I thank the committee for the opportunity to engage with it today as part of its scrutiny of the Just Transition (Worker and Community Environmental Rights) Bill 2018. The Government climate action plan, published in June of this year, identifies the need to plan appropriately to ensure that those most affected by our transition to a low-carbon climate-resilient society are supported and equipped to contribute to this transition. The climate action plan recognises that the level of change required to decarbonise Ireland's economy cannot be avoided and that the taxpayer cannot compensate for all the many actions which will have to be taken. However, it is essential that the burdens borne are seen to be fair and that every group is seen to be making an appropriate and fair level of effort. This will be essential to maintaining the high level of political and civic consensus which has been built through the work of the Citizens' Assembly and in the Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action.
In its report, published in March of this year, this committee identified as a central concern the need to ensure that climate action is fair and that vulnerable citizens, workers and communities are protected. The committee also highlighted the importance of exploring opportunities to green existing jobs and create new jobs in areas such as energy retrofitting for buildings, sustainable forestry and peat land restoration. These are also core objectives of the climate action plan.
Since the Second Stage debate took place on 19 September there have been several important developments which are directly relevant to the committee's consideration of this legislation. The Government has made a commitment to an early and complete phase-out of peat and coal for electricity generation. The Government recognises that this will have a significant impact on the workers in these carbon-intensive sectors, their families and the midlands as a whole. The Government has, therefore, committed to delivering a whole-of-government approach to addressing this challenge and to working with local stakeholders to ensure the people impacted can be best supported. In this context, the Government has prioritised several initiatives in budget 2020, including the provisions of €6 million for a just transition fund targeted at the midlands to support the retraining and reskilling of workers and to assist communities and businesses in the region to adjust to the low-carbon transition. In recognition of its longstanding relationship with communities in the midlands, the ESB has agreed to contribute an additional €5 million to this fund, bringing its total value to €11 million. While details around the allocation of this fund are still to be finalised, it is expected that it will support retraining and reskilling workers and assist local communities and businesses in the midlands to adjust to the low-carbon transition. There will be further consultation with the structures in place in the midlands, including the midlands transition team, on the application of the funding.
A sum of €5 million has been allocated for the National Parks and Wildlife Service bog restoration and rehabilitation programme to restore 1,800 ha of bog to their natural habitat, ensuring the return of these bogs to carbons sinks once again and creating 70 to 100 jobs. A further €20 million is to be targeted at the midlands to deliver a new model to group housing upgrades, as set out in the climate action plan. This will support an estimated 400 direct and indirect jobs as well as a significant upgrading of the social housing stock in the region.
To ensure that the theme of just transition is sustained on a consistent basis the climate action plan provides for the establishment of a just transition review group within the National Economic and Social Council. The objective of this group will be to review the ongoing transition and identify specific transition needs among cohorts of workers, enterprises, communities and specific groups of people.
The Department has also been engaging with the European Commission to explore the potential for a support scheme, funded through a public service obligation, for the enhanced rehabilitation of the Bord na Móna bogs over and above what Bord na Móna is obliged to do under its Environmental Protection Agency licences. The proposal is to fund a scheme for the enhanced rehabilitation and restoration by Bord na Móna of its peatlands that have been used for harvesting peat for electricity generation. On 8 November the Government announced the appointment of Mr. Kieran Mulvey as just transition commissioner. The purpose of the commissioner is to provide a co-ordinated and effective approach to just transition for communities and workers affected by the ending of peat harvesting for power generation in the midlands. The terms of reference for the office of the just transition commissioner have been published by the Minister and the details on the appointment are currently being finalised.
It is important for the committee to consider whether the Bill, as drafted, will achieve the outcomes on the substantive issues that it seeks to address. In this context a number of high level issues arise in considering the provisions. The Government has committed to leading on providing a just transition response as part of its overall policy approach to climate action. It is not clear that the response to the challenges of a just transition should be devolved to an independent commission, which may not have sufficient accountability to Minister, the Government or the Oireachtas. The functions of the proposed national just transition commission, as described in section 5, are wide-ranging in scope for a single body to have responsibility for. The functions include, but are not limited to the designation of any body as a prescribed body where the commission considers it necessary; the approval, amendment or revision of just transition plans to be prepared by a prescribed body; mediating, where necessary, in the preparation of individual just transition plans; providing independent information and guidance to individual undertakings, to the general public and to any other category of body that may require it, including the promotion of education and public awareness specific to the proposed legislation and to the commission itself; providing specialist guidance and technical advisory services on just transition; making recommendations to Government with regard to the need for a just transition; and supervising compliance with duties imposed by the proposed legislation.
In empowering the commission to approve, amend or review just transition plans and by giving the commission powers of mediation, the Bill effectively gives the commission significant decision-making functions relating to matters concerning economic and industrial policy at national, regional and local level throughout Ireland's economy.
The operation of the proposed commission, in respect of its proposed mediation and adjudication functions, may also cut across the operation of the existing industrial relations machinery of the State, including for example the roles, as set out under statute, of the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, and the Labour Court. The proposals set out in this Bill will involve a direct and ongoing cost to the Exchequer in relation to the establishment and operation of the national just transition commission. Estimates of these costs would need to be made, as well as an assessment of the potential impacts of the proposed legislation by way of a regulatory impact assessment or otherwise.
This is a short summary of some of the key issues to which the Bill gives rise. The Department is at the committee’s disposal to further engage on the detailed provisions of the Bill as it sees fit.