Wednesday, 18 December 2019
Environmental Policy: Motion [Private Members]
Fianna Fáil has tabled an amendment to the motion. I am grateful for the opportunity to address this Labour Party motion, which Fianna Fáil is supporting today. The ongoing lack of enforcement and failure by the Government to prioritise and implement necessary legislative changes across a range of climate and environmental issues simply cannot be accepted. The endemic failure of this Fine Gael Government to take any real responsibility over the past eight years for increasing pollution and emissions is a damning indictment.
Several of the messages in this motion align closely with Fianna Fáil's motion, recently approved by this House at the start of December, which put a spotlight on environmental degradation and raised a range of legislative and policy measures to radically improve enforcement at national and local level.
This Labour Party motion rightly focuses on air quality and calls on the Government to immediately enact a nationwide ban on smoky coal. We strongly support the demand. The Government's failure to introduce a nationwide ban is having a major impact on pollution and on public health in those areas not currently covered, particularly for those with asthma and other respiratory conditions. A nationwide ban is supported by a range of experts, across academia, and in other organisations such as the Asthma Society of Ireland. However, the Government is continuing to reject the science and the recommendations.
It is disturbing that Fine Gael appears to be more concerned about potential future legal challenges from companies outside the State than saving lives right now. The Government is allowing big business to dictate policy. It is bowing to pressure from companies with vested interests. It is now shamefully seeking to distract from this pressure and is muddying the waters regarding the burning of other fuels. Following the Government's recent tokenistic proposal to extend the ban to only certain towns, no one, not a Minister nor a civil servant, has explained why an arbitrary cut-off point of towns with populations of more than10,000 has been chosen. Experts have rightly pointed out the difficulty for people, for example, who live in Gorey and are 178 people short, or in Shannon and are 271 short? Are their health and rights less important than those in bigger towns and cities?
The Government's consultation is also extremely concerning, as it deliberately tethers any action on smoky coal to the burning of other fuels.
This move risks undermining public trust in any sort of ban, particularly in rural areas, and may actually impede climate action and improvements in public health. There has never been any question but that domestic fuel-burning poses challenges and no one wishes to foist a rash move on vulnerable houses but it has been abundantly clear, including to previous Ministers, that a nationwide ban, specifically of smoky coal, is possible. The Government is now seeking to distort and distract with a typical Fine Gael political manoeuvre that could stall any political progress on improving air quality. We have seen no successful legal challenges to existing local bans or to different rates of duty being applied to different fuels, yet Fine Gael continues to play up this threat. It is important that this House be made aware of the failure of the enforcement of the existing ban. The best form of enforcement and of preventing smoky coal being used in some places and not others is a nationwide ban. It is revealing that since the Attorney General produced this advice more than six months ago, the Government has made no attempt to improve enforcement among local authorities. Potential opt-ins by county councils constitute a complete failure of the Government's leadership.
Fianna Fáil has put forward two additions to the motion. They are complementary to the proposed text and we hope they can be supported. We have included an important reminder that the nationwide ban was committed to by three former Ministers, in 2013, 2015 and 2018, but that the current Minister, seemingly against all previous advice and analysis, is the only one to decide to reject an extension of the ban. It is important that any phasing out of fossil fuels be rooted in social justice.