Wednesday, 16 October 2019

Questions (35)

Timmy Dooley


35. Deputy Timmy Dooley asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment if he will make moneys from the just transition fund available to those affected by redundancies at Moneypoint; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [42316/19]

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Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Communications)

In budget 2020, the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, announced a new €6 million just transition fund by means of which carbon tax revenues will be used to assist businesses and communities affected by the phasing out of fossil fuels. He noted that the new fund will initially be targeted at the midlands. There are, however, other regions that face immediate disruption. It was disappointing that the Minister did not mention the impact of job losses at the ESB coal-fired station at Moneypoint in west Clare. While I accept that there is a continuation of activity at Moneypoint, the Minister, Deputy Bruton, will be aware that there has been a considerable loss of jobs in the region. In that context, the number of employees at the plant has decreased by approximately 100 and there has been a considerable reduction in the number of contractors at the site. The impact has already begun in the region, notwithstanding the fact that the station is due to continue to burn coal up to 2025.

I thank Deputy Dooley for his question.

Ireland's necessary transition away from carbon-intensive sources of energy, towards more sustainable, renewable energy sources, will have a significant impact on the workers in these carbon-intensive sectors, their families and communities. This Administration has committed to delivering a whole-of-Government approach and to working with local stakeholders in order to ensure that a just transition is provided to those on whom that transition will impact. The most immediate challenge arises in the midlands. I have met key stakeholders there including the midlands regional transition team, the midlands regional enterprise plan steering committee and the midlands regional skills forum, all of which have adopted a central objective of a transition to a low-carbon economy for the region.

Budget 2020, as the Deputy correctly points out, includes a number of measures that will form part of the Government's approach to supporting a just transition. These include: €6 million for a just transition fund; €5 million for bog restoration and rehabilitation; and €20 million to deliver the new model to group housing upgrades. These measures will be immediately targeted at the midlands and will support retraining and reskilling workers and assisting local communities and businesses in the midlands to adjust to the low-carbon transition.

There will be further engagement with local stakeholders on the application of the funding and further details on the just transition fund will be announced shortly. Following extensive engagement between the ESB and the staff at Moneypoint and their trade unions, I understand that staff have accepted a proposal relating to the reconfiguration of the station based on a new lower-running regime. This proposal was accepted in a staff ballot which concluded on Friday, 4 October. This is a positive step in retaining an ongoing operation at Moneypoint. The ESB will continue to work with staff and their representatives to implement the agreement in a collaborative way in the face of the challenges ahead. I assure the Deputy that the ESB remains committed to Moneypoint and, in line with its Brighter Future strategy and Government decarbonisation policy, the company is examining technology options for the plant that will deliver large-scale, low-carbon electricity generation, fuel diversity and security of supply when generation from coal ceases no later than 2025.

The agencies of the State will, through the services they provide, support the workers affected. I am open to receiving submissions from regional stakeholders on remaining challenges in respect of which support might be needed in the context of just transition.

It is not enough to receive confirmation that the region around Moneypoint will be eligible for funding at some point in the future in the hope that new funding will address the concerns. Notwithstanding the fact that the ESB's operations are still there and will be for some time, it is a fact that 100 people will be let go by the company. At least 100, if not more, have already left. These people are subcontractors and there will be no pay-off for them when they go. In addition, this is having a detrimental impact on the communities, people, shops, schools and clubs in the region. There is a crisis there. I accept that it is not of the scale of what is happening in the midlands. If we are serious about dealing with this in a fair and equitable manner, then the Moneypoint region in west Clare must be included under the just transition fund. It should not be forgotten that, like those elsewhere, the people in this region will pay their carbon tax.

The expectation was that moneys, particularly in the just transition fund, would be used to assist those who have lost their jobs. The loss of those jobs also brings about a loss of spending power in the region which has a knock-on impact on businesses, schools and the general economic life of the region. It is important that the Minister now engages proactively with the task force established within the local authority with a view to providing the appropriate funding, commensurate with the size and scale of the situation. I accept that it is not to the same scale as what is happening in the midlands, but this is important to this particular region.

As I outlined in the last paragraph of my initial reply, we expect that existing State agencies, such as the education and training board, ETB, the local higher education institutions, local offices of the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection and the ESB will engage actively with the workers. I refer to the redeployment options being offered. I am, however, open to receiving submissions from regional stakeholders on remaining challenges which might need support in the context of a just transition. As Deputy Dooley outlined, a broad-based transition team was established in the midlands region. That involves the local authorities, the IDA and Enterprise Ireland at the local and regional level and they are doing very organised work on the transition to a low-carbon economy. I am open to considering ideas coming from similar networks within the mid-west region, given the pressure Moneypoint power station is coming under already and the prospect of further challenges in the medium term. I am not, by any means, ruling out engagement. In the first instance, however, I would welcome a more strategic approach at local level so that we could interact with that process.

I thank the Minister for that statement. It seems to be a significant move on his behalf and I welcome it. I ask him, or his Department, to communicate with the chief executive of the local authority to provide official confirmation of a willingness to engage with it and receive submissions on how a collaborative approach might be put together. I will also be in contact with the local authority. I accept that the ETB and others will have a part to play, but expecting those organisations just to expand their existing role without the appropriate funding is a step too far. The Minister has outlined an approach that can be followed.

We understand the new just transition commissioner will be responsible for engaging with stakeholders on funding priorities. Will the Minister also confirm that he or she will engage with relevant communities, employers and employees in the west Clare region as well? If the Government is serious about ensuring the active participation of communities and workers affected by decarbonisation, it is important that the remit of the fund and the commissioner is not only limited to the midlands but has the capacity to address the situation at Moneypoint as well. It is essential that the Minister's Department and the Department of the Taoiseach provide for a fully independent commissioner and an associated just transition plan that is directed at the midlands and the west Clare region.

Work on the draft terms of reference for the just transition commissioner is ongoing. It involves not just my Department but also the Taoiseach's Department, which is co-ordinating much of this work. I will communicate with Deputy Dooley as soon as we have decided the approach to be taken.