Wednesday, 27 May 2020
Covid-19 (Communications, Climate Action and Environment): Statements
Rachaimid ar aghaidh leis an gcéad phíosa gnó eile: Uimh. 8, ráiteas ón Aire Cumarsáide, Gníomhaithe ar son na hAeráide agus Comhshaoil maidir le Covid-19. The floor is the Minister's and he has ten minutes.
I thank the Ceann Comhairle. These are truly extraordinary circumstances. I know he is used to it at this stage but even though I think I am jointly the longest serving Deputy in the House at the moment, I am certainly not used to these circumstances. However, I am glad to have the opportunity to account for my stewardship as a caretaker Minister.
I want first to thank my officials and the agencies under my remit for their work during the Covid-19 crisis because they have literally kept the lights on, kept our communications network intact, kept our waste collection systems going, kept us informed of what is happening and delivered objective information. It has been a very important service and we only realise the importance of many of the services when they are challenged in this way.
To go through them briefly, obviously, electricity and gas are crucial to the service at this time and indeed all the time. We have made sure that they have delivered efficiently and the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, CRU, has played a very considerable role in that. We have protected people by suspending all domestic gas and electricity disconnections, as Deputies know. We have made other changes to make sure that people do not run into difficulties on billing and other such problems that could arise. We have continued to press on with our renewable energy auctions, which I know for many Members are very important as we seek to make our electricity network more sustainable and dependent on renewable electricity.
In terms of broadcasting, people will know the sterling service that RTÉ in particular and TG4 have delivered but also the local radio stations. It will be no surprise to Members of the House to hear that there have been difficulties in terms of revenue streams for those bodies. We are in discussions with RTÉ about its particular problems, and NewERA is involved to see how we can find some solutions together.
In terms of the local broadcasters, I was in a position to bring in some measures that have been of help to them such as suspending the broadcasting levy for six months, which is worth €1 million to them; having a round of Sound & Vision 4 funding of €2.5 million; and there is an additional round for community radio of €750,000. That has given some relief to these very important channels of communication that have been so important in getting fair and objective information to people at a time of tremendous worry.
Members will realise that the communications network has come under particular pressure and it has stood up well to that pressure. It is delivering far greater service. We have assisted that by releasing additional rights of use for radio spectrum on a temporary basis, and that has helped. The retail providers have signed up to a seven-point charter which ComReg has negotiated with them and that has been of value to service users. Importantly, a complaints mechanism run by ComReg is particularly useful.
People will not be surprised when I give a plug to the national broadband plan, which I know came in for considerable criticism in the previous Dáil, but in this crisis people can see the value of services like ehealth, being able to be connected regardless of where one is living and having the opportunity of remote working.
The reasons we pushed ahead with that are becoming clearer to people and the benefits of delivering service remotely are also more valued. I have asked my officials to investigate the feasibility of accelerating the roll-out of the national broadband plan so that those now in years six and seven can be brought forward. The target is to try, from the second half of next year, to accelerate the roll-out. I hope that can be achieved and I think it is a very important service.
An Post has been very imaginative in its response to the Covid crisis. It has the check-in service that many people know about. It has helped to deliver Government booklets on Covid and also delivered many other services that people have valued. It has launched its 3.2 million free postcards. It recently launched €2 million of practical supports for businesses that are trying to get back to full operation. That has certainly helped.
We have liaised with the waste management service. It is answerable to local authorities in the first instance, but that service has continued to deliver. It has had to cope with more household waste but less commercial waste. We have provided some ring-fenced money to have an anti-dumping initiative during this Covid crisis. I know that has been a real problem.
I know we are restricted on time. The Covid crisis has brought into sharp relief the scale of the climate challenge that we face. While this is a significant shock to our economy and society, it is important as we build a recovery that we seek to embed the structural changes that have been accelerated by this experience so that we have a different way of working and a different consciousness of the problem of protecting our environment and also reducing our use of fossil fuels. There is an opportunity as people re-evaluate their priorities in a society and economy that is opening up that we seek to embed the changes and build momentum to address the climate challenge. The last Dáil unanimously passed a declaration of emergency in this respect. It is up to this House to carry on and deliver the ambitions embedded in that motion.
I am sharing time with a few colleagues. I will be slipping out to let them in. I pay tribute to the staff on the front line and offer my sympathies to all those who have lost their lives due to Covid-19. It has taken more than 1,600 lives in Ireland and more than 350,000 worldwide, caused untold mental strain, severely damaged businesses and disrupted many young people's education. Every single person across this country has had to make sacrifices as we continue to grapple with this problem. Amid all the suffering, hardship and uncertainty, there has been one good change, as the Minister referred to, which is in emissions. While the true extent of our emissions reductions will not be fully known until next year, the early indications by the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland are that we will see a 12% drop. The actions which have been required to achieve this are not sustainable in the short-term and many will be lost in the coming months. However, while this reversal may be necessary, many important lessons have been learned, which should now be added to the actions required to tackle climate change properly and meet our commitments.
If we are to achieve the goal of decoupling economic growth from carbon emissions as we recover, we must act. We must act on issues relating to transport, energy and retrofitting and embrace the climate opportunity and a new green deal so that we can properly decarbonise our economy. The soft barriers to working from home on an unprecedented scale have been removed. Employer concerns in particular have been addressed by the necessity of our circumstances. While barriers exist for those without high quality broadband, many who need to access childcare and others are now open to the potential for long-term practices to be developed. The large-scale closure of businesses was necessary to prevent further loss of life. It is a reality that some of those businesses will never reopen. The coming years will require a significant increase in reskilling and retraining and the process is something we hope to provide.
The reskilling process can address some of the key concerns over the scale of retrofitting which is required if we are to scale up our climate ambition. It could also support the development of the expertise required to undertake the next phase of the roll-out of offshore wind energy which needs to be prioritised if a new government is formed.
These will be issues for the next government and the forthcoming recovery. However, two issues need urgent attention and action on behalf of the Department. The first relates to the recommendations of the just transition commissioner. I welcome Kieran Mulvey's report. My colleague, Deputy Cowen, and I have been in touch with the Minister about this. We are five months into 2020 and not a cent of the just transition fund has been spent as far as I am aware. This needs to be urgently addressed. The midlands were already experiencing job losses as a result of decarbonisation.
The second issue is the ongoing crisis in public service journalism. As the Minister knows, print newspapers are experiencing serious short-term declines in advertising revenue and reductions in circulation numbers as a result of the ongoing crisis. While the Minister has announced supports for radio and a review of RTÉ is under way, we have seen nothing from Government for some local and regional newspapers. An Post has stepped into the breach to provide some supports, but these are limited through no fault of An Post's. For example, particular difficulties exist for free publications which are reliant on advertising. Unfortunately, some of them have collapsed which will have a major effect on local journalism in many areas.
I accept the Minister will say he has no responsibility for this element of public service journalism. However, he has responsibility for all the other major elements. I have written to the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, on the issue and it has also been raised with the Department of the Taoiseach. While I received a response from the Minister, it gives no indication of any targeted measures being introduced. We urgently need ownership of this issue. Without this we risk more closures, job losses and lay-offs. While some may be inevitable, others may not.
I would welcome the Minister's comments. As I have 50 seconds of my own time, I would appreciate if he was brief. What is the Government doing for public service journalism specifically? The Minister needs to provide some actions in that area or else we will see other newspapers collapse.
I am now even more concerned about this lockdown than when I spoke here three weeks ago. I am extremely concerned about its impact on young people, children, the elderly, people who are suffering from non-Covid illnesses, our economy and indeed those people in society who are the most financially insecure. I am also concerned that too much responsibility has casually been delegated by Government to our public health advisers.
As I said previously, it made absolute sense back in March that we introduced measures for the lockdown. In fact, I was critical that we had not introduced some soon enough, such as restrictions on travel into the country from Italy. However, now we need to recognise that the process of lifting the lockdown provisions needs to be expedited. I call on the Minister, Deputy Bruton, to take that back to his colleagues in government.
We note that the numbers of deaths have fortunately reduced quite significantly. When looked at objectively at present, the death numbers in Ireland were quite high but we have managed to get the death numbers down and we have also got the number of cases down.
It is important to recognise that it is the job of our public health advisers to provide public health advice, but it is not their job to weigh that public health advice along with other factors. That is the function of Government. The Government needs to start introducing some balance and proportionality into the decisions it is about to make as to when and whether the restrictions should be lifted. As I said, I believe they need to be lifted sooner rather than later.
The reality, as I said previously, is that we will need to continue to live with Covid. We need to recognise that we will have to live with a certain amount of risk. It has never been the case that public health advice was mandatory on people. We also need to recognise that the purpose of the lockdown was to stop our hospital intensive care units being overrun. However, we cannot now transform the purpose of the lockdown into being that we want to use it for the purpose of stopping people getting sick. That was never the purpose of the lockdown and it would be highly unusual if that was to be the purpose of its continuance. The Government has been extremely cautious to date. I can understand why politicians are extremely cautious because if they get it wrong, they get heavily criticised.
I ask the Minister to take back to Cabinet the message that we need to be less cautious in expediting the lifting of the restrictions. There will be a benefit if they are lifted sooner rather than later. They should not be left in place simply because it is the cautious and safe thing to do. A dichotomy is developing between those who are economically secure and those who are not. We need to take into account the latter, as well as the broad impact the lockdown is having on our society. I ask the Minister to speak up at Cabinet and I call on the Government to get its testing regime in place. That is at the heart of curing this problem and enabling society to get going again.
We could discuss a raft of issues that fall within the remit of the Department but I will focus on broadband and working from home. In recent months, society has changed in ways we could not have possibly imagined. Policymakers would have argued that it was not possible to work in these ways because a raft of barriers was preventing decentralisation and so on. Working from home has worked and is being enabled by broadband. There are two issues with broadband. One relates to the current contract with Eir under which the provision of broadband stops at a particular line, for example, a junction beyond which there may be two, three or four houses. There must be flexibility in that regard. The House discussed this last September or October. The matter was not treated with the urgency that was needed. I could name places in my constituency where extending the coverage of the Eir contract by 150 or 200 yards would take in several more houses. I appeal to the Minister to use his good offices to ensure flexibility in the contract so that people can get a broadband connection because they are getting very frustrated.
The Minister stated he had asked his officials to increase pressure to expedite the roll-out of rural broadband. The events of recent months have shown us that we can be connected and we can all be equally productive, whether we live in north Cork, large urban centres or rural communities. We need to do more than hurry on rural broadband. The issue must be at the centre of government. This is a policy that can change and transform society.
I grew up in the shadow of the ESB power station in Lanesborough and the broad, majestic Mount Dillon boglands were the backdrop to my youth. For 75 years, our community was the cradle of the Irish energy revolution. Now, with the race to decarbonise with bright, new, shiny alternatives, we are unfortunately no longer fashionable. We must remember that Bord na Móna led one of the most ambitious housebuilding programmes in this country, building housing estates for its workers right across the midlands. Bord na Móna and ESB workers did much more than power this country from the banks of the River Shannon. They built communities and how we go about repaying that commitment will probably define the success or otherwise of the just transition fund.
I have not met a Bord na Móna or ESB worker who does not accept and understand the need for decarbonisation, but they do not want to be afterthoughts in the process as we set about dismantling what has been a core part of our communities. We must also get real about the money. Currently, the fund stands at €11 million. When we closed the sugar industry in 2005, a fund of €145 million was provided. The just transition commissioner, Mr. Kieran Mulvey, has said that the fund needs additional financial muscle. It is also imperative that a mechanism is found to compensate Longford County Council for its annual loss of more than €1 million in commercial rates. Decisions taken by two semi-State companies and the move towards decarbonisation are set to dismantle 75 years of town, country and community in my county. I welcome Mr. Mulvey's call to replicate the Border region Brexit package which is worth €28 million.
We need a similar enterprise-led package for the just transition fund area. I would also expect this House to support Mr. Mulvey's call to increase the fund next year to €25 million from the carbon tax allocation.
It behoves me to tell the Minister that the people of south Longford have given blood, sweat and tears to Bord na Móna and the ESB over those 75 years. Many local groups, projects, local enterprises and Longford County Council will make robust submissions to the EU Start engagement process next month. I appreciate that Mr. Mulvey has said there will be a geographical spread criterion when it comes to the allocation of funding, but the process must allow a weighting for the immeasurable contribution of my community to the Irish energy revolution and the now detrimental impact on the community following the sudden dismantling of an entire sector with the flick of a proverbial switch.
I thank Deputy Chambers for sharing his time with me this evening. I too acknowledge the fabulous work An Post has done in connecting in with people in recent weeks. However, the two issues I wish to address this evening are broadband and our new engagement with social media. Is the Department engaging with the Department of Education and Skills on creating a heat map to ensure teachers have connectivity to deliver the class work that is required in the event of a second wave of Covid and that they are able to continue to support children, especially secondary school children in examination years? One of the downsides that has emerged in the education debate is that not every teacher or child had the opportunity to log on. We have an opportunity now to create a heat map and see exactly where teachers are located. It is only a matter of the teachers linking in with schools to provide their Eircodes and then identifying what sort of broadband service they have.
The next part of my question relates to communication with social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, which are based here in Ireland. Have they continued to work at full speed to address online bullying and hate speech? Has a full suite of measures been put in place to ensure that children are protected online? It is not just children that need to be protected online; adults also need protection online. In the past 72 hours, I have been the subject of online bullying. As politicians, we all understand exactly what it is like. It is incumbent on us to address the issue. The parties to my right must ensure they lead by example and must not lead out on hate speech or vicious, vulgar attacks on people online.
I will put questions directly to the Minister. I want to go over and back during the time if that is possible.
I want to deal with two issues very quickly. We only have six minutes so I would appreciate if the Minister could be as succinct as I will be in putting the questions. The first is on the just transition fund after which I will ask questions about the media. There are three key parts to the just transition strategy, namely, the just transition fund, the midlands retrofitting, and peatland rehabilitation. How many of these parts are currently in operation?
The just transition fund has just been opened for applications. Interested groups can register under an arrangement that is already in place with the councils. We will publish the final criteria in about three weeks and we will have the selection thereafter.
The contract has already been awarded for the first tranche of bog restoration. Bord na Móna won that contract and it is being rolled out.
The retrofit programme is at a very advanced stage of preparation in terms of identifying how the tenders will be delivered and the homes that will be used. Unfortunately, due to Covid-19 the important next stage of surveying the work before the issue of tenders has not been possible. Until the Covid-19 restrictions allow indoor surveys, we will not be in a position to press "Go".
Moreover, a lot of the retrofitting will involve indoor work. Again, it has been postponed until a later stage in the phased relaxation of Covid-19 restrictions.
Can the Minister tell me how many workers in Bord na Móna and the ESB are due to lose their current jobs by the end of the year? How many of those are benefitting from either the just transition fund or the retrofit programme at this point? The answer is "None of them". The Minister says these initiatives are at an advanced stage and the just transition fund is open for tenders, but a lot of those workers are worried that their jobs will be gone by the end of this year and the just transition fund will pass them by. How many of the workers in Bord na Móna and the ESB are due to lose their jobs at the end of the year?
I do not have the number of jobs affected by the closure of the two plants. Roughly 180 workers who are directly involved in the plants' operations will not be retained. Unfortunately there have been other requirements on Bord na Móna as a result of Covid-19. There has been a decline in electricity demand, which has resulted in less use of the higher-cost solid fuel elements Bord na Móna provides. That has resulted in the company having to put people on temporary-----
I asked the Minister for a number. He gave it to me and then he waffled about other issues that have nothing to do with the question I asked. There is every prospect that a lot of the workers who are going to lose their jobs will never see a transition. Unless the Minister puts his skates on, the only transition they will see is a transition from their current jobs onto the dole queue. There will be no just transition.
I have two minutes left. I wish to ask a question about the media. I would like to ask the Minister very directly whether he has received any requests for additional funding from RTÉ. We know that RTÉ is benefitting from the wage subsidy scheme, which means it has seen a reduction in its revenue of at least 25%. In response to a parliamentary question I submitted, the Minister stated that he was waiting for a report from RTÉ on issues the broadcaster faced prior to Covid-19. Has the Minister had any recent requests for additional funding? If so, what was the nature of that request?
I will deal with the Deputy's first question. The National Parks and Wildlife Service's bog restoration programme will create 40 jobs. Bord na Móna has won that tender. The advanced rehabilitation of Bord na Móna's bogs will create more than 200 jobs. The company intends to start that work before the end of the year. The retrofitting of homes in the midlands will provide 400 jobs. We are taking definite steps to ensure that workers in Bord na Móna have the opportunity to reskill to obtain those jobs. We are seeking to create employment opportunities for those who are displaced.
I have discussed RTÉ's funding problems with both the chairman and the director general. As Members can imagine, advertising revenue has taken a severe hit. Revenue has decreased very significantly. As a consequence of that we have commenced an evaluation, to be carried out by NewERA, which advises the Government in its capacity as shareholder. This review will work out what changes are necessary and how to address RTÉ's funding needs. That work is ongoing. I or my successor will be in a position to report to the House in due course.
I wish to raise several issues affecting Bord na Móna workers. I raised some of these issues with the Minister by email at the end of April. At that time, between 190 and 230 Bord na Móna workers were laid off due to the impact of Covid-19. That was the reason given to employees in Bord na Móna's direct communication with them.
At that time, they put some workers on the wage subsidy scheme and left the majority of seasonal and contract workers with nothing. These seasonal workers were given a couple of days' notice in writing and were told their jobs and income were gone. This was a disgraceful way for Bord na Móna to treat the employees. In a very selective way, Bord na Móna decided who would be kept on or let go, whose wages would be secured, and who would receive a letter to say they might be eligible for the pandemic unemployment payment. They are workers with mortgages, families and bills, and they have been affected in the same way as any other worker from Covid-19, yet they have been treated very differently. The loss of wages does not impact just on the individuals and their families but also on local economies and communities, from Lanesborough and Shannonbridge to Blackwater bog.
I also raise the issue of the alternative work being offered to laid-off workers, again on a selective nature to some employees. I understand that some of the job offers are in Dublin. Given that 24,000 commuters from that region travel to Dublin, mostly for college and work every day, we need to be looking for alternative work in the area and not push more and more people into Dublin.
We need clarity from Bord na Móna on the redundancy severance packages it is offering to workers. Some workers have sought redundancy but have not been able to access it, and there are concerns for workers who have been laid off and whether this will negatively impact on their redundancy payments.
Is it acceptable that some workers at Bord na Móna are being locked out from the wage subsidy scheme? Will the Minister seek clarity from Bord na Móna on the alternative job opportunities it is offering to some employees who are being recalled for work? Such opportunities should be available to as many workers as possible and not just be on a selective basis. Finally, will the Minister ensure that workers have full access to information about redundancy?
The idea put forward by Kieran Mulvey for the midlands to become an energy hub is exciting and we all welcome it, but a just transition for the many towns and villages that will be directly impacted by the early exit of peat is crucial. Entire communities, families and businesses depend on us to get this right and, unfortunately, time is not on our side.
I outlined 650 job opportunities we are seeking to create in the midlands, which will be important as the transition occurs. Bord na Móna has topped up the temporary wage subsidy, so people are retaining their full basic wage. I understand that seasonal workers are eligible for the pandemic unemployment payment. They are not part of the full-time staff.
On the other issues the Deputy raised in respect of industrial relations matters, the company has responsibility and trade unions are involved. I do not get involved in the day-to-day decision making of the type the Deputy outlined.
I raise with the Minister the important issue of the good weather we have had for the past three months during the Covid lockdown and the fact that Bord na Móna has not been able to harvest one shovelful of peat. As a result, hundreds of jobs are in jeopardy-----
I will congratulate him on that in a moment. Turf cutters in Laois, Offaly and throughout the midlands who depend on Bord na Móna plots have not been able to cut one sod of turf. Thousands of households throughout the midlands, from Laois and Offaly up to Roscommon, depend on this as a source of fuel for the winter. They do not have €50,000 or €60,000 at this point for a deep retrofit and heat pumps. An Bord Pleanála sat on the permission for Bord na Móna to apply for substitute consent for months. Leave to apply was supposed to be granted in March but it did not come until May. As I said to two Ministers in the Chamber last week, someone needs to pick up the phone. While the Government cannot direct what decision should be taken, somebody could ask the board to get a move on, because this year's harvest will be lost and turf cutters are losing their plots this year. A programme for Government is being negotiated among Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and the Green Party, and the rights of domestic turf cutters need to be enshrined in that.
The transition in the midlands from brown to green energy was supposed to take place over ten years, but due to the failure to deal with it by successive Governments, workers and communities in the midlands now have ten months.
We are where we are. For years Sinn Féin has called for the midlands to become the heart of renewable energy. I echo the welcome for some of the plans put forward by Kieran Mulvey. The midlands urgently needs an ambitious plan to be put in place and a major stimulus package to reboot the economy.
I welcome the commissioner's report but the scale of the transition facing the midlands deserves a commission on a firmer footing, not a part-time commissioner. A just transition commission must be established on a firmer footing. There is no new money with the report launched last week. There is only the money that was announced last autumn, and the €5 million from the ESB. That is all welcome but it is not enough. The just transition commissioner has suggested and has called for another €25 million. This needs to be front loaded. We need to access finance from the European Investment Bank's just transition fund and the low carbon innovation fund. The midlands also needs to see part of the public service obligation levy, PSO, repurposed for renewable projects and perhaps the Minister will respond to that if he can.
We need to take advantage of the strategic location of the three midlands power plants in Lough Ree, west Offaly and Edenderry, and use them as energy hubs. Bord na Móna should continue to operate the Edenderry plant and convert from 42% biomass to 100% biomass. The Shannonbridge and Lough Ree plants must be retained in ESB ownership and move to biomass or biogas and, crucially, be used as energy connection points for solar, wind and other sources of energy. They are strategically located on the national grid and those sites need to be retained in Bord na Móna and ESB ownership.
The surplus heat from the three plants could be used in horticulture, as is done in other countries. Hot water is pumped into rivers, which causes problems, but the water could be used to heat glasshouses for horticulture. As a key company in resource recovery, Bord na Móna, which is already successfully involved in recycling, has the expertise, sites and facilities. It needs to become a major player in this area.
Laois cannot be left out of the just transition process. It has gone through a transition but there was no just transition for Laois. I say this as a former Bord na Móna worker in Laois. Hundreds of people with whom I worked were thrown onto the scrapheap. Some of them have never been able to get back into a job. The Coolnamona site at Portlaoise offers an excellent opportunity. I have spoken to Bord na Móna management and to the Minister, Deputy Bruton, about the development of new industry there on a number of occasions, because of the size of that site and its location, which is at the crossroads of Ireland. The M7, M8 and N80 are all within half a mile. It is also adjacent to a main rail line.
The €20 million retrofit money is welcome and is a starting point, but it must be part of a larger package. The Mount Lucas construction training centre in Offaly must be designated as the centre of excellence for apprenticeships and training in energy efficient construction and retrofitting. Good work is being done there currently by the Laois and Offaly Education and Training Board. I am aware the Minister was involved in trying to advance some of that, which is very welcome, but it needs to be scaled up to become the national centre.
The ESB and Bord na Móna are good, State-owned companies that have put huge money into the economy through income tax, dividends to the State each year and through numerous other sources. The companies have a proven track record of contributing to the local and national economy and they must be supported to be central to this just transition. Perhaps the Minister will respond on my query on repurposing part of the PSO levy.
Over the past few months, certainly with Covid-19, many people are considering living and working in rural Ireland. Many Members in the Houses use the national broadband plan as a political football and now the same people are calling for greater access across the State. They are demanding more connectivity. The broadband operators are seeing 30% more use in broadband. Politicians in this House are using broadband and I do not know how we would have gotten over the Covid-19 crisis only for that huge connectivity. The weather is also helping.
People are demanding greater broadband access across the country. If the Minister does not mind, I will be parochial in asking for an update on the roll-out of the national broadband plan in counties Sligo and Leitrim, as well as a timeline for its completion. Will the Minister furnish me with a statement on this in the coming days? What are the Minister's views on the broadband plan in rural areas such as those I have raised?
The position on the national broadband plan is as I outlined. I am now seeking to accelerate it so that people in the sixth and seventh year could be brought forward. My officials are in discussions with the company to see if we can accelerate the roll-out from the end of the second half of next year.
Regarding this year, 80 of the broadband contact connection points will be rolled out by the end of summer with the rest of them, some 298, to be done by the end of the year. These will be flagship projects which will provide the opportunity for hubs to be developed. The kit-out of those broadband connection points is being organised by my colleague, the Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Ring, and his Department. The tender for that has been allocated and that work is being undertaken.
Unfortunately, I do not have information on the particular situation in Sligo or Leitrim. There will be broadband connection points there and I will get the Deputy additional details on this.
The first report of the just transition by Kieran Mulvey is trying to devise new jobs in the energy sector in Longford and Westmeath. The impact of the company closure on those families who have worked for generations in Bord na Móna cannot be underestimated. I was with the Minister last year in the Lough Ree power station. There we saw first hand the impact the closures were having. I welcome the just transition report. Future Governments need to continue to resource it to ensure we can diversify.
I also welcome the potential creation of 600 jobs in the region. It was heartening to hear Kieran Mulvey during the week refer to two expressions of interest he has had already from significant companies in the manufacturing and food sectors. That needs to be followed up with our stakeholders, be it Enterprise Ireland, IDA Ireland or the local authority. It is important we are strategic and ensure we take advantage of all opportunities that are presented.
I welcome the fact Bord na Móna has won the tender for the bog restoration project which will provide 40 jobs in the area. It is important the midlands retrofitting scheme is resourced. I welcome the fact the Minister said it has the potential at least to create 400 jobs in the region. This is very close to my heart. The Lanesborough–Ballyleague town team along with Councillor Gerard Farrell have been on to me about working with key stakeholders. These are community people who have a view about shaping their community and working to take advantage of any schemes provided by the Government.
As Deputy Feighan said, broadband is key for our areas. One thing that this pandemic has shown us is that we need the capacity to work from home. We need the capacity for our children to be able to take advantage of e-learning. One can see this with the different lectures and lessons provided to the family home through, for example, Zoom. It is important to take advantage of these opportunities at this difficult time. It is important we improve broadband access. I welcome the Minister's announcement in terms of bringing forward some of the broadband plan. It is important that we accelerate it in any way we can.
I raised the matter of Inland Fisheries Ireland and the restocking of our lakes with the Minister of State responsible, Deputy Canney. I come from Westmeath, the Lake County, and they are important for our tourism industry. The Minister is aware of how much he had to work during a difficult time in our economy in the past to get jobs back.
We are presented with that challenge again and the tourism sector can embrace and lead the response to it. Lakes in Westmeath and everywhere else must be restocked. There seems to be some confusion about how to achieve that during the phased reopening of our economy. It is very clear that restocking lakes is outdoor work but there seems to be confusion about it. There was also confusion regarding fish farms on a previous occasion, during a period in which Government formation took place, and it was something the political system had to rectify. If the lakes are not restocked, it will have a significant impact on our anglers and fishers. The lakes are a key attraction for areas in the midlands and it is very important that the message goes out loud and clear to Inland Fisheries Ireland that restocking them this year must be a priority. As already stated, the value of those lakes cannot be underestimated in the context of attracting investment into our region, and tourism will be one of the key sectors emerging from this. The Minister will be well aware of how much our agriculture sector and exports led to the previous recovery, to which he was central as Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation. I would welcome his comments.
I thank the Deputy for acknowledging the work of Kieran Mulvey. He did an exceptional job. He is a man of great experience who comes from the midlands and he worked with everyone. It shows the value of appointing an independent commissioner to pull those strands together. His work is very valuable. We are honouring all those pledges, including providing €36 million this year to support the midlands. Of course, it will be for another Government to work on the implementation of Mr. Mulvey's other recommendations, but we have contacted all Departments and the implementation of his report will come under a group chaired within the Department of the Taoiseach, so it will be led from the very heart of the Government. It is also worth recognising that there is accelerated ambition from the European Union for a just transition. The midlands have been included in that process and a territorial plan will be drawn up. As and when money becomes available from the European Union, the midlands will be in a strong position to draw upon it. I am conscious of how Bord na Móna is woven into the community and the suddenness of the change is the reason we in this House and the Government had to respond in this way. That work will continue.
I will seek to obtain additional information for the Deputy on the issue of inland fisheries as I do not have it to hand. He made a very strong case in that regard.
I again thank the Deputy for his continuous support for the national broadband plan. Deputy Michael Moynihan, to whom I did not get a chance to respond, stated that this can be at the heart of a transformation of our society. I believe that is true. One could not envisage a successful future for rural Ireland that did not include high-speed broadband delivered to every home. It is about that more visionary element of looking at where our future can be carved out, and the national broadband plan plays to that more visionary view of the future of rural Ireland. Rural Ireland suffers when many of its traditional aspects are undermined as customs and patterns change but this is infrastructure for the future for rural Ireland.
I welcome the opportunity to ask the Minister questions in the Thirty-third Dáil. I acknowledge his hard work as Minister in recent years and thank him for it. He has always shown my colleague, Deputy Eamon Ryan, respect and courtesy in the Dáil and I will endeavour to engage constructively with him and his successor in the very important work carried out by the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment.
The first issue I wish to address is the potential of wind energy in our seas. As has been stated many times in this House, our marine territory is ten times larger than our land area. We have already started to harness the potential for wind energy in the Irish Sea and I note the Minister's announcement last week of the progression of planning on some wind projects. However, the real potential lies in the immense energy reserves off our western seaboard. We are now at a stage, with projects being announced in Norway and elsewhere, where offshore floating wind is on its way to becoming commercially viable. That could allow us to leverage private investment to power much of the nation's electricity needs, and indeed, to export electricity with the appropriate infrastructure.
I believe that these developments will deliver significant benefits and employment to Kerry, Limerick, Clare, Galway, Mayo and Donegal. Offshore wind, with its higher capacity factor, has potential to deliver not only significant constant baseload to our electricity supply, but the employment potential per MW is much greater than for onshore wind. We will need marine infrastructure for construction and maintenance. Large numbers of skilled engineers and construction workers will play a critical part in writing this new chapter in the Irish energy story.
We can plan now for the moment in the perhaps not-too-distant future when both the technology and economics of floating offshore wind converge and that this great potential energy resource becomes realisable. When this day arrives, the main obstacles to harnessing it will be our ability to store the renewable electricity that exceeds our own national requirements and our ability to transfer it to the larger electricity markets in Europe.
One emerging technology in this regard is green hydrogen. This is not a party political broadcast but a very real prospect. Excess renewable electricity from our offshore wind farms can be used to create hydrogen using the electrolytic process. This can then be used in transport, heavy industry, and perhaps also in power generation to balance our grid, replacing natural gas as we push for a net zero emissions target by 2050 or sooner.
These developments are a few years away, but not many. We can plan now and give a signal to our industry. We must give that signal if we are to spur it to achieve this ambition. Critically, it would also be a signal to our communities that there is a bright future, one that is synonymous with innovation, technology, education and prosperity. What potential does the Minister see for communities in Kerry, Limerick, Clare, Galway, Mayo and Donegal in the future, as we seek to harness the potential of wind energy off our western seaboard, together with innovative technologies such as hydrogen storage?
I move to discuss the just transition. Having read through the progress report prepared by the just transition commissioner, Mr. Kieran Mulvey, on the just transition in the midlands, there is great reason for optimism and confidence in the efforts of our towns and villages in rural Ireland. Communities, workers and local businesses have been shown to be dynamic, resilient and ambitious, particularly when faced with far-reaching challenges such as the changes facing the peat industry. The efforts in the midlands in transitioning away from carbon intensive activities could set a strong precedent for future efforts across Ireland as our country and society will undoubtedly undergo significant changes brought on by Covid-19, but also brought on by other trends such as increased digitalisation and automation. In welcoming the publication of the just transition report, I ask what potential the Minister sees in extending the just transition approach to communities across the country as we seek to work towards a more sustainable future.
I thank the Deputy for his kind comments, which are not common in this House.
I see huge potential in this area. As the Deputy probably knows, we have pencilled in offshore wind for 3.5 GW in the period up to 2030 and hope that we will exceed that. That is our ambition and we are consulting on what sort of a grid network would be appropriate to try and do that in a quick way. Should it be done by the State, creating a platform, or should it be done by individual connectors? That is something that would certainly accelerate this process.
The Deputy is right that the focus at the moment is on the east coast but the west coast has enormous potential. When one tots up the amount of sea space in this country, it is ten times the size of our land space, and the west coast has considerable potential in that respect.
The Deputy is also right that we will need floating technology. That is in demonstration stage at the moment and is not yet at a stage of commercial exploitation. Its cost levels are currently much higher than its competitors but the Deputy is also right that the direction of travel is that this will open up a significant opportunity.
The last assessment of the west coast suggested that it could have between 23 GW and 27 GW of potential. That would go way beyond supplying Ireland's needs and we would need to see how we could integrate that into a European network or, as the Deputy said, develop hydrogen.
The EU has indicated, in the context of the European Green Deal, that this is an area in which it wants to invest research funding in order to accelerate the capacity to have a hydrogen industry that will use excess renewable energy when it is available. I refer, for example, to circumstances where the wind is blowing but the energy produced not needed for the grid. There is real potential here. Development will be further down the line, but the benefit of the auction approach we take is that, as the technology starts to come on stream, we could have pilot pots for elements within the overall auction to give emerging technologies an opportunity to prove themselves. We would be open to that.
On the just transition, the reality is that we are only starting on an accelerated pace of decarbonisation. The midlands has certainly been the most severely hit because of the fact that peat is a solid fuel and the way in which matters have progressed much quicker than had been planned.
I agree that just transition has to be looked at in a much broader context. The National Economic and Social Council, NESC, has been given the role of overseeing the way in which we implement just transition. The first experience, through Kieran Mulvey's work, shows the potential of bottom-up participation and we have to imbed that into any other approach that we take. No doubt there are other sectors and regions where we will have to develop this and I am sure, as we become familiar with the process of just transition, people will see a more permanent structure being put in place that can deal with the challenges which emerge in different sectors. Deputies will understand why we needed to get an effective response in the midlands to something that came much more suddenly than anyone expected, and that is why we took the approach outlined. The lessons from Mr. Mulvey's work will inform the future direction of the just transition strategy.
It is worth stating - and I would ask the Minister to agree on the floor of the House this evening - that climate change is still the greatest strategic threat to mankind, even in this era of Covid-19. I hope the Minister agrees that adapting to and trying to mitigate climate change will require massive State investment in changing the way we live our lives and run our societies. It is vital to ensure that the post-Covid stimulus package required is not wasted on reinstating the status quo. It is vital that we kill two birds with one stone by investing in green industry and putting workers and communities at the heart of that just transition. In that context, I welcome and recommend the paper, "Approaches to Transition", recently presented to the NESC by Dr. Jeanne Moore, which provides context for the choices we need to make. We need to put workers and their trade unions at the centre of the policies, strategies and approaches outlined in that report.
The immediate effects on our communities are apparent from the interim report produced by the just transition commissioner, Kieran Mulvey. While we welcome this report and we thank Mr. Mulvey for it, I would like to ask the Minister if he really believes that we are doing everything we can. Is he satisfied with the pace and scale of action? We need to ensure that employees in Shannonbridge, Lanesborough, Littleton in north Tipperary and east Galway and seasonal workers across the region who have relied on Bord na Móna for their incomes are not abandoned. We need to look after those who have already lost their jobs as well as those who are about to. The greatest challenge for us all is ensuring that new jobs are available in places where the older jobs are being lost and that the gap between the old jobs vanishing and the new jobs appearing does not destroy people's ability to sustain themselves and result in the economic destruction of our communities.
Running quickly through some of the measures the Minister outlined in the Government's response to the report, I ask whether they really give a sense that we are acting fast enough. On the just transition fund, €11 million seems a meagre enough investment in the context of training and business supports. Is it enough? In his response, the Minister stated, "The Department ... will write to State agencies and enterprises to identify land and facilities". I get no sense of urgency from this. How long will the Department wait for a response? The Minister also stated: "The Department and ESB will commission a study to examine the potential for using the existing infrastructure in the West Offaly and Lough Ree power plants as an Energy Hub in the Midlands." Does this really convey any urgency?
Is this information not quickly available to both the ESB and Bord na Móna already? Digital hubs and remote working are worthy objectives. Many have experience of them right now, but will they really address the needs of those directly affected? I agree absolutely that more electric charging points are needed but a bit more detail is also needed. The midlands retrofitting scheme, worth €20 million, is a great project but we need to know the scale. The centre for climate change and just transition represents an excellent project if the scale is sufficient.
Does the Minister have any idea when we will have detail on specific support for the midlands under the European Green Deal? The overall impression I have is of a holding pattern. We need to grasp the nettle and realise that a large number of people will be left behind if we do not act faster, increase invest and consider more radical solutions to immediate problems.
In view of the success of the Covid-19 pandemic wages support scheme and pandemic payment schemes, has the Minister considered proposing targeted, long-lasting direct supports, modelled on pandemic measures, for affected workers in order to bridge the gap between job losses and the creation of new industries? As with Covid, jobs are being threatened through no fault of the workers. It is a strategic, external threat of global magnitude.
I strongly welcome the recent move by Coillte to reclassify its forests in Dublin for non-commercial recreational use. I hope a more balanced strategy of development for Coillte can be extended across the country as part of our climate emergency.
I thank the Deputy for those questions. I agree absolutely that the climate challenge is the greatest challenge humanity faces. It will preoccupy this House for the next ten years and for the 20 years thereafter. We are seeking to reduce our emissions of carbon dioxide over the next ten years and to eliminate them entirely over the following 20. That will mean a dramatic change in the way we live our lives. It will require investment on the part of the Government but it will also require the mobilisation of considerable private capital. Our financial institutions will have to change their attitude in order that the capital can be mobilised. It will require changes to the habits of a lifetime so everyone, whether they are householders, enterprise staff or farmers, will have to look at the way they do their work. It will require us to accept new infrastructure in our communities. There has been a great deal of resistance to some of the renewable infrastructures but these represent the pathway to clean energy that does not have an impact on our climate. This pathway will, of course, require leadership, engagement and the designing of just transition policies by the Government.
We are engaged in a very large-scale programme of transformation. I do not underestimate the scale of the challenge or the importance of the work but I believe there was resolve in the previous Dáil to take on the work. I am of the view that the resolve to which I refer is even greater in this Dáil.
The Deputy asked whether we are doing enough in respect of the just transition within the midlands. We have moved very swiftly. I have been around this House for quite a long time but I was impressed to see, within a matter of weeks, a budget involving an investment programme of €31 million and to see the ESB top it up with an additional €5 million. This means that in the first year of a just transition there are significant funds available. We now have a report that plots a path and recognises the major role the regional enterprise strategy and the midlands transition task force can play. The latter has been very ably led from within Offaly County Council. The opportunities and difficulties associated with the transition are identified in the report of the just transition commissioner. The strategy is being taken very seriously in that it is being implemented from the Taoiseach's office. We have drawn together the strands of government to ensure that we deliver on this programme. We are doing a lot. The Deputy could certainly say we could do more; I do not disagree with that. Obviously, 2021 will be a new year and we will have to make provision later this year.
On the European Green Deal, I engaged with the incoming German Presidency just today. It is determined to push ahead with both the climate Bill and the various elements of the deal.
The Deputy is right; until a financial framework is nailed down the just transition fund and some elements within it will not reach their full scale or be triggered. We will be engaging with the European Union to draw up the territorial plan necessary to trigger drawdown. That will be an important element across the European Union. For the first time in a long time, the European Union has a project with a genuine vision similar to the vision of the Union's founders. It has lost its gloss for many citizens in recent years. It is associated with austerity and so on. I believe, however, that this is an opportunity for the European Union to reassert itself. Many people are sceptical of the value of sharing sovereignty within the Union. I am a big supporter of it and I believe this will breathe life into the cause of those who support it. I know the Deputy's party also strongly supports this. I am optimistic about the prospects.
I note that the Minister, in his statement, acknowledges the great work of many of our public services and utilities. I echo that acknowledgement. In particular I acknowledge the work being done by An Post. From those who engage with communities and help those who are isolating, to the management team that has come up with innovative supports for bookshops and small enterprises, its staff have really done incredible work since Covid began. In our post-Covid economy, our SMEs will have to pivot their business models towards online shopping. An Post will play a large role in this regard ensuring that, for those going online, it is easier, faster and financially viable to shop in an Irish online shop rather than in one overseas.
I will focus on two communications issues. The first is the broadband connection points programme currently being rolled out across the country. The second is the important issue of access to Internet training and supports for our older population. In November last year, the Government announced the deployment of 300 broadband connection points across the country. This programme was intended to be a stopgap for communities with the worst broadband coverage. It was a very welcome announcement for those in our rural communities. These broadband connection points were heralded as high-speed Internet hubs that would enable rural remote working. The locations selected by the Department to host the broadband connection points were primarily community centres, GAA clubs and schools. In principle, this is a worthwhile programme. Remote access to the Internet is vital for any rural village or town, even more so now that, post Covid, our focus will be on enabling people to work remotely from home or from within their locality.
I absolutely believe that our schools and community facilities should have access to high-speed Internet. I have worked with a number of primary schools that have had difficulty with their Internet connections to such an extent that the Internet in one school with which I worked failed on its technology day. All the children had to put away their devices and the school could not go through with it. There are problems with Internet connections in our schools.
We need rural co-working hubs that offer people the opportunity to work remotely and we need our schools connected and enabled to teach in a progressively technological manner. I cannot see, however, how providing high-speed public access broadband to schools and sport centres under this programme will meet the needs of either those facilities or the local community. I certainly cannot see how many of them will meet the needs of remote workers. For example, how does the Minister envisage a school providing an opportunity for remote working for local people? Would a person just drive up, sit in his or her car and access the Internet from there? Would schools have to open in the evening to facilitate remote access to the Internet? There are significant child protection issues associated with using schools as remote working hubs. Conflating the two needs, providing broadband to schools and providing for remote working opportunities, will mean that neither need will be sufficiently met.
What selection criteria were used in selecting the facilities to host broadband connection points? Was consultation carried out in the selection of those premises? Do these clubs, community centres and schools actually want to provide this service to the broader community? I have seen it reported that the Government has allocated €120 million next year to deliver the rural broadband scheme, much of which is to be spent in installing these broadband connection points.
That is a significant amount of money. If the Government is going to spend such money on providing rural public access to the Internet in order to enable remote working, it should first prioritise premises that are suitable for that use. For example, are there empty Government buildings, such as HSE offices, that could be reconfigured to provide dedicated co-working spaces with high-speed Internet access, meeting rooms, hot desks and television and video conferencing? These are the kinds of facilities to which rural communities should have access. Rural Ireland requires a broadband solution that meets its needs. I urge the Minister not to short-change people in those areas by providing solutions that do not stack up and which promise remote working facilities but do not deliver. I ask him to look again at the locations that have been selected and consider expanding the number in light of the much heavier demand for authentic and professional rural remote working facilities in our post-Covid world.
I will now move on to digital literacy. It has become obvious in recent months that broadband is about more than just communication. It is also about connection, whether that be connecting with each other, our local communities, the country or the world at large. However, not all of us are connecting, and this is particularly the case for older people. It is not that they cannot or will not connect online, but that nobody is helping them to do it. There are some startling statistics on digital literacy in Ireland. According to the 2018 EUROSTAT figures, over half of Irish people aged between 65 and 74 have never used the Internet. Only 3% of those over the age of 75 have used it. When we combine these statistics, we see that more than 70% of the total population aged over 65 have never been online.
Our recent experience with Covid shows us that it is more important now than ever that our older population should be able to connect to friends, family and businesses online. Unfortunately, this is not happening. According to Age Action, the key issue around technology is that it has been designed, rolled out and funded to exclude a large group of people in society, whose members now have limited access to social, educational, financial and commercial opportunities when compared with any other sector of society. We cannot underestimate the impact that digital literacy has on a person. Being able to navigate online increases a person's access to services and information and means that older people can stay independent for longer. People who have access to broadband save more money, continue to learn and teach new skills, and keep up with the news and cultural events.
Crucially, older people with digital literacy skills benefit from increased participation in the development of national policy. This is a key point which shows that digital literacy is good for democracy. A lack of digital literacy in older people results in a reduced ability to participate in public policy development and consultation. Age Action notified me that of eight open consultations on nationwide public policy documents in November 2019, only one offered public consultation workshops offline. On 15 May, there were two public consultations open, both of which are online. In real terms, this means that approximately 300,000 people aged over 65 cannot easily contribute to the policy-making processes that affect all our lives. It is clear that digital literacy is more important now than ever as we learn to migrate online and stay connected. Older people are losing out significantly more than any other cohort in this regard.
Despite the importance of digital literacy, the successful digital skills for citizens grant scheme, run by the Minister's Department, is currently halted and under review, with apparently no plan to continue the training. The funding stopped mid-programme when Covid hit, which means that many of the participants have been left without access to this very successful support and those who give the training have been left in limbo with their funding ceased. Will the Minister examine how this training can continue to function on an online basis and will he consider reinstating funding for this very important programme? Does he have any other plans to focus on and encourage more online learning for the older members of our communities?
I thank Deputy Whitmore for her questions. She is absolutely right in commending An Post. That organisation has been imaginative in recognising a very good commercial opportunity for itself while also helping companies to migrate their business to a more successful platform. An Post has been remarkably successful when one considers that, a couple of years ago, it was facing into very dark financial circumstances. The company has been completely turned around and remade and it continues to be very innovative. That success is a tribute to the workers and the management.
The selection of broadband contact points was made through the local authorities via their broadband officers. There was a lot of local consultation to seek to identify the most appropriate spots.
That resulted in almost 300 being selected. A small number have fallen away since.
The Deputy is correct that there is a difficulty with schools. The schools are private patron models so they most likely will not be making their premises available so workers can come in and be involved in remote working. However, they represent a small proportion of them. I believe 75 to 80 of them are in schools. In an ideal world one would see our schools being more open to that wider community participation, but in the past when I was Minister for Education and Skills I found it very difficult to bring patron bodies along to support new activities. That is likely to be a problem.
Obviously, kitting these out will be crucial. A tender has been successfully awarded by the Department of Rural and Community Development. The company that was successful will kit those out to develop the hubs. It is recognised that some will be more suitable locations than others and we will try to ensure that those that have the capacity to be kitted out with hot desks and so forth will be developed in that way. My Department is determined to do that.
I will see if we can reinstate the digital education scheme. No doubt it was arrested for good reason.
I am sharing time with Deputy Paul Murphy. I have no questions that require an answer now, but I wish to make a few comments on the climate crisis in light of the Covid-19 crisis. It has been said by many commentators that the Covid-19 pandemic is only a slight foretaste of the type of disruption to society and economics that we can expect as we move further down the road to catastrophic climate change. There are certainly many lessons for us to draw from it on what will work for climate and the far-reaching radical action that we need.
We now have billions of people effectively in lockdown across the globe. We have dramatically reduced road and air transport and we are seeing reductions in CO2emissions never recorded in history. However, this gigantic fall will, at most, lead to a reduction in annual levels of between 4% and 6%. The International Energy Agency says the world will use 6% less energy this year, equivalent to losing the entire energy demand of India. Carbon Brief shows that emissions will fall by 4% to 8%, between 2 and 3 billion tonnes of warming gas. That is between six and ten times larger than during the last global recession. To quote one scientist:
We are still emitting more than 80% of our previous CO2emissions. That is a massive number. So personal behaviour really isn't going to fix the carbon emission problem. We need a systematic change in how energy is generated and transmitted.
One lesson we should take from the crisis is that a climate policy that rests overwhelmingly on changes in personal behaviour to tackle the greatest crisis in human history will fail because the issue with climate and CO2is systemic and not the behaviour of ordinary people. I say to the Minister, Fianna Fáil and especially the Green Party that an emphasis on carbon taxes aimed at personal individual behaviour is a massive error and will waste the time we have left to avert catastrophe in the climate.
The other lesson relates to the over-reliance on the free market as the provider of key public services. This can turn out not only to be a costly mistake with regard to broadband, CervicalCheck or schools or hospital building, but when we hits a major crisis like this pandemic it can be fatal for many. From the failures of nursing homes to a dysfunctional two-tier health service to the failure of childcare provision, it is clear that reliance on the market or international investors will not give us the type of services we need either in good times or in this emergency. Our climate policy continues to place its hope in private companies and investments in offshore wind energy. We will remain dependent on their prospects for profit in the years to come. The seven proposed offshore wind projects mentioned in the past month are very welcome, but there is no mention or vision of a State-led investment programme that can rationally plan the scale and the necessary timing for the transition away from fossil fuels.
Similarly, the announcement of the just transition report and its €11 million investment fund are meant to deliver just transition for workers and communities devastated by ESB and Bord na Móna closures, but in the meantime workers continue to be thrown on the scrapheap and treated abysmally by their State employer.
This fund will at best be a sticking plaster over the abandonment of many thousands of people, pensionable jobs in favour of private industry working, lower pay, precarious contracts and with, of course, a coat of green wash.
There is no vision of what just transition really means. There is no ambition to use that skilled workforce in a State-led renewable energy project. That is not surprising. For the past four years, this Government has obstructed legislation that would curtail fossil fuel use and exploration. It has supported plans for liquified natural gas, LNG, facilities and it continues to parrot, even in the teeth of the evidence from science, that gas is a transitional fuel.
Like other Deputies, I have been receiving emails from climate campaigners urging me to support a programme for Government that accepts and acts on the best climate science. I assume they are hoping that it will give an impetus to talks between Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party. If those parties arrive at a programme, it will probably mention climate more times than any other previous Government programme. It will be full of inspirational rhetoric. It will tick a lot of boxes and may fool some climate activists for some of the time but it will not deliver the far-reaching radical action that is needed. Both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are ideologically committed to neoliberal policies. Both are the architects of inequality in housing and in health. Both are defenders and champions of the fossil fuel industry and the private investment interests. They will never deliver the systemic change the Covid-19 crisis has shown us that we need.
We want to see a science-led response on climate change, now one led by economics posing as climate science. We need to look elsewhere and build a movement that is required for climate change. We need to change the system and not just change the climate.
As well as a horrific pandemic with death and tragic consequences for so many people around the world, we are also living in a real-life experiment of what it is to implement the most far-reaching changes imaginable in terms of people's habits. The Minister spoke earlier about the need for everyone to change their habits. I agree with that, but who could have imagined the kind of changes in people's habits that currently are taking place? Consumption has collapsed and huge parts of the economy have effectively been in cold storage for months. What is the impact of that in terms of climate change? The projected impact on a global basis is that global emissions will only drop by 8%. That is completely inadequate as well as completely unsustainable because of the way it is being done. What is the conclusion from that? The conclusion is that there is no solution to the climate crisis, which is coming toward us extremely fast and with horrific consequences, within the framework of the profit system. There is no solution to it as long as the decisions about our economy are made by the big oil companies. There is no solution to it as long as the decisions about the nature of our agriculture are made by big agribusiness. It underlines the desperate need for system change instead of climate change. It makes the case for that change to be socialist change whereby the key sections of the economy are in democratic public ownership and that we are able to plan to put people's needs, and our planet's needs, before profit.
To be more concrete, I give an example and a comparison between the drop in electricity usage between the South of Ireland and the North. In the North, electricity consumption has fallen by 20% but in the South it has only fallen by 10%. The underlying reason, in a more concrete way, demonstrates that point. The developmental model that the Government has chosen is not sustainable in terms of our environment because that 10% difference is made up basically of data centres. It is a core part of Government policy to attract big multinational companies to establish data centres here that provide very little in the way of ongoing jobs. They are expected to add at least 1.5 million tonnes of CO2 annually to our emissions by 2028 but the Government designates them as critical infrastructure in order to be able to attract more of them. It demonstrates that the Government is not putting the interests of our people or our planet first.
I agree with the slogan of ICTU - No Going Back. For me, what that speaks to is that there is no going back to a society where it is okay for people to get worse healthcare because they are poorer.
It speaks to the need not to go back to a situation where evictions are legal. We were told it was unconstitutional to make evictions illegal. A similar situation applies to increases in rents. There is no going back to the disconnection of people from nature and the pressurised, stressed lives many people still have, but which were the norm for almost everybody before the pandemic. There is a substantial task for the trade union movement and the left to produce a vision and build a movement to fight for that sort of eco-socialist change we need. That should be based around the idea of a green new deal with socialist policies. The interests of climate justice absolutely overlap with the need for social justice and how we are going to function safely and in a healthy way with the situation caused by coronavirus.
For people to travel safely, we need substantial investment in public transport. That means private operators will not be able to make a profit like they did in the past. We should just invest, treat it as a public service and make it free. There should be free, significantly expanded public transport for all. We need a significant increase in the number of care jobs in society. To be able to teach properly, we need many more teachers. To have proper healthcare, we need many more doctors and nurses. To be able to have proper childcare, we need more people working in that area. All of that requires a significant investment. They are low carbon, quality jobs. Similarly, we need fewer people to be in crowded workplaces and a four-day week without loss of pay. The only way we will get any of those things is with a movement. They will not come from a Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael Government but require a movement from below.
In the years before this virus ravaged our country, an industry as old as time has been suffering a slow but largely ignored demise. The local newspaper industry as we know it is dying before our eyes and if it is allowed to continue, it will not just herald the end of an industry but it will also mark the end of an era. The threats faced by the local print newspaper industry are many. Falling advertising revenue, rising production costs and the growing popularity of online news are touted as the biggest dangers to the survival of local newspapers.
However, the mass takeover of newspapers by big media companies is the greatest threat of all. Originally, local newspapers were largely family-owned. This gradually changed to ownership dominated by Irish, Scottish and Northern Irish companies. In more recent years, media conglomerates arrived. They swept the country, buying up title after title for a mere fraction of the price their predecessors had paid. In doing so, they changed the heart of local newspapers. In my constituency of Tipperary, three of the four titles are now published by the same company, Formpress, a subsidiary of Iconic Newspapers. It now controls these three titles that heretofore thrived on their competitiveness and individuality. This clearly represents a media monopoly, which in turn is a disincentive to journalistic autonomy and traditional rivalry. Dedicated local journalists and contributors made these titles household names. Their hard work, local knowledge and empathy with communities, combined with the integrity of their reporting, built a bond and trust with the public. These titles are being ransacked of their unique, distinctive style and character. Most of these titles are limping along, devoid of funds, with no clear direction. The human touch seems to hold no value in this so-called progression of local journalism. It is no longer about bringing the stories and spreading the news. Local papers are now the focus of ambition and greed.
When the Covid virus struck, many journalists were stood down, not knowing whether it was temporary or permanent. Little or no conversation, discussion or explanation happened, just a crude swing of the axe and a distant diktat. Numerous people working for these publications feel hurt and disillusioned by the manner of their treatment. It is sad to see journalists who we admire and respect being treated so shabbily. Covid will have severe implications for everyone.
It will also impact in many other ways such as lifestyles, traditions and customs. We all know and accept that change is inevitable. Irrespective of the business, one can only survive by adapting and embracing new ways of doing things, responding to consumer demand and trends. In some instances it will be difficult to distinguish between the genuine need for change and those who will use Covid-19 as the excuse for rationalisation. Unfortunately, some companies and organisations will take advantage of Covid to make sweeping changes with consequences for job security and terms of employment.
I fear for the future of traditional provincial publications as they bow to monopoly ownership. While primarily businesses, local newspapers are also a vital service provider. They are the windows of local communities. They give a snapshot of all that is relevant to local people at a given time. They reflect the lives and concerns of people in their area and provide a platform for local voices. These newspapers keep people informed on issues that matter locally and every week they provide what will one day be an invaluable history of every corner of our country.
Local newspapers scrutinise and hold local decision makers to account. In order to do this, they need to be an independent voice. I ask the Minister to listen to their voice. I ask him to explain how media conglomerates were permitted to sweep across Ireland and buy up almost every newspaper title in the country. Why does this sector not come under the ambit of a regulator, similar to local radio? What regulations are in place for media ownership? I ask the Minister not to allow what has been happening to local newspapers to continue. The incoming Minister with responsibility for communications must sit down with the National Union of Journalists as a matter of urgency to address the problem of media ownership in Ireland, to acknowledge the issues plaguing the industry on the ground and to formulate a way forward that restores, supports and secures the future of local print media.
The outgoing Government signed off on a €3 billion national broadband plan. Just four months later we found ourselves in the midst of a pandemic that ground our country to a halt. Life changed completely in a short few days. Offices and businesses across the country closed and those who could do so were asked to work from home. Students left their desks and their education continued with online classes and electronically submitted homework - that is for those who lived in an area with dependable Internet and a good broadband connection. Never before has the need for reliable high-speed broadband in rural Ireland been more apparent. I have come across cases where people were unable to work from home and where students could neither receive nor submit assignments.
The issue is further compounded in areas of Tipperary where high-sped broadband has been introduced, but major black spots remain. It is common to find rural roads where the majority of properties have access to broadband but a few homes or businesses in the middle have no service. As recently as this morning I was contacted by a farmer living in Tipperary in an area currently covered by a fibre broadband network. For more than 12 months his neighbours have had access to high-speed connection. While the actual fibre connection passes this farmer's entrance, he has been told his connection cannot be completed because his property, like many other traditional farm settlements is approximately 400 m from the main road. He has been informed it is not commercially viable to provide him with a connection and he will have to wait to be connected under the State intervention plan.
Simply put, high-speed broadband is not a luxury for rural Ireland; it is in fact a necessity. I ask the Minister if the plan is in line. I ask him to advise me in writing or this evening as to the progress made in the roll-out of broadband across Tipperary and the timescale involved for its completion.
The Deputy made a very impassioned plea for local newspapers. There is no doubt that they have been very severely impacted, obviously by the collapse in their advertising revenue, the greater difficulties in circulation, and I suppose by the migration to online media sources. That has certainly been aggravated by the Covid-19 pandemic. The Government has stepped in.
Many of those newspapers are receiving the temporary wage support scheme, which has helped them to keep their staff together and be in a position to recover and rebuild.
I am very conscious that the whole media world is changing very rapidly under the impact of the changed ways in which people communicate and absorb information. It is highly related to age. People under a certain age have a completely different attitude towards newspapers. They use sources that are not the conventional linear broadcast media. This is posing a huge challenge for the quality of public service media. For this reason, the previous Government appointed Professor Brian MacCraith to look at this concept. While he is primarily focusing on public broadcasting, his terms of reference also include the wider media. It is important that the Dáil consider how we ensure the quality of news coverage and journalism, even as the methods through which people receive media change so rapidly. We cannot pretend that we can continue as things are because people are voting with their hand-held devices to absorb their media in a different way. We need to think very deeply about this.
Any takeover of a newspaper will be judged by the Competition Commission and by my Department in the context of plurality. Concentration in the market and the plurality of information available are both examined. I cannot give the Deputy an answer as to why any particular takeover was approved but the reasons will be on record as each case will have gone through the process that has been put in place.
I will revert to the Deputy on broadband for Tipperary.
I begin by expressing my gratitude to our local media, including radio, newspaper and other correspondents. Communities in rural Ireland, isolated areas and everywhere else depend on these media, especially during this difficult period. Information over the airwaves from Tipp FM and Tipperary Mid West Radio are a lifeline to many. I hope they and the local newspapers will receive adequate support from people as well as from the Government because businesses do not have additional income to give them at the moment.
I express my sincere disappointment in the owner of Iconic Newspapers, Malcolm Denmark, for his appalling treatment of hardworking journalists, staff journalists and local correspondents. Deputy Lowry also referred to this. It is unbelievable but this is big business in modern Ireland. This pandemic is a scamdemic for big businesses. This behaviour was happening before the pandemic ever started. This man has destroyed the local papers and does not care about them. He paid himself the handsome sum of €3.1 million last year, yet staff have not received a wage increase since 2008. Benefits such as maternity leave and sick leave have been abolished. He is recklessly riding roughshod over good, decent, hard-working journalists with families and who have served their communities well for decades. To add insult to injury, he is claiming the Covid payment to pay his staff even though the business is profitable. He is not interested in the Tipperary Star, The Nationalist, The Midland Tribune, or any other newspapers, right up as far The Donegal Democrat in Deputy Pringle's constituency. It is outrageous what the Minister has allowed happen but it happened across the beef industry, with the broadband contract and everywhere else. It is Fine Gael policy to let these big business people do what they like to whom they like. The Minister talked about the regulator. He might as well talk about Santa Claus. These people do not care about regulation. Look at the way Malcolm Denmark has treated these newspaper titles, which have served their counties for decades and, in some cases, centuries. They have some excellent journalists but four were let go in The Nationalist and four were let go in the Tipperary Star. Two or three people are expected to do the work that seven or eight were doing. They are being driven like that and there is no respect. People must respect their workers.
I have questions on broadband. I have received complaints about Eir. Eir is much worse than it was 20 years ago. I remember when Albert Reynolds waved a phone at a Fianna Fáil Ard-Fheis, which I was proud to attend, and said he would have a phone to everybody in a month. Now, it would take three, four or six months for an older person to get a phone repaired. It is disgusting what has happened.
Will the Department please provide specific details of the deployment of fibre broadband in County Tipperary? How many properties in the county were supplied with broadband to date in 2020? How many properties in the county will be supplied with broadband between now and the end of the year? When will the deployment of the national broadband plan be made available? There have been more announcements on this than I have had hot dinners but people do not have it. I refer to farmers, students and those working from home, children trying to access their school work or even teachers who need broadband in order to be able to liaise with them. Farmers need to be able to fill out their application forms. Students need to be able to fill out their CAO forms. Broadband is a necessary tool now and we are being blackguarded in rural Ireland.
What is most frustrating for people is when they realise they are located only a few hundred yards from properties in the blue area with a broadband connection point but they still cannot get connected, nor can they get any answers. Another issue that needs to be addressed concerns Eir customers.
The Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland comes under the watch of the Minister. It was said there was loads of money and a large number of applications were made, but there is not money and contracts have not been paid. People cannot say a word because they have their hand inside in the dog's mouth and that dog bites if one says something. A contractor recently contacted me who came off the payment to go back to work and he was not allowed to go back to work. I believe the simple reason is that it is another scam and the Department does not have the money to pay him. He is working on a building site on his own or perhaps with one other person. I believe the Department does not have the money to pay him.
A lot has happened in dear mother Ireland. She is living with O'Leary in the grave. I will tell the Minister about Fine Gael policy. Now Fine Gael is cobbling a Government together again with Fianna Fáil and others to try to ensure the big businesses survive and thrive. They do not only want to survive, they want to thrive and walk on workers, small businesses and companies. Deputy Lowry mentioned conglomerates but he did not mention anything about the racing industry conglomerates we have in Tipperary. I totally support the racing industry, but what about the conglomerate that is the Coolmore equine industries. It is buying up all the land, gobbling every parcel of land that can be bought in Tipperary and beyond. One cannot criticise it either or one will be banished to hell or to Connacht. It is nearly the new god in places.
It is time to rethink our approach to the pandemic and let Ireland live and operate again. We must open up our churches and let people of whatever faith go to worship. We must change the 2 m rule. It is codswallop at this stage. We criticised Hungary for what it did but we should take a leaf out of Hungary's book and see how it dealt with the pandemic.
I too thank An Post for the great service it has given, and is still giving, right around the country. I hope that no more post offices will be closed down. I thank the local broadcasters, especially Radio Kerry. I also thank the local journalists.
I wish to highlight that there has been difficulty accessing Zoom meetings. It has been explained to me that it is a problem right around the country. It is not fair that people cannot link in. Remote working is the order of the day but in Kerry it is hardly possible at all because of the number of places that are without broadband coverage. As I explained to the Minister previously, there are pockets of coverage. There is fibre passing outside one man's gate who urgently needs it but there is no break in the line of fibre and the black box that is required is some 400 m or 500 m up the road. A black box covers 11 houses. We are told by Eir that National Broadband Ireland is going to do it and will be paid for it so Eir will not do it. There are pockets between Doocarrig and Beheenagh, between Gneevgullia and Kilcummin, Reaboy and Tooreencahill where various places have been left out. Children and farmers are expected to go online. This year, farmers were told they had to submit their single farm payment applications online. This was very tough on those who had to get someone else to do it for them. It is not fair that they had to do that.
Every minute of every day, someone is talking about climate and climate change. The one thing we are clear and sure on now is that it is not the farmer who is to blame.
They are farming away, but looking up at the sky, it can be seen that the planes are missing. One morning, on 21 August 2019 at 5.45 a.m., I looked out the door and up at the sky - 33 lines of jets passing overhead and a blue sky over that. When I went out ten minutes later, all the droppings from the planes had merged together. There was no sign of my blue sky - gone completely. In recent times, however, we have seen a blue sky as far as we can see on either end, and we are glad to see that. It is very easy, however, to blame the farmer or the poor man or woman going to work, or the hauliers are going through every hoop to deliver what they have to and who are penalised in every way, and now we are talking about increasing carbon tax. It is very easy to blame these people when, with emissions, really it is up we should be looking and not down.
I love our environment as much as anyone else, and seek to protect our rivers and our lakes in every way. Instead of talking about the climate, why do the Minister and the Government not talk about the treatment plants around the country? Take our county, for example. Kilcummin has been waiting for a treatment plant for 18 years, Castleisland has been waiting for an extension to a sewerage scheme for 33 years, and then there are places like Curragh, Scartaglin and Brosna. People cannot get permission there to build houses around the villages because there is no treatment plant, which only draws them into Killarney. The Government is to blame as much as farmers and other people for damaging our environment. It is a fact that the local authorities right around the country, not alone in Kerry, are to blame for the most pollution of our rivers, lakes, and indeed our bathing areas. Ballybunion and other places have gone from excellent to very good, or whatever, water quality. That is where we are going because the Government is not looking at the things it should be dealing with and putting money into them. Several Governments - the previous one and the one before - have let rural Ireland down when it comes to providing treatment plants and dealing with the environment, in our county anyway.
It is hard to follow that. Deputy Harkin and I will take five minutes each. There are two topics about which I wish to ask questions, and then Deputy Harkin will take over. Mention was made earlier of offshore wind power and its potential. The Minister mentioned a target of 3 GW by 2030. One of the biggest barriers to the development of offshore wind generation is the lack of proper foreshore legislation. I know that is not the Minister's responsibility, rather that of the Department with responsibility for the environment, but it should be of direct interest to the Minister. What contacts does the Minister have with the relevant Department to facilitate offshore wind generation? There is huge potential in the development of offshore wind generation, including construction and maintenance. Many of my neighbours in Killybegs work in the offshore sector in Scotland, Denmark, the Netherlands and Germany. What they are developing there could be developed in Ireland. The local boat yards could be used to develop and build the vessels used in this work. There is huge potential right across the board. I would like to ask the Minister about that.
I would also like to raise the issue of rural broadband. Issues have arisen throughout the country. Deputy Connolly has asked me to refer to Galway, where broadband and mobile service has been unavailable in north Connemara, Maum, Cleggan and Recess for several days. This is causing huge problems for people trying to access the broadband networks, including elderly people and teachers communicating with students.
It is right across the country and in Donegal we have the same problem. For example, in Drimarone and Letterbarrow in recent days, the Eir fixed lines have been down, as have the Vodafone mobile phone lines. I think this is due to a lack of staff to maintain them. Will the Minister comment on that?
I am glad to say a new Bill has been created that will deal with the gaps in the foreshore problem to which the Deputy refers. We also have developed a unified planning system, which as the Deputy noted is not under my Department, and the Minister of State, Deputy English, has made an announcement in respect of that. There will now be an integrated planning process, which will be regarded by the offshore sector as a significant step forward. That infrastructure is being put in place but it will have to be passed by the House. It is priority legislation from the point of view of the outgoing Government, as I am sure it will be of any incoming Government.
As the Deputy stated, offshore wind is a significant potential opportunity and it is an area where other decisions will need to be made about the type of infrastructure we use to underpin it. It will have to be decided whether we will require individual providers of offshore wind farms to make their own landfall or whether we will try to create a State-funded infrastructure that would make it a more integrated package. We will need to make decisions early on that and there are a number of crucial points along the way. The first offshore wind auction will be in the latter half of next year and a number of legacy projects will be enabled to compete in that, although it will also provide the opportunity for others to come in. We are determined that the framework will be there to support the sector because it is a significant opportunity for Ireland.
If the Deputy would care to send me details of the interruptions, I will see whether there is anything we can do. A great deal of effort is being put in to maintain the level of telecommunications service. The reports I get show a very high level of performance, despite in some cases 60% growth in the demand coming onto the systems. As I said earlier, we have made spectrum available temporarily to try to support the delivery of service. If there is a pattern of gaps, I would be happy to pursue that with ComReg.
The Minister spoke about the national broadband plan, which will be crucial to helping ensure balanced regional development. He stated he will examine the feasibility of accelerating the roll-out of high-speed broadband. In that context, will the Minister consider including in his criteria the chronic underfunding of investment in various sectors throughout the regions, whether that be roads, education, health or whatever? I ask that the Government use that information as part of its criteria for the study. The roll-out of high-speed broadband would help to bridge some of those gaps in investment. Many regions usually find themselves bottom of the list. Taking all that into consideration, will the Minister ensure, or try to ensure, that those regions do not remain at the bottom of the list and that he will broaden the criteria?
My second question is about measuring carbon sequestration in agricultural practice. As the Minister will know, it is crucial in mitigating the more negative aspects of climate change. It is important for the new Common Agricultural Policy, the biodiversity strategy etc. How are we planning to measure it? Teagasc has about 100 signpost farms but my issue is that not many of them are on peatlands or wetlands, which sequester more carbon and, furthermore, do not become saturated. Do we have plans to measure accurately the sequestration of carbon? Who will benefit from this? Will it be the individual farmer or will it be a national benefit?
If it is a national benefit, how do we propose to reward or incentivise farmers who manage their agricultural holdings in such a way as to significantly sequester carbon?
My third question is on the building of a liquified natural gas, LNG, import terminal. It has been reported that Fine Gael has said it does not make sense. Will the Minister confirm this? If he can, will he say that it is not Government policy to apply to the Connecting Europe Facility for funding for something that does not make sense?
The idea of the broadband plan is to connect every premises with high-speed fibre broadband. There may be a small cohort, of between 2% and 5%, that will not get fibre and will have to have alternative solutions. This plan will ensure every premises in Ireland has the service. It is not a question of picking one ness or little corner that might be disadvantaged. We are delivering to every-----
It was an issue over a seven-year period but, as I said, we are trying to bring that back and accelerate it. We will work to try to deliver that.
The only element that has nodes picked out is the interim offering we are making in the course of this year. It is a flavour of what is to come. We will light up, not with fibre, but with high-speed broadband 150 Mbps capacity and some 270 broadband connection points. Those points have been selected by local authorities and are in every county. They have been designed and selected to have that sort of hub capacity in them. They have been surveyed and solutions have been found for most of them. The Department of Rural and Community Development, which is the Department of the Minister, Deputy Ring, has done the contracts so they will be kitted out. Not all of them will have the same capacity as others to be a hotspot. It will depend on their makeup and so on. They have been selected on that basis to make an impact.
The Deputy is right that the whole issue of carbon and land use is very complicated, and measurement is a difficulty. As the Deputy will know, unfortunately Ireland's land use overall is emitting carbon and is not absorbing carbon. We are in a negative in that regard because of the drainage and the management of certain lands and how we manage various activities on the land. Currently it is not positive and is a negative. I agree with Deputy Harkin that we need to try to get recognition for the work we put in now to repair, rectify and improve that land use for sequestration. Much of that is about forestry and some is about rehabilitating bogs like what we will do with Bord na Móna. Currently we do not get recognition in the immediate term. We could plant to our heart's content, but we would only get recognition for it from 2030 onwards.
With regard to the LNG terminal, I have always said that we would not support it until a security evaluation is done. I believe policy is moving on and people recognise LNG will not have a place, but that is a matter for a Government to decide on.