Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Climate Change Policy

I have spoken many times in this Chamber since being elected regarding how seriously Longford in particular has been affected by the closures of operations at Mountdillon and Lough Ree power stations in Lanesborough. This has had a significant affect on families who worked there and the local businesses. As I have said previously, the shortfall in rates has been made up and I am glad that we recently got a commitment that there will be a process in this regard from 2023 onwards.

A fund was made available in 2020 to support communities' transition to a low-carbon economy. The fund is a key pillar of the Government's plan for the midlands region. The focus is on retraining workers and generating sustainable employment in the green enterprise throughout the region. The objective of the fund is to facilitate innovative projects that contribute to the economic, social and environmental sustainability of the region. It supports projects that take a whole-of-midlands strategic approach and complement each other. I welcome the supports heretofore and the need for a just transition in the midlands. Some €108 million was allocated for the bog rehabilitation scheme. This is extremely welcome in my area because following the closure of both power plants, there is a great opportunity for us to turn these places into an asset such as the mid-Shannon wilderness park, a 20,000-acre national park that will be a fantastic tourism asset.

Other projects have been funded, including Lough Ree and Lanesborough food hub, which was immediately repurposed with funding from Enterprise Ireland, following Bord na Móna pulling out of the project, Lough Ree Access For All, Lough Ree Distillery, and the Yard Hub, just to name a few. This funding is crucial as it will support communities in the midlands that have been impacted by the just transition and make this region a location for green and sustainable investment.

However we are here to seek the commitment from ESB and Bord na Móna to provide funding of €500,000 to develop a community facility in the Lanesborough and Ballyleague area, following the closure of the plant. I had a meeting recently with Kieran Mulvey, the just transition commissioner, who has put these proposals to provide that funding for both Lanesborough and Shannonbridge. As yet the ESB and Bord na Móna have not made a commitment to do so. I ask for a commitment from the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications that either the ESB or Bord na Móna provide this funding proposed by the commissioner to develop a community facility in Lanesborough, County Longford.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Ossian Smyth, to the House. The transition from brown to green is happening. I want to mention north-east Roscommon because Lanesborough and Ballyleague in Longford, as the Minister of State knows, are separated from the area by the River Shannon. The people of that region are prepared to make that change but, as Senator Carrigy has eloquently pointed out, commitments were made by Bord na Móna and the ESB, two semi-State bodies, to help society. I acknowledge the Minister for funding we already received. Senator Carrigy mentioned Lough Ree Access For All, the food hub, the distillery and other projects in the area, which are very important, but the point we are making is that it would appear that Bord na Móna and the ESB are pulling back. They do not seem to be prepared to live up to their word. It is crucial for our communities in the region that those semi-State bodies stick to their word. We need assistance. The people of the region, with their politicians, will implement the programmes and make the changes. The Minister of State will understand this very well. It has been a core argument of Government that society and communities have to be helped to get over the line. I will not labour the point.

I will not labour the point. The Minister of State knows what Senator Carrigy and I are saying. We need those semi-State bodies to deliver that money for the Lanesborough-Ballyleague area. In general, the ESB has committed €6 million to community projects, so it needs to live up to that, as does Bord na Móna.

I will reply on behalf of the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications and the Government. I welcome the opportunity to set out the actions being taken by the Government in response to the announcement of the closure of the peat-fuelled power stations and the end of peat harvesting by Bord na Móna.

The work of Kieran Mulvey, as just transition commissioner in the midlands over the past year, has seen a comprehensive engagement with relevant stakeholders, including the ESB, to address the challenges facing the region, Bord na Móna workers and their families and communities arising from an accelerated exit from peat harvesting. The commissioner has produced three progress reports to date and a further progress report is expected by the end of this year. The Department has responded to his recommendations with the development of the midlands implementation plan and associated actions, which are detailed in the recently published climate action plan.

It has been agreed the just transition commissioner's work will reach its natural conclusion at the end of 2021. However, given the broad nature of the challenges associated with the transition to a climate neutral economy and society, the climate action plan 2021 commits the Government to the establishment of a just transition commission to provide strategic advice to the Government, building on research and engagement through the national dialogue on climate action and the annual review of the Climate Change Advisory Council, on how Government policy can further a just transition. I will develop proposals on the mandate for this in 2022 in advance of drafting legislation.

The ESB provided €5 million to the just transition fund in 2020 to support the just transition in the midlands, and I understand it is continuing to explore the development of infrastructure in the midlands for use by local community groups. The just transition commissioner has facilitated ongoing discussion with the ESB and key stakeholders such as the midlands regional transition team and local authorities to develop, mobilise and deliver opportunities for the midlands, for both the workers directly affected and the wider community. The ESB is also developing planning applications for both station sites as renewable energy centres to facilitate growth in the green technology sector. This is in anticipation of future competitive tenders to be held by EirGrid and the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, CRU. The proposed technology includes synchronous condensers and energy storage capabilities at both locations.

I also understand the ESB provided an update on its plans for both sites to the most recent meeting of the midlands regional transition team, on 1 December. The ESB remains committed to the midlands through the development of these projects, its €5 million contribution to the just transition fund and its network operations, which employ more than 400 highly skilled engineers, technicians and office workers in the region, as well as its national training centre for network technicians in Portlaoise.

The Government is committed to a just transition in the midlands and has dedicated significant funding to supporting workers, companies and communities affected by the transition to a carbon-neutral society. Through the national just transition fund, the Department has finalised grant agreements with 47 just transition fund projects, with the total value of projects in delivery mode standing at approximately €19.3 million, with €15.5 million in grant funding.

Looking ahead to future just transition supports, the EU just transition fund, which is part of the European Green Deal, will allocate €84 million to Ireland to alleviate the socioeconomic impacts of the just transition in the most affected regions. The Department is preparing a territorial just transition plan for approval by the European Commission and this will define the regions and activities for support under the new fund. A total of €108 million has been secured for the enhanced decommissioning, rehabilitation and restoration scheme, EDRRS, which has created a total of 350 jobs. A further €14 million has been provided in 2021 to the National Parks and Wildlife Service to fund peatlands restoration and protect raised bogs in the midlands.

I welcome the statement on behalf of the Minister. We acknowledge the ESB is still involved in negotiations, although there was little mention of Bord na Móna. We are anxious it should play its part in this as well. The communities have been fantastic to Bord na Móna over the years and it has been good to the communities as well.

On the environmental change from brown to green, we must remember the just transition. It is important to recognise that it was to be an eight-year process, which was brought down to two and was then even shortened below two. We accepted that but we need the same response from those organisations, from the ESB and from Bord na Móna, to act swiftly and as quickly as possible.

Senator Murphy has outlined the case. I want to highlight that the contract for a just transition commissioner is due to end shortly. Kieran Mulvey is well known to us and for the work he has done. He is very well experienced in this role and knows the communities and people involved. I ask the Department to reappoint him for a further two years. As I have said, he knows the communities and projects and these projects have been slow in getting off the ground, so we need that continuity to ensure they are delivered.

I thank the Senators. The Senator is correct in that the just transition commission was meant to be wound down at the end of this month, and it was decided at the time of the climate action plan that it will be put on a permanent footing. I cannot comment on who will be the person who will be appointed and, to be honest, I do not know. I will convey the Senator’s support for Kieran Mulvey to the senior Minister.

The roles of Bord na Móna and the ESB have been critical in the midlands. They have been very significant employers and have provided pensions for many people. Many people I have met when I was travelling the midlands have been involved in energy infrastructure. My feeling is the ESB and Bord the Móna will continue to fulfil that role, to be large and significant employers, but in green energy projects. That is why I see renewable energy applications on both of the sites of those power stations to produce jobs that will last into the future. A very important part of this is the retraining element. The ESB Portlaoise training centre is critical to that. I have spoken to the chief executive of the ESB about ensuring that is properly funded. If Senators are having any difficulty in dealing with those agencies or through the just transition commission, which is meant to be there to facilitate those communications, do contact my office and I will try to help.

Energy Infrastructure

This is not the first time that I have raised the issue of the Energy Charter Treaty with the Minister of State, Deputy Smyth. I would like to tease out today some of the issues around the news that the Government is going to install 2,000 MW of thermal generation capacity. The International Energy Agency have forecast that if governments are serious about achieving the climate targets, then there can be no new oil, gas or coal development. Here we are, however, a few months later and the Government are proposing to build several new gas-fired power plants.

My first concern, and I would like to hear assurances from the Minister of State on this, is the proposal to open up these gas-powered plants and how it leaves citizens liable to compensation claims under the Energy Charter Treaty. These generation facilities will have the protection of the investor-state dispute mechanism within the Energy Charter Treaty, which allows the companies to sue governments for taking climate action and to claim very significant compensation in special corporate courts with little oversight. That is compensation money that could be spent on a just transition and will make decarbonisation much more expensive for citizens.

There are concerning parallels between the situation we find ourselves in currently around energy security and that of the Dutch in 2007 and 2009. In 2007 the Dutch found they were over-reliant on gas and were facing rising energy prices. In a bid to bring down the cost of energy for households, they invited coal-powered plants to set up in the Netherlands. There was the successful Urgenda climate court case, with which I am sure, as a Green Party member, the Minister of State would be very familiar. The Dutch Government was told it had to do more to be compliant with the Paris Agreement and to bring down its emissions. The easiest thing for it to do was, of course, to tackle the dirtiest industry, which is the coal-fired power plants. The Dutch Government said it was going to phase out those coal-fired power plants by 2030 and is now facing a €2.4 billion compensation claim from RWE - which, interestingly, is investing in our offshore wind in Ireland - and Uniper.

What risk analysis has the Government carried out on these gas-fired power plants? If these are temporary gas-fired power plants, how are we going to ensure we are not then liable for compensation claims when we choose to phase out these gas companies?

I would like assurances from the Minister of State as to the duration of the contract they are being offered in the public procurement process. We are being told that these generators will be used as little as possible and that they are there as an emergency backup. What sort of commitment are we giving to investors and those in the business of making profits in terms of their income? We are telling them that we want them to set up here but the gas-fired power plants may never be powered up. What sort of financial incentives are the investors being offered? That does not seem like a very good investment. If we are serious about decarbonisation, will there be a stipulation in the public procurement contract that the infrastructure will be capable of taking hydrogen and that it should be mandated to transition to the use of green hydrogen?

Finally, as with waste, the key issue is reducing demand for energy. That should be our starting point in respect of renewable energy and all of that. It should be about reducing the amount of energy we need in the first place. We all know that the reason we have the gas-fired power plants is data centres. The EirGrid CEO left us in no doubt because he said the quiet bit out loud when he was speaking at an event for the data centre lobby. He said that the reason this proposition has come out is EirGrid cannot its customers connected with sufficient electricity in the near term. It is as simple as that. He said that the proposition is designed fundamentally to try to give clients and critical FDI coming into the country a way to continue to grow their business. That contradicts completely the hierarchy of energy use. I look forward to hearing the Minister of State's response.

The programme for Government commits Ireland to an average 7% per annum reduction in overall greenhouse gas emissions from 2021 to 2030, a 51% reduction over the decade, and to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050. To contribute to the achievement of these targets, the Government has committed that up to 80% of electricity consumption will come from renewable sources by 2030 on a pathway to net-zero emissions. It is vital that as Ireland transitions to a low- and then a zero-carbon electricity system, security of electricity supply is also maintained. Much of the existing high-emitting conventional generation is expected to cease operation over the coming years. This capacity will need to be replaced by generation that provides the same support and backup capability, but is also flexible, thus enabling it to support high levels of generation from wind and solar. For instance, such generation may need to increase and decrease output quickly in response to changes in output from renewable generation.

The national development plan, NDP, and the Climate Action Plan 2021 set out the need to develop approximately 2,000 MW of new gas-fired generation to ensure security of supply and underpin Ireland's increased target of up to 80% of electricity demand to come from renewable sources by 2030. Last week, the Government approved and published a policy statement on the security of electricity supply that sets out that the development of new conventional generation is a national priority and should be permitted and supported to ensure security of electricity supply and support the growth of renewable electricity generation.

The second point that the Senator raised relates to the Energy Charter Treaty. The treaty is a political declaration on international energy co-operation with 53 signatories and contracting parties that entered into legal force in 1998. The treaty's provisions focus on four broad areas: the protection of foreign investments and the protection against key non-commercial risks; non-discriminatory conditions for trade in energy materials, products and energy-related equipment based on WTO rules and provisions to ensure reliable cross-border energy transit flows through pipelines, grids and other means of transportation; the resolution of disputes between the participating states, and in the case of investments, between investors and host states; and the promotion of energy efficiency and attempts to minimise the environmental impact of energy production and use.

The treaty is designed to promote energy security through the operation of more open and competitive energy markets while respecting the principles of sustainable development and sovereignty over energy resources. Negotiations to modernise the treaty are under way, led by the European Commission, reforming the protections to carbon-intensive energy infrastructure. I look forward to the discussion.

I am not reassured at all, with all due respect to the Minister of State. The question concerns what these gas-fired power plant companies being told when they are set up here. Are they being given a deadline and being told this is a short-term investment?

Most of these large infrastructure projects would have a lifespan of 30 or 40 years. What assurances have they been given or what have they been told? What financial guarantees have they been given that this is going to be a secure investment if we are being told that we might not actually need them to switch on at all?

On the modernisation of the treaty, would the Minister of State tell us if a deadline has been set for the modernisation process? Currently it is going nowhere, or so it seems from all reports. Unanimity is required for changes, but Japan has said it does not want any changes. Six EU countries are calling for the EU to leave as a bloc because the treaty is unreformable and cannot be reformed. It is not compliant with the Paris Agreement. The EU's proposals as part of the modernisation process would not make it Paris-compliant. Is there a deadline for the modernisation process by which we just cut our losses and get out? What commitments have been given to these gas-fired power plants about the timeframe and how often they would be used?

It is interesting that the Senator raised the possibility of being sued by another country. The Senator raised RWE as an example. A recent European Court of Justice ruling decided that countries within the EU cannot sue other EU member states under the Energy Charter Treaty.

It is being ignored by the tribunals.

These cases between EU member states are excluded as a result of that.

They are not. The tribunals are proceeding. That is the fact.

The Minister of State without interruption, please.

It is a judgment from the European Court of Justice.

On the question of whether the 2 GW of power we are commissioning will be covered by the Energy Charter Treaty, it depends on which countries win the contracts to build them. Those contracts have not been agreed or specified, so the terms are not known. I take the Senator's point on how long it is going to last. We need 2 GW of power by 2030, but they are long-lasting pieces of infrastructure. Of course, as the Senator will understand, they are not designed to run all of the time. They are not for base load, they are for peaking power and for emergency times when power is needed, so there may be more capacity but less gas actually being burned.

Of course risk assessments will be carried out. The chance of being sued by an investor will be considered as part of the risk assessment when the contracts are drawn up under procurement.

Covid Pandemic Supports

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Joe O'Brien, to the House.

Senator Cummins and I are very concerned about the announcement, which was made on Friday, that the capacity in our theatres and arts venues is to be reduced to 50%. Such a decision must raise questions around the level of understanding of how theatres operate. Many productions cannot survive unless they operate at 70% to 80% capacity.

Theatres are safe and controlled venues. I was fortunate to be at the all-Ireland one act drama finals in Ennis on Sunday night. I was in Gorey Little Theatre on Friday night. I was in the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre on Thursday night of last week. In all of those cases, Covid certificates and identifications were checked. I have been in venues where my temperature was taken as I went in. They are responsible and safe venues.

This announcement, out of the blue, that they are going to 50% capacity from now has left groups scrambling. A lot of shows are pre-sold well in advance. First of all, the groups have to decide whether they are going to go ahead, and then decide which 50% will be allowed to attend some of the shows and which 50% will have to be refunded. Then there are the obvious financial implications of that.

While much of the focus will be on professional theatres and professional performers, and that is important, what Senator Cummins and I are concerned about is that, in addition to looking after those groups, we have to look after our amateur community and semiprofessional productions around the country.

We are looking for is a commitment to put a financial support package in place for those groups that have lost out, ideally administered through the local authorities. Post 9 January, a commitment should also be given to provide support because groups planning pantomimes and so on for January do not know what to do. Finally, if it is discovered the Omicron variant is not as big of a risk as being talked about, in those circumstances can we look at lifting restrictions to give some clarity and certainty to the sector as soon as possible?

It is not an understatement that the live theatre and events sector is in disarray since last Friday's announcement by Government to cut the capacity to 50%. I do not envy the Minister or her Cabinet colleagues who have faced unprecedented decisions over the past 18 months, but I have to question the logic that sees public transport being able to operate at 100%, while safe venues, such as theatres, can only operate at 50%, despite the use of masks and vaccination certificates, as Senator Byrne said. Broadway will operate at 100% tonight. West End theatres, despite government advice to the contrary, will operate with a mask mandate in place, yet our theatres in Ireland, which are in the middle of sold-out runs of pantomimes and concerts, will only be able to operate at 50%.

I am exceptionally concerned about the producers and the not-for-profit organisations. The costs involved in putting on productions such as pantomimes are immeasurable. They involve venue hire, lighting, sound engineers, set design, transport, technical crew, musicians, costume hire and PR; the list is endless. They do it because of their love for theatre and the ability to make their audience smile. For example, the Waterford Panto Society, which started its run last week, and A Christmas Carol, which started at Garter Lane Arts Centre last week, decided that the show must go on. However, they face financial losses of up to €47,000 and €25,000, respectively, as a result of the 50% capacity limit on venues. This is replicated across this country.

They have to be supported urgently because decisions are being made today that have an impact going forward through January. I would urge the Minister of State to relay back to the Minster the urgency of making a decision on this and to amend strand 2 of the live performance grant scheme to cater for these smaller productions. It is all well and good to support the big professional productions, but we also need to look after the community and non-for-profit groups.

I thank the Senators for their questions. The Government fully appreciates that the live performance sector, including pantomimes, is among the hardest hit by these latest restrictions. Indeed, these sectors were the first to close and the last to reopen, only as recently as 22 October. Unfortunately, the epidemiological situation is such that we are not where we expected to be and, as a result, last Friday, the Government had to announce further restrictions on the live performance sector, with capacities limited to 50% of seated capacity as of today, 7 December, and the closure of night clubs.

My colleague, the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, along with the Taoiseach and Tánaiste, met with the live performance stakeholders yesterday morning to discuss the impact of these additional restrictions. The Minister acknowledged that the sector had remained closed for longer, and reopened fully for shorter, than any other part of the economy.

The Government is clear introducing these restrictions, and to do it in the run up to Christmas, the most economically important time of the year for live performance and pantomimes, is deeply difficult and it is a grave disappointment to have arrived at this point. We had hoped not to have to take a backwards step in the lengthy process of reopening all parts of society and the economy. However, the path of the pandemic is not predictably linear and, therefore, we find ourselves imposing restrictions once again for the wider public health benefit.

The night-time arts and live performance sectors are bearing the brunt of these restrictions. This is not because of any misbehaviour within them. Indeed, many who work in the live events sector are health and safety experts, and compliance with guidelines has been very high. These restrictions are being reintroduced because of the need to reduce levels of social contact in the coming weeks as we try to manage the risk of high Covid-19 case numbers, plus the uncertain impacts of the Omicron variant and the return of more typical winter respiratory pressures on our health system.

We hope this phase will be short and that we will get safely through Christmas and the year end.

I know this will be of little comfort to those trying to stage live performances in December and January. To this end, last Friday the Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin, agreed with her colleague, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, an increase of €25 million in the funding for live performances. This will bring the fund for live performance, including pantomime, to €50 million. In addition, the Minister recently announced a scheme specifically to support seasonal musical theatre and pantomime that will provide funding of up to 50% of costs up to a maximum grant of €500,000. She allocated more than €60 million in 2021 for the live entertainment industry and the additional funding will continue those supports. Grants have been provided to musicians, venues, promoters and those involved in the staging of events and pantomimes and this has provided thousands of hours of employment. The Minister and her Department are currently examining the supports that were in place and have been engaging with stakeholders to determine what would work best to support the live entertainment industry going forward. She hopes to make an announcement shortly on what schemes will be made available. All of her support schemes, including the scheme for pantomimes, are currently under review. I know she will be as flexible and responsive as possible in supports for the sector.

In addition, the Government will provide support through an adjusted Covid restrictions support scheme, CRSS, to the sectors, while commercial rates for the sector will not be payable for quarter 1 of 2022. The Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Humphreys, is finalising details of a targeted reopening of the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, scheme for workers temporarily laid off due to the impact of these restrictions. I will bring forward the specific concerns raised by the Senators.

The Minister of State has responsibility for communities and he has been a very good Minister for community affairs but we are specifically referring to amateur and semi-professional community organisations. There has been significant, much-needed support for the professional sector. The Minister of State should be clear that if support is not provided now for amateur theatre, amateur pantomimes, Christmas shows and others, those community organisations will die. That is the reality. Decisions and financial investments are currently being made in respect of pantomimes, three-act festival plays and so on for the new year. There is no certainty provided in that regard. There is an urgency to this issue and a support package needs to be put in place.

I reiterate the money has to get to where it is needed most, which is the smaller local and semi-professional groups. The scheme mentioned by the Minister of State in his reply stipulates that a group must have a turnover of €300,000 in two of the past three years and must have a minimum production value of €150,000. That will not cater for the very people who need to be supported. I cannot emphasise enough the importance of this issue to local groups right across the nation. They need support and they need it now.

The Minister and her Department are currently examining the supports that were in place and have been engaging with stakeholders to determine what would work best to support the live entertainment industry going forward. She hopes to make an announcement on what schemes will be made available very soon and this will include a review of the pantomime scheme. I know the she will be as flexible and responsive as possible in supports for the sector. I particularly take the Senators' point regarding amateur, community and semi-professional groups and non-profit organisations. I have a particular interest in the area. The previous schemes that have been run through local authorities are, perhaps, a good way to approach that. I will bring that specific issue back to the Minister today, as well as the Senators' points in respect of the strand 2 supports.

Water Services

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire Stáit as ucht teacht isteach arís. Bíonn sé an-fhlaithiúlach. He is very generous with his time in the Seanad. He is always willing to come in and take our questions. This Commencement matter is on the need for the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage to make a statement on the progress of the taking over of national water services by Irish Water in line with the key performance indicators used by the water advisory body in reporting on the performance of Irish Water, with particular regard to infrastructure delivery.

This is not the first time I have raised the issue of water in this House. I will keep going with it because I firmly believe it is a basic human right. We have very significant issues in that regard. I acknowledge that there has been some good progress. Irish Water has halved the number of places from which raw sewage runs into our waterways. That is good. It is a disgrace that we ever had twice the current number but it is good that some work is being done and that we are getting raw sewage treatment plants in a few places in my own county including Kilrush, Kilkee, Liscannor and Clarecastle. There is also one on its way to Ballyvaughan.

We hear a lot about the town centres first approach, rejuvenating rural areas, rural development and regional balance but these objectives cannot be achieved without proper water infrastructure. There are villages and towns that are really suffering as a result of the lack of such infrastructure. The issue is hindering the building of new houses. There is a shovel-ready project in Broadford. The funds are there to build that housing estate but there is no water infrastructure. We talk about housing but I always bring it back to the basic fact that if there is no water infrastructure, there cannot be housing. It is a very significant issue.

I am raising this issue in respect of Irish Water today for a few different reasons. There is concern about the people in local authorities who work in the area of water and who will be reassigned to Irish Water. They have many fears about that. There have been fears about Irish Water from the get-go, when it was set up. It is time that we, as a House, ask for a referendum on water. The Green Party fought for this to be included in the programme for Government. We have been asking for it for years. Until we are sure that Irish Water will remain in public ownership and will not become a private entity, there will always be a lack of trust in it among the people of our country. We are here to give people hope and faith and to represent them. There is this vagueness around Irish Water and the ownership of water. It is not mentioned in our Constitution. I have written the wording for a referendum if anybody wants to take it from me. We need to affirm public ownership of water in our Constitution. That will alleviate the fears of those whose jobs are to be taken over by Irish Water and of people on the ground. It is a very simple matter.

I have another minute. That is not too bad. There is another matter I wanted to raise. I know that nothing is as simple as you think. People ask why we do not just do X, Y or Z but matters are complicated, as I have learnt over the last year and a half. Even though we know things should be done, it takes longer to do them than we think it should. I will give the Minister of State an example. I spent two and a half years trying to get a water bottle refilling station in one of our lovely local towns, Ennistymon. It is insane that it takes two and a half years to get something as simple as a place to fill a water bottle. I was a councillor so I was able to source some funding but community groups often seek these water bottle refilling stations and the first wall they face is that, when they go to the local authority, they are told that Irish Water charges €2,500 to make the little connection from the pipe below the ground to the device above the ground. I purposely picked a site in the square in Ennistymon that was right beside a water hydrant so that there would be no cost involved because I had heard these crazy rumours that Irish Water was charging domestic households €1,000 per metre of pipe. I tried to remove all the obstacles from the beginning because the first answer you get is often "No."

One arm of the State, Irish Water, charges the local authority €2,500 for a water connection for the public good and for the community, which pays its taxes, and both of these arms of the State actually come under the same Department. We have a water crisis and a plastics crisis. This is a no-brainer. It should not take a two-and-a-half-year campaign. These stations should be popping up in every single town and village in Ireland. We are using more than 1 million plastic bottles a day. I know we have a plan to move away from plastic bottles but we should do that now.

I call on the Minister of State to outline whether the key performance indicators for Irish Water have been looked at and how Irish Water is doing in that regard. We need to give people assurance about water. We definitely need a referendum on water and we need to remove that stumbling block whereby one arm of the State, Irish Water, charges another €2,500 for a connection for a water refill station.

I thank Senator Garvey for bringing these questions to the House. It is one Commencement matter but I will try to address a number of points raised by the Senator. The Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, has responsibility for the overall policy relating to water services and Irish Water but the Water Advisory Board is independently tasked under the Water Services Act 2017 with reviewing Irish Water's performance on a number of key measures. These include measures needed to improve the transparency, accountability and confidence relating to Irish Water and to report, on a quarterly basis, to an Oireachtas committee on the performance by Irish Water in the implementation of its business plan.

The Water Advisory Board submitted its third quarterly review report of 2021 to the Oireachtas on 16 November 2021 and I have a copy for the Senator. This report, which the Minister also received and is currently considering, has been published on the Water Advisory Board's website. The review is focused on a set of performance indicators selected to represent the activities of Irish Water against which conclusions and recommendations have been drawn. The Water Advisory Board report must be seen in the wider context of the significant institutional reform achieved over the past decade, which has seen Irish Water and local authorities making real progress working together since 2014 in delivering a unified and coherent approach to managing our public water systems nationwide.

Clearly, significant and complex challenges remain. With a view to building on these important institutional reforms, in February 2021 the Government published a policy paper entitled Irish Water - Towards a National, Publicly Owned, Regulated Water Services Utility setting out clearly the approach planned by the Government to proceed with the full integration of public water services within Irish Water's organisation structure. This will deliver a publicly owned, stand-alone, regulated, national water utility tasked with modernising and transforming the delivery of water services in Ireland.

In setting out its views and expectations on the next phase of the water sector transformation programme in this way, the Government is enabling water sector stakeholders, including water sector unions and workers and the management representatives of the local government sector and Irish Water, to engage together, facilitated by the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, to identify a framework for the future delivery of water services in keeping with the policy objectives set by the Government. The Government believes it will be possible to achieve a framework for the future delivery of water services which will be in keeping with the key concerns of all stakeholders.

It is the case that there has been significant progress made with that transfer with respect to local authority staff and Irish Water. Those conversations are ongoing but it is a critical part of delivering the single publicly owned utility with respect to Irish Water.

The Senator raised a number of points on water ownership and there is a commitment in the programme for Government to refer the issue of environment, including water, and its place in the Constitution to a relevant Oireachtas joint committee for consideration. That commitment is there, although a number of possible referendums are outlined in the programme for Government as well.

The policy paper on water sector transformation agreed by the Government further commits the Department of Housing, Heritage and Local Government to consult with the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and the local authority group of unions on the proposed referendum. There were concerns around that and the commitment is there as well. Engagement on this matter is under way and will continue in tandem with discussions on employment and staffing matters within the framework support of the WRC.

I will try to address the other points raised in my closing remarks.

I would like to know with which Oireachtas committee I can raise this. That is if there is a recommendation in the programme for Government in that respect. Irish Water is the water services authority for the country and all the legislative powers required to provide and maintain water services infrastructure now lies solely with Irish Water. It is totally unsatisfactory that the authority created to deliver such infrastructure has no funding capacity for developments with no existing public wastewater infrastructure, according to Clare County Council.

I spoke to that council about Doolin and although Clare is the most beautiful county in Ireland, we are almost punished because tourists are coming to the likes of Doolin and other great places in Clare but we do not have the required infrastructure. With tourism comes spending, which is good for the economy of the country, so I do not know why we have no treatment plant for Doolin or any sign of funding for one. There are thousands of people going to Doolin and the Minister of State knows it is great. If it is music one wants, go to Clare, and Doolin was the start of all that.

There are major issues. I thank the Minister of State for his response but we have work to do.

We do indeed. That is why the Government has committed a record capital funding in budget 2022 to support Irish Water's capital investment programme. There is significant investment. It will take time for projects once they are brought forward to go through tendering and so on. Once local authorities are working with Irish Water and show ambition around delivering those projects, it is critically important that we do get that infrastructure in place. I have the water quality in Ireland report 2020. There are significant challenges, no doubt, concerning wastewater still discharging into water courses. We want to address them as a matter of priority.

Specifically in respect of the water refill stations, I agree with the Senator. It is very important. There is a commitment in the programme for Government around the roll-out of water refill stations. I commend the Senator for the work she has done in County Clare to highlight that. It is part of our circular economy and part of reducing plastic waste. For young people who use our towns regularly, it gives them an opportunity not to be having to buy bottled water. This infrastructure should be installed and we will certainly make inquiries about that issue. We need refill stations installed as a matter of priority around all of our towns across the country.

Sitting suspended at 11.22 a.m. and resumed at 11.30 a.m.