Dáil debates

Tuesday, 8 February 2022

Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

 

2:00 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I call Deputy McDonald.

Photo of Mary Lou McDonaldMary Lou McDonald (Leader of the Opposition; Dublin Central, Sinn Fein)
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Merci beaucoup. For more than a year, households have been hammered by a cost-of-living crisis that is out of control. Workers and families do all they can to keep up with sky-high bills and runaway price increases, but people still cannot catch a break or catch a breath. They are crucified by the extortionate costs of housing, energy, fuel, groceries and insurance and everything going up and nothing coming down. Last night, a Minister of State offered people advice on dealing with this cost-of-living crisis. His big idea was for people to stop complaining and to shop around. Those were callous and indifferent remarks from a Minister of State who is paid €140,000. The Minister of State, Deputy Fleming, has form in blocking legislation that would force big insurance companies to stop fleecing their customers. His words reflect the attitude of a Government that is utterly out of touch with the struggles of ordinary people.

Many households are deciding whether it is best to pay their massive gas bills or to put food on their tables. It took the Taoiseach’s Government a year to wake up to this crisis. For months, we have asked that VAT be removed from energy bills, but the Government did nothing. No work was done with the European Commission. There was no effort at all. The Government has now spent another four months talking about possible actions. Indeed, in the time it has taken the Government to give people a one-off payment of €100, it has managed to give one top civil servant two pay hikes worth €6,000. There was no dithering or delay there; it was done with the snap of your fingers. When it comes to workers and families, however, the response from the Government is slack. There is no urgency and no determination to get the job done.

Many things can be done to tackle this cost-of-living crisis. Sinn Féin has proposed these measures: cutting rents, banning rent increases, cutting childcare costs and expanding eligibility for the fuel allowance payment. We have also called on the Government to scrap its planned carbon tax hike. This hike will increase gas bills and push home heating oil costs up substantially at a time when people are struggling.

Carbon tax hikes add to the cost of everything, particularly food, due to increased transport costs. Farmers have been telling the Government this for a long time but it has not listened. Is ualach trom é an ghéarchéim costais mhaireachtála. Tá daoine faoi bhrú ollmhór ag íoc billí fuinnimh móra. Ba cheart don Rialtas fáil réidh leis na harduithe cánach carbóin atá molta. Ní dhéanfaidh sé ach an saol níos deacra.

Hiking carbon taxes is the wrong call at the wrong time. The Government's €100 credit is far too little for far too many families. March is very far away for people who cannot afford their energy bills today. That payment must be increased and delivered quickly. I call on the Taoiseach to scrap the carbon tax hike and set out how he will support struggling families in a meaningful way. Workers and families now need a bailout. We need a package of measures for those on low and middle incomes.

2:05 pm

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Deputy for raising what is a very important issue. Since this Government came into office in the midst of a global pandemic, a one-in-100-year event, the Government has intervened to an extraordinary degree to underpin incomes and support lower income workers, to keep people in jobs and to support enterprises. That has been an effective and successful intervention in underpinning our economic activity. There is no question about that. We supported workers from the get-go of the formation of this Government.

This time last year, a barrel of oil on the international markets traded at $61; today it is at $91 a barrel. That was not caused by carbon tax. It is a global phenomenon. Let us not try to misrepresent the issue for the public out there who are watching. The cost of a litre of petrol has risen by 28% over the same period. Gas prices on international markets have nearly quadrupled over the past year. The average annual gas bill has risen by €700. The vast majority of that has very little to do with carbon tax. That has to be said.

On proposals to reduce VAT, we have been over this before. I know the Czech Republic example has been cited by the Deputy in the past. Before the Czech general election, which was just before Christmas, the Czech Government reduced it to zero. There is a new Government in the Czech Republic now and it has gone back up to its standard rate of 21%. Ireland already has a derogation on our VAT rate. If we were to do a temporary reduction, we would lose the derogation and could end up back at 23%, a much higher cost of VAT, which we do not want to do, obviously. We want to keep it at the current rate of 13.5%. That has all been explained.

The United Kingdom and the US are looking at multi-decade highs in terms of inflation. The euro area inflation rate is now at 5.1%, an all-time high. The US rate is even higher again. We understand that people are under significant pressure arising out of this inflationary cycle. As a result of that, in the budget we allocated well over €1 billion to a number of measures to increase disposable income for the people, both in terms of tax income relief of about €525 million and also significant proposals around social protection in terms of the fuel allowance. For example, since coming into office the Government has raised fuel allowance from €630 to €914. Coupled with the €113.50 electricity payment, Government supports for those on low incomes have increased by 63% to €1,027. We are going to do more on that front.

The challenge for us is that we cannot chase inflation. From a macroeconomic point of view, that has been tried in previous decades and it did not work. We have got to cushion the blow of this inflationary cycle for those most in hardship and those most at risk. We have got to target the measures the Government is currently examining to do just that. That is what we intend to do and to alleviate people more generally in terms of these pressures.

The Government has a number of measures under consideration to help people over and above what we have done already in terms of the budget. That will be the basis for our actions later this week. Aontaím go bhfuil brú faoi leith ar dhaoine faoi láthair. Níl aon amhras faoi sin. Tá pacáiste le teacht ón Rialtas chun cabhair agus tacaíocht a thabhairt do chosmhuintir na tíre seo.

2:10 pm

Photo of Mary Lou McDonaldMary Lou McDonald (Leader of the Opposition; Dublin Central, Sinn Fein)
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What people who are living this struggle have had is delay, dithering and lack of clarity from the Government bar the one Minister of State who was very clear and told people to stop complaining and shop around. I take it from the Taoiseach that that is not the official advice from the Government. The Government should stop dithering and should intervene in a way that is proportionate to the real struggles facing people. At the time of the budget, the Government fell short on social welfare adult payments and in terms of the fuel allowance, the season itself and extending eligibility for it. The Government has fallen short for months while Sinn Féin has called on it for a discretionary fund and to package and tailor initiatives, particularly for low- and middle-income families. What do we get? Mañana mañana, dither and delay. That is simply not good enough now.

As an important first action and signal, albeit one that would not be the be-all and end-all, I want the Taoiseach to state categorically that the Government will not proceed with the carbon tax hike in May at a time when people are struggling to afford a fill of home oil. Will he make that clear, please?

Deputies:

Hear, hear.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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Could I first of all say that budget 2022 increased the weekly rate of the fuel allowance by €5? We increased the qualified child payment, the living alone allowance and the income threshold for the working family payment. The total cost of that was about €146 million. Where is that revenue coming from? It is coming from the revenue raised by the carbon tax.

(Interruptions).

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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The Taoiseach without interruption.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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Today, the Minister for energy will announce a very significant and comprehensive retrofit programme. The objective of that retrofit programme is to reduce the cost of living on an ongoing basis in terms of home heating and in terms of making homes cheaper to heat and more comfortable and healthier over time. Some €200 million odd this year alone will come from the carbon tax towards that measure. The carbon tax is going back to the people. In terms of better environmental farming practices, it will go to farmers, particularly low-income farmers. It will go to people in terms of retrofitting their houses so that they are more efficient energy-wise and ultimately reduce costs.

Photo of Mary Lou McDonaldMary Lou McDonald (Leader of the Opposition; Dublin Central, Sinn Fein)
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People cannot pay their bills today, this week or this month.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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It will also go towards fuel poverty. That is why we allocated it towards fuel poverty in the budget. The problem is this: we are putting it out transparently and honestly and we are saying to people that the revenue that is raised - all of it - goes back to the people in schemes that over time will be both-----

Photo of Michael Healy-RaeMichael Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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That is actually nonsense. It is not right.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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The Taoiseach without interruption.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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-----effective and better for the country in terms of capacity to retrofit but also fuel poverty and to protect people much better than was done in previous times because of the revenue that is going to accrue.

Photo of Gerald NashGerald Nash (Louth, Labour)
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It is 13 days since the Government voted down a comprehensive Labour Party motion on the cost of living, 13 more days lost as the bills piled up. We have tabled a range of comprehensive proposals on energy taxes, VAT, social welfare and wages. Bills are up more than 30% for fuel, electricity and gas. Prices for other utilities and food are rising sharply.

The Taoiseach knows that the rate of home ownership has fallen significantly among young people. More and more are stuck renting at unaffordable prices. For years, we have been calling for a rent freeze. Those calls have been ignored. For those young people who are trying to save for a deposit, their dreams are getting more and more out of reach as their everyday bills rise. Good GDP figures and strong tax returns mean very little if this country is not working for them.

The poverty of imagination on the part of the Government is baffling. So far, the only tangible practical proposal from the Government has been a tokenistic €113 off the payment for electricity bills. Of course that may be increased - we do not know yet - but it is a drop in the ocean compared to the rising costs that people face.

Yesterday's great idea from a Minister of State in the Department of Finance was that people should stop complaining and shop around.

Changing your electricity or gas supplier will not help when prices have soared by so much. It is too late to shop around when you hit the checkout and do not have enough money to pay the cashier.

The big news from the Government today is a new retrofit scheme. From what we know about the scheme, it is likely to be unaffordable to many. From the Minister of State's remarks yesterday, it is clear the Government is already well and truly insulated from the reality of life for so many families.

The Taoiseach has ruled out a mini-budget, which tells me his plans will simply not go far enough. Without a commitment to a finance or social welfare Bill, we get just a small number of tweaks, changes and token measures here and there that will not cut it. For those on low and fixed incomes, the only action that will really help is an increase in wages. Ireland has a problem with low pay; Ireland needs a pay rise. We need to understand why working people are struggling to get by to pay for the basics. Over 20% of Irish workers are low paid. We spend billions every year subsidising low pay to lift people out of wage poverty. It is absolutely bizarre that, two weeks ago, the Taoiseach set his face against wage rises. Wage rises for low- and middle-income workers do not have the inflationary impact he thinks, yet he has advised workers not to seek inflation-beating pay rises. We do not see any direction from him to companies to hold back on price rises. Therefore, profits can be protected but not wages. Is that the case? If so, it is not on. Will the Taoiseach heed SIPTU's calls for pay rises? Will the Government lead on this by asking the Low Pay Commission to convert the minimum wage to a living wage? Can the Taoiseach tell the House whether he is completely ruling out the prospect of a mini-budget?

2:20 pm

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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It is only a number of weeks since we lifted restrictions. We are emerging from a pandemic that has dominated this country and the rest of the globe in respect of economics, public health and so forth. The intervention by the Government was imaginative, unprecedented and effective in terms of underpinning jobs and incomes to the best degree possible given the extraordinary situation we faced. That cannot be wished away and forgotten about as if it did not happen.

With regard to the global situation, because the world is opening up there has been an imbalance between supply and demand, as the Deputy well knows. The bounceback of the economies has created supply chain issues, which is adding to inflation. We have the exponential increase in oil and gas prices, which is a factor, and issues with transportation. All of these combined are giving us what some economists in the European Central Bank have called a pandemic cycle of inflation. It remains to be seen how long it will continue for. There are different schools of thought on that.

What I am saying to the Deputy is that wages have increased in the private sector. We have never said that wages cannot increase. The good news so far is that those wages have increased in line with productivity gains within that sector and certain other sectors of the economy. It is good, fine and important that this happens, but we should be aware of what we must not do. Most stakeholders agree with this. In this regard, we had a very good, constructive meeting last week with the social partners in the context of the Labour Employer Economic Forum. We need to navigate our way through this intelligently, the priority being to protect those who are hardest hit by this inflationary cycle. Having regard to people's weekly bills, we need to take measures that can help to cushion the blow of this inflation. That is the Government's agenda.

Deputy Nash may call the electricity payment a gimmick. It is a €200 million provision. Two hundred million euro, on any day, is not a gimmick; it is a serious, substantive allocation, but we have to do more, particularly to help people in need and to have measures to target people in need. Also needed are measures that over the medium term will be sustainable in some instances and in line with medium-term Government policy. That is the approach we are taking to this.

During inflationary cycles in the past, there were many policies that people felt would be impactful against inflation in the short term, but they turned out not to be. We do not want to fall into repeating mistakes, particularly those of the 1970s.

It is a long time ago. It is when we last had a really serious issue in terms of inflationary spiral.

We are going to continue to focus on the minimum wage. We have the second highest minimum wage in the European Union. It is the sixth highest if purchasing power is factored in. As I said, we are going to work with the partners to see how best we can navigate our way through this.

2:25 pm

Photo of Gerald NashGerald Nash (Louth, Labour)
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The Taoiseach will be aware the cost of living in Ireland, and the fact that practically everything is more expensive than in comparable countries, reduces the value of our minimum wage. For some time now, since 2016, the previous Government, which the Taoiseach supported from the Opposition benches, missed its minimum wage targets. There is a commitment in the programme for Government to move to a living wage. I ask the Taoiseach to change the legislation governing the Low Pay Commission to instruct the commission to move towards a roadmap for the introduction of a living wage in this country. We have an epidemic of low pay in Ireland. That is the reason those who are merely existing on low and middle incomes are finding it so difficult to absorb the additional costs they are burdened with at the moment. They cannot survive. We have a low pay epidemic. One third of all Irish workers earn less than what might be considered the living wage of €12.90 per hour. I ask the Taoiseach to listen back to what David McWilliams said to Pat Kenny on Newstalk this morning. He could not have been clearer. He said the only solution for low-paid workers is to have wage increases. A high-wage economy is a good thing. It adds value, boosts retention and makes people much more secure. I ask the Taoiseach to reflect on that in the context of the crisis we are experiencing now and in terms of our future economic and social development.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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Average wages in Ireland are higher than the European average, as I think the Deputy will acknowledge. There have been increases linked to productivity, which is good. That would be a priority. Again, even if purchasing power is factored in, our minimum wage is the sixth highest in the 27 EU member states. That is factoring in the cost of living, and so on. We will work with the social partners in respect of this current inflationary cycle and in terms of national agreements and so forth. However, critically, in the next number of days, Government will take measures that will help to alleviate the impact of the current inflationary cycle on people, particularly those on low incomes who are feeling the brunt of the rise in the cost of fuel. As I outlined earlier, internationally, the price of oil and gas has risen exponentially. We need to cushion that blow. It is seeping into the other aspects of the economy in terms of price rises as well. We are determined to take measures that will help people deal with this situation.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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Inflation is currently at a 21-year high in Ireland. The country is now contending with the cost-of-living crisis on multiple fronts. It is causing widescale financial pain for every citizen. It is due in no small part to the Government's climate action policies. The carbon tax is the key contributing factor, with the cost of motor fuels up more than 22.6% and the cost of home heating oil up a staggering 70% in the last year alone, not to mention road diesel and agricultural diesel. For example, soaring petrol and diesel prices have been caused in large part by the Government's disjointed climate action policies, which are taxing consumers and leaning heavily on them. They are disproportionately affecting people in rural Ireland, but everybody in the country as well. The people in rural Ireland have very limited access to public transport or alternative fuel sources. Through the Government's taxation on fuel, a motorist is now paying approximately €1.70 per litre for petrol, of which a staggering €1, or 60%, goes directly into the Government coffers. That is mainly due to excise duty, VAT and carbon tax. The Government-imposed carbon tax, which is now at €41 per tonne of carbon after last October's budget, is clearly having a bruising impact on the cost of home heating oil, electricity, petrol and diesel. It is now the leading cause of inflation in Ireland. Why has the Government completely ignored the toolbox of measures developed by the European Commission, which encourages member states to cut taxes and levies on motor fuels, home heating oil and electricity bills?

The Spanish Government, for example, has used this policy and brought energy prices back to 2018 levels. This is being done by cutting taxes and capping costs. Other EU states such as Sweden have also implemented tax cutting measures.

The energy crisis brings major repercussions for every household, small business and farmer. It is financially crippling. Everyone talking about it in this House knows that. It requires meaningful and tangible State intervention. Even the unelected EU bureaucrats recognise that and have recommended that this Government and other member states take action. Why has the Taoiseach completely ignored the European Commission? Normally when the Commission says, "Jump", the Taoiseach asks, "How high?" If it told him to up taxes, they would be increased the day after, but in this case he is just ignoring the Commission. Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and the Green Party in government have totally ignored this. High energy prices have deeply profound economic consequences and, therefore, an immediate and meaningful State intervention is required, not the paltry €100 off electricity bills. The Taoiseach needs to act immediately on the European Commission's DIY toolkit aimed at mitigating the impact of higher energy prices by slashing taxes and offering help to impacted households, motorists, the agriculture sector and all other sectors in the economy. It is needed to reverse the decision to increase the carbon tax in budget 2022 and beyond until further impact and cost-benefit analyses are carried out. The Taoiseach needs to stop talking about it and immediately take those actions. Talk is cheap.

2:30 pm

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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Again, I have to restate what I said earlier. At this time last year, a barrel of oil on international markets traded at $61. Today, it is $91 a barrel. That is not because of the carbon tax. It is very dishonest to say the carbon tax is the key contributor to fuel inflation.

(Interruptions).

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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It is not dishonest; it is a fact.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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It is not the key contributor in any shape or form and we need to be honest with the public because I know there will be attempts made to misrepresent-----

Photo of Michael Healy-RaeMichael Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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The Taoiseach should tell the truth so.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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-----what has been a global situation in terms of the price of oil and the price of gas. We only hope that conflict does not break out in relation to Russia and Ukraine, which could even exacerbate it further, which is something we do not want at all.

Photo of Danny Healy-RaeDanny Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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That would suit the Government fine.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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Gas prices on international markets, as I said, have quadrupled in the past year. That is not because of the carbon tax. On the other side of the coin, we do want to release unprecedented funding to people through grants to enable them to retrofit their homes to make them more energy efficient and cheaper to run in the future.

Photo of Michael Healy-RaeMichael Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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Give them back their own money.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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That is what we want to do. We want to prioritise that area. It makes sense to insulate homes and we will give good grants to people to enable them to do that. In terms of looking after low-income families and the fuel allowance and so on, we were able to take measures in the last budget on the social welfare package because of the revenue that has been generated from the carbon tax itself and likewise in terms of the farming environmental schemes that are important to create new income streams for farming. In no way, however, does it contribute to the enormity of the increase in the cost of oil and gas that has happened because of global factors.

Photo of Danny Healy-RaeDanny Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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Of course it does.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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The other factor is, of course, to take cars as an example, there has been a shortage in terms of microchip manufacturing. There have been fewer cars manufactured. As economies have bounced back across the world, the demand for cars has not equalled the supply of cars. That is causing inflation. That is just one product. That can be mirrored in product after product since economies have reopened after Covid-19. That, along with the oil and gas price increases, is fuelling this inflationary cycle. It is a challenge. That is why some economists, such as the ECB, are saying it is short term but others disagree. There are two schools of thought as to how long this cycle will last, but the hope is that the imbalance at the moment between supply and demand will correct itself over time and help to reduce inflationary pressures.

In the meantime, we have some very significant key objectives of Government. Those are housing - to get supply up in housing and build as many houses as we can; to get a strong climate change agenda once and for all and not keep putting it on the long finger and avoiding action; and also dealing with health reforms and using what we learned in the pandemic to embed reforms in the health service for the long term. We are not going to be distracted from those key focus points of Government and our agenda in terms of doing what is right by the people not just now, but right into the future.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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Taoiseach, it is you that is being dishonest with the people and they know it. When was the last time he pulled up at a filling station and filled his own car? He has a driver. He had one when he was leader of Fianna Fáil and he has State drivers now and everything else. He is out of touch completely.

I asked the Taoiseach to do an immediate reversal of the carbon tax as well as an impact analysis, and he is flatly refusing to do that. I am also asking, given that there are such inflationary policies here, that we need nothing short of a mini-budget. If we need legislation to do that, we in the Rural Independent Group will bring it forward. The Taoiseach can then vote against it, which he probably will. He does not want to help people but wants to let them perish and die in the ditches, which is what they will do. That seems be the Taoiseach's raison d'êtrein politics, which is to hell with the people. Once I am all right Jack, I am fine.

The Taoiseach accuses me of being dishonest when I tell him the naked truth. Every dog in the street knows that it is the Government's policies that are causing the inflation. There are international factors, definitely, but we have a perfect storm here, which suits the Government.

The Government wants people to have no cars and to have no services in rural Ireland and to herd all the people into the cities. It brings the housing crisis into it then. The Government is talking about this for years. If talk could build houses, we would be covered in houses. Talk is cheap; what we need is action. We need a mini-budget to be brought forward here to relieve the stress and pain and to deal with the mental health issues that this stress, pain and the shortage of money is causing all families.

2:40 pm

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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From the outset the Government has been committed to first supporting workers and people on the ground. No Government wants people to perish or die in the ditches. For God's sake, let us have some common sense and some sense of perspective. The bottom line is that the Government is considering measures right now, over and above what we have already undertaken in the budget, which provided more than €1 billion in tax and social welfare packages. We are now looking at further measures to cushion the blow-----

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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It is basic support and not a cushion they want.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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-----that this inflationary cycle is imposing on people. There is no question but that this is a global phenomenon. Nobody is arguing about that.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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It is obvious to everybody, Pontius Pilate.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Please, Deputies.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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We need to take measures now that can ease the pressure on people's everyday weekly outgoings on a number of fronts and that is what we are examining. Before the end of the week, we will have proposals to add to the decisions that we have already taken in this regard. We fully understand the pressures that people are under and we are going to deal with them.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I thank the Taoiseach. I call Deputy Connolly to speak on behalf of the Independent Group.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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Gabhaim míle buíochas leis an gCeann Comhairle. Baineann mo cheist inniu leis an tuarascáil seo dar teideal: Córas Cinedheighilte ag Iosrael i gcoinne na bPalaistíneach agus tá súil agam go bhfuil sé léite aige. Is í mo cheist shonrach ná an bhfuil sí léite aige, an n-aontaíonn sé leis na conclúidí tromchúiseacha atá inti agus, go háirithe, go bhfuil córas cinedheighilte i gceist ag Iosrael i coinne na bPalaistíneach? Cén beartas atá ag an Rialtas maidir leis na moltaí? It is worth focusing on this report on Israel’s apartheid against Palestinians published last week. It is a damning indictment of what Israel is doing to the Palestinian people, whether they are living in Israel, the occupied territories, on the Gaza Strip or in East Jerusalem.

It is a 278-page report with seven chapters, an executive summary and conclusions and recommendations. I have read almost every single word. I speak from knowledge of having read the report. The evidence and the research set out is based on over four years of research. It is gathered together and it is built on the work of B’Tselem and the previous reports from Human Rights Watch: A Threshold Crossed.

The evidence and the research is clearly set out. It is a balanced and moderate report. It finds that Israel’s system of institutionalised segregation and discrimination against Palestinians as a racial group in all areas under its control amounts to a system of apartheid and a serious violation of Israel’s human rights obligations.

Perhaps the Taoiseach has not had time to read this report because I am sure that it is not possible with his busy schedule given it took me hours to do so. I am sure, however, that the conclusions and the recommendations have been drawn to his attention. Does he agree with the conclusion that an apartheid system is in operation? Will he raise it at EU and UN level? Does he agree that the International Criminal Court should consider the crime of apartheid in its current investigation in respect of the occupied territories, Israel and what it has done? Will he commit to ceasing the purchase or acquisition of Defence Forces equipment from Israel as called for in this report?

Will the Government use its seat on the UN Security Council, first, to highlight the recommendations of the report and, second, to ensure they are implemented, including imposing targeted sanctions such as asset freezes against Israeli officials most implicated in the crime of apartheid and a comprehensive arms embargo on Israel?

I will conclude by saying that I do not want to hear about antisemitism and how we must be careful. We will take that as a given. I am over time, so I will stop with that. I ask the Taoiseach to use his three minutes appropriately and not with regard to antisemitism.

2:50 pm

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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Gabhaim mo bhuíochas leis an Teachta as an cheist phráinneach agus tábhachtach seo a ardú. Níl an tuarascáil léite agam ach tá a fhios agam faoin idirdheighilt sin agus na deacrachtaí atá ag na Palaistínigh, go háirithe ag teacht ó pholasaithe an rialtais atá ann faoi láthair.

I fully acknowledge that there are serious issues in how Israel treats Palestinians and how it is dealing with the Palestinian question and, in my view, the right of the Palestinians to their homeland and their own state. It is depressing that this litany of measures continues each year. I believe it was 2009 when I visited Gaza after one terrible conflict. Not much has changed in terms of segregation and the routes Palestinians have to take in the occupied territories as opposed to others. What is happening in East Jerusalem is not satisfactory by any yardstick. It is injustice after injustice. There is a better way of doing this. We have appealed to the Israeli Government to work towards a two-state solution. The Minister for Foreign Affairs was in Israel between 1 and 5 November and he set out our continued support for the two-state solution.

We have raised this at the UN Security Council. Indeed, the Secretary-General of the UN last year thanked me for Ireland's constructive contribution on this issue at the Security Council and for raising it consistently. We want to get a settlement and a resolution of these issues. The settlements and the demolitions are unacceptable, as is the way people are treated. In addition, civil society must be respected and supported. Ireland has supported various civil society organisations that raise human rights and we believe Israel should facilitate their unfettered access to people. They should also be allowed to continue their work in an uninhibited way on human rights within Palestine.

Is that report the Amnesty International report?

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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Yes.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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That is currently being examined by the Department of Foreign Affairs. I have not read it yet, but I will get through it as quickly as I can. From our perspective, through the European Union we have a clear policy position in this regard. We believe that Israeli policy is counterproductive to the emergence and triumph of moderate opinion within Palestine, in both the West Bank and Gaza. In many ways that policy has allowed extremists to get the upper hand, in my view. We have pointed this out time and again. Sometimes Israel does not take too kindly to Ireland's contributions and position on this, but we will continue to make our views known.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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I appreciate that the Department is looking at it. It was only published last week. However, there is no escaping the conclusion - níl aon éalú ó nta conclúidí - that Israel is operating an apartheid system in respect of the Palestinians. Does the Taoiseach accept that conclusion, among other conclusions? What steps will he take with regard to the very practical recommendations? He said very little has changed; I am afraid quite a lot has changed. The apartheid regime has become entrenched. It is no longer just statements from various politicians. It has become entrenched in legislation, policy and practice, while the suffering of the Palestinian people has intensified.

The report was condemned by various spokespeople in Israel, including the foreign minister, before it was even published.

A respected former Deputy states:

Amnesty International used to be a globally respected international defender ... Today it distorts history, propagates the big lie that Israel is an apartheid state...

And so on. That is a respected former Deputy from Fine Gael setting out his response to this report. It does us no favours to equate questioning and criticism of Israeli policy with antisemitism. It does not serve the Jewish people or democracy and it is extremely dangerous.

2:55 pm

Deputies:

Hear, hear.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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We need to respond to this report in a practical manner as a proud, independent, neutral State with a voice that is still respected in the world.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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I agree that one can oppose Israeli Government policy and should not be labelled as antisemitic for doing it. It is important, given our strength despite being a small country, that our voice on this matter has been seen as objective and honourable, although not by everybody. Generally speaking, our interest is genuine and we have been one of the strong supporters of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East, UNRWA, particularly during the difficult years when former US President Trump took away American funding from UNRWA. Ireland has been a very strong supporter of education, especially in the West Bank and Gaza, through the UNRWA organisation.

We fund civil society organisations and have continued to fund civil society and human rights organisations that Israel has labelled as terrorist or whatever. We do not accept that labelling and we are pushing our European colleagues to continue to support these organisations. I will not use the term "apartheid" because I am not sure it will add anything right now.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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Amnesty International uses it.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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I am on the pragmatic side. I know what works. When I say "works", we must help people and children to get an education. We should seek, at a European level and with our American partners, to expand UNRWA and its support for the vast majority of people.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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We either respect Amnesty International or we do not.

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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We have never sanctioned Israel.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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I respect all parties but we are entitled to have our own opinion as well.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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It is what I am trying to find out.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Time is up, please.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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We are entitled to read reports, analyse them and form our own opinions. There is a great novel by Colum McCann, Apeirogon, and the Deputy should read it. I have read it. That in a far more impactful way, I think, illustrates the reality of life involving two people-----

Photo of Mary Lou McDonaldMary Lou McDonald (Leader of the Opposition; Dublin Central, Sinn Fein)
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The Taoiseach is comparing a novel to a human rights report.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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We are way over time.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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-----on different sides. The Deputy should read it.

Photo of Mary Lou McDonaldMary Lou McDonald (Leader of the Opposition; Dublin Central, Sinn Fein)
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The Taoiseach might read the Amnesty International report.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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Go read it. I rest my case.

Photo of Mary Lou McDonaldMary Lou McDonald (Leader of the Opposition; Dublin Central, Sinn Fein)
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Read the report.

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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That approach has not worked so far.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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I rest my case.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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We will not have a free-for-all.