Tuesday, 11 June 2019
Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions
I thank the Ceann Comhairle for that announcement and of course we wish them well. We will miss them greatly in terms of the Dáil.
In 1990 the then Minister, Mary Harney, introduced a ban on smoky coal within Dublin city and the Dublin region. This had a radical and beneficial impact on public health and the environment. It saved many lives and improved the quality of health of many others. This was followed by extending the ban to other cities and across the country but not in all locations.
It took courage at the time to do that and it took some foresight. Thirty years later it is incomprehensible that the last two Fine Gael-led Governments have failed to introduce a nationwide ban on smoky coal despite numerous promises to do so. An Environmental Protection Agency report on air quality, which is published in The Irish Timestoday following a freedom of information request by Jack Horgan-Jones, reveals the degrees to which towns that are not covered by the smoky coal ban are above World Health Organization air quality guidelines on a continuous basis. That is at many locations across the country. Enniscorthy has the highest observed concentrations of this pollutant among all monitoring stations in Ireland. We can look at Longford town, Roscommon and other areas and see a similar situation. The pollutants PM2.5and PM10are 20% higher there than in Dublin and Cork. This begs the question of why the lives, health and quality of health of people living in Longford or Enniscorthy are less important to the Government than those living elsewhere.
Professor John Sodeau from UCC has stated in dramatic - probably melodramatic - terms that Enniscorthy risks becoming the New Delhi of Ireland. He warns that the public health and climate change consequences for those areas not covered by a ban on smoky coal are very severe. He also refers to air particulate pollution that attacks every cell in the body and carries carcinogens, heavy metals, and acids. This pollution and harmful material is not just confined to those towns. It spreads across the country and moves about. Professor Sodeau makes the central point that air pollution is inseparable from climate change. Up to 1,500 lives are lost annually as a result of diseases linked to this particular air pollution. I ask the Taoiseach to read the accounts inThe Irish Timestoday of Paula Freeman, an athlete from Enniscorthy, and Breda Flood, a 33 year old GAA activist from Gorey, who cannot watch sport outside during the winter period. We have had promises from previous Ministers, including Phil Hogan and Deputies Kelly and Naughten on this. Recently, the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Bruton, delayed introducing this nationwide ban, 30 years after the first one was introduced. I ask the Taoiseach why there is such inertia, indecisiveness, lack of courage and conviction in such a vital public health matter, and why the lives and health of people living in those towns without a smoky coal ban are less important to the Government than those that were covered a long time ago.
I thank the Deputy and I join him in congratulating Deputies Clare Daly, Fitzgerald, Wallace and Kelleher on their election to the European Parliament. I understand that they will continue to be Members of this House until 2 July, but all of us would like to be associated in extending our congratulations to them as they move to a bigger House and new roles.
It is very much Government policy and a Government priority to improve the air quality in our cities, towns and rural areas. We want to do so not just because of health, because we know that poor air quality has a very severe impact on people, children in particular, with respiratory diseases such as bronchitis, emphysema, asthma, but also as part of our climate action agenda. We can improve air quality in two major ways. The first is restricting or banning the sale of smoky fossil fuels, and the second is reversing some of the errors made in the past in encouraging people to buy diesel cars, which we now know are very bad for air quality because of nitrous oxide and sulphur oxides and nitrogen oxides, SOx and NOx. The Deputy will be aware that though the then Minister, Mary Harney, did a very good thing for the people of Dublin in banning smoky coal, a subsequent Government did a wrong thing by encouraging people to buy diesel cars, which we now know are very bad for air quality and have damaged the health of our children.
The difficulty we are running into is that a number of coal firms have indicated that they intend to challenge the introduction of a nationwide smoky coal ban, which is Government policy. The Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Bruton, has received advice from the Attorney General on this. He is determined to reduce the levels of harmful particulate emissions from residential heating and is working to finalise a legally robust plan which will improve air quality, particularly in our cities and towns. Banning the use of smoky coal would have a positive impact on public health, especially in urban areas, but a number of coal companies have indicated that if the Government attempts to extend the smoky coal ban, they will challenge the new ban as well as the existing ban that applies in Dublin. If that challenge were successful, not only would we fail to go forward, we may even end up going backwards. These companies have indicated that they would challenge the ban on the grounds that we should also ban other fossil fuels, such as wood and peat, which they claim do as much harm in terms of air pollution as smoky coal. We have to give this proper consideration. We do not want to end up voting for the law of unintended consequences whereby we extend the ban but the ban in Dublin gets reversed. We also need to bear in mind the possibility that peat and wood do the same level of damage to our air quality and that we would therefore have to apply the same policy principles to them.
I find that response pathetic and incredibly weak. The ban on smoky coals was introduced in this city nearly 30 years ago. Thirty years later, the Taoiseach is saying that the Government cannot do the remaining 20% because the coal firms have said they will take legal action. The smoking ban would never have been introduced had we been afraid of the threat of big tobacco coming after us legally.
That threat was there all the time, but we went ahead. The bottom line is that, for any Government, public health is number one. Where the evidence is demonstrable in terms of the improvement in air quality and in improving people's lives where respiratory diseases and cancer, in particular lung cancer, are concerned, there is no argument. This Government should have taken them on without any hesitation.
We are down to the last 20%. It is shocking when one reads the accounts of people's daily lives in the towns where the ban on smoky coals does not apply. The comparisons between those areas of the country and those areas where the ban has been in place for a long time are significant. Health is being damaged as a result, but the Taoiseach is saying that he must give it due consideration. In 2013, the then Minister, Phil Hogan, stated that he wanted to see a ban on smoky coal throughout the country within the next three years. This was formalised by a later Minister, Deputy Kelly, at an air policy conference in 2015 where he stated that the ban would come into effect in 2016.
He was followed by another Minister, Deputy Naughten, confirming to the Dáil in April 2018 that a ban would come into effect incrementally. In 2019, the Minister, Deputy Bruton, has deferred. Has the Government not been considering the ban for the past six years? Announcements from the Government mean nothing. When the Dáil declared a climate emergency, the Taoiseach stated that actions were what were important. There is an absence of action in this situation, as well as a complete indecisiveness and a lack of any firm response to the vested interests, which want to continue damaging our health.
I am sorry if the Deputy is angry and upset once again, but the answer I am giving him is the honest one, and that is that we have to give due and full consideration to this matter. Before the Deputy brought in the smoking ban in the workplace, I am sure that he gave full consideration to the legal consequences and legal risks before proceeding.
The same applied for me when I published the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill 2015. We studied the law and we made sure that we would be on robust grounds if it was challenged in the courts. We examined what happened in other jurisdictions-----
-----himself, I can give him something that might be of use and some help to him, that is, to advise him that powers do exist for local authorities to make decisions in this area.
For example, recently Wexford County Council unanimously passed a motion calling on the Minister to extend the smoky coal ban to Enniscorthy. However, it is open to Wexford County Council to now make an order to begin the process to ban the burning of a substance under provisions of the Air Pollution Act 1987.
I congratulate Deputies Clare Daly, Wallace, Fitzgerald and Kelleher on their election to the European Parliament.
This is national carer's week. It is a week in which we acknowledge and recognise the tens of thousands of carers throughout the State for the contribution that they make to people's lives, to families and to communities. We can safely say that they are everyday heroes without whom many people would not enjoy a decent or normal life. We can all agree that they are to be commended on their efforts and work.
Therefore, it is with much regret to learn as we did recently that the HSE has effectively suspended the allocation of home help hours to new applicants. It has applied this suspension at a time when more than 6,000 people are waiting for access to home care supports. The Taoiseach knows as well as I do the impact this will have on older people, people in need of care and people with disabilities and their carers, as well as their wider communities. The Taoiseach also knows it will place further pressure on hospitals by compounding the problem of delayed discharges.
The HSE says it has taken this action to balance the budget for 2019 but curtailing home help hours is a false economy. Directly employed home help, in particular, represents exceptional value for money. It allows older people to remain in their homes or to be safely discharged from hospital. If patients do not have enough home help hours, they are forced to remain in hospital at a substantial cost to the HSE or their families are forced to pay privately for home care support. Neither of these options represents value for money. Both of them end up costing more in the long run. We consistently hear from patients in hospitals who cannot be discharged because of a lack of home care supports. There are people who want to go home, and who could and should be going home, but adequate supports are not in place. Despite a budget increase of €10 million for this year, the number of hours being provided is simply not enough. I could say "we told you so" because Sinn Féin warned that the allocation would be inadequate. We argued for an extra allocation of €40 million in respect of home care packages to make adequate provision, but the Government chose not to listen. I would like the Taoiseach to commit to looking at whether funding can be found in the HSE budget to fund additional home help hours that can ease budgetary pressures elsewhere. I ask him to do that quickly because it would be money very well spent and it would save the HSE money in the long run. At a time when there is rightly a focus on budgetary practices, we need to focus on things that work and on real and prudent public spending.
This is national carer's week. I want to join my voice to those of the Deputy and others in this House who have paid tribute to carers, who do enormous work for their families and others. The Government and society place enormous value on the work of those who care for people in their own homes and in other homes. Those are not just words; in the last couple of years the Government has made some substantial changes to improve the supports that exist for carers. The carer's support grant, which had been cut, has been fully restored and is being paid at the moment. Indeed, there is no means test for that. Over the course of the last three budgets, we have increased carer's allowance and carer's benefit by €15 a week. The means test for carer's allowance is considered to be one of the fairest and most generous in the developed world. Last year, we extended free GP care to people in receipt of carer's allowance and carer's benefit because we believe carers need to be cared for too. Now they can attend their doctors without having to pay consultation fees. There has been an increase in provision for respite. Approximately 12 new respite houses are being opened across the country to provide more respite for people. This allows carers to take a break, which is important for their physical and mental health. I reiterate that there has not been any cut in funding for home support and home care. In 2018, the total budget was €418 million and 15.7 million home support hours, including intensive home care packages, were provided. Almost €30 million extra has been provided in this year's budget, which allows us to increase the number of home help hours being provided from 17.5 million to 18.5 million. An additional 1 million hours are being provided this year. This is quite a substantial increase. As is always the case when it comes to health and social care, however, there is no limit to demand. We have to manage within our means. We have to make sure that we come in on budget and that we provide for this appropriately.
The Taoiseach has not addressed the central point of my question. It has been confirmed by the HSE that between now and early November, there will be a reduction or a restriction on the number of new or additional hours allocated. As I said in the course of my question, this comes at a time when more than 6,000 people are on a waiting list for home care supports.
Very often, as the Taoiseach knows, those will be the only supports afforded to carers. I asked the Taoiseach a simple question and he recited what he regards as his record of support for carers. Carers, of course, will dispute many aspects of that but I am asking him about this particular issue. Will he go back to the HSE management and tell them that it is not acceptable to say to people who are waiting for home help hours that they may not receive any assistance until November? That is months away and anybody who cares for an older person or a person with a disability will tell the Taoiseach that it is not sustainable to ask them to wait for months on end for additional supports. The HSE said it is taking this action because of budgetary pressures but this is a classic case of penny wise and pound foolish.
A cut of this nature runs against the grain of Sláintecare and the stated intention to keep people in the community. It runs against the ambition of dealing with delayed discharges and overcrowding in our hospitals. It makes eminent sense for the Taoiseach, as Head of Government, to go back to HSE management and tell them that the money has to be found and that 6,000 people or more cannot be left in the lurch, particularly now, during National Carer's Week.
If it is a case of comparing records, one only has to look at the difference north of the Border when it comes to the income supports provided to carers, where Deputy McDonald's party served in government for a long time. I am happy to compare that record at any point in time.
The budget for home help and home support in 2015 was €306 million. This year it is €446 million, so in the course of only four years there has been a 50% increase in the budget for home help. People will argue that providing extra money for home help takes pressure off hospitals and reduces hospital costs but there is no evidence that this is the case because notwithstanding a 50% increase in home help funding in the past four years, savings have not arisen further up the line in hospitals, unfortunately.
I want to raise something that is very urgent and important; much more urgent than anything of that nature. This month two new reports on what is happening to our globe were published. Ice is melting in the Arctic at six times the rate that was previously thought according to a report from the University of Edinburgh, which was published in early June. The global plant survey from the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew shows that plant life is becoming extinct five times faster than was thought to be the case. In northern India as I speak, poor people who have no shelter or access to water are dropping dead in the worst heatwave the country has ever experienced, with 40°C heat recorded in Delhi and 51°C recorded in other parts of northern India. I ask the Taoiseach to engage with us in a serious conversation about what the hell his Government is doing in response to climate change. I heard him on television, following the green wave in the recent election, saying that he gets it and understands it but I ask him to give us evidence of that. In the past week, since the results of the election were announced, I discovered that the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment has slapped a money message on the Petroleum and Other Minerals Development (Amendment) (Climate Emergency Measures) Bill 2018 that we have painstakingly tried to rescue from the hostage position in which it has been held by this Government. There are also money messages on Sinn Féin's Microgeneration Support Scheme Bill 2017 and the Green Party's Waste Reduction Bill 2017.
These money messages seriously need to be questioned because they involve small amounts - beer money, really - compared with what the Government is willing to spend on defending Donald Trump or on a botched tendering process for broadband. Some €26 million was spent on tendering for broadband and at least €10 million was spent on the Trump visit. The Government is using tiny amounts as an excuse to block serious Bills, which would send a message to the fossil fuel and plastic industries and tell them that the game is up and that they will have to start paying for the damage they are doing to the planet. The State seems to be fond of slapping taxes on little people whether in the form of water taxes, increased carbon taxes, or increased property tax. Why the hell is the same attitude not taken to the global corporations that irresponsibly continue to dig up and burn fossil fuels and to develop the plastics industry which is destroying our oceans and their ecology? Everybody else pays for it while they do not, yet they continue to make vast profits. Rather than attacking my Bill in a sentence again, is the Taoiseach seriously saying that it is worth blocking these measures to pay some kind of lip service to industry while holding back this country's progress towards being a leader in dealing with climate chaos?
-----by giving her examples of four practical measures taken in recent weeks. I signed a joint letter with President Macron to build a Celtic interconnector between Ireland and continental Europe which will allow us to expand our renewable energy sector and to share it with Europe.
Irish Rail issued the initial tender for 600 hybrid electric vehicles as we start to move towards an electric rail fleet and to electrify the lines to Drogheda, Maynooth and Celbridge. Dublin Bus received the first of its low-emission buses.
All buses being procured for our cities from now on will be low-emission vehicles. Just today Cabinet voted to publish legislation to outlaw the manufacture of microbeads in Ireland. There are four practical examples-----
-----of measures taken by Government in recent weeks that will make a difference. These will be followed by the publication of the Government's climate plan in the coming weeks. Government wants sensible climate action, which will reduce greenhouse gas emissions rather than legislation which pays lip service to doing so. It wants sensible climate action that reduces greenhouse gas emissions but which does not cost us our jobs, make us poorer, or make us less secure. The difficulty we have with the legislation the Deputy is putting forward is that it will not reduce greenhouse gas emissions at all. We all know and acknowledge that we will need to continue using natural gas for decades to come. Some 30% of our energy mix is now renewable and, with major effort, we can get to 70% by 2030. We will, however, still need to use natural gas as part of our energy mix for decades to come. Homes and businesses around the country will still use natural gas as part of their energy mix. The question arises, if we will still have to use natural gas, a proposal which any reasonable person or climate scientist will accept, should we use our own or should we use natural gas imported from shale sands in North America, from the Middle East or from Russia? We believe that, if we have to use it, it makes more sense to use our own on grounds of cost, energy security and the environment-----
-----because of the risks and costs of transport. We have accepted other legislation. We have accepted two Private Member's Bills, one from Deputy McLoughlin to outlaw fracking and another from Deputy Pringle to end investment by State funds in fossil fuel companies. We have, therefore, demonstrated that we will support legislation which makes sense, actually works and will not do unintended harm. Unfortunately, the Deputy's Bill does not meet those tests.
I want to pick up on something the Taoiseach mentioned. He said he wanted climate action that does not hurt jobs, make people poorer or make things more severe for people. Bord na Móna workers are facing redundancy and replacement into other jobs. In the words of their union official, they are being treated abysmally because we are making a bags of the first challenge of just transition for both the workers and the community.
On the issue of our natural gas, three days after this House declared a climate emergency the Government issued a licence to Exxon Mobil and the Chinese state oil company - those nasty communist Chinese - to drill for oil 200 miles off the Kerry coast. If they find it, more than likely it will not come back here because it would not be economically efficient or suitable to do so. It would not be commercially viable. Therefore it is not our gas. It is gas this State is selling off for a pittance to global corporations, which the Taoiseach refuses to challenge. He refuses to challenge them because he is being lobbied by them consistently. These companies are in the oil, plastics and energy industries. Until the Taoiseach takes this seriously he has no credibility. If he does not challenge the corporations, nobody will believe him when it comes to climate action.
I have not been lobbied by them at all. I said earlier the Government wants to take sensible climate action, that is, climate action that reduces greenhouse gas emissions and helps us to save our planet, but at the same time does not cost jobs, does not make us poorer and does not make us less safe. The difficulty with some of the Deputy's proposals is that they potentially would make us poorer, cost jobs-----
We are transitioning Bord na Móna from a peat company to one that is involved in waste and renewable energy. It is exactly what we should be doing because we are phasing out peat production in the State.
As part of the just transition, there is a voluntary redundancy scheme for Bord na Móna workers which has been oversubscribed. In addition, packages are being put in place for the retraining of workers.
People living in rural areas have long had the perception that they have been largely forgotten about by successive governments. There is a growing regional imbalance between Dublin and rural Ireland. Over the decades Dublin has received enormous investment with more than €750 million on the port tunnel, €728 million on the red and green Luas lines, €368 million on the Luas cross city, and upwards of €3 billion to be spent on metro north. I could go on and bore the House with more figures relating to past and future investment in the capital. I know the Taoiseach will say that much of that investment is of benefit to the country as a whole.
I do not want the Taoiseach to come back with the usual story that the Government invested €300 million on the N17-N18 Gort to Tuam motorway, as if that alone should satisfy us for another few decades. The people of the west deserved that investment.
On a recent visit to Galway, the Taoiseach visited Connacht Rugby's facilities at the Sportsground on College Road. Connacht Rugby has been very successful in recent years, reaching new heights, including winning the Pro 12 title in 2016. It has just completed a great season earning it a place at the top level of European club rugby. It is unique in a sporting context in the west in that it actively goes out the length and breadth of the province to help develop the game in local communities and schools. It is now embarking on a very ambitious project, costing €34 million, to build a state-of-the-art facility not just for Galway but for the west.
The Taoiseach personally has seen the facilities of Connacht Rugby, as has Deputy Micheál Martin, the leader of Fianna Fáil. He knows they are not suitable for the calibre of team Connacht Rugby has become. The CEO of Connacht Rugby, Willie Ruane, and the head of operations, Karl Boyle, have done excellent work in bringing the project through the planning process to where it is now ready to proceed without delay.
The only issue now is with funding. Connacht Rugby has applied for €20 million from the large-scale sports infrastructure fund. I again stress that the project is not for Galway but for the west, which we rightly deserve. No major investment has gone into sporting facilities in the west on a scale of funding elsewhere.
Croke Park received €103 million and Aviva Stadium got €191 million. Other grounds, such as Páirc Uí Chaoimh, Thomond Park, Semple Stadium, the Gaelic Grounds in Limerick, and Irish Independent Park in Cork, also received funding.
There is another very worthwhile development at Oranmore-Maree GAA club, which is embarking on an ambitious €4 million project. It recently won the all-Ireland intermediate club hurling championship. I compliment the chairman, Mr. Gerry Rabbitte, and the manager, the great Gerry McInerney, on their success.
The club proposing to construct a sports centre of excellence in Renvyle and expand existing facilities on a 34-acre site that will include four new playing pitches and a covered terrace, in addition to attractions such as a public playground and looped walkway.
These are two projects of major importance to the west. Will the Taoiseach commit to allocating Connacht Rugby the €20 million it needs and Oranmore-Maree the €2.4 million it needs from the sports capital fund?
I assure the Deputy and the House that the Government is investing public money in infrastructure throughout the State, in every county, province and city. As one travels the country, everywhere can be seen new schools, new school buildings and extensions. They are being built in every county. The sports capital programme is specifically designed so that every county gets a fair share of the funding. It was not always like that but it has been for the past seven or eight years. The rural fund goes entirely to rural areas, and the vast majority of the urban fund has gone to urban areas other than the capital. On airports, for example, there will be an announcement in the coming days. Funding for airports does not ever go to Dublin or Cork. It only goes to the smaller airports. With regard to transport, and I know the Deputy does not like me saying it, but it is true, the single biggest-----
The biggest single investment in transport in Ireland in recent years was the Gort-Tuam motorway. It cost more than the Luas cross city and Newlands Cross projects combined. That happened in the west. The largest investments occurring at the moment are the N4 to Sligo in the north west, and major projects in Cork due to start before the end of the year, examples being at Dunkettle and Ballyvourney-Macroom. There is a very fair spread of investment around the country.
I agree with the Deputy on one point. There has been underinvestment in sports infrastructure in Connacht, including Galway. The kind of investment we have seen in Croke Park and the Aviva Stadium in Dublin, and which we saw at Thomond Park, Limerick, and Páirc Uí Chaoimh, Cork, has not happened in Galway or the west. Funding for major sports infrastructure in the west, including Galway, is long overdue. I acknowledge the Deputy has a real interest in this issue, as do the Minister of State, Deputy Kyne, Deputy Naughton and others. I had the pleasure to visit Connacht Rugby a couple of weeks ago.
Having done so, I can see that what has been planned is very ambitious. It is much more than a stadium project. It is also about meeting facilities and conference facilities that will be of benefit to Galway. There ought to be performance spaces. It is a really exciting and good project. It is much bigger than a sports project. What I cannot do, unfortunately, is give the Deputy a commitment on that right here and now but there is €100 million set aside in the major infrastructure sports fund. The applications are in. The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, and the Minister of State, Deputy Griffin, will make the allocations before the end of the year.
I thank the Taoiseach for his response. This is going to be a political decision. All the applications are being assessed by the large-scale sports infrastructure fund team in Killarney, but there ought to be political intervention to make sure there is regional balance and that the west gets the State aid it deserves. The stadium proposed to be built in Galway has gone through the planning process. It is not going to go ahead unless €20 million is received from the Government. If more money is needed, will the Government commit to allocating more to the fund to ensure there is regional balance and that it is not just a matter of Dublin? There are two applications in from the west. One is from Connacht Rugby and the other is from Oranmore-Maree GAA club. I ask that the Taoiseach ensure proper funding is put in place to ensure the two much-needed projects get the funding they deserve.
Deputy Grealish makes a very strong case on behalf of Connacht Rugby. We will see what happens later in the year when the allocations are made. There is €100 million for the country.
This is one of the major projects that is competing for funding.
I am sorry to say that there will not be an increase to the €100 million fund. I expected to be called on today to defend the Government from criticisms that have been made of it by the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council, IFAC. The Government increased spending last year by 6% when the council suggested spending should have increased by 5% or less. We need to take that criticism on board, think about it and respond to it. However, what we see in the House today is part of the problem. Fianna Fáil is demanding more money for pay and pensions for the Defence Forces and it is not the case that Fianna Fáil has particular regard for the Defence Forces because it will be asking the same things for another group next week.
An Independent Deputy is looking for more money for sport. Sinn Féin is looking for more money for home care. This Government is holding the line on spending and it is difficult.