Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

Clean air is a vital public health interest and it is inseparable from the challenge of climate change. In 1990, while Minister of State, Mary Harney introduced a ban on smoky coal use within the Dublin region. This decision had a very radical and beneficial impact on public health and the environment. It saved many lives and improved the quality of health in others, as well as the quality of our lived environment. It was a decision and not an announcement; substance as opposed to spin; and a concrete action as opposed to a promise never delivered. Thirty years later, it is incomprehensible that our past two Fine Gael-led Governments have failed to introduce a nationwide ban on smoky coal despite numerous promises from Ministers to do so.

Former Ministers, including Phil Hogan and Deputies Kelly and Naughten, promised to bring forward such a ban, but no action or decision followed.

A recent report on air quality published by the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, revealed the degree to which air pollution in towns not covered by the ban exceeded World Health Organization air quality guidelines. For example, Enniscorthy continually has the highest observed concentrations of air pollutants of all monitoring stations in Ireland, with a 20% higher level of pollutants PM2.5 and PM10 than in Dublin or Cork. Professor John Sodeau of UCC is particularly critical of the Government's inaction on this issue and raised concerns that the public health and climate change consequences for the areas not covered by the ban on smoky coal were very severe. This air particulate pollution attacks every cell in the body and carries carcinogens, heavy metals and acids. Up to 1,500 lives are lost annually as a result of diseases linked with it. Based on promises made by the Government, some manufacturers invested millions in order to be in a position to produce smokeless coal, but they have been left high and dry.

Yesterday the Taoiseach announced a welcome U-turn on his position on fossil fuel exploration, albeit we learned that licence applications would be accepted for the Celtic Sea and the Irish Sea on an ongoing basis. He had previously poured scorn on and refused to back legislation aimed at doing the same thing. Given that we have never discovered oil, it was, perhaps, easier for him to make that announcement than to ban smoky coal as promised by three Ministers but never delivered on. The real point is that action speaks louder than words. Ireland is one of the worst performers in Europe in terms of air pollution and climate change. The State will miss its 2020 EU targets by a staggering amount. Why did three former Ministers promise to extend the smoky coal ban but then take no further action? Was there lobbying by vested interests and, if so, by whom and when? I ask the Minister to send the details to me if he does not have the information before him. Does he accept that there is an apartheid approach to clean air in this country, with people living in 20% of it being condemned to breathing in carcinogens, heavy metals and acids?

I reject entirely the idea that the Government is looking to bring forward or overseeing any form of apartheid in having clean air. I do so because I agree with the opening points made by the Deputy about the importance of clean air and its significant impact on public health. I will raise with the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Bruton, the issue of why commitments regarding a nationwide ban on smoky coal were not followed up. He is well aware of the importance of clean air. The climate action plan published by the Government includes many steps which outline how we are looking to make progress in areas that matter in terms of public health. There are steps additional to those outlined by the Deputy which will help us to make progress in ensuring we will have cleaner air across the country. I hope we will be able to make progress in that regard in the coming weeks and months. I will revert to the Deputy at a later point, possibly during the course of this session, with an answer to his specific question as to why the commitments given have not been implemented.

Obviously, the Minister has a lot on his plate and is probably not up to speed on the wider debate on this issue, which I raised in the House in June. It has also been raised by Deputy James Browne and others. The reality is that there is apartheid in terms of air quality in this country because the smoky coal ban has not been extended nationwide, in spite of the promises of former Ministers, including Phil Hogan and Deputies Kelly and Naughten. The EPA's report indicates that there have been approximately 12 breaches of environmental safety limits since last Christmas and that asthma sufferers in Enniscorthy, New Ross and Gorey, for example, have been warned to stay indoors at these times. There is apartheid. In places where the ban is not in effect air quality is far poorer and damages people's health. The situation is not equal across the country in that regard.

The promises were made and announced, on foot of which some manufacturers invested in facilities and processes to produce smokeless coal. They have been left high and dry as a result. The Minister was warned that certain coal importers were threatening to take legal action. I am surprised that he was not aware of it. The smokeless fuel regulations were brought forward in Dublin city and county in 1990. The figure is now up to 80%. Despite all of the promises in the past eight years, the ban has not been extended. That cuts to the core point. It is easy to announce and promise things, but it is something altogether different to deliver them on the ground and make them a reality.

I am well aware of the importance of clean air and the damaging effect air quality can have on public health, particularly the health of young infants. It is something on which we must and will make progress. I have since been informed that it is something the Minister, Deputy Bruton, wishes to make happen. As the Deputy said, there is the possibility of legal action being taken. I am told that the Minister is concluding work with the Attorney General on legislation and an approach that we believe will be robust in dealing with the matter. I agree him that clean air is something everyone on this island and in this country should be able to access. However, as he pointed out, it is damaging to bring things forward that one cannot operate; therefore, the Minister is taking some time to conclude the work with the Attorney General. I am sure he will conclude it soon and implement the legislation to ensure everybody will have access to clean air.

We were all deeply impacted on by the determination and passion of the thousands of young people who took to the streets of Ireland on Friday to demand action on climate change. When it comes to the greatest threat facing our planet, young people are leading from the front. Their message is very clear, easily understood and makes sense. They are five words that will make a difference if listened to by those in power and the Government, namely, "system change, not climate change". They have asked for action to bring the urgency and radical policies the climate crisis deserves. Unfortunately, the Taoiseach has not heard them. They did not ask the Government to tinker at the edges, for half measures or to pass the buck; however, that is precisely what Government's proposed increase in carbon tax is. An increase in carbon tax passes the buck to hard pressed low and middle income families who are already fighting to make ends meet, while wealthy corporations are given a pass. The increase will hit families who are paying the equivalent of a second mortgage in childcare fees, young workers whose incomes are soaked up by extortionate rents, those living in rural Ireland who must use their cars to get around and pensioners who struggle to meet the cost of heating their homes. It is tinkering because we know from international evidence that carbon taxes do not work. They do not reduce carbon emissions or change people's behaviour. It is a half measure because the Government's proposals miss the crucial point. It has done very little to enable people to transition to a low carbon lifestyle and offset the tax. It has failed to invest properly to provide viable alternatives in the areas of transport, fuel and heating. Everyone accepts that we must do more and that we must do better, but we must also agree that climate response policies must be just and fair and, more importantly, that they must work. I call on the Government to consider a workable alternative, to fund climate action through progressive taxation and then invest in and deliver world-class public transport, to invest in renewable energy infrastructure and retrofitting housing stock. These are the measure that should be undertaken. The young people who protested last Friday want genuine investment in climate action. A carbon tax increase will not deliver on that demand and it is unforgivable to pretend otherwise. Will the Minster use the budget to map out a real climate action investment plan for which he will put up the cash and indicate that it will not include an increase in carbon tax?

The Deputy made reference to international evidence and the opinions and views of experts. I will quote our expert in this area, namely, the chairman of the Climate Change Advisory Council, Professor John FitzGerald. He stated:

A massive body of evidence from across the world shows that carbon taxes are essential. There are very few carbon tax deniers in the economics community. A recent statement by a large number of American economists, including 27 Nobel prize winners, identified carbon taxes as essential for the US and the world.

I am well aware of the impact any change in carbon pricing can have on those who are vulnerable. I am well aware of the impact it can have on those who are on low incomes and find themselves in a vulnerable position, but I am equally aware of the body of international evidence that states changes in the pricing of carbon are an invaluable way for economies to respond to the existential challenge of climate change. Sinn Féin has form in that regard. It is a party that supports the broadening of the tax base, but it is against the local property tax. It is a party that supported investment in water infrastructure, but it is against water charges. It is a party in which inconsistency and hypocrisy are embedded in how it handles policy issues. What will it state to the young people who are out protesting? What will it state to those children who left their schools last week, all of whom are looking for significant change? All of the experts in this area advise that an element of that change needs to be how we can evolve the pricing of carbon in the future. Let me re-emphasise what I said before and what the Taoiseach said in New York yesterday. Any move in carbon pricing, if it is agreed to by the Government and supported by the Dáil, is one that will ensure all the revenues will go back to helping those who are in need in the country owing to that change and towards helping the economy to invest in the kind of change that is essential to enable us to deal with climate change. What will the Deputy say to all of the communities and people who are looking for progress and leadership? Yet again, Sinn Féin pretends it can happen without any change or cost.

The Minister is correct to point out that Sinn Féin has consistently been against regressive forms of taxation that hit people on lower incomes. As it happens, I have two climate strikers in my home. I say to all of the strikers what I have said to them, namely, that tokenism will not cut it.

It worked for the Deputy.

We will not indulge in it as a political movement. I say the same thing to the strikers that I have said to my own two climate strikers, namely, that we will not let the Government get away with it either. We have had a carbon tax here for ten years and emissions have risen massively. That is the fact of the matter. Those who commend carbon tax do so only in the context of alternatives available to citizens to trigger the behavioural change needed. The Minister knows this, but he is taking the lazy approach. The easy and lazy thing to do is to have a go at Sinn Féin or anybody on the left who understands climate justice and a just transition have to be about more than passing the buck and punishing people who are poorer in society. It has to be about systemic change, but it seems that the Minister does not have the belly for this. I asked him to drop his hike in carbon tax in favour of investment in a real and radical plan that would make a difference and reduce emissions. Is he prepared to do this in the budget?

Tokenism will not cut it, but hypocrisy will not cut it either. We have a plan. The climate action plan laid out by the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Bruton, and the Taoiseach lays out how, in the years to come, we will invest more in ensuring renewable energy will play a larger part in the economy, we will have more homes retrofitted across the country and that we will have the right transport and planning framework in place to allow the economy and citizens to make the changes needed.

We are considering the role the pricing of carbon may play in that regard. Deputy McDonald is calling for additional investment and sustainable and structural change, but she does not have the honesty to explain how it can happen, or how we can pay for the additional investment needed.

Carbon pricing levels have been in place for many years. The Deputy claims that behaviour has not changed, but she fails to acknowledge that the price of carbon has not changed either. All we are considering is whether the pricing of carbon can play a role in the change people of all generations want to see happen. Sinn Féin needs to spell out clearly where it stands on the great pressing issue of climate change.

I hope the Government will listen.

Will Sinn Féin repeat its normal mantra of cynicism and hypocrisy and look to blame others? Instead, the party might perhaps reflect the potential consensus in the Dáil on the need for honesty about trade-offs and a commitment to protect the most vulnerable.

Start collecting the €13 billion in taxes now.

In my time as a public representative the people of west Cork have been the poor relations of Irish politics. They have fought bitterly for everything they have, with little or no Government support. I refer to the plastic factory in Skibbereen and the proposed harvesting of kelp in Bantry, which would have had a devastating effect on the environment and tourism in west Cork. The Minister could have stepped in on the latter issue but instead stood idly by. I was called an objector by a Minister for standing against these projects. The Government's inaction forced the ordinary, honest people of west Cork to dig deep and take legal challenges, which they won and through which they were proved right by the courts of the land. Following the last round of rural regeneration funding, 48 projects throughout County Cork, particularly those in west Cork, ended up with no funding and shovel-ready projects that could have created much needed employment in west Cork were scrapped. Only two months ago, during Leader's Questions, I raised with the Taoiseach the proposal for a daily park and ride bus service from Clonakilty to Cork Airport and Cork train station. It would have taken hundreds of vehicles off the roads weekly and eased pressures on families in west Cork. While the Taoiseach seemed receptive to the proposal, the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport squashed the idea without even conducting research. Seeing as it was Deputy Ross' Department - the man who destroyed rural Ireland - I knew that my proposals were doomed, as rural Ireland and west Cork are not on his satnav. The Government has a legacy of neglect of west Cork which has stifled major employment opportunities on the three peninsulas, namely, Mizen Head, Sheep's Head and the Beara Peninsula extending to Bantry and Skibbereen.

The biggest scandal of this and previous Governments for the people of County Cork is the lack of funding for roads. In the past few years moneys have only been spent on fire-fighting projects, that is, projects to repair roads that have been destroyed by storms and floodwaters. However, nothing has been spent on new bypasses or to pass bays since the opening of the Skibbereen bypass in 2003. A Government must spend on projects in a constituency in order to achieve whatever vision it has, but years of non-investment in major projects and roads in west Cork has left us decades behind the rest of the country. The Innishannon bypass was proposed almost 20 years ago and although many promises have been made, not one shovel has been turned. The southern bypass in Bandon is half-finished. Each year for as many years as I can remember Government politicians have been codding the electorate by announcing that funding will be found to finish the bypass. Of course, as we are talking about west Cork, why would any Government find the funding to finish this much-needed project? We are now hearing about a much needed northern relief road for Bandon which would bring cars from Billie's Drive-Thru on the Cork side of Bandon to the Dunmanway road. We all thought it was a great project, but the people of west Cork should not get too carried away, as it has now emerged that the road will only go half way, as far as Kilbrogan Hill, ruining residential homes and businesses along the way and creating a massive bottleneck in west Cork. It seems the only vision the Government has for Bandon is two unfinished bypasses.

We need a vision for west Cork. The fishing and farming industries are going through disastrous times, but in west Cork we face up to these challenges. Will the Minister tell me what plans the Government has to invest in roads in west Cork? I am referring to new major projects which would at least bring us up to speed with the rest of the country.

One thing is for certain; if the people of west Cork are looking for a vision they are not going to get it from the Deputy. They are not going to get it from such a-----

I ask the Minister to withdraw that comment. I did not personalise anything.

The Government is Dublin-centric. That comment should be withdrawn as it was personal.

The people of west Cork-----

Deputies, please. Let the Minister respond.

That was not a personal comment.

Please let the Minister respond.

All I heard Deputy Collins do was point out the list of the many difficulties and challenges that we know are there. I am aware, as he is, of the challenges faced by our towns, villages and communities in making progress on issues that are important to them, be that the kind of progress we all want to make in regard to local roads, healthcare facilities or, for example, community employment schemes. I am well aware of that. I ask that the Deputy would anchor what he has just said in some acknowledgement of the progress that is being made. I ask him to acknowledge that this year alone the funding we are putting into better infrastructure, better roads, better public transport, better schools, and better hospitals for our citizens is up by 24%. This is more than €7 billion extra in investment this year in projects that will make a difference to all our citizens, including the Deputy's constituents and the communities he has just outlined. I am pleased to confirm to him that as part of the negotiations I currently have under way with many colleagues I am confident that we will continue to make progress. While I acknowledge the areas in which we have to continue to make more progress, I return the point to the Deputy that amidst the litany of failure he has outlined would he not also acknowledge, as I saw at first hand when I visited his constituency earlier this summer, the progress that is being made on roads, schools and in investment that can make a difference to the towns and villages he has just outlined?

In response to the Minister's snide remarks, I was elected by the people of west Cork to represent their views and I do that here to the best of my ability. He should not discredit me or anybody else because when he discredits me, he discredits the people of Cork South-West; that is what he is doing.

He did not discredit the Deputy.

The Deputy discredits himself.

If the Minister was in the constituency of Cork South-West, he certainly did not tell me he was coming to talk to the people. I would have taken him to see the roads that are in a scandalous condition and to see the lack of investment throughout west Cork that his Government has continuously overseen. As Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe has had his hands on the purse strings. While I respect that he cannot direct specific projects, he can be part of a Government that creates a change in mindset to create funding for major projects in west Cork. We need moneys that were promised last year to be spent on the much needed repair of the Ballydehob to Bantry section of the N71. More than anything else, will the Government approve immediate funding to complete the Bandon southern relief road, the full northern relief road in Bandon, and the Innishannon bypass? If it does, west Cork will start to catch up with other constituencies. I ask the Minister to please direct his reply to that and not to everything else that I have not said.

As the Deputy will be well aware, I am not in a position to comment on the status of a particular road project in his constituency. He knows this is a decision that has to be made by the Minister in the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, with his local authority. I know they are aware of the project referred to by the Deputy and it may come up in the engagement I will have with the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, over the coming days.

The Deputy talked about our track record in investment and where we are with figures on the kinds of investment that can make a difference to the issues he has referred to. I will give him a concrete example of this. In 2017, the total investment coming from the then rural and community affairs part of Government was €136 million. The allocation in 2019 is €291 million. This is the kind of change that is under way as the Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Michael Ring, works through the roll-out of the rural regeneration and development fund-----

There are 48 projects and no funding for west Cork.

-----a fund that over the years has seen 69 different applications, many of which we will be able to make progress on.

The rural regeneration fund is in place to progress the issues to which the Deputy referred. The Department of Rural and Community Development is well resourced and well funded. Under its stewardship, the type of increased investment for which the Deputy is calling is already under way and will continue throughout the country such that we will be able to make progress on many of the issues to which the Deputy referred, building on the progress that has already been made.

The Minister, Deputy Donohoe, will be aware that I have undertaken significant research into the operation of the local property system, LPT, specifically how it is distributed, and that I made a substantial submission to the review of the tax. I am sure the Minister will agree that the best way to turn people against a tax is to mislead them in regard to how it is to be spent. The reason for the resentment in regard to the local property tax is, I believe, people not knowing where their money is being spent.

While the conversation surrounding LPT tends to revolve around raising or lowering of the tax by up to 15%, one of the real scandals lies in the detail of how the model underpinning the operation of the tax builds an inherent structural unfairness into the system. The interdepartmental group report following the review of LPT stated that the work of the baseline review group was completed and that the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, was considering its findings. That was last March. The Government continues to sit on that report.

We are now at a time when local authorities are considering their budgets for 2020 and making LPT decisions. Owing to Government inaction, they continue to do so using a model that is grossly unfair. We know there is an equalisation element to this and that there are 31 councils in the Republic. Between 2015 and 2019, 21 of these councils received €628 million from the equalisation fund. The narrative is that the rich councils are transferring funding to the poorer councils but the great irony is that many of the so-called poorer councils have greater staff numbers, more funding and better services. For example, Wicklow County Council has a baseline of €8.5 million, a point below which it would not be permitted to fall, whereas Mayo, with 12,000 fewer people and a greater income from other sources, has a baseline of over €17 million. These are artificial baselines based on data from the late 1990s. Population changes have no bearing in this area. For example, Fingal County Council must provide for 100,000 additional people, with no recognition that they exist or provision for their needs. To add to the problem, most of the so-called rich councils must use part of their so-called surplus to self-fund roads and housing from their local property tax. This replaces Government grants to these councils.

Of the €108 million spent in this way, €86 million came from the four Dublin local authorities. Counties such as Cork, Kildare, Meath and Wicklow are growing areas and they are at the heart of this problem. The entire system is unfair and the Government knows it. When will it publish the report on the review of the baseline system, which it received in March last, and does it accept the recommendation of the 2015 Thornhill report that 100% of what is collected locally should be retained locally, if it is to be a local tax?

I recognise the considered views offered by the Deputy in regard to the local property tax, on which she and her office have been corresponding with me for some time. What the Deputy has identified is the issue we have in regard to the local equalisation fund, into which receipts from local property tax flow and are then distributed to local authorities, which without those funds, would have a significant deficit in the funding for their local services. I am aware of the issue raised by the Deputy. It is not a case of any work sitting on a shelf. As I understand it, the Committee on Budgetary Oversight is currently working on a response to the paper I issued in regard to local property tax reform.

This issue can only be considered in light of future changes we make relating to the structure and breadth of local property tax. If we are looking to make progress on the operation of the equalisation fund, it needs to happen when change is being made with regard to the local property tax and at a point at which we look again at the valuation dates for that tax. However, I do not underestimate the complexity and difficulty associated with that change. This is why the Committee on Budget Oversight has been considering my report on this issue for the past number of months and is due to report back on it very soon and to give me its views on how this issue can be progressed.

I have raised this issue in the Committee of Public Accounts and other forums. I understand it is complex and have been told there will be winners and losers. There is a view that we will know who the winners and losers are after the general election. The decisions being made by local authorities must be made in the context of next year's budget. Delays in this regard mean that local authorities with rapidly growing populations are stretching limited resources even further. For example, Meath has half the staff of Kerry. I am not saying that we can change that overnight but the baseline means that this is counted as a need and resourced so there is no way of catching up in the case of a growing area. Deferring this until after the general election, which is what is happening, will make people feel very cynical about this. It undermines the tax.

I agree that we need to look at how we can reform the operation of the equalisation fund. I also believe that over time, we should look to increase the amount of revenue raised in a particular area and local authority that is spent in the area in which it is raised. On the cost of doing that, based the work I did on the local property tax report a number of months ago, I can say that the additional cost to the Exchequer would be anywhere between €80 million and €110 million so there is a significant cost involved. It is not the case that any knowledge regarding winners or losers is being deferred to any point in the future. I have published all of the potential beneficiaries and those who will lose out from any of the different changes that could be considered by the Dáil. All that information is in the public domain. I have provided clarity not only to local authorities but to local property tax bill payers regarding what their liabilities will be for the next year. We have also provided all the information the local authorities need to be able to conclude their work regarding their budgets. However, I take the Deputy's point that reform and change in the equalisation fund in the future will be a very important part of ensuring that the local property tax continues to be legitimate and that it can play a more significant role in the future in meeting local needs.