has that position changed during that time?

The war in Ukraine and Russia’s reduction of gas supplies to Europe have led to volatility in energy markets and an increase in wholesale gas prices. This is added to existing supply constraints in electricity markets across Europe, which in turn have led to an unprecedented increase in retail electricity and gas prices for consumers, households and businesses in Ireland and across Europe. I am very cognisant of the difficulties this is causing for so many. It is clear the increase in energy prices is leading to windfall gains for some energy companies across Europe, particularly those involved in the production of fossil fuels and those producing energy using technologies that are not dependent on gas. My officials have been working with the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications to attempt to quantify such gains and to explore the potential of collecting a portion of these gains to provide support to energy consumers during these very difficult times.

Work in this regard is now focusing on a proposed European Commission regulation, which is under rapid negotiation. Gains to electricity producers are driven by the market structure, which determines the marginal price paid for each unit of electricity sold. For this reason, the EU regulation proposes to include an inframarginal price cap in the electricity market, designed to limit windfall revenues for producers that are not experiencing input cost inflation. The proposal will be negotiated throughout the remainder of this month with a view to being approved at a meeting of the Council of energy ministers on 30 September. I fully support the objectives of this proposal.

The Deputy referenced discussions at the Eurogroup. The Eurogroup discussed this matter at its most recent meeting. In the statement I issued after that, I recognised that super levels of profitability should not be experienced by some while so many are suffering the economic consequences of a war.

Energy companies and generators have been enjoying massive and unjustifiable profits as a result of the spike in gas prices, which has been brought on by the illegal invasion of Ukraine, or at least has contributed significantly towards it. This is also the result of a broken wholesale energy market that is inflating electricity prices and household bills. By paying electricity generators the cost of the final generator needed to balance demand, typically gas in this instance, lower cost electricity generators are enjoying windfall revenues. It is increasing the cost for suppliers and prices for households and businesses. My colleagues have been raising this with the Government since November 2021. The Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications issued a joint statement opposing any changes to the operation of the wholesale electricity market at that time. The Minister for Finance himself has voiced on numerous occasions opposition to a tax being levied on electricity generators enjoying windfall profits over the past several months. Has the Minister changed his position on a windfall tax? I am referring to the position he outlined to the media and the Committee on Budgetary Oversight.

What I have done on many occasions is outline the issues an additional taxation measure on the energy sector in Ireland would result in. I have made clear that the additional revenue such a measure could gain would be needed but I have also outlined a number of other factors we have to balance that against, such as the impact it would have on jobs and future investment in Ireland and the impact it could have on the supply and functioning of our energy markets, which matter to the economic growth of the country. The European Union has now brought forward a proposal that would operate either EU-wide or in a number of countries within the EU and is aimed at balancing all those different issues. It is a complex issue. It does not lend itself to an easy or simple solution but if an EU-wide measure that can work is available, I believe Ireland should be part of it.

To clarify, does the Minister now believe in the idea of windfall taxes on electricity generators, particularly those in the renewable sectors? On 4 May last, he told the Committee on Budgetary Oversight that "another option is higher taxes on the suppliers of renewable energy", stating also that "Renewable energy is the way out of this, over time, and I would argue that taxing those who are at the heart of trying to provide new sources of energy supply is the wrong direction to go." Is the Minister now saying that is the right direction to go or is he saying it is still the wrong direction? I am confused. He was opposed to this measure. He told Newstalk that a windfall tax on these companies would undermine investment in the sector. President von der Leyen has made very clear that because these companies are generating profits that never seemed imaginable, Europe will now bring forward a windfall tax. Is this something the Minister now supports? Can he explain why he has changed his position? When Bruno Le Maire brought forward a proposal to the Eurogroup and ECOFIN in October 2021 to decouple gas and electricity prices on the wholesale market, what position did the Minister personally adopt at that meeting?

The Eurogroup does not deal with proposals relating to the functioning of the energy market. That sits with the Council of Ministers that deals with energy, on which we are represented by the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications. Our perspective on those kinds of proposals is that we wanted to ensure they did not create any unknown or new difficulties on top of what we already have. The Deputy made reference to what I said on the issue on 4 May. What has changed since then is that the prices now being experienced in wholesale energy markets have exponentially increased. In response to that, the EU has brought forward a measure that aims to reduce the risks small open economies like Ireland would face. As I have said on a number of occasions, if that EU-wide measure works for us and if it balances off all the competing issues a new taxation measure would have on a sector that matters to the economic security of our country, Ireland will be part of it. That is the stance the Government is taking. We hope that in a few weeks negotiations on this important matter will have concluded.

Tax Code

Gerald Nash


94. Deputy Ged Nash asked the Minister for Finance his views on the recommendations in the recent report by the Commission on Taxation and Welfare that wealth and capital taxes should increase materially as a proportion of tax revenues; his plans to broaden the tax base and generate additional Exchequer revenue from additional taxes on wealth and assets in order to sustain public spending and to meet the challenges of the future; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [46486/22]

I am sure the Minister will join with me in thanking the members of the Commission on Taxation and Welfare for the sterling work they have done over the last 18 months. The challenges the tax base faces are very obvious. It is also strikingly obvious that we need to change who we tax, how we tax them and by how much. Does the Minister agree with the commission's central contention that we need to generate more tax revenue from wealth and assets? If so, does he intend to take any additional steps in this regard over the next period of time?

The Commission on Taxation and Welfare was an independent group that was established in April 2021 as a result of a commitment in the programme for Government.

It was asked to consider independently how best the taxation and welfare systems can support economic activity and promote increased employment and prosperity, while ensuring there are sufficient resources available to meet the costs of public services and supports in the medium to longer term. Its report was published on 14 September and I have thanked the commission for its work and will do so again.

The report is wide-ranging and contains more than 500 pages and 116 recommendations relating to the future of our taxation and welfare systems. It poses serious questions that we as a society must carefully consider. The recommendations will foster real debate around how we reform our tax and welfare systems over the longer term in order to safeguard their sustainability and adapt to a rapidly changing environment. This important work is focused on the longer term and will contribute to debates on the optimal balance of taxation for many years to come.

It is clearly set out in the commission's report that its recommendations are not intended to be implemented all at once. Rather, they suggest a direction of travel. As the report also acknowledges, the recommendations come at a difficult time economically. The commission's 116 recommendations, including those concerning wealth and capital taxes, are significant and wide ranging, and it is important to allow time for their detailed consideration. While the report, in chapter 7, explores the nature and distribution of wealth in Ireland, it states on page 129 that "a new tax on net wealth should not be introduced without first attempting to substantially amend Ireland's existing taxes on capital and wealth". The seven recommendations it makes in that chapter are, therefore, confined to existing taxes. In advance of the budget next week, it would not be appropriate for me to speculate on which specific elements of the report I might act on.

I am glad the Minister thanked the members of the commission for their work. Unfortunately, that stands in marked contrast to the way in which the Tánaiste trashed their work. The Minister has expressed gratitude to the commission in a very sincere way. That is one thing but the best way he could show gratitude for its work is to implement some of its clear recommendations. There appears to be a marked reluctance to do so, however, with no indication at all of what the Government's plans might be in terms of additional taxes and revenue generation from wealth, capital and assets. The central proposition of the report was set out in its statement that "the balance of taxation must shift away from taxes on labour and towards taxes on capital, wealth, and consumption." I think that is one thing on which the Minister and I certainly will agree. This issue is very urgent indeed. Raising additional revenues sustainably from taxes on assets and capital is a much more sustainable way of resourcing our economy and society.

We have to balance that against the reality that capital, in particular, is at the heart of how we can sustain economic growth and employment in our country. Capital, for many people, is the savings, assets and pensions they have worked so hard to build up and any changes in that regard must be weighed up against the role that kind of investment and those assets play in creating employment and jobs within our country but also against the reality that we are now in a time in which many are uncertain about the economic circumstances in which their business will be trading in the future and many others are understandably concerned about their living standards. All of these things must be weighed up. The commission, in laying out the recommendations it has made, has afforded the Government time to weigh up those issues, which we will do.

The Minister has spoken very eloquently recently about how vulnerable our tax base is, especially in respect of some of the windfall gains we have obtained from a very small number of very successful companies that, thankfully, have decided to locate in this country and provide very good employment. On the one hand, Government members speak very eloquently and urgently about that issue but they seem to be in no hurry whatsoever to address some of the fundamentals of this problem. Irish people have legitimate expectations regarding the resourcing of our public services, which are really stretched. We know the challenges, for example, in terms of the Social Insurance Fund, which is the responsibility of the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Humphreys. What I am hearing is the sound of some very large cans being kicked down the road. This is very urgent indeed and much more urgent than many Members of this House understand and appreciate. I accept that we need to tread carefully in regard to some elements of the report of the Commission on Tax and Welfare but this needs proper interrogation. We need a full debate in the House on the report and I hope we can have it after the budget.

I am sure that is a matter the House can consider but I respectfully differ with the Deputy in terms of his acknowledging the commentary and analysis my Department and I have had on corporate tax revenue but then making a suggestion or inference that we have not done anything to manage that risk in recent years. The point I would make is that if we look at where we have been since 2019, even though corporate tax revenue has gone up significantly in that period, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, and I have not altered our core spending plans in that period. It is the main reason, as we face into this budget, that we are in position whereby the increased corporate tax receipts collected have fed into our higher budget surplus rather than being used to fund a change in spending plans during the year. That is a very significant and important development in looking at how we can manage that risk. If I were in a position whereby corporate tax receipts had significantly increased and that increase was used to fund changes in core spending plans, I would be facing very legitimate and significant criticism on such a policy change.

Energy Policy

Pearse Doherty


95. Deputy Pearse Doherty asked the Minister for Finance his views on the policy response of the Government to the energy crisis to date, given that recent research (details supplied) has found the economic supports put in place by the Government to shield households and businesses were the second lowest as a proportion of GDP in the European Union; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [46292/22]

For some time, we in Sinn Féin have been calling on the Minister to bring forward a comprehensive plan that would assist families, workers and households that are struggling at this time, particularly with the rising cost of energy but also with the cost of living in its totality. Research by the Financial Times and by Bruegel, which was updated yesterday, shows Ireland is the worst in Europe in terms of supports being brought forward for households and business to deal with rising energy costs since September last year. How does the Minister respond to that?

The Government recognised the great challenge of rising prices since last October in budget 2022, in which we brought in measures worth €1 billion to help anticipate a change in the cost of living. In February, the Government went further and agreed an additional package of €505 million, including the €200 energy credit and a lump sum payment of €125 for those in receipt of the fuel allowance. We also changed the rate of VAT on electricity and gas and cut excise, among other measures totalling approximately €2.4 billion.

In the study to which the Deputy referred, the measure that is used is GDP. As he is well aware, modified domestic demand is a more appropriate metric for how national income is measured in Ireland. GDP, which is the measure used in the study that was published yesterday, is well identified and well known as an inaccurate measure for how to look at national income in this country. If the more appropriate measure for national income in Ireland is used, the measures we have put in place are equivalent to approximately 1% of our national income, not 0.5%. In addition, the figures to which the study refers do not include the taxation measures that have been brought in, such as the reduction in excise, and include for other countries measures they have announced for 2023 and 2024, whereas the Government, at this point, has only announced measures for 2022.

Even if GNI* were used, we would still be below Slovakia. The Government would still be one of the worst in Europe. The Minister can dice and slice the statistics all he wants but there has been independent research done and whatever metric is used, we are still way behind what other countries have done. Many of those countries are borrowing to support families and businesses at this time.

We have put it to the Minister time and again that there are measures he could introduce. For years, we have been putting forward to him the idea of providing a refundable tax credit for renters. He has completely ignored that. What we need specifically in this budget is certainty. We need the Minister to do what is being done in other countries right across Europe. We need him to cut electricity prices back to where they were pre-crisis and to cap them at that level. Caps have been introduced in different forms in France, Austria, Poland, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and elsewhere.

Yet, the Minister for Finance is adamantly against the idea of bringing that price certainty for families and households this winter. In the mouth of this budget, will the Minister do a U-turn on this issue? Will he do the right thing and follow the trend in Europe of bringing price certainty to electricity prices for customers by reducing them to pre-crisis levels?

I keep hearing talk of the Sinn Féin budget but it has not yet appeared. The budget it is trailing has had more instalments than "Star Wars" in the way it is being brought forward, and we are still waiting for it to come out. Before the summer, Sinn Féin demanded that the Government bring forward an emergency budget. The country awaits with interest - perhaps that is an overstatement but some of us await with interest - when Sinn Féin is going to bring forward its overall proposals, which it has not yet done. As Deputy Doherty well knows, the database of information he is referring to only includes measures for Ireland for 2022, whereas it includes measures that other countries have brought forward for 2023 and 2024. My concern, which is my responsibility and not a responsibility the Deputy has, is that anything we bring forward is sustainable, affordable, works for consumers and the country and does not create new risks. That is what the Government will do.

The Minister can dress this up all he wants. We have been at him for months now about the cost-of-living crisis. We have put forward proposal after proposal but he has ignored them all. He will ignore them all until he is forced into a U-turn, just as he has been with regard to the windfall tax and decoupling, when he sees the light that the measures that we on our benches have put forward make sense.

The Minister cannot escape the reality that he is the finance minister who has the worst record in Europe according to the Financial Times and Bruegel on supporting households and businesses during the energy crisis. This is according to GDP. If we use GNI*, the Minister is still at the bottom of the class. He is that finance minister. We have the ability to support people. I will put a proposal to the Minister. This is a measure that is being taken across Europe. In the past 48 or 72 hours, the Dutch and the Danes have announced they will bring in a form of price certainty in electricity prices for their citizens. They are doing this for their citizens, just as France, Poland and Austria have done it. Why will the Minister for Finance not give the same certainty to people who are so afraid of those bills landing through their letterboxes this winter?

Deputy Doherty is so busy trying to devise a budget that brings together all the figures that cannot be added up and involves going against the advice and warnings many are giving regarding overheating our economy and not creating new risks tomorrow that he is busy over there imagining U-turns that have not happened. What I have done at all points is acknowledge that there is not an easy or simple solution to some of the challenges that households and businesses are facing.

The Deputy pointed to my record as the Minister for Finance.

The Financial Times did that, not me.

Of course, I am also the Minister for Finance who had the privilege of being in office during Covid to put in place the supports that played such a role in our country getting to where we are today, working with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, and the Minister of State, Deputy Sean Fleming, on this and many other matters. While this challenge is fundamentally different from Covid, I will be guided by what the Government believes is right for the people of Ireland as opposed to blindly copying what other countries do.

Budget 2023

Mick Barry


96. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Minister for Finance if his Department will undertake an analysis of budget 2023 to ascertain whether it is a progressive budget in terms of its redistributive effects; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [46199/22]

Will the Minister and his Department undertake an analysis of budget 2023 to ascertain whether it is a progressive budget in the context of its redistributive effects, and will he make a statement on the matter?

The programme for Government provides a commitment to develop processes that will study and advance social solidarity and equality of opportunity and look at how we can bring forward measures that are better for the ecology and environment of our country. In accordance with this commitment, my Department undertakes an analysis of the distributional impact of the main tax and welfare measures in the budget. The analysis assesses the impact of these measures on weekly equivalised household disposable income, by level of income and across different household types. As such, it takes account of different household sizes and compositions.

The short answer to the Deputy's question is "Yes". A distributional analysis of budget 2023 will be undertaken and published on budget day. It will include a new budget document on quality-of-life indicators. The publication will also include analysis of the progressivity of the tax system, green budgeting, equality budgeting and well-being metrics. The distributional analysis will be undertaken using the ESRI’s SWITCH tax-benefit model, which will be used to analyse the impacts of direct tax and welfare measures. This will be combined with analysis from a model jointly developed by the Department of Finance and the ESRI to examine the impacts of indirect taxes. I confirm again to the House that the budget the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy McGrath, and I will present on Tuesday will aim at responding to the cost-of-living challenges that we know so many are facing at the moment and will build on the measures implemented earlier in the year.

The Minister will have to agree with me that we cannot have social solidarity or equality of opportunity alongside gas and electricity disconnections. The Commission for Regulation of Utilities, CRU, told the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Environment and Climate Action this week that there will be a moratorium on disconnections this winter. With five days to go before the budget, my office is receiving a lot of queries on this. The question we are being asked again and again is whether this moratorium will extend to prepay customers or customers who use other metered utilities. Prepay accounts for approximately 10% of the market, so this is a key question for up to 200,000 households. Will the Minister outline what is the position on this?

I welcome the necessary clarity given by the CRU around disconnections during what will be a challenging and difficult winter for many people. The Government will play its part in trying to help them. Deputy Barry asked me a very detailed question, which he knows sits with the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan. If the Deputy had wanted an answer to the question, he could have let me know he intended raising the matter and I would have been equipped to answer him now. I am not, however, because the responsibility for this matter sits elsewhere. What I will do is contact the Minister, Deputy Ryan, later this morning to get the information the Deputy seeks.

I ask that the information the Minister gets from the Minister, Deputy Ryan, be made public today. There is a lot of concern out there about this issue. It is five days to the budget. It is true that the Minister does not have responsibility for energy but as the Minister for Finance, I would have thought he would have known the answer to that question at this point. We had the situation during Covid with regard to gas that whereas previously an allowance was made that people could go €5 over the limit before there was a disconnection, this was increased to €100 in the course of the Covid crisis. I am presuming and hoping that similar measures have been put in place this time around. I accept that if the Minister is not in a position to clarify the question this morning, he will, I hope, be in a position to clarify it to a large number of people out there who are asking questions before the end of today.

I absolutely appreciate how important this issue is to many households. I also have many constituents who are in the circumstances the Deputy described. I welcome the indication given by the CRU yesterday regarding the support that will be available to households that struggle during a winter in which they are worried about bills increasing. I am sure the CRU or the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications will want to bring clarity to the matter Deputy Barry is raising. I am not sure it is up to me to make that information public but I will certainly raise the issue with them and I will definitely bring the material back to the Deputy.

Disabilities Assessments

Seán Canney


97. Deputy Seán Canney asked the Minister for Finance the progress that is being made on introducing a new scheme for disabled drivers and passengers which will be workable and relevant to persons with disabilities; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [46557/22]

What progress is being made on the introduction of a new scheme for disabled drivers and passengers, which would be workable and relevant to their particular circumstances, taking into account that the mobility allowance and motorised transport grants for new applicants were suspended in 2013, with the promise that a new scheme would be put in place?

The only remaining support available for those living with a disability is the disabled drivers and disabled passengers scheme which is operated by the Revenue Commissioners. As the Ombudsman, Peter Tyndall, outlined in his report "Grounded", this scheme, which is a statutory scheme, is inadequate to meet the needs of many people living with a disability.

I gave a commitment to the House that a comprehensive review of the disabled drivers and disabled passengers scheme to include a broader review of mobility supports for persons with disabilities would be undertaken. I am working with the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman on this. Both of us agree that this work should take place under the auspices of the national disability inclusion strategy to examine transport supports encompassing all Government-funded transport and mobility schemes for people with disabilities. This is the best way of handling this issue. A working group has been set up to do this and is chaired by the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte. Officials from my Department and from the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth sit on the group, which began work at the start of the year.

In September, the group continued its meetings and assessed the best proposals to modify or take the place of the scheme the Deputy is raising. At its next meeting on 29 November, the group will try to further develop policies and proposals in this area. My Department has established an information gathering group to capture the experiences, expertise and perspectives of former Disabled Drivers Medical Board of Appeal members and principal medical officers in the HSE. A range of outputs have been produced, providing information and views on the disabled drivers scheme, and these are feeding into our work. I accept that this is a priority. I will continue to work on this matter to try to bring it to conclusion.

I thank the Minister for the update. There is no appeals mechanism in place for anyone who applies for the primary medical certificate because the appeals board resigned over a year ago, citing the unworkable nature of the scheme. No action has been taken since. Sometimes when you look at something like this, there is complete inequality in the system. People who are on the existing schemes, the mobility allowance and the motorised transport scheme are benefiting but new entrants cannot apply for those schemes. There are people who are being supported and people who are not. In my constituency of Galway East, there is very little public transport to help these people. They will have trouble in accessing public transport. As the Ombudsman report said, they are being grounded. The report was published in November 2021. The schemes were decommissioned in 2013, or nine years ago. There has been ample opportunity to get something in place to help people with disabilities. As a member of the Committee on Disability Matters, it is incumbent on me to state this on behalf of people with disabilities: it is not good enough and we need to do more.

I accept the point Deputy Canney is making. I am committed to trying to resolve and conclude an issue that has been running for some time. Two things are under way now. First, we are trying to come up with a better overall policy compared to where we are at the moment. I understand the issues of equity that the Deputy raises. As always, we must look at the cost and impact of any new scheme that is put in place. I have a duty to consider that too. Second, and this relates to what the Deputy said about the lack of a board to consider and oversee the process that is in place, suitable candidates for the role are going through the Garda vetting process. This is important given the nature of this work. I will do what I can to try to support the new board being put in place and to conclude the policy assessment.

I do not doubt the Minister's commitment but we need to move it on. I would like to quote from Peter Tyndall's report:

The reports published by the Ombudsman since 2012 highlight the same issues over and over again. I am very concerned that the issues identified appear to have effectively been ignored and that nine years later, there is no evidence of any real progress that would serve to enhance the lives of those for whom these schemes were intended to assist with their daily lives. This is of huge concern to me.

As Ombudsman it is my obligation and privilege to speak out when I see unfairness or injustice in the administration of our public services. Living with a disability in Ireland in 2021 should never mean that a person is grounded in their home, unable to participate equally and actively in their community and in work. Another working group or action plan is not enough. Those people who are adversely affected by the current lack of access to transport supports require immediate and decisive action.

[...] I hope this commentary provides a timely reminder to legislators and policy makers as to the urgency of progressing work so that we are not looking at this issue again in another nine years. Progress must now be quick and comprehensive.

I wanted to read that into the record of the House. It is very striking.

I am very much aware of the views of the Ombudsman. Deputy Canney has reminded me of those views again. I fully accept that where we are is not acceptable to many people who rely on a scheme like this while dealing with great difficulty in their own lives due to their health. That said, it is a complex and sensitive matter. I will pursue two things. First, I will support the work that is under way to put a new board in place. Second, I will support my officials to conclude the work to identify how the scheme can be improved.

I am aware of the really important issues of equity and the need for the scheme to be very sensitive given the needs it is responding to. We are trying to get it right. I am equally aware of the duties I have to ensure that whatever scheme is brought forward is affordable and we are able to sustain it, and to explain the role it plays in meeting the health and mobility needs of our citizens while acknowledging there are so many other demands and pressures that the taxpayer and the Exchequer must respond to.