Thursday, 28 November 2019

Ceisteanna (7)

Freagraí ó Béal (7 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Communications)

We agreed earlier to return to Deputy Jack Chambers' question. He is now back from the committee and will put his question to the Minister.

Jack Chambers

Ceist:

7. Deputy Jack Chambers asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment the way in which he will ensure the participation of ESB and Bord na Móna workers and affected communities in the development of a coherent just transition response; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [49382/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

I appreciate the Acting Chairman and the House facilitating me. Although a just transition commissioner has recently been appointed and carbon tax revenues have been allocated toward the challenge there is still considerable uncertainty around how existing Bord na Móna and ESB jobs will be protected, contracts honoured and workers provided with alternative employment. Will the Minister set out how workers and communities will immediately be included in the development of a fair and transparent just transition process and not a mere brief consultation phase?

The Government has appointed Mr. Kieran Mulvey as the Just Transition Commissioner on a non-statutory basis to facilitate discussions and work with stakeholders to develop, mobilise and deliver opportunities for the midlands for both the workers directly affected and the wider community. I have asked the commissioner to engage with all relevant stakeholders, including local community organisations, Bord na Móna, ESB, the Midlands Transition Team, local authorities and public representatives, and relevant trade unions and workers' representatives.

The commissioner will report to Government through me and I have asked him to consider specifically the following matters in relation to recommendations to be made. This includes the delivery of the just transition measures provided for in budget 2020, the optimal structures or processes to support co-ordinated and effective delivery, including developing liaison channels between institutions in the region and central Government, the implementation of other actions underway, or planned, by Departments and agencies that could assist in the just transition and any additional actions or measures that he considers appropriate for Government consideration.

The commissioner has also been invited to take account of relevant existing plans and programmes such as the regional enterprise development.

On immediate resources that are available, the budget announced €20 million for a new energy efficiency retrofitting scheme to be focused on the midlands, €5 million for peatland rehabilitation outside of the Bord na Móna estate, €6 million for a dedicated new just transition fund, with ESB agreeing to contribute an additional €5 million. We are also seeking to repurpose the public service obligation, PSO, to support a much higher level of bog restoration on Bord na Móna bogs so that workers will continue to work on the bogs but instead of extracting, will work to rehabilitate the bogs. Finally, we have succeeded in having peat included in the EU coal platform which will be relevant to the commissioner's work.

The Minister has given little clarity on the steps the Government is taking immediately to address, redeploy and reskill workers in the communities affected. There is a 2020 deadline for the ESB. As the ICTU told the Committee on Climate Action this week, when the jobs are gone, they are gone and the people are unemployed. That transition and certainty is still absent. It is vital that the newly appointed commissioner meets with worker representatives, community and environmental groups before the end of the year. Local input into planning and implementation is essential to the success of this process. The Government has not put forward any specific timeline or deadlines for the new commissioner's recommendations. It is important that the Government's quarterly reports include ongoing activities, conclusions and recommendations and are brought to the Joint Committee on Climate Action. Will the Minister confirm that these steps will be taken? What responsibilities will the commissioner have for allocating any funds in communities in the midlands and Clare? On new sources of funding, will he outline how and when the PSO level will be repurposed to support job creation and clarify whether the EU platform for coal will provide financial support?

We are providing immediate funding for bog restoration on both non-Bord na Móna bogs and Bord na Móna bogs. We are working to get final approval from the EU under state aid. We have submitted a Bord na Móna proposal to get the additional repurposed PSO which will allow significant numbers to be re-employed on the bogs doing restoration to a much higher level. We have also committed to rolling out a retrofitting programme in the midlands. We recognise that will require retraining. No doubt the regional skills forum, which has already adopted a low-carbon transition objective, will look at the sorts of skills that are needed to complement those already available to Bord na Móna workers to make the change.

The commissioner will make recommendations as to how the just transition fund should be best deployed. It will obviously seek to select the best ideas that emerge from the local communities for the development of alternative opportunities along with those I already outlined. I mentioned that we are part of the EU coal platform. It will be a question for the new Commission under the multi-annual funding framework as to whether it provides funding. There was no such funding element by the last Commission but I understand the President of the Commission has given positive indications for the future.

The block allocation mentioned by the Minister is necessary and welcome but we need to know what that will mean for workers in Bord na Móna and the ESB. There is uncertainty and the fear of worker representatives is that jobs will be lost and not regained. Does the Minister accept the point made by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, ICTU, that a forum for immediate and direct engagement with Bord na Móna workers is urgently needed that is above and beyond what is there from the just transition commissioner and that the Minister must take the lead in ensuring dialogue between the two sides? As the Minister knows, Bord na Móna representatives have said it will not engage with the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, process and the Minister stated before that the just transition commissioner has no role in these matters.

On a separate but related point, the Department's public consultation on the long-term climate strategy for submission to the European Commission by year-end is open for only 15 working days. Why was such a short period provided when we have known about the importance of the strategy for over a year? How will the Department be able to review and incorporate input from the public consultation in just nine working days? It seems to be a token public consultation process and I am concerned about it. There is genuine public willingness to provide input to the Department and the Minister on these matters.

The Deputy is asking whether the just transition commissioner will have an industrial relations role. It has been clear that he will not have an industrial relations role. We have a joint industrial relations council between Bord na Móna and its unions chaired by the WRC. Unresolved issues can be escalated in the normal way to the Workplace Relations Commission. As Mr. Kieran Mulvey was formerly the director general of the Workplace Relations Commission, people may presume his new role will be similar but the Deputy understands that the professional Workplace Relations Commission must fill that role. It has great experience in dealing with difficult matters. We must ensure alternative opportunities emerge, which is the primary purpose of this process, and we must also ensure that the redeployment and retraining that Bord na Móna workers will need to avail of these opportunities will be available. It will form the core of Mr. Mulvey's work, although he will be empowered to make recommendations to the Government as he sees fit.

Question No. 14 replied to with Written Answers.