We are taking amendments Nos. 49 to 56, inclusive, together, which deal with policy directions to the commission. I welcome a number of the amendments which the Minister has tabled. In amendment No. 49 he has gone a good bit of the road with the Labour Party as regards my amendment No. 51. The Minister's amendment states that
. . . policy directions may have regard to the following issues——
(i) security of energy supply,
(ii) sustainability of energy supply,
(iii) competitiveness of energy supply, or
(iv) such other matter which the Minister considers appropriate.
My amendment No. 51 specifies that "these general policy directions shall include targets for energy security, energy sustainability, energy and fuel poverty and retail and wholesale pricing". The areas that are still not specified are energy and fuel pricing. One of the big issues this winter, and in the run-in to the general election, will be the difficulty many households face with gas, electricity and heating bills generally. It is an overriding issue for the Labour Party, which must be addressed directly by legislation. It should not be left to the Minister for Social and Family Affairs and the Minister for Health and Children to devise policies to alleviate fuel poverty. Issues such as fuel and energy poverty should be at the heart of policy making. The Deloitte & Touche report noted that 20% of citizens suffer from significant fuel poverty, but such people should not be left to bear the brunt of fuel price increases.
Last week, I tried to raise in the House the issue of standing charges for gas. I asked the Minister why such charges had increased by 50% in the past year alongside gas price increases, despite the fact that the standing charge is not related to international fuel costs. This morning, I learned from the Irish Examiner, which included a fine investigative analysis of the matter, that An Bord Gáis has raised 5% of its revenue from this incredible standing charge increase. In addition, the Minister has imposed a 13.5% tax on top of that, so we have ended up with a €1,500 to €3,000 heating charge.
Today, I noticed the announcement of Irish entries for the annual Eurovision song contest, which is somewhat related to our portfolio. Deputy Durkan could almost compose a song about the reply I received to my parliamentary question, which stated:
I can advise the Deputy that, as the setting of charges falls within the statutory responsibility of the Commission for Energy Regulation, under the Electricity Regulation Act 1999 and the Gas (Interim)(Regulation) Act 2002, I have no function in the matter.
That is what the Minister told me in his reply which I finally received yesterday. Clearly, therefore, under the current legislation, he has no interest concerning these iniquitous standing charges which are being lumped on top of the other charges. As far as I recall, when the Joint Committee on Communications, Marine and Natural Resources interviewed the regulator he had no comment to make on these matters either. It is important for us to deal directly with a Minister when such directives are issued. I commend the Minister on having come a good part of the way with us in this regard but I do not see why fuel and energy poverty cannot be referred to in the text of the Bill. The regulator and his staff, the commissioners, the Minister's civil servants and everyone in the energy industry should be told that this issue affects 20% of the population and must be addressed. For that reason, I will be pressing amendment No. 51.
I welcome the steps the Minister is taking in tabling amendment No. 52 as regards placing the directive before the joint committee. My amendment No. 54 seeks to lay the draft direction before the Joint Committee on Communications, Marine and Natural Resources or the committee on energy and natural resources as it will probably be in the next Dáil. That would be an accountable and transparent way of allowing us to discuss the content of the Minister's concerns at that time.
I agree with Deputy Eamon Ryan's amendment No. 53 which seeks to extend the period from 21 to 31 days. I understand, however, that the Minister has extended the period, introducing a 30-day rule on submissions before he brings it to the commission. That is commendable.
On amendment No. 54, I am happy that the Minister has included our committee, which has done good work. It will be meeting again this afternoon. In amendment No. 55, I note the Minister has added an explicit provision whereby, under subsection (1) "... the Minister shall consult with that Minister of the Government prior to the carrying out of any obligation imposed on him or her under subsection (3).". This will be critical on issues such as climate change and global warming. We must have annual discussions on all such issues. In that context, amendment No. 56 seeks to establish national targets for renewable electricity and renewable energy in the coming decades. The aim of the amendment has appeared in some form or another over a period. It appeared, for example, in the Green Paper in which the Minister set targets for 2010 and 2030, which is a reasonable timeframe for energy matters. The Labour Party's policy also deals with renewable energy. Targets are always aspirational, however, and one cannot direct the market.
The recent report from CER dealt with Gate 2, which raised some interesting issues in the area of renewables. I have tabled a parliamentary question to the Minister for reply next week, concerning where overall renewables will be left when Gate 2 comes on stream. We have all agreed to a 2010 target in this area and it seems reasonable to have a 2020 target also. The Minister aimed at a 2030 target in the Green Paper. One may say that we should not be as prescriptive as this — in other words, putting particular dates into legislation. My amendment No. 56 includes the years 2010, 2020, 2030, 2040 and 2050. As was stated last week in our debate on the National Oil Reserves Agency Bill, long timeframes are involved in developing energy generation. Energy is a slow-moving vehicle resembling a large tanker or passenger ship which requires a lot of time to change direction. From the perspective of public policy, therefore, it is good to have some outline targets.
We have all noticed the current discussions on renewables. I know the Minister was not able to attend the conference on renewables in Ennistymon, although both Deputy Durkan and I attended it and spoke on behalf of our parties. Many people representing the wind energy sector were there. They were anxious to develop that industry, including interconnectors and anything else that would help its development and counter intermittency of supply. We also discussed other issues with the companies present, including wave power. In warm countries such as Spain and Israel solar generation stations are being developed to make the most of their long hours of intense sunshine. The Israeli energy Minister seems to be the expert in this regard. Passive solar, photovoltaic, PV, and many other technologies exist and we have all come to realise, none more than the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Noel Dempsey, that much of this represents work for the future. The energy research area is critical.
It is hard to say exactly what we will be doing in 2030, though the committee is planning a debate on nuclear power. Regardless, as I said to the committee and in previous debates, I felt we could set targets and review them every three years.
The leader of the Conservative Party in the UK has developed an image as a green leader and I suppose elements of the green philosophy are quite conservative. He has suggested an annual review of climate change and if he becomes Prime Minister he will have fixed annual targets for climate change and emissions. This is a serious debate in the UK. I am suggesting long-range targets on the renewables side and a review every three years. This would be helpful because it would give the Oireachtas and our successors in decades to come an opportunity to review this important question.
In the past I supported the Green Party Bill seeking annual reviews in the area of climate change and I feel this is a modest proposal. I welcome the Minister's attitude to amendment No. 49 and also to the Labour Party's amendment No. 54. I ask him to consider going the final mile on fuel poverty by putting it in legislation. I also ask him to consider setting targets, though they can be hard to meet.
Dr. Whitaker spoke of indicative planning targets when he started the first programme in the 1950s. One can seek 4.5% growth, 5% growth or even, as we have seen recently, 10% growth and more, but it may not be achieved. Similarly, while we are on the frontier of exciting, new renewable technologies, difficulties can arise. Nonetheless, I will press amendment No. 56 and feel it should be adopted.