Wednesday, 10 July 2019
Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions
Our Defence Forces are key to our democracy and security. We are an island nation and therefore our naval services in particular are important for patrolling and protecting our seas, resources and our interests. The Navy is in a crisis of morale and numbers and it lacks confidence about its future. The inability to retain staff is central to that crisis. Able sea personnel is now at 50% strength, mechanics are at 46% strength, communications operatives are at 50% strength and the diving section is at 33% strength. Alarmingly the Report of the Public Service Pay Commission shows that a significant number of personnel in both the specialist and generalist areas will leave, the majority within two years, with 63% of specialists planning to leave the general Defence Forces.
Flag Officer Commanding, Commodore Michael Malone, has confirmed the loss of 450 crew over the last five years has placed an extraordinary burden on those who remain, so that all ships are at reduced manning levels but that they docked two ships in a commitment to valuing the welfare and safety of personnel.
The Government has been in denial about this crisis for too long. Repeated spin from the Minister of State and the Government has attempted to camouflage the crisis. The most recent manifestation of this was the efforts by the Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe, to undermine Commodore Malone's communications to his staff by claiming that the two ships were docked due to maintenance and not crew shortages. The Taoiseach tried to rescue the Minister of State and sounded a bit like President Trump when he said that two opposites were actually the same thing. The Taoiseach said that rather than spreading the crews over seven ships they were going to fully staff and equip five. Speaking at Haulbowline, the Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe, said that it was inaccurate reporting but I understand he was quite adamant with the media at the time and trenchantly argued this was inaccurate reporting. The Taoiseach has endeavoured to rescue him from his plight. Commodore Malone was very clear when he said: "I have taken the decision the Naval Service now needs to cut our cloth to measure and take an operational pause to allow us to consolidate and regenerate."
The Minister of State's behaviour has angered the Naval community. Retired personnel are incensed, as is evident from today's Irish Examiner. To be frank, the Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe, does not inspire confidence in them. The military community questions his competence and authority within the Government. This crisis has been identified for some time but effective intervention measures were not taken by the Minister of State. This morning, only three ships are out at sea. The remaining are in dock. I understand the LÉ Róisín is on a mid-life extension programme, which is a wonderful phrase.
Does the Taoiseach have confidence in Deputy Kehoe as our Minister of State in the Department of Defence? Why did the Minister of State contradict Commodore Malone and undermine the media reports so trenchantly? Does the Taoiseach accept that our naval strength is sub optimal for an island nation and attempts to deny that only exacerbate the problem?
I have absolute, total and full confidence in Deputy Kehoe as Minister with responsibility for Defence. He has held the post for seven years, initially as Minister of State and more recently as Minister with responsibility for Defence. Nobody in this House knows more about military matters or understands defence given his seven years experience.
Let us look at a few of the things that have been done in the last three, four or five years since he has held the post. First recruitment, which had been paused by the previous Government, was resumed, and second, there has been major investment in the Defence Forces, with five new vessels and the most modern fleet ever. There has been investment in aircraft with a new fisheries protection aircraft on order, there is new equipment and our barracks have been consolidated and are being invested in again and upgraded. There has been an expansion of UN missions overseas and also EU missions, including the EU training mission in Mali. We have also participated in the Operation Sophia in the Mediterranean and a decision was taken recently to deploy the Army Ranger Wing in Mali under the MINUSMA programme. In recent years, under the Minister of State's stewardship, we have seen investment in our fleet, aircraft, equipment, Defence Forces and their barracks and an expansion of operations overseas, particularly with the UN and the EU, as well as the resumption of recruitment.
Everyone in government, including the Minister, Deputy Kehoe, acknowledges that we have a real and severe challenge when it comes to recruitment and retention in our Defence Forces. It is not unique to the Defence Forces. At a time of full employment when there are so many opportunities in the private sector, we are struggling to recruit in many parts of the public sector, as are many parts of the private sector. What are we doing about it? We have a pay deal with the public service which also applies to members of the Defence Forces. It involves full pay restoration for people earning €70,000 or less, which is being phased in currently and which will be completed by next year. In addition, something which the Minister of State fought for, the Report of the Public Service Pay Commission, from which the Deputy quoted, has made recommendations to improve allowances for members of the Defence Forces. The Government has accepted those recommendations in full and we are in the process of implementing them. It does not stop there. The next step is a review of tech pay, recognising that there are people in the Defence Forces with particular skills which are very valuable and sought after in the private sector. We need to improve pay for those in tech and specialist grades. That is the third step which is being taken.
The Taoiseach did not answer the question of why the Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe, contradicted Commodore Malone and undermined him to those under his command and questioned what he had said, and did so trenchantly with the media and denied that ships were docked because of crew shortages, which they were. That is the only reason. I do not know from whom the Taoiseach is getting his information. The rest of the Members of the House know from talking to people, to families of those who work in the Army, Navy and Air Corps and from retired personnel, how angry they are at the running down of our Defence Forces. That is the recurring refrain from those who love and value our Defence Forces, those who have served and the military families whose fathers, and fathers before them, operated in the Army. Go to those communities, Taoiseach. They have never witnessed what they perceive to be the neglect of a Government towards them.
The Taoiseach can say all he has just said but it does not equate with their experience and how they see it. Morale has never been so low in our Defence Forces. Numbers have never been so low. That is a fact. The Army, Naval Service and Air Corps have never been so under strength. More alarmingly, specialists in all three arms are dangerously low, from Army bomb disposal, to cybersecurity, to communications specialists and across the board. The intervention of the pay commission is very belated with regard to the Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe. I note the Taoiseach has said he has absolute and total confidence in the Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe. I suspect that not too many out there in the military community, be they serving members or retired members, who value it so much, would share his sentiments in this regard.
In answer to the Deputy's question I am informed by the Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe, that he was briefed in Haulbowline last Friday and the remarks he made to the media reflect the briefing he was given in Haulbowline with officials and senior Naval Service staff present. In terms of the actions that are being taken, let me go through them again.
Three major actions are under way to improve terms and conditions in our Defence Forces. First, the public sector pay deal means full pay restoration for all Defence Forces staff earning less than €70,000 by next year. This is already being phased in. Second is a €10 million package of improvements in allowances, as recommended by the Public Sector Pay Commission. This has been accepted by the Government. The third step is the review of tech pay and specialist pay, recognising these are people with really valuable skills who we need in our Defence Forces but who are sought after by a private sector that is booming. We need to improve their pay and terms and conditions. This is the third step that has now commenced.
As we meet here this afternoon, farmers are at the gates protesting against the trade deal agreed between the European Union and Mercosur countries just over a week ago. All of the main farming organisations across the island are utterly opposed to the deal and for very good reason. The Mercosur deal represents a sell-out of Irish farmers and their families. It is devastating news for the rural economy and flies in the face of commitments made to tackle climate change.
Irish beef is the best in the world and let there be no doubt about this. Through no fault of their own, farmers and their families are under massive pressure. There has been a sustained decline in beef prices over the last number of years and farmers are being fleeced by factories that do not pay a fair price for their cattle. Farmers are already suffering because of Brexit and any prospect of a hard or chaotic Brexit will be utterly devastating for the sector. In the middle of all of this, at a time when farm incomes are at disastrously low levels, the European Commission seeks to plough ahead with a deal that would cripple Irish agriculture by allowing tens of thousands of tonnes of cheap meat into the European Union and Ireland. All of this makes absolutely no sense. In fact, it is an insult to farmers, their families and everyone who relies on the beef industry in particular to make a living.
It also makes no sense from an environmental perspective. In fact, I would say it makes a mockery of the European Union's concerns surrounding climate change. We all know the Amazon is being destroyed on a daily basis because of illegal logging and to make way for new cattle ranches. This policy is supported by the new president of Brazil and undoubtedly it will continue and be accelerated if the deal is approved. The Dáil recently declared a climate emergency and the Government recently launched its climate action plan. This deal and the Government's support for it renders both of these initiatives utterly meaningless. The deal needs to be stopped. That is what we need to do. To this end, Sinn Féin has a motion coming before the Dáil this afternoon that calls on the Government in no uncertain terms to stand up for Irish interests and to oppose the deal. The motion can be the first meaningful step in defeating what is a bad deal for our farmers, our environment and our country. I ask the Taoiseach to do the right thing and support the motion this afternoon when it comes before the House.
Everyone in the Government and on these benches understands the pressures our beef farmers are under, particularly at a time when prices are so low and at a time when they face the threat of a no-deal Brexit in a few months' time. The best thing we can do for our beef industry and beef farmers, recognising their importance to the wider rural economy, is to ensure we secure a deal on Brexit by the end of October so the largest export market for our beef farmers remains open to them in a few months' time. The vast majority of our food is exported from this island and our largest market is the UK. This is the issue to which the Government, the Tánaiste, the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, so many others and I are giving so much time because we know how much our rural economies and farmers will suffer if we end up in a no-deal scenario on 31 October. The concerns that arise from Mercosur will pale into insignificance if we end up with no deal on 31 October.
With regard to Mercosur, what the Deputy said is not correct. There is no trade deal agreed. After 20 years of negotiations led by various people along the way but on this occasion led by Commissioner Malmström of the ALDE group there is now a political agreement between the European Commission and Mercosur on a future trade deal. There will be a two year process whereby that 17 page document will be turned into a legal agreement about this size. It will then go to the trade Council, most likely for a vote under QMV. As I have said before, if it is the case that the trade deal is not in Ireland's interest we will not hesitate to vote against it but we will need to see the full legal agreement and do a full economic and environmental assessment of it because while there is no doubt there are serious downsides in this for our beef industry there may also be upsides too, in the dairy sector, the drinks sector, for small and medium-sized enterprises, industry, manufacturing and lots of other parts of our economy. Any responsible Government has to wait to see what the agreement is and then examine it in the round.
No matter what happens, we will strive to ensure the interests of our beef farmers are protected, first by insisting that the agreement, if it goes through, requires South American countries to meet their obligations under the Paris accords, and it is really important they are tied into this; second by ensuring that any beef exported to the EU from South America meets the same food safety standards and traceability standards as we would expect from our beef farmers and beef industry; and third by making sure that compensatory mechanisms are put in place whereby other markets are opened up to our farmers, as has been the case already in Korea, Japan and Mexico and other places. As the Deputy said, we produce the best beef in the world and when one produces the best beef in the world one can find a market for it and get a good price for it. We need to make sure those markets are open to our farmers.
The Taoiseach will not convince any sensible person, and certainly not any farmer, that he is protecting his or her interests in any shape, make or form by allowing our market to be flooded with South American beef. It makes no sense. Nobody believes the Taoiseach when he gives us this line that he is conscious of the needs of the rural economy and farming families, when out of the other side of his mouth he states the deal needs to be assessed and tested. It sounds like he is quite prepared to throw farming families under the bus if it suits the interests of bigger corporate interests who might wish to export into the large South American market. That is how it sounds to me and how it sounds to the farmers at the gate. What they need to hear from the Taoiseach is an unequivocal commitment to protect their livelihoods. What consumers need to hear from the Taoiseach is an unequivocal commitment to protect standards and the quality of the meat that is consumed here. We produce the best beef in the world. Why in the name of God would you open up our market to substandard produce?
Beef from South America does not comply with the same food standards or traceability requirements. The Taoiseach knows that. The President of Brazil has as much interest in the Paris Agreement or environmental standards as the man in the moon. The Amazon rainforest is known as the lungs of the world. The Government is proposing to puncture the lungs of the world to allow cheap beef imports into the Irish market. That is unforgivable. If the Taoiseach and his Government care about farmers then they should support our motion. That will be the real test and the real yardstick of his rhetoric.
Beef farmers, beef farm families and all of those involved in the beef industry in Ireland have that unequivocal commitment from me and the Government, as do consumers of beef and beef products in this country. Ensuring that we have the highest food safety standards and the highest traceability standards should apply to beef that is imported as well as to beef produced here. We are not doing anything, however, for beef farmers, the beef industry or farm families if we just bury our heads in the sand. We export 90% of the food we produce to other parts of the world. Free trade is good for our food industry. Our food industry is based on free trade. We have to ensure, however, that competition is fair and that anybody competing with our farmers and our food producers meets the same food safety standards, the same environmental standards and the same traceability standards. If that is done, if the playing field is fair, then as the best beef producers in the world we should be able to compete. That is what we need to make sure happens.
The issue of rural crime and the devastating harm it does to the fabric of rural communities is still a matter of significant and ongoing concern. The anger was palpable at a packed meeting held recently in Toomevara, County Tipperary. People attending that meeting expressed their view that effectively nothing has changed in recent years. They still feel as vulnerable as ever and that there are not enough gardaí or resources, as well as not enough meaningful sanctions in place against those who repeatedly commit these types of heinous crimes.
One of the related issues that emerged, however, was a clear sense that the legal aid system in this State is broken. People in rural Ireland feel that the system is totally stacked against them. Regarding costs, the amounts involved are truly staggering. I will go further and state that the costs associated with civil and criminal legal aid are utterly obscene and unjustifiable. The Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, confirmed to me in a reply to a parliamentary question that more than €605 million has been allocated for legal aid from 2011 to 2017. That is an astonishing amount of money and demonstrates that absolutely nothing is being done to reduce the outlandish fees being paid to provide this service. Information I have received shows that the cost of criminal and legal aid for each of the years from 2011 to 2017 has ranged from €49 million to €58 million. That is a staggering amount of money.
That was at a time when Garda stations were closed left, right and centre throughout the country. It was also at a time when Garda overtime was drastically cut in Tipperary and when vehicles and other tools of the policing trade were not available to the Garda. There were constant reviews of the resources available and constant cutbacks. The average cost of civil legal aid during the same period shows that it never dropped below €30 million per year. Imagine what that amount of money, or even half of it, could do to support and resource members of our Garda, who do a tremendous job day and night, despite being under-resourced and understaffed. Indeed, there was an increase of €9 million in the costs incurred for legal aid from 2011 to 2017. There has been a steady increase in that time and it is a nice little economy for certain people.
The former Minister for Justice and Equality, Frances Fitzgerald, promised as far back as September 2016 that the Criminal Justice (Legal Aid) Act 1962 was being reviewed. She also stated that the Department was preparing legislation to update the law and introduce powers to secure contributions from defendants, introduce more rigorous means testing and implement stronger sanctions against abuses. It is blatantly obvious that none of these things have come to pass. There is no will to do that. Instead, we are witnessing the fleecing of the nation's resources by a criminal element and the absolute abuse of the system. Although designed to protect rights, that system is now radically undermining the safety of entire communities. If we continue at this rate then the provision of legal aid will have cost us more than €1 billion within a few years. That will be at a time when the resources of the State will already be under significant pressure due to the full fallout from Brexit and the possible damage to the rural economy from the Mercosur deal.
I am nearly finished. Nóiméad amháin, más é do thoil é. Will the Taoiseach, therefore, prioritise a full and immediate reform of the system in order that the costs can be contained? More importantly, will he do that so the criminals who repeatedly terrorise rural communities do not feel as if they have a never-ending pot of legal resources to attack rural communities?
Crime and the fear of crime is a matter of great concern to communities all over our State. There are victims of crime, unfortunately, all over our State. We should not see this as a rural versus urban issue. We do have a serious issue with rural crime. I represent an urban constituency, however, as do many people here, and I assure the Deputy that the threat of and fear of crime is as worrisome in west Dublin as in west Tipperary. It is wrong, therefore, to characterise this issue in the context of a rural versus urban divide that does not exist when it comes to crime. Sadly, crime levels are actually higher in urban areas than they are in rural areas.
Turning to what is being done, the Government is investing in An Garda Síochána. Garda numbers have now increased to 14,000 and that is the highest overall total for a long time. We have also extended the operation of armed support units, ASUs, across all six Garda regions and have increased the budget of An Garda Síochána to €1.7 billion. That is the highest Garda budget ever. We are also implementing the recommendations of the O'Toole Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland to ensure that we have a more modern and fit-for-purpose police service. That implementation is co-ordinated by my Department and is under way and on track.
Turning to the matter of legal aid, the cost of that programme is very high. I agree with the Deputy on that point. We have to find a correct balance in this area. On one hand, we need to protect the taxpayer from facing very high costs and having to pay very high legal fees for others while on the other hand, we also need to have a justice system that ensures that people have representation in court and get a fair trial. We have seen instances in other countries where there have been court cases and criminal cases which have been very much stacked against the accused. We must bear in mind that everyone in a democracy is innocent until proven guilty. I do not know if the Deputy has seen the film "If Beale Street Could Talk", but it gives an example of what happens in other countries where there is inequality in the courts and the accused is not given proper legal representation or is represented by a public defender, who may be somebody on a low salary or not of the same standard as the prosecution. In a democracy and in a free country, the right to a fair trial is really important and that is not something I would want us to give up. We could in particular see vulnerable people and communities and minority communities ending up getting an unfair outcome from courts if the system was stacked up against them. I know it is a complicated area but it is an area where we need to tread carefully. Everyone is innocent until proven guilty and everyone is entitled to fair representation in court.
The Taoiseach's reply is quite frivolous. I never suggested there was not crime in Dublin. If we turn on the news any day of the week we can see how horrific the situation is in the city. Ordinary members of An Garda Síochána, however, will confirm that in Dublin they can get backup within minutes from another station or benefit from other resources. In Carrick-on-Suir, however, it would be necessary to wait for two hours for assistance while it could be three hours in places like Ballyporeen or Toomevara. That is the difference. We do not have the numbers in those places.
I never suggested that people were not innocent until proven guilty. I ask the Taoiseach to be honest and to tackle the scourge of, the waste in and the abuse of the free legal aid system. I of course believe in free legal aid but it should be a case of two strikes and then a person is out. We had promises from the former Minister for Justice and Equality, Frances Fitzgerald - she has now gone to Europe and I wish her well - that we would reform this system. It has not been reformed, however. Something is blocking the reform of this system. It is a scandal to be able to go into any court any day of the week and see the carry on. I am referring to what is happening outside on the steps as well as inside the court itself. Marauding gangs are getting the best of lawyers while ordinary victims have to pay for legal representation and pay dearly. They are not able to afford that and they have to cut their cloth according to their measure, as the Leas-Cheann Comhairle told me.
The amount of money being spent on legal aid is ridiculous while people are being terrorised in their homes by these marauding gangs. I ask the Taoiseach not to try to paint me as acting for rural Ireland and forgetting about the city. I ask him as well not to try to paint me as stating that people are not entitled to legal aid. They are of course. The concept of being innocent until proven guilty is very important to me.
I know all about it and ask the Government to, please, deal with the situation. Its members trot out figures about resources, but we just do not have them. The Government must cut out the waste and tackle the fat cats who are getting the money. It does not want to touch them at all, nor does any of the bigger parties. That is where the rot is.
I am not sure if I picked up a question, but I acknowledge that the cost of legal aid is very high. I also acknowledge that the Deputy has acknowledged that people are innocent until proved guilty-----
This matter is being studied by the Minister. He is exploring means by which we might be able to reduce the cost of legal aid, but there are also constitutional issues. Under the Constitution people have a right to access the courts. We also need to bear that in mind.
On Monday the Environmental Protection Agency issued a warning that air quality in Dublin had breached health limits owing to traffic, causing asthma among children and heart and lung conditions among the people of the city. That is not a surprise. Delegates from all over the world came to the recent Velo-city conference and could not believe how shocking the traffic management system in the city centre was. On Monday the first part of the much heralded Cork sustainable transport system was shot down when Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil voted against a bus priority improvement measure on Wilton Road. The first part of what was supposedly the new Luas line in Cork is now dead in the water. We face gridlock costs of €2 billion a year under the Government's transport policies. The Government has 51 major national road and motorway projects on the go. They are being built or planned, but not a single public transport project is at the same phase.
The EPA stated in June that, with existing measures and measures included in the Government's national development plan, transport emissions were due to rise by 11% by 2030. We face fines of hundreds of millions of euro a year for the failure to cut them. On 13 June the House voted on a motion that was moved by the Social Democrats and amended by the Green Party which called on the Government to "revise the NDP to ensure the achievement of the interim 2030 emissions reductions target and subsequently a net zero emissions economy by 2050". The Taoiseach's party has been playing politics with it. The handbags between him and Deputy Micheál Martin last week concerned this issue. The Taoiseach said Fianna Fáil wanted to cut the roads programme. Disappointedly, Fianna Fáil replied by stating it had not voted in that way on 13 June and was just talking about overruns on the national children's hospital project, but it did vote in that way. The House approved the motion to revise the national development plan to start to make it climate-ready and to start making a change.
The Government's climate action plan has nothing to state on transport, other than promising to turn every diesel or petrol car into an electric vehicle. Every environmental expert of note says this is not good enough. It will not work and will leave us stuck with gridlock and the inefficient and unsustainable system that is killing the economy. as well as our society. The question is this. What will it take for Fine Gael to admit that its treasured and much promoted Project Ireland 2040 and national development plan are not fit for purpose? The Government cannot be taken seriously on climate change if it insists on sticking to every one of the road projects and not moving an inch to change the national development plan. It has to change. It has to go. The people of this city are choking. The people of Cork are now guaranteed gridlock for the next while because the Taoiseach's party will not support a public transport measure. What is going to change?
I thank the Deputy. Project Ireland 2040 is not just about climate action. It is also about new schools, new sports facilities and more homes. Climate action is really important, but other things like health and housing are important, too. When people oppose Project Ireland 2040, they should be specific about what projects they oppose. Is it the housing projects, the health projects, the education projects or the sports capital programme?
His objection is to the roads programme. I disagree with him. If road maintenance and restoration are excluded from project Ireland 2040, the split in new projects is actually two to one in favour of public transport over new road projects. We need to retain and restore roads, particularly in rural Ireland. The new road projects include din the plan are very much needed, for example, the N20 which connects Cork and Limerick as part of the Atlantic economic corridor. Other projects are bypasses that are needed and for which people have been awaiting for a very long time. I refer to places such as Ardee and Virginia.
I refer also to Dunkettle and the N4 to Sligo. A two-to-one split is about right. I appreciate that Deputy Eamon Ryan sees things differently and would have a much smaller roads programme. Looking at the projects, however, I know why they are included. Another really important one is the outer ring road in Galway. I do not think we should cancel the roads programme altogether, or reprofile or review it as others have suggested.
On air quality, I live in this city, very near to the M50. Believe me, air quality is something in which I have a real interest. It is something we will need to tackle and work on. It is not quite the case that the nitrous oxide limits have been breached, but they are heading there. It is good that the EPA came out early and gave us that warning. The Dublin local authorities will be required under European law to produce an action plan to deal with them. Central government will support them, but I am conscious of the results of the local elections. Generally, the Dublin local authorities are now governed by a coalition involving Fianna Fáil and the Green Party.
There is a huge opportunity for Deputy Eamon Ryan's party to show that the mandate and good vote it received actually matters, not to waste any time in making sure the councils it now controls will put the action plans together. Central government will support it.
We will seek to use that mandate to write a new national development plan that will be properly climate-proofed. We will also look for savings. Fine Gael's Deputies and Senators in Limerick are rattling cages, insisting that we need a N20 solution-----
-----when there are other solutions available. A route via Cahir would save €500 million which could be used to provide the public transport system Fine Gael is not providing in Limerick or Cork. On Monday the party voted against such a system.
The air quality issue in Dublin is exacerbated by the fact that the Government is widening every motorway approach road in Dublin to the M50 that is gridlocked. That will only make the problem worse and do nothing to solve the transport problems of the city. It will make them even more difficult, as the Government plans to remove front gardens and every tree in the city to cope with the model into w hich it has bought and the resulting ever-increasing traffic. It is the same in just about every city or area at which one looks. The Government is following an old-fashioned and sprawling road-based development model. It claims in the national planning framework that it wants to go back to the core, but its transport policy is doing the exact opposite. It is encouraging sprawling development that can never be sustainable. That is not good for our society. That is the reality of what is happening. The reality is that 51 major national road and motorway projects are on the go, while not one single public transport project is being built or even in the planning system. Fine Gael is voting against one in Cork and ignoring the air quality issue in Dublin. Nothing is happening to promote cycling. That is what is happening. That is the reality. A Green mandate will see it change.
This is the reality. Any reasonable person would be a little confused on hearing Deputy Eamon Ryan's contribution. The democratically elected local councillors in Cork decided to vote against the bus project precisely because it involved taking away trees and parts of people's gardens. The Deputy seems to think that is a reason to vote against BusConnects in Dublin, but it is not okay for people in Cork to vote against the project on Wilton Road for exactly the same reason.
That is a bit strange. There is something else on which the Deputy is incorrect. The national development plan is a matter for central government and has been adopted by it. Under European law, action plans on air quality are the primary responsibility of local authorities, of which the Green Party is now one of the controlling parties. The Deputy's party has a responsibility to act in that regard.
We will be here to assist it, but it must show some leadership and take some action that it has a mandate to take.
On what is being done to improve air quality, I note the move to electric vehicles. That is really important and it is happening. A total of 17% of new vehicles bought this year are electric or hybrid. That is not enough, but it is a lot better than it used to be and the number will continue to increase. The Government is supporting it. We also need to move away from diesel cars. I appreciate that it may have been done in good faith, but a terrible policy error was made by the Green Party the last time it was in government when it encouraged people to move from petrol to diesel cars. That is the main reason air quality has disimproved to such an extent.
We need to change this and started to do so by increasing taxation on diesel imports in the last budget. We must also invest in greenways, cycle lanes and public transport, as we are doing. As to what is under way, the new bus fleet is arriving, with hundreds of low emission buses on order. Hybrid carriages for the DART expansion project are on order. We are pushing ahead with the DART expansion project and BusConnects. All of these things are happening.