Mary Lou McDonaldCeist:
1. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent communication with the President of the European Council. [45284/19]
Vol. 989 No. 4
1. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent communication with the President of the European Council. [45284/19]
2. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken with other EU leaders since the last European Council meeting on 17 and 18 October 2019. [45497/19]
3. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his most recent conversations with the President of the European Council. [46442/19]
4. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent discussion with the President of the European Council. [46454/19]
5. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken to European leaders since the last European Council meeting on 17 and 18 October 2019. [46659/19]
6. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken to European leaders since the last European Council meetings on 17 and 18 October 2019. [47381/19]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 6, inclusive, together.
As the House is aware, I attended a meeting of the European Council on 17 and 18 October at which I engaged with the leaders of other member states and of the EU institutions. We were briefed by the new President of the European Parliament, Mr. David Sassoli, and the incoming President of the European Commission, Ms Ursula von der Leyen, on their respective priorities.
On 23 October, I spoke to the President of the European Council, Mr. Donald Tusk, regarding the United Kingdom's request for an extension of the period under Article 50 to 31 January 2020. I confirmed the Government's support for his proposal to grant the extension.
I welcomed President-elect of the European Council, Mr. Charles Michel, to Government Buildings last Friday. Our meeting was an opportunity for the President-elect to set out his approach to his new role. I gave him a sense of Ireland's EU priorities, including on Brexit and the future EU-UK partnership. Among the issues we discussed were the agenda for the European Council meeting in December, including the multi-annual financial framework, the EU's seven-year budget and climate change. We also exchanged views on how to ensure the most effective operation of the European Council.
I was last in touch with the British Prime Minister, Mr. Boris Johnson, on 27 October, after the withdrawal agreement Bill had passed Second Stage in the House of Commons but the programme motion for the further passage of the Bill had been defeated. I also spoke to him on 19 October about the state of play regarding Brexit legislation in Westminster at that time. We also exchanged messages on Friday.
Later today, I will travel to Croatia where I will meet the Prime Minister, Mr. Plenkovi, and the President, Ms Grabar-Kitarovi. I expect that our discussions will focus on issues to be discussed at next month's meeting of the European Council, as well as priorities for Croatia's Presidency of the Council of Ministers in the first half of 2020.
I acknowledge Donald Tusk's support for Ireland throughout the Brexit negotiations. It has been vital and one of the shining lights in Europe in this respect.
His efforts to uphold the Good Friday Agreement and protect the all-island economy have been constant. No doubt the past three years will be helpful to Mr. Tusk in his new role as president of the European People's Party, EPP, not least in deciding the fate of the Fidesz party's membership of the EPP. It is our hope that Fine Gael MEPs will continue to push for its expulsion. That would be an important signal at an opportune time that there is no place for Fidesz's far-right and fascist views.
The Taoiseach noted during his joint press conference last Friday with the incoming European Council President that Ireland's contribution to the EU's budget might increase by 60% in 2021. Has the Government provided for this expected increase in its own multi-annual budgets? Also during the Taoiseach's meeting with Mr. Charles Michel, they discussed the latter's views on the EU's foreign policy direction. Like the Commission President-in-waiting, Mr. Michel appears to be advocating for enhanced defence spending and capacity. We have great fears in that regard. Mr. Michel wants the EU to be more self-confident and to avoid becoming "collateral damage" in the US and China's fight for international influence. Is the Taoiseach concerned with this language and does it indicate a renewed drive by European leaders towards a more hawkish policy and increased spending on defence initiatives?
It is important to put on the record our appreciation for Mr. Donald Tusk as President of the European Council. When Fianna Fáil was in government, we found him to be a strong partner for Ireland during his time as Prime Minister of Poland. As Deputy Enda Kenny will confirm, we spoke in favour of the proposal that the previous Government support his appointment as President of the Council. He has been highly effective. Most importantly, he has spoken up in favour of common values in the face of governments either undermining them or being silent. On Brexit, he welcomed contact from all sides in Ireland and never ceased to make the central point that Brexit was bad for everyone. We wish his successor, Mr. Michel, well, but it is important to say that the agenda that he has set out so far is unclear in terms of where the urgency is and how he sees his role as the guardian of certain core values.
One of the most urgent tasks is undoubtedly to address core weaknesses in the monetary union. It was reported last week that Germany was considering dropping its objections to a eurozone deposit insurance scheme. The absence of such a scheme has been identified by every study of the financial crisis, and the great recession it caused, as a critical weakness within the eurozone. Is Ireland supporting renewed efforts to create a eurozone deposit insurance scheme?
Another identified weakness in the eurozone is the absence of a credible fiscal capacity. Unfortunately, Ireland has publicly aligned itself with the hardline stance of trying to prevent the creation of a eurozone fund large enough to make a difference in the early stages of recessions. Why is Ireland working against something that is so manifestly in the interests of the eurozone?
The immediate focus will be on the likely change in the EU's relationship with the United Kingdom. It is now inevitable that, one way or another, there will be a significant change in that relationship. While Mr. Michel was anxious to state that the EU was ready to negotiate a free trade agreement with the UK, it also wants to promote a level playing field. Has the Taoiseach a sense of how long such a free trade agreement would take to negotiate? There are many suggestions going around that much of this agreement could be done in a year, but international experience suggests that it will take a long time to negotiate, given that there are so many detailed chapters.
Does the Taoiseach know whether Mr. Michel is minded to support a common approach to social insurance throughout Europe? Many workers are on the move across borders and there are small protections in certain areas, for example, pensions. Should someone fall ill or become unemployed, however, there is little cross-EU social insurance protection. Various Commissioners have mentioned this as an objective. Fine Gael's EPP is dominant. Does it agree with the common protection of standards for workers throughout the EU who become unemployed, disabled or ill?
I wish to put on the record of the House my own and my party's appreciation for the understanding and solidarity we have received as a nation from the outgoing European Council President, Mr. Donald Tusk. The clarity of his utterances, sometimes regarded as less than absolutely diplomatic, were helpful during a period when issues of fundamental importance for this country were at play. He was opposed in his reappointment some time ago by his native Poland because of the clarity of his stance on the diminution of European standards. He has always been one who seeks to maintain the highest level of standards within the EU and our understanding of what it is to have European values.
My question relates to the Taoiseach's discussions with Mr. Michel, Mr. Tusk's successor, who will take up office on 1 December. The Taoiseach had discussions with him in Ireland and, presumably, Brussels. Does President-elect Michel have the same nuanced understanding of Ireland's Brexit concerns as his predecessor? Has the Taoiseach conveyed to him the complexity and importance of our position? Is the Taoiseach as confident of the same level of support and solidarity as we got from President Tusk?
Regarding concerns about the new policy of the UK to move further away from common standards in the EU, will it have an impact on the attitude towards completing a trade agreement in the timeframe as set out?
What action, if any, does the Taoiseach believe the EU should take in the face of the latest assault by the US-Israeli axis on the rights and lands of the Palestinian people? The decade-long assault on the Palestinian people by Israel has taken a worse turn since the coming to office of President Donald Trump, be it the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel through moving the US Embassy or the support for the obnoxious nation state law, which grants only Jewish people the right to self-determination and denies it to Palestinians. The latest nasty twist is the statement by US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, that the illegal settlements on Palestinian land by Israeli settlers are not really illegal at all, which backs up the Netanyahu plan for what is effectively the ethnic cleansing of Palestinian land, which is land designated under international law for a Palestinian state, and the extension of the apartheid policies whereby once that land is annexed by settlers, walls and fences are built around it to deny it to Palestinians forever. At what point will the EU stand up, do something about this and take meaningful action to vindicate the rights of the long-suffering Palestinians?
I thank the Deputies for their questions. Regarding the EU budget, which was the first item I was asked about, our contributions are going to increase over the next couple of years. They are linked to GNI, the size of our economy.
That is not what I asked.
I might get into it if Deputy Micheál Martin gives me more than ten or 20 seconds. I am sure somebody asked me about that. It is very difficult to write down the questions as quickly as they are asked, so my apologies if I picked up anyone's questions wrong. I was not able to write them all down, so I beg Deputies' forgiveness and forbearance for that. I was asked if it was factored in.
I do not even think the question was from Deputy Martin. I think somebody else asked it.
It was me.
Deputy Martin did not even ask the question. I am actually responding to Deputy Kenny, so perhaps we could have a little less irritability from him on this one. Deputy Kenny asked me about the EU budget and he is correct to say that the contributions will increase as our GNI increases over the next couple of years. That is factored into our multi-annual projections and is referenced in our summer economic statement, where we set out our rough projections as to where the budget will land, as it were, over the next couple of years.
On EU defence, Ireland is neutral and is not going to be joining any military alliances. We do not support the establishment of an EU army but we do recognise that many other countries do support that. Most EU countries are members of NATO and are integrated into that organisation. That is the realpolitik of the situation.
Is the Taoiseach concerned about that?
However, we do support the permanent structured co-operation, PESCO, to which we have signed up. This House voted by a very clear majority in favour of Ireland joining PESCO. That involves security co-operation and there is lots of scope for greater EU security co-operation. Operation Sophia, under which our navy participates in operations in the Mediterranean is one example, as is the EU Training Mission, EUTM, Mali. We see the possibility of our Defence Forces drawing down funds from any EU defence instrument, recognising that we are already involved in EU operations in places like the Mediterranean and Mali.
Deputy Martin's question was about the European deposit insurance scheme. He asked if we support it, which we do. We think it would be of benefit to savers and could make financial services more portable, available and affordable. However, we need to make sure that the proposal is right and is properly de-risked. We have concerns that there are banks and banking sectors in other parts of Europe that may not be as robust as ours, and we want to make sure that if we sign up to a European deposit insurance scheme, the banks covered are well regulated and stable. We do not want to find our taxpayers on the hook.
We have not ruled out supporting a eurozone fiscal instrument. We have reserved our position on it but again, the devil is in the detail. Ireland is a wealthy country and we have a budget surplus. If a eurozone fiscal instrument is established, we will be net contributors and are unlikely to have to use it. When we were in the position of relying on European aid, it was in the form of loans which we had to pay back with interest. It was not in the form of a fiscal instrument that is not repayable. It is all about the detail and we are open to considering proposals.
It is really about the principle of monetary union.
On the question of how long it will take to negotiate a future trade agreement between the EU and the UK, it is hard to know. Nobody can know for sure how long it would take to negotiate such an agreement. Of course, there is a difference between negotiating a future trade agreement and actually ratifying it. We may well be able to negotiate it in a short period of time, but it would have to be ratified by member state parliaments and possibly even some regional parliaments, which could take some time. If the new future trade agreement is very close to the status quo, it could be negotiated very quickly, but the more the UK chooses to diverge from the acquis and from the status quo, the longer it is going to take to negotiate an agreement. The negotiation is going to be all about the difference, so it is impossible to predict. It would be ambitious to have it done in 2020, but that is what we are going to try to do.
In terms of whether we are supportive of common protection for workers and people with disabilities across the EU, as a Government we have not seen any proposals on that from the Commission but we would have to have regard to what a common proposal would actually mean. During the discussions around the Gothenburg Declaration, I noted that the countries that were most suspicious of any common EU protection systems for workers, disabled people or the unemployed were the Nordic countries because they were concerned that it could result in a diminution of their welfare states. A common policy could mean some countries moving up while other countries move down. As a country with one of the highest weekly social welfare payment rates, one of the most generous carer's benefits means tests and one of the highest minimum wages in the European Union, we would want to ensure that any common European system for welfare or the minimum wage would not result in us reducing our rates or lowering our standards. There would have to be a minimum floor and that would be our approach to it.
What about the Palestinians?
Does the Taoiseach have anything to say in response to Deputy Boyd Barrett?
I have two more questions to answer and am happy to do so.
Is it agreed that we will take time from later slots? Agreed.
On the Israeli settlements in the West Bank and the Golan, the Government's position is, as it always has been, that we consider them to be illegal. We do not recognise Israel's attempt to annex any of the territories occupied in 1967 or thereafter. According to the current treaties, however, the EU can only act on foreign policy matters by unanimity. There is not a unanimous position in Europe on this but if we were to move towards qualified majority voting for foreign policy, that would enable the EU to act in way that it does not do at present.
The incoming President of the European Council, Mr. Charles Michel, has a very good understanding of Brexit. We have a very good personal relationship and have been working together closely for more than two years. He probably does not have as detailed an understanding of Brexit as Mr. Donald Tusk would have, because it has not been his main work, but he will be up to speed on it very quickly. Mr. Michel, apart from being like-minded on many issues, is Belgian and so understands the impact that Brexit can have on the economy. Belgium is next door to the UK just as we are and Mr. Michel has a good understanding of that. Being Belgian, he also has some interesting insights about Northern Ireland. Coming from a country that is a bi-national state with two languages and many devolved legislatures, he is very interested in, and has a good understanding of, some of the challenges that arise in that scenario.
7. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the launch of the first progress report on the Climate Action Plan 2019. [46413/19]
8. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the role of his Department in the context the Climate Action Plan 2019. [46443/19]
9. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will provide a progress report on the Climate Action Plan 2019. [46522/19]
10. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach the role his Department plays in the roll-out of the Climate Action Plan 2019. [46662/19]
11. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach to provide a progress report on the Climate Action Plan 2019. [47382/19]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 7 to 11, inclusive, together.
The Climate Action Plan 2019 was published on 17 June 2019. The plan contains 183 actions, broken down into 619 individual steps, which Ireland needs to implement to meet our EU 2030 targets and achieve our long-term low-carbon transition objective. Delivering such an integrated set of actions requires a deep level of collaboration across Government. The plan outlines significant new governance structures to ensure that climate policy is implemented. This includes the establishment of the climate action delivery board within my Department to hold each Department and public body accountable for the delivery of actions set out in the plan. A climate action unit has also been set up in my Department to assist the delivery board and the Cabinet committee on the environment to monitor and drive implementation of the plan.
There is a strong focus on accountability in the climate action plan, including a commitment to publish progress reports quarterly, the first of which was produced on 31 October. The first progress report shows that 85% of the actions due for delivery in quarter two and three of this year have been delivered, incorporating 149 measures across various sectors. Accountability for the delivery of the remaining 27 delayed items will be pursued in forthcoming quarters. Several key milestones have been delivered to date under the plan, including a new scheme for up to 1,200 on-street public charge points for electric vehicles, led by local authorities and funded by central government. We delivered a climate action focused budget, with a commitment to increase the price of carbon to €80 per tonne by 2030 and to ring-fence proceeds from the carbon tax for climate action and a just transition.
As already referenced, a climate action delivery board has been established, led by my Department. A retrofitting model task force has been established to deliver our new national retrofitting plan. We have accepted the advice of the Climate Change Advisory Council to ban all new oil exploration in Irish coastal waters. The first trams for capacity expansion on the Luas green line have been delivered. We have devised new requirements to ensure that all new homes are nearly zero energy building, NZEB, standard, and a new local authority climate action charter has been signed by 31 local authorities. We have made a commitment to a just transition plan with €31 million secured in budget 2020 for new actions under this plan. We have also devised new rules for public procurement, which will mean that €12 billion of State investment each year will now be invested sustainably.
I join others in welcoming last week's Youth Assembly on the issue of climate action. It was a very positive and constructive occasion. We should also acknowledge the ongoing work of Comhairle na nÓg and Dáil na nÓg, which this network convenes.
We should all value the fact there are so many young people out there - we meet them in our constituencies - who are willing to spend time on constructive and focused discussions regarding issues that are central to today and the future.
On the climate action plan, suspicions that the Government was primarily interested in rolling out a pre-election marketing effort rather than showing genuine urgency have unfortunately been proven correct. A party that formally abandoned ambitious climate plans eight years ago has made a deathbed conversion and is investing heavily in trying to convince people that it is paying attention. The plan was launched close enough to the election in order to have claims made about what is being done but without enough time to find out if this is yet another area, like housing, in respect of which there is a systematic failure on the part of Ministers to deliver on clear commitments. The obsessive party politics and manoeuvring and campaigning the Government is driven by were obvious recently with the visit of the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, and other Ministers to the midlands, during which he and Fine Gael candidates used official meetings to promote the just transition fund as if it was their own. I recall the Taoiseach arguing strongly against the idea of having a ring-fenced fund at all. The exclusion of Deputy Cowen, whose work and perseverance on the issue of a just transition fund is one of the key reasons it was created in the first instance, reflects badly on the Government and on its style and approach. This is a reminder that, throughout its time in office, there are examples of Fine Gael breaking all established principles on the barriers between public events and party activity.
I have asked the Taoiseach directly on a number of occasions about the climate action plans relating to the electric vehicles that will be on our roads by the end of the next decade. He has always brushed the issue off but a range of independent commentators have stated that if the target in this regard is to be met from next year onwards, we would have to have a situation where nearly every new car sold would at least be a plug-in hybrid. Can the Taoiseach tell us whether he has reviewed this criticism of the target relating to electric vehicles? Does he reject or accept the analysis that the target will not be met without some, as of yet unannounced, dramatic initiative? If the Taoiseach accepts the analysis, can he outline his proposals to deal with that issue? Nobody believes that it is a realistic or achievable target.
The Taoiseach referred to county councils earlier. In the context of climate change, does he share the views recently attributed to the Dublin City Council manager, Mr. Owen Keegan, that if he had his way, he would cut down all the trees on streets in Dublin that are traversed by buses. That would be a radical action in the context of our climate. What was stated shows how difficult it is, notwithstanding 300 to 500-point plans, to get real co-ordination and leadership in the context of institutions such as county councils.
I was among many who attended the Youth Assembly that took place here courtesy of the Ceann Comhairle. It was a good initiative. I was interested in the Taoiseach's comments praising the young people to the sky. The young people are practical. They want forests and trees to be planted, not cut down as suggested by the manager of Dublin City Council. They also want deciduous trees to be planted, not just Sitka spruce. Forests containing the latter species are subject to permanent darkness. The young people who attended the assembly also want action on public transport and, in particular, improvements in air quality, a matter in respect of which the Government has failed. The Government is still failing to take on the smoky coal merchants, ban what they are selling and give relief to towns such as Enniscorthy, in which the air is badly polluted. We know about the success of clean air policies in Dublin city and in all the other major cities. In the context of his comments on young people, what does the Taoiseach plan to do that will follow up on some of the heartfelt comments they made here last Friday? The Taoiseach praised them to the sky but did not mention any specifics.
Like others, I commend the Oireachtas and RTÉ on last week's Youth Assembly on climate action. There was some disappointment that RTÉ would not facilitate the participation of young people from the North, but it was an important event and the people who participated so fully did their communities proud. As the Taoiseach knows, the challenge of climate change is unlike anything we have faced before. As a small, wealthy and developed country in a union of 27 other wealthy countries, we have to act and think big in respect of this matter. The climate action plan is praiseworthy. Incorporating a quarterly review regarding its implementation is good practice but it is on the acknowledgement of the scale of the change and the integrity of the ambition that our children and grandchildren will judge us. The Government has indicated that it is phasing out oil exploration in Irish waters, yet we are bringing fracked gas from the US to Ireland. This smacks a little of hypocrisy. Many of the Government's listed achievements relate to low-hanging fruit such as new energy requirements and regulations for homes that have yet to be built, increased carbon taxes that have not changed behaviour and that will impoverish working families and a borderline obsession with electric vehicles. The reality is most people cannot afford electric vehicles because they are way too expensive. There needs to be a major review of how the initiative in this regard will work.
The Government is still viewing climate action through the prism of something for the individual to do rather than as a matter in respect of which society must take action. As my colleague, Deputy Cullinane, has stated, there is an assumption within this plan that small, individual actions alone will save the day. Earlier this month, the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Bruton, confirmed that the Government has no plans to expand the rail network outside the existing network, save for a paper review in respect of the western rail corridor. That review should have been carried out years ago. I have raised the western rail corridor several times with the Taoiseach. Will the Government reconsider the decision in this regard and look at rail again? The Taoiseach knows that rail has an important role to play in lowering carbon omissions. Similarly, the Government has refused to contemplate free public transport. It wants to keep people in cars while climate action demands that we get them onto public transport, particularly in urban areas, as quickly as possible.
One of the central demands of the young people who have led the fight for radical climate action is to keep fossil fuels in the ground. Scientists have indicated that we must keep 80% of known reserves in the ground if we are to have even a chance of not passing the tipping point as regards the climate overheating. The Government has tried to justify its decision to block People Before Profit's Planning and Development (Climate Measures) (Amendment) Bill 2019 by stating that gas is a transitional fuel. It has also used that rationale to justify promoting the liquid natural gas terminal at Shannon as one of the European projects of common interest. Does the Taoiseach have a comment on the fact that at the end of last week, the European Investment Bank, in contrast to the Government's approach to this matter, made a decision to stop financing all fossil fuel energy projects from 2021 including, importantly, those involving gas? It did so despite lobbying from a number of European Governments to the effect that a restriction on gas should not be imposed. The European Investment Bank is listening to the young people and the scientists and saying that we have to stop taking all fossil fuels out of the ground, stop exploring for them and stop building infrastructure, as the Government is proposing to do, to lock us into their use for years to come. Could the Government at least come up to the level of the European Investment Bank when it comes to seriously tackling climate change and fossil fuel use?
I join others in congratulating the Ceann Comhairle and RTÉ on facilitating real innovation in the form of the Youth Assembly on climate action, which has presented a challenge to all of us. The Ceann Comhairle wants to bring forward the conclusions of that assembly for action. The recently introduced climate action plan contains a target to retrofit 50,000 homes per year by 2021. This is essential, particularly when one considers that half of our housing stock was built before the energy efficiency regulations were introduced. Irish homes are emitting 104% more CO2 than the EU 27 average. At the same time, we are in a housing crisis. We need to do two things, namely, build new houses and retrofit the existing housing stock. We need people if we are to do both.
The problem is there is a skills shortage, particularly in the construction sector. In 2015, fewer than half the number of builders identified staff shortages as a problem, whereas now the figure is 86%. Last year, there were just 127 apprenticeships in bricklaying and stonemasonry, while only 30 people registered as plasterers. Has the Taoiseach a plan to address the growing skills shortage, which will make the achievement of our objectives of solving the housing crisis, retrofitting houses and addressing the energy crisis, impossible unless we act decisively?
I join Deputies in welcoming the youth climate assembly, which was held in the Chamber last Friday. I recognise, in particular, the Ceann Comhairle and the team around him for taking the initiative and making it possible. Around the world, especially on Fridays, students have protested outside parliaments, and I am sure they will continue to do so. It is good that we were the first parliament in the world to invite in young people and students to make the recommendations they did. They made ten recommendations in total, which I have read. They were received personally by the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Bruton, last Friday. The Government will examine them and respond to them in a reasoned and serious way. That will involve, no doubt, accepting some and implementing them, and it may involve not being able to accept others, particularly those that may not be in the competence of the Government, such as those that relate to international trade law.
One recommendation that struck me, and it was a learning for me, was in respect of refrigeration. One of the young people who attended pointed out we would never in our homes leave our fridge wide open. We have all been told since we were kids to close the fridge. We would never in our homes take the door off the fridge or leave the fridge wide open, yet we go into shops and supermarkets all the time and all we see is food on display in open fridges. That costs a great deal of money and involves a great deal of energy, which contributes to greenhouse gas emissions. That recommendation stuck out to me as an area in which, perhaps, we need to legislate to require businesses, shops and others to close fridges that are currently open.
On exploration, all I can say is what I have said before. Our policy is guided by scientific advice, specifically that of the Climate Action Advisory Council, which recommended we end exploration for oil but continue to explore for natural gas, as it is the cleanest fossil fuel part of the energy mix, probably until 2040-----
The European Investment Bank, EIB, however, does not believe that any more.
-----or 2050. The EIB is a great organisation but it is run by economists and bankers, not scientists. The Climate Action Advisory Council is run by scientists. The Deputy will be aware that the Paris accords do not say we should end exploration. We do not propose to fund a liquefied natural gas terminal at the River Shannon or anywhere else. It is very much a private sector project that may or may not ever happen. On the question of electric vehicles and hybrids, it has never been suggested that it is a straight-line trajectory target.
We know that.
What will probably happen with the purchase of electric vehicles and hybrids is there will be a tipping point-----
There is no evidential basis for that argument.
We will see an increase year on year and there will be an inflection point at some stage. That will happen as prices fall, and it is evident already that the cost of electric vehicles and hybrids is falling. People see more and more sense, as they change their car, in considering an electric vehicle-----
The plan is for 1 million electric vehicles.
-----or a hybrid.
What about the price?
In any given year, approximately 100,000 people buy a car or change their car. We could reach the point where more and more of those cars are hybrids or electric. Of course, there are also business vehicles-----
Every new car would have to be a hybrid from today.
-----which could be hybrids or electric. On the Dublin City Council manager's comments on trees, I assume he did not mean them. It was probably a little flippant or figurative but I cannot speak for him.
The Taoiseach disowns the comments in that case.
I cannot disown them because he is not my employee. The city council, as the Deputy will know, is controlled by Fianna Fáil, the Labour Party, the Green Party and the Social Democrats. They have an opportunity to disown him if they wish, censure him if they wish and, more importantly, if they wish, do the opposite of what he has proposed, by planting more trees rather than knocking them down, although I understand that thus far the commitment and agreement to plant more trees in Dublin has not been honoured.
It is significant that there is approximately 10% to 12% tree coverage in Ireland, which is the highest in 350 years, or at least that is what the science tells us, although it is still much lower than in other European countries. We have an ambitious plan to plant approximately 440 million trees over the course of the climate action plan and there is a great deal of money there to do that, and to incentivise landowners and farmers to do it. We need to work with them to find ways to encourage them to do it because it is hard to convince farmers and landowners to plant trees. In certain counties such as Leitrim, for very understandable reasons, people feel they have already taken their share and that more should be done in different parts of the country.
Air quality is an important issue on which we are very much working. We all need to recognise that it is about much more than smoky coal. Smoky coal is not an issue in this city, for example. The major cause for-----
It is an issue in Enniscorthy.
It is in Enniscorthy.
In this city, I said. The major cause for the air quality problem in Ireland is diesel cars, not smoky coal.
Smoky coal should be banned.
In Enniscorthy, for example, the problem is largely due to peat and briquettes-----
People who know Enniscorthy well will know that it has much more to do with peat and briquettes than with smoky coal.
The Government should ban coal in that case, if it means nothing.
If we were to ban smoky coal and people changed to peat or briquettes, it would make the air quality worse.
We banned it in Dublin and Cork.
We need to look at such matters-----
The Taoiseach announced he was going to ban it.
-----in the round. It is already open to local authorities to implement-----
The Taoiseach does not have the bottle to do it.
-----bans on a local basis if they wish to do so, subject to ministerial order. If the objective is better air quality, people shifting-----
Everybody knows that banning bituminous coal is important.
-----from coal to peat or briquettes will make the air quality worse.
No one is saying that.
We need to fess up to that. On climate action, I agree with the comments made by Deputies. It is not, and cannot be, just about individual action. It has to be Government led. Individual action cannot change our energy systems. Only governments can do that. We have announced we will take peat out of the system in 2023, much earlier than planned. Coal will come off the grid in 2025 and there is now major investment in renewables, rising from 30% now to 70% by the end of the decade. Individuals cannot do that.
What about apprenticeships for retrofitting?
It must be led by the Government, but businesses, too, have to act to take into account the rising cost of carbon and to change how they operate. Individuals can also make a contribution, which they want to do. People I meet want to make a contribution to reducing our emissions, and more and more people are doing that.
On rail electrification, we already have plans to electrify the railways to Drogheda, Maynooth and Kildare, and to build the MetroLink, which is an overground and underground electrified service. After that, we can certainly look at electrifying other elements of our rail network, but only so much can be done at any one time and it costs money to do such things. If we were to make public transport free, it is hard to see how we would find the money to invest also in the infrastructure.
I thank the Taoiseach-----
What about the question on apprenticeships?
I missed the question. I am sorry I did not get the chance to respond.
On the issue of apprenticeships if we are to retrofit houses, is there a strategy to provide the skills base? I outlined the numbers of apprenticeships in training, which are pathetic.
I will check it out but I know-----
It is a disgrace.
There are only 30 registered plasterers, 127 apprentices in stonemasonry-----
We need to move on. We are well over time.
To be fair, the answer is "No". The Government does not have a strategy.
We will now move to Question No. 12. The Taoiseach, please.
How many minutes remain?
Four minutes remain, which is just about enough time for the answer to the question.
In that case, there is no point in moving on.
Does the Deputy not want the answer?
I would like the answer to the question we have asked. Is the Taoiseach just going to give us an answer and not allow us to ask any supplementary questions?
The question to be asked is whether I will report on the latest meeting of the inner city forum, and I am happy to answer it.
We could do that tomorrow-----
We have only four minutes.
-----and the Taoiseach might elaborate on the questions he did not answer in the last round.
I am in the Deputies' hands.
We should do that.
Only four minutes remain.
We should continue on the second group of questions. Deputy Howlin deserves a comprehensive reply to his question.
That is fine with me.
Are we moving to Question No. 12?
Only three minutes remain.
The Deputies seek more details-----
On the second group of questions.
Will the Taoiseach address the apprenticeship part of the questions?
As I said to Deputies earlier, we have an apprenticeship strategy. There has been a considerable increase in funding for apprenticeships in recent years-----
There has not.
-----and a major increase in the number of people taking up apprenticeships in recent years. There are many new types of apprenticeships. I do not have the numbers in front of me but I will-----
There were 127 apprenticeships in bricklaying last year and 30 in plastering.
In fairness, if a question is to be asked about apprenticeships, it would need to be signalled in advance.
One would be forgiven for thinking the Deputies are not really interested in the answers.
In fairness, if 50,000 houses are to be retrofitted, there should be an analysis of who is going to do that work to determine whether the numbers are sufficient. If there are 27 apprentice plasterers, that is clearly not the case.
The figure is 127.
We cannot be divinely inspired.
I am sure the Deputy realises plasterers do not do retrofitting. It is a whole different thing.
Of course they do.
I do not think they do.
Of course they do.
They plaster walls after insulation.
Is it not a different apprenticeship?
The Taoiseach does not know-----
I promise to check it out for the Deputies.
The Taoiseach will revert to Members.
I think it is a different apprenticeship.