Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Tuesday, 21 Sep 2021

Vol. 1011 No. 3

Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

In June 2016, as a newly elected Deputy to this House, the first Bill that I brought forward sought to link rent reviews to inflation. In that year, rents across the State rose by an alarming 14% and in Dublin by 15%. Some families were being hit with rent increases in the order of 20%. Unable to pay, they were forced into homelessness and despite the growing crisis in the rental sector, the Tánaiste and his party colleagues voted down the legislation. Thanks to them, rents continued to spiral out of control. More families became homeless and working people were forced into real financial hardship. Those wanting to buy their own homes were unable to save for a deposit.

In response, the then Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, Deputy Simon Coveney, introduced rent pressure zones. We told him on the floor of this Chamber that that policy would not work. There were too many loopholes and it was impossible to police. We urged him instead to link rents with inflation. He ignored our advice and, in fact, on five separate occasions the Tánaiste and his colleagues in the previous Government voted against rent certainty measures introduced by Sinn Féin and others on the Opposition benches. What happened? In 2018, rents rose by up to 10%, in many cases in areas where the cap was 4%. The same happened in 2019 and every year since then rents have continued to rise. Thanks to Fine Gael and the previous Government, supported by Fianna Fáil, the average renter today is paying more than €4,000 more a year in rent than he or she would have done if the then Government had accepted our legislation.

By the end of 2019, it was clear that emergency measures were needed and rent certainty was no longer the appropriate response. It was time to ban rent increases. Again, when Sinn Féin brought forward legislation to halt runaway rents, the then Government opposed that too. The Government’s response at the time was that it would deter supply. Rents, however, continued to rise, yet landlords left the market in their droves. We have lost by net figures 20,000 rental properties in the past four years.

At the same time, we urged the Government to invest in large-scale affordable cost-rental accommodation. We were not the only people to do that. The Housing Agency urged the Government to do it, as did the National Economic and Social Council, which was a function of the then Taoiseach's office. Remarkably, not a single affordable home to rent or buy was delivered through any central government scheme in the lifetime of the previous Government. That was when the Tánaiste was Taoiseach.

Rising rents and falling supply are the Fine Gael way. As it was then, so it is now under this coalition.

Micheál Martin may be Taoiseach, but Fine Gael still dictates housing policy. The targets for affordable housing delivery in the new housing plan are embarrassingly low. Worse still, large landowners have been given an exemption on providing any affordable homes up to 2026. Any developer applying for planning permission for the remainder of the lifetime of this Government will not have to provide a single affordable home on his or her land. Meanwhile, the decision to link rents to inflation is too little, too late. We warned the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage about this some months ago. He ignored us. Inflation is running at 3% and economists are saying it will rise even further. Given the Government's abject failure in housing policy, my questions are very simple. Will it urgently introduce a ban on rent increases for three years? Will it support the Sinn Féin Bill being debated this evening to ensure that all private housing developments include a 10% affordable housing, as well as 10% social housing, for the remainder of its time in office?

Governments change policies as facts change. Sometimes policies change and in this case, we had a change of Government. It is a new, different Government, involving three parties, namely, my party, Fianna Fáil and the Green Party. Some of the policies of this Government are different to the ones of the past, as they should be. Among the reforms we made to help people who are renting is the introduction of a rent freeze in real terms. That means that rents can only increase by the rate of inflation or less, as measured by the harmonised index of consumer prices. The logic behind that is to protect renters to make sure that rents do not rise quicker than prices in general or incomes, which is important.

However, in doing so, we do have to strike a balance. The Deputy pointed out in his remarks that the number of rental properties in Ireland is falling. Landlords are leaving the rental markets. Bear in mind that 86% of those landlords, of whom I am not one, only own one or two properties. We need to balance that too . One person's rent is another person's income. It might be his or her pension or how he or she pays the mortgage. In a time of rising prices and interest rates - it has not come yet but it will - if you freeze rents to zero, that could mean an income or pension cut for another person or another person unable to pay the mortgage on that property, which is exactly the problem that the Deputy identified and could cause more landlords to leave and fewer rental properties on the market. The only solution to bring down rents, which should be the objective rather than just freezing them, is more supply. That is what we need and we need lots more of it.

I acknowledge it is the long-standing position of the Deputy and his party to link rents to inflation. They were for that before they were against it. Now they are against it. As is always the case, when something is done, it is never enough. The Deputy's party wants to do more; the consequences do not matter. We have done that now, however, rents are now frozen in real terms and that will make a real difference for people who have seen rent increases of 5%, 10% or 15% in the past, which they will not see any more. Everyone in this House should welcome that. It needs to be in place until we see a step change in supply, because that is what will allow rents to stabilise properly and, it is hoped, fall in the years ahead.

Cost rental is now a reality. The first homes are available under cost rental. Some were built on Enniskerry Road in Dún Laoghaire. There is a plan to do so on Emmet Road. There are also those that will be provided in north County Dublin. That came as a result of a decision taken by the former Minister, Eoghan Murphy, to pursue the cost-rental policy. The Deputy talked about it; we have done it. For the first time, those properties are available to people. We will need many more of them. It is new and is not something we have ever done in Ireland before, at least not by the Government, but we are very committed to it. Providing cost-rental properties can make a real difference and enable people to rent at rates much lower than commercial rates. It can also work well because, unlike social housing, the rent covers the cost of building the property. It can be done on a commercial basis and off balance sheet and in a way that does not affect the Exchequer or cause us to have to curtail spending in other areas.

As for Sinn Féin's Bill, the Government has decided today that it will not be opposing the Bill on Part V. That will allow it to go to pre-legislative scrutiny for further detailed legal and economic analysis. The reason we are not going to 20% right away is very sensible, in that the Housing Agency has advised us that if we go from 10% to 20% right away and with no transitional provision, the cost will be borne by the 80%.

It will put up the price of housing for people wanting to buy. That is the advice of the Housing Agency. As people who want to prioritise home ownership, we do not want to do anything that drives up house prices for people who want to buy their own homes. That is not the case for Sinn Féin.

The more I listen to the Taoiseach, or the Tánaiste - excuse me, it is so confusing trying to know who is who in this Government - the more I realise he actually does not understand it. He said the Government has introduced a rent freeze in real terms. When the legislation was introduced inflation was at 1.9%. It then rose to 2.2% and it is now at 3%. Today in the Irish Independent, economists are quoted as saying it is likely to pass 4%. If it goes past 4%, will the Government accept the error of its ways and introduce emergency legislation to protect renters? A rent freeze means no rent increases, not increases of 2%, 3%, 4% or 5%.

The Tánaiste also said that the Housing Agency advised the Government on the sweetheart land deal that is included in the housing plan. That is not true. I challenge the Tánaiste to publish the report the Housing Agency gave the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage because, in fact, it did not recommend any course of action. It was asked to outline a series of options and it did so. One of the options it wanted to include, which it was dissuaded from doing, was to have the exact same transitional arrangement as when Part V was originally introduced in 2000, whereby it moved immediately to 20% but the builder was compensated for the full market value of the land. It worked when it was introduced before and the Government should have done it now but of course when it comes to a choice between standing by working families looking to buy their homes and developers, the Government always takes the wrong choice.

I am advised that the Government made the decision on changes to Part V based on a detailed report from the Housing Agency, which recommended-----

So publish the report. Let people judge for themselves.

-----that some transitional provisions should be included but only for lands purchased while the obligation was at 10%. Land purchases before 2015 or after July 2021 will be at 20%. The Deputy supported that Bill at the time. He was for it before he was against it. It is a little bit like linking rents to inflation.

Too little, too late.

He was for that before he was against it.

Rents are rising too dramatically.

What happens is any time-----

What happens is renters suffer under your Government.

The Tánaiste did not interrupt Deputy Ó Broin.

The Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, need not be concerned. This is the regular pattern of Sinn Féin. The truth hurts. It really hurts.

Dishonesty on your part has to be corrected on the floor of the Dáil.

Any time anyone speaks the truth to your party, you interrupt, you get aggressive, you get nasty and you get personal-----

I am probably the least aggressive Deputy in this House, with the greatest of respect.

-----and that is one of the many reasons people should be very afraid of Sinn Féin in government. If members of Sinn Féin behave like this in opposition, imagine how they would behave in government.

By standing up for renters, bringing rents down and delivering affordable housing.

If anyone stood up to them, whether workers, business people, pensioners, homeowners or property owners-----

Those people tell the truth, Tánaiste - not like you.

-----they would be subject to this.

Deputy, it is not in order to accuse the Taoiseach - the Tánaiste - of telling untruths.

Even the Ceann Comhairle is confused by this Government.

Tánaiste, Taoiseach, it is all the same.

I call Deputy Alan Kelly.

Moving on from that sideshow, the cost of living is dramatically increasing and as the Tánaiste can appreciate, it is going to hit electricity and gas prices pretty hard. This will also have major consequences for renters and on food prices. In August, inflation hit a three-year high of 3%, which is the highest it has been since 2008, and according to all economists it is only going in one direction. The Government is genuinely facing a winter of discontent unless it acts on these issues, which affect people's everyday lives and living standards. Those renting will face more unsustainable rises because the Government refuses to put in place a rent freeze.

We know that in housing there are supply disruptions because of Brexit, Covid-19 and unreal construction material price inflation, which is having a massive impact. Contractors are pulling out of housing projects and other projects all around the country. I am sure other Deputies have heard that as well. People living on fixed incomes and social welfare payments who rely on gas and electricity to heat their homes face a very worrying winter.

Social welfare rates-----


Is it ever going to stop, a Cheann Comhairle? Every single day - are you ever going to do anything about mobile phones?

Are you doing a Roy Keane on it now?

It is just continuous.

They will not ring you anyway.

That is your answer. You want to remove-----

Please, Deputy.

-----doing anything for anyone. You are only here yapping. If you minded your own business, you would be a great man.

The two caricatures again. Enough.

Social welfare rates have not increased for two years and tens of thousands of people are out of work. We have multiple warnings about electricity blackouts due to rising demand from data centres and two gas plants are closed for maintenance. As the Tánaiste is aware, we recently had amber alerts in this area. Gas prices are soaring across Europe and we are worried about investment opportunities now, particularly the Intel issue. While the fuel allowance payment starts next week, the increase from last year has already been eaten up due to inflation. We all know the fuel allowance will rise again in the budget but it is a means-tested payment. Energy suppliers have been rapidly increasing their prices in recent weeks. Energia's latest increases were of 15.7% for electricity and 18.5% for gas. Many families are worried about these price increases and how to heat their homes. If there is a cold snap this winter, will the Government guarantee that we will have enough gas supply to keep the lights on and the radiators warm? What will the Government do to control prices? Will it freeze rents now? How will it protect vulnerable households at risk of increased bills, particularly when it comes to utilities? For those who do not qualify, will the Government commit to broadening the means test of the fuel allowance, a step which would be welcomed across this House?

The Deputy is absolutely correct in his initial remarks. The cost of living is rising and everyone can see that. We see it in the forecourts, the supermarkets and when people fill their oil tank for the winter. The cost of 1,000 l of home heating oil was €450 this time last year. It is €750 now; up to the level it was in 2019. We are seeing a return to inflation, a matter I spoke about months ago and which people were dismissive of at the time. It is now very much a reality. It is hurting families, consumers and businesses. It is a feature of two major international factors. Nobody in this House, this Government or this country controls the price of oil or gas. It is rising due to international reasons as demand outstrips supply. It is also down to the policies of central banks lending money at 0%. Quantitative easing is something which some people in this House believe should continue forever. Of course, when central banks print €9 billion or $9 billion, items that cannot be printed go up in price and that includes property and commodities. Part of the reason for this is due to the policy of central banks printing money and lending money at 0%. It was the right thing to do during the pandemic crisis but it will need to be reined in. Otherwise we will continue to see inflation rise unless there is a change in that regard. We will see central banks tightening monetary policy next year precisely because we need to restore price stability and for no other reason.

In terms of what the Government can do, there will need to be a welfare package in the next budget. There is broad agreement on that but not on its composition as of yet. That still needs to be worked out. There will need to be a welfare package in the budget because people on pensions and on social welfare will end up worse off unless there is an increase this year. That will need to be done. We will need to do something about the fuel allowance. We have committed to ring-fencing some proceeds from the carbon tax in order to increase the fuel allowance, which we will do. The fuel allowance kicks in from next week. We will give consideration to amending the means test. However, all these things come at a cost and we will have to get that right. We will need pay increases. Pay increases are happening across the economy and they are necessary. We will also need a tax package to make sure that those who get a pay increase do not lose most of it in income tax, universal social charge and PRSI. That is why we have committed to the indexation of tax credits and tax bands. I hope the parties opposite will support that.

On electricity supply, we have had a number of briefings, meetings and consultations about this. There is a concern about supply being tight this winter and even more so next winter but contingency plans are being put in place to avoid that.

We are confident that even in a very cold winter, when it is calm and the wind is not blowing and we have to produce our electricity from oil, gas and coal or import it from elsewhere, we will not see brownouts or blackouts. We are doing everything to ensure that does not arise.

Respectfully, the Tánaiste was being open enough but I did not get much comfort from his answer. In the context of our energy supplies, brownouts and blackouts, what contingency plans are being put in place? I understand this is a real fear, particularly if we have a very harsh winter. We cannot predict anything with climate change. Can the Tánaiste confirm to the House whether EirGrid has issued a number of stop requests to heavy industries in the past few weeks, perhaps numbering more in that period than in the whole of last year put together? If this is the case now, then we are facing into big problems. What are the contingency plans for this?

I respect what the Tánaiste said in regard to the fuel allowance but we will see how it is widened out. I want to raise a particular issue. If gas and electricity prices soar this winter, in the light of what he and I have just outlined, will the Government use the opportunity to make maximum price orders under the Consumer Protection Act to ensure consumers will still able to afford to heat their homes and have electricity in them? Such orders have been used in the past. Will the Tánaiste consider using them if that is the scenario this year?

I do not have data on stop requests but I will find out the position. I am interested to know myself. I will find out and pass the information on to the Deputy.

We are not going to rule out using maximum price orders, but I am conscious of what has happened in the UK. One can impose a maximum price order on the electricity or fuel retailer but the latter still needs to get the fuel from somewhere else. Retailers still have to pay the international wholesale price. If the fuel retailer buys a barrel of oil or canister of gas for a certain amount and we have a price that is lower than that amount, what happens then? The company goes bust. In the UK, where there is a system of maximum price orders, we are now seeing energy companies going bust, because they are not able to offer energy at that price, and looking for a bailout from the state. That is not necessarily an example to follow but it is certainly not something we will rule out. That is the problem with a maximum price order - ultimately, it is the wholesale international price of oil and coal gas that determines what consumers have to pay.

Aer Lingus asked its cabin crew to accept a four-year pay freeze, new yellow-pack starting rates and cuts to both sick pay and duty allowances. Staff are being told: "Go back in the sky, wear a sunny smile and put your lipstick on, but do not forgot the hair shirt." To the credit of the workers, they voted by 80%-plus to reject that package. The company has now threatened these mainly women workers with a unilateral imposition of even more draconian terms, including temporary lay-offs for senior staff and freezing the pay of those senior staff at 60% of what it was previously. Similar retaliation is expected against ground staff should the result of their ballot, expected tonight, also be a "No".

What kind of message does it send to the country if front-line workers who kept this country connected through 18 months of a pandemic are allowed to be treated in this way? What does it say about the Government if it allows that? The State pays a large share of this company's wage bill through the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS. The State provided Aer Lingus with €150 million in debt funding in February through the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund. Is the Government prepared to use the leverage this provides it with to protect these workers from such abuse? If not, why not?

The airline industry was hit hard by the pandemic but Aer Lingus had €900 million in reserve when it began. The tide is now starting to turn in aviation. Last week, Michael O'Leary said that Ryanair flew 67% of its normal passenger numbers in August and forecast a dramatic increase in holiday tourism next year. Airlines will seek to make up for lost profits in a post-pandemic world and this can come not merely at the expense of their workers but also that of less profitable routes.

Can the Tánaiste guarantee that Aer Lingus will continue to provide the level of connectivity the Irish people need and deserve? Are the 23 Heathrow slots guaranteed? The US is opening up in November. Shannon Airport remains closed. Will all the routes from Ireland to US cities be restarted and guaranteed into the future? I do not think the Tánaiste can guarantee that they will be. An airline which shows such lack of loyalty to its staff cannot be relied upon to show loyalty to the country either. Aer Lingus's bottom line is to serve the interests of shareholders not the interests of the Irish people. For this reason, I support the renationalisation of Aer Lingus. The Aer Lingus unions should support and campaign for this position too. Where does the Government stand on that issue and, crucially, where does it stand on the rights of workers in a company so heavily subsidised by this State?

As we all know, aviation is one of the sectors worst affected by the pandemic. Many airlines have experienced a severe drop in revenue and are facing degrees of financial challenge. The aviation recovery in Ireland has been much slower than in other states. We are back to about 50% of where we were. As the Deputy outlined, Ryanair, which operates all across Europe, points out that the rest of Europe is about 70% back to where it was. Aer Lingus in particular has been affected to a larger extent than other airlines due to its reliance on the slow-recovering Irish market and the transatlantic market. Data show that the Irish aviation market is experiencing a slower recovery than the majority of its European counterparts. In addition, Aer Lingus's transatlantic network has yet to recover to any great extent due to the travel restrictions that remain in place in the United States.

The announcement made by the US Government that it is going to lift travel restrictions for fully vaccinated travellers from Ireland, the UK and the rest of Europe in November is therefore a very welcome development and should help us to begin the recovery in transatlantic services. It will be very welcome for families, many of whom have not seen friends and relations in the United States for a long time, and for business too because there is so much trade between the United States and Ireland and so many people have not been able to visit their businesses or co-workers.

On the industrial relations matters the Deputy raises, he will be aware that these are matters for the company, Aer Lingus, and its respective trade unions. Both the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, and the Labour Court, which are Government offices under the aegis of my Department, are available to assist if called upon. We want to make clear to the company and to the unions that the WRC and the Labour Court are available should their services be needed and should Government intervention be warranted.

In terms of the Deputy's question on connectivity, nobody can give him any guarantees on that. It is quite simple: connectivity happens when a route is viable, when the cost of running the aeroplane is matched by the fares that passengers pay. What we need to do now is to make flights viable in order that we can have connectivity. The Government will help with this. We are working on a package of financial support for airlines and airports to encourage them to restore those routes. We need to do what other governments across Europe are doing to make sure that the aeroplanes that are flying again are flying in and out of Ireland and that we restore that connectivity. Fundamentally, a route is only viable if the cost of running it is matched by the fares that come in. One needs to have fares coming in and one needs to keep costs under control.

"There's class warfare, all right, but it's my class...that's making war, and we're winning." They are not the words of a socialist or trade union militant but those of American billionaire, Warren Buffet. They are words that are very relevant in this case. In 2019, IAG made an operating profit of more than €2.5 billion, more than four times the temporary Aer Lingus losses. Meanwhile, workers with families have to fork out rents greater than their pandemic wage and rely on parents to help finance their weekly food shop. Workers need to get organised to protect their interests. Any worker who wants help in getting organised in this instance can contact my office and we will do our best. The revival of air traffic gives workers increased leverage and some potential power. So too does the fact that the Taoiseach and the Ministers – Deputies Coveney, Michael McGrath and Darragh O'Brien – represent airport constituencies. It is time for workers to pile the pressure on these politicians who are subsidising a company while it wages a war on its own workforce.

I thank the Deputy. The only person who is interested in class warfare in this House is probably him and maybe some of the colleagues around him, and he is interested in it because he hopes to benefit from it politically and electorally, and that is his choice. What we are interested in on this side of the House is saving businesses and saving jobs and that includes Aer Lingus. That is why we have done what we have done. The subsidy the Deputy referred to, the employment wage subsidy scheme, is helping to keep people in their jobs. There are people in the Deputy’s constituency in Cork who would have been laid off for the last couple of weeks were it not for the Government's wage subsidy scheme ensuring they could be kept on the payroll. That is why we are providing funding to airports like Shannon, Cork and Dublin to help them get through this period. That is why we brought in things like the digital Covid certificate to enable people to travel again. We are absolutely committed to getting aviation going again. It can be done but it needs people working together; it does not need warfare.

We are truly in an energy crisis. Families face paying €400 more for their electricity and heat this winter, according to analysis carried out by Charlie Weston of the Irish Independent. It is quite obvious, and Deputy Kelly raised it earlier. The crisis deepened last week when Energia announced a third rise for 200,000 residential customers. The crisis must be addressed in the forthcoming budget, not only for households but for everybody who travels to work or school or for business and industry.

I am mainly concerned today about the cost of living for people trying to heat and light their homes. The budget must take cognisance of this. Last year's budget included a carbon increase for the next nine years, until 2030, that we cannot even discuss, debate or vote on here. Something has to happen to help these hard-pressed people. It is crucial to introduce measures that will ease the burden on families because of rising energy costs. Across Europe, governments are implementing energy tax cuts and subsidies to support their citizens. Thus far in Ireland, however, the Government has buried its head in the sand. Globally, gas prices are rising to record levels due to higher demand caused by the economic recovery and the Covid epidemic. Some 60% of the energy used in this country still comes from fossil fuels. Thus far this year, there have been 25 different electricity price hikes across a number of companies. Different electricity and gas prices increases have been announced by 14 different providers yet there has been absolutely no response. Where is the energy regulator and where are the Government and the Minister with responsibility for energy?

The impact will only become truly apparent with the cold weather, the long evenings and the lack of sunshine. We are lucky at the moment with the pleasant weather. Last week, Energia announced that electricity prices are to go up by almost 16% next month, with a rise of 18.5% in gas prices. The company's three electricity price increases this year will add an extra €450 to a household's costs. Energia has blamed surging costs in global energy markets. A number of energy providers in this market have announced four price increases this year, with larger providers expected to raise prices again. This means some families will face up to €500 extra just for energy alone, to keep the lights on and keep warm. Daragh Cassidy of price comparison website Bonkers.ie said that various price announcements would mean an average increase of €400 in energy bills this winter.

It is truly shocking. The Tánaiste acknowledged this and said some time ago that the Government knew inflation was coming, but how is it going to deal with it? Efforts must be made in the budget for people on social welfare, old-age pensioners, carers and all households that are suffering from fuel poverty, which they will be as they are pushed into this. The Government must take swift action. Price increases of this magnitude and frequency are totally unsustainable. It is creeping up. We can see it when we pass by the pumps and we see the price of energy. Something has to happen. The regulator must be asked or someone should prod him to wake up. This cannot be allowed.

I thank the Deputy. He is absolutely right. We have all seen it in the past couple of weeks, with the prices ticking up at the forecourts and going up every other day. We see it in the cost of home heating oil. As I mentioned earlier, it was €450 to fill a tank this time last year and it is closer to €700 now. We see it, of course, in the rising price of electricity.

We also all understand in this House that when it comes to fuel prices, we, as a nation, are price takers.

It is governed by the international price of a barrel of oil, gas or coal, and we are price-takers in that regard. What we can do is provide a welfare package in the budget helping those on fixed incomes, take action on the fuel allowance, provide for pay increases where they can be afforded - it is important that they happen - and also provide a tax package to make sure people retain those pay increases and do not lose most of them in USC, income tax and PRSI.

In terms of regulation, of course the regulator has a role to play but it cannot reduce the price of oil on the international markets or the price of gas coming from Russia. If those prices go up, prices go up here. That shows the long-term challenge we face in moving away from oil and gas to renewable fuels, the price of which can be much more steady, or at least we expect it will be.

As I mentioned, gas prices have now been rising steadily since March 2021 for a variety of international and geopolitical reasons and are currently unreasonably high, putting upward pressure on wholesale electricity prices. This is not only affecting Ireland; it is affecting other EU member states. It will be discussed at this week's meeting of European energy ministers in Slovenia. The Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, is there at present.

It should be emphasised, however, that international wholesale energy prices are not expected to stay at this high level indefinitely. Mindful of this, the Government provides extensive supports for households in terms of energy costs via welfare schemes. For example, there are specific schemes aimed at those at risk of energy poverty, including the household benefits package and the fuel allowance. A review of the implementation of the strategy to combat energy poverty will be completed this year. Alleviating energy poverty will be a key consideration for the national retrofit framework, which will also be published later this year.

The living alone allowance was increased in budget 2021. This is a very important allowance helping people who are living alone who often have to bear, on their own, the cost of heating an entire house. Ministers are considering the possibility of a further increase in the budget. When it comes to the carbon tax, it is important to bear in mind that the proceeds of any increase in the carbon tax will be ring-fenced for climate action, to protect those most exposed to higher fuel and energy costs, to support a just transition for displaced workers and to invest in climate action.

Someone needs to expose the farce that is going on with the ring-fencing of carbon tax money. It is not happening. The Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, has a waiting list of two and a half years.

In Spain, electricity taxes are being cut temporarily and windfall grants for energy are being supported. Italy has injected €1.2 billion into its energy system to reduce bills. In Greece, the government is planning to offer energy subsidies to the majority of households and the French Government is considering extending energy grants to households. Astonishingly, in Ireland, the Department for the Environment, Climate and Communications has failed to outline any plans. This is shocking. The VAT rate must be cut in the budget, as it was for hospitality, from 13.5% to 5% at most. We must deal with this now. There is no point in saying what might happen or live, horse, and you will get grass. Hauliers, agricultural contractors, those using public transport, ordinary people going to work and people who propose to work from home and must heat their houses for longer and use energy are in the crisis now. We have time to deal with it in advance of the budget.

The Rural Independent Group has put forward proposals for a budget package. We must deal with this crisis. The Tánaiste said it will not last. It has lasted long enough and is happening now. There are incremental increases in prices and elderly people, widows and people who are ill are frozen in their homes. It is not good enough. We must deal with this now.

I thank the Deputy. We would be genuinely happy to consider any proposals the Rural Independent Group has for the forthcoming budget. To be clear, these high energy prices will last, unfortunately. We do not know for how long but it could be six months or longer and that is during the winter period when energy demand is at its highest.

In relation to energy efficiency, which the Deputy mentioned, the budget for the SEAI's residential and community retrofit programmes was increased to more than €109 million in 2021 from only €47 million the year before. I acknowledge there is a waiting list but the budget has more than doubled. That will help us get a lot more done.