Thursday, 9 December 2021
Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions
Tá costais fhuinnimh sa tír seo ag ardú agus tá teaghlaigh amuigh ansin ag streachailt lena gcuid billí a íoc. Tá fíorbhrú ar dhaoine le airgead a fháil chun a gcuid tithe a théamh an Fómhar agus an Nollaig seo. Tá an Rialtas ag déanamh neamhairde air seo. Níl sé ag gníomhú cosúil le rialtais eile ar fud na hEorpa. Cén fáth? Tá pacáiste de thacaíochtaí de dhíth ar dhaoine anois le dul i ngleic leis an ghéarchéim seo.
There is no doubt that winter is here. Those on low and middle incomes are facing energy price hikes in the months ahead. Today, we hear from the Central Statistics Office, CSO, that inflation is now running at 5.3%, the highest rate in more than 20 years. This is largely driven by energy costs. The CSO tells us that, in the past 12 months, the price of electricity has shot up by 21%, the price of gas by 26% and the cost of heating one's home by a staggering 71% if using oil. In a survey published by my colleague, Deputy Kerrane, in which 14,000 people took part, 99% of respondents said that the Government was not doing enough to tackle the cost of living. Some 77% said that this has had an impact on their mental health.
Since the beginning of this year, suppliers have announced more than 35 price increases. Bonkers.ieshows that those price hikes could increase annual household energy bills by as much as €1,300. Workers and families need a helping hand now.
Across Europe, we see governments responding to soaring energy prices in order to shield households. In Spain, VAT on electricity bills has been slashed by 11%. In Italy, the Government has launched a package worth €6.2 billion to protect households from rising energy prices to the end of the year. This Government has done nothing despite the fact that we in this State face the highest energy prices in Europe. We in Sinn Féin call on the Tánaiste's Government to wake up. We have repeatedly called for relief to be provided to low and middle-income households, households that will struggle when they receive their bills for electricity, heating and oil in the coming months.
In October, the Commission launched a toolbox for action to support member states in tackling rising energy costs. We have said that the Government should work with the Commission to reduce VAT on domestic energy bills, thereby providing an immediate 12% cut in energy prices for households this winter. The Government rejected that proposal but we have put forward many others. For example, I am sure the Tánaiste is aware that many jurisdictions operate discount schemes for households. Under these schemes, the electricity or gas provider applies a discount to the household's energy bill, with the amount of the discount then reimbursed to the provider by the State. I am sure the Tánaiste is aware of this because a similar scheme already operates here through the free electricity allowance. This allowance is automatically deducted from the household bill and the supplier is reimbursed by the State. A similar scheme could be rolled out if the political will was there to provide immediate financial relief in respect of the electricity and home heating bills of low and middle-income households this winter.
Has the Government even explored that option? If not, will the Tánaiste consider or commit to exploring that option? We are asking the Government to wake up to the fact that people are hard-pressed. These numbers do not lie. There has been a 71% increase in the cost of heating your home if you use oil. There has also been an increase of more than 20% in the cost of electricity and gas. Despite their households having cheaper energy costs than those in this State, other European Union member states are acting, in some cases through multibillion euro packages, to support workers and families through this period. In light of the fact that the Government is reported to be considering a financial package, how long must workers and families wait for it to act? Households cannot wait any longer.
I thank the Deputy. The cost of living in Ireland is rising very quickly. After more than a decade of little or no inflation, we now see prices raising at a rate of more than 5% a year. We have not seen that in 20 years. This is very much driven by increases in fuel and energy prices. The Government is very aware of that. We know it is very difficult for many families who are trying to make ends meet and find enough money to pay the bills at the end of the week or the end of the month. Of course, we also know it from our own experience of going into the shop or forecourt or getting our electricity or gas bills through the post. We need to help.
Government is helping in at least four ways: pay increases, welfare and pension increases, a reduction in personal taxation and help with the cost of living in respect of a number of services. To expand on that a little bit more, with regard to pay increases, an increase in the minimum wage will kick in from January and there are also increases in public sector pay. There are also significant pay increases in most, although not all, parts of the private sector. With regard to welfare and pensions, an increase in the fuel allowance has already kicked in. Increases in the pension and weekly welfare payments will kick in from the first week of January. Reductions in personal taxation will also kick in from January. This means that people will pay less income tax. This is being achieved through increases in tax credits and an increase in the cut-off for the standard rate of tax. People will see that in their payslips in January. There are also other things that can help with the cost of living. There is to be a rent freeze in real terms. The freeze in childcare fees will be really important to many families who spend a lot of money on childcare. There will also be a reduction in the cost of medicine. These will also kick in from January. These are the four sets of actions the Government is taking which should see the rate of inflation coming down in 2022. That is what we anticipate will happen.
With regard to energy prices in particular, the Government is aware of the European toolbox and the options available to us to assist families and households with the high cost of energy. These are currently under consideration. We would certainly like to do something to help with electricity bills and perhaps also gas bills. The Ministers, Deputies Donohoe, Michael McGrath and Eamon Ryan, are working on that at the moment. We hope to be in a position to make a decision on that in the near future so that people will see the effects of that decision in the bills they receive being a little bit lower than expected in the new year.
There seems to be a trend here. It was the same when the Government was going to roll out free antigen tests but then Lidl and so on sorted it out. It is likely that the same thing will happen here. The Government will take so long to come up with a scheme that the weather will have got better. We will be into the spring or the summer and the Government will say that help is no longer needed. We have been raising this issue with the Government since October. There have been 35 energy price increases. It was 4°C yesterday. I am not sure what the temperature outside is at the minute. People are suffering as a result of these energy price increases. Bonkers.ietells us that they amount to €1,300 per year. The Tánaiste has not mentioned anything about offsetting the rapid rise in oil prices. Most people in rural Ireland use oil rather than electricity or gas to heat their homes. Oil heating has seen the sharpest increase, 71% in a year.
There are solutions. We already have a model through the electricity discount scheme. We can expand that to other operators. When is the Government going to bring forward a scheme? I am conscious that next week is the Dáil's last sitting week for the year. While Government is doing basically nothing on this issue, bills are coming in and households are under additional pressure and wondering how to make ends meet.
It is very much the view of Government that we need to take action and do something to help people with their energy bills in the new year. We are particularly focusing on electricity because it is a bill everyone gets. It is something that people have to use. They do not have any choice as to what type of energy to use and must use what comes in on the wires. We are working on that at the moment. As I said, if we are going to do something that will have an impact on people's bills in the new year, we will have to make a decision in the next week or two. The Ministers, Deputies Donohoe, Michael McGrath and Eamon Ryan, are working on that as I speak.
The Deputy did not acknowledge some of the things the Government is doing to help people with the cost of living. There are to be pay increases next year. An increase in the minimum wages kicks in from January. Most people in the private sector are getting decent pay increases this year coming, as they should. There are to be increases in the pension and welfare payments from January and there has already been an increase in the fuel allowance. There will also be reductions in income tax for middle-income earners. It is not only low-income earners who struggle with bills. People on middle incomes and middle-class people do too. We are reducing income tax in the new year. People will see that in their payslips from January. When they see that, they will know it is something Sinn Féin opposed.
I want to ask the Tánaiste a very serious question. Does he trust the women of Ireland? Yesterday, the Minister for Health announced the terms of a review of the Health (Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy) Act 2018.
When this historic legislation was debated and passed three years ago, it was the understanding of Members of this House that there would be a review of the operation of the Act, inclusive of policy. The Minister is instead only planning a review to see if it is operating as intended, and not to look at the legislation underpinning it. Did the Tánaiste, as a member of the Cabinet, sign off on this approach?
This review will not consider any policy changes to the Act. It amounts to a predetermined process and it is at odds with previous statutory reviews. How can the Minister for Health realistically just look at how this legislation is currently operating, without in any way considering the constraints on policy caused by the law? How can the Minister and the Tánaiste's Government be agnostic on this matter? Was this a political decision? The Minister said that the experiences of women would be a critical source of information for the review, but he does not intend to address the major problems they have encountered.
This legislation has a range of well-known problems. Only ten maternity units offer full termination services as well as very few GPs. There are also geographical issues across the board. Three years on, legislation for safe access zones around maternity hospitals has not been published. The reality for women is that the three-day waiting period and 12-week limit create serious access problems. Imagine that 375 women travelled to the UK last year in the middle of a global pandemic. I know some of them. There are real problems with this legislation and it should be reviewed. We have had many statutory reviews of legislation in recent years that have looked at legal frameworks. The Tánaiste was part of those when he was a Minister and the Taoiseach.
Why is this legislation being treated differently? The first review of the Regulation of Lobbying Act 2015 specifically examined how it could be improved. The same process was followed for the Gender Recognition Act 2015 in the review of 2018, which took on board specifically the views of those affected by the legislation. It was the same with the Protected Disclosures Act 2014 in July 2019. The reviews of those three Acts included the legislation. Here, however, the Tánaiste's Government has now decided, and I am hoping to find out whether it was him, the Cabinet or the Minister alone, that this legislation will be treated differently.
What is the point of a review of the operation of the law on terminations in Ireland if it does not take on board the concerns of those impacted by the constraints of the legislation in the first place? Is the Tánaiste categorically ruling out any changes to the law? If so, why? What is the point of such a review, if it is going to change anything beyond service provision?
Why is this review being treated differently? Does the Government not trust the women of Ireland? Is the reality instead that the Government is taking this course because so many of the members of Fianna Fáil, the Tánaiste's partners in government, opposed and voted against this legislation in the first place and this is the most politically expedient thing to do?
I trust the women of Ireland and this Government trusts the women of Ireland. I led the Government that allowed people to have their say on the eighth amendment. Indeed, on my first day as Taoiseach, I said that one thing I would do would be to allow the people of Ireland to have a vote and to make a decision on that matter. It was not politically expedient; it was something that I thought was the right thing to do, and I am glad that I did it. The people answered that question and did so with a clear majority. While I respect all sides in this debate, the result of that referendum was very clear and decisive.
Regarding the review, I do not recall having seen the terms of reference. That is not to say that I did not. As can be imagined, many things cross my desk and I will check up on what the terms of reference are and if they have been signed-off on by the Government yet. I do not think they have, but it is possible that they have been. I will check that out. I agree with the basic point made by the Deputy that we should, at least at some point, examine some of the issues around the legislation. The Deputy mentioned the issue of safe access zones, and that is certainly one. He also mentioned the issue of the waiting period. Many people feel it is a good idea. I appreciate that some people do not. We must also look at the issue, which comes up quite a lot now regarding non-fatal foetal abnormalities, which is a difficult aspect and one of the reasons people travel to the UK. Like I said, however, I do not have the terms of reference in front of me. Later in the day, I will see if they have been agreed and take it up from there.
I can sense the Tánaiste is uncomfortable with this question. The Minister was agnostic yesterday, and the Tánaiste seems now to be struggling. As the Tánaiste in this Government, the fact he cannot remember whether such an important matter was signed-off by the Government is quite amazing. It shows the priorities of the Government. Yesterday, my colleague, Senator Annie Hoey, asked the Minister about policy recommendations. If they emerged, although they probably cannot because the terms of reference are so narrow, would that constitute a reason to bring changes to the legislation? The Minister's answer was "possibly". What sort of Minister would say he would "possibly" bring in changes to legislation if such an important review recommended them? It is almost impossible, however, because the terms of reference are so narrow.
I wish to ask the Tánaiste a specific question.
This seems to be a political decision. The Tánaiste does not seem to be in control of the decision-making process. Will the Government ensure the legislation is reviewed and that if policy changes are required regarding the issues I raised, will it ensure they are brought forward in this Dáil so that we, as legislators, can debate and vote on them? Yes or no?
I am not the slightest bit uncomfortable with the question; I was just not expecting it. It is an important question and the Deputy has every right to have an answer to it. On occasion, though, some Deputies give me prior notice that they are going to raise something and that allows me to check things out.
As the Deputy knows, I was not at the Joint Committee on Health yesterday. I was attending various other meetings and had other obligations. However, I will check up on the terms of reference. I hear what the Deputy is saying. When the legislation was enacted by these Houses, and the then Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, brought the legislation through, it was certainly in my mind at that point that it would be a comprehensive review-----
-----and not just on the operation of it. Let me check on that today, though. There is a meeting of the Cabinet sub-committee on health later and I will then come back to the Deputy once I have a better answer.
Yesterday, I put a question to the Taoiseach during Questions on Promised Legislation in regard to the plan in place to deal with the chronic shortage of carers available to deliver the home care support service. The scheme was brought in by the Government to ensure that people could stay in their homes with a level of support. Without such supports, they would be likely to end up in a residential or nursing home facility. The budget granted a massive increase in the home care support hours available. I am critical in that regard because there is no delivery.
Without delivery, that increase is, in effect, spin and it creates false hope. Nothing is more demoralising for people, our older age cohort and our most vulnerable people, than to receive letters giving them the good news that they have been granted a home care support package, only to go to the next line which states that it is not possible to deliver it because there is such a critical shortage of carers.
In general, the people receiving these letters have paid tax all their lives and their children and working and paying tax to contribute to the Exchequer so we can provide these schemes. Yet, a review of the critical skills requirements by the Department of Social Protection states that no critical skills permit allocation is required within the sector as recruitment difficulties and challenges faced by the sector are primarily due to contract issues and the terms and conditions being offered. That is serious. It is not an issue of money in that we have the finances to deliver the hours. We must consider the money being made available to carers. Carers, particularly in rural Ireland, are using their own vehicles to drive from house to house on an hourly rate of €12.70. It is not making sense. If there is an issue in the HSE in regard to terms and conditions and if it transfers the provision of services to the private sector, then we must examine that aspect.
To put this in context, 5,000 people are waiting on home care hours. Some 1,000 of those people, a disproportionate number, are in County Wexford. One fifth of the overall number of people waiting are County Wexford. I am dealing with a lady who is in her mid-70s and who is looking after her husband, who had an accident recently and is now a paraplegic.
He is in his mid-70s. She gets care five days a week but gets no care at the weekends when she is on her own lifting her paraplegic husband. I am aware of a lady who has been in a nursing home for the last 18 months. She went there on the basis that it was a step-down facility and that she was going to receive home care support. She cannot go home without it.
I thank the Deputy for raising this important question. The Government is committed to better community-based services, shifting care to the home and offering greater choice for people. Progress has been made on the number of home care hours delivered through increased investment in recent years. Last year, the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, allocated additional funding of €150 million for home support. This year's HSE national service plan sets a target to provide 24 million home support hours, 5 million hours more than was provided last year. It is estimated that at the end of September some 15 million hours had been provided to over 53,000 people. This is 2.2 million more hours compared to the same period last year. That is a real increase in the amount of service being provided to people. The funding secured in budget 2021 to secure the additional five million hours has been maintained for 2022.
Significant inroads have been made into reducing waiting lists for funding approval for new or additional services, from more than 7,800 in January 2020 to just 400 now. While waiting lists for funding approval for new or additional home support services have decreased substantially, there can be delays between funding approval and the provision of home support hours. At the end of September 2021, there were just under 5,000 people assessed and waiting for a carer to become available. That is a significant increase on where we were in January of last year. Although there has been a steady increase in the number of people waiting to receive home support over recent months, it is important to say that the total number of people waiting for home support across both categories has reduced from more than 9,000 at the start of 2020 to about 5,300 now. Efforts are ongoing to enhance the provision of home support and to meet existing demand, including through the ongoing recruitment of home support workers, although this is a challenge. In order to deal with issues around carer capacity in the HSE, it is endeavouring to prioritise services for clients with the highest care needs to ensure that service can commence for those who require it most urgently. The HSE continues to recruit home support workers at local and national levels.
The Minister of State, Deputy Butler, is committed to establishing a cross-departmental strategic workforce advisory group. The role of the group will be to facilitate the views of stakeholders and examine workforce challenges in home support and nursing homes. Potential issues to be considered include recruitment, retention, training, career development and the sustainable employment of home care workers into the future. A call for submissions to identify the issues that need to be considered and to inform the establishment of the group was announced just last Friday. The Department's project team will analyse submissions received to inform the setting up of the group early next year.
I thank the Tánaiste. I suppose I am asking the Government, the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, who I appreciate is doing her best and a very good job, to ensure that we do not wait until that review is complete to make good on delivery for carers. The Tánaiste was previously Minister for Health. All we are going to achieve, if we do not address this situation immediately, will be to drive people into residential care and nursing home settings, which would be the total opposite of what the scheme is intended for. I am talking about the Tánaiste's or my mother or father and people whose children are out working to contribute to the Exchequer and who are doing their best. The scheme was supposed to support those most in need. Our oldest and most vulnerable need the service.
There are several issues with the service. In Wexford, for instance, if a carer is available in Rosslare and care is required some distance in away in another district such as Enniscorthy, the policy is that they will not be asked to go there because it is not affordable. We have the money to deliver the hours and we need to use some of that money to make it affordable and make the carers available. We cannot continue like this.
I take the Deputy's point. Her arguments are very well made. If home care is not available, what is the result? More people end up stuck in hospital with delayed discharges. More people end up in nursing homes long before they need to go into a nursing home. That is not right. People should have the autonomy to stay in their home for as long as they can. As the Deputy acknowledged, it is not a matter of money. The amount of money provided for home care has increased dramatically in the last couple of years. It has probably increased by 40% or 50%, if it has not doubled in recent years. The kind waiting lists we used to have that were a result of inadequate budgets are no longer the issue. The issue is finding and retaining adequate staff to provide home care. That is a real challenge.
One area that my Department operates is the work permit system. Home care workers are currently on the ineligible occupations list. In order to have an occupation removed from this list, there needs to be a clear demonstration that recruitment difficulties are solely due to skills and labour shortages in Ireland and the European Economic Area, EEA, and not to other factors such as salary or employment conditions. The view of my Department is that removing home care workers from the ineligible occupations list would not solve the problem. What we need is a more comprehensive, longer term approach, dealing with the wider issues the Deputy mentioned such as pay, career progression and costing. I appreciate this needs to be done sooner rather than later.
My office was contacted last week by the Individual Farmers of Ireland group, Irish truckers and hauliers, SMEs, taxi drivers and front-line workers over the fuel increase since 2020, which the Government has failed to tackle. The Government has taxed every person in Ireland €10.88 on every €100. These groups told me they are going to protest. The farmers' group is coming on Sunday and the truckers and hauliers are coming on Monday. They are not protesting for themselves only. They will be joined by SMEs and everybody in Ireland.
I have always said that it was the rest of the country against Dublin but I have to stand corrected. I have been contacted by so many people from rural Dublin. The Government has failed them and let them down. People in north Dublin contacted me over the failure of the Government to tackle the increase in the fuel tax which every Minister, Minister of State and backbencher in Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party are backing. The Tánaiste asked today how he could make a difference to every household in Ireland. The Government is taking 19 cent in tax from the increase on fuel since 2020. It took 81 cent in tax in 2020. It is now taking €1.05 from petrol.
I spoke to the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, yesterday. He told me he was going to speak with the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan. I had a meeting with the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, and he told me he was talking to the Minister, Deputy Donohoe. I spoke to the Taoiseach. The only person from the Government who did not reply to me was the Tánaiste.
The Government has control of this. I was told last night by the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, that they cannot change the VAT but they have control over the customs and excise, they have control over the National Oil Reserves Agency, NORA, and they have control over the other 19%. They said they do not have control over the 23%.
Every person in Ireland is suffering because of the Government's failure. What did it do when the EU told it to reduce taxes? It increased taxes. People were able to go into shops, get €100 worth of groceries and come home with two big bags of shopping. Now they have one bag of shopping for the same €100 because of the fuel increases the Government has in its control but that it could bring down tonight.
I thank the Deputy. I acknowledge on behalf of the Government that we understand the enormous impact the rising cost of fuel and energy is having on people, whether it is people in business, particularly in the transport sector, those in agriculture, householders or individual citizens. I outlined in my response to Deputy Doherty the kind of things we are doing at the moment to help families with the cost of living.
Many of these, particularly tax reductions, welfare increases and pension increases, will kick in in January. I also outlined that we are considering helping with the cost of electricity, in particular.
I believe I did acknowledge the Deputy's email yesterday but, if I have not, I certainly will today. I think I heard the Deputy state the EU told us to reduce taxes. That is not true; that is something he made up. The EU has produced a toolbox of things governments can do, if they choose to, from their own resources to reduce the cost of energy. When using one's own resources to reduce the cost of energy, it has a consequence in that there are fewer resources for something else. That has to be borne in mind.
With regard to the carbon tax, I wish to state once again for the record that it is a particular type of tax. It does not go into the coffers and is not used for general government spending. It is ring-fenced to increase the fuel allowance for the most vulnerable in society, who need extra help to pay the bills. Had the carbon tax not gone up, it might not have been possible to increase the fuel allowance. That needs to be borne in mind by anybody involved in this debate. The revenue is also used for the likes of retrofitting homes, especially in rural areas, particularly the midlands, to turn homes that are very cold and expensive to heat into much warmer homes. The money is also ring-fenced for other aspects of climate action, such as the re-wetting of bogs and making sure Bord na Móna staff in rural Ireland, particularly the midlands, will continue to have a job. It is also used to invest in initiatives such as LED lighting to reduce energy bills for local authorities, thus improving their bottom line. Therefore, the carbon tax is a very particular one, and one that is ring-fenced for many good things that everybody believes should be funded.
The Tánaiste's answer to the fuel costs is that he is okay with a 19 cent increase. I did not say the Government did not need the tax. The Government had 81 cent in 2020; it now has a euro. This relates to an increase in the price of fuel over which it has control. The Tánaiste talks about giving money to people who are vulnerable but it does not even make a difference to them because the prices have gone through the roof. They have gone out of control.
Food costs have gone up in this country because of inflation. The Government has been driving inflation. Reducing the additional tax imposed since 2022 would drive down inflation for everyone. It is not rocket science. You do not need to have a third level education to work this out. I did not have one and I am able to work it out. The Government should reduce the cost of fuel. The cost affects every industry, including the clothing and food industries, and farming. Reducing the tax will automatically drive down inflation and the cost of living. That is common sense, which the Government seems to lack.
I thank the Deputy. There have been very significant increases in the costs of fuel and energy in the past year. By and large, these have not been driven by increases in taxation. The latter are part of the reason but only a small part. The increases are largely being driven by the very big increases in gas and oil prices internationally, which are not under our control.
When it comes to the carbon tax, for example-----
The carbon tax does not apply to natural gas, and it will not apply to solid fuel and home heating oil until May. The tax has driven up the costs of petrol and diesel but it is not the major reason for the increases. The major reason is factors that are not under our control, namely, big increases in the prices of gas and oil internationally.