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Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Thursday, 31 Mar 2022

Vol. 1020 No. 4

Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation

We have been in the grip of a housing crisis for several years. Prices have skyrocketed and they continue to rise. Rents have spiralled out of control and show no sign of reducing. Workers and families are struggling to secure affordable accommodation.

On Tuesday, a memo was brought to the Cabinet, which the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, attended, setting out that a new pension auto-enrolment scheme will be needed so that future pensioners can afford to pay rent as they are going to continue to be locked out of home ownership. This is an admission that the Government's Housing for All strategy is failing. Yesterday, we heard from the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage that 35,000 additional homes will be required to meet provision for the Ukrainian refugees. Another Minister has revealed plans to build a tent settlement in County Meath to provide accommodation. How is all of this to be delivered? Does the Government propose to revamp its current plan in light of the urgent need for additional accommodation? How will it deliver on any future plan given all of its existing plans are dramatically failing?

As I said in response to an earlier question, the Housing for All strategy is the right strategy in light of what we will need to do because of the refugee crisis, but we will need to accelerate some of the measures. We cannot make home ownership an impossible ambition for people in our country, particularly in areas such as my own constituency, where houses are probably the most expensive in the country. I want to see my children grow up in the same area where I grew up. It is an area we know and is our home. That does not preclude the need for cost rental housing. It does not lessen the need for the shift to new innovative ways of doing housing. The Housing for All strategy does that, but as I said earlier, the emergency we face in terms of the refugee issue is going to force us to accelerate some of its measures. They are the right measures; we just need to deliver them quicker.

The Minister mentioned that he met the energy regulator last week. That is welcome.

I encourage the Minister to meet representatives of the regulator - the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, CRU - again to suggest the regulator does what is being done in the UK where demands have been made of energy suppliers to put every customer on the beneficial packages available to a new customer. The Labour Party introduced legislation in December 2020 to ensure no existing customer is left at a disadvantage because of new offers available for new customers. That is what is happening in the UK. Will the Minister meet the CRU again in the coming days and impress on it the necessity for every energy customer to be able to avail of those beneficial packages available to new customers? That is a simple request. It is an achievable win for the Government. We would support the Government in that regard.

I will meet representatives of the CRU again. When I met them last week, we considered every available option. I will ask them to include that as one of the options. I will ask them to look at what is being done in the UK and consider if it would be of benefit here. It is best to get their precise advice about any unintended consequences that may arise. I will ask them to consider that option when I meet them again on this matter.

I do not think the Minister gets it. I do not think he quite understands the impact that this fuel and energy crisis is having on individuals. A man contacted my constituency office this week. He is a cancer survivor and has diabetes. He made the choice to pay his electricity bill rather than buy the food he needed. He ended up in hospital as a result of a hypoglycaemic attack. That is what people in our country are facing.

Rather than the Minister talking to the CRU and asking it to consider measures that are already successful in the UK, I ask the Minister to use his powers under the Electricity Regulation Act to direct the CRU to bring in this short-term measure. We need direct action now. We do not have the luxury of spending weeks and months in discussion. The time to take action is now. I ask the Minister to direct the CRU to do that.

I absolutely understand the nature of the crisis and the risk of further difficulties if these problems extend. As I said, we saw prices were rising last year and we started to respond. The expectation was that those prices would start to come down this year but that is not looking likely. We are going to have to manage. We must change the timelines and think about how we do things in a more radical way. When I met representatives of the CRU last week, they were absolutely open to looking at every option. That is also true of my Department.

The regulator needs 60% more staff than it has at the moment.

The way things work, particularly where there are complicated markets, is that we listen and take the partnership approach I mentioned earlier. It is important to listen to different voices, including those of the Opposition. That is why I told Deputy Ó Ríordáin we would include his suggestion on the list of things to consider. Doing things by fiat and demanding that organisations do this or that does not work as well as listening and working with the experts.

We do not have time.

We are all working in the public interest and paid for from the public purse. None of us have anything to gain other than getting what is best for the Irish people. We must listen to what the CRU has to say as well.

Last night, the Green Party held the casting votes on whether to hold a referendum to enshrine neutrality in the Irish Constitution. Shamefully, its members voted with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael to block that referendum. In doing so, they voted against the long-standing position of the Green Party and the position for which the Minister voted in 2003, 2016 and 2018.

Later that evening, it emerged that the Tánaiste, and future Taoiseach, Deputy Varadkar, had told the Fine Gael Parliamentary Party that Ireland should drop the so-called triple lock and participate in European defence co-operation, that is, European militarisation. That is contrary not only to Green Party policy, about which the Minister seems not to care at all, but even to what is in the programme for Government. Where is the Minister going to draw the line? Will he be opposing the dropping of the triple lock mechanism or will he be going along with this process of militarisation?

Programmes for Government are important in that they offer guidance. The guidance in this case is very clear. The programme for Government states that we "will not participate in projects that are incompatible with our policy of active military neutrality and non-membership of military alliances". It also states that we "will ensure that all overseas operations ... will be subject to a triple lock of UN, Government and Dáil Éireann approval". I stand by that and that is what this Government will follow. It is important at this time more than ever. I believe that requiring UN approval is central. This war, more than anything else, is about the rights of nation states within the United Nations under that rules system to which we all adhere. Insisting on UN approval as part of the triple lock system, as well as the approval of the Government and the Dáil, is a way to stand up for the most important principle of the United Nations multilateral peace-based system. That is what the programme for Government states. I am proud that the Green Party and its colleagues in government stitched that stipulation into the programme for Government. We stand by it today and will do so again tomorrow.

We have spent €11 million in Rosslare Europort on a state-of-the-art facility to house our regulatory agencies. It is a facility that caters for approximately 20% of the throughput of traffic in Rosslare Europort. We have spent €11 million of the taxpayers' money but it is not being used with efficiency. Trucks are parked outside residents' homes and blocking them in, which means carers are unable to attend to their clients. The drivers are urinating and defecating on the grass because nobody has thought to cater for them as they wait for ships to come in. I have been asking questions of the agencies for the past six months. I held a meeting and brought all the stakeholders together to no avail. Six months later, nobody has instructed the Office of Public Works, OPW, to install tarmac to allow these trucks to park safely, despite €11 million of taxpayers' money having been spent. I call on the Minister to do that.

Will the Deputy send me the relevant details? It is hard to answer without them. I am very familiar with the developments at Rosslare Europort. The port has risen to the demands that have arisen because of Brexit. There will be more demands of it relating to the development of offshore energy generation. There is a big future for Rosslare Europort. I have every confidence in the ability of Iarnród Éireann and the management of the port to deliver. If there are specific issues around the OPW facilities, I ask the Deputy to send the details to the Department and I will follow up on them.

The Department has had those details for the past six months.

I am sure, having been elected to this House, that the Minister's commitment is to serving the people. He has been talking about what is in the programme for Government. What about the promise he made to look after the people? It was announced yesterday that ESB prices are going to go up by between 23% and 25%. The Minister is blaming the war. Please be honest with the people. These prices were spinning out of control anyway. We introduced a motion to address that last October before there was any mention of a war. I call on the Minister to be honest with the people. There was a 24-month delay on the warmer homes scheme before the pandemic. That delay has now extended to three years, if the scheme will happen at all. The Minister is playing a mind game with people who are freezing and getting sick. They cannot afford the ESB charges or the cost of fuel. The Government is also going to persist with a carbon tax on top of that. I call on the Minister to get real and honour his commitment to serve the people. We are Teachtaí Dála. We must look after the people. We do not have to look after global interests or the interests of anyone else. We do not need the Minister to be reading out triple lock agreements that are stitched into the programme for Government. Look after na daoine, the people. They are crying out for help.

The way to serve the Irish people and Irish interests on this occasion is through a radical transformation whereby we use our own energy. We need to turn what we have in abundance-----

The Government has sold the bogs.

May I be allowed to finish my point? We have an abundance of renewable power. Our sea area is seven times that of our land area. We are probably the windiest country in the world.

With the land mass we have, we can, in our farming communities, through biomass and solar energy, turn to our own power.

Let the Minister answer.

We will never be held to ransom. That power supply is the cheapest power supply available to us today. The best way we can serve the Irish people at this time is to turn to our national resources. The founding ambition of this State in the Proclamation was to rely on ourselves, to be strong in using and managing our own natural resources. That is what we are doing.

The Government has abandoned the people.

I recently received an answer to a parliamentary question from the Department of Social Protection that stated the Government intends to complete a review of the rural social scheme, RSS, later in 2022. I am sure the Minister will agree that the benefits that schemes such as the RSS have had on rural communities across this country have been immense, especially from a community and social perspective. I see this again and again in Donegal in community organisations that depend on this work to deliver for their communities. The lack of value placed on these workers by the Government is evidenced by their pay and employment conditions, and the lack of pension provision for supervisors of these schemes. That was recently recognised in the case of community employment scheme supervisors. Does the Government intend to address the pay conditions and pensions of RSS and Tús scheme supervisors under the promised review?

I am not aware of those pension arrangements so I would appreciate it if the Deputy would send them to me and I will pass them on to the relevant Minister. We will try to get a response as quickly as possible.

I wish to return to the electricity price increases. Does the Minister recognise that there are two issues here? The first is the immediate provision of electricity from our own resources, and the second is the long-term reduction of dependency throughout Europe on imports from Russia and similar places.

I agree with the Deputy. This situation is still evolving. We saw last week and in recent days the uncertainty as to whether those gas and oil supplies would continue to flow. That changes by the day. The market price is shooting up and down in a volatile manner. One thing the Taoiseach has said right from the start in this crisis, and I think he is right, is that we will act in solidarity in the European Union. That gives us our greatest strength and we should not divide. It is very important that we have international co-operation at this moment in time and that we try to share and manage not just the refugee crisis but the energy implications of it. The Deputy's first point is also valid and goes back to what I said to Deputy Mattie McGrath. This will steer us to the big long-term change of relying on our own power supply, which is something we can and will do. We have the right plans in our climate action plan and energy plans so we now need to deliver them.

SUVs represented 59% of passenger vehicle sales in January and February, which is up from 53% in the same period last year. There were very positive changes in the VRT system two years ago. That system is working to some extent but not as well as we need it to work and the trend is now towards increased SUV sales. It is a matter of physics that SUVs are energy inefficient, whether they are petrol, diesel, or electric. If we are to meet our climate commitments, we have to curb sales of SUVs and fossil fuel vehicles drastically. There are safety reasons for doing so as well. These vehicles are linked with increased pedestrian and cyclist fatalities and injuries. The incremental approach is not working. We need to radically curb sales of these vehicles.

I agree with the various points the Deputy made. I would add one further reason we need to shift the share of this type or model of car. It is related to this energy price issue. Energy is one of the biggest components in the price of steel and the price of steel is going to go up because of this energy price crisis. A vehicle like an SUV, by definition, is probably twice the weight of a smaller car. The cost of that steel alone, regardless of what we do in terms of the forecourt, will, I hope, be an increasing factor in making the case for moving towards lighter vehicles.

Serious concerns have been raised by trade unions and other stakeholders about the right to request remote working Bill. They have argued that the Bill heavily favours the employer in that there are excessive grounds under which an employer may refuse a request from an employee to work remotely. This renders the Bill ineffective from an employee's perspective. Are any of these concerns being taken into account? I ask the Minister to outline when this Bill will be brought before the House.

I am told work is ongoing on that issue. It is important we get that Bill to the House because it is critical. We are seeing that there is still a lot of remote working going on, and I am sure that is reflected in the Deputy's own experience. That is of real benefit but how we organise it and work in this partnership approach to get it right is critical. I will pass on to the Tánaiste the Deputy's request to accelerate the Bill as quickly as possible.

I raise the crisis in childcare, which is forcing women in Kilcock, Maynooth and Celbridge out of the workforce because they cannot find affordable childcare. Mothers, and their own mothers, have contacted me about this issue. This was the generation that was promised they could have it all. They are not looking for it all; all they are looking for is affordable and local childcare so they do not have to spend all day in the car. In Kilcock there is a preschool, Kidz@Play, that is frantic because it cannot find an affordable premises for its growing numbers. Parents too are frantic about this. These problems exist in early learning centres all across the State and I do not see anything in promised legislation that will address this issue. We are going to have a lot more numbers needing childcare now due to the women and children coming from Ukraine and women wanting to go back to work. I do not see anything in promised legislation about how the Government is going to deal with this.

As I said in response to the earlier question from Deputy Bacik, the key issue here will be around budget time. Legislation may be required if we are to strengthen the sort of State agency I was talking about. That may need legislative support but, critically, that is part of the budget process. We should be clear; the budget process effectively starts now. It is a six-month to eight-month run-in. The way the European budgetary process, and the Dáil process, works is that the Committee on Budgetary Oversight and other relevant committees are part of those deliberations. These decisions are not just made on a day in October. A lot of consideration is given in advance to both the legislation and the budgetary aspects.

Last Friday, the European Council took the decision to reduce our dependence on Russian gas and to address high energy costs. As natural gas is such a key element of electricity generation here in Ireland, that decision has the potential to reduce costs here. However, we have no way of storing natural gas in the short term. We cannot capitalise on this Council decision, even though we have two potential facilities off the Cork coast, namely, the decommissioned facilities in Kinsale and the Seven Heads gas fields. This is because Ireland has failed to plan for such an eventuality. The Minister's Department has been looking at the potential of utilising these decommissioned facilities for the last five years. Will the Minister expedite this analysis to help to reduce energy and electricity costs?

"Yes" is the answer to that. We are going to have to expedite everything. However, I do not want to hold out false hope. My understanding, without having come to a conclusion yet, is that there are technical issues not just for the pipeline, which will be decommissioned, but also around the amount of cushion gas that would have to be put into that field and its geological formation. It is not certain that either of those Cork fields will be ideal for gas. That is some of the advice I am hearing. We will have to conclude that analysis quickly as part of that European gas storage initiative.

The national development plan states:

In accordance with balanced regional development, a cancer care network for the Saolta region (West, North West) with a Cancer Centre at Galway University Hospital with appropriate infrastructure will be delivered.

Yesterday, those of us from that region had the opportunity to hear a presentation from Professor Michael Kerin, who is the director of the cancer network in the Saolta University Health Care Group. He informed us that it is the busiest centre of excellence in the country by a country mile - the Leas-Cheann Comhairle will be well aware of this - but that it also has the worst outcomes. That is because of the chronic need for serious investment in the infrastructure, not just in the centre of excellence itself in Galway but also in the regional cancer infrastructure. It is dysfunctional at the moment and, according to Professor Kerin, is not fit for purpose. I have one small anecdote.

I ask the Deputy to put his question.

When I came back from that presentation, where we heard we do not have enough investment and a dysfunctional cancer service in the north west, I got an email to tell us we have a new logo for the HSE in that area.

We are way over time.

It seems we are getting ten out of ten for colour schemes but we have an inadequate cancer service. What does the Government plan to do about this, as a matter of urgency?

I ask for a little co-operation, please.

It is a critical issue for everyone concerned in the region. I will ask the Minister for Health to refer back to the Deputy directly because I do not have the specific details here. I would make one point, however. It is important we learn from the mistakes of the past but also from the successes of the past. I am long enough in the Dáil to remember the controversy about centralising or having centres of excellence. That cancer care strategy has worked. As I understand it, all outcomes have shown a remarkable improvement for Irish cancer patients, although obviously not in every case. It is sometimes important to learn the lessons from that. I will ask the Minister to come back to the Deputy specifically on that particular site. It is important that we recall success as well as mistakes.

Returning to the energy crisis, around seven weeks ago the Minister launched the national retrofit scheme.

That is a welcome scheme for residences up and down the country and within that policy is the establishment of the one-stop shops. Will the Minister to update the House on the progress that has been made on that to ensure householders can enter this scheme within a reasonable timeframe?

I wish I was able to answer the Deputy in a few hours because I am heading from here to the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, show in the Royal Dublin Society. I am meeting the SEAI chief executive there who will give me an update on the various elements. My understanding is that it is ready to go and that a number of companies are registered. I expect it to be announced imminently. There has been a huge public response and an unprecedented level of interest. From talking to companies directly involved in the sector, their problem is getting the supplies in, not the customer demand. I am confident we can do both and that those one-stop shops will be up and running within a short period.

Fuel costs are more than 70% of a taxi driver's running costs. In the past year the price of diesel has risen by 33%, petrol is up 30%, tyres are up 50%, oil changes are up from €90 to €140 and other running costs are up. After two brutal years of Covid, taxi drivers are at the pin of their collar. They need support or they will go to the wall. They need more action on fuel costs. Will the Government do more on fuel costs? Hauliers were given €100. Other practical measures can be taken such as addressing the nine-year rule, which is a thing of the past. Cars have been laid up for two years. Will the Minister review that rule?

The taxi industry, like so many other sectors, has been hit by these high fuel prices, which is one of the reasons we introduced the 20 cent reduction on excise on petrol and the 15 cent reduction on excise on diesel. In the North it was something like 5 cent by comparison so it was not a small reduction. The other measure we carried out last year that was hugely successful, although people were sceptical at first, is that we provided some €50 million in grants for taxi drivers to switch to electric vehicles, which had a massive take-up. The issue with this was the supply of the vehicles, not the demand from the taxi drivers. Taxi drivers who have availed of it are seeing an incredible saving, particularly with the high fuel prices. I will look at various measures such as the one the Deputy has suggested but the best and most important way to help the taxi industry is to keep going with that switch to electric vehicles because the fuel costs are a fraction of that of petrol and diesel cars and the maintenance costs are much lower as well. They are better vehicles and that is how we might help.

As the Minister and Government will be aware, there has been a major increase in costs for the agriculture sector. There has been a 127% increase in fertiliser costs, feed costs are up by more than 20% and energy costs are up by more than 30%. This is hugely concerning and costly for members of the agricultural community. Will the Minister investigate innovative ways to cut costs for farmers, particularly with respect to the SEAI and energy costs? For example, bills for dairy farmers could be in excess of €5,000 to €6,000 for energy. Could the Government look at microgeneration to target high-energy users in the agricultural community as a way of giving back to them? I acknowledge the presence of the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy McConalogue, in this regard. This measure would have a major impact on sustainability in agriculture, cutting costs for farmers and having a long-term and sustainable impact on the agricultural sector.

I will take that question on behalf of the Government and I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. This is something he has been advocating strongly for and it makes total sense. It is something the Government is pushing as a key priority. Within my Department there are grants for solar energy, which are available to farmers to invest in and generate energy for their farms. There has been a good uptake of that but it is something we want to progress further. Key to that is the work the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, is doing on the feed-in tariff. There is tremendous potential at farm level. Farmers can make a contribution by generating electricity on their farms, getting paid for that, improving their profitability, contributing to energy security and reducing emissions. This is something the Government will be stepping out and we will be looking at ways in which we can deliver that and make it work.

Yesterday, there was a welcome announcement by Sport Ireland and Ireland Active relating to swimming pool operators across the country. However, I was taken aback to see the five-star hotels in Dublin Bay South, such as the Merrion Hotel, the InterContinental Dublin hotel in Ballsbridge and the Marker Hotel Dublin, where annual membership is €1,500 and no children are allowed, received large grants for their pools. Seán McDermott Street swimming pool has been closed for nearly three years and Marian College swimming pool is closed for maintenance as a result of maintenance cost issues. How do exclusive hotels such as these qualify for State funding? Surely the qualifying factor for funding for Sport Ireland should be accessibility for the local community. Can the Minister intervene and ensure this does not happen?

I will have to ask the Minister responsible to revert to the Deputy. I agree with his basic thesis. Public pools provide a huge benefit for our health and mental well-being and many other benefits. The more accessible public pools we have the better and we should support them. I will ask the Minister to answer the specific questions the Deputy asked.

I thank the Minister.

It is only in the most extreme and exceptional circumstances that I bring individual cases up on the Dáil floor. I have full permission to use the names of the individuals in question - Gerald and Norah Orpen and their two children, Gerald and Gavin. The children were adopted from Russia when they were aged one and two, respectively. At that point they lived in the US but in 2010 the family moved to Ireland, at which point, through an oversight, they did not register the adoptions. Since then they have had a battle to try to register these adoptions, which has meant that the boys, who are now 17- and 18-years-old, cannot apply for a passport or a driver's licence. Of most urgent concern is the fact that one of the boys, who is suffering from cancer, cannot apply for a medical card because he cannot register. This is complicated by the fact that the adoptions were from Russia and they need the co-operation of Russian solicitors. I urge the Minister to bring this to the attention of his colleague, the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O’Gorman.

It is a sensitive issue. I am not sure this is the place.

I thank the Deputy for raising it and I will do everything I can to follow up with Government colleagues to see what can be done in this specific case.

I would like to raise the issue of a residential management company in Tyrellstown, Dublin 15, which is using clamping as a method of collecting management fees. The vast majority of the residences are houses that missed the boat under the Multi-Unit Developments Act 2011. They are not apartments but have been forced to remain under a management company. Does the Minister agree that management companies should not use clamping as a method to collect management fees? Would the Government support legislation against the use of clamping as a debt collection measure in residential areas?

I will take Deputy Stanton as well as we are going to run out of time.

I wrote to the Minister last January and against last March on the need to upgrade the N25 between Carrigtwohill and Midleton. I have yet to receive either an acknowledgement or a reply, about which I am disappointed. In the meantime Transport Infrastructure Ireland has objected to a housing development outside Midleton because the road infrastructure is not adequate. It seems to be a chicken and egg situation because the road is very dangerous and there is also a large IDA Ireland site that is landlocked because of the need for an upgrade. I would appreciate it if the Minister would ask his officials to respond to me some time this year please.

I will ask them to do that. I am embarrassed; I must apologise for the delay in responding to the Deputy. I will make sure that correspondence is replied to straight away.

Clamping being used as debt collection sounds totally inappropriate to me. I do not know whether it requires legislative or regulatory measures. I presume the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage is responsible so I will follow up and see. I ask the Deputy to forward the specific details. It would be useful to examine. If it is an example of bad practice, we will certainly look at that.

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