Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

The Minister, Deputy Bruton, is taking over today for the Tánaiste who is in Belfast at the latest stage of the talks about the future of the Northern Ireland Assembly. It is now two and a half years since the assembly collapsed, effectively leaving the people of the North voiceless in terms of the challenge of Brexit, which has hung over the entire island over those three years and also over many day-to-day issues, including welfare, education, health, business and other issues that have been left in abeyance while we try to get this process going again.

The horrific murder of Lyra McKee on Holy Thursday by a dissident group of the New IRA was condemned by all sides in this House and on our island. However, Fr. Martin McGill struck a chord with everybody on the island when he spoke at the funeral and demanded that political leaders get their act together. He said, “Why, in God’s name, does it take the death of a 29 year old woman, with her whole life in front of her, to get to this point?” The Minister knows that people are fed up. They want to see progress and something happen from these talks.

I ask the Minister to give an update to the House and his assessment, as a politician of long standing and experience, as to the prospects for that progress, particularly in the context of Prime Minister May stepping down and a new Prime Minister being elected. Is it the Minister’s view that there may not be progress before she completes her time in office? Is the Government worried or has it discussed the potential approach of a new Prime Minister or a new leader of the Tory Party to the talks in Northern Ireland? The Tánaiste said in April that he wanted the talks to be inclusive, determined and urgent and that it was his hope that the assembly would be up and running again by July. That is a month away. Is it the Government’s view at the end of May that this deadline set by the Tánaiste can be met?

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. The questions he articulated are certainly on everyone's lips but, equally, I would have to say that for me to follow his invitation and to give my personal commentary on prospects would not be the best advice. The reality is that these are difficult issues that need to be resolved. We understand that. There is a huge urgency, as the Government has recognised. To be fair, in the aftermath of that appalling killing of Lyra McKee, there has been political initiative both by the British and Irish Governments and the parties have initiated talks. Clearly, it is our hope those talks will bear fruit. Everyone who has been assessing the prospect of Brexit recognises that this has unfortunately exposed some of the old fault lines that politicians find so difficult to deal with. We must be very conscious that we do not want to aggravate that while at the same time the reason we are holding out so strongly in regard to the negotiations on Brexit is that we have a universal commitment in this state to protect the Good Friday Agreement and everything that has been enshrined in it.

While I am not going to accept the Deputy's invitation to speculate on either the immediate prospects of a break through or the optimal timing for such discussions I would underpin the importance the Deputy is attributing to it. These opportunities to resolve these issue only come rarely and never has it been at a more crucial time for Northern Ireland when we have the prospect of Brexit occurring, and even the potential of a hard Brexit. The impact on-----

I have my eyes on the clock.

I lost track of my train of thought. The clock seemed to start at a strange time.

We will give the Minister a minute.

No. I accede to not interrupting your flow.

This is technology.

I was not inviting the Minister rather I was asking him to comment on a deadline set by the Tánaiste to have the assembly up and running in July. Is that still a realistic perspective? The Minister spoke of fault lines. Those fault lines are weakening. The voting trends in the North in the local and European elections, and similar votes here last Friday, suggest a demand by voters on this island for politicians to take responsibility for and action on a large number of issues. Brexit is one of those but there are many other issues, about which I have spoken. Faults lines must be challenged and dismantled. The Tánaiste injected urgency into this process at the beginning by saying let us have the assembly back up and running at the beginning of July. Is the Government still working to that target, or are the words spoken by Fr. McGill at Lyra McKee's funeral going to be put on the shelf again? Will that impassioned plea be heard or a response to it be delayed?

I can assure the Deputy that the Tánaiste's sense of urgency and his commitment to getting this agreement is absolutely undoubted. He is, as the Deputy will be aware, involved in those talks today. He is seeking intensification of the discussions over the coming days. During the week of 11 June he will update the House. The Taoiseach and the British Prime Minister have committed to an early discussion to review progress. There is a shared sense of urgency but while sharing that sense of urgency we have to give the time and space for the individual parties to work through this. No effort will be spared by the Tánaiste who has demonstrated over many such situations in the past his resilience and determination to get a good outcome. I have absolute faith in the efforts he is putting in.

The issue of rising insurance costs is a massive problem impacting many individuals and small businesses throughout the State. Businesses are having to curtail their activities. Many have had to close their doors. Jobs are being lost and communities are suffering because of the painstakingly slow pace of insurance reform.

We heard here last month from Linda Murray from Navan who broke down before the finance committee, begging for the livelihoods of her staff to be saved. An Teachta Pearse Doherty has previously raised the case of a soft play centre in Donegal which saw its premiums rise by 160% last year from €2,500 in 2017 to €6,500 in 2018. That is despite the fact that it had not made even one claim.

Two days ago in my own constituency the Fingal Adventure Centre announced that it will not be able to operate on the north beach in Rush this summer because of - these are its words, not mine - "the astronomical insurance" quote that it had received. This is a centre that was a favourite of many young people locally, as well as tourists. Its absence and the revenue that it generates for Rush and the surrounding area will be a major loss.

This is a really serious issue. Some of this is down to fraud. I accept that. Fraud and bogus claims are definitely a problem. I raised this issue here yesterday and repeat the call that has been made on numerous occasions for the establishment of a Garda insurance fraud unit to help stamp out fraudulent claims. However, more of this is down to blind profiteering on the part of the insurance industry and that must be stamped out also.

To ensure this happens we need a real commitment from the industry that price reductions will accompany reforms and we need to see proposed reforms as soon as possible. Despite the seriousness of all this we have yet to see the Government's proposed amendments to the Judicial Council Bill. When will the amendments be published and when will the Bill be back from the Seanad to the Dáil? This needs to happen very quickly and it certainly needs to be enacted before the summer recess. I ask the Minister to give that commitment.

In conjunction with that, will the Government secure a commitment from the industry that insurance costs will come down?

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. It is a matter of acute concern for every one of us. There is huge pressure at play, particularly in the context of employer liability and public liability insurance. There have been improvements on the motor insurance side, with premiums down by over 20% in the past 12 months. However, that is not having an impact in this critical areas. The Deputy is correct in stating that we need a quid pro quo in respect of the string of reforms that we are introducing. We introduced reforms in respect of the Personal Injuries Assessment Board, PIAB, and streamlined the process relating to it. We also introduced reforms aimed at securing greater sharing of data. We have introduced an economic crime bureau within the Garda and this is providing briefings to officers in all divisions on how to recognise and address fraudulent claims. We have improved the system for reporting fraudulent claims by the insurance companies. There is a string of changes and, as the Deputy rightly said, the Minister will be presenting those changes to the House as soon as the relevant Bill completes its progress through the Seanad. Said changes have been approved by Government. They will be with in the Seanad before being to the Dáil.

I echo the Deputy's view that we need to see a quid pro quo from the insurance sector. We cannot have the future of businesses undermined in this way and we need the progress that we are seeing on the motor insurance side being repeated in the other areas. In 2018, a set of recommendations were agreed and virtually all have been implemented. We have yet to see evidence of their impact on the public liability and employers' liability. The insurance companies have a responsibility to ensure that they match the efforts being made by this House, the Garda, the PIAB and many others, including the Judiciary, which will now guidelines as to how excessive claims should be addressed. The system is responding but we need to see an outcome for people.

I asked fairly specific questions, one of which relates to the Judicial Council Bill 2017 and the amendments to it. We have heard repeated requests for co-operation from Opposition parties but it is difficult for us to co-operate if the amendments have not even been published.

I also requested that the Government give consideration to the establishment of a Garda insurance fraud unit. The Minister's statement to the effect that we are yet to see the impact of these recommendation is fair enough but we are seeing the impact of the lack of urgency day in, day out. Many of these companies will operate over the summer and they are now having to make decisions on their insurance. The cost of insurance is astronomical and the job losses are real and immediate. When one talks to the campaign groups and the small business owners, they indicate that there is no sense of urgency on the part of the Government to deal with this matter and that they do not see any real effort being made to tackle it. Unfortunately, the Minister's reply will not give them any comfort. Can the Minister advise when the amendments will be published and will he indicate whether will consideration be given to the establishment of a Garda insurance fraud unit?

The position is that the amendments will be published shortly. In the debate in the Seanad, it was clear there was a consensus for this change. The Minister committed to drafting the changes. They were approved at heads-of-the-Bill stage by Government and the detailed drafting is occurring in the Attorney General's office. It is the determination of the Minister for Justice and Equality to bring those to the Seanad and from there to here in order that they can be transposed into law at the very earliest date. There is no foot-dragging in respect of this matter.

The position was similar in the context of other legislation. We have passed legislation relating to the Central Bank and data. We also passed legislation in respect of the PIAB. We passed legislation to strengthen Garda powers in respect of fraud in this area. There is an active programme of reform and we need a quid pro quo from the insurance industry to match the efforts being made here.

It is clear to all of us from talking to people on the doorsteps in recent weeks that they want more ambition from all of us in the context of climate change. We have to reduce our carbon emissions by half by 2030, from 60 million tonnes to 33 million tonnes. Not all parts of the economy will transform at the same speed. Some changes are easier to achieve, and for us to envisage. Wind energy generation fits Ireland's natural advantages and I am confident that the right combination of public and private investment can ensure we meet the ambitious targets of 70% of renewables in electricity by 2030. By 2050, we should also be generating 100% renewable electricity, with excess energy being exported via the links to Britain and France.

As the Minister is aware, transforming to a low-energy economy in other sectors will be more challenging. Local government could lead the way on sustainability through its role in terms of planning and developing local government and local area plans. As an immediate first step, all local authorities should be required to measure accurately and report annually on their carbon footprints, from the buildings they occupy, to their housing stock, to their vehicles and on to all their various other activities. Local authorities should set ambitious targets in order that they can experiment, be incentivised to try out new technologies, learn best practice and consider what is best international practice. This research and development at local authority level would help build up a pool of expertise that we need to impact across the economy. Local authorities should take the lead. They could discover new ways that work in building technologies, planning, sustainable settlements, electric and biodiesel vehicles, retrofitting, electric-heating technology, solar panels, etc.

All public buildings should be retrofitted as a matter of priority. All local authority housing should be next. That would give rise to a significant improvement. It would reduce fuel poverty by ensuring that people have modernised homes that they can afford to keep warm. We should be aiming to retrofit 100,000 homes annually. That is hugely ambitious but if we have the will, it can be achieved.

Will the Government agree that all local authorities should aim to set net targets of being carbon neutral by 2030 in terms of their own carbon footprints? If we cannot achieve this ambition at local authority level, how can we expect the rest of the economy to achieve it? Will the Government commit to putting in place the necessary funds to enable local authorities to access the resources they need in order to implement practical actions that will achieve these ambitious targets?

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. Tackling the climate disruption issue is the greatest challenge that humanity faces. It will pose major challenges, globally as well as here at home, if we fail to deliver. The sad reality is that since the economic recovery started, we have failed to break the link between carbon and growing prosperity. We have a great deal of work to do in order to catch up.

I have prepared a detailed climate action plan which will address every sector of the economy. It will look at buildings, transport, agriculture and industry. It will deliver in the area of renewable electricity, increasing our ambition to move to using 70% renewables. Previously, that ambition was to get to 55%. We will implement the changes. Like the Deputy, I believe local authorities and all public bodies will be pivotal to delivering this. It is absolutely essential that the Government and all bodies lead by example, not only in the context of their own direct carbon impact but also by motivating the many people whose lives they touch to help them make the changes that are necessary to achieve this target.

We will have a plan that respects the large level of consensus that was achieved within the Oireachtas and that will build on that foundation that has been laid by the Citizens' Assembly and the all-party Oireachtas committee. We will deliver our target of reductions in 2030 and be able to work towards net neutrality by 2050. That will be the objective.

On the issues of funding individual sectors, people must recognise that there will not be Government funding for all the change that we need to make.

If that were the case, the bill for the State would be enormous. We have to find ways of supporting, motivating and giving people incentives and access to smart finance to allow these changes to occur. Of course, the State will have a huge responsibility, and every budget of every Department will have to be shaped, just as the mandate of every public body will have to be shaped, to respect and deliver our carbon targets.

It would be a mistake, as the Deputy will know, as a former Minster Public Expenditure and Reform, to approach this as if this was about the State coming up with a huge amount of money. This is something that we all have to work on together. Each sector, be it industry, agriculture, building or transport, must make these transitions. It is more than just a pot of money that is required. These are the deep changes in the way we approach key networks that serve our lifestyle.

As a former Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, I know that it will be about having an enormous pot of money, if we are to make these transitions. We are going to have to change the national development plan to ensure the enormous sums we are going to spend in the capital plan will be lockstep with our ambitions to reduce carbon, which we must acknowledge.

My questions are simple. Does the Minister accept that we have now an opportunity at local government level to lead on this and to try out new technologies, and at the same time to implement Just Transition, in order that we are retrofitting and eliminating fuel poverty? That has to go hand in hand also.

Will the Government be ambitious with local government in the document and set the sort of targets for 2030 of net carbon neutrality I have suggested? Does the Minister support and will he set up a Just Transition task force? Will he join me in welcoming which was for some the surprise announcement by IBEC that it has embraced the all-party climate action report? If industry is willing to put its shoulder to this objective, surely we should lead in the public sector by example.

We should absolutely lead by example and this is not limited to just one segment of government. We need to look at the power network, which is largely in Government control, and the arrangements for generating power will be dictated by the Government. That will deliver the 70% target, which is a massive change. It will require much infrastructural investment and change in the sort of things that people have to recognise are part of that. Renewable requires wind interconnection and many of the things we have found it difficult to deal with.

It will not be limited to local government. Every public body, be it in the health, the education or the transport systems, will have to recognise that it has a pivotal role, not just in decarbonising its own activities but in supporting communities to make these transitions. There will be a need for innovation, not just in local authorities but right across the public sector, to ensure that at CEO and top management level in every public body, it is recognised that one of its obligations is to see that we meet carbon budget obligations. We all know we need to meet fiscal budget obligations. The approach of carbon budgeting will introduce a shift in the way we think about our challenges. It is really important to emphasise that it is not just about finding new fiscal resources to change but about changing the way in which each and every Department prioritises its work, which will be reflected in the plan. We will recognise the challenge of Just Transition.

Will the Minister recognise this part of the challenge? We know that by 2050, we have to stop using fossil fuels. The Government is going to commit to it and the Taoiseach already said so in an answer to a question I put to him last week. We know that if we are to do that and stop runaway dangerous climate change, which will ruin everyone's future, we have to keep four fifths of the known fossil fuel reserves - that is, reserves that have been discovered - in the ground. We know that if that is the case, the last thing we should be doing is looking for more oil and gas, in particular in hazardous and expensive environments like the deep Atlantic. We know that we have gone out about 160 times and found three pockets of gas in the last 30 to 40 years of looking, using up massive amounts of speculative money in that process. We know that even if we found something far out on the Porcupine, several hundred kilometres away from our shore, the likelihood of it being landed on our shores is minimal. The distances are so great that it would be cheaper, easier and less contentious to ship it into some refinery harbour elsewhere. It, therefore, gives us no real security.

We know that we have huge potential if we put all the civil servants who are working on this together with all that Irish Stock Exchange money and speculative engineering into the development of offshore wind energy projects, where we have massive comparative competitive advantage, we really could provide an energy power supply for the future. The technology is certain, the economics are clear and this makes sense.

Instead, the Government is fixated on still looking for oil and gas. I refer to the Government decision this week, which was scandalous in its disregard for this House. After a year and half of using every trick in the book to delay the climate emergency Bill, at the last minute, just before we were to go into Committee Stage to debate these questions, it reversed its decision of 15 months ago that we did not need a money order as it did not have fiscal implications. At the last minute, having tried every trick to block the Bill, it said that we will not even debate the issue.

We need to work together to rise to this climate challenge because, as the Minister said, the scale of the challenge is beyond compare. I would love not to be debating this issue but rather be discussing, as Deputy Howlin just did, the intricate details of how we could improve our energy efficiency and protect people through Just Transition.

We must consider first things first. In this climate challenge, one cannot be taken seriously if one is still looking for oil and gas. Can the Minister explain to me in simple language why he is burning Fine Gael's reputation for care on climate in the approach he is taking to this issue?

First, I can assure the Deputy that we will be taking the actions necessary to achieve the net zero target of 2050 and will deliver on our obligations in 2030. The only way that we can reduce our dependence on fossil fuels is by reducing the 84% current dependence. We use only 16% renewables. The rest is coming from fossil fuels. We need to develop real policies that will see a shift in our dependence on fossil fuels, in electricity, transport, heat and in all those other sectors that use them. I have committed to 70% renewables for electricity. That will need huge changes in access, for example, for offshore wind energy to the grid. We will be making the necessary legislative, consenting and support changes required to achieve this.

Let us be absolutely honest with people. Preventing new domestic sources of gas being found will not reduce our greenhouse emissions by 1 g. That is the reality. All it will do is that it will change our dependence on domestic sourced gas to dependence on overseas gas or overseas oil. The impact of reduced exploration, if it is to be achieved in higher oil prices, which I presume is the Deputy's objective, will mean that we will be paying more to sheiks in Saudi Arabia or oligarchs in Russia. We have other tools to bring up the price of fossil fuels and influence the decisions that people make through a carbon price. If we apply a carbon price, the revenue from that money will come back to the Exchequer to be used to do the things Deputy Howlin pointed out that we need to do. We have methods to address this, through both incentives to people to change and to develop the technologies and strategies that are necessary.

It is worth bearing in mind that the Citizens' Assembly did not recommend that this be adopted and it was not one of its recommendations. It is not in the Oireachtas committee's report. It is not in those documents for a good reason. We need real policies to change this. The only countries which have taken the position Deputy Eamon Ryan is advocating for Ireland are France, with its huge nuclear resource, and New Zealand, with its huge geothermal and hydro resources. We do not have those resources. We are 84% dependent on fossil fuels and, therefore, have to develop a pathway that is consistent with the challenges we face. In the short to medium term, it is best that while we remain highly dependent on fossil fuels, we should minimise our dependence on imported resources.

Where we can supplement the resources coming from the Corrib field, it would be a good outcome to do so. As the Deputy correctly states, we will be moving away from fossil fuels in the long term. It is all about picking the interventions that impose the least burden on the community now and open up the greatest opportunity. That is the approach I will be taking.

Our equivalent to French nuclear power or New Zealand hydropower is offshore wind energy. We have some of the strongest winds in the world and the technology is there to harness this energy and export over a distance. I am very glad that the Taoiseach signed a contract with the French in respect of an interconnector in recent days. That is how we can ship energy in. We will be selling the French wind-generated energy and occasionally we will get French nuclear-generated energy in return. We cannot decide which electron is which. Our way forward is to use our deep Atlantic waters as an energy sources for the rest of Europe, at scale. I do not believe that any greater security is brought to this country by searching for more oil and gas. The Minister did not answer my fundamental question as to how doing so provides greater energy security. The reality is that we are in a global, fungible market for oil and gas. Oil has always been traded this way since the first oil crisis in the 1970s. Gas has become so since the Russian gas crisis in 2008. Europe has changed all the rules in order to ensure there is security in both of those markets. Oil does not come with an Irish flag or any other flag attached; it is sold in an internationally-traded market and shipped around the world. All we would be doing by going out looking for more of it is adding to a store of oil that is going to burn our planet.

The Minister to respond. This is not a Second Stage debate.

We must deal with the politics around this and stop the problem at source. The Government must stop putting all the emphasis and blame on the individual, which is what it is doing.

I do not disagree with the Deputy that there is great opportunity for Ireland in the context of generating offshore wind and wave energy. However, the reality is that offshore facilities offer less than 1% of our renewable sources. It is the sector that needs to be developed in the coming years. We have the ambition that by 2030 we will have 70% of our power generated from renewable sources. However, when the wind does not blow and the sun does not shine, we still need alternatives and back-up. Until we have identified other sources that can be introduced into our network on a cost-effective basis, the back-up remains gas opportunity. Ireland is not on the verge of tipping from 84% dependence on fossil fuels to 15% or anything like it. We have a long, slow journey to make. We have to support people to make those changes. Pretending that there is a magic bullet or that by stopping exploration suddenly Irish people would not be burning coal, oil or gas is an illusion. It will not change the reality facing the Government or communities. People are too dependent on these fuels and we have to help them break that dependency.