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Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Thursday, 7 Apr 2022

Vol. 1020 No. 7

Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

Trade Agreements

Louise O'Reilly

Ceist:

1. Deputy Louise O'Reilly asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment the policy of his Department regarding trade agreements and trade missions to countries that have been found to be in gross violation of human rights. [18637/22]

The question is fairly straightforward. It is similar to a question I put to the Tánaiste on 30 July when I asked whether the State has a trade-at-any-cost position. I ask the Tánaiste for an update on the policy of the Department with regard to trade agreements and trade missions to countries that have been found in gross violation of human rights.

The promotion and protection of human rights is a foreign policy priority for the Government. We consistently raise our concerns on human rights through the most effective and appropriate channels, including bilaterally, particularly through our mission network.

The Deputy will be aware that international trade is a competence vested in the European Commission under the EU treaties, whereby the Union's negotiating strength is as a bloc of 27 member states representing some 450 million citizens. This ensures that actions, decisions and negotiations conducted by the Commission on behalf of the member states are more impactful than unilateral action by a single member state.

The EU's network of bilateral trade agreements also provides a platform for us to engage with our partners on sustainable development issues, including human rights, the environment, labour standards and trade and gender. Ireland supports the broader positive EU approach to ensure that there are strong and ambitious chapters on trade and sustainable development in free trade agreements, as part of the EU's value-based trade policy, which are consistent with international legal commitments and standards.

Ireland continues to support the EU in its efforts in implementing a more assertive approach to the implementation of trade and sustainable development chapters of free trade agreements, which reflects our commitment to values-based trade.

The approach was emphasised in last year's EU trade policy review that Ireland endorsed. The review recognised that progress on trade and sustainability issues, including human rights, will also depend on the actions of our global partners and that trade offers a valuable conduit by which to positively influence such actions.

As a small, open economy, I am sure everyone in the House will agree that Ireland benefits immensely from our export-orientated enterprises trading across the globe. Therefore, we fully support balanced international trade and the suite of EU free trade agreements that seek to underpin this. In tandem, the primary focus of all trade missions and associated meetings is to maximise opportunities to help Irish companies to access new markets and to increase the levels of foreign direct investment into Ireland.

I thank the Tánaiste. On 30 July the Tánaiste told me the Department pursues free trade and open market policies but these policies are subordinate to Ireland's responsibility to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, to promote regional stability and to promote and protect human rights. It is similar to the response the Tánaiste has given now. It outlines that we implement the trade elements of EU sanctions, formerly known as restrictive measures, and this is welcome. In the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine we see the value of sanctions and the value of increasing them. Advancing human rights should always be a cornerstone of our foreign policy and trade policy. How can the Tánaiste stand over trade missions such as the one he led with Enterprise Ireland to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates last November? Time and again we have seen instances of mass executions in Saudi Arabia, such as those executions carried out in March when 81 men were executed on charges such as disrupting the social fabric and national cohesion and participating in and inciting sit-ins and protests. Amnesty International has stated these acts are protected by the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association. How can the Tánaiste stand over this?

The way we structure free trade and our trade relations is on a number of tiers. We have the European Union, which is a free trade area of which we are part. It is a single market with unrestricted trade. There is a series of countries with which we have free trade agreements. Very often in these agreements there are chapters on human rights, trade and labour rights. There are the countries that fall under the WTO rules with most favoured nation status. Then there are countries against which there are sanctions. These sanctions are imposed at European level and include cases such as Russia, Venezuela and others. Of course we adhere to these sanctions. If there are sanctions, Ireland adheres to them. It is fair to say we will not be seeing trade missions to somewhere such as Russia any time soon. We have removed our Enterprise Ireland offices from there.

I do not agree with the death penalty. I voted in a referendum to prohibit it in our Constitution. I disagree with the fact that Saudi Arabia carried out those executions. It is not the only country that has the death penalty. I am pretty sure the US has probably executed more people than Saudi Arabia in recent years. I may be wrong about that but it does have a death penalty and uses it regularly. The Deputy's party leader and her party regularly go to the United States for engagements with people there, including politicians who support the death penalty. China does the same as does India. I do not support the death penalty but if we were to get to the point where we did not engage in trade or trade missions with countries that did, we would be knocking our biggest trading partners, including the US and China, off the list. I do not think that would be a good idea.

I do not know that I would draw the same equivalence between Saudi Arabia and the United States as the Tánaiste has done. That is fair enough; that is his opinion. I am referring to what Amnesty described as acts that are protected by the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association, in other words gross violation of human rights. I refer specifically to the trade mission the Tánaiste himself led. I am concerned about the message it sends. I understand from media reports the Tánaiste said he raised concerns when he was there but not to the extent it was written down or recorded at any of the meetings. I find this to be somewhat disturbing but I am sure the Tánaiste can put on the record of the House when it was done. We saw gross violations of human rights and then immediately following the deputy head of government led a trade mission. That sends a very poor message. Previously I asked the Tánaiste whether the Department pursues a trade-at-any-cost type of policy. I would be grateful if the Tánaiste confirms it does not. I hope it does not but when we see trade missions to places such as Saudi Arabia, and we know its involvement in Yemen, and when we see the State still trades with Israel with regard to goods from the occupied territories we need to send out a very strong message and I do not think it is being done at present.

Of course we do not pursue a trade-at-any-cost policy. Part of my job and the job of the Minister for Finance is to sign off on sanctions. Regularly on my desk are statutory instruments that impose trade sanctions and investment sanctions on various countries. The Deputy would not always have been the most supportive of them, quite frankly, such as those we introduced against Russia in 2014 after its illegal invasion and occupation of Crimea. The Deputy would not be particularly supportive of the trade sanctions against Venezuela where democracy has been ended. I hope the Deputy can confirm that she does support the sanctions against Venezuela.

The Deputy misrepresented what I said on the death penalty. Obviously there is not an equivalence between the US and Saudi Arabia in this regard. We see plenty of human rights reports about the use of the death penalty in the United States, which is wrong. I would like to know whether the Deputy's party leader and party raise it on trips to the United States and whether she has documentary evidence of this. The truth is that most non-democratic governments in the world do not have very good human rights records. This applies to China, the Middle East, Palestine, many Arab countries and a lot of Africa. If it is Sinn Féin's policy that we should not do trade missions to those parts of the world it should say so because people whose jobs and businesses may be jeopardised need to know.

Let us get back on track here. Every side has gone over time. We are going back to the time limits, unfortunately.

Energy Prices

Noel Grealish

Ceist:

2. Deputy Noel Grealish asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment the measures he is planning to introduce to address the impact of rising energy prices on businesses; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [18813/22]

Deputy Naughten will be introducing this question.

I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for facilitating me. Focus has rightly been on families struggling with rising energy costs, which are causing serious financial hardship, but these costs are also putting great financial pressure on many businesses with regard to operational costs, transport costs and wage pressures. What active and immediate actions is the Government going to take to ease the energy cost pressures facing businesses?

The invasion of Ukraine has exacerbated the inflationary pressures that Ireland and other economies were already experiencing in the wake of the supply chain disruptions brought about as a result of the pandemic. The war and the necessary introduction of sanctions against Russia is also disrupting supply chains and leading to large rises in international prices for energy, food and other commodities. The Government recognises the additional challenge these rising prices represent for households and businesses as many are still trying to recover from the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. Ireland imports over 70% of the energy we use and the Government cannot fully insulate individuals and businesses from developments in international energy markets that are outside of our control. However, the Government has already implemented several measures to help to reduce the impact of energy price rises on enterprises and households. These include temporary reductions in excise duties charged of 20 cent per litre of petrol and 15 cent per litre of diesel. This has been of significant benefit to businesses as well as householders. We have also introduced a 2 cent per litre reduction in the excise duty levied on marked gas oil or green diesel. The estimated cost of these measures to benefit households, businesses and farmers is approximately €320 million. For hauliers, a temporary grant scheme will provide a payment of €100 per week to help mitigate the impacts of the rising price of fuel. This scheme will operate for a period of eight weeks and is valued at €18 million. There has also been a temporary targeted intervention package for the tillage sector to the value of €12.2 million in response to the impact on the agrifood sector.

My Department is working with the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications in leading consultations with industry to learn about the specific impacts of higher costs on Irish businesses and to hear their concerns and perspectives on the appropriate and most effective tools for policy action. This follows on from a recent meeting of the enterprise forum that I convened to hear at first hand how the war in Ukraine is affecting businesses in Ireland. The three main issues raised at that meeting were the difficulties in supply chains in Europe and around the world, recent increases in the cost of raw materials and foodstuffs, and energy security and prices.

The Tánaiste will recall that we had very detailed conversation and debates on these specific issues back in 2017 and 2018. At the time, I pointed out that energy costs have a far higher impact on inflation in Ireland than anywhere else in the EU. This is partly a result of the subsidies to the cost of green electricity, grid connections and back-up supplies provided to existing and speculatively planned data centres, which result in no substantial employment dividend here in Ireland. As the Tánaiste will know, the Government took a decision in 2018 to stop this practice of subsidising speculative developers in respect of the electricity going into data centres. When is that going to be implemented by the Government?

It is true that energy costs have greater impacts on business in Ireland. That is partly as a result of our geography. We are an island on the edge of Europe and things have to be brought here by boat and by plane before being put on trucks and trains to be transported further. It is also partly down to the way our population is distributed. Responsibility for the area of data centres falls to the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan. I could be wrong but my understanding is that the decision in question has been implemented. A number of months ago, the Commission for Regulation for Utilities, CRU, heavily restricted the connection of new data centres, particularly in the Dublin area but also in all other parts of the country. I might not be 100% fully up to date on that. I am not sure that measure will have a significant impact on energy prices in itself. Data centres use approximately 10% of our electricity. From some of the commentary, you would think it was more. However, we believed the share they were using was increasing too fast and that is why those restrictions were brought in.

The responsibility lies with the Tánaiste's Department. It was his Department that published the report back in 2018. The reality is that we are subsidising the cost of electricity for a sector that will account for 50% of all demand by 2030.

With regard to the public service obligation, PSO, levy, the Government announced earlier this week with some fanfare that, next October, the PSO levy will be reduced to zero or that people will actually get a rebate on it. The Government has given the impression that this is something new and positive but, in fact, it is not. This measure adheres to the rules for the PSO levy because the levy was set last summer based on projected electricity costs for the following 12 months. Rather than this sleight of hand and the suggestion that this announcement represents something new and innovative, will the Tánaiste pause the PSO levy today and stop additional charges being accrued until people start getting rebates next September and October?

My understanding of the operation of the PSO levy is that it is there to subsidise renewable energy and energy produced from peat. Given that the price of producing energy is now so high, it is no longer necessary. That is why it will be got rid of or become a negative levy towards the end of the year. I do not know how the timing of that works. I would have to talk to the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, about that.

With regard to the data centre report, the Deputy is absolutely correct. I stand corrected on that. We are reviewing the role of data centres in enterprise policy. That review will be complete by the end of this quarter. We have engaged with EirGrid, the ESB, the CRU and the data centre sector as well as the Industrial Development Authority and Enterprise Ireland. A working group met on this issue on 21 March. The group produced a draft template guide for the revised policy and set out a work programme under which the group will draft the final revised policy statement.

Trade Unions

Louise O'Reilly

Ceist:

3. Deputy Louise O'Reilly asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment his views on collective bargaining rights for trade unions in order to secure better pay and conditions for workers in view of his comments earlier in 2022 that workers deserve a pay rise. [18638/22]

This question is fairly straightforward. There are what could be called mixed messages from the Government. On the one hand, the Tánaiste himself is saying that workers need a pay rise but, on the other, the Head of Government is preaching wage restraint. What is the Tánaiste's view on collective bargaining rights for trade unions to allow them to secure better pay and conditions for workers in view of the comments he has made and the contradictory comments of the Taoiseach?

I thank the Deputy. I have a very clear view on this. I believe there should be pay rises. I do not say that lightly. I say that as somebody who signed off on a 3% increase in the minimum wage only a few months ago. The Minister of State, Deputy English, has also signed off on pay increases in various different sectors. Indeed, the Government has a pay deal with our own employees, public servants, to increase pay. There are two modest pay increases this year and there may well be more. However, I also believe, as does the Taoiseach, that it is a mistake to think that pay rises will solve the problem of inflation. Pay rises will not bring down the cost of living. In fact, some pay rises may even further increase the cost of living because many businesses will have to fund those pay rises by increasing what they charge their customers for goods and services. We want pay rises but not pay rises that contribute to inflation and make the situation worse. That is why we have to look at these things in the round. I refer to pay policy, what we do in terms of tax and welfare, which is another way to increase people's disposable incomes, and what we do to reduce the cost of living with regard to things like childcare, rent, healthcare and education. My concern is that we are not looking at these matters in the round and that the issue is being approached in a piecemeal manner. That is why we are engaging with employers and unions through the Labour Employer Economic Forum, LEEF, next week and talking about how we might be able to put a bit of order on this so that people do not see any pay increases swallowed up by the highest rate of tax or rising prices. That would not be to anyone's advantage.

On collective bargaining, as the Deputy knows, our system is a voluntary State system in which the State does not seek to impose a solution on the parties to a dispute but will, where appropriate, assist them in arriving at a solution. This approach has served us well for many years. Our Constitution guarantees people the right to freedom of association, that is, the right to join a trade union or any other organisation they want to. However, it does not force people to associate if they do not wish to. That is an appropriate approach.

Along with members of Viktor Orbán's Government in Hungary, the Austrian Government and a few others, the Tánaiste is a co-signatory to a letter to the Commission seeking to water down the provisions of a draft directive aimed at ensuring that at least 70% of workers are covered by collective bargaining agreements. I may have some difficulties with how the directive is written myself but I certainly would not seek to undermine it or water it down in any way, shape or form. My question was specifically on creating the conditions for trade unions to be able to bargain collectively for their members, and indeed, for trade union recognition and trade union rights.

I tend to agree with Gerry McCormack of SIPTU who, when describing the three parties in government, was very clear about it and about their attitude. He stated: "The three parties in government have a track record of supporting employer’s interests above those of workers". Naturally, workers are concerned. Specifically, in relation to collective bargaining, what are the Government's plans?

The Deputy is referring to a particular EU directive relating to both the minimum wage and collective bargaining. She was a bit selective in the countries she mentioned. The Deputy is correct to state that Austria and Hungary signed it, but so did most of the Nordic countries. Those countries are, in many ways, the exemplars in terms of labour rights, at least for people on the left, but the Deputy conveniently left them off her list. We are now happy with what is proposed by the European Union in that regard, because the concerns that we had have been allayed.

In relation to collective bargaining, I have established a high-level group under the auspices of the LEEF to examine the industrial relations landscape in Ireland. I met the independent chair of the group last month, who briefed me in detail on the important work being undertaken by its members, who are currently considering the adequacy of the existing workplace relations framework. It is in need of reform if we are going to move towards that target of 70% of people being covered by collective bargaining in some way. I expect to bring a final report to Government later this year as to how we can implement the recommendations. I am very keen that we should have agreement on this report from both the employers and the unions. That is the way it will work best. If we force people to associate, we will not get agreement.

I think the best way to do it is to create the conditions for workers to organise. That involves recognition and protection for those who are seeking to bargain collectively on behalf of their members. I have stated previously that the best way for any worker to secure a pay rise is not just to join a trade union, but to be active in his or her trade union. Is it the Tánaiste's intention to move ahead with collective bargaining rights, or is he going to wait for the directive to be transposed? We have a unique opportunity now, post pandemic. As we move out of the emergency phase of the pandemic, many workers are now looking at their situation. Now would be a unique time in the history of the State for workers to get organised and to bargain for pay rises that are vitally necessary. Is it the Tánaiste's intention to wait, or will he be moving ahead with legislation to recognise and grant collective bargaining rights?

If we can get agreement on the report and its recommendations from the unions and the major employers, I would not feel the need to wait for the directive. If we cannot get agreement, it probably makes sense to wait on the directive. I should say that we are introducing five new workers' rights this year, including the new public holiday which has now been passed into law. We are going to introduce legislation on statutory sick pay in the Dáil today. We are still working on the right to request remote working, which requires some work. We have enacted the new redundancy rights for people who were laid off during the pandemic. I will sign the statutory instruments on that quite soon and the scheme will be up and running. We have also got legislation to better protect workplace tips. That legislation has passed through the Seanad. It may well be that a sixth and seventh new workers' right will be introduced this year, one in relation to collective bargaining and another in relation to living wage, but both of those are works in progress.

Question No. 4 replied to with Written Answers.

Departmental Reviews

Catherine Connolly

Ceist:

5. Deputy Catherine Connolly asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment further to Parliamentary Question No. 90 of 10 February 2022, the status of the work to revise the Government Statement on the Role of Data Centres in Ireland’s Enterprise Strategy; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [18723/22]

My question is specific and straight. I am asking for an update on the status of the work to review the Government statement on the role of data centres in Ireland's Enterprise Strategy.

I thank Deputy Connolly for raising this issue. As I am aware that she raised it in the autumn as well, it is timely to provide the Deputy with an update. The Climate Action Plan 2021 requires my Department to review the Government statement on the role of data centres in enterprise policy, ensuring alignment with revised renewable electricity targets and sectoral emissions ceilings. The revised statement will set out the existing policy context and reflect the important economic and societal role of data services that became ever more apparent since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic and remote working. Data centres securely store and manage the data which keep much of our information-based economy and society moving. These investments underpin the digital economy in which data are the key asset. However, the revised statement will also seek to ensure that demand for data centre development can be managed prudently and assist in the decarbonisation of our electricity system and deliver regional economic opportunities. It will take account of recent public consultations from EirGrid, including Shaping Our Electricity Future, and the consultation paper by the Commission for Regulation of Utilities on a proposed direction to the system operators related to data centre grid connections, which demonstrate an appropriate, timely and planned approach to managing these challenges on the part of the organisations tasked with delivering and managing our electricity grid.

As to the status of work to revise the statement, a working group of key stakeholders has been established and held its first meeting recently in mid-March. As well as my own Department, the organisations represented were the Departments of the Environment, Climate and Communications, the Taoiseach and Public Expenditure and Reform, EirGrid, ESB Networks, the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, IDA Ireland and Enterprise Ireland. Further meetings of the working group will take place over the coming months to develop the revised statement for its consideration by Government and finalisation and publication. That is on track to be completed in quarter 2 of this year.

I tabled a series a of questions and generally the Tánaiste has answered me. There was hope, a deadline and a recognition that we need a strategy. That seems to be gone with this reply. It seems to be gone to never-never land. I do not have time here to go through the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that was mentioned yesterday in the Dáil. It is the final turning point. We are talking about a Government policy statement that did not consider climate and the effect of data centres on the environment whatsoever. We got a thumbs up from Grant Thornton in the analysis, which I have read in detail, which did not look at the cost to the climate and the environment as a result of the proliferation of data centres. There were more than 70 of them at the last count. According to the EirGrid consultation paper of March 2021, the current developer-led approach, where energy assets and large energy users can locate wherever they want, would not allow Ireland to reach its 2030 renewable targets.

I am sorry the Deputy thinks that the Government is putting it on the never-never. To be clear, the Tánaiste responded to the Deputy in the autumn and told her that the report would be published and an updated statement provided by quarter 1 of 2022. It has slipped into quarter 2. We accept that there has been a delay with it. However, in our view, that means that the work is being done right. An updated statement will be published in quarter 2. The reason that it is being updated is because the previous statement was published in 2018, predating the Climate Action Plan 2021. That is why we are updating it. We are updating it to recognise all the issues that the Deputy has highlighted and to ensure that we are aligning enterprise policy with our climate targets.

Also, when it comes to the discussion of data centres, we need to have a detailed conversation on their role in society and the benefits they bring. The role of data centres in the economy should be assessed in the context of the total economic value they provide, and not just as an isolated economic activity. The important economic and societal role of data centres in the provision of video calls, streaming services and other remote working technology has become ever more apparent since Covid-19. Data centres securely store and manage the data in a very effective way and in most cases, in a very energy-efficient way. They keep most of our information-based economy and society moving. These investments underpin the digital economy in which data are the key asset. To be clear, data centres are an increasingly important part of the digital and communication sectors and our core infrastructure in the remote working and digital service economy. The transition to a digital economy is well under way. It is impacting all sectors of the economy. Ireland is well positioned as a digital gateway to Europe. Data centres and the service they provide act as a hook for further investment and job creation. To be clear, each data centre generally directly employs between 30 and 50 highly-qualified workers. Also, the overall impact that they have is the provision of 20,000 direct jobs in the economy supporting the companies that are here and involved in the infrastructure.

The Government is not proactively reviewing this policy. It is reviewing it now because of outrage over the lack of analysis in relation to the damage done by data centres. I fully accept that we need data centres and that they are part of the modern economy. What I do not accept is the thumbs up that was given in 2018, three years after we passed a climate action plan and one year before we declared a climate and biodiversity emergency. My difficulty is with the type of analysis that was done by Grant Thornton at the time. I do not blame Grant Thornton. It did what it was asked, but the analysis took no cognisance of what was happening in relation to the emergency. That is my difficulty. No cognisance has been taken of what has been said by EirGrid in relation to the developer-led approach of data centres, and no cognisance has been taken of the fact that this week, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has told us that we have no choice but to take action. That is my difficulty. When exactly will we have the new strategy?

Maybe I have to say it for the third time. It is quarter 2 that is the target.

We are in quarter 2.

I think the Deputy is being a bit unfair here. She keeps referring back to a statement from 2018. We have already committed, and it is an action in the climate action plan, to review that policy and to update it. That work has begun. It will involve all of the conversations the Deputy has just touched on and all of the reasons to recognise where we are in respect of the climate change and climate adaptation measures, but also to recognise the importance of data centres in this country and how we can balance the two. That is what the report will do. The updated statement is due in quarter 2. I think we are on the same page here. Referencing what happened before 2018 is not where this report is at. This report is updating that policy so we should be able to achieve what the Deputy wants to achieve.

I am glad the Deputy recognises the importance of data centres. We have to recognise that the providers of data centres have ambitions in regard to green energy well beyond the Government's. They intend to be at 100% by 2025 and we want to work with them on that. It is a major sector in this country but it is also a major sector for our construction partners who are involved in this business all over the world and are having a major impact for Ireland. It is an area of high expertise for us, it is one that we excel in and we want to continue to do that, but in a climate-friendly way.

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