Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 26 November 2019
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Communications, Climate Action and Environment
Just Transition (Worker and Community Environmental Rights) Bill 2018: Discussion
We will undertake detailed scrutiny of the Just Transition (Worker and Community Environmental Rights) Bill 2018. I welcome to the meeting from the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment Mr. Brian Carroll, assistant secretary, Mr. Michael Goodwin, principal officer, Mr. Jerry Higgins and Mr. Frank Maughan. From the Irish Congress of Trade Unions we have Mr. David Joyce and Mr. Macdara Doyle. From the Nevin Economic Research Institute we have Mr. Paul Goldrick-Kelly and from SIPTU we have Ms Yvonne O'Callaghan.
Before we continue I wish to draw your attention to the fact that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to this committee. However, if you are directed by the Chairman to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and you continue to so do, you are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of your evidence. Witnesses are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, you should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. I also wish to advise you that any submissions or opening statements made to the committee will be published on the committee website after this meeting.
Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
I will start by asking Mr. Brian Carroll from the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment to make an opening statement.
Mr. Brian Carroll:
I thank the committee for the opportunity to engage with it today as part of its scrutiny of the Just Transition (Worker and Community Environmental Rights) Bill 2018. The Government climate action plan, published in June of this year, identifies the need to plan appropriately to ensure that those most affected by our transition to a low-carbon climate-resilient society are supported and equipped to contribute to this transition. The climate action plan recognises that the level of change required to decarbonise Ireland's economy cannot be avoided and that the taxpayer cannot compensate for all the many actions which will have to be taken. However, it is essential that the burdens borne are seen to be fair and that every group is seen to be making an appropriate and fair level of effort. This will be essential to maintaining the high level of political and civic consensus which has been built through the work of the Citizens' Assembly and in the Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action.
In its report, published in March of this year, this committee identified as a central concern the need to ensure that climate action is fair and that vulnerable citizens, workers and communities are protected. The committee also highlighted the importance of exploring opportunities to green existing jobs and create new jobs in areas such as energy retrofitting for buildings, sustainable forestry and peat land restoration. These are also core objectives of the climate action plan.
Since the Second Stage debate took place on 19 September there have been several important developments which are directly relevant to the committee's consideration of this legislation. The Government has made a commitment to an early and complete phase-out of peat and coal for electricity generation. The Government recognises that this will have a significant impact on the workers in these carbon-intensive sectors, their families and the midlands as a whole. The Government has, therefore, committed to delivering a whole-of-government approach to addressing this challenge and to working with local stakeholders to ensure the people impacted can be best supported. In this context, the Government has prioritised several initiatives in budget 2020, including the provisions of €6 million for a just transition fund targeted at the midlands to support the retraining and reskilling of workers and to assist communities and businesses in the region to adjust to the low-carbon transition. In recognition of its longstanding relationship with communities in the midlands, the ESB has agreed to contribute an additional €5 million to this fund, bringing its total value to €11 million. While details around the allocation of this fund are still to be finalised, it is expected that it will support retraining and reskilling workers and assist local communities and businesses in the midlands to adjust to the low-carbon transition. There will be further consultation with the structures in place in the midlands, including the midlands transition team, on the application of the funding.
A sum of €5 million has been allocated for the National Parks and Wildlife Service bog restoration and rehabilitation programme to restore 1,800 ha of bog to their natural habitat, ensuring the return of these bogs to carbons sinks once again and creating 70 to 100 jobs. A further €20 million is to be targeted at the midlands to deliver a new model to group housing upgrades, as set out in the climate action plan. This will support an estimated 400 direct and indirect jobs as well as a significant upgrading of the social housing stock in the region.
To ensure that the theme of just transition is sustained on a consistent basis the climate action plan provides for the establishment of a just transition review group within the National Economic and Social Council. The objective of this group will be to review the ongoing transition and identify specific transition needs among cohorts of workers, enterprises, communities and specific groups of people.
The Department has also been engaging with the European Commission to explore the potential for a support scheme, funded through a public service obligation, for the enhanced rehabilitation of the Bord na Móna bogs over and above what Bord na Móna is obliged to do under its Environmental Protection Agency licences. The proposal is to fund a scheme for the enhanced rehabilitation and restoration by Bord na Móna of its peatlands that have been used for harvesting peat for electricity generation. On 8 November the Government announced the appointment of Mr. Kieran Mulvey as just transition commissioner. The purpose of the commissioner is to provide a co-ordinated and effective approach to just transition for communities and workers affected by the ending of peat harvesting for power generation in the midlands. The terms of reference for the office of the just transition commissioner have been published by the Minister and the details on the appointment are currently being finalised.
It is important for the committee to consider whether the Bill, as drafted, will achieve the outcomes on the substantive issues that it seeks to address. In this context a number of high level issues arise in considering the provisions. The Government has committed to leading on providing a just transition response as part of its overall policy approach to climate action. It is not clear that the response to the challenges of a just transition should be devolved to an independent commission, which may not have sufficient accountability to Minister, the Government or the Oireachtas. The functions of the proposed national just transition commission, as described in section 5, are wide-ranging in scope for a single body to have responsibility for. The functions include, but are not limited to the designation of any body as a prescribed body where the commission considers it necessary; the approval, amendment or revision of just transition plans to be prepared by a prescribed body; mediating, where necessary, in the preparation of individual just transition plans; providing independent information and guidance to individual undertakings, to the general public and to any other category of body that may require it, including the promotion of education and public awareness specific to the proposed legislation and to the commission itself; providing specialist guidance and technical advisory services on just transition; making recommendations to Government with regard to the need for a just transition; and supervising compliance with duties imposed by the proposed legislation.
In empowering the commission to approve, amend or review just transition plans and by giving the commission powers of mediation, the Bill effectively gives the commission significant decision-making functions relating to matters concerning economic and industrial policy at national, regional and local level throughout Ireland's economy.
The operation of the proposed commission, in respect of its proposed mediation and adjudication functions, may also cut across the operation of the existing industrial relations machinery of the State, including for example the roles, as set out under statute, of the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, and the Labour Court. The proposals set out in this Bill will involve a direct and ongoing cost to the Exchequer in relation to the establishment and operation of the national just transition commission. Estimates of these costs would need to be made, as well as an assessment of the potential impacts of the proposed legislation by way of a regulatory impact assessment or otherwise.
This is a short summary of some of the key issues to which the Bill gives rise. The Department is at the committee’s disposal to further engage on the detailed provisions of the Bill as it sees fit.
Mr. Macdara Doyle:
We thank the committee for giving us the opportunity to engage on the broad issue of just transition and, more specifically, on the Just Transition (Worker and Community Environmental Rights) Bill 2018. In doing so, we note the proposals contained in the climate action plan to help deliver greater policy coherence and action on this critical issue, including the introduction of legally binding five-year carbon budgets; the establishment of a climate action delivery board chaired by the Department of the Taoiseach; the establishment of a more robust climate action council to advise and monitor Government progress in emissions reduction; the establishment of a standing committee on climate action to ensure accountability across all branches of Government; and ensuring that major State investment decisions will be subject to a carbon impact and mitigation evaluation. However, from our perspective there is one key element missing from this list, namely, the establishment of an appropriate overarching structure to help ensure delivery of a just transition in workplaces and communities across the country. For this reason, we welcome the introduction of this Bill by the Green Party and acknowledge its engagement with the trade union movement on its contents.
The Bill proposes to establish a commission that would bring specialist expertise to bear in respect of transition issues. In last week’s hearing before the larger, all party committee, we highlighted some of the difficulties currently being experienced in the midlands. It is our view that some of those difficulties would almost certainly have been averted and avoided if such legislation had been enacted and the proposed structure was up and running. As was mentioned at last week’s hearing, all successful examples of just transition to date demonstrate the necessity for proactive policy action. Indeed, they hinge on State-led advance planning, proactive engagement with all stakeholders and the allocation of appropriate resources. Unfortunately, in the absence of any such process or overarching plan, the workers in Bord na Móna in particular and the communities of the midlands have been left without the support or the systems necessary to drive this critical transition process. As matters stand, they have been asked to sacrifice their livelihoods for the good of future generations and have seen little that is concrete or certain in return.
Change of this magnitude requires all-of-Government action and a strategic, overarching vision. It cannot be left to chance or to the market. It is not good enough to simply borrow the language of just transition; Government and policy makers need to engage on the substance of that concept. As we understand it, the proposed Bill would see Oireachtas involvement in appointing members of the board of the just transition commission. The board would then have the power to require companies such as Bord na Móna to develop a just transition plan for their specific enterprise that would encompass key issues such as retraining, re-skilling and redeployment. We note that the Bill foresees the input of all stakeholders into such plans, a procedure to monitor implementation and a mediation system to address possible disputes. These are welcome measures and the overall architecture as outlined in the Bill has the potential to overcome difficulties such as those that have been highlighted in respect of a company that refuses to engage in the WRC-facilitated forum that worker representatives have repeatedly called for. In the same vein, it appears somewhat odd that the Government should appoint a just transition commissioner and then explicitly rule out that office having any role in industrial relations matters and the difficulties faced by workers, as part of that process.
While ICTU supports the content and aims of this Bill, the urgency of the situation in the midlands dictates that we cannot afford to wait while it continues its progress through the Oireachtas. Therefore, the proposed WRC forum should be established now and utilised to address the issues that have arisen in Bord na Móna in the absence of any other legislative or institutional vehicle. Indeed, the WRC may well have a useful role to play in the structures proposed under this Bill. Earlier this year ICTU, in alliance with a range of environmental NGOs, called for the establishment of a properly resourced national just transition task force to oversee and drive the transition here over the coming years. Our call echoed the recommendation of the Oireachtas joint committee contained in the report it published in March of this year. Whatever model is adopted, the crucial point is that we urgently require an overarching, strategic vision as to where this process leads, a clear roadmap of how we get there and a legislative framework that is equal to the enormous and very pressing challenge that we face. This should encompass social dialogue that includes all stakeholders; access to retraining and education; and respect for democratic rights to trade union and community representation. The workers and communities at the heart of this transition process deserve nothing less.
I thank our witnesses. I particularly appreciate the supportive comments from ICTU and others on this Bill. I think they get it in the sense that the scale of the challenge in meeting our climate change targets means that we are changing everything. It is system change at scale. We are changing our energy, transport, food and industrial systems for the better of the Irish public, the Irish workforce and the environment. As has been said, we must do this in a systematic, organised way. We had discussions at committee last week with Ms Patricia King from ICTU and I agree with her view that in the absence of this legislation, the WRC would be a useful vehicle to engage as wide a variety of stakeholders as possible. I still believe that this piece of architecture forms part of our partnership approach which is something that we do well in this country. Historically we have done well in working collectively across different sectors of society. This piece of architecture, which is very specific, is needed.
Mr. Carroll from the Department cited a lot of very welcome developments since we discussed this Bill on Second Stage. He referred to funding for various initiatives, although I think most people will agree that the way it has been done in the midlands has not been right. There was no advance planning and the unions and workers there have not been properly engaged. Various stakeholders have not been engaged but having said that, some of the funding commitments are welcome. In terms of the Government's approach, it committed to the completion of the just transition review by the National Economic and Social Council, NESC, by the end of this year. It is unfortunate that representatives of NESC are not here today. They said that they did not think the timing of this meeting was right so we are going to have to come back in the new year to-----
I ask the Department to indicate the status of that body of work. Why has the Government side tracked the NESC review and proceeded with the appointment of a commissioner without knowing the contents of that review?
Mr. Brian Carroll:
I do not think it has side tracked the NESC work. The NESC work is happening in parallel and is due to be completed this year. In terms of the situation that arose immediately in the midlands, the Government needed to respond to that. In my opening statement I went through a lot of the decisions Government has taken in terms of the funds and so on. Part of that response was the establishment of a just transition commissioner. The NESC piece, while it is focusing on the just transition and clearly what is happening in the midlands is the first serious manifestation, it is also aiming to take a much longer term and broader perspective. It will be looking out over the coming decades and seeking to anticipate where the next instances will arise and to plan for that. I do not see the two as being inconsistent. There was something that needed to be dealt with in the midlands with quite a degree of urgency.
The Government's original plan set out that the just transition commission would report to the Taoiseach's Department. Historically, that Department has been at the centre of the partnership approach.
That has been changed, with the commissioner reporting to the Department. Does that signify a certain downgrading of the authority or influence of the commission?
Mr. Brian Carroll:
No, it does not. The Deputy will be aware that an interdepartmental group was set up and led by the Department of the Taoiseach. It cuts across a number of Departments, including the Departments of Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Public Expenditure and Reform, Housing, Planning and Local Government, Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Education and Skills, Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Transport, Tourism and Sport, Agriculture, Food and the Marine, and Rural and Community Development. The group will be meeting on an ongoing basis, as required. The central co-ordination function rests with the Taoiseach's Department. The just transition commissioner will be supported by a secretariat in our Department and in the midlands and will report to our Minister and, through our Minister, to the Department of the Taoiseach. The role of the Department of the Taoiseach is still central in co-ordinating the whole-of-Government effort.
It seems from Mr. Carroll's comments that his main criticism of the Bill is that too much power and accountability are being devolved to bodies outside the Department or Government structures. I am interested in the unions' perspective on this. As skilled as Mr. Mulvey is, in the absence of some of the structures we are suggesting in our Bill, in the absence of the necessary resources and the ability to pull in expertise, set up mediation structures, designate companies to produce a plan, and review, monitor and scrutinise, and in the absence of all the legislative structures we have included after a great deal of deliberation to make sure we do this job well, there is a genuine fear that a single-person commission without legislative and other resources and without independence will not be able to do the job given the scale of that job in a variety of areas where we will have to apply this.
It is a matter of avoiding the mistakes made with Bord na Móna whereby we are not being proactive in addressing issues before they arise and are always sticking on Band-Aids. This Bill overcomes that failing. We have seen a specific example in how Bord na Móna workers have been treated. Mr. Carroll's concerns are over the devolution of too much power, independence, authority and capability and too many resources but the opposite is that the current system and commissioner, without any clear resources or structures within which to do the myriad jobs that are likely to arise, would not function as envisaged. Mr. Carroll criticises the measures as too much; I would criticise the Government's approach as being too little.
Mr. Brian Carroll:
The comments were more observations than criticisms. Among everybody who is part of this effort, there is consensus on the outcomes we are trying to achieve to protect the most vulnerable workers and areas of society as part of this transition. It is a question of determining what the most suitable and effective model is. We are looking for effective structures, be they grounded in legislation or otherwise.
With regard to developments to date, the decisions taken by the Government on the budget were only taken in October. The just transition commissioner was appointed only earlier this month. The terms of reference are very clear: to help ensure a co-ordinated and effective approach to the just transition, with a focus initially on communities and workers in the midlands affected by the ending of peat harvesting for power generation. The commissioner will be able to engage with all relevant stakeholders, including Bord na Móna, the ESB, relevant trade unions, worker organisations, local community organisations and the structures already established, particularly the regional transition team, the regional enterprise plan steering committee, the regional skills forum, local authorities and public representatives. The list goes on.
Mr. Brian Carroll:
We are finalising the operationalisation of the terms of reference. We have got to the point where we can say he will be supported by a secretariat in our Department. There will be a secretariat available to him in the midlands. With regard to the relevant expertise, he is charged with reviewing experience and good practice, not just domestically but also internationally. There is scope within the terms of reference to consult the types of experts the Deputy referred to. The commissioner is also charged with taking account of existing plans and programmes. He will be reporting quarterly to the Government.
In response, the role of the just transition commissioner has only just been established and he has yet to start working through this programme. The aim is that this will effectively deal with the types of issues we are all trying to solve.
I have the highest regard for Mr. Carroll's Department but I always had the sense - I have said it to the Minister and will reiterate it to him later when he comes in - that since it covers communications, digital policy, natural resources, the environment and climate action with 250 civil servants, it is stretched beyond its capability if it is to take on additional functions. What I propose would assist the Department in having an independent State-supported, State-regulated, Department-guided agency to make sure we are ahead of the game rather than chasing it. I firmly believe the cost of setting up such a mediation service would be very quickly returned.
The Department sees nothing in the drafting of this Bill that presents any legal or other difficulties. It is more to do with the policy approach. I compliment and thank the legal advisory service. We had counsel advising us on every stage on this. It took a long time. I thank Ms Sinead Mercer, in particular. She was our researcher who worked on it. This went through the legal wringer from our side. Does the Department see any difficulty in the drafting of the Bill?
I have a question for the trade union officials, which any of them may answer. My central point is that this is partnership architecture that allows for a wider range of stakeholders to be deployed in a variety of circumstances. I would be interested in hearing their view on the prospect. At the committee meeting the other day, a question was asked about having a slightly slimmed down just transition commissioner, as in Mr. Mulvey and his terms of reference. Do the delegates believe the approach the Government is taking allows for the proper partnership approach? Is it slightly too narrow?
Mr. Macdara Doyle:
As we said in our opening statement, what is envisaged in the Bill tallies with what we have called for already, which is the establishment of a national just transition task force. If the name is changed, it is effectively the same body. It is a structure that would probably be commensurate with the scale of the challenge facing us. If set up as proposed, it would allow for the process of engagement. That is simply not taking place now or it is not possible now because we do not have structures or appropriate forum. The fear is that what is currently under development might not be sufficient to meet the scale of the challenge.
I will ask my questions very succinctly. If the answers could be given in the same fashion, that would help. I want to get through as much as I can.
I will support the Bill. I supported it on Second Stage and I welcome this scrutiny.
When did the Department first become aware that there would need to be a just transition policy and framework put in place? At what point did it dawn on the Department that, as part of meeting our climate action targets, we would have to consider a just transition? When did the Department first start working on a just transition?
Mr. Brian Carroll:
I might bring Mr. Goodwin in to assist me with this answer but policy objectives about exiting peat and coal-fired power generation were clearly set in the national development plan when it was published. That has been accelerated recently due to some regulatory and planning decisions.
Mr. Michael Goodwin:
It is envisaged that peat would cease to be used in the midlands power stations by 2030 at the latest. That was brought forward by decisions made subsequent to that. The expectation was that there would be a transition out of peat and that biomass might be used in the plants through that period but the decision made by the-----
I thank Mr. Goodwin for that. Why is it only now that the Government is looking to put in place a process? According to Mr. Carroll - we spoke at the Committee of Public Accounts on this issue quite extensively as well - the just transition commissioner is only in post for a couple of weeks. The funding was only put in place in the budget of this year. We had a decision made prematurely to close two power plants. The head of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions said Bord na Móna would not engage with the trade unions and it was playing for time. She said there was a strategy to de-unionise the organisation. There was sharp criticism that far from engagement, it was quite the opposite. Does Mr. Doyle think that is a fair reflection of what she said?
Can Mr. Carroll tell the committee how that is possible, given that the Department has known for some time that there would need to be a just transition and given that it should have been planning this for years? We are sitting here today with the trade unions, and recently with the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, saying that the engagement is appalling and not at the level that it should be, and is not even at the races in terms of what is needed. How is that the case and how was that allowed to happen?
Mr. Brian Carroll:
When I answered earlier, I referred to the original policy decisions and the timelines and how events in the past year have caused an accelerated exit from peat, in particular. In the climate action plan, the Government made just transition one of the central themes and a core piece. In responding to what is happening in the midlands, I went through the long list of initiatives. In the first budget since some of these developments, some funds have clearly been set aside and a just transition commissioner has been announced.
None of those initiatives is in place and working at this point in time. The detail has to be worked out on some of those solutions. We talked about the retrofitting programme and the funding that was made available for that. It is still is not up and running or worked out.
The just transition commissioner will have no role whatsoever in industrial relations matters. We have heard that again here from the trade unions. Why was that decision taken? Mr. Carroll has listed a range of initiatives that may are being worked on but, at this point in time, they are not in place and not working. He told us that the just transition commissioner will have an overarching role to put it all together. One of the key ingredients, however, is supporting the workers, engaging with the trade unions, and having a role in industrial relations, which will not be one of his competencies or and responsibilities. Why was the decision taken that the commissioner would not have any role whatsoever in industrial relations matters?
Mr. Macdara Doyle:
They are engaging, as we understand it, in the joint industrial council internal process but the head representative of the Bord na Móna group of unions, Willie Noone, said here last week that that mechanism is not sufficient to meet the challenge required. The unions have repeatedly called for a forum, facilitated by the WRC, to be initiated and to be up and running. That is the proper place to deal with those issues.
What is the point about the just transition policy if everyone passes the buck? Mr. Carroll's Department is the line Department responsible for making sure that we have a just transition. We all knew that this was coming down the tracks for years, yet what do we see when two plants were closed prematurely but Ministers scrambling down to the midlands, money being made available in the budget, no clear plans, strategy or engagement, and no clear framework?
I welcome this Bill, which will hopefully provide some coherence if it is enacted. I am not hearing any urgency from the Department other than telling me what was in the budget and what might be put in place and what may happen. There is no sense of any urgency or of any clear strategy from the Department.
Mr. Brian Carroll:
A very clear strategy is articulated in the climate action plan. On developments this year, there is a very real urgency in the pace at which Government made decisions and put these new funds in place, with the supports package and the announcement of the agreed terms of reference of the just transition commissioner. It is quite a coherent whole-of-Government response to the issues that have arisen in the midlands.
I imagine Mr. Carroll appreciates the difference between consultation and being involved in decision-making. What the Government is doing here with the just transition forum, with which there are difficulties as well - is that it is all about consultation. What we need, and what Deputy Eamon Ryan's Bill is trying to achieve, and what the trade unions are saying, is that the stakeholders need to be involved in decision-making as opposed to not being consulted at all. Does Mr. Carroll accept that there is a frustration on the part of the representatives of the workforce of Bord na Móna, the ESB, and others, who need to be protected? Those trade unions are telling us that the architecture is not what it should be. Mr. Carroll, however, is telling me is that it is. Can he accept the frustration of the trade unions in this regard? What has he learned from what he heard from Ms King last week and from the trade union leaders here today that can result in changes, which will ensure that we get better at just transition?
Mr. Brian Carroll:
I certainly hear the views that are being expressed by the unions here today and last week. The funds and the just transition commissioner have just been put in place and the terms of reference have just been agreed. The commissioner has clear and comprehensive terms of reference. He has not yet had a chance to go about doing his job. He will report quarterly to Government and the arrangement is to be reviewed after two years. It is hard to see how one can make an argument that a structure does not work when the structure has just been established and has not had a chance to operate as described in the terms of reference.
Mr. Carroll has made my point for me. It should have been established a long time ago. We are now asking these hard questions. It is our job to put those questions to officials and to deal with this because the preparations were not made and the strategies were not put in place earlier. It is not good enough to put it back on us and say that we cannot judge the Department on what is not in place. The Department did not put it in place. Everybody around this table knew that there would have to be a just transition element in what was needed to reduce our dependence on carbon.
Everybody knew that for years so it is not good enough simply to say that it is not up and running. That is the point; it is not up and running. That is on the Department.
I thank all the witnesses for appearing before the committee. To follow up on Deputy Cullinane's point on the just transition task force, when did the Department decide to ignore the recommendations of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Climate Action about establishing a task force and not a review group? Can the witnesses provide some detail on the decision to drop one of the key recommendations of the committee?
Mr. Brian Carroll:
The climate action plan, by and large, takes on virtually all the recommendations of the Oireachtas joint committee. On the particular one the Deputy mentioned, in terms of what the Government is keen to do, it is something I said at the outset, there are always different proposals about how to solve a problem. Whether it is a task force or legislation, there is a shared view as to the outcome everyone wants to achieve. In terms of the Government exercising its function, it has made decisions regarding funding and structures it believes to be appropriate to meeting these challenges. If there is any departure from recommendations by the joint committee, that would not be unusual in terms of the Government listening to recommendations and then making policy decisions. Everyone shares an ambition to achieve an outcome that protects vulnerable workers and ensures there is fairness as we transition to a low-carbon economy.
Does Mr. Carroll believe the response from his Department has been adequate to protect those vulnerable workers? We have heard from the union representatives about how the livelihood of workers are at stake, that the data have not been collected on the actual impact of this and how we had public relations, PR, stunts last week pretending to engage with communities when it is clear the Government is behind the curve on this issue. Does Mr. Carroll believe the response has been adequate and is he certain that workers will be protected and there will be a just transition?
Mr. Brian Carroll:
I believe the Government has put in place a comprehensive set of measures to ensure a just transition and to protect workers. I will not go through the funds announced because I listed them in my opening statement but I refer to the appointment of the just transition commissioner, a comprehensive terms of reference and the fact that the commissioner is about to embark on this work now. There were developments this year which brought forward these challenges and they came upon us more quickly than anyone would have envisaged.
I do not agree. This has been in the pipeline for some time. The fact that Mr. Carroll could not clarify when the Department was commencing work on this is another concern.
Mr. Carroll mentioned the just transition commissioner. One of the union representatives who came before the committee last week said that he spoke to Mr. Kieran Mulvey on his initial appointment and he has not heard from him since because of issues with the terms of reference. Why did the Department restrict the scale of engagement, in partnership with the commissioner, around this sensitive and just transition that needs to occur? What is the reasoning behind restricting Mr. Mulvey's partnership with the union representatives? When did the Department make that decision?
Mr. Brian Carroll:
There are two parts to the answer to that question. First, there is no attempt to stop Mr. Mulvey engaging with the unions. The terms of reference explicitly require him to consult with all key stakeholders, including the relevant companies and the trade unions and workers' representatives. That is clearly in the terms of reference. There is no attempt to restrict Mr. Mulvey talking to the unions in those ways.
Second, in terms of the industrial relations, IR, piece, the view was that we have existing industrial relations structures and that they continue to operate.
It is clear there is a difficulty for the union representatives in that they do not have a proper engagement channel with the new just transition commissioner. The terms of reference have not reflected that in respect of mediation or partnering with the just transition commissioner. How does Mr. Carroll respond to that?
Mr. Brian Carroll:
The terms of reference, which I have in front of me, say, among other things, that the commissioner will engage with all relevant stakeholders including, and I will not go through the list, the relevant trade unions and workers' representatives. It is explicitly stated in the terms of reference that the commissioner is to engage with relevant trade unions and worker representatives. The terms of reference also state that the just transition commissioner will not have a direct role in regard to industrial relations matters in Bord na Móna and that they will continue to work with the joint industrial relations council established under the Workplace Relations Commission.
I know, but Mr. Carroll has outlined the available options. We know from the workers' representatives and from the terms of reference that there seems to be a vacuum in terms of engagement for the workers in Bord na Móna.
I know, but what does Mr. Carroll say to a worker who has no access to the WRC because that is being prevented by Bord na Móna? As the workers have no access to the just transition commissioner because of the terms of reference, where do the workers go? Where is their just transition?
Mr. Brian Carroll:
I understand that there is an agreement within Bord na Móna and a certain structure in terms of how matters escalate to the Workplace Relations Commission and then on to the Labour Court. There is a structure in there which is internal discussions, the joint industrial relations council, the Workplace Relations Commission and then the Labour Court. My understanding is that is the structure but I cannot get into commenting on internal IR matters in Bord na Móna.
Mr. Macdara Doyle:
To our knowledge, all parties, except Bord na Móna, are willing to attend the WRC forum, and that includes the WRC. That is from direct contact we have had with them. Our fear would be, in this context, that we will get one shot at this and if transition becomes synonymous with job loss, economic decline, uncertainty and fear, rational people will back away from it and will have nothing to do with it. Rebuilding that trust will be a very difficult job.
Mr. Macdara Doyle:
It was stated here last week by the general secretary, Patricia King, that we are happy to meet and engage with the commissioner. However, it could be a very short meeting because as soon as we raise the elephant in the room and say, "That's great. Will you go down and fix the situation in Bord na Móna?", under the terms of reference we have seen, he will say that he cannot.
Absolutely. Has there been any assessment of this Bill or a Government decision made on the outcome of this pre-legislative scrutiny process? Have discussions been held on where the Department believes this Bill will go? I might ask Deputy Eamon Ryan if he has had discussions with the Government on where this Bill will end up-----
I thank Deputy Eamon Ryan and Sinéad Mercier, the researcher, for producing this Bill, which we fully support.
Does the Department regard workers as stakeholders in the just transition process?
Mr. Carroll said, in answer to a question that Deputy Jack Chambers asked about the terms of reference, that the IR structures within Bord na Móna should continue to operate as they are. From whom did he get that view? Did that come from the workers, Bord na Móna, Mr. Donnellan, the chief executive officer, or was it something that Mr. Carroll made up in his imagination?
Mr. Brian Carroll:
The approach being taken is to use structures to address the problem that is in place. I have gone through the terms of reference of the just transition commissioner a number of times and there are structures in place with the joint industrial relations council and the Workplace Relations Commission to deal with IR issues in Bord na Móna. I have highlighted the separate and distinct role that the just transition commissioner will take. He will engage with relevant trade union and worker representatives, among other stakeholders. That is to put him in a position to recommend to the Government, when that work is done, the essential elements of a just transition for workers and communities most affected. That includes any additional actions or measures deemed appropriate and optimal structures or processes to support co-ordinated delivery of the just transition in the midlands. It will be the role of the commissioner to develop liaison channels between institutions in the regions and central Government. There is quite a lot in the terms of reference that apply to what the commissioner is to do.
The Department takes the view that existing IR structures can continue to operate and deal with issues about redundancy, pensions, seasonal workers and the terms and hours of their work. Those are all IR issues but are they distinctively different to IR issues that arise as a result of the closure of peat production and, therefore, are they distinctly different IR issues to those that would come under the just transition that a commissioner is being appointed to look after?
In other words, the role of the just transition commissioner is strictly limited in respect of the just transition that is delivered to workers, even though Mr. Carroll described workers as stakeholders.
Mr. Brian Carroll:
We are talking about a distinct piece of industrial relations and industrial relation structures. The terms of reference for the commissioner are quite broad when it comes to delivering the wider or essential elements of the just transition in respect of having a coherent response, ensuring that other employment becomes available and that workers end up being retrained as appropriate. Funds have been put in place for that through the budget. The just transition fund is in place and there is also money for a programme of retrofitting in the midlands. Everyone wants to see the same sorts of outcomes in the midlands.
There is also extra money being provided for peat rehabilitation. We are really talking about the structures to deliver the outcome that we all agree should happen. I am trying to outline the structures that the Government has put in place as a matter of urgency in response to developments this year.
I will try and come at the issue from a different angle. It is an IR issue when workers find themselves redundant, out of work, without seasonal work, proper redundancy or proper access to pension schemes as a consequence of the closure of peat production. A just transition, however, involves finding places for those workers in which they can retrain or maybe find another job. Do we forget about all the other things that put those workers in the position where they are out of work or need to be upskilled and say that has nothing to do with just transition? The transition happens, perhaps very unjustly, but the role of the just transition commissioner is to pick up the pieces by retraining them. Does that really cover the definition of a just transition commissioner?
Mr. Brian Carroll:
I have gone through some of the supports that the Government is offering. I also listed the Departments that form part of the grouping chaired by the Department of the Taoiseach and that includes the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. We have also mentioned the work of the NESC, which is looking to the future and talking about proactive planning for what will arise going forward.
As I said, there were certain things this year that escalated the exiting from peat and the Government has responded very quickly. I know that the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection and Government agencies are engaging closely with workers affected to make them aware of available retraining, education and employment opportunities and exploring opportunities for affected workers through schemes such as community employment and the rural social scheme.
I also know that the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation has a competitive regional development fund in the amount of €60 million administered by Enterprise Ireland and has allocated €3 million-----
Mr. Carroll is using up those ten minutes and he is not answering my question. I want Mr. Carroll to say "Yes" or "No" and perhaps expand on that somewhat but I want him to answer the question. Does Mr. Carroll see the issues such as the loss of work, questions of pensions, redundancy and how temporary workers are treated as entirely disconnected from the next piece, which is what happens to those workers thereafter and whether they get retrained? Are those things disconnected or interrelated?
If workers lose their pensions or do not get access to the voluntary redundancy scheme or temporary workers are not treated properly, are those things not part of the brief of the just transition commissioner? The commissioner must be able to say that how such workers are being dealt with is unjust.
Mr. Carroll, therefore, sees them as separate issues.
If Deputy Ryan's Bill was passed in the morning, would Mr. Joyce and ICTU be happy that it would deal with Bord na Móna workers, as well as other workers who may face loss of job because of decarbonising our work places down the road, in a just and fair way ?
Mr. David Joyce:
We outlined in our opening statement that we think that if structures such as those envisaged in the Bill were in place, perhaps we would not be in the mess that we are facing in Bord na Móna in the midlands. Generally speaking, we are talking here about an architecture for delivering a just transition which we all agree is something we want to achieve. There is frustration on our side that, while the words "just transition" are bandied around quite a lot, nobody in government has come to ICTU, where the concept originated, and asked how we think it should be delivered. The Government should not only be talking to us, it should equally be talking to employers and communities but we are lacking a national dialogue as to how this is delivered.
In the absence of that, the Bill is an impetus to that discussion and that is why we welcome it very much. It has the potential to address many of the issues that we have been discussing today and discussed last week. One of the key elements of a just transition is social dialogue and we, as representatives of hundreds of thousands of workers on the island, should be part of the dialogue in coming up with how we do just transition. We should not be just recipients of it but active participants in designing it and ensuring that it is delivered.
I thank the Chair and welcome all our guests. Obviously, there is no conflict around the fact that we need this just transition. No reasonable person will challenge the proposition that we have to cushion, protect, retrain and give jobs to people, particularly in the case of the loss of the bogs in the midlands and then generally as we transition from fuels. That is not at issue. I would like to put the following proposition just to have it confirmed. Am I correct in saying there is a commitment of 100 direct and indirect jobs being created to retrofit homes in the midlands, 100 jobs through the National Parks and Wildlife Service, 100 new direct jobs and more than 150 indirect jobs in the development of renewable energy assets, 100 new jobs in recycling and potentially 150 jobs in the new green business projects and jobs in the restoration of the bogs? We would much prefer a situation where people got trained for work. Will all the machinery of the State be available for retraining? It is the last chance to saloon as we do not want anybody going on welfare, or being unemployed. In the very bleak scenario where that arises, people will be cushioned but they will get training. While we all support just transition and a just transition commissioner, for the sake of a balance, are the points I made valid?
Mr. Brian Carroll:
Yes, jobs and retraining opportunities are at the heart of the Government's just transition plan. As to the number of jobs, 400 direct and indirect jobs will be created through retrofitting of homes in the midlands starting with social homes. Up to 100 jobs will be created in the National Parks and Wildlife Service. Bord na Móna will be prioritising job creation. There will be 100 new direct jobs and more than 150 indirect jobs involved in the development of renewable energy assets by 2023. There will be 100 new jobs in new recycling options and potentially another 150 to 300 new jobs in green business projects. Yes, Senator O'Reilly is correct in that regard. It is also correct that the full machinery of State will be activated to engage with the issues facing these workers. In my opening statement or somewhere in the questioning, I referenced the group chaired by the Department of the Taoiseach and the comprehensive involvement of all relevant Government Departments. Through their various agencies and fora, they are already active on the ground in engaging with the workers, so yes, the full machinery of State is being brought to bear on this to deal with the issues being faced.
I thank Mr. Carroll very much for that clarification. Could I assume that workers who want and who need various educational and training opportunities will avail of Athlone Institute of Technology? Will the Athlone Institute of Technology specifically be marshalled in that regard along with the various educational institutions in the region? Are any steps being taken to harness it to assist people? If that is the case, there would need to be very real financial support and logistical support for people to avail of that. I am just interested to know whether the institute is being marshalled in that regard. There is a very fine institute there with very high calibre graduates. I am from that catchment area, and I have a son who is a student there. It is a wonderful institution. Is there a partnership or collaboration with the institute to assist the just transition?
Mr. Brian Carroll:
In the first instance, I should reference the just transition funds and the budget, which is €6 million. Decisions have yet to be made about the disbursement of those funds, but those funds will be made available very quickly to support that re-education and retraining. Again, I know in the whole-of-Government approach, all relevant agencies and institutions are being marshalled and there would clearly be a role for Athlone IT given its location in the midlands.
I am a former trade unionist and I chaired a trade union in my area. I am very strongly in favour or people's rights so that is not an issue. I wanted to put that on the record for the sake of balance. We have to protect people rights through this process. I wanted to establish that that was happening. I put the following point to our guests and, very respectfully, to my colleagues. We cannot have it every way. If we are going to break eggs and make an omelette, we are going to have a difficulty. We cannot have the green agenda on the one hand and on the other hand expect no dislocation in the process. We have to protect people and families. I fit into all these categories and I represent people who fit into these categories and I have family connections with this area. What I am saying is that we need to get this right. We are either going to have the green agenda and tackle climate change or not. If we are going to do so, there is going to be dislocation. Obviously, we must mitigate and protect people in the process, but we cannot just maintain the status quoand still deal with climate change. Is that a reasonable proposition?
Mr. Macdara Doyle:
Not too long ago, Bord na Móna workers signed up to a plan that saw their jobs going by 2027 to 2028. They have already recognised the fact that peat is gone. They signed up to that and there is no issue there whatsoever. The only promises they have had so far have been promises about replacement jobs. They are vague and uncertain. We do not know when those jobs will come on stream. We do not know what pay rates will be paid. Will people be on the same rate of pay or less? Will people have trade union rights? Who will the employers be? Will the Bord na Móna workers who have left already, who are about to leave or who are being made redundant be guaranteed those jobs? We do not know if they will have first choice in respect of those jobs. In any transition process anywhere in the world where this has worked, replacement jobs are set aside for the workers in the industry affected. Our fear is that what is going to happen here is that new industries will be set up and the existing Bord na Móna workforce will be cast aside.
I would respectfully say that that is speculative. I respect fully the crucial role ICTU has as a major social partner in preventing such a scenario. That is purely speculative. I do not want to be blasphemous about the doubting Thomas story in the gospel. We cannot just create evidence of the jobs in the morning. All there can be is earnestness of intention to create them. It is ICTU's role as part of the trade union movement to ensure, and to be a crucial social partner in making sure, there are bona fides in this area. I think there are bona fides. Those who want to tackle climate change recognise one has to tackle the corollaries and the unintended consequences.
Would Mr. Doyle accept my point that there is no evidence yet of a lack of bona fides?
The climate emergency, tackling climate change, the climate action plan, the Oireachtas committee and the Citizens' Assembly are all very recent. They are all in transition. It is not like a seven-year economic plan where we deal with it as we go along. ICTU is the crucial social partner dealing with this, and it has to be dealt with. Anybody who properly represents people and has respect for people is not for a moment suggesting there be a diminution of people's rights or a diminution of opportunity and believes that every citizen counts. My difficulty is that I cannot see how we can expect nirvana and a sort of deus ex machina,that almost everything will be put right and we will deal with climate change at the same time. If we are going to make an omelette, we have to break eggs and it is going to be a painful and difficult process. We have to have faith in each other. That is all I am saying.
The gist of the concerns, from my reading of them, are around accountability of this commission to the Oireachtas, the Government of the day, be it this Government or a future Government, and to the Minister of the day and around cutting across other structures within the State when dealing with industrial relations. Would the commission, as proposed, have the power to direct a public or private company to carry out particular actions as long as those actions were in relation to the just transition? Are those powers limited or unlimited? That is the sense I am getting from one of the critiques of this Private Members' Bill.
We have to accept democracy and that there has to be some level of accountability. That would be a fundamental concern. I refer to the just transition commissioner and some of the concerns. Leaving aside the industrial relations matter, which is, as has been mentioned, part of another structure, are the witnesses confident that having Mr. Mulvey co-ordinate this overarching strategic vision for this just transition, which is in this early phase, will deal with that and with every facet to ensure we protect not only the Bord na Móna and ESB workers, but future workers? Are the witnesses confident that the just transition will fulfil its remit?
Mr. Brian Carroll:
I am confident. Clearly we are talking about the just transition commissioner and that is a very important part of it. As I said, it is a whole-of-Government response, deeply embedded in the climate action plan, and it is through the group in the Department of the Taoiseach is marshalling all Departments to work alongside the just transition commissioner.
On that point about compatibility, and we had an interesting discussion with the various trade unions groups on this, in the final draft of this we decided not to give that excessive power. We felt it was better as a mediation service. Section 37 states that where the commission has attempted to resolve a dispute referred to it under this section and such conference or the employment of those other means has not resulted in a resolution of the dispute, the commission shall notify the parties to the dispute and the Minister of writing of the fact. There is a reference back to Government at every stage and not a compatibility, and I believe that is appropriate because, as I said, this is a piece of a jigsaw which encourages long-term planning, partnership and engagement with all stakeholders. It is not a super authoritative stroke of a pen outlining what one shall do. This is what we need.
I refer to the variety of circumstances in which this could be deployed. I was just thinking about this in terms of where we started today. We started with the chairman of EirGrid, who is the former Secretary General of the Department, coming in. The committee will likely agree his one key message, in terms of its work, was that more than anything else what it needs is to bring community together, to bring people along and to engage in an innovative stakeholder mediation process. That was his main message. That is a perfect example. The need to develop our grid is a critical piece of climate infrastructure. We have seen how it can go wrong and how it is difficult for companies sometimes to manage that mediation process with communities and-or workers.
We started today with a really good example of how this piece of mediation architecture could and should work. As I said, we are going to have to come back to other pieces of the jigsaw before the Government makes a decision on whether it will issue a money message or not, because it seems clear we have a majority in the Oireachtas supporting this on Second Stage and, I hope, on Committee Stage. We need that review from NESC by the end of the year as it would be very useful. As I understand from Mr. Carroll, it would include an example of other areas where this sort of mediation service or a just transition commission could be deployed. It would very useful because we would have a better idea of what has happened in the midlands in terms of this. It is very clear, as we heard last week, that resolution of this difficulty in the midlands is not something that can wait months. It has to be resolved within weeks. If we can come back early in January or whatever appropriate date-----
Yes. I have asked the members of the committee to email their suggestions on the stakeholders they believe need to be present in relation to this Private Members' Bill.
Deputy Ryan said he was satisfied with the accountability back to the Minister. Would Mr. Carroll agree with that?