Dáil debates

Tuesday, 22 March 2022

Rising Energy Costs: Motion [Private Members]


6:00 pm

Photo of Claire KerraneClaire Kerrane (Roscommon-Galway, Sinn Fein)
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I move:

That Dáil Éireann:

notes that:

— the cost of household energy is spiralling, with more than 30 different price increase announcements from Irish energy suppliers over the past year;

— costs have risen by around €500 for an average household, with energy suppliers announcing further rises next month;

— home heating oil has increased in price by over €1,000 for 1,000 litres this year;

— Bord Gáis Energy have announced price rises of up to 39 per cent next month;

— the price of coal increased by €4.50 per bag last week and is anticipated to increase by a further €2.50 at the beginning of April;

— according to the Government's most recent strategy to tackle energy poverty, up to 28 per cent of households in Ireland are in or at risk of energy poverty, equivalent to some 475,000 households;

— the Society of St. Vincent de Paul has had a 49 per cent increase in the number of requests for help with energy costs in February 2022, compared to the same period last year;

— a recent RED C poll from January 2022 found that 37 per cent of people have cut back on essential heating and electricity use, and 17 per cent have cut back on other essentials such as food; and

— there are currently no supports for the vast majority of workers and families to assist with rising heating costs;

further notes that:

— the Government's recent measures to reduce excise duty do not extend to home heating oil;

— the Fuel Allowance is only available to limited households and does not include those on the Working Family Payment (WFP);

— the Government have continually insisted that households can seek support for energy costs through the Exceptional Needs Payment (ENP), yet those working 30 hours per week or more cannot avail of this; and

— the carbon tax increase in May will further increase the price of home heating oil, gas and solid fuels; and

calls on the Government to take appropriate emergency action, to include:

— the introduction of a "cost of living cash payment" of €200 for every adult with an income less than €30,000 and €100 for every adult with an income between €30,000 and €60,000;

— the further reduction of excise duty on petrol and diesel;

— the securing of a derogation from the European Commission in order to reduce Value Added Tax on bills temporarily and as required;

— the removal of the excise duty on home heating oil for a temporary period;

— the extension of Fuel Allowance eligibility to those who are in receipt of the WFP;

— the establishment of a discretionary fund of €15 million, to assist households with utility debt;

— the relaxation of the rules for the ENP, including the 30 hour working rule on a temporary basis;

— the collection of data from Community Welfare Officers on the number of requests received for assistance under the ENP; and

— the cancellation of the increase in carbon tax scheduled for 1st May.

When it comes to many of the issues of the day, with all the data and percentages, the lived reality can sometimes be missed. I have engaged with many people ahead of this motion, both online and in person. They included a mother who gets up in the middle of the night to refill her little boy's hot water bottles because she cannot afford to buy oil, a nursing student commuting daily for college having to miss days as she cannot afford to fill her car five days of the week, a working couple who will have to decide next month whether to make their mortgage payment or get a fill of oil and a worker in the oil industry who told me how older people are crying on the phone wondering how they will keep paying for coal. This is not make-believe. The CEO of ALONE, an organisation that advocates for older people, has said older people are choosing between heating and eating. That is someone's mother, father, granny or granddad deciding whether they should buy fuel or buy food. Imagine that is a decision to be made by older people living in our State in 2022. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul has seen a 49% in calls in February of this year compared to the same time last year. People are ringing it seeking help with energy costs. The Government does not have to listen to Sinn Féin or other Opposition Members in this House, it could just listen to the people who are out there, that is, the workers, the families and organisations like the Society of St. Vincent de Paul that are spending millions every year helping people with energy costs. This is now the reality for workers and families right across this State.

Just last week, Bord Gais announced unprecedented increases in electricity and gas. Those increases will kick in in just a couple of weeks' time. They will see gas bills increase by €340 per year and electricity by €350. This price hike follows almost 40 price hikes from energy providers in the last year. Home heating oil, which many of the people of Roscommon and Galway whom I represent rely on to heat their homes, has doubled in the last year. Carbon tax, which the Minister of State's Government will increase from 1 May, will further increase gas and oil prices at a time when many households are spending more their bills than they ever have before. We also know coal is up 50% since September of last year and further increases are expected next month.

At every point when we have raised the cost of living crisis and especially energy prices - and we see again it in the Government's amendment this evening - it speaks about the budget last year and the social welfare increases that are more or less irrelevant given where we are now compared to where we were last October. Of course, those increases in social welfare came when we had two previous years with no increases whatsoever and we are also at a point where every single working-age weekly social welfare payment is already well below the poverty line. The Government speaks about those increases like it speaks about the fuel allowance, namely, as if it were doing people a favour. The reality is we have entire cohorts of people, including those who rely on social welfare like lone parents, carers and persons with disabilities, and also entire cohorts of workers who are getting up early in the morning, paying their taxes and are not able to cover their basic costs week-to-week. The Government has also overemphasised the fuel allowance. It is still not back up to the 32 weeks that Fine Gael cut back in 2012. Again, many households are locked out of the fuel allowance. This is a point we have made repeatedly. This includes those out sick from work on the illness benefit, those on low wages relying on the working family payment and many older people who have a small occupational pension. The exceptional needs payment is then cited as an additional support for those who might be struggling with their fuel costs. What is not said when the Government brings that forward as a suggestion is that if a person works 30 hours or more per week he or she cannot get the exceptional needs payment. That means we are leaving entire cohorts of workers - people who are paying their taxes and working - unable to afford mounting fuel bills every single week and month. The exceptional needs payment is not mentioned in the Government amendment, which is a wonder. There are measures brought forward in this motion related to social protection that can and should be taken by the Government to give people the assistance they need.

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
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The people are in the grip of a cost of living crisis and, as we all know, in the past month as a consequence of the illegal invasion of Ukraine by Russia, energy prices have soared. The impact of the conflict has also led to spiralling commodity prices. The prices of wheat, fertiliser and other industrial inputs all rising sharply. In the current context it is easy to forget the cost of living crisis predates this conflict, with rents and energy prices both rising with terrible consequences for renters, workers and families. We are seeing what is a very deliberate narrative shift that says the entire cost of living crisis has been caused by the invasion of Ukraine and that all of us must make sacrifices and bear the cost. That simply is not true and needs to be challenged, because the cost of living crisis predates this conflict, as does the Government's failure to respond to it. In December prices had risen by 5.7%, with energy prices up 27% and home heating oil up 53%. As a result, even then, core social welfare rates, as Deputy Kerrane mentioned, had been cut in real terms, thus impacting the most vulnerable in our society. The Government rejected Sinn Féin's request that it respond. As I have said before, the cost of prices rises will not be borne by everyone equally. As always, low and middle-income households will bear the greatest costs in all of this and the wealthiest the least, unless action is taken.

Inflation hits those on lower incomes hardest. As a proportion of income, the lowest-income households spend three times more on fuel and energy than the top 10% do. Workers and families therefore face difficult choices. Their incomes are being squeezed and their pockets burned. We have had more than 30 price increases announced by energy providers in the past year. Bord Gáis announced last week it was hiking prices again by 39%.

More price hikes are expected in the months ahead. The narrative from the Government is that this is a result of the war in Ukraine, but gas is bought on the international market months in advance. The price hikes announced by Bord Gáis, and likely other utilities, are because of the spike that took place last year. We will likely see further increases, given that the gas being bought now will be consumed at the later end of the year and the large increases that have happened as a result of the invasion of Ukraine will be passed on to consumers.

Home heating oil has increased by €600 for 1,000 litres since the start of the year. The response from the Government has been bizarre. Last week, the Minister for Finance ruled out any measure to support low and middle income households until October. Separately, a Government party is knowingly spreading disinformation online and on the airwaves by falsely claiming the Government could not reduce excise on home heating oil and support households even though it actually could. It is a pity the Minister of State, Deputy Brophy, has left the Chamber because this would be an opportunity for him to withdraw his accusation against me that I was lying on the national airwaves when I claimed there was excise duty on home heating oil. I am sure he has read The Journal'sfact check as well as the comments from the Department of Finance and Revenue clarifying that Sinn Féin was right and the Government was wrong in this regard. None of that means much to people, though. What they want is for the cost to be driven down, and this shows that further action could be taken by the Government.

The Green Party's leader is telling people to slow down while the Minister of State sitting across the floor from me has told people to stop complaining and shop around. This is the level of arrogance that we are getting from a Government that is out of touch with people who are really suffering. Will the Government wake up to the cost of living crisis that workers and families are suffering and support them? That is what this motion does. It starts by calling for excise duty on home heating oil to be removed in order to support families who are struggling to heat their homes. This alone would reduce the cost of a fill by €100. The motion calls on the Government to move as far as it can on the cost of diesel and petrol through further reductions in excise duty and to win a special derogation to reduce the level of VAT applied to household energy bills. Sinn Féin has been calling on the Government to negotiate with the European Commission on this issue since last September. Each time, the Government has ruled out that. As such, I welcome that it has started to deal with this issue in the past two weeks. Targeted supports are also necessary. That is why we are proposing cost of living cash payments at a rate of €200 for individuals with incomes below €30,000 and €100 for individuals with incomes between €30,000 and €60,000. My colleague has mentioned the suite of measures we need from the Department of Social Protection to protect the most vulnerable.

This motion is a call to action and I ask those on all sides of the House to respond and support the workers and families who are in great need at this time.

6:10 pm

Photo of Rose Conway-WalshRose Conway-Walsh (Mayo, Sinn Fein)
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I welcome the opportunity to speak on this motion, not least because I come from north Mayo, an area of the country with one of the highest rates of fuel poverty. The fact is the Government is not doing enough. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald questioned An Tánaiste today but again got no response from him. That is no good to people who are struggling and juggling to pay their bills and infuriates them because they are bearing the burden of all of this. Energy costs permeate through all economic transactions and bear down heavily on the shoulders of ordinary workers and families. That is a fact.

The Government must listen. It needs to know with what people are struggling. It needs to listen to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and the people who are missing hospital appointments because they cannot afford to put fuel in their cars. We told the Government that it could go further in terms of diesel, petrol and home heating oil. The Minister of State, Deputy Fleming, knows it can go further than this. Last week's argument over excise duty on home heating oil was bizarre. Revenue came out and clearly stated there was excise duty on energy. That the Government is applying carbon tax on home heating oil not only tells people they have to suck it up, but that the Government is going to put a further tax on that carbon tax.

We welcome retrofitting, but the Government presents it as being the solution. In my area, there is a two-year waiting list for the warmer home scheme. It is not dealing with the crisis right now where people cannot afford to live. They can barely afford to survive. All of us, including the Government, must do everything possible to alleviate the burden on ordinary workers and families.

Photo of Mairead FarrellMairead Farrell (Galway West, Sinn Fein)
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Tá a fhios againn le fada an lá go bhfuil daoine ag fulaingt mar gheall ar an ardú ollmhór atá tagtha ar an gcostas maireachtála. Bhí a fhios againne i Sinn Féin go mbeadh an ráta boilscithe ag ardú le hathoscailt an tsochaí, ach is léir nach raibh an fios céanna ag an Rialtas nuair a cheangail sé praghas cíosa leis an ráta boilscithe. Tá sé tar éis éirí níos measa mar gheall ar an gcogadh san Úcráin, ach caithfimid a bheith ionraic faoi seo. Bhí géarchéim sa chostas maireachtála roimhe seo ar fad. Bhí na cíosanna is airde san Eoraip againn, agus bhí costas cúram leanaí cosúil le praghas morgáiste. Léiríonn taighde ó Social Justice Ireland go bhfuil beagnach cúigiú de dhaoine fásta ag cónaí i mbochtanas nuair a chomhairtear an méid airgid atá á chaitheamh acu ar chíos. Anois tá rudaí ina bpraiseach iomlán. Teastaíonn cabhair ó dhaoine. Caithfear gearradh siar ar an dleacht mháil ar ola bhaile, pheitreal agus díosal, agus caithfear níos mó daoine a tharraingt isteach sa liúntas breosla. Teastaíonn ciste lánroghnach chun cabhair a thabhairt dóibh siúd atá faoi bhrú uafásach agus nach bhfuil in ann íoc as a gcuid billí. Sin an cineál gníomh atá ag teastáil ó dhaoine ón Rialtas.

Sadly, the cost of living crisis hit us long before the war in Ukraine. We already had unaffordable rents as well as childcare that cost as much as a second mortgage and we were the fourth most expensive EU country where electricity was concerned. Before Christmas, Social Justice Ireland told us that almost one fifth of adults were living in poverty when housing costs were included. That was the crisis point before the war, and it has now become unmanageable for many people to keep the lights on, keep the house warm and put food on the table. People need targeted supports right now to help them through this difficult time. It is high time that the fuel allowance was extended to those in receipt of the working family payment. We need a discretionary fund so that those people who do not get the fuel allowance and who are in crisis can avail of it.

Unfortunately, we are living in extraordinary times. We need a response from the Government that reflects that.

Photo of Pa DalyPa Daly (Kerry, Sinn Fein)
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Yesterday, I was in my local butcher's shop where the conversation was not about Kerry's win over Armagh or where the Ministers were on holidays, but about the struggle that the people who were buying their meat at the counter were dealing with every day. I spoke to the owner of the shop today. A drum of oil is up 23%, the price of chicken has doubled, the price of lamb is up 50% and the prices of breading, packaging and butter are up 30%. We are not here to speak about prices in the butcher's shop, but one of the main factors in all of this is the increase in energy prices.

Kerry is a county that has been heavily affected by the rise in fuel costs, which will undoubtedly continue to increase. There does not seem to be any end in sight. Obviously, the invasion of Ukraine has not helped, but inflation across the board has been a long time coming as a result of policies dating back over a decade and fully endorsed and pursued by members of this Government. In 2013, we in Sinn Féin called on the then Government not to sell Bord Gáis to Centrica for the knock-down price of €129 million. In the past three years, Centrica's profits from Bord Gáis have been €50 million, €33.5 million and €55 million, so that was not a bad price at which to get Bord Gáis. My county has a great degree of peripherality, a poor public transport network and many isolated and rural areas. We are even more affected by the increase in energy prices as a result of the Government's policies.

During Leaders' Questions today, the Government stated that it could not control what was happening on the world stage. It cannot, but it can react to it. I call on the Minister of State to take steps to react to it and make the burden easier for the people who are standing at the butcher's counter and who were going to buy three breasts of chicken but left the shop with only one because they could not afford the second and third. This is the type of crisis we are hearing about. I could list all of the various increases - Bord Gáis, coal and so on - but this is what we have come down to, namely, people eating less than they normally would and being unable to budget up to the end of the week.

This is what they are stuck with as a result of this Government not reacting and of the policies of Governments over the past decade.

The motion calls for a cost of living cash payment, a reduction in excise duty on petrol and diesel, a derogation to reduce VAT, the extension of the fuel allowance - I understand people on community employment schemes who are trying to get work cannot get it in a lump sum to pay their fuel costs so I want the Minister to try to deal with that as well, and a discretionary fund of €15 million to assist those households.

6:20 pm

Photo of Chris AndrewsChris Andrews (Dublin Bay South, Sinn Fein)
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I welcome the opportunity to speak on this motion which in reality reflects people's everyday circumstances. The rising cost of living is being felt across communities, whether in Ringsend, Donnybrook, Kimmage or Kevin Street. It is the issue that people are raising with me. People have to decide between heating or eating. That is of huge concern to everybody in this House. Everyone is feeling the pressure of these rising costs.

Recent research from Red C on behalf of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul found that 30% of people have had to cut back on essential heating and electricity costs and approximately 20% have had to cut back on essential food costs. We know who feels these sharp increases in the cost of living most. Low and middle income workers and their families are hit hardest. These households must spend a higher proportion of their income on food and fuel. Week after week, they are left with less of their disposable income. This is having a devastating impact on inner city communities across Dublin.

The rising cost of living and the housing crisis are ripping these communities apart. For so many, these rising costs are making the hope of owning a home or renting within their community almost impossible. The rising cost of renting swallows a large chunk of most people's salaries and many people feel suffocated by all of these rising costs. This devastates local communities, families and couples who simply want to settle down and start a family. So many of these young people are being forced out of their communities in search of housing. We need to see a meaningful suite of measures put in place to ease the burden on people.

This motion brings forward a wide range of measures aimed at easing that burden and giving households much-needed support and a break. It includes a cost of living payment of €200 for adults on an income of less than €30,000 per annum and €100 for those on between €30,000 and €60,000 per annum, further reductions in excise duty on petrol and diesel and the temporary removal of excise duty on home heating oil. This is what is needed.

I support this motion.

Photo of Seán FlemingSeán Fleming (Laois-Offaly, Fianna Fail)
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I move amendment No. 2:

To delete all words after "That Dáil Éireann" and substitute the following:

"notes that: — the annual rate of consumer price inflation, as measured by the European Union's harmonised index of consumer prices, picked up sharply over the course of last year, and stood at 5.7 per cent in February;

— the key drivers of this increase are increases in wholesale energy prices as a result of the rapid rebound in global demand, global supply chain disruptions and the imbalance between demand and supply that emerged as the economy re-opened;

— more recently, as a result of the war in Ukraine and Russia's role in global energy supply, oil and gas prices have risen further and these increases will feed into higher inflation over the coming months;

— pass-through price effects are expected in other sectors, such as food via increases in the cost of fertilisers and fuel for example;

— Budget 2022 contained a large range of measures to protect households from the rising cost of living, including a personal income tax package worth €520 million and a social welfare package of over €550 million;

— in addition to the Budget 2022 measures announced in October last, the Government last month approved a further package of measures to the value of €505 million to mitigate the cost of living, including an increase in the energy credit to €200 including Value Added Tax (VAT), estimated to impact just over two million households;

— a lump sum payment of €125 on the Fuel Allowance will be paid to 390,000 recipients;

— there will be a temporary reduction in public transport fares of 20 per cent from the end of April to the end of the year, and this will impact approximately 800,000 daily users of Bus Éireann, Iarnród Éireann, Dublin Bus, Go Ahead, Luas, Dublin Area Rapid Transit (DART) and Local Link services;

— a reduction of the Drugs Payment Scheme from €144 to €80 will benefit just over 70,000 families;

— the Budget increase to the Working Family Payment will be brought forward from 1st June to 1st April;

— there are reduced caps for multiple children on school transport fees to €500 per family post-primary and €150 for primary school children;

— a further package of measures, to the value of €320 million, was introduced with effect from 10th March reducing the excise duty on petrol, diesel and marked gas oil by 20, 15 and 2 cent per litre respectively;

— an €18 million package of emergency support measures for licensed hauliers to address cost pressures arising from current high fuel prices has been announced; and

— the Government has engaged with the European Commission seeking further flexibility around the VAT and Excise Directives; and recognises that: — carbon tax is a key pillar underpinning the Government's Climate Action Plan 2021 to halve emissions by 2030 and reach net zero no later than 2050;

— the Programme for Government: Our Shared Future committed to increasing carbon tax and the Finance Act 2020 provides for a 10-year trajectory for carbon tax increases to reach €100 per tonne of CO2by 2030;

— a significant portion of carbon tax revenue is allocated for expenditure on targeted welfare measures and energy efficiency measures, which not only support the most vulnerable households in society but also in the long-term provide support against fuel price impacts by reducing our reliance on fossil fuels;

— analysis undertaken using SWITCH – the ESRI tax and benefit model – to simulate the impact of the carbon tax increase and the compensatory welfare package has confirmed that the net impact of the combined measures is progressive and households in the bottom four income deciles will see all of the cost of the carbon tax increase offset, with the bottom three deciles being better off as a result of these measures; and

— in the long run, the best way to protect Ireland from the impact of international fossil fuel prices is to reduce our dependence on them, and we will achieve this through the progressive decarbonisation of Irish society and through the steps that will be taken to meet the Government's commitment to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

I welcome the opportunity to discuss the issue of rising energy costs and what the Government has done to mitigate these increases. The House has engaged in a number of debates on the issue in recent weeks, reflecting the seriousness of the issue and the impact these increases are having on households and businesses throughout the country.

Let me begin by again stressing that this is a worldwide issue brought about by a perfect storm of global supply chain disruptions and the imbalance between demand and supply that emerged as the economy re-opened and global demand increased. More recently, as a result of the war in Ukraine and Russia's role in global energy supply, oil and gas prices have risen further and these increases will feed into higher inflation over the coming months. The final retail price of fuel is determined by a number of factors, including the costs of production, distribution, global market factors, international exchange rates, taxation and wholesale market contracts, as well as individual retail pricing policies. I am very aware of the severity of the financial impact that this is placing on Irish households and businesses. The current trends in energy prices are not unique to Ireland and are, in fact, part of global trends. In terms of explaining price dynamics, a multitude of factors are at work. For the sake of brevity, I will focus on the key drivers.

Demand for oil and other energy products such as natural gas has increased sharply following the re-opening of many economies in the second half of last year. Additionally, the increases in international gas prices are more complex and relate to increased demand from certain parts of the world, in part as a result of extreme weather events, lower than expected gas supply and low gas reserves. Unfortunately, Ireland, along with the rest of the EU, is a net importer of gas and, as a result, a price-taker on international markets. These gas prices are the most immediate factor affecting electricity prices in Ireland. Across Europe, wholesale natural gas prices have risen and remained high since the second half of 2020. Gas prices began to rise in mid-2020 due to factors such as strong demand for gas as the pandemic receded and the move from coal to gas increasing the demand for gas for electricity generation. Gas prices are now unprecedentedly high, with UK wholesale gas prices, where gas for use in Ireland is traded, reaching record levels in the recent past. Additionally, geopolitical tensions, including the war on Ukraine by Russia, continue to affect negatively international gas prices. This feeds directly through to retail electricity prices as the wholesale price of electricity correlates strongly with the price of gas. While the future is uncertain, current market expectations are that significantly elevated wholesale gas prices will continue into 2023.

It is clear that taxation of energy products in not behind current energy prices. Ireland's taxation of fuel is based on European Union law as set out in the energy tax directive. ETD. The ETD prescribes minimum tax rates for fuel with which all member states must comply. Ireland applies excise duty, in the form of mineral oil tax, MOT, to fuels used for motor or heating purposes. MOT is comprised of a non-carbon and a carbon component. The carbon component is also referred to as carbon tax. Deputies will be aware that the 2020 programme for Government committed to increasing the amount that is charged per tonne of CO2emissions from fuels to €100 by 2030. The Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, followed through on this commitment by introducing legislation, the Finance Act 2020, to provide for a ten-year trajectory for carbon tax increases to reach €100 per tonne of CO2emissions by 2030. This measure is a key pillar underpinning the Government's climate action plan to halve emissions by 2030 and to reach net zero no later than 2050.

A further key component of the Government's carbon taxation policy is the hypothecation of revenues raised from rate increase to fund important just transition measures. It is important to note that a significant portion of carbon tax revenue is allocated for expenditure on targeted welfare measures and energy efficiency measures, which not only support the most vulnerable households in society, but also in the long term provides support against fuel price impacts by reducing our reliance on fossil fuels. Analysis undertaken using SWITCH, the ESRI tax and benefit model, to simulate the impact of the carbon tax increase and the compensatory welfare package has confirmed that the net impact of the combined measures is progressive. Households in the bottom four income deciles will see all of the cost of the carbon tax increase offset, with the bottom three deciles being better off as a result of these measures. In the long run, the best way to protect Ireland from the impact of international fossil fuel prices is to reduce our dependence on them. We will achieve this through the progressive decarbonisation of Irish society and through the steps that will be taken to meet the Government's commitment to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

For context, it must also be noted that changes to carbon tax rates are having a relatively small impact on current energy prices. The budget 2022 carbon tax increase, which came into effect in October last year, added approximately 2 cent per litre in tax to petrol and diesel. The increase in rates for home heating fuels such as kerosene, gas and solid fuels was delayed until 1 May 2022 to mitigate against impacts during the winter heating season. It is clear that carbon tax is not the cause of current energy price inflation.

Let me now turn to the Government's response to the increase in energy prices. Less than two weeks ago, the Government brought a Financial Resolution to this House providing for excise duty decreases on mineral oil taxes with effect from 10 March. This provided for a 20 cent reduction in the excise rate for petrol and a 15 cent reduction on auto diesel, with a proportionate 2 cent reduction for the excise on marked gas oil, known as green diesel.

These measures were VAT inclusive and will last until 31 August 2022. They will continue for several months to come, right throughout the summer.

The Government has recognised the impacts of the current fuel price increases. While these trends are driven primarily by global factors, the Government made the decision to alleviate some of these impacts through the domestic taxation of fuel. The measures implemented provide significant mitigation against these recent fuel price increases. It is not possible to offset all of the recent increases, which are driven by market factors, just by using the taxation system. The excise reductions strike the balance between passing on a significant benefit to consumers while managing the tax base and respecting the minimum rates allowable under the energy tax directive from the EU.

The Government is acutely aware of the increases in consumer prices, especially the increase in fuel and other energy prices, and it is for this reason we brought in the temporary excise cuts two weeks ago. These measure come in addition to the recently announced package of measures to alleviate the impact of increased costs of living on households.

In terms of revenue impacts, the six-month decrease in mineral oil tax is estimated to cost €320 million. In putting these reductions in place, the Government had to take account of the restrictions of the EU excise and VAT directives. The combined effect of the measures in respect of the 15 cent reduction in excise on diesel, along with the scheduled 1 cent reduction to offset the biofuel obligation scheme increase and the diesel rebate scheme, meant that any further excise reduction would bring the effective rate below the minimum permissible rate.

In looking at the cost of home heating fuels, we were conscious of the need to retain our 13.5% rate on such fuels. In this regard, it has been well rehearsed that Ireland has retained its historic application of 13.5% to a range of services, including the supply of fuel, gas, oil and electricity services, and under the directive the rate applicable to such services can be maintained but cannot be reduced below 12%. If it is reduced below 12%, even on a temporary basis, it loses the derogation of the reduced rate and must be returned to the standard rate, which is much higher. We have engaged with the Commission seeking greater flexibility for member states with regard to the application of both the energy tax directive and the VAT directive in terms of our ability to address the issues facing our citizens.

The rapid rise in consumer prices is certainly unwelcome, and the Government is conscious of the impact on the Irish people. We have responded in a proactive manner and in line with policies taken in other jurisdictions. Some of the drivers are outside of our control and our policy response will help to mitigate their impact. The comprehensive response of Government to the energy crisis and in other areas will soon begin to have a positive effect. While this happens, we cannot compromise the progress we have made on implementing the climate policies which are critical to ensuring we reduce emissions and mitigate climate change impacts into the future.

6:30 pm

Photo of Imelda MunsterImelda Munster (Louth, Sinn Fein)
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The astronomical increases in fuel costs have pushed hundreds of thousands of Irish households to the brink, and the statistics laid out in this motion are quite shocking. There have been more than 30 different price increases from energy suppliers in the past year, and costs have risen by around €500 per annum for the average household. Home heating oil has increased by more than €600 for 1,000 litres this year. Coal has increased by €4.50 per bag in the last week. We are expecting major increases in the coming weeks and months. Next month, gas will increase by 30% and coal by a further €2.50 per bag. These figures mean one thing for low and middle-income families. It means hardship and the real risk of poverty. We are aware that up to 475,000 households in Ireland are at risk of energy poverty. In January 37% of people reported having to cut back on essential heating and electricity use. This figure is much higher by now.

I am not sure that the Government fully appreciates the pressures that families are under, including those who have no choice but to use their own cars and who are struggling to keep them on the road. There are no supports available to most people to cope with this. The once-off payment from the Government is, unfortunately, a drop in the ocean when compared to the cost of energy. The measure to reduce excise duty does not include home heating, as we all know. The measure to extend the fuel allowance will only benefit those who already qualify for the payment. The exceptional needs allowance has been put forward by the Government as a solution but it does not apply to anybody who works more than 30 hours per week.

The motion puts forward a number of simple and practical measures that will help to ease the burden for people. I hope that this time around the Minister of State, Deputy Fleming, and his Government will listen, and that they will plan and act to help families through this very difficult time. I appreciate that the Government has introduced some measures but the Government is simply not doing enough, and it has heard this from everyone in this Chamber today. The Government needs to act now to plan to bring in measures over the forthcoming months to ease the burden on families and working people. Is the Government prepared to do this or turn a blind eye to it?

Photo of Dessie EllisDessie Ellis (Dublin North West, Sinn Fein)
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My constituency of Dublin North-West has a substantial number of houses and housing estates that were built from the 1950s onwards. These older buildings are difficult and expensive to heat. Much of the heat escapes through the walls, roofs and chimneys. There are thousands of such homes across the State that need to be fully insulated to be energy efficient. This would help to lower household spend on fuel to heat a house and will make houses more energy efficient. This can be done by insulating attics, fitting heat pumps, doing wraparounds, pumping insulation into walls or by changing windows and doors, where necessary, in order to bring the houses up to an acceptable energy rating standard. Without such work these houses can be very cold. Many are inhabited by senior citizens who are very vulnerable to the cold and who can ill afford to pay from their small incomes for domestic fuel and gas to keep their houses warm. Those dependent primarily on domestic fuel to heat their homes have seen an eye watering rise in price per litre from 43 cent per litre in Dublin only 18 months ago, to €1.76 per litre at its peak this month. This is more than 300% of an increase in domestic fuel costs in Dublin in this short period. This is just not sustainable for many families and pensioners. They are left with a terrible dilemma in having to make choices based on their limited incomes, the rising costs of living and the cost of domestic fuel and electricity. It is not a cliché to say that they must make a decision as to whether they can heat their house or put food on the table. The cost of domestic fuel has become so prohibitive that many people are reverting back to using coal fires. This is not an efficient way to heat a house, nor is it cost-effective because so much of the heat is lost up the chimney.

Our motion lays out a number of solutions that would mitigate against the worst of the extortionate fuel costs on households. For those families, and especially senior citizens, who are dependent on their cars, the Government should consider an additional reduction in excise duty on diesel and petrol, as well as its removal from domestic fuel, even if only on a temporary basis to give families some breathing space. Families on low incomes and in receipt of the working family payment should be eligible for the fuel allowance. Families are being hit hard now and will need extra supports to ease the burdens they face each day with the rising costs of living and escalating energy costs.

Photo of Réada CroninRéada Cronin (Kildare North, Sinn Fein)
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When it comes to energy we certainly are in a state of emergency. It is an emergency that is affecting people's health. I made the most of the fact that the Dáil did not have late-night sittings last week to spend a lot of my evenings knocking on doors in my constituency of Kildare North. People are telling me that their palms are sweating when they go to fill up the car. Their chests are tightening when their kids ask to put on the heating because they are freezing. Others are telling me that they feel nauseous when they hear their electricity and gas bills popping through the letterbox. These are the people who get up very early in the morning, either to work or to care in the home. A constituent has told me about borrowing from family at the end of the month in order to go to work because the person cannot afford to fill the car. It costs more than €90 per week to fill the car to go to work. In constituencies like Kildare North where there is not a lot of public transport, prices like that are not unusual. Others have told me that they are actually looking to work from home, not because of Covid but because of fuel costs. These prices are crucifying people financially and are having a knock-on impact on the health and stress levels in the families. The House is already aware of what we are proposing in this motion in order to rein in the costs, including the removal of excise duty on home heating for this period.

I am very glad the Revenue Commissioners cleared this up for the public and corrected the Government representatives who thought they were being smart by pushing their mushy political spin instead of the financial facts. There should be more than one Fine Gael apology coming Deputy Doherty's way today.

As a member of the Joint Committee on Environment and Climate Action, and watching our North and South Poles going through extreme heatwaves this week, I am well aware of the climate emergency we are in. I want to make the Sinn Féin position on carbon tax very clear because, as my father used to say, some people need to be told every day. Right now, ordinary people simply do not have a choice. The alternative options are not there. To increase carbon tax for them now is punitive. It is like slapping a sugar tax on the weekly shop when the only foods in the shop are cakes, sweets or doughnuts. We simply must do better. We are in a climate emergency and we need to be getting on with providing affordable alternatives for our people.

6:40 pm

Photo of Seán CroweSeán Crowe (Dublin South West, Sinn Fein)
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The question we are all asking tonight is whether the Government is doing enough. I have read the Minister of State's speech. He says he is aware of the challenges facing families and he has outlined some of the measures the Government is talking about introducing. The Government is contending that it has done enough. On this side of the House, what we are picking up from people, families and individuals is that it is not doing enough and that they are suffering. What we wanted to hear tonight is not what the Government cannot do, and the Minister of State has outlined clearly that it cannot do a lot of things because its hands are tied, but what it can do. I did not hear anything tonight to indicate that it is going to do anything different. That is the nub of the matter. The Government is not doing enough and clearly it is not going to do any more. If it is, the Minister of State did not outline it in his speech. He knows oil prices are rising. Even during last week's drop, they were still higher than at any point in the last eight years. He should take that on board when making his decisions.

There are almost weekly announcements from different providers of price increases for consumers. People have nowhere to turn. There are currently no supports for the vast majority of workers and families to assist with the rise in heating costs. That is the view of most of the people I have talked to. Home heating oil has increased in price by over €1,000 for 1,000 l in one year. How are people supposed to keep up with that? People have talked about the carbon tax. Where is the just transition? Implementing a carbon tax in the current circumstances is simply kicking people when they are down on the ground. It will only add to the crippling energy prices and put further pressure on families. The Government needs to reduce excise duty on petrol and diesel and secure an agreement in Europe in order that it can reduce VAT on bills. Workers and families need help now, not down the road. They cannot afford to wait for grandiose plans and lofty notions to come to fruition. The question is whether the Government is doing enough. I would argue that it is not.

Photo of Gerald NashGerald Nash (Louth, Labour)
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I am sharing time with Deputy Sherlock. I welcome this motion and the opportunity to speak on it. I am always conscious when speaking on these issues of the suffering of the people of Ukraine. That is the issue of paramount importance. That is the paramount issue we face today globally. We have a sense of proportion. None of the problems we debate here, important as they are, come close to the suffering of the people of Ukraine. Rising fuel and energy costs were already having a very real impact on the cost of living for those on fixed, low and middle incomes pre war. The illegal war waged in Ukraine has only exacerbated those rising energy and fuel costs.

The initial response from the Government to these rising costs was meek and anaemic. I have said that time and again. We warned in our response to last October's budget that social welfare increases would not keep pace with the rising price of fuel, energy and the basics needed to keep the fridge stocked. Laterally, the €200 gimmick for everyone, regardless of income, was never going to cut it. It certainly will not pass muster now. A cost of living crisis has every chance of becoming a cost of living catastrophe. I say that with some sensitivity and a sense of proportion.

Yesterday, I spoke to a pensioner couple in Louth who missed the fuel allowance threshold by €9.30. One of them has a serious medical condition. Their response is to only put the heating on for a maximum of four hours a day. That is what they are reduced to. These are people who have worked all their lives. Why can the fuel allowance not be extended to another 150,000 households that are borderline, as I recommended as far back as October's budget? That is a simple measure that would alleviate, address and counter fuel poverty.

The Exchequer has made windfall gains on VAT as companies like Bord Gáis shamelessly protect their profits with massive price hikes. It should be a source of embarrassment for the Taoiseach that he has only in recent days sought a derogation from the European Commission to see if VAT can be cut on energy bills. We have been calling for this for months and it is only being explored now. Yesterday, a local drugs service came to me with its Electric Ireland bill. It is €2,166 since January, which is up from €1,742 for its last bill. It already runs that crucial service on fresh air. Given the tight margins within which the community and voluntary sector operates, can we expect line Departments to help these services meet their costs? I think we know what the answer is.

The Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, will remember Carlinn Hall, Dundalk. When he was last in office, he welcomed this residential development. It is a 200-unit development with district communal heating. It was meant to be fuelled by biogas. It was billed as an estate of the future and the system is now powered by gas. The further rub is that the residents are being charged commercial rates by an intermediary called Frontline Energy, which is acting for Energia. Costs are escalating massively. Surely these people should be paying a residential rate and not a commercial one. The Minister washed his hands of this issue in a response to a recent parliamentary question from me. I have asked a regulator to make a determination on this. Surely these people should be paying residential bills and not bills at commercial rates. I mention this situation because this is one of the real-world problems that my constituents and others across the country are experiencing. I accept that it is not always possible for the Government to mitigate against all the effects this dreadful war will have on living standards in Ireland. I get that. All we are asking the Government to do is use the tools available to it to help people manage throughout this crisis. Unfortunately, many of those tools remain locked in the shed. That is a fact. Why, for example, did the Government not consider, and why is it not considering, activating maximum price orders for fuel at the pumps? Why is it not doing that in the short term? It is beyond me. This is provided for in the Consumer Protection Act 2007, yet that provision remains idle. It was for times like this that that provision was designed.

In 2010, under pressure from Intel, Lufthansa Technik and other multinationals, the then Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, asked the energy regulator to rebalance electricity tariffs in favour of businesses that were large consumers of electricity. The Minister of State will remember this as he was a Government Deputy at the time. That was done at the expense of householders. In August 2010, the Sunday Independentsaid that the move added an additional 3% to the electricity bills of domestic users across Ireland. That was at a time when there were an average of about 900 disconnections every month and the country was heading towards unemployment levels of 500,000. At this time of crisis, will the Minister of State now reverse that decision, or appeal to his Government colleagues to reverse it, and rebalance the tariff in favour of hard-pressed householders? That action alone would make a very real difference for households across this country, which are struggling to make ends meet and will continue to struggle over the next few months in this extremely insecure and uncertain time.

Photo of Seán SherlockSeán Sherlock (Cork East, Labour)
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I welcome the opportunity to speak on this motion. Just today, I spoke to a 94-year-old man who, with his wife, is in receipt of an occupational pension. They do not pass the means test for the fuel allowance. Last week, I spoke with a couple of retirement age who have a combined working life of 84 years between them, and they do not fulfil the criteria for the fuel allowance.

The common denominator there is that both couples worked hard all of their lives, raised families and paid their contributions to the State. They feel marginalised and hard done by in the midst of this crisis because the fuel allowance will not cover them. I will not advise them to go to a community welfare officer for an exceptional needs payment because they are not that type of people. They are proud people and they feel that the contributions they have made through their taxation should be enough to allow for access, albeit it might be on a temporary basis while this crisis is ongoing, to some recognition by the State of their needs and the costs they are incurring, particularly on fuel. I mention the 94-year-old gentleman. He is most lucid and his mind is as sharp as it ever was but his body is not where he would like it to be. He said to me today that he has to keep the heating on because of the type of medication he is on. The money is flowing out of the door, so much so that the couple are incurring personal debt. He said to me that if the fuel allowance was expanded, albeit on a temporary basis, to allow for his circumstances and that of his wife, it would allow him to maintain his dignity and pride with a temporary payment to get him over this challenge.

We all recognise that there are external forces at play and nobody would deny that but we must take cognisance of the people who are not fulfilling the criteria for fuel allowance and who are living in fuel impoverished households. They should not have to wait for the national retrofitting scheme, which Age Action Ireland tells us we will take at least eight years to meet its full targets. God only knows where my 94-year-old man will be at that stage of his life. We should at least put something in place now by way of an expansion or extension beyond the 372 households that the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Humphreys, announced on 14 March. I note that the Minister of State mentioned 390 households in his speech so there is a contradiction of 18,000 houses there and there has been an inflation of figures between Departments since 14 March.

Notwithstanding that, there is a simple ask here. These are working people who paid massive taxes to the State in the 1970s and 1980s and made massive sacrifices to put their children through college. Many of these people their children were the first generation of children in their families to go to university or third level institutions. We must recognise the predicament they are in and we should not force them to have to go to a community welfare officer. The State, through its Departments, should recognise that predicament and extend the fuel allowance, albeit as a temporary measure, to get them over the challenges they face because along with the increase in costs as has been articulated by many Members, there is also the increase in the price of food. All of these people are on fixed incomes and they do not want to eat into their credit union savings because by and large, these savings are what these people have left to bury themselves in some instances. The savings will be used to meet emergency family crisis needs or to bury themselves. We do not want to have them in a situation where they have to dip into those savings. There is scope for the Government to introduce a scheme of this nature and I ask that the Minister of State would take that on board.

6:50 pm

Photo of Jennifer WhitmoreJennifer Whitmore (Wicklow, Social Democrats)
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I welcome the motion and the opportunity to speak on and debate this issue. Unfortunately it is not the first time we have debated this issue and it will not be the last time we do so. Each time we have these debates and discussions the crisis is bigger for people. The Government's responses have failed to meet the needs of those people and the crisis gets worse and worse. Those who are in energy poverty are unable to cope and the reality is that more and more families are entering energy poverty, inevitably leading to a rise in overall poverty rates in this country. Two weeks ago Barnardos produced a stark report, revealing that one quarter of families fear they will not be able to feed their children as rising costs make it harder to put food on the table. That is the reality for many families around the country. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul has revealed that the number of requests for help with fuel in February 2022 has increased by a staggering 497% on the same period last year. It also revealed that there is a 152% increase in the number of people seeking its support for fuel since January of this year. That is a clear illustration that the measures the Government has put in place are not meeting the needs of our vulnerable people. ALONE has said that things are so bad that it has called on the Government for a pandemic-like response to alleviate the rising costs of living to help those in greatest need. It is clear that the rising costs of energy, coupled with rising rents and other challenges, are placing huge pressures on families already in poverty or at threat of poverty, especially those with children, lone parents or those on fixed incomes. The Government’s focus must be on those people and on helping and supporting them.

We are all aware, we all agree and we all acknowledge that there is a global crisis happening that is outside of the control of the Government and that the market is in a constant state of flux. However, there is a lot that the Government can do to buffer the experience for those people in need. It is the lack of preparedness by Governments past and present that means more people are made vulnerable to this changing environment. The Government’s first mistake in this crisis was to delay. The Government delayed its reaction in the first place and then when it reacted it failed to respond adequately. The Government has consistently responded in an unambitious and untargeted manner that is not meeting people’s needs. I first raised the issue of rising energy costs back in September 2021 when I asked for statements on the issue in the Dáil, which was refused. It was clear that a lot more needed to be done in budget 2022 to address existing energy poverty by increasing the supports for those who we knew were about to enter a very difficult winter of rising fuel costs. While inflation has risen further and faster than even the European Central Bank foresaw, it was clear from early October that winter fuel bills would be challenging for those on low budgets. The Government failed to respond properly and in time and now we are presented with this unimaginable global situation that will further impact us and that we could never have envisaged.

The Government has come up short in the short-term measures needed to address this issue time and again. The €200 energy credit that was first spoken about in early December was an untargeted measure that would have benefited people who did not need to receive that support. The reason that was given for that at the time was that we needed to act quickly with a fast measure that reaches people’s pockets as quickly as possible. That still has not hit people’s bank accounts and we are nearly in April. The Government has failed to move on other issues. The costs that people are facing are heating and transport. The reductions in public transport costs have not come into play yet either and they will only benefit people in certain areas of the country, predominantly those in more urban areas. We appeal to the Government to do a lot more in respect of public transport. It should invest a lot more to make off-peak travel free so that people can use that if possible. There is also a need for the Government to focus on rural communities that may not necessarily have access to Bus Éireann or Dublin Bus routes. The Connecting Ireland plan is a good one but it needs more investment. We need those local community buses all over our rural areas. The Government has invested €5 million for this year in Connecting Ireland for the entire country, including every rural route in this country. It is a tiny amount of money that will not meet anybody’s needs. If the Government was to invest properly in Connecting Ireland, it would help people in this crisis and would also help us to meet our carbon emissions targets. It would get people into public transport and help those in rural Ireland to deal with this crisis.

The other issue the Social Democrats have raised time and time again is the fact that a large number of people who are not in receipt of fuel allowance are being hit hard by these rising energy costs. A huge number of people are struggling despite working and, despite never having a need for these support before, they now need them. The Government had an opportunity and still does. It needs to link the fuel allowance and widen it further to those in receipt of the working family payment. That would make a big difference.

Another issue the Social Democrats have raised time and time again, which I am glad the Minister finally raised at EU level, is the fact that there is a need for a penalty-free derogation on VAT. I wonder whether the Government’s hesitancy in raising this at EU level is down to the fact that it is actually profiting from higher fuel costs. The higher the fuel costs are, the more VAT the Government brings in. I would be interested to see figures in respect of the VAT the Government has pulled in in recent months. The reduction of excise was on a fixed rate. It was not on the proportion of the overall fuel cost. That is why the Government has been hesitant in addressing the VAT issue.

The Government is not doing the simple things it could be doing. Where is the energy poverty strategy? It is years out of date. I have consistently raised it with the Minister with responsibility for the environment. There has been little progress on this. Even things that are within the Government’s control, it is not doing them. It is important that we see movement on these issues.

We often hear Ministers talking about what they are doing in regard to this issue. They talk about retrofitting as if it is a short-term measure. It is clear to people who have tried to retrofit their homes or get State support to do so that it is far from a short-term measure. The current waiting time is approximately two and a half years, and that is before works begin. We need to see significant ramping up of the retrofitting programme. I do not believe the measures the Government is putting in place will meet the needs of that cohort of people who will not be in a position to take out a loan, regardless of the interest rate being offered, to retrofit their homes. They cannot afford their rent, their mortgages or their childcare costs. Now, they cannot afford their fuel costs. They will not be able to take a loan out and we should not expect them to take a loan out to do the job that we need them to do. We need them to retrofit their homes. We need them to be more energy efficient. The Government should be supporting them as much as possible to do that. Relying on the one-stop shop, on corporate entities and on the market to fix this issue will mean that action will not come quickly enough and that it will not target the right people. The reality is that this should be a programme that is led by the State, be that through the local authorities. It should certainly be a State process in which a rapid retrofit programme is put in place that targets households at risk of energy poverty, regardless of whether they are in receipt of social welfare. That is how it should be done. Those who can afford retrofitting or get a loan, can work independently through the corporate side of things.

The Government’s responses are not ambitious, quick or fair enough. That is what this comes down to. It is about the fairness of it all. We all need to move away from fossil fuels - that is clear - but some people will need more support to do it. By doing so, they will buffer themselves from these high and rising fuel costs. The Government needs to intervene and work with them to make sure they can do so as quickly as possible.

7:00 pm

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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I am sharing time with Deputies Bríd Smith, Paul Murphy and Barry. We are happy to support the Sinn Féin motion on energy price increases and the proposed measures, but we also will move an amendment to the motion that the Government needs to use the powers it has under the Consumer Protection Act to put caps on prices to declare an emergency in respect of the supply of energy and fuel and put caps in place. The reason we are proposing this - and have done from the beginning - is because, essentially, the Government and most European and global leaders are peddling a lie as to the reasons for the staggering increases in energy and fuel prices. The increases are not happening because of the weather. They are not even happening because of the war in Ukraine. While hundreds of thousands of people are suffering as a result of these energy price hikes, huge numbers of corporations are profiting. The crisis results from profiteering by energy companies, oil producers, electricity producers and suppliers. Our Government and EU and global leaders do not want to do anything about it because they are in cahoots with these companies that are making enormous amounts of money.

By way of some facts, a Saudi Arabian oil company's profits last year were $49 billion, up from previous years. Russia's Surgutneftegas made $9 billion in profit, also up on the previous year. Shell made $20 billion profit last year, which was up on the previous year. BP made a profit of $7.5 billion last year, an eight-year high. Here in Ireland, the ESB's profits were up again last year, standing at just under €700 million. Energia profits were up 46%. In the previous year, they were up 45%. I could go on.

Given that Ukraine is being cited as an excuse, another group of companies making enormous amounts of money out of the crisis there and the global arms industry are those that produce weapons. Last year, with global expenditure of $2 trillion, profits of up to $520 billion were shared between American, Russian, UK, Chinese and Saudi Arabian companies. I say to the public out there: "Do not believe the lies of governments to the effect that everybody is losing in this crisis." Actually, some people are making enormous profits and, sadly, our Government, as well as European and global governments, are facilitating them in doing so.

Photo of Bríd SmithBríd Smith (Dublin South Central, People Before Profit Alliance)
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I welcome this motion and I urge Sinn Féin to accept our amendment. It is important that we get our heads around what has just been argued.

First, it is clear that the Government's response is half-hearted and inadequate in the context off the crisis and the job we need to do to relieve the pressure on many of our citizens. Some €200 and a 20% cut in public transport fares can only be seen in the context of the current situation as a start, not the end. The idea that any further support of intervention can wait until the budget is insane and tells us just how out of touch the Government is and how submerged it is in its own PR spin.

Second, while presented as some freak of nature, as has been said, or a result of an external disaster, such as the war in Ukraine, it is clear that a significant portion of the rising costs of fuel, energy, electricity, etc., is not the fault of the workings of the market; it is the fault of the market itself. It is far from some quirk caused by external factors. The hikes faced by ordinary people stem from deregulation, privatisation and the creation of markets in key areas, such as electricity generation and supply. I remind the Minister that in this country, we went from having one of the cheapest and most efficient sources of electricity generation in Europe, under the ESB before it was deregulated, to having the present disjointed, dysfunctional system with several generators and multiple suppliers and one of Europe's most expensive electricity supply prices to our citizens. This deregulation proliferation of competing firms has hindered, not helped, the provision of cheap, safe, efficient power supplies. For ordinary people, it has been a suffering to ensure that profit, and often hyper-profit, remains the order of the day. Never waste a good crisis or let anything get in the way of profit.

Third, I am struck by the Government's narrative on this crisis. It has echoes of other crises, such as in climate and health. Unless we intervene in the market, how the hell are we going to solve the greatest crisis facing us, namely, that relating to the climate?

Photo of Paul MurphyPaul Murphy (Dublin South West, RISE)
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There is a lot of mysticism that goes on when talking about the increase in energy prices, which basically presents laws of a private, for-profit market as if they are laws of nature. It is as if these prices are going up by themselves, and that it is a natural disaster about which nothing can be done.

It removes what is actually going on, which is the profiteering that has already been spoken about. One other example about which people will know is that Bord Gáis Energy is increasing gas bills by 39% next month. People simply cannot afford it. Bord Gáis Energy is a profitable company that was privatised and sold off to the British energy giant, Centrica. It is a company that's profits doubled last year to more than €1 billion. There is no increase in the cost of producing gas and oil and certainly not in the cost of producing energy from wind or solar power. Instead, what is happening is supply and demand. In other words, massive profiteering by the fossil fuel industry internationally taking advantage of the invasion of Ukraine to drive up prices. Nothing is being done to tackle the profiteering.

Sinn Féin is right to say we need to scrap the carbon taxes and cut the excise duty and VAT. I also urge Sinn Féin to back our amendment on price controls, however. Otherwise, there is nothing to stop the fossil fuel companies from simply pocketing these cuts like they seem to have done with the recent excise duty cut. We need to stand up to the profiteers and cap energy prices at levels that are affordable for ordinary people. We need to bring the energy system back into public ownership and under democratic control in order that it can be run in the interests of ordinary people, both workers and householders, as opposed to being run for profit, which is the cause of the current crisis.

7:10 pm

Photo of Mick BarryMick Barry (Cork North Central, Solidarity)
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Centrica made profits of £948 million, which is more than €1 billion, last year. Centrica is the parent company of Bord Gáis Energy, which in turn made profits of €70 million between 2020 and 2021. This is the company that wants to hike people's gas bills by 39% and electricity bills by 27% from next month. Is the war on Ukraine to blame for energy price rises? Yes, but let us be clear; capitalist interests closer to home are very much part of the equation. Their profiteering is being covered up by the Government but will be exposed by the socialists.

Speaking of profiteering, the ESB made profits of €679 million last year; a State-owned company making massive profits off the backs of the people in a cost-of-living crisis. What is the Government going to do about this? The ESB should be mandated by Government to operate now on a break-even basis. I am not arguing for the ESB to make a loss, merely to break even. This would not only prevent price hikes; it could even result in price cuts. Of course, such a move would undersell every for-profit operator in the market. Quite possibly, they would leave the market and the country as well. I would shed no tears to see them go and I would offer all their workers good, well-paid union jobs in the ESB. The Government is prioritising the free market and high prices over the welfare of the people it was elected to represent. The Government is favouring the profiteers over the people. If it wants to deny that then it should change the policy.

In conclusion, the energy price hikes on the cost-of-living crisis impact every home and working-class home, none more so than the households of low-paid workers. The Government increased the national minimum wage by 2.9% at the start the year. Inflation now runs at 5.6%. SIPTU economist, Mr. Michael Taft, calculated that 5.6% inflation translates to 8.5% for the lowest paid. In other words, the Government has, in effect, cut the pay of the lowest-paid workers in this country by more than 5.5%, which is headed now towards 10% as inflation continues to rise. Government Ministers have for years sneered at the socialist demand for a national minimum wage of €15 per hour. The Government said €15 is totally unrealistic. In light of all the relevant information now, I respectfully suggest that anything less than €15 would truly be unrealistic and that this country's national minimum wage rate now needs to change very quickly.

Photo of Seán CanneySeán Canney (Galway East, Independent)
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I am delighted be able to speak on this very important issue. As the Minister knows, I represent Galway East, which is predominantly rural. It has villages and towns and growth centres around Galway city but we have very little in terms of public transport or taxi services available to us.

Those people who elected me to represent them here leave the east of the country and drive into Galway city to work every day. They can be stuck in traffic for maybe up to an hour, burning away very valuable fuel trying to do that. It is very expensive fuel and has become even more expensive in the last couple of weeks. They are trapped in their cars for the simple reason that they do not have any public transport. It is very limited. Some private bus providers are doing their best to try to help the situation. When these same workers go home, however, they have to pay more for their electricity, fuel, heating oil, gas cylinders or whatever they are using to heat their homes. The cost of food is also rising. These same people are the backbone of our economy. They are the people who are bringing in PAYE to make sure we have enough money in the Exchequer to provide the services we provide. Right now, there is an unprecedented level of increase, which is genuinely having a huge negative effect on these families and their disposable income.

The cost of fuel has also continued to have a negative effect on business, including agriculture. We need to get to grips with this problem. We cannot solve the problem straight away but we need to do a few things. The Government talks about EU rules but at the end of the day, our citizens are the people we have to make sure are protected, not the rules that have been set up. The rules are there to be adjusted and have been in the past when we had emergencies. We all know the reasons why fuel prices are rising. We do not need a preview of what is happening like the previous Minister gave us. Everybody knows it when they go to the fuel pump. We do not need to know the analysis of all that. We need to know what we are going to do.

People on fuel allowance are struggling. As well as that, the thresholds for the income for fuel allowance need to be adjusted, as do the criteria for people who are trying to get it and who need it. I have a constituent who is €5 over the limit for fuel allowance. He is caring for a family member and providing a huge service to the State and yet he cannot get the fuel allowance.

I also contend that we will not see the full effects of what we are talking about today until next autumn when the harvest comes in from our agricultural products. I have spoken to builders providers, farm suppliers, farmers and agricultural contractors who all believe the effects of increasing costs and scarcity of fertiliser will not be properly seen until next autumn. A building provider told me last night that he is not buying in any more fertiliser because the next pallet he buys will cost him €500 more than the one he bought last week.

The solution being talked about is energy independence and making sure we have retrofitted houses and public transport. All of this agenda is fine but it is a medium-term approach. What we need now is to take away the carbon tax and excise duties and also give additional PAYE credits to our workers - the people who work every day for our country to raise their families. These things can be delivered now as a matter of urgency. I ask the Minister to consider them strongly.

Photo of Verona MurphyVerona Murphy (Wexford, Independent)
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I thank Sinn Féin for tabling this motion, which allows us to discuss further the rising cost of living and the developments of the week, which now sees the motion calling for many reductions, including that of VAT which I proposed last week.

Many of the earlier price surges were seen as temporary due to supply chain bottlenecks associated with the lockdown. The longer they go on, however, the more "temporary" fuses into "permanent", resulting in the economy moving from underperforming to overheating with no period of stability in the middle. Once inflation becomes embedded into the system, it is very difficult to wring out.

While acknowledging that not all of the current cost of living problems can be blamed entirely on Government, decisions taken by the Government have certainly made the problem worse than it otherwise would have been. It is within the Government's power to reverse some of its detrimental decisions.

Over the past few months, the Government did number of things that are contributing to the problem. The first major thing that is impacting on the cost of living is the lack of supply in the housing market in the context of both properties for purchase and for rent. The Office of the Planning Regulator has been advising councils on planning by trying to enforce planning guidelines that are not prescribed in law. Councillors believe that the advice of the regulator is infallible, which is resulting in many examples of houses not being built, judicial reviews, projects being scrapped and supply being restricted. We all know that when the supply is restricted, the price of the existing units will increase. I have yet to see evidence of the Government addressing this issue. In fact, whenever I raised it previously, I have been met by Ministers trying to stonewall. Addressing the problems in our planning system would ultimately help with the problems relating to the cost of living.

The second example relates to petrol and diesel. Currently, approximately 55% of the price of diesel or petrol comprises Government taxes and charges. Every time the carbon tax has increased, the Government has not only benefited from that increase, it has also benefited from the extra VAT being charged. Likewise, when the wholesale price of petrol or diesel increases, the VAT returns to the Government also increase. There is no entity in Ireland that has caused fuel prices to increase more than the Government. Not only does a rise in the cost of diesel hurt the commuter travelling to work, it also means a major increase in the overheads of many businesses. Anything that needs to be delivered will be more expensive to deliver. Anything that is farmed will be more expensive to produce. Ultimately, the consumer will be met with a double or triple whammy of price increases, all resulting from an increase in the cost of motor fuel. Ending the practice of applying VAT on excise duties would be a start. Perhaps the VAT rate could be reduced as was done in Poland or maybe we could just get rid of the carbon tax. All of these options are within the Government's grasp if the political is there to avail of them.

My third example relates to home heating. Most people within the Pale may not realise it, but a bag of coal today costs €24. For every bag of coal that is purchased, the Government takes €7. Last week, the cost of a bag of coal increased by €4.50 per bag plus VAT. Another increase of €250 will happen on 4 April. Then, an increase of carbon tax on 1 May will apply. All of these are subject to VAT increases, which will make the Government’s tax take €8, while the price of a bag of coal will have doubled in the past seven months. The cost of home heating oil has risen significantly. I am not sure by how much it has increased in recent weeks, but we have all heard the stories of home heating oil prices going up overnight and of companies not being able to guarantee prices even within the few hours before delivery. What has surprised me are most utterances from Members of the House about home heating oil purchases of 1,000 l. Most people or families with whom I speak to are barely able to purchase 300 l at a time. I am greatly worried about the disconnect between those in this House and the people who are trying to purchase 300 l of home heating oil or a bag of coal. Nor does the fuel allowance cover the level of increase, about which we have heard from many people today. We must remember that those who qualify for the fuel allowance are the people who are least able to transition to expensive green alternatives.

We have one of the highest VAT rates in the world. We are charging VAT on other taxes. I do not know how the practice of applying VAT on excise duties was ever allowed to come into play, but it is a scandalous state of affairs that needs to be changed. The Government must acknowledge that it is morally reprehensible at all times, but moreover at this time-----

7:20 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I thank the Deputy.

Photo of Verona MurphyVerona Murphy (Wexford, Independent)
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I am almost there. Most of the cost-of-living problems are being made worse by Government taxes, charges and regulations. We have heard a lot about Ukraine, which has simply brought a sharper the focus onto the problems we have.

Obviously, the clock has run out. I want to say, however, that many people have come to me in the past week or two. They have said that they do not feel that the green jersey is being donned here on behalf of the Irish economy, particularly by the Minister who is here today. They feel, however, that, as chair of ECOFIN, there is an element of watching career prospects that may be detrimental to the Irish economy. I ask that the latter be addressed most carefully.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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We will move to the Rural Independent Group. Deputy Mattie McGrath is sharing time with Deputies O’Donoghue and Michael Collins.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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I too thank Sinn Féin for bringing forward this motion. I do not know how many motions or debates we will have to have in order to get the Minister and the Government to have respect for the people who we are supposed represent. We should respect them as ordinary, hard-working, decent people. I say this because at the moment the Minister is driving them to misery and into perishing in their homes. They are unable to drive when they have to drive.

The genie is out of the bottle. We know that the Government is the single, biggest increaser of price across the board, whether it be Bord Gáis, the ESB, oil, home heating oil or whatever. The Government has a brass neck to continue doing it. I asked the Minister two weeks ago whether he would confirm it for me. However, I know the answer and so does he. The more the price goes up, the greater the tax take. They are putting VAT on top of excise duty. I cannot imagine that the Minister will come in here next month and put on more carbon tax. I just cannot imagine that. However, I would not be not surprised. Take the ESB, for instance. Most people in ordinary or modest homes have heating bills that have gone up from anywhere between €1,000 and €1,300. The price of a bag of coal has doubled in 12 months. Who is codding whom here? They are blaming this on the unfortunate, horrible war in Ukraine. If there is a war, we should dispense with all of the fanciful green projects and deal with people on a wartime footing. We should have wartime solutions to wartime situations. It is as simple as that. The Minister cannot have his cake and eat it. He cannot have butter on both sides and jam as well. The people know full well now and we will keep reminding them of who is the biggest - I hate to use the word “tease” - who has the biggest impact in the pocket of the housewives and of the people. It is tú féin.

The ESB made €693 million gross profit last year. They made €191 million in net profit. It paid into the Government’s coffers €126 million of a gratuity or a fund, thereby robbing the people again. Why could the Minister not forgo that €126 million and investigate why in the ESB - which a company that is 95% owned by the taxpayer and not the Government - the gross profit was €693 million and the gross profit was only €191 million? Where did the rest of it go? They are codding us all the way. We have sold most off most of our resources here. We have sold them off. Bord Gáis had the audacity to come out at the weekend and talk about 30% and 40% increases. People cannot afford this. The Government knows that but it does not seem to care. As I said, if it is a wartime situation, we should opt for wartime solutions. We should get rid of the fancy pipe dreams that the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, and the Green Party have and that the Government is pursuing, along with carbon tax and everything else. The Government should come clean with the people. It show the people that it is the biggest takers of the money from people’s pockets all of the time.

Photo of Richard O'DonoghueRichard O'Donoghue (Limerick County, Independent)
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I thank Sinn Féin for bringing forward this motion. At the same time, I would like to point out that last October when the price increase in fuel crisis was here, I asked Sinn Féin to help me and the Rural Independent Group to highlight the energy costs and fuel costs. It took Sinn Féin until March to finally realise that there was a crisis, although I could see it last October. I stood here last October and I was heckled by the Minister for Finance. I spoke to the Minister about the toolbox that Europe gave to him to use. He told me here in the House at all I was doing was complaining. Now the entire Opposition is complaining. What I was saying to the Minister last October was common sense and truth.

All of the expensive Department that the Minister has behind him could not see what an Independent Member sees. Why does an Independent stand out so much in this Dáil? It is because we are on the ground with the people of Ireland. We understand business. We understand farming. We understand people. We understand poverty. The Minister does not understand. He was given a toolbox by Europe to use. The latest figures from the Central Statistics Office, CSO, show that the cost of energy is up by 31.9%, animal feed is up by 18.2%, seed is up by 11.6% and fertiliser is up by a whopping 127%.

Ireland was directed by the EU to use a toolbox of measures in October 2021 to work with householders and companies and apply tax reductions. None of this happened. The EU energy taxation directive allows member states either to exempt households or to apply reduced rates for electricity, natural gas, coal and solid fuel. This was not done even though the Government had been given a toolbox by the EU to do it. It stated member states could give effect to these exemptions or reductions in the level of taxation directly. This was not done either.

Household electricity costs increased by 70% during 2021. Bord Gáis last week predicted a hike of 27%. In real terms, this means a home's electricity costs will increase by €1,300 per annum. The ESB has announced operating profits of €679 million for 2021. This country has no alternatives but to burn petrol and diesel to put food on the tables. People are now coming in from Ukraine and we will hardly have enough food to feed ourselves. The Irish people wear their hearts on their sleeve and they will give their last bit of food to other people to help them, but the Government taxes us out of existence. That is all it does because it lacks an understanding of real life in its bubble in Dublin.

7:30 pm

Photo of Michael CollinsMichael Collins (Cork South West, Independent)
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My colleagues in the Rural Independent Group and I have been very vocal on the cost of energy and the sky-rocketing costs of fuel for farmers, parents, hauliers and employers. In fact, it affects every person in this country. I again call for the abolition of carbon tax and I ask Sinn Féin whether it will now join with the Rural Independent Group in calling for the abolition of this punitive and out-of-touch carbon tax. At the very least, Ireland should now hold a referendum on carbon tax and give the people a say. Let us debate all the issues and see what the people have to say about carbon tax.

Last month, my Rural Independent Group colleagues and I moved a motion calling on the Government to hold a mini-budget to deal decisively with the cost of living and the energy price emergency. Unashamedly, all the Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Green Party Deputies blocked the motion, voting instead to maintain crippling fuel taxes despite the obvious pain this policy is inflicting on everyone. Our motion paved the way for the price of home heating oil, petrol and diesel to be dropped significantly. Instead, Government Deputies are allowing it to climb to more than €2 per litre in order to stay in office and rake in about €1.15 per litre in taxes for the Government.

Our policy on carbon tax has been consistent. We do not support this unfair and burdensome tax and have been warning of its detrimental impact for many years. Ordinary families and all rural residents are carbon-tax losers and are carrying the brunt of the Government’s mad agenda of keeping the ideology of the Green Party on side. We pleaded with Sinn Féin, the Labour Party, the Social Democrats, Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party not to bring in this carbon tax because it is a tax on the people of rural Ireland and we were ignored. They all sat on their hands and quite happily voted for it. Now some of them are crying against it, while the Green Party is wagging the Government’s tail continuously, bringing this country close to being ground to a halt.

I spoke to a silage contractor who called into my clinic at the weekend. He said he is going to be paying an additional €130,000 for fuel this year, an astonishing increase. The Government is standing idly by while the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine has been going around today like a fool, telling people they will be given a few quid to allow them to sow a bit of seed. The Government is codding the farmers of Ireland. They are not fools. They are going bust. They cannot even get fuel at this stage, no matter what they are willing to pay for it. Farmers are in dire trouble. Fishermen have told me they will tie their boats to the piers until this fuel crisis has been resolved. One man told it would cost him €30,000 to go out to sea for the week, €27,000 of which would go to the quota. It would have been pointless for him to go out, so he tied his boat to the pier.

The Minister for Finance might not be interested but he soon will be because the public are outraged at the carry-on here. The 20% discount from public transport fares the Government announced in its mini-budget - it can call it what it wants but it was a joke - has sorted out people who use the DART, the Luas or the train but the private contractors of rural Ireland will not get it, so the young people of rural Ireland will not benefit from that decrease. The €200 off the electricity bill is farcical. The Government is laughing in people's faces. The people are struggling and it is not willing to make a move. It is drip-feeding small advantages that go nowhere. The soaring costs of food, heating, fuel and housing are causing social inequality and hardship and are pushing people into poverty.

Photo of Joan CollinsJoan Collins (Dublin South Central, Independents 4 Change)
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I thank Sinn Féin for tabling this Private Members' motion and welcome the opportunity to speak to it. The significant increases in energy prices, and the knock-on effect on inflation in general, mean many individuals and families now face a severe cost-of-living crisis and there is no guarantee this crisis will go away any time soon. Even if, in their current talks, Ukraine and Russia come to some agreement, although there is certainly no guarantee of that, sanctions on Russia are likely to remain in some form. We are now paying a price for the inaction in regard to moving away from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources. Offshore wind farms can give us cleaner energy with security of supply but it will take us decades to get there.

Measures to reduce energy consumption, such as retrofitting, will also take years, if not a decade. Dublin City Council, in its report last year for its housing committee, stated that at its current level of funding, it will take 12 years to carry out its retrofitting programme. This needs to be done soon. Retrofitting all homes and buildings would have a greater impact on CO2 emissions than almost anything else we could do over the next period. People on medium incomes will not be able to afford the €25,000 it will cost for a full retrofitting of their home, yet they must pay the same level of carbon tax as someone who earns €100,000 a year, who can well afford to get retrofitting done. As we exit the winter months, the cost of home heating will probably begin to recede as a major problem, but if these circumstances continue into next winter, it will be a nightmare for many individuals and families. The Government should be preparing an emergency plan for that scenario. The cost-of-living hikes will continue for a number of years. The annual rate of inflation was estimated in mid-February to be 5.9% and the latest increases in the costs of energy, electricity and gas will impact heavily on everything.

While I support the measures in the motion, I believe the measures open to the Government in regard to reducing energy prices, which are set on the international markets, are limited. Such an emergency programme must be targeted at those who are most vulnerable, in low-paid jobs or dependent on social welfare. There must be a guarantee that no individual or family will be left without electricity or adequate heating or have to make the decision to heat their home or eat. This can be achieved by a directive from the Department of Social Protection such that those struggling with heating costs or electricity bills will automatically qualify for emergency needs payments. Alongside the suspension of the 30-hour working rule, an extension of the fuel allowance to those receiving the working family payment should be introduced and other social payments should be examined. I have repeatedly raised the issue of relocating community welfare officers, CWOs, to the community to make them more accessible to those who need help. CWOs were removed from the community to make them less accessible as an austerity measure, which now needs to be reversed.

The other aspect of this crisis is the knock-on effect of energy prices in general and especially on food prices. A recent report by Barnardos on food poverty and its effects on children and families makes for sobering reading. A total of 25% were found to worry about not being able to provide food for their children, while 79% said the greatest impact was from the rising costs and the pressure on household finances. A further 51% of parents had cut back spending in areas such as gas and electricity, transport and medical bills to afford food, and 10% of parents and guardians skip meals weekly. Some 90% of parents felt close to food poverty, while 29% of people had first-hand experience of children for whom the impact of not having sufficient nutritious food was evident. That this is Ireland in the modern day is just not acceptable.

The Government's emergency plan must be targeted in this area. Basing CWOs in the community in order that they can administer a well-resourced hardship is essential, along with providing for increases in core welfare payments.

Lastly, the trade union movement also has a key role to play. It must set a target of €15 an hour as a living wage and campaign seriously to achieve it, including marches, rallies and strike action where necessary.

7:40 pm

Photo of Thomas PringleThomas Pringle (Donegal, Independent)
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I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity to speak on this important issue. I also thank Sinn Féin for putting forward the motion because it is important we debate it. While it is one of a number of similar motions over the past while, it shows the importance of the issue as well.

I am fully in support of this motion in its intention to address the rising energy costs. It is completely inexcusable that more has not been done by the Government to address these costs yet. There seems to be a complete lack of awareness of and, sadly, of care for families who have been hit the hardest due to increasing energy costs and who are constantly being pushed to the brink with no end in sight. People cannot be expected to continue as they have done over the past few months. Costs are spiralling out of control and with no sign of this stopping any time soon, households are getting increasingly desperate and frustrated at this never-ending spiral.

We have all seen the shocking price hike announced by Bord Gáis Energy last week. An increase in the average electricity bill by 27% and in the average gas bill by 39% from April is an incredible jump that will create an incredible burden. It has been reported that due to this price hike households' energy bills could rise by approximately €700 per family per year. This is nearly the equivalent of an average monthly mortgage repayment. It is like having another mortgage month a year on top of already high energy bills.

Due to Bord Gáis Energy's price jump, many energy providers are expected to follow suit. Electric Ireland has stated that it has not ruled out an increase as it is exposed to the same wholesale electricity and gas prices as other providers.

Increases such as these particularly affect constituents of mine in Donegal who depend wholly on petrol and oil, and turf, rather than gas or anything else. Indeed, we all know there is no chance of supposedly cheaper natural gas coming to Donegal anyway. What is more, Greenleaf Bioenergy stated that it is unlikely there will ever be a gas pipeline into Donegal. Not only is there no alternative, but we have been advised there never will be one. It seems the nickname of "the forgotten county", once again, rings true as Donegal has been left behind as per usual.

It is clear that urgent action is needed and yet despite all the recent price hikes and the threat of even further hikes, the Government has to date stated it is not planning any further cost-of-living measures this side of the budget. I was absolutely appalled to hear this. People are struggling to make ends meet and parents are struggling to put food on the table. Not only is the Government refusing to help them but it is actually intending to punish them further with the introduction of the carbon tax increase in May. This tax increase will further increase the price of home-heating oil, gas and solid fuels and the last thing that is needed at this crisis time is further increases. How do we expect people to survive at all?

Government Deputies cannot stand here and say they care about the people of this country and of their constituency while they do nothing to ease the burden of families at the mercy of continuous rising costs. The decision of the Government to go ahead with the carbon tax increase on households, given these out-of-control costs, would be unforgivable. The carbon tax as it exists will do nothing but push people further into fuel poverty and do little to make any sort of real change and we need to see structural change on a larger level.

Of course, the Minister will say probably in his concluding remarks that the Government has already introduced a package that will give €200 a year off the electricity bills of consumers. That is correct. It will do so but it will give €200 a year off a millionaire's electricity bill. A millionaire who owns four or five houses will get four or five times the €200 off bills whereas somebody dependent on social welfare will get the same amount of €200. That is wrong. The excuse the Government gave at the time was that it could not change it because it did not have time to implement a proper scheme to provide for that. That was last October, when the Government announced it. The provision still has not come in. It will not come in until April or May, and yet there still was not time to introduce a proper scheme. Why should I get €200 off my electricity bill when I can afford it and people on lower incomes than I are getting punished? We should be putting a proper scheme in place that benefits people who need it. That is the least we could be doing.

In last year's budget, I put forward ideas on how Ireland could be energy independent in the next ten years using only wind and hydroelectric power, through, for example, the Spirit of Ireland project that has been talked about in Donegal which will look to harness our significant wind energy potential by using our natural coastal valleys to provide hydroelectric storage reservoirs. Wind farms could be used to pump seawater into these reservoirs which would then be passed through turbines generating significant amounts of power. Indeed, three of those projects along the west coast would provide all the energy that is required for the country to manage it and it would make wind power available all the time to the country as well. These are the types of ideas and projects that should be progressed. Wind and hydroelectric projects not only have the potential to reduce our dependence on imported energy and fossil fuels, but would also address the cost-of-living crisis we currently find ourselves in. Furthermore, wind and hydroelectric projects could create jobs and benefit us significantly economically.

Something needs to be done. The Government cannot continue to try to price people in this country out of existence. Families are running out of options and are being forced to make impossible choices - heat or food, electricity or rent. What we require is more creativity in how we address the problems we face but the way we address these problems should never be at the expense of ordinary citizens.

Photo of Paschal DonohoePaschal Donohoe (Dublin Central, Fine Gael)
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I want to open by acknowledging the great challenges many are facing at present due to the rising cost of energy and to the change in the price of gas, oil, coal and diesel, primarily due to the impact of the war taking place in Ukraine. After the terrible difficulties of the past number of years due to Covid and with all of the challenges imposed on so many, and hoping that was beyond us, I absolutely understand why to be confronted by bills that have gone up so much in recent weeks is a cause of concern to so many and why it is a topic we debate regularly on the floor of the Dáil.

Given the number of charges being made about the Government not acting because we do not have compassion, the Government not acting because we do not care and the Government not using more money to respond to the needs I absolutely acknowledge are so real for so many, it is important to be crystal clear about one point here this evening, which is that the Government does not have any money. The money the Government has is the money we collect in taxes from the people and the money we borrow that the people will pay off in the future. Those are the only two sources of money the Government has available to make decisions about - money we collect in taxes and money we borrow that will be paid off from taxes in the future.

When the charges are made about the Government not doing more because we do not care, what we are doing is recognising two realities that were not acknowledged by any Opposition Member I heard here this evening. I did not hear - granted, I was not here for all of the debate - a single Opposition Member talk about how much any of his or her measures cost. There are two realities that we acknowledge. The first reality we acknowledge as a Government is that the bills or costs that are increasing are, of course, a cause of additional pressure and worry for many. We understand that, but the other reality we confront is that the money we are collecting through the taxes that most of the Opposition appear to want to abolish in their entirety is the same money we are using to pay for our schools, hospitals, public services and those things that are essential to our society and fundamental to the operation of our country. The irony cannot but be lost on me that we have many members of the Opposition make the charge that the Government is open to leaving too much to the market to deliver on its behalf while at the same time wanting to cut the very taxes the State needs at present to pay for public services the Opposition wants to improve all the time. On the one hand, members of the Opposition are repeatedly making the charge that the Government is not doing enough but when it comes to the very money the Government needs to do more with at present for all the reasons the House is so aware of, the Opposition comes in here and, by and large, says we should abolish the taxes that pay for the public services needed at present. I will come back to that word "abolition" in a moment.

Let us look at the steps the Government has taken which were covered off by the Minister of State, Deputy Fleming. Measures worth €1.9 billion have been put in place by the Government using the people's money to respond to the impact of prices we know have already gone up and in anticipation of further change that could happen in the future.

I refer to the measures that were taken on budget day, in particular regarding personal taxation, that the Opposition voted against. The Opposition was against tax reductions in October, and it is for them in March. The measures are making a difference to those on low to middle incomes in particular, who are already paying the higher rate of income tax. That is something we changed on budget day. We sought to make progress on it in anticipation of the higher cost of energy and rising inflation as we moved through the year, but the Opposition voted against it - the single measure that could make a difference year by year to the cost of living challenges so many face at the moment.

Additional measures were introduced earlier this year. I refer to the €125 payment that will go to those most at risk of fuel poverty and the €200 energy rebate that will soon appear on energy bills. Deputy Seán Crowe stated the Government says it has done enough. That is not a claim I have ever made, nor would I ever make it, cognisant of the difficulties so many face. What I say here this evening, as I have said in every debate up to this point, is that we cannot do everything to meet all of the needs the Opposition continually raise regarding the rising cost of energy and every other issue on which the Government also has to make progress. In recent weeks, we introduced a change in excise on petrol and diesel, again using the country's money to a value of €300 million. Overall, there are €1.9 billion of measures in response to an issue we appreciate is again a challenge for many at the moment.

The reality is that regardless of what measures I or the Government have introduced, they would not be enough for the Opposition. The Opposition would come to the House with the scripts already written and the tweets already drafted. Regardless of what the Government did, it would not be enough; because it is never enough for an opposition that will always look to change the goalposts on any argument. Whatever measure the Government brings forward will always be condemned by Sinn Féin and other Members of the Opposition as not being enough.

In response to Deputy Seán Crowe's statement that the Government had indicated that it had done enough, the Government has always been clear that we want to help and to make a difference, but we want to be honest about the constraints we face. We want to be honest that the only money we have that is available to spend, in dealing with this growing challenge, is the country's money. It is the taxes we collect that also pay for public services that already face challenges that we want to deal with, of which the Opposition is frequently critical, and where we want to make a difference and improve as we move through this year and beyond.

Deputy Ellis talked about the cold houses that we know are getting more expensive to heat for too many at the moment. That is why the Government is going ahead with the national retrofitting programme, which is being co-funded by the carbon tax, the same carbon tax the Opposition wants to get rid of and axe. On the one hand, the Opposition says we are not making enough progress on retrofitting, while at the same time it wants to abolish the tax that helps to pay for the retrofitting programme.

I heard the charge from Deputies Paul Murphy, Mattie McGrath and O'Donoghue that the Government is the cause of the price increases that are happening due to the changes in carbon taxation. Let us be absolutely clear about the truth here: the changes in carbon taxation that the Government has made are a tiny share of the increased costs that we know many face at the pumps, on their bills, in their homes due to the rising cost of energy. The changes that we have made to the carbon tax are a small share of the overall cost that many are facing and enduring at the moment, but the additional money that we have raised in carbon tax is the same money that is then being used to make progress on the issues the Opposition always call for more to be done to address.

That leads me to the Sinn Féin motion before the House this evening, which calls on the Government to take many additional measures in response to the challenge we now face. I put it to Sinn Féin that the motion this evening talks about the reduction in VAT. Today on Leaders' Questions, the party's leader called for the abolition of VAT. Which is it – abolition or reduction? It is one thing to be confronted by an Opposition party that engages in auction politics; it is an entirely different thing to be confronted by an Opposition party that managed to outbid itself in a single day. That is what we face. The motion talks about reduction and the party's leader talks about abolition. Which one is it? I know the costs are going up for many at the moment, but the Government is doing all it can to help. We want to be honest about the constraints that we face. We could do with the same honesty from Sinn Féin.

7:50 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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The reply from Sinn Féin is coming from Deputy Ó Broin, who is sharing time with Deputies Carthy and Kerrane, who will wrap up. Is that agreed? Agreed.

Photo of Eoin Ó BroinEoin Ó Broin (Dublin Mid West, Sinn Fein)
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The Minister's response is an incredibly disappointing and disingenuous one. The one point he made, with which I agree, is that he at least admitted the Government is not doing enough. We do not need the Minister to tell us that, because ordinary working families across the State know that. Nobody on these benches is telling the Government to do everything; we just want it to do more. The reason we ask the Government to do more is that every single day in our constituencies, as I am sure in the constituencies of the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, and the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Humphreys, working families and small businesses are urging them to do more. The Minister is a constituency politician, as is the Minister beside him. I know they talk to their constituents every day, as I do. They are telling us, collectively, in this House that more needs to be done. They are only too aware of the fact that it is their taxes that fund the public services or any additional temporary relief that the Government provides them with.

It is a bit rich for the Minister to talk about honesty when last week, when Sinn Féin first started to outline the types of measures that are in this motion today, we were told by the Government that it was not possible - that it was not legal - even though Deputies Kerrane, Doherty and McDonald outlined what was the case. In fact, probably the most dishonest contribution to this entire public debate has been a Fine Gael tweet which claimed there was no excise duty on home heating oil. Of course, the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, knows, because the officials in his own Department as well as Revenue confirmed tothejournal.ieFactCheck that it is not the case – carbon tax is a form of excise duty. The Minister knows, but at least tonight he is honest enough to make the argument that it is about cost and not legality.

The problem is that the measures taken to date, those that were outlined in the budget, which were not enough to deal with the rising cost of living at that stage, or the measures that were taken a week and a half ago, are not doing enough to constrain the rising cost of fuel. Until I hear a Government Minister on the other side accepting that and putting forward some other alternative, we will keep coming back again and again to make these proposals.

The Minister does himself no service repeating some of the questionable arguments that I have heard from the Government benches to date. I thought he was better than that. At least the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, was honest with us in his contribution last week. We implore the Minister not to listen to what we are saying, but to what the people he represents are saying and come back and do more because if he does not, people will suffer in homes, businesses and families and we will not be party to that.

Photo of Matt CarthyMatt Carthy (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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Deputy Ó Broin rightly described the Minister's remarks as disingenuous. I would go further and say, if anything, they came across as disinterested in the realities that face many of the people we all represent. Unfortunately, it is not surprising because from time to time we have heard the real inclinations of a Government that is quite simply out of touch: from a Fianna Fáil Minister of State telling people to shop around, to a Green Party leader telling us to drive slower, to a Fine Gael Minister for Finance who tonight essentially confirmed that he has no intention of doing anything further. The next measure that this Government will implement regarding the cost of living crisis is to increase those costs further through an additional hike in the carbon tax in May.

This is not fair. It is not fair on those ordinary people who are consistently asking themselves what the Government has delivered to alleviate the increased prices they are bearing on essential heating, travel and electricity costs, but who are largely coming up blank.

We are a food-producing nation and an affluent State. It is not good enough that families with two earning workers have to make the stark choice, as they do today, between eating or heating their homes. I am sure the Minister knows people who are in this position. Certainly, the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Humphreys does, because they are her constituents as well as mine. They tell me about keeping an eye on the gauge as they travel home, holding their breath, hoping they can make it and trying to get through today because they are afraid to even think about tomorrow. There has never been a boom for many of those same workers; just a bust. This Government has forced upon many of those people exorbitant rents or mortgage rates, childcare costs and insurance premiums and is now, through its lack of support, leaving them with the choice about how they can put food on the table.

Sinn Féin has put forward proposals that will make things a little better. They will not resolve everything because we understand the Government cannot do everything but it can do much more. It is shameful that Government Deputies will, in effect, vote through an amendment this week that proposes precisely nothing additional is done to help those hard-pressed workers and families.

8:00 pm

Photo of Claire KerraneClaire Kerrane (Roscommon-Galway, Sinn Fein)
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I am at a loss to know how the Government's response to what it calls an energy crisis can be described as comprehensive. The main issue being debated and that has been raised by those who have spoken is household heating costs. The Minister said that the Opposition would not be content no matter what Government proposal is brought forward, but there is no proposal regarding household heating. That is the problem. Aside from the €200 electricity credit announced nearly four months ago, which we are still waiting for, nothing has been brought forward to assist people with heating their homes. That is a fact.

The Minister has overemphasised the fuel allowance time and time again but the vast majority of workers and households do not receive that allowance. A person out sick from work on illness benefit cannot get the fuel allowance. Someone who is on a low income and relying on the working family payment to top up that income cannot access the fuel allowance. A couple or older person with a small occupational pension does not get the fuel allowance. The Minister spoke a lot about energy efficiency but energy efficiency and retrofitting are completely irrelevant for people today who cannot pay their bills. That is a fact.

The Government has also overemphasised the exceptional needs payment but what the Minister has not said each time he has raised it is that if someone works 30 or more hours per week, he or she cannot access that payment. That means there is no assistance or support for any worker who is working 30 hours or more a week. That worker has nothing; no help, no assistance and no support. He or she does not get the fuel allowance or the exceptional needs payment. That is the cohort we are referencing in this motion, primarily, and the Minister has no proposals for them.

I have raised the matter of the discretionary fund for 13 months now; I brought that forward in February last year. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul clearly does not think the exceptional needs payment fund is working either, otherwise it would not be suggesting a discretionary fund. We need a fund for people, especially those who cannot access the fuel allowance, to assist them with utility debt in particular. This is something the Money Advice & Budgeting Service, MABS, has raised repeatedly and for which the Society of St. Vincent de Paul has been calling for more than a year now. If the exceptional needs payment that the Government keeps pushing was working and doing its job we would not need the discretionary fund, but clearly it is not. We ask in our motion that the fuel allowance in particular be extended to those people who are receiving the working family payment. We have also asked that the fuel allowance be extended by two additional weeks. We know the fuel allowance was cut by Fine Gael in 2012. It was at 32 weeks. It is now at 28 weeks and has still not been restored to what it was.

I mentioned those people I have engaged with in the past week in advance of tabling this motion. These include a mother who gets up in the middle of the night to refill her children's hot water bottles because she cannot afford oil; a nursing student who is commuting daily to college but has to miss days because she cannot afford to fill her car to run for five days; and a working couple who have to decide next month whether they make their mortgage payment or get a fill of oil. A worker in the oil industry told me about older people who are crying on the phone about how they will afford coal as the price of bags of coal continues to increase. Nothing the Minister said this evening, nothing he said earlier and nothing that is in the Government's amendment will assist or do anything for these people. This is not make-believe; these are real people and real families.

If the Minister does not want to listen to Sinn Féin or people in the Opposition, he should listen to people such as those in ALONE, which is a huge organisation that has been representing older people in this State for a very long time, who are telling us that older people in 2022 are deciding between buying food and buying fuel. He should listen to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, which has seen an almost 50% increase in calls in February of this year compared with last year. People are calling that organisation looking for help with their energy costs. These are primarily older people. They are somebody's mother, father, granny or grandad, who are deciding between fuel and food. It should not happen, but it is happening all the time. Nothing the Minister said this evening will make a difference. The Minister has clearly said that anything he does will not be enough but I will again make the point that he has done nothing on home heating oil. I again ask him to look at it and to look at this motion and the proposals we have brought forward. I have a list of costings if the Minister would like to see them. He should know that we never bring forward any proposals that are not fully costed.

Amendment put.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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In accordance with Standing Order 80(2), the division is postponed until the weekly division time on Wednesday, 23 March 2022.