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Seanad Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 23 Feb 2022

Vol. 283 No. 2

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Foreign Policy

Before I call on Senator Dolan, I welcome her family to the Distinguished Visitors Gallery. Her father, mother and brothers are here. I am sure they have been involved in all the campaigning. I want to let them know that she is doing a great job in Seanad Éireann.

I welcome the Minister to the House to respond to this matter.

I thank the Cathaoirleach. He is very kind. It is a great honour to have my family here today.

I welcome the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, here today to speak on EU plans to support the people of Ukraine and the measures to be put in place to mitigate against the potential impact of sanctions in respect of energy and grain costs. This is potentially the most devastating European conflict since the Second World War. There are over 41 million people in Ukraine, which is the second largest country on the European continent after Russia. It has been an independent country since the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, has valuable access to the Black Sea and is bordered by seven countries, namely, Russia, Belarus, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Moldova. We see Russia sending in so-called peacekeepers to a sovereign country and declaring the provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent. As the Minister has stated, Ireland's support for Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity within its internationally recognised borders and its right to choose its own foreign and security policy path is unwavering.

In terms of diplomacy and the outright aggression we see now by Russia, will the Minister update the House as to how the EU plans to support the safety of the Ukrainian people? Presidents of the European Commission and the European Council say that this is illegal and unacceptable and that it violates international law and Ukraine's territorial integrity and sovereignty. What can be done for financial assistance?

At a trade level, only recently the BBC pointed to how Russia has been setting up large foreign exchange reserves, up to $630 billion, to sanction-proof its economy since the imposition of sanctions in 2014 over Crimea. In this regard, Russia supplies a huge amount, nearly 40 to 50%, of gas to Europe. In recent sanctions, Germany has suspended the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. Even in the last couple of days, the price of a barrel of oil have increased massively and is now close to $100 a barrel. Russia and Ukraine account for nearly one third of the world's grain. Their wheat exports are incredible. The impact this will have on food prices is considerable. In terms of the export of grain and of wheat production, Russia has surpassed itself. In 2000 it produced approximately 30 million tonnes of grain annually and exported only 696,000 tonnes. In 2010, it doubled that production to 60 million tonnes and exported 18 million tonnes. In 2020 it produced a record 85 million tonnes and exported 35 million tonnes. It plays a huge part in global food markets. Ukraine exports 24 million tonnes. Together, they account for more than one third of the world market. Given the presence of so many Russian troops surrounding Ukraine, the incursion into Donetsk and Luhansk and the potential for a full-scale invasion, will the Minister give an update from an Irish perspective on his recent meeting in Brussels and the plans for these potential economic impacts? I acknowledge the incredible work by his Department and the strong support from Senator Seery Kearney for Irish families involved in surrogacy at the moment. How do we as a small nation with a strong voice and a seat on the UN Security Council support democracy?

I welcome this opportunity. I also welcome Senator Dolan's family to the Seanad Chamber today. They should be very proud of their sister and daughter in the context of the role she continues to play in this House.

At the Foreign Affairs Council on Monday, we decided to provide €1.2 billion in macro-financial assistance to Ukraine. We hope this package will assist the Government and people of Ukraine in addressing some of the difficulties the Russian military build-up in and around their country, which has been destabilising their economy and society, is causing. The European Union is one of the largest humanitarian donors to eastern Ukraine. Since 2014, the EU and its member states have contributed over €1 billion in humanitarian and early recovery aid to support the needs of people in the areas directly affected by the conflict and those who have fled conflict areas. Many people do not realise it, but there has been an ongoing war in eastern Ukraine which has claimed the lives of about 14,000 people in recent years. The EU is advancing its contingency planning in the event of increased levels of need in the coming weeks.

On 15 February 2022, the State Emergency Service of Ukraine advocated that the EU Civil Protection Mechanism requesting in-kind assistance, including medical and shelter supplies and communications equipment, be triggered. Ireland is among a number of EU member states that responded to this request with an offer of medical supplies.

Russia's decision in the past two days regarding the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts is totally unacceptable. The decision is illegal and violates Ukraine's territorial integrity and sovereignty. It also breaches the UN Charter. In order to uphold international law, the EU must react in a firm and proportionate manner in co-ordination with its partners. Ireland has therefore expressed strong support for EU sanctions.

The package of sanctions under discussion by EU foreign ministers targets those responsible for these decisions as well as those involved in the defence sector and in disinformation. Financial measures target the banks financing Russian decision makers and cut off access to the EU's capital and financial markets for the Central Bank of Russia. Economic relations between the breakaway parts of Donetsk and Luhansk and the EU will also be targeted. These measures are proportionate and absolutely necessary. Additional measures will be taken if the situation escalates further.

The impact of sanctions on energy and food prices remains to be seen, particularly in light of any additional sanctions that the EU may impose or retaliatory measures by Russia, which undoubtedly will happen. We know that sanctions will not be cost-free for Ireland or other EU member states, but we are left with little choice given Russia's behaviour. There is absolutely no way the European Union, along with the United States, the United Kingdom and many others, can stand idly by and watch a country with the power of Russia simply ignore the sovereignty of its neighbouring state and construct a basis for sending in so-called peacekeepers who are arriving in tanks and attack helicopters. These are not peacekeepers. This is essentially about, as the US President has described, carving out part of Ukraine and Russia taking it by force. Unfortunately, in the two regions we are talking about, separatists will now be supported by the Russian military, not only to secure the area they already control but, because they only control about one third of those two regions, we are looking now at the potential of very serious conflict between Russia and Ukraine in relation to the remaining areas of those two regions that are currently controlled by Ukraine. This is an escalating and very worrying situation.

Ireland’s role in this matter must be to support EU collective action and also insist constantly on a diplomatic intervention. Ultimately, we are trying to prevent war, not plan for how we would respond to war when it takes place. The priority must be to prevent it in the first place. That is why intensive diplomatic engagement must also be part of this strategy, as well as deterrent through increased sanctions.

I thank the Minister for giving his valuable time this morning. I welcome the acknowledgement of funding of over €1.2 billion in macro-financial assistance to Ukraine. Cyberdefence is also crucial because there is serious destabilisation taking place in Ukraine at the moment.

It is crucial that we realise that the sanctions have to be effective. They have to change the course of action. As the Minister said, it is about ensuring that we have peace in Ukraine and that we are all working towards that goal. However, in the face of this outright aggression, we have to ensure those sanctions have an immediate impact on the Russian economy and trade. This, along with the EU targeting of banks and so on, which the Minister mentioned, is probably how we will go forward. We are in the eye of the storm. I appreciate all the work the Minister is doing, both with EU foreign ministers and at the UN. I thank him.

We will continue to be vocal at an EU level and also on the UN Security Council, where our view has been made very clear. In many ways, that view is directly supported by the UN Secretary General, who has been very clear that the UN sees what is happening as a complete breach of international law and the UN Charter. Russia has to bear the responsibility for that. There is no justification for this in the context of Russia’s security concerns and so on. The EU has made it very clear that it is, of course, willing to enter into dialogue with Russia on security matters more generally across Europe. That offer is still there. However, Russia effectively claiming portions of Ukraine, and publicly stating that it no longer recognises Ukraine’s sovereignty, must trigger a response by the international community and that is what is happening now.

I thank Senator Dolan for raising this issue in the Seanad. As the Senator appreciates, it is essential that at this crucial time for European security, the EU stands staunch and unwavering in support of Ukraine’s sovereignty. This means macro-financial assistance, as I outlined. It also means sanctions on Russia, should they be necessary, and these will increase, if necessary.

It is true that there may be some economic cost arising from these sanctions. Impacts could arise, in particular, from possible Russian counter-sanctions and the likely fall in the value of the rouble, making Irish exports more expensive, and from economic impacts across European trading partners as well. The Government is preparing appropriate contingency plans to mitigate potential impacts to the Irish economy. We have had a number of meetings on that across Departments, as sanctions will not be cost-free for Ireland and other EU member states. However, we are left with little choice, given Russia’s behaviour and stated intentions. The cost of ignoring such behaviour would, in the end, be far greater for everybody.

I hope that in the coming days we will find mechanisms that can de-escalate some of the language of the past number of days and some of the actions behind that. However, there is an increasing sense of pessimism in terms of where this is moving now. As I said, hopefully that pessimism can be reversed. For now, the focus has to be on appropriate sanctions, but with preparedness to go much further if we need to, to act as a further deterrent, as well as an intensive approach towards diplomatic intervention.

Senator Dolan did well raising such a timely motion.

Sport and Recreational Development

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Chambers, to the House.

I also welcome the Minister of State. This is the first time I have addressed him. I congratulate him on his appointment and offer him continued best wishes.

I thank the Minister of State for taking the time to discuss this matter of the utmost importance, which will continue to impact more and more women as time goes by.

We have a wonderful tradition of sport in this country and our sportswomen are going from strength to strength. From qualifying for this summer's Hockey World Cup, to Leona Maguire's rise through the world ranks and captain Lucy Mulhall leading the team into their first-ever HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series final in Seville, this small country has been put on the map of women's sport internationally. It is a wonderful example to the girls and young women in the country and is worth protecting.

However, there is currently a glaring issue with fair competition when it comes women's sport in Ireland. It stems from the introduction of self-ID legislation in 2015. Through that legislation, the State declared that being a women is in fact a feeling and that biological reality is not especially relevant when it comes to the business of being a woman. We are now told that men who say they are women are also women and merely had been born in the wrong body. The notion of bodies is important for women in many areas but none more than sport and that is what I am here to speak about. I tell the Minister of State that bodies, not identities, play sport. The publicly-funded lobby group Transgender Equality Network Ireland, TENI, is campaigning for inclusion in sport. This is a misnomer. Men who identify as women already have a category of sport open to them, namely, the male category. What this lobby group is actually seeking is the erasure of the single-sex female category and its replacement with a mixed-sex one. This will obliterate fair competition in women's sport and will endanger female athletes in contact sports. Does the Minister of State recognise the role biological sex plays in women's sport? What steps will be taken to preserve female sports, given the danger posed by self-ID legislation?

Irish sportswomen are excelling but the support for that has not always been forthcoming. It was not that long ago our women's soccer team were forced to change in airport toilets and return their tracksuits to share with other teams. The spectre of humiliation is never far away. However, this latest attack on women's sport will have the highest impact of all. Across the pond, US President Joe Biden dismantled the Title IX provision, allowing for biological males to compete in female sports. Since then, the sporting world has looked on in disbelief as a man who previously swam in the US elite men's college competition now claims to identify as a woman and has just gone on to win a set of records in three different events. The same individual will compete against an Irish female Olympian in collegiate competition in the coming months, so we can already see the impact this is having on our sportswomen. Strikingly, there are no examples of women who identify as men taking podium places or threatening records held by men. However, there are examples of women who identify as men competing and succeeding on women's teams. This is entirely appropriate as they are of the same sex. Men's sport remains untouched by gender ideology. Across the world, sportsmen and sportswomen are speaking out against the erasure of women's sports. They include Martina Navratilova, Daley Thompson, Michael Phelps, Sharron Davies and notably, two bio-males who now identify as women, namely, Caitlyn Jenner and Renée Richards. In light of this, will the Minister of State confirm he supports fair competition and safety for women and girls in their chosen sport? How does he plan to protect these rights when all single-sex provisions have been dismantled through self-ID?

I thank Senator Keogan for raising this matter. Equality in sport is a key priority for both myself and the Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin. Our overall vision for women in sport is one where women have an equal opportunity to achieve their full potential while enjoying a lifelong involvement in sport. A fundamental aim of the Government's National Sports Policy 2018-2027 is to increase the levels of participation in sport and physical activity across the population, with a specific focus on less-represented groups including women and girls. Much work is happening and good progress is being made not just in increasing active participation but also in the important areas of leadership and management roles in sport.

The Women in Sport funding programme is a very important support for sporting bodies in putting programmes in place to increase women's participation in their sports and to progress their strategic objectives for women in sport. The programme has been in place since 2005 and since then, over €20 million has been invested through the national governing bodies of sport and the local sports partnerships around the country. In 2018, funding under this sport programme was €600,000. Last year, Sport Ireland announced an investment of €4 million for the two years 2021 and 2022. This significant increase in funding ensures opportunities continue to be provided for women to participate in sport. I was pleased to secure increased funding for Sport Ireland in the budget for 2022, bringing its total current expenditure budget to over €96 million compared to €92 million last year. This will enable Sport Ireland to continue to support governing bodies and local sports partnerships in delivering programmes for all participants, male and female.

There is a growing momentum towards better integration of the three governing bodies involved in Gaelic games, namely, the GAA, Ladies Gaelic Football Association and the Camogie Association. The three organisations are working on a pathway to amalgamation. I am very supportive of such moves, which reflect much of what is already happening at club level and would further ensure parity of treatment for female players within the Gaelic games family. One of my priorities last year was to eliminate the funding gap that existed in grant funding for male and female Gaelic players. I am very pleased to have achieved that aim and to have ensured that we have now parity in that grant funding. Additional funding has been provided for enhanced support of female intercounty Gaelic players on an equivalent basis to that being provided for their male counterparts, thus bringing the total amount available for female players in this context to €2.4 million.

The aim in the National Sports Policy 2018-2027 is to eliminate the gender participation gap in sport entirely by 2027. The 2019 Irish Sports Monitor report showed that the gender gap in sports participation was 3.4%, which is narrower than at any point over the past ten years. While the Irish Sports Monitor report for the first quarter of 2021 showed the gender gap was eliminated during the Covid-19 restrictions, the latest Irish Sports Monitor figures for quarter 3 show a gender gap beginning to re-emerge as restrictions were lifted. In quarter 3, male sports participation had returned to pre-pandemic levels at 48%, while female sports participation was at 38%, which is 7% behind the level measured in 2019. The emerging gradient is a cause for focus and ongoing monitoring. To this end, many national governing bodies are delivering women in sport and programmes funded by the Dormant Accounts Fund this winter. These actively target populations that have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic including females, economically and socially disadvantaged communities, people with a disability and ethnic minorities.

Addressing women's participation at all levels in sport is an important element of the national sports policy. That includes women in leadership positions such as governing bodies. The national sports policy set a target of 30% gender representation on boards by the end of 2023, which we have increased in our action plan for sport to 40%. It is a particular priority for me to enable women to take more leadership positions in sport and the 40% reflects this prioritisation. I will conclude my statement when I come back in.

I thank the Minister of State. Certainly, what he has outlined and indeed done himself with regard to funding women's sport and its organisations has been very impressive. However, the question I have is that when we speak about women, we need a definition of that category and we need to protect that category of women within sport. I understand that last year, a freedom of information request went into Sport Ireland asking about this and it stated it had not even discussed self-identifying males competing against females. This is about safeguarding and protecting women's sport. We owe it to the females who compete competitively and who have put years and years of their lives into training in their sports to protect that and ensure this is fair and competitive to them. I ask the Minister of State to reflect on this issue and ensure the provision of this level and equal playing field, which will remain as a safe space for females going forward. Maybe he can address that issue.

I thank Senator Keogan. The last year has, as we know, been dominated by amazing moments for women's sport and our sportswomen very deservedly received many plaudits in the recent months. The Senator's own of County Meath has had tremendous success in Croke Park. It was one of the best games, despite my county being on the losing side of it. Sportswomen like Rachel Blackmore, Leona Maguire, Kelly Harrington, Fionnuala McCormack, Amy Hunter and Emma Slevin, along with female players in many teams across all codes provided great sporting moments for us all.

All of these moments are inspiring the next generation of women and girls to take up sport, get out and get active and be the next generation of sporting heroes who will inspire us in the years and decades ahead. I acknowledge the work being done by Sport Ireland, the governing bodies and the network of local sports partnerships in developing programmes and contributing to the increase in the number of women and girls taking part in sport.

I expect 2022 to be another great year for women's sport. From a policy perspective, I will do everything to ensure our sportswomen are supported across the board. I am sure that if the Senator has direct questions for Sport Ireland, it will respond. I am not privy to the freedom of information request but I am sure the agency will revert to the Senator.

Credit Unions

I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Finance, Deputy Fleming.

I, too, welcome the Minister of State. I thank the Cathaoirleach for selecting my Commencement matter on credit unions. I read with great interest an article on the issue in the Sunday Independent. I am sure the Minister of State had some feedback about it, as I did. People were genuinely encouraged by the article. The substance of the feedback I received from the credit union movement, including the Irish League of Credit Unions, was that it would like the Minister of State to make the regulatory changes to enable credit unions to significantly increase their footprint in the mortgage market. We all know about the issues with KBC, Bank of Ireland and AIB. Indeed, my local AIB branch has closed. Post offices and banks are closing in communities and there is a desire for the credit union movement to grow and expand.

I am a member of my local credit union and I fully support the movement. It is an amazing organisation, rooted in community. Traditionally, it has been served by volunteers, although it is using from that model to a more professional one and all the staff are paid. The credit union movement has done a great service to citizens and to people in communities who have sought to take out small loans. As people have prospered and their wealth has grown, however, they have moved on and the movement is substantially funded and is in a position to increase their contribution to the mortgage market, which the Minister of State has identified. The movement wants him and the Government to honour the commitment in the programme for Government for credit unions to become key providers of community banking, and it has a good case. He indicated credit unions would fill the gap left by the departure of Ulster Bank and KBC from the Irish market and start lending more mortgages. Credit unions are ready, willing and able and have the capacity, funding and professionalism in place to carry out those objectives, so what is the problem? How can we enable the credit union movement to grow and provide a wide range of community banking with a focus on mortgages?

I think I am pushing an open door with the Minister of State, who is committed to this. Clearly, there are issues I might not be aware of, and the new policy framework review that he has mentioned is important. This presents opportunities for the Government to empower credit unions to realise their full potential, fill the gap left by Ulster Bank and KBC and offer a real alternative in our communities, with a focus on mortgages. The commitment the Government agreed to in the programme for Government is important and I would like to see a timeline for the introduction and roll-out of that commitment.

I am very pleased to discuss the issue of credit unions and I thank the Senator for raising it. He has a long-term interest in credit unions. He has raised this matter often in the past and will no doubt continue to do so because they have such a key role in Irish society. I look forward to a longer debate on credit unions taking place in the House on 2 March and I know the Senators present will contribute to that debate.

The Government recognises the importance of credit unions and the programme for Government contains commitments to both reviewing the policy framework within which credit unions operate and enabling the credit union movement to grow. That is precisely what I am doing at the moment and I am almost at the final stages of that process. If I were to summarise what I want credit unions to do, I want them to grow their lending. As the Senator pointed out, they have substantial deposits and investments but it is important they increase their lending too because that is how they will become sustainable. The programme for Government also contains a commitment to supporting credit unions in the expansion of services to encourage community development.

I was appointed Minister of State with specific responsibility for credit unions, and I am the first Minister of State ever to have been given that responsibility. I have carried out extensive stakeholder engagement with a broad range of credit union stakeholders in the past year or so. A summary of the proposals has been shared with all the credit union representative bodies and the final stakeholder engagement session has been scheduled for early March. To give some background, over the course of the past year and beyond, departmental officials carried out extensive negotiations and discussions with all the credit union key stakeholders. I have attended well over 20 meetings with the credit union sector over the past six or eight months. Towards the end of last year, we were almost at the final stages of getting various proposals from the sector as to what it wanted in the legislation and there was substantial agreement on that.

Even so, I gave a commitment that, before I finalised it and brought the decision to the Government, I would return for one final session to sign off with all the representative bodies. I have issued that document to them and they received it over the weekend. There will be a session in early March with all the representative bodies, chaired by me, and I hope that we will thereafter get full sign-off, before it then goes to the Government to lead to legislation. Any legislative proposals arising will go to Cabinet shortly thereafter. The proposals being considered should assist credit unions to invest in collaborative ventures that could be used to expand their mortgage offering.

It is worth noting that, as it stands, credit unions can and do provide mortgages. Fourteen of the 213 credit unions engage in mortgage-lending at various levels. As at the end of September last, credit unions had a mortgage book of €260 million, which has grown 26% year on year, although not all credit unions provide mortgages. Twenty of the credit unions account for 76% of all new house loans advanced, while 50 credit unions account for 98% of all new house loans advanced. Following the review of the lending framework, the Central Bank introduced new lending regulations in January 2020. At a combined mortgage and SME lending rate of 7.5% of assets, this provides capacity to provide up to approximately €1.1 billion of additional mortgage and SME loans, or €1.7 billion in total, and that was finalised only two years ago. Furthermore, additional lending capacity of up to 15% of asserts is available to credit unions, which can apply within certain conditions to the Central Bank for that. Four applications have thus far been approved, while one is in the process of being examined.

I thank the Minister of State, as always, for his precise and informative response, as well as for his agreement to come to the House on 2 March to discuss the issue of credit unions. I thank the Leader and her office for arranging all that.

The key question is how we can get credit unions to lend more, and that is important. There is a mortgage market, but we are seeing the winding-down and withdrawal of banks in communities. The strongest aspect of credit unions is that they are community based. They are embedded in our communities. There is an opportunity now for them to get established, although we will have to see how they perform and can grow.

The Minister of State suggested that credit unions lend, but not all credit unions are in a position to do so, as he has acknowledged.

The credit union movement has a role in banking and will assist people in getting mortgages. I acknowledge the significant role that it plays in SME financing as well as in personal financing for people who have been turned away. As the Minister of State knows, the great scandal of banking in this country is that people cannot even meet anyone in their banks or get support from banks. The banks have a short memory. We as a nation bailed them out, but we cannot even get them to open their doors now. People certainly cannot get banks to speak to them other than via phone. I see a role for credit unions in building close financial relationships. I thank the Minister of State for his support in this matter.

I should have made clear in my opening reply that the Central Bank makes decisions on regulatory matters and is independent of the Government and the Department of Finance. That is well established but I wanted to reiterate it.

The regulations developed by the Central Bank, which were updated just two years ago, provide substantial capacity for credit unions, in particular larger ones, to grow their mortgage markets. In the past year, the Central Bank has approved two groups to provide credit union funding to approved housing bodies, AHBs, for the first time ever. Every credit union can invest in the fund for AHBs directly.

The programme for Government refers to community banking. The Irish League of Credit Unions issued a letter over the weekend that most Oireachtas Members will have seen. According to it, the Irish League of Credit Unions was ready and willing to engage with me and my officials constructively on achieving this aim. That meeting has been scheduled for within the next fortnight. I look forward to returning to the House in due course with legislation to improve the environment for credit unions.

Fuel Poverty

I thank the Minister of State for joining us for this important debate on energy poverty. It is a matter that we all understand and the Minister of State shares my passion for doing all that we can to tackle it. We are in the midst of an energy crisis. Families are suffering from energy poverty, as outlined as recently as last week by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. We are also in the midst of a climate crisis, but we have ambitious plans underpinned by the climate action plan and our commitments under COP26.

This is a complex issue. From one perspective, it is about the complexity involved in ensuring the stability of the energy grid across the island of Ireland. On the other hand, wasting energy is a moral issue. Hundreds of millions of euro worth of energy are dumped in Ireland instead of being used to tackle energy poverty. As individuals, we all know that we should not waste electricity or other forms of energy because it will cost us in our pockets and is bad for the environment. Furthermore, most of us grew up in homes where the consequences of leaving the immersion on were severe.

When I first heard of the scale of renewable energy that was being dumped in Ireland, I thought it was immoral, given that hundreds of thousands of families were in energy poverty. I recognise that there are technical and electricity grid-based challenges that need to be addressed, but if there is political and regulatory will, it can be achieved.

This is where EnergyCloud comes in. It is a not-for-profit organisation with a mission to create solutions and divert to Irish homes surplus renewable energy that would otherwise be wasted, with a primary focus on those households in fuel poverty. The much-needed electricity costs emergency benefit scheme will credit domestic electricity customers with €200 at a cost of €400 million. This is a one-off exceptional payment that is designed to tackle the cost of energy.

Regarding the renewable energy that is being dumped, I examined the potential retail cost to consumers and what it could cost families in fuel poverty. According to EirGrid, 1,448 GWh of zero-carbon energy from wind generation was dumped in 2020. This was equivalent to 11.4% of the total available wind energy. Based on Electric Ireland's 24-hour standard rate of 21.2 cent per KWh, the 1,448 GWh of dumped energy cost families more than €305 million, excluding VAT. The Minister of State will agree that this is immoral. It is likely that the 2021 and 2022 figures will be even higher. In less than four years, more than €1 billion in energy will have been dumped.

Something can be done about this. Last year, the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, launched the first phase of EnergyCloud, which involved a project with Clúid Housing. The goal of this initial phase is to reduce renewable energy wastage and divert energy towards the social good of heating water in fuel-poor homes. At the launch, the Minister stated that the simplicity of the project's approach was that it could utilise the existing infrastructure in the home, such as hot water tanks, to receive surplus renewable energy at a time when it was not needed on the grid. The use of existing infrastructure in the home reduces the capital expenditure required for this project and allows organisations like Clúid to upgrade their properties quickly in order to avail of surplus renewable energy.

Through our local authorities and AHBs, the State can play a leading role in helping to use surplus renewable energy while tackling energy poverty and ensuring that there is no waste.

I thank the Senator for her interesting contribution. I will address her specific questions in my supplementary response but give her my written answer first.

Given the unprecedented rise in electricity and gas prices, reducing the burden of fuel poverty is a matter of serious concern for the Government. A suite of measures is being developed and deployed by the Government to help reduce the impact of fuel poverty in the short and long terms. The Government is concerned that recent electricity and gas price increases caused by international conditions are putting increasing pressure on consumers, particularly those in a more vulnerable economic condition.

It is important to recognise that these price increases are not caused by governmental or regulatory decisions, as price regulation in this sector ended many years ago. Suppliers compete with one another on price and set their own prices accordingly, as one would expect in a competitive commercial market. It is also important to point out that all European markets are experiencing these price increases. While Ireland has its own specific circumstances, the rise in energy costs is not unique to us. The most immediate factor affecting electricity prices in Ireland is the upward trend in international gas prices, which has brought them to an unprecedented high. In Europe, wholesale natural gas prices have been on an upward curve since the second half of 2020 for a variety of international reasons. Current indications are that these higher prices will continue at a significantly greater level than in early 2020 for the foreseeable future. This feeds directly through to retail electricity prices because the wholesale price of electricity correlates strongly with the international price of gas, given that gas is a primary fossil fuel used in the generation of electricity.

As well as the package of measures that the Government recently introduced to combat the increases in the cost of living, I am convinced that the roll-out of renewable energy will, in the long term, reduce Ireland's susceptibility to spikes in international fuel prices. The Government is committed to ensuring that, by 2030, up to 80% of our electricity will come from renewable resources. This renewable energy will help to protect us from fluctuations in gas prices caused by global supply and trade issues. In this way, we will increase our energy security.

The first renewable electricity support scheme, RESS, auction for onshore wind and solar projects was held in 2020, with 63 projects progressing currently. The next auction process has begun, with the auction scheduled to take place in May. It will deliver a major increase in renewable electricity generation by the end of 2024. A third RESS onshore auction is under development. The Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications is finalising the terms and conditions of the first of three planned offshore renewable energy auctions this decade to deliver 5 GW of offshore wind energy by 2030.

The Government is tackling the impact on households of increasing energy costs through the tax and social welfare system.

This was set out in the budget in 2022. The fuel allowance is one of a range of income supports paid by the Department of Social Protection, which also includes general social welfare schemes and the living alone payment increases to support those living alone and at a higher risk of poverty, along with the household benefits package. Targeted supports are also provided under the supplementary welfare allowance scheme to assist people in certain circumstances who have special heating needs, for example, in the case of people with ill health.

Over the long term, the Government's energy efficiency and renewable energy measures are key. Government policy is driving investment in energy efficiency, investment in renewables, enhancing electricity interconnection and deepening the internal energy market. I will take energy efficiency as an example. Energy efficiency measures are not just essential to reduce emissions from our housing sector; they are also central to addressing the root causes of energy poverty and to improving health and social inclusion outcomes while at the same time contributing to decarbonisation.

Separately, grants for cavity wall and attic insulation will more than triple as part of the Government's response to the current exceptionally high energy prices. For example, in the case of a semi-detached home, the attic insulation grant is going to increase from €400 to €1,300. The cavity wall insulation grant will increase from €400 to €1,200. These are highly cost-effective upgrades. They are measures that can be deployed rapidly and at scale this year and it is expected that these works will pay back in between one and two years in most houses. The new grant rates will cover approximately 80% of the typical cost of these measures and will be available to all homeowners.

Using surplus renewable energy on the grid is another measure that could also potentially help alleviate fuel poverty and help our carbon emissions. One innovative technological solution that is currently being trialled is a solution between EnergyCloud and Clúid Housing, our largest approved housing body. The current project will initially see 50 families benefit. However, it is clear from Clúid and EnergyCloud that they have an ambitious target to support families in each of more than 8,300 Clúid properties throughout Ireland. This technology uses existing infrastructure in the home, such as a hot-water fuel tank, to receive surplus renewable energy at times when it is not needed on the energy grid. I welcome the trial and hope to see it become widespread in the coming years as just one in our suite of measures to help alleviate fuel poverty.

The Minister of State quite rightly outlined that an incredible amount of work has been done by the Government so far, and we welcome that. However, as I mentioned, €305 million worth of retail value is being dumped annually. The redeployment of renewable energy to heat hot water in homes could also displace significant volumes of CO2 and avoid millions of euro in carbon penalties to Ireland. Crucially, that can be done now as that technology is in place. We just need the Commission for Regulation of Utilities to work with the State to make it happen. As the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, has stated, we already have those domestic hot-water tanks in our homes. EirGrid announced that the all-Ireland wind power record was set earlier this month and as someone who was out running cross-country at the weekend, I can attest that it was quite breezy and those wind speeds were considerable.

We are not being told the value of what is being dumped. While all the people are having to make stark choices about their own homes, the State is sleeping on this dumping. There is an opportunity to engage with EnergyCloud to explore the solutions available, to use this energy in social housing homes and to reduce the impact of fuel poverty. The Government needs to sit down with all the participants in this process and decide if we should continue to dump 100% renewable energy that could be used to address fuel poverty. Where there is a will, there is always a way.

The grid is changing. The electricity system is changing because of this big transition to renewable energy. One of the things that is changing is that we sometimes suddenly find ourselves in great surplus and in great deficit at other times because of the weather. Although the weather is predictable, the pattern in which our electricity is generated is different from the way it was in the past, when a power station could be turned on and off more easily. Sometimes we are in a position of surplus but electricity cannot easily be stored. We know about Turlough Hill, where water can be pumped up a hill and brought down, but we are limited in how much we can use that kind of thing.

We do have electricity interconnections with other countries. That is another way to balance the situation and get money back. We are close to getting the North-South interconnector ready. We are working with the French to put in the Celtic interconnector, which should also help. The idea of using surplus energy to heat water tanks in people's homes is a form of battery. It is a form of storing energy. That water obviously can be used. It can be used to heat the home, have a shower or whatever else. I am interested to hear about EnergyCloud. I will be contacting the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, and I will ask him about the progress on that scheme. I would love to see it rolled out. Organisations such as Clúid directly target people in energy poverty, which is exactly what we are trying to do. Much work is done before the budget to make sure that the changes that happen in the budget do not disadvantage people who are in energy poverty, leave them colder in their homes or unable to pay their bills. We work carefully with the Economic and Social Research Institute to make sure that the budget is progressive and a lot of work is done in that regard. I was interested to hear about the issues the Senator has raised and I thank her for bringing them to my attention.

Cuireadh an Seanad ar fionraí ar 11.25 a.m. agus cuireadh tús leis arís ar 11.34 a.m.
Sitting suspended at 11.25 a.m. and resumed at 11.34 a.m.