Ceisteanna - Questions

Government-Church Dialogue

Brendan Howlin

Ceist:

1. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with church leaders on 4 July 2019. [37446/19]

Michael Moynihan

Ceist:

2. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the plenary organised with religious leaders in July 2019 and the issues that were discussed. [37641/19]

Richard Boyd Barrett

Ceist:

3. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with church leaders on 4 July 2019. [38539/19]

Ruth Coppinger

Ceist:

4. Deputy Ruth Coppinger asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with religious leaders on 4 July 2019 and the matters that were discussed. [38542/19]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 4, inclusive, together.

A plenary meeting with representatives from churches, faith communities and non-confessional organisations was held on Thursday, 4 July 2019 in Dublin Castle. The meeting was organised as part of the Church State Structured Dialogue Process, which was established in 2005 and forms part of the Government's commitment to carry out a wide-ranging and inclusive consultation on public policy.

Representatives from 28 organisations attended the plenary, including representatives from the Christian, Islamic, Jewish and Dharmic faiths as well as representatives from the Humanist Association of Ireland and Atheist Ireland. I was accompanied by several Government Ministers, including the Ministers for Business, Enterprise and Innovation; Children and Youth Affairs; Employment Affairs and Social Protection; Housing, Planning and Local Government; and Education and Skills and the Minister of State with special responsibility for equality, immigration and integration.

Discussions focused on three main themes. They were effective structured dialogue, inclusive and diverse communities and education. The themes were developed based on questions for discussion submitted in advance by the participants. The meeting offered a good opportunity to discuss what a new relationship between church and State might look like and facilitated a sharing of viewpoints on a variety of topics.

The main actions arising from the plenary are to agree how the new relationship will be structured and how it would work going forward, to review Article 17 of the Treaty of the Functioning on the European Union process and other international best practice, to establish a contact person and permanent secretariat for the relationship and to explore more funding for local initiatives. Ministers also agreed to follow up directly with participants on matters relevant to their Departments bilaterally.

At the Kennedy Summer School, which was held in my constituency last month, the leader of the Catholic Church in Ireland, Archbishop Eamon Martin, spoke of Catholic politicians. Specifically, he spoke of Catholic politicians having a responsibility to support laws which uphold the dignity of every human person made in God's image from conception to death, and cautioned against politicians having parallel lives which are compartmentalised into spiritual and secular spheres.

As we become more pluralist and our society becomes infinitely more multicultural, the idea of Catholic politicians could become deeply problematic, especially for growing minority groups. When Catholic bishop Daniel Mageean wrote in 1939 that Lord Craigavon had adopted the slogan "A Protestant parliament for a Protestant people", he did so in protest of the subjugation of the rights of the Catholic minority. Is it not time we left those types of characterisations in the past? In a republic, we cherish the right of everybody to adhere to and express the religion of their choice, but we should not revert to a time when clerics instructed politicians, as used to be the case in both this jurisdiction and the North.

Does the Taoiseach intend to discuss the aforementioned comment about Catholic politicians in the context of the church-State covenant he is discussing with church leaders? Similarly, does the Taoiseach intend to undertake any specific initiatives regarding school patronage in light of growing pluralisation in our society?

When we previously discussed church-State dialogue, it was suggested that a significant initiative would be undertaken at the forum in July and that the so-called new covenant proposed last year would have some substance added to it. However, most of the reactions to the forum have noted how little substance there is to what was presented as a major initiative. The issues the Taoiseach addressed in his opening speech have been on the agenda for a long time and the principles outlined have, in most cases, been official policy for a number of years.

In education, for example, the key pillars of diversity, pluralism, and alternative school models were first supported by me and Mary O'Rourke in the Department of Education. Mary Hanafin developed a new model of community national schools, and large-scale divestment of Catholic patronage was proposed ten years ago. Archbishop Martin himself proposed a divestment of 50% of the schools in his diocese. That divestment has not yet materialised but the pace has been very slow. The target of 50% divestment within 12 months was unilaterally announced by then Minister, Ruairí Quinn, in 2011, and emphasis was placed on political statements rather than any deep engagement.

Will the Taoiseach tell us whether the new covenant is a substantive initiative or a general process? Is it about codifying already agreed principles? If it is to evolve into something new, when will the details be proposed and published?

As I understand it, if the Northern Irish Assembly is not up and running by 31 October, legislation passed in the British Parliament will require the extension of the 1967 Abortion Act to the North. This would be a long-overdue vindication of the rights of women in the North, who have been denied the right to abortion and to control their own bodies. It would be a good thing, notwithstanding other political issues around the Northern Assembly, such as Brexit and so on. This would be a huge victory for women in the North.

In the Taoiseach's discussions with religious leaders of any variety, what attitude have they indicated towards the possible extension of abortion rights to the people of the North in a few weeks? We all remember the great scenes in Dublin Castle when a student lifted a placard reading "The North is next" out of the crowd, and the following huge affirmation that this should happen. I hope everybody in this House will join in welcoming that development if it occurs. Even if the Assembly were up and running, we should want this to happen as a matter of absolute urgency to have real equality for women in both the North and South of this island.

As the Taoiseach knows, a very popular referendum was held in this country last year, with a record number of people turning out to vote. Thousands of us campaigned for many years for the right to abortion services in Ireland. However, it now transpires that just over half of the country's 19 maternity units are providing full abortion services, namely, the three Dublin maternity hospitals and one each in Mullingar, Drogheda, Galway, Mayo, Limerick, Cork and Waterford. If a woman or pregnant person lives in any other county, they must travel, usually twice. While 340 GPs have signed up to provide abortion services, many counties remain unrepresented on that list. The reason for this gap is the conscientious objection clause in the legislation. These are State-funded hospitals that are paid for by the taxpayer, yet the rights of a tiny minority are preventing the will of the majority from being implemented. That is wrong. I have no doubt that the Taoiseach will say we are gratuitously bashing the church, as he told my colleague who raised a church-State matter during Leaders' Questions. That seems to be his go-to phrase whenever anyone challenges the church.

I refer to sex education. The religious right is now targeting this issue and whipping parents into a frenzy about it. The Minister stated last week that ethos will not prevent this curriculum being taught, but I am not so sure about that. Will the Government change the law in order that the characteristic spirit of the school cannot be used to prevent the teaching of objective sex education?

The changes to which Deputy Boyd Barrett referred will actually occur next Monday.

I refer to the matter of former mother and baby homes. As the Taoiseach knows, four years have passed since the commission of investigation into this issue was established. In that period, five interim reports have been published and the inquiry has been granted a one-year extension. That extension was necessary in part due to the lateness of materials submitted through discovery by the Departments of Health and Children and Youth Affairs. I am sure the Taoiseach is as shocked as I am to discover the extent of documentation that had not been submitted or may even have been suppressed. Last year, the commission acknowledged the efforts made by HSE staff to find relevant documentation, but was dismayed at how little had been found. Even relatively recent information was not available.

This should cause us concern. There are very few burial records for the Tuam or Bessborough homes, despite their significantly high child mortality rates. I am sure church leaders, just like Members of this House, are anxious that Departments and State agencies do not stymie the commission's efforts to gather all necessary documentation to complete its work. I hope the Taoiseach can give them and us that reassurance and encouragement, in order that this work is finished completely and expeditiously.

I thank the Deputies for their questions. Deputy Howlin referred to the Kennedy Summer School, which I had the privilege of attending and speaking at. I also paid tribute to its founder, Mr. Noel Whelan. The school is going from strength to strength and will show its worth in the years ahead, even more so than it has already.

Deputy Howlin mentioned the views expressed by Archbishop Martin on the obligations of Catholic politicians. As he was speaking, I was reminded of the words of St. John Henry Newman, who was canonised in Rome this weekend. When he learned about the new doctrine of papal infallibility, he said he would drink to the Pope, but would first drink to his own conscience.

What St. John Henry Newman was encapsulating in that was the idea in the Catholic faith that allows people to act according to their conscience, even Catholic politicians.

On the issue of abortion in Northern Ireland, I have had not had any discussions with religious leaders about that particular matter. I understand the representatives of the major Catholic and Protestant churches have encouraged the parties to form an Executive and Assembly in order to prevent that law from being applied to Northern Ireland. This is perhaps with a view to applying a different law which would not go as far as is currently likely to happen in the next few weeks. That is very much a matter for the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive to decide on, however, based on the principles of devolution and local democracy.

Deputy Coppinger referred to the availability of abortion services across the State. The referendum was just over a year ago and the legislation was passed towards the end of last year. It was never the case that services were going to start right away. It always takes time to phase in new health services. It is encouraging, however, that there are now 340 general practitioners, GPs, providing abortion services across the country. If one considers that there are approximately 4,000 terminations of pregnancy a year in Ireland, that is a doctor-patient ratio of 1:12. If each of those doctors performed maybe ten terminations a year, that is enough to cover the service. Accordingly, 340 GPs providing the service is quite a lot when one considers that only about 4,000 terminations of pregnancy are sought every year.

When it comes to hospitals, I am not sure if it is down to conscientious objections. I will have to check up on that. There may be other reasons in different hospitals. It might be down to the volumes of referrals or staff training. Irish doctors and nurses are not trained to perform surgical abortions. If they are willing to do so, they would have to be trained. It might not simply be down to conscientious objection. It is in one hospital for sure but it is something I will have to look into a little bit further.

On the church-State dialogue process, the idea behind the new covenant and the new relationship is that it is a matter which church and State should figure out together. It should not be designed or invented by one side. In many ways, I am not sure how it is going to turn out yet. The opportunity of the plenary was to have that discussion with the church bodies and religious bodies as to how they think it should turn out.

Was it just a good idea for a speech?

I think it was a good idea quite frankly.

If it is not fleshed out, then no one knows what it means.

When one has a good idea, often the best thing is to talk to the stakeholders and not impose it on them.

It is best to just announce it, if it sounds good at the time. Then it can be worked out later.

I did call them together and we had this meeting. Among the actions arising out of it was to continue working out how that new relationship should be structured.

Is it not somewhat Napoleonic?

There was particular reference to Article 17 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union which provides for church-state dialogue. Many people do not know that the European treaties mandate that there should be a church-state or faith-state dialogue. We want to follow that and look at international best practice. We also agreed to have a contact person in the Department who would be the permanent go-to person for the bodies.

School reconfiguration for diversity is being developed in order to provide more multidenominational and non-denominational schools in line with choices of families and school communities, as well as the programme for Government commitment for 400 multidenominational and non-denominational schools by 2030. It involves the transfer of schools as opposed to the amalgamation or closure model of the earlier patronage divesting process. It is envisaged that it will comprise two phases, namely, the identification phase and the implementation phase. The initial identification phase involved each education and training board identifying an area where there may be unmet oncoming demand for a multidenominational or non-denominational school. It would also involve surveying parents of preschool children in partnership with local childcare committees to assess the level of the oncoming demand in the area. This identification phase provides useful learning and is informing the development of the process.

Departmental Functions

Mary Lou McDonald

Ceist:

5. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the economic division of his Department. [37284/19]

Brendan Howlin

Ceist:

6. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the economic division of his Department. [38481/19]

Richard Boyd Barrett

Ceist:

7. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the economic division of his Department. [41382/19]

Joan Burton

Ceist:

8. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the economic division of his Department. [41984/19]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 5 to 8, inclusive, together.

The economic division in my Department assists me and the Government in developing and implementing policy to deliver sustainable and regionally balanced economic growth and quality jobs; to promote effective planning and delivery of infrastructure, including housing; to drive implementation of the climate action plan; and to ensure a whole-of-Government approach to data protection and broader digital issues.

My Department has a dedicated unit which works closely with the economic division on Brexit preparedness and contingency planning. This unit works closely with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade which has lead responsibility in this area. It focuses on cross-Government co-ordination, planning and programme management, as well as communications on Brexit preparedness.

The economic division includes officials with a range of relevant economic qualifications. These include specialist staff recruited as part of the Irish Government Economic and Evaluation Service, IGEES, as well as staff with either PhD or masters qualifications in economic or other relevant policy disciplines, along with others with extensive experience dealing with economic and related policy issues.

The division assists the work of three Cabinet committees and associated senior officials groups. The Cabinet committee on the economy is responsible for all issues relating to the economy, including Future Jobs Ireland. The Cabinet committee on infrastructure works to ensure a co-ordinated approach to the delivery and ongoing development of policy across the areas of infrastructure investment and delivery, Project Ireland 2040 and Rebuilding Ireland. The Cabinet committee on the environment deals with issues relating to the environment, including the climate action plan.

The economic division leads Ireland's participation in the annual European semester. It prepares the annual national risk assessment which provides an opportunity to identify and consider strategic risks on a structured basis. The 2019 national risk assessment was published in August. It also liaises with the Central Statistics Office.

The division, in partnership with the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation, leads the Future Jobs Ireland initiative. This aims to ensure we are well-placed to meet future challenges facing the economy with a focus on quality and sustainable jobs.

The division provides me with briefing and speech material on economic and related policy issues. Given its role, the division works closely with colleagues in the Departments of Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform, as well as with colleagues in other Departments which have lead responsibility for specific policy areas.

Given that the Brexit deadline is only a couple of weeks away, I have no doubt that the economic division – in fact every division - of the Taoiseach’s Department is seized of the potential fallout of a disorderly Brexit. It seems there is now a possibility of an agreement. However, the reality of Brexit in any event is that there will be a fallout because it is bad news for the island, our economy and our peace agreements. The Taoiseach may have briefed Deputy Micheál Martin, his partner in government, as to the progress of discussions thus far. I know that we have not been briefed. I do not know what the circumstances are with other Opposition leaders.

We have had no briefing either.

That is a mistake on the Taoiseach’s part. While not expecting to have the fine detail, we could at least have a sense of the flow of traffic on these matters. For my part, as the leader of an all-Ireland party, I would expect from the Taoiseach some briefing on issues like the matter of consent and how the Irish State envisages that to find application or expression through the Assembly.

I had a conversation with the Taoiseach’s counterpart - his other friend in government - Boris Johnson. He is clear, as I hope we all are, that there cannot be any unionist veto afforded on Brexit protections.

Does the Taoiseach intend to brief the Opposition on these matters? What form are discussions taking in respect of protection for the Good Friday Agreement? Is that happening bilaterally between the Government and the British Government or has the Government remained true to acting in concert with our other European partners?

Last week, the Government, with the support of Fianna Fáil, passed what has been rightly characterised as a regressive budget. The Taoiseach used the Brexit issue as a cover for a decision to reduce in real terms next year the income of a whole range of people dependent on social welfare. That was a wrong choice.

The Irish Fiscal Advisory Council, IFAC, on Monday rubbished any notion that the Government was trying to advance economic prudence last week. The IFAC chairman, Mr. Seamus Coffey, stated that "2018 was a particularly poor year for budgetary management in Ireland, with too many overruns, and this year [2019] looks much the same". Rather than carefully managing the economy through these periods, the Government has, as the ESRI, IFAC and others have noted, allowed for the explosion of costs on the national children's hospital, the broadband fiasco, and the housing crisis. Those are facts. What is the Taoiseach's response to the analysis of IFAC regarding the budget and the general economic performance of this Government?

On the day of the budget, I stated that it had effectively cut the incomes of workers, pensioners, students and those in receipt of social welfare such as disability allowance and carer's allowance. That regressive character of the budget and the injustice that the Government foisted on the vast majority of people under cover of the Brexit drama was confirmed by the ESRI, among others, at the end of last week. How can the Taoiseach possibly justify that, particularly when tax breaks, such as the special assignee relief programme, were retained? A tax break that benefits 789 of the richest and best paid people in this country allows them to have 30% of their extremely high incomes tax free and get the fees paid for their children. For example, according to Revenue, there are four persons earning between €3 million and €10 million a year getting this tax break, as are 14 earning between €1 million and €3 million and 26 earning between €675,000 and €1 million. It is shocking. The richest people with the highest incomes get this enormous tax break but there is not a cent for workers, carers, those on disability benefit and students suffering student poverty. In fact, there are cuts in their income. How can the Government possibly justify that?

Did the economic division of the Department carried out a budgetary impact analysis Essentially, there is broad cross-party agreement in this House to create more equality and progressiveness in how income is distributed and in how taxation is borne by different groups in society. On Friday morning last, the ESRI produced a damning analysis of how regressive Fine Gael's budget is. We all understand the demands of Brexit, but to make pensioner couples and lone parents the target of the sharpest measures against those on lower incomes in the budget at this time, Brexit or no Brexit, is disgraceful.

Some months ago at the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, ICTU, the Taoiseach announced how proud he was that the minimum wage would break through the €10 barrier, and yet his Ministers, later on budget evening, stated that the increase in the minimum wage, from €9.80 to €10.10 an hour, thus breaching the €10 barrier, to protect those on lowest incomes at work, would now be parked indefinitely. That was a bad decision by the Government. In terms of equality in this country, it puts poorer people at work - the people who get up in the morning and go to work - at an enormous disadvantage as a result of the Government's policies.

We will have no time for an answer. Deputy Micheál Martin needs to be brief.

A confusing aspect last week during the budget proceedings was how the Government placed all the stress on GDP growth and all the language was around GDP whereas in recent years the Government has spoken about how GNP and GNI are more accurate and relevant for judging the economy.

Yes, GNI*. Deputy Howlin knows all about that. Both GNP and GNI* estimates for next year and subsequent years are significantly lower than the GDP figure, which is inflated by the activity of multinationals and that side of the economy. Will the Taoiseach explain why this change in approach has been implemented and the role of his Department's economic division in that?

On Brexit projections, it had been estimated that 80% of the economic damage to Ireland that a hard Brexit would cause would be in the context of east-west trade. The deal, which appears to be in the process of being discussed this week and last and negotiated now, involves a full hard Brexit for Great Britain and a softer Brexit for Northern Ireland. That may be all that is achievable. It is important that we are clear about what is involved in terms of the east-west dimension. That depends on the full trade agreement that ultimately has to be negotiated between Britain and Europe. Right now, we are at the exit stage. It seems Britain is now leaving the customs union, as opposed to the withdrawal agreement where the UK as a whole was in the customs union. That is potentially significant for east-west trade, where the bulk of the trade goes on. I would appreciate the Taoiseach's commentary on that.

We have one minute for an answer.

The Ceann Comhairle might allow three or four more minutes.

We will take two or three minutes but we are taking them from the third batch of questions.

I will have to come back to Deputy Micheál Martin about the question on GDP, GNI and GNI*. I have a rough idea but I do not want to give the Deputy an inaccurate reply and have to correct it.

On the minimum wage, I want to clarify that the Government has accepted the Low Pay Commission's recommendation to increase the minimum wage to €10.10 per hour from January. However, that recommendation - this is in the recommendation made by the Low Pay Commission - is based on there being an orderly Brexit. If there is an orderly Brexit, there will be an increase in the minimum wage to €10.10 per hour in January. However, if there is not an orderly Brexit, then in line with the recommendation of the Low Pay Commission there will not be an increase in the minimum wage.

The workers pay for Brexit.

We will have to see what happens between now and January. However, we accepted the recommendation to increase the minimum wage to €10.10 per hour from January in the event of there being an ordinary Brexit.

On whether the budget was regressive or progressive, that depends on how it is analysed and counted. The Department of Finance analysis states that it was progressive because the Department of Finance-----

Where did the Government publish that?

If it is not published, we will. I think it has been.

If it has not been, it will be. The Department of Finance analysis is based on cash. It is done in pure cash terms. On the Department's analysis, it is progressive because there are no cash increases for people who do not receive welfare because there were no tax cuts, with the exception of the self-employed and home carers. The vast majority of taxpayers did not get a tax cut. However, there were increases for lone parents and those living alone, in the fuel allowance, and for families on welfare with children. In cash terms, on the Department of Finance analysis, it was progressive.

The ESRI does it differently. It compares the actual budget with a notional budget in which taxes are indexed to earnings and welfare and pensions are indexed to earnings as well. For example, on the ESRI analysis, a 3% pay increase with no tax cut means the budget makes a person worse off because he or she is paying more tax, and a welfare or pension increase less than the rate of earnings growth means a person is worse off. It is done as a comparison against a notional budget in which tax credits, tax bands, welfare and pensions are indexed to earnings. Deputies may be interested to know that if the ESRI applied the same methodology to the Labour Party, Green Party and Sinn Féin alternative budgets, it would also conclude that those alternative budgets made everyone worse off-----

Has the Taoiseach got that analysis?

Not the People Before Profit alternative.

-----because taxpayers did not get an increase in tax credits or a change of bands. All taxpayers were worse off under the Labour Party, Green Party and Sinn Féin proposals.

According to the ESRI, their proposals to increase welfare and pensions by less than 4.5% of average earnings would have made people in receipt of welfare payments and pensions worse off. It is an interesting analysis but that is the way the ESRI does it.

The Taoiseach's proposal was regressive in that it gave pensioners nothing, not even an extra €5.

What is equally interesting is that neither analysis takes account of the value of increased public expenditure. Neither of them takes account of the fact that we will spend an additional €400 million increasing public sector pay, the value of reducing prescription charges, the value of the national childcare scheme or the value of initiatives such as free GP care and dental care. Those of us who believe in spending more money on public services to reduce the cost of living for working people and people who are not working can see how limited these analyses, both by the Department of Finance and the ESRI, are. We need a much more better and more intelligent way to assess whether budgets are progressive or regressive in the main.

Can we move on to Question No. 9?

Can the Taoiseach give a quick word on Brexit?

I cannot give the Deputy a quick word; I can give him a long word. It is too important a topic for a short reply.

Do Members want to move on?

What are the options?

The next question is on the environment.

Brexit or the environment. Which is more important to the Deputies?

We are Brexited out.

We should move on to the next question.

I would have liked an answer to my question as to whether bilateral engagements are taking place between Dublin and London in respect of the Good Friday Agreement.

There are bilateral engagements between Dublin and London but negotiations between the EU and the UK.

Cabinet Committee Meetings

Eamon Ryan

Ceist:

9. Deputy Eamon Ryan asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on the environment last met. [38503/19]

Ruth Coppinger

Ceist:

10. Deputy Ruth Coppinger asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on the environment will next meet. [38543/19]

Richard Boyd Barrett

Ceist:

11. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach when the next meeting of the Cabinet committee on the environment is due to meet. [39636/19]

Joan Burton

Ceist:

12. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach when the next meeting of the Cabinet committee on the environment is due to meet. [39683/19]

Brendan Howlin

Ceist:

13. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on the environment last met. [41978/19]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 9 to 13, inclusive, together.

In July, the Government decided to reorganise the Cabinet committee structures. This included the establishment of a new Cabinet committee on the environment. The Cabinet committee on the environment covers issues relating to the environment, including climate action and the implementation of the Government’s climate action plan.

Political and popular momentum for necessary climate action is growing and Government is listening. This was reflected in the Government’s publication of the cross-sectoral climate action plan in June 2019 and the strong focus on climate and environmental matters in budget 2020. Given the cross-cutting nature of the climate action plan that affects all aspects of the economy and society, the need for an all-of-Government approach to climate action is obvious. This includes a deliberate and sustained focus by all relevant Ministers and Departments. The work of the Cabinet committee on the environment is an important part of this. The committee met for the first time on 30 September 2019 and is due to meet again at least once more before the year end. At its first meeting, it discussed the first progress report on the climate action plan, which will be published in the next few weeks.

The Taoiseach is not exactly acting as if his house is on fire given that the committee is due to meet only once before the end of the year. Apart from the increase in the carbon tax, which the Government levied across the board on all workers and the disabled and which is, therefore, regressive, what real measures has the Government taken to deal with the biggest crisis facing the planet?

I want to give the Taoiseach a short anecdote. Yesterday, I drove my daughter to the bus stop to get a bus to school because the rain was so heavy. Along the way, I saw dozens of schoolchildren and workers waiting at every single bus stop. In the 15 minutes that my daughter waited no bus arrived, but that is another story. This drove home to me the futility of introducing a carbon tax when people do not have an alternative means of getting to and from school or work. There has been no alternative investment in public transport. Blanchardstown is a large suburb of the capital city where a large number of multinational companies are located. Every day, 30,000 people drive in and out of the area as they come and go to work, yet the transport system is creaking at the seams. The Government has not brought forward a proposal for a Luas line running from, say, Broombridge to Blanchardstown. That would cost €400 million-----

The Deputy's time is up.

I will finish on this.

We will not get time for an answer.

Will the Cabinet consider free public transport, which has been pioneered in many cities and in Luxembourg?

Each person produces 13.3 tonnes of carbon. An increase of €6 per tonne in carbon tax means each person will pay approximately €80 extra. For an average family of three, the regressive impact of the carbon tax amounts to approximately €240. This is more of the unfair, regressive and dishonest approach to dealing with the climate emergency. How are people supposed to retrofit their home if they live in a council house? They cannot do so because they are not allowed to do so. As such, how are these people supposed to reduce their energy bills? They have to wait for the local authority to do the retrofit. In my area, the local authority is retrofitting approximately 2% of the housing stock each year. How is someone supposed to use more public transport when we have some of the lowest subsidies for public transport anywhere in Europe and, as Deputy Coppinger pointed out, which is true in my area also, people cannot get a bus in the morning because there are not enough buses in the fleet? Where is the additional money to add an extra few hundred buses to the fleet? Where is the money to reduce fares? Did the Taoiseach ever see pensioners who have free travel? They use public transport more because it is free. If the Government wants to get people out of their cars and on to public transport, it should make public transport free. We have had none of those measures. We have only had a punitive carbon tax that is regressive and hitting the poor.

Why was no specific mention made in the budget of improving air quality and reducing the incidence of asthma, both in our big cities and smaller towns? In particular, the budget did not provide any measures to improve air quality overall. I do not believe the terms "forestry" and "trees" were mentioned in the budget documentation. Anyone who is interested in carbon reduction knows that planting trees, whether in cities or on agricultural lands, is critical to reducing our carbon impact.

Month after month, the Government promised it would stop imports of smoky coal, which my party agreed when we were in government and passed the relevant legislation. I presume the fact that the Taoiseach's party is in hock to some of the big coal merchants is the reason the Government does not want to improve air quality in towns like Enniscorthy, which is covered in fog due to the burning of smoky coal. I am concerned that, coming up to the budget, the Government did not make any concrete plans to improve air quality.

We heard nothing in the budget about extra train carriages or the electrification of the railway line to Maynooth-----

The Deputy must conclude.

-----which would get thousands of people out of their cars.

I appreciate the Taoiseach's response in respect of bilateral engagements with London on the Good Friday Agreement. I remind him that the agreement is an internationally binding treaty and caution him not to be drawn into negotiating or undermining any aspect of it. If my information is correct, he is discussing and negotiating these matters directly. His fingerprints will, therefore, be on whatever the outcome is, which I can only hope will be positive.

I do not know if the Taoiseach is aware that earlier this year, wheelchair users in Waterford raised accessibility concerns regarding the new single-deck public buses introduced into the fleet. As a result of their campaigning, the National Transport Authority, NTA, agreed a review process with the Irish Wheelchair Association. That process has now concluded. The gist of its finding is that the current design of the new buses is inadequate for those using powered wheelchairs and those with limited dexterity when manoeuvring chairs within confined spaces. As the Head of Government who cites infrastructure and public transport developments as one of the key mitigation measures in respect of the climate crisis, will the Taoiseach explain why, in the name of God, new buses were procured for the fleet that are not accessible to wheelchair users?

At the United Nations summit, the Taoiseach made an announcement to the effect that Ireland will no longer permit drilling for oil, even though we have never found any oil. As with most such initiatives, this was extensively briefed in advance to the media but not in enough time for serious questions to be asked. The Taoiseach got a bit touchy about this and demanded a right of reply when The Sunday Business Post published an article claiming that the announcement was little more than tokenistic. For all significant announcements about the environment, it is reasonable to assume that specific work will have been completed on defining the exact likely impact of each decision. In this context, can the Taoiseach outline the specific impact on Ireland’s climate change targets that the announcement about oil exploration is likely to have? When the much-delayed and over-hyped climate change plan was announced earlier this year, it was pointed out that the Government had not published any initiatives which were capable of delivering on some of the higher-profile targets. For example, the target of having 1 million electric vehicles on the road by 2030 requires that basically all new cars sold from today onwards be electric. That clearly is not happening. Anyone I have spoken to who knows anything about this matter has indicated that the target will be impossible to achieve. What specifically does the Taoiseach intend to propose in order to dramatically and immediately increase sales of electric vehicles? It he standing by this target but leaving it to another Government to figure out how to reach it?

To clarify, I did not seek a right of reply from The Sunday Business Post. An editor or sub-editor texted me and offered me an op-ed in response to which I said: "Yes, thanks. I will take that up." The Deputy is going back to his conspiracy theories and making stuff up again.

If the Deputy has any evidence to support his claim, I am sure he will produce it.

Regarding oil exploration, it is the case that we have not had a commercial oil find but we have had drilling and oil exploration for many decades in Irish waters and that, in itself, leads to damage to the environment and the seabed. The policy is that existing oil licences and options will still be honoured but there will be no oil or gas exploration in 80% of our waters - that is, the Atlantic margin.

What will the impact of that be on our targets?

We will develop the policy and legislation to allow for exploration for natural gas to continue but not for oil. As we have always stated, this will not have an impact on our targets. Ending exploration will not reduce our emissions but it shows climate leadership in that we are sending out a clear message that we are we are getting out of fossil fuels.

The Cabinet sub-committee on the environment and climate change meets quarterly. The reason it does so is that the climate action plan contains quarterly targets, so it is designed to follow those targets and see that they are being achieved. I very much agree with the Green Party mayor of a city in Germany - I have forgotten his name - who stated that the right approach to climate action is not to act like the house is on fire or to panic. If one panics, one makes the wrong decisions. What we should do is deal with this issue in the same way as any other major issue, namely, in a logical, calm and sensible fashion.

The Government has not panicked about this for the past ten years.

There is no fear of that.

No one is accusing the Taoiseach of that.

On carbon tax, Deputy Boyd Barrett's numbers are incorrect. The carbon tax is roughly paid 50% by businesses and 50% by households. The Deputy made the incorrect assumption that it is all paid by households. That is not the case because businesses clearly use a lot of fossil fuels as well. The carbon tax increase will raise in the region of €90 million. Half of this will be paid by households. If, therefore, one divides €45 million by the number of households, namely, 2 million, the average cost per home will be just under €30 for next year. The increase in the fuel allowance protects 22% of the poorest households in the State. In fact, they are slightly better off in cash terms as a consequence of a decision we made in respect of carbon tax. Fundamentally, and this is just like many other things we tax. The amount of carbon tax somebody pays is linked to the amount of carbon they produce, not the amount they earn.

Will bus fares will go up?

That is a matter for the National Transport Authority.

That concludes Taoiseach's Questions.