Dáil debates

Tuesday, 26 April 2022

Home Heating Fuels: Motion [Private Members]

 

6:35 pm

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

That Dáil Éireann: recognises that:
— it is not possible for the Government to fully insulate all households from every price increase but, nonetheless, believes that the measures announced by the Government to date, including those announced on 13th April, are inadequate and that more can and should be done to support workers and families at this time;

— prices have been rising at a record-breaking pace and the Consumer Price Index increase between February and March this year is the highest monthly increase witnessed since the Central Statistics Office began publishing the series in 1997, annual inflation is the highest it's been in over twenty years and the prices of many essentials are expected to continue rising in the months ahead;

— these price increases have a greater impact on rural, low-income and older households according to the Central Bank;

— many households, particularly in rural Ireland, depend on home heating oil to heat their homes and the price of this energy source has increased the most;

— two-thirds of households in the West and North West rely on home heating oil to heat their homes, which has doubled in price in the last year alone; and

— some four per cent of households depend on peat as the main energy source to heat their homes, rising to nine per cent of rural households and to one in five households in the Midlands;
acknowledges the need for ambitious climate action that is fair and socially just;

condemns:
— the failure by the Government to take any action whatsoever to tackle the rising cost of home heating oil and the recent proposals announced to ban the sale of turf, at a time when alternative heating options are either unaffordable or unavailable and while in the midst of an energy crisis people are going cold in their homes;

— the determination of the Government to make home heating even more expensive for householders by increasing the carbon tax again on 1st May; and

— that there has been no energy poverty strategy since 2019; and

calls on the Government to:

— scrap plans to ban the sale of turf from September 2022;

— cancel the carbon tax increase due to commence on 1st May; and

— temporarily remove excise duty on home heating oil.

In the teeth of one of the greatest energy crises many of us have seen in our lifetimes, when households are choosing between heating and eating, when energy providers, one after the other, are increasing their prices and when inflation is at record levels - at a 20-year high with more increases on the way - only in this Government could a Minister and a Department be looking in the background at taking away what is for some the only source of heating for their homes. It is pulling the rug from under people without providing alternatives. The greatest frustration in all of this is that once again the Government has been doing things back to front, taking away what is there and leaving people with nothing. This is what the latest proposal seeks to do.

In recent days, I have heard the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Ryan, hitting out at misinformation and disinformation on his proposals on the sale of turf. We had a reply to a parliamentary question on 5 April which stated categorically that a regulatory provision will be made to prohibit the placing on the market for sale or distribution of sod peat. The reply went on to state that persons with turbary rights will not be permitted to place turf on the market for sale or distribution to others. There was no mention of a draft. There was no mention of any consultation. It was a factual statement that this was happening from 1 September, a matter of months away. This was clearly the Minister's intention. The Tánaiste was quick to say the ban was paused. The Minister was quick to say the ban was not paused and the plan would proceed. The Minister then went on to say, and it was almost as if he were trying to be funny, that he would not be putting grannies in prison for cutting turf. I was not sure what that was about.

The latest is a proposed exemption for communities with populations of 500. It is another completely unworkable suggestion. If the Government and the Minister, Deputy Ryan, want to speak about misinformation and disinformation they should look at themselves first and foremost. It is the Government and the Minister in particular that have caused all of this. They have caused worry and stress, particularly among older people in rural communities who do not know whether they are coming or going with regard to turf. Many who buy turf do so by the bag because they cannot afford to buy any more. Others who cut turf previously and had turbary rights are physically no longer able to save turf and, therefore, they buy it. I am not sure how it would be possible to look at exemptions for certain populations. Would it even be overseen or policed? It is absolutely unworkable.

I notice a change in language in the amendment to the motion tabled by the Government. It has changed it to refer to a regulation to prohibit the sale of sod peat in larger agglomerations. I do not even know what that means. Turf is not sold on a wide scale. It is not a big enterprise. It is not happening. Who are these proposals aimed at? We need absolute clarity this evening. This is why the debate is so important for people in rural communities who do not know what is happening. I do not think "agglomerations" will help the situation. It now looks like the Minister is framing proposals to deal with a situation that does not exist in the first instance. People selling turf are doing so on a small scale for people who need it. They are the only ones using turf today. They are using it because they have no alternative and they rely on it.

The cost of home heating oil is an issue we have raised repeatedly. The Government has done nothing on reducing the cost of home heating oil. This is something that has not been, and is not being, addressed. In fact, the Government will increase the cost on Sunday when it will increase the carbon tax. Much has been made of the idea that the Government is offsetting the cost of the carbon tax. It is simply giving with one hand and taking with the other but this will not help people. We have heard a lot in recent weeks about fuel poverty. We do not know the number of people and households living in fuel poverty. How do we address it? According to ALONE, the organisation for older people, we know that approximately 3,000 people die in Ireland every year due to fuel poverty. They die because they are cold in their homes. That is absolutely incredible in 2022. We know there has been no energy poverty strategy since 2019. We know there was a commitment to establish an energy poverty advisory group. This was recommended in 2016. It has not come to pass.

Photo of Darren O'RourkeDarren O'Rourke (Meath East, Sinn Fein)
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The initial attempt by the Minister, Deputy Ryan, on the issue of turf was as poorly delivered as it was designed. His latest attempt is premature, daft, unworkable and senseless. These are words from his Government colleagues. I will not repeat what colleagues on this side of the House have said but the sentiment is the same. Those same Government colleagues will have the chance to act on their words when we vote on the motion tomorrow evening.

The Government's handling of this matter has been reduced to a farce. It is another example of mismanagement from this out-of-touch Minister and out-of-touch Government. There is a failure to prepare, meaningfully engage and identify and support those who might be adversely or worst affected. There is a failure to imagine, never mind deliver, a just transition. It reads like a joke but it is a most serious matter.

We need to move away from burning dirty fossil fuels. The question is how to do so. It has to be managed in the right way. The Government will say air pollution needs to be tackled, and I agree, but if it is the case that the Government has such concern about air quality, air pollution and public health, I might ask why it is so committed to the Energy Charter Treaty, which bestows such protection on the fossil fuel industry and its potentially stranded assets. It is part of the reason we are here. It is because coal providers have rights.

If it is the case that the Government has such a concern about air quality, air pollution and public health, I might ask why, three weeks ago, Indaver Ireland was granted a licence under Government policy to increase the amount of waste it receives at its incinerator in Carranstown in my constituency to 280,000 tonnes per year. This is an increase of 45,000 tonnes per annum, of which 15,000 tonnes will be hazardous waste. What does the Government think this does to air quality? I can make a similar case about the landfill at Knockharley, which is also in my constituency. It was also granted permission under the policy of the Government for a massive, almost fivefold expansion to accept hazardous and non-hazardous waste. If we want to talk about air quality, air pollution and public health, let us have a real conversation.

With regard to this proposal, public health is central but when it comes to public health nothing is worse for health than poverty. People are not protected from poverty if they live somewhere with a population of more than 500 people. To state it explicitly, the Government's proposal will drive people into poverty. It does not have to do so but it will because once again the Government has announced a scheme that fails to support those who need to be supported. It is failing once again to deliver a just transition.

The Government can speak about the environmental need to make this move, and I agree there is such a need. It can speak about the public health need for such a move, and I agree there is such a need. However, in making this move the Government must consider the impact it has on household incomes and people living in or at risk of fuel poverty. Inequity has been a feature of every climate move this Minister and Government take.

It is a damning indictment and insight into the Government's lack of commitment to a fair and just transition that the Minister cannot answer basic questions such as how many people are dependent on turf and where they live. How many of those people live in poorly insulated homes and are on fuel allowance or are otherwise eligible for retrofitting support? How can we support those people as a matter of priority? How many are not eligible and how can we support them as a matter of priority?

The Government's failure is best exemplified in the case of thousands of low-income households living in G-rated homes struggling to make ends meet which are dependent on turf to heat the building. These people are just getting by and there is absolutely nothing but pain for them in this proposal. The Government has no answer or support for them. They will not get a 100% grant for retrofitting because they are not eligible, even if such people could wait for two years. They will not get an 80% grant support for retrofit because they have no disposable income to make up the balance. Let us not talk about the €25,000 upfront cost of a deep retrofit.

The Minister and the Government must go back to the drawing board. I call on Deputies across the House to support this Sinn Féin motion.

6:45 pm

Photo of Sorca ClarkeSorca Clarke (Longford-Westmeath, Sinn Fein)
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It has been a while since I have seen a level of financial hardship so evident, one that is crippling, gnawing at and creating real fear in my constituents. I urge the Minister to listen to what these people in Longford and Westmeath are saying. They are worried and scared. These are people who could already tell us the price to the cent of every item they put into their shopping trolley because of spiralling levels of inflation. They have watched helplessly as prices have continued to rise, putting some of the most basic items beyond their reach.

We are now rapidly approaching a position where the price of home heating oil is beyond the reach of ordinary working families. I cannot be the only person who has seen the return of the drum of kerosene. People no longer look to fill or half-fill their tank but have to fill a drum, and this might get them two or maybe three days of heat for the week. The Government is seeking to ban the use of turf, the only form of heating for so many people in my constituency, and that is wrong. On top of what I have already spoken about, the measure is grossly unfair, unrealistic and, to be frank, devoid of any level of common sense where there are simply no other options.

This morning I heard the Taoiseach speak of the coal industry being the villain, with smoky coal being the target rather than turf. He would want to have a good long chat with his Cabinet colleagues and a similar good long chat with his Government's backbenchers. They are beside themselves running around their constituencies saying one thing before coming here to vote for something else.

I heard a Government representative on the radio this morning talk about a public consultation, reaching out, black markets for turf and wanting people to working together. There are people in my constituency with no other option but to burn turf. They hear very loudly and clearly from the Government that there will be no turf or heat for them. They hear that this Government is committing to compounding that fear and worry. The utter lack of clarity is creating chaos. For those people, this truly will be a winter of discontent without the support they so desperately need.

Photo of Brian StanleyBrian Stanley (Laois-Offaly, Sinn Fein)
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I welcome the opportunity to speak to the motion. The Government's proposed ban is the wrong measure at the worst time. We must introduce climate action measures that are workable, affordable and bring communities with us rather than alienating and punishing people. This is not a just transition. This measure will affect the entire country but it will hit Laois-Offaly hardest. More than a quarter of people in the constituency have no alternative to solid fuel, which in many cases is turf. They cannot afford retrofits to their home because they would have to put up €30,000 for it. Even if they could, there is a waiting list of over two years for that scheme, and the Minister and I know that will only continue to grow.

The number of people cutting turf continues to reduce. I used to cut turf and my previous house depended solely on turf as a fuel. I do not depend on it for fuel in my current house but many people still live in houses that do. In my previous house, the cooking, central heating and heating of domestic water was done using turf as a fuel. There was no other way of doing it.

The numbers of people cutting turf are reducing and that should happen in conjunction with the provision of practical and affordable alternatives. New homes being built are not dependent on solid fuel and homes in the midlands are being retrofitted but the process is slow and will take time. The Minister knows the reasons, which include labour, money, etc.

The problem right now is that families are being prohibited from using the only source of fuel they have and the Government's proposed ban, which apparently will not apply to communities with fewer than 500 people, is not practical. For example, there is no piped gas in many towns across Laois-Offaly, including Mountrath and Mountmellick. What should people do there? I could name 30 other towns in the same position but I do not have the time. What are the people in those towns supposed to do?

The Green Party continues to conflate, possibly deliberately, the smoky coal ban and turf. We are seeing briquettes with a high carbon footprint being transported from eastern Europe with much more environmental damage caused while we ban very limited local turf cutting. This turf-cutting ban will harm ordinary families with no alternative. We are calling for this ban to be scrapped. The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform should halt the planned increase in carbon tax planned for this Sunday. He should also remove excise duty from home heating oil.

There are people who pretend to stand up for rural Ireland who may be critical of our proposal but yet again they have failed to bring any proposal of their own to the floor of the Dáil. They stand for everything and nothing, except their own self-interest. We are making a proposal to give people the space to have a just transition and ensure rural communities can be protected.

Photo of Patricia RyanPatricia Ryan (Kildare South, Sinn Fein)
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I commend my colleagues on bringing this motion before the House. I cannot believe I must stand here to try to convince the Government to help people in dire straits. I cannot believe I must explain the hardship that people are living through. I certainly cannot believe, and I will not believe, that the Deputies sitting opposite in the Chamber are unaware of what is happening outside this building. Perhaps the people coming to their offices are not suffering or perhaps they do not know who comes to their office door. I do not believe that either, to be fair.

In the past three weeks, I have had elderly people in my office who cannot afford to buy heating oil so they go to bed once the evening gets cold. I have had parents who had to choose whether to heat or eat; they do without dinner so their children can be fed and warm. I have had people who own older homes and hoped to retrofit as they are terrified they will not be able to heat those homes next winter but they cannot afford the retrofit process. The grants do not come close to covering that cost.

The Minister does not have to take my word for this. Social Justice Ireland, One Family Ireland and Age Action Ireland have been warning the Government about this for months. In rural Ireland there are thousands of people depending on turf and oil as they try to heat their homes. The majority of these people are not in a position to retrofit their homes so to tax them further and offer no other resource or to threaten to criminalise selling a bag of turf is not only cruel but absolutely insane.

We all agree action must be taken against climate change. We all know we are running out of time. This, however, is not the way to do it. Today on "Morning Ireland", Senator Pippa Hackett referred to the "black market" of turf sales. I really wonder what planet she and her colleagues are living on. Have we ever heard the likes of a black market for turf sales? Using this language causes fear and solves nothing. Our constituents need our help in a very difficult time and they do not need to be bullied or reprimanded around turf sales.

I ask the Government to support this motion. In particular, I ask rural Deputies for their support because they know the reality faced by their constituents. I will hold to account the Deputies in south Kildare when I see what they do.

Photo of Johnny GuirkeJohnny Guirke (Meath West, Sinn Fein)
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I thank my colleagues for bringing this motion before the House. People in my constituency of Meath West and right across the country are really struggling now with the cost of living. They believe they are getting very little help from the Government. The rising costs for families are evident every week, with the price of diesel up 46%, the price of petrol up 35%, the price of electricity up 22.5%, the price of gas up 28% and the price of home heating oil up a massive 126.6% in the past year. The price of solid fuels has increased over 20% in the past year.

All this means is that older people are staying in bed for most of the day, as it is the only way they can stay warm. Others are choosing between heat, food and paying the rent or the mortgage and families are going to work struggling to put petrol or diesel in the car. These are real people. The only thing staying the same is people's income. This Government needs to act now. Does the Government realise the seriousness of the situation? Does it care enough? There is huge financial pressure on those who can least afford it. I have never seen it as bad. That is why we, in Sinn Féin, are calling on this Government to remove excise duty from home heating oil, to cancel the carbon tax increase which will increase the cost of gas and home heating oil from next Sunday and to scrap plans to ban the sale of turf from September. Turf is the only form of heating that has not increased in price in the last 12 months. It is mainly the well-off who cause most emissions and who are best placed to do something about it, yet most Government policies seem to penalise the poor, like those on burning turf. The importation of briquettes and peat from mainland Europe should be of greater environmental concern than stopping one neighbour from selling turf to another in a cost of living crisis. In a lot of cases, we are talking about older people who are not able to rear the turf themselves and rely on their neighbours to cut it, rear it and sell it to them. What alternatives are there for these people? They do not have money to retrofit their homes. They need 100% grants and even then it will take years. While Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael might like to blame the proposed ban on the sale of turf on the Greens when in their own rural constituencies, the fact is that without the support of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, the Greens cannot bring in this ban on the sale of turf. Rural Ireland is watching which way they will be voting on this.

6:55 pm

Photo of Michael McGrathMichael McGrath (Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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I move amendment No. 2:

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

— the annual rate of consumer price inflation, as measured by the European Union's (EU) Harmonised Index of Consumer Prices, picked up sharply over the course of last year, and stood at 6.9 per cent in March - the highest reading since the series began in 1997;

— the key driver of this increase is increases in wholesale energy prices as a result of the rapid rebound in global demand, and more recently, the war in Ukraine;

— price spikes have also been seen for a range of other commodities, including fertilisers, metals and food;

— global supply chain disruptions and the imbalance between demand and supply that emerged as the economy re-opened have also added to inflationary pressures;

— 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 being experienced in the cost of fuel internationally, and Ireland imports over 70 per cent of the energy we use, compared to an EU total of almost 60 per cent;

— recent measures taken by the Government are targeted to mitigate cost of living increases, and increased fuel and energy prices in particular;

— 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, and specifically, there was an increase in the weekly rate of the Fuel Allowance by €5 to €33 a week so that €914 was paid to eligible households over the course of the winter and an additional lump-sum payment of €125 was paid to the 370,000 households receiving the Fuel Allowance in mid-March 2022, with a further €100 again to be paid in April;

— from April all residential electricity customers will see the Electricity Costs Emergency Benefit Payment of €200 (including Value Added Tax (VAT)) credited to their accounts, and this measure is expected to cost circa €400 million;

— the National Retrofit Scheme includes specific measures to support householders in taking actions to reduce energy bills, including up to 80 per cent grant funding for low-cost, high-impact measures such as attic insulation;

— 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 (MGO) by 20, 15 and 2 cent per litre respectively, and these measures are being extended to 12th October, 2022, with an additional 3 cent reduction for MGO;

— there is an €18 million package of emergency support measures for licenced hauliers to address cost pressures arising from current high fuel prices;

— VAT will be reduced from 13.5 per cent to 9 per cent on gas and electricity bills from the start of May until the end of October, and there will also be a reduction in the Public Service Obligation (PSO) levy to zero by October 2022;

— in this context changes to carbon tax rates are having a relatively small impact on current energy prices, with the Budget 2022 carbon tax increase, which came into effect in October last year, adding approximately 2 cents per litre in tax to petrol and diesel; and

— the increase in rates for home heating fuels such as kerosene, gas, and solid fuels was delayed until 1st May, 2022, to mitigate against impacts during the winter heating season, and the May, 2022, increase will add approximately €21.56 to a 1,000-litre fill of kerosene and 20 cents (VAT inclusive) to a 12.5 kilogrambale of briquettes; and

recognises that:

— carbon tax is a key pillar underpinning the Government's Climate Action Plan 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 carbon dioxide (CO2) by 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;

— previous analysis undertaken using SWITCH, the Economic & Social Research Institute 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;

— 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;

— furthermore, recent analysis undertaken by the Department of Finance using SWITCH has confirmed that the suite of recently announced measures more than offset the carbon tax increases for all income deciles, with the following measures being included in the analysis:
— the lump-sum increase in the Fuel Allowance of €100;

— a cut in the VAT rate on Gas and Electricity from 13.5 to 9 per cent;

— a reduction in the PSO levy of €58.57 annually; and

— an extension of the cut in excise duty of 15 cent for diesel and 20 cent for petrol from 31st August, 2022, to the Budget Day in October;
— overall, in net terms, all households see increases in disposable income, with lower income households seeing the greatest proportional gains, reflecting the progressive nature of the measures;

— the Government has very little flexibility on kerosene from a VAT perspective because it is subject to a VAT rate of 13.5 per cent, which is provided for by way of an historical derogation that allows Ireland to maintain reduced rates to certain supplies under Article 118 of the VAT Directive known as parked rates and cannot go below 12 per cent, and were the Government to reduce kerosene to 12 per cent the saving would be very small, but there would be a considerable additional cost to the Exchequer (€216 million to the end of October) because all other areas currently subject to the 13.5 per cent rate to this level would also have to be reduced to 12 per cent, as we are only allowed have two reduced VAT rates under EU law, accounting for about 25 per cent of economic activity and, as well as fuel used for heat and light, also include construction, housing, labour intensive services and general repairs and maintenance;

— each year, some 1,300 people die prematurely in Ireland due to air pollution from solid fuel burning, and it is estimated that there are over 16,200 life years lost, while many people also experience a poor quality of life due to the associated short-term and long-term health impacts of this form of pollution;

— turf cutting by citizens for use in their own homes is a traditional activity across many peatlands, but measures are required to reduce the emissions associated with burning peat, while respecting these traditions, and no ban on the burning of peat is being proposed, but a regulatory provision will be made to prohibit the sale of sod peat in larger agglomerations while allowing the traditional sale in rural areas; and

— final regulations will be agreed by the Government in the coming weeks which will ensure that, while measures are introduced to enhance air quality, they will not impinge upon traditional local practices associated with sod peat, including localised rural trading and the sharing of turf with family members and neighbours, and this approach will facilitate rural communities to continue to cut and burn sod peat for their own domestic purposes, while also reducing the use of sod peat in urban areas.
On behalf of the Minister for Finance, I welcome the opportunity to respond to the Sinn Féin Private Members' motion on the rising cost of home heating fuels and in particular its view that the 1 May carbon tax increase should be cancelled and that the excise duty on home heating oil should be temporarily removed. I will also address the proposed new regulations relating to solid fuels.

At the outset, I wish to state that I am happy to move the Government amendment to the motion. The Government fully recognises the seriousness of the current inflationary crisis in the fuel sector and the impact that this is having on broader society. However, the causes of the spiralling increases in fuel costs are beyond the control of Government. Therefore, it is not possible, as Sinn Féin has acknowledged in its motion, to insulate fully all households from every price increase.

We are living in unprecedented times. The global and extreme nature of this crisis is not something anybody could have envisaged a few months ago. The energy market is experiencing a perfect storm of global supply chain disruptions and the ongoing war in Ukraine. It is these issues that are driving the current rise in prices and not, as some would have us believe, the tax on energy products. Ireland's taxation of fuel is based on EU law, as set out in the energy tax directive, ETC. This directive 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. Kerosene for home heating has a non-carbon component rate of zero. The carbon component is currently €84.84 per 1,000 l.

Deputies will be aware that the programme for Government committed to increasing the amount that is charged per tonne of CO2emissions from fuels to €100 by 2030. This measure is a key pillar of the Government's climate action plan to halve emissions by 2030 and reach net zero no later than 2050. Deputies will also be aware 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 run, will reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. It is also important to note that the Government has very little flexibility on kerosene from a VAT perspective. This is because it is subject to a VAT rate of 13.5%, which is provided for by way of a historical derogation that allows us to maintain reduced rates to certain supplies under Article 118 of the VAT directive. These are known as parked rates and cannot go below 12%. If the Government were to reduce VAT on kerosene to 12%, the saving would be very small, at €20 per 1000 l, but there would be a considerable additional cost to the Exchequer. This is because we would also have to reduce all other areas currently subject to the 13.5% rate to this level, as we are only allowed have two reduced VAT rates under EU law. As the 13.5% rate currently applies to about 25% of all economic activity and, as well as fuel used for heat and light, also includes construction, housing, labour-intensive services and general repairs and maintenance, it would cost in the region of €216 million to the end of October.

While price trends are driven primarily by global factors, the Government made the decision to alleviate some of these impacts through the domestic taxation of fuel and other measures. Last month, the Government reduced excise duty 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, or green diesel. These measures were VAT-inclusive and set to last until 31 August 2022. This was estimated to cost €320 million. Last week, it was announced that these measures would be extended until 11 October 2022. The Minister for Finance is also providing for a further reduction in the excise rate on marked gas oil which amounts to a VAT inclusive reduction of 3 cent, effective from 1 May until 11 October. The excise reduction extension and the further reduction in the rate applied to marked gas oil will cost an estimated additional €97 million. From 1May, and effective until 31October, we are also providing for a reduction in the rate of VAT on the supply of gas and electricity from 13.5% to 9%, resulting in estimated annual savings of €49 on gas and €69 on electricity bills for households. This will more than offset the 1 May increase in carbon tax, and will cost an estimated €46 million. The combined impact of the fuel tax reductions alone is over €460 million. These measures come in addition to the measures in budget 2022 and the February package of measures to alleviate the impact of the increased cost of living that households are undoubtedly experiencing at this time.

Budget 2022 included a personal income tax package worth €520 million for this year, alongside a social welfare package of over €550 million, whilst the February additional package of measures made changes to the value of over €500 million that included an increase in the energy credit to €200 including VAT, estimated to impact just over 2 million households; a lump sum payment of €125 on the fuel allowance which was paid in early March to almost 400,000 households, and an additional €100 payment announced in April; a temporary reduction in fares of 20% from the end of April to the end of the year to reduce the burden on people returning to the workplace and people using public transport, which will impact approximately 800,000 daily users; and a further reduction of the drug payment scheme threshold to €80, which goes beyond what is proposed in Sláintecare and will benefit just over 70,000 families. The working family payment budget increase announced on budget day has been brought forward from 1 June to 1 April. Other measures have included reduced caps for multiple children on school transport fees to €500 per family post primary and €150 for primary school children, and a reduction in the public service obligation levy to zero by October 2022. Earlier today, the Government agreed to the abolition of public inpatient charges for children.

The evidence confirms that the measures taken by the Government to date are progressive. Recent analysis undertaken by the Department of Finance, using the SWITCH model, has confirmed that the suite of recently announced measures more than offsets the carbon tax increases for all income deciles. In addition, the Government continues to drive public investment in energy efficiency, with an overall investment of €267 million this year, €118 million of which is allocated to making homes of those most at risk of energy poverty, warmer, healthier and cheaper to heat. We acknowledge the waiting list and the need to make further progress in reducing that backlog as quickly as we possibly can.

In response to increasing energy costs, new grant rates have been introduced that will cover approximately 80% of the typical cost of attic and wall insulation. These are very cost-effective upgrade measures that can be deployed rapidly and at scale this year. The typical cost savings from cavity wall insulation are €300 per year on a home heating bill. Cumulatively, the Government has spent approximately €2 billion to date on additional cost of living and welfare supports from budget 2022 to the present.

The programme for Government commits to introducing new restrictions on solid fuel so the environmental and health benefits that have already been brought to our cities and towns under the current low smoke zones can reach every part of the country. This is because, each year, some 1,300 people die prematurely in Ireland due to air pollution from solid fuel burning. It is estimated there are over 16,200 life years lost, while many people also experience a poor quality of life due to the associated short-term and long-term health impacts of this form of pollution.

The Government recognises that turf cutting by citizens for use in their own homes is a traditional activity across many peatlands. A balance must be struck between the need to reduce emissions and improve air quality, on the one hand, and respecting these traditions, on the other. It is important to note that no ban on the burning of peat is being proposed but, instead, as the amendment states, a regulatory provision will be made to prohibit the sale of sod peat in larger agglomerations while allowing the traditional sale in rural areas to continue. I understand that final regulations will be agreed by Government in the coming weeks that will ensure that while measures are introduced to enhance air quality, they will not impinge upon traditional local practices associated with sod peat, including localised rural trading and the sharing of turf with family members and neighbours. This approach will facilitate rural communities to continue to cut and burn sod peat for their own domestic purposes while also reducing the use of sod peat in urban areas.

In conclusion, the Government is deeply conscious of the negative impact that the rapid rise in consumer prices is having on society. Everybody in this House is aware that the reason for this significant inflationary pattern is because of matters completely outside the control of this Government but we have responded in the way I have outlined. Therefore, I ask the House to support the amendment the Government has put forward.

7:05 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I call Deputy Carthy, who is sharing time with Deputies Funchion and Conway-Walsh.

Photo of Matt CarthyMatt Carthy (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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For the purposes of clarification, let me be clear that Sinn Féin supports measures that protect public health. We support measures that protect our environment and deliver climate action. Where we differ from the Government is that we insist that such measures are fair, workable and credible, concepts that are alien to this coalition. In fact, at the heart of this Government's approach is an inherent unfairness.

We now have an all too predictable cycle. Someone in the Government, usually the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, decides that the way to address a problem is by making the lives of ordinary people more difficult and then, when the Opposition points to the fact that such a move is counter-productive, we are accused of being populist. All the while, we have Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael Deputies, as we have seen in the past week over the turf issue, running around their constituencies crying that they themselves are opposed to the moves, as if they were detached from the fact that it is only through their consent that the Government can proceed. When those same Deputies have an opportunity to make a stand, like tonight, they run for cover.

It is like a wilderness across the floor of the Chamber. They are nowhere to be found, avoiding the debate before they meekly return to the Chamber to cast their vote and then quickly scurry back to their constituencies in the hope their voters do not notice the duplicity. Where are the backbenchers tonight who have been telling us and their constituents that they support everything in the Sinn Féin motion? Where are those Ministers who were conveniently leaking that they were passionate and forceful on this issue at Cabinet? Where is the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, tonight? He told me in a radio debate on Sunday that he was looking forward to this debate. What happened since? Maybe we can get clarification on that.

The motion is essentially about people being able to heat their own homes. Some, and it is a small minority, burn turf. All of the evidence shows that that minority is getting smaller because people move from turf when they have a credible, affordable alternative. However, as usual, rather than ensure that people have that alternative, those in the Government see fit to give them a kicking. They demonise those who have a different life than they do and they insinuate that those who use turf are responsible for public health issues for which they are not culpable, in the same way that they blame those who have no option but to drive to work for climate change while turning a blind eye to the multinational corporations that are actually responsible for the bulk of emissions. How ironic that during the period when Government Ministers have been at sixes and sevens on whether families can heat their homes with a turf fire, approval was granted to yet another data centre that will actually use about the same amount of electricity as entire counties. Of course, they voted against a moratorium on data centres when they had the chance because every time a proposition comes before this House that would make a positive climate impact but would face up to corporate interests, the Government shirks away. Yet, time and again it is willing to stick the boot into ordinary workers and families who have no alternatives and through punitive actions - this is crucial - undermine public support for climate action and public health measures.

For those who use turf to heat their homes, in the vast majority of cases the only available alternative is to use their home heating oil central heating but the cost of home heating oil has more than doubled in the last year. The Government, despite all of the rhetoric from the Minister, has not done a tap, not a single thing, to help ease the burden in regard to home heating oil. What does it intend to do now? It plans to increase the cost of home heating oil next week. If there was a semblance of fact around Government assertions that the turf ban is about public health, what it would actually be doing, rather than increasing home heating oil costs further, is supporting this motion and removing excise duty entirely during this cost of living emergency.

This is a comprehensive motion before the Dáil. In a nutshell, it calls for the Government to scrap plans to ban the sale of turf, to cancel the carbon tax increase due next week and to remove excise duty temporarily on home heating oil. I was hoping to use this opportunity to plead with the Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael backbenchers but they are not here. I do not know if they are in their offices rather than the Dáil bar but if they are listening, let me say this: if they want to make a genuine stand for their constituents, for those hard-pressed workers and families who have been squeezed to the absolute maximum, then they will come in here and reject the pathetic amendment the Government has put forward and support in full and with enthusiasm the Sinn Féin motion, rather than random leaks to journalists and a pretence that somehow they are on the side of the ordinary people who have borne the brunt of this Government's mismanagement.

Photo of Kathleen FunchionKathleen Funchion (Carlow-Kilkenny, Sinn Fein)
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I welcome the opportunity to speak. I recently undertook a cost of childcare survey, with parents sharing their experiences. I raise that because I was somewhat taken aback when talking about that topic by how many people responded to talk about how much they are struggling in general with the cost of living and, in particular, they referenced the area of trying to meet the rising cost of home heating fuels. It is very difficult. We have had several debates in this Chamber in regard to the increased costs but it is genuinely very difficult for many families and individuals, and sometimes the individuals get lost in that argument.

Perhaps many people will not associate turf cutting with the constituency of Carlow-Kilkenny. However, just like every other constituency, people in this area are outraged at this stage in regard to the response and the attitude coming from the Government, in particular, as has been referenced, the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan. It is very difficult to know what exactly is going on. First, turf cutting is out, then it is in, but only in certain circumstances. It is very difficult to know exactly what is the position. Other colleagues have referenced the irony and hypocrisy of having briquettes come in from Germany, Latvia and other areas when people are being penalised for burning turf.

What we need is a situation where there are credible alternatives that people can afford. Nobody is against retrofitting their home or changing to the more modern heating systems that we see in some of the new builds, such as air to water systems and so on. People welcome that and they would love to be able to do that in their homes but, unfortunately, it is totally unaffordable for them. There are already huge waiting lists attached to some of the schemes in operation and the grants do not go far enough for people, even in terms of windows, doors and those basic things that people want to replace.

That is really where the focus needs to be rather than on this constant penalisation. That will not work. Deputy Carthy made a point about people having driving to work. We need to promote and fund credible alternatives but the crucial part is that it needs to be affordable for people. People will change. They want to change but it needs to be affordable.

7:15 pm

Photo of Rose Conway-WalshRose Conway-Walsh (Mayo, Sinn Fein)
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The Minister knows this is wrong. He knows it is the wrong thing to do and so do his fellow Deputies and Ministers. It is disgraceful they have left the Minister on his own in here this evening and have not even come in. They and councillors have taken to the airwaves throughout country, trying to detach themselves from this. It speaks to the absolute chaos in Government. In terms of going back to constituencies and to people in rural Ireland saying it was the Greens who made us do it, they need to grow up and own this.

The Minister, Deputy Ryan, has said he will change it, and you can see him backtracking. People in rural Ireland do not trust the Green Party, Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael and they have very good reason not to. People in rural Ireland have done more to address climate change than anybody else. They have done that through natural heritage area, NHAs, special protection areas, SPAs, special areas of conservation, SACs, and leaving their land as a public good. They were promised for years they would be compensated for that. They know Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party have turned their back on them, and the Minister knows it.

The Minister is now telling rural people to trust the Government and that it will only do it for the towns with more than 500 people. It just does not wash. It is disgraceful to think we are here in this day and age and are saying to people who are absolutely put to the pin of their collar that they can no longer cut turf or buy bags of turf when they need it most. Who will police all of this? It is the National Parks and Wildlife Service, our new landlords in rural Ireland.

The Government has lost rural Ireland, rural voters and rural dwellers. This is just another nail in the coffin. People are more than willing to address climate change and to play their part, but telling them in this day and age that they cannot cut turf is beyond belief. The Government parties' councillors and Deputies know it. They need to own it and stop hiding behind the skirt tails of the Minister, Deputy Ryan.

Photo of Ivana BacikIvana Bacik (Dublin Bay South, Labour)
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We know the spike in the cost of living is hurting households throughout Ireland as inflation has surged to a 22-year high of 6.7% and looks set to continue its increase. We see the cost of fuel, food, housing and basic services is now out of control. Everyone is feeling the pinch, most of all those who are already struggling to make ends meet. The horrendous war in Ukraine has undoubtedly added to this crisis, but many of the reasons underlying this spike are structural in nature, and measures such as the untargeted €200 energy stipend the Government provided for earlier this year are not the answer.

We say the Government response to the cost-of-living crisis simply does not go far enough, but we also believe the measures proposed by Sinn Féin in this motion are not the answer either, and I will set out why. Instead, we in the Labour Party believe Ireland needs a pay rise. What does that mean? It means ensuring we can put money back in the pockets of those who need it most, that people's incomes will go further, and the pay they are currently getting will be able to keep up with the necessary expenditure they have. It means implementing an effective universal pay rise and increasing the minimum wage but also targeting the enormous costs now faced now by so many households, such as costs of education, childcare, housing, health and transport. Ireland needs a pay rise because all of us meet people every day whose income is simply no longer enough to keep up with the rising price of commodities and the basic services that they need. We all hear from constituents living in genuine fear that they will not be able to continue to keep their homes, heat their homes or put food on the table. We need a co-ordinated response to this.

Addressing the cost-of-living crisis means taking progressive measures to make people's pay go further and adding value, not undermining important investments in our future, such as in the area of climate action. We know what is at stake. We have all heard the chilling prognosis of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC, and we know the solutions to the existential threat of the climate emergency are available to us. Our task as legislators is to implement them and to do so without delay.

I want to speak specifically about the Government plans on the sale of turf and peat. This has not been handled well by Government. We have seen endless mixing of messages, confusion and lack of clarity. As the Minister has said, the final regulations have still not been agreed by Government. We are debating today in a vacuum. Indeed, a debate is going on in the public domain in a vacuum because we have not seen what is to be in the detail of the regulations. It is welcome to hear that a fair balance will be struck to ensure the rights of those who are reliant on peat burning for their heating on a small scale will be met. The Minister has pointed out that a balance will be struck between the need to reduce emissions and improve air quality and respecting the traditional activity of citizens' turf cutting for their own use in rural areas. That fair balance would be welcome but we have not seen the detail of it. We are conscious the Government needs to do more to support people, especially those in rural Ireland who are dependent on peat for home heating.

In recent weeks, we have seen some dangerous equivocation between large-scale commercial mining and smaller domestic use. However, people's genuine fears and concerns about heating their own homes are not unfounded and our call is now to fast-track applications for retrofitting by prioritising households that are currently reliant on turf for home heating. Furthermore, we call on Government to explore the possible creation of a temporary band with a higher income threshold for accessing the fuel allowance, even at a reduced rate. This change would also widen access for households to the warmer homes scheme. Many of us hear of households that are missing out on that scheme and the fuel allowance by a mere handful of euro above the current eligibility rate. We cannot afford to maintain the status quoand we cannot afford to leave people behind. I ask that the Minister commit to fast-tracking retrofitting applications for such households.

I acknowledge the considerable importance of the issue of air pollution, and indeed the pandemic experience of the past two years has brought into sharp focus the importance of respiratory health and the need for measures to improve air quality. Nearly 20 years ago, the introduction of the smoking ban was an important health policy milestone, and we know that approximately 7,000 deaths have been prevented due to the reduction in passive smoke inhalation brought about by that progressive law. By contrast, we are still failing in our public health approach on air pollution from the burning of solid fuel. We know from estimates available to us that approximately 1,300 people die annually in Ireland due to the effects of air pollution from that burning of solid fuel. That is four people every day. The World Health Organization has described air pollution as the world's single biggest environmental risk. For public health reasons, as well as for climate reasons, we must phase out the burning of these materials.

My colleague, Deputy Kelly, began the process of introducing a nationwide ban on smoky coal in 2015. Despite subsequent attempts to make it happen from Opposition, some within Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have unfortunately resisted further measures on that policy. I am old enough to recall the days in the 1980s when you could see the pollution in the air in Dublin as a result of the burning of smoky coal. Anyone who remembers that will know the considerable improvements we have seen in our air quality as a result of progressive measures to tackle that.

However, the attempts to resist introduction of policies on air quality improvement have resulted in a sort of phony urban-rural war unfortunately being whipped up by some backbenchers in government. We need to move past this unhelpful narrative because we know that for the health of both urban and rural households and communities that we need to phase out the burning of smoky coal, peat and wood that has not been dried properly in tandem with providing real supports for people of the sort I have outlined in terms of accelerated retrofitting and expanded access to fuel allowance. We need an all-island strategy on air pollution in recognition of the contribution made by the importation of smoky coal from Northern Ireland. I hope Sinn Féin, as well as Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, will reflect on this as we approach the assembly elections next week in the North.

On the climate emergency, I have already referenced the recent IPCC report. Those of us on the red-green left know the need for measures to tackle the climate and biodiversity emergency and drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It is why we in the Labour Party have supported, with some reservations, Government retrofitting plans and the carbon tax. It is also why we cannot support any further delay on an increase in the carbon tax.

This is the second motion Sinn Féin has tabled in two months which has sought, at a minimum, to scrap carbon tax increases. With such a focus in parliamentary activity, it is hard to escape the conclusion that Sinn Féin as a party is not serious about climate action. The evidence is clear.

Properly targeted carbon taxes can help in reducing emissions and in redistributing wealth to ensure polluters pay. Therefore, the Labour Party has called for new, targeted carbon tax credits to accompany the carbon tax, combined with targeted increases in fuel allowance eligibility and social welfare payments. Over time, the credit could be phased out as homes are retrofitted and renewable energy generation increases.

Carbon tax is clearly not the only mechanism to tackle the climate emergency - far from it - and neither is it the only reason for an increase in the cost of fuel. The same can be said for mining sod turf for commercial sale. We need other measures. We must ramp up retrofitting, promote active and sustainable transport and build our infrastructure to ensure electric vehicles are a real option for people living in more remote areas. We also need targeted financial supports for households on lower incomes, for renters living in poorly insulated homes and for people locked into dependence on unsustainable fields. Equally, we need ring-fenced carbon tax revenues to complement our investment in a just transition.

Therefore, to the drafters of this motion and to those in government seeking to undermine climate policies, a just transition does not mean delaying action until we have passed the point at which climate disaster has become irreversible. Under that model, we would see the catastrophic consequences of inaction weigh worst on those who have the least. It would be a false economy in the truest sense of the term. A just transition presents immense opportunities and it can provide for a genuine redistribution of wealth throughout the country. We are awaiting the launch of the national consultation on the national hydrogen strategy. I have called for this before. A green hydrogen strategy has the potential to enable Ireland to be a leader in decarbonising heavy industries and in addressing long-standing energy security concerns, which have been brought into sharper focus by the terrible war in Ukraine. We can be a leader in the generation and export of clean energy and create clean and decent jobs for workers. We can do this through enhancing our wind energy capacity and through our retrofitting adaptation and carbon capture policies, as well as through the green hydrogen approach.

Just as we did during the Covid-19 pandemic, we must trust the science. The mantra when we hear about climate change is that we must be honest about the nature of this crisis. A carbon tax and an end to the large-scale commercial sale of turf must form part of our national strategy to incentivise climate-friendly behaviour and to fund the necessary infrastructure to aid in the just transition I spoke about. We know polluters must pay, but that argument does not exempt us all from responsibility. Lending our voices to constructive proposals is a better use of parliamentary time than seeking to convince constituents that delaying climate action is the answer to their problems. The Dáil and Seanad are set to use three time slots this week to debate if we should do away with the albeit modest gains we have made for climate action. This would not be a good use of our time or of the platforms given to us by those who elect us. Therefore, I would prefer these opportunities for constructive debate, and I hope colleagues on both sides of the House will adopt that strategy too.

7:25 pm

Photo of Jennifer WhitmoreJennifer Whitmore (Wicklow, Social Democrats)
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I thank Sinn Féin for moving this motion. It is an important discussion and I was hoping we would get some clarity on the issue of the turf ban. Nothing but confusion has been generated in the media by Ministers and Government representatives in the past fortnight. It has fuelled fear for many people in rural Ireland regarding what is going to happen to their ability to burn peat for fuel this winter. Looking at the Minister of State’s proposed amendment, there seems to be no real clarity as to what is happening. The final regulations are still to be agreed. Therefore, I wonder what the past two weeks have been about. Ministers said there would be a ban, and then that there would be no ban, that grannies would not be arrested and people would still be able to sell turf to their neighbours and to family members. I was hoping for clarity here but, unfortunately, we have not been presented with it this evening.

I was also hoping that the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications would be here. It is important he listens to this debate, understands the impact the lack of clarity and the resulting confusion has had on people, and listens to the constructive suggestions being made by the Opposition regarding this issue. I found the past couple of weeks incredibly frustrating, and not just because much angst and worry has been caused to many vulnerable people and those struggling with the cost of fuel. I have also found it frustrating as an environmentalist because important messages on air pollution and health, carbon capture and storage, and biodiversity have all been lost in this debate. With the Green Party in government, the hope was we would see some progress towards addressing the environmental challenges we face. What I am seeing now, however, is a lack of ability to convey the message about these issues, to communicate properly with people and to listen to them. It is like death by a thousand cuts to the environmental message. I find that not only frustrating but incredibly concerning.

This aspect concerns not just the turf ban. We also saw it regarding the carbon tax. I refer not only to the Government’s inability to convey that message properly and to be honest and truthful with people about what the carbon tax was, how much was going to be taken in and where it was going to be applied. The Government also failed to protect people and to assist them to meet their climate change and energy needs in a way that could be done in balance with our environmental requirements. That has caused significant problems and has done untold damage to our ability to weather the environmental storm we are experiencing now and that we must continue to weather and address. That is unfortunate.

The fundamental issue underpinning all this is that when the Government is making decisions and developing its policies, it is not doing it in the manner of a just transition. This is the key element. I suggest that not only the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications but all Ministers making major policy decisions in this area should print out copies of the just transition principles, stick them beside their desks and look at them to see if they are ticking the boxes every time they do something. I refer to checking whether they have considered rural communities, vulnerable communities, minorities and workers. Will the measures they are taking be done in conjunction with communities and will they assist communities? This is a critical facet and it is a major failing. I would like the Government to move away from just using the words “just transition” as a catchphrase thrown into debates, conversations and media presentations. Instead, it should work to take on board the just transition principles and their meaning.

I ask that the Minister read the Just Transition (Worker and Community Environmental Rights) Bill 2021. I introduced it last year to establish a just transition commission. It is an excellent Bill, and I am not boasting on my own behalf because it based on a Bill written by Deputy Eamon Ryan in 2018. I updated that proposed measure to include just transition principles and what that would really mean. Therefore, I ask that the Minister for Finance and other Ministers read that Bill, because it is important. The definition of “just transition” is "a transition that ensures the economic, environmental and social consequences of the ecological transformation of economies and societies are managed in ways that maximise opportunities of decent work for all, reduce inequalities, promote social justice, and support industries, workers and communities negatively affected, in accordance with nationally defined priorities, and based on effective social dialogue". It is wordy, but it is important and something that must be taken on board. Ultimately, it means this Government cannot leave people behind and that those least able to take the climate action, pollution and land-use measures we need them to take are supported to do so. Those people should be listened to and supported, but this is not happening.

Taking the proposed turf ban, let us ask what we would have seen being suggested by the Government if a just transition had been applied to that policy. What would the resulting policy look like? The first thing we would have seen would have been a coherent policy. I am talking about one developed as part of a consultation process, based on data and evidence and properly communicated to people. It is clear this has not happened. This process has shown a complete lack of respect from this Government and the Minister for people living in rural communities. I refer to the fear and confusion caused.

It is not acceptable, justified or warranted. If some forethought had been put into this it could have been avoided. I note the manner in which the different Government parties are fighting on the airwaves at the moment to object. Some Fine Gael backbenchers are online at the moment talking about how this should not go ahead. That is wrong. They are part of a Government and need to show leadership in this. They need to work together. It causes confusion and creates angst for people. It is completely unnecessary.

In respect of a just transition, the measures taken need to be fair and need to make sense to people. One day this week in the Irish Independentwe had the headline "Fuel rationing on cards as public told energy efficiencies are now urgent". The next day in the same paper, we saw "data centre in Meath that will use enough energy to power the whole of Kilkenny [city]". That does not make sense at all. When the Social Democrats brought forward the motion last year for a moratorium on data centres, this is why. We knew what was coming down the road as did the Minister. Everyone knew. The Government failed to prepare and plan for it and we are now facing the results.

We need people to be helped, which means targeting those who are most vulnerable and least in a position to upgrade their homes and helping them with retrofitting. A pilot programme was developed for the midlands to do just that. In 2020 there was a proposal for 750 retrofits to be done on local authority houses in that area. As of last November, 100 had been done, with 12 in Roscommon. It is just not good enough, quick enough or deep enough. It is not going to help people. We cannot say we need people to reduce their energy use and move away from these fuels when the whole power of the State cannot retrofit more than 100 properties over the course of two years. Every time we ask these questions we are told there is Covid. Now there is the Ukraine crisis. As a witness at the climate committee told us recently, the Government does not have the luxury of dealing with one crisis at a time any more. It needs to be able to deal with multiple crises. I ask that it puts focus into doing that.

I am glad we have had this opportunity to debate matters. The Government needs to grow up when it comes to this issue and actually support people and show some leadership. It should stop the infighting. Its policies should be evidence based and properly thought out and it should stop with the kite-flying in the media. All that does is cause difficulties for people.

7:35 pm

Photo of Bríd SmithBríd Smith (Dublin South Central, People Before Profit Alliance)
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The glaring visual tonight is the absence of the Minister, Deputy Ryan. That is a big mistake on his part. Most of the measures listed in the motion are to do with the Department of the Minister, Deputy McGrath. However, the question the whole country is discussing is that of ending turf cutting. We will be talking about carbon tax again tomorrow. It is a massive issue that my party spent a lot of time studying. I have to say Deputy Bacik of the Labour Party is completely wrong on it. There is not a heap of evidence to show that carbon tax is the right thing to do or that it alleviates the climate disaster - quite the opposite.

I hope Sinn Féin will accept the People Before Profit amendment to the motion in the spirit in which we are trying to address this issue. It is entirely possible for two different things to be true at the same time. That might come as a surprise to some Deputies. It might surprise climate deniers and it might even surprise the Minister. We have a global climate catastrophe on our hands yet some people need to continue to use fossil fuels to survive in their homes and to move around. Both things are true at the same time. It is absolutely true the climate crisis is worsening. This week we are likely to see record temperatures in the Indian continent that will kill thousands of people. Records elsewhere will be broken and in some cities and regions temperatures will exceed the ability of human habitability. It is true that this year again will be among the warmest on record and floods, droughts and storms will destroy lives, crops and biodiversity. It is also true that any policy we take to deal with this can either address the systemic nature of the causes of climate change or not. It can hinder rather than aid the fight against climate change.

The Minister must bear with me because this is important to say. We need to stop burning turf. It is more carbon dioxide intensive than coal or oil. It is a potential pollutant in the air. However, if we examined the areas in which deaths happen from poor air quality, they are more likely to happen in bigger cities where traffic is severely congested and air quality is extremely compromised. I represent Dublin South-Central, which is consistently reported in Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, findings as having the worst air quality in the country. I represent many older and vulnerable people in that constituency who have chronic respiratory conditions and cannot even access SEAI grants or other State helps. By and large they do not burn turf but they are subject to the burning of some illegal fuels and mostly to traffic congestion. Nevertheless we will add turf to the list of things we have to move away from burning and extracting wholesale.

We also need to stop driving petrol and diesel cars. We need to stop burning gas to heat homes. We need to stop building data centres that consume vast quantities of water and energy. What is the point of banning turf cutting and then facilitating the building of liquified natural gas terminals throughout the country? We need to do all of this urgently and immediately. How we do it is not just a question of tactics. How we do it will determine if we can succeed in stopping a climate catastrophe and reducing emissions. We will debate the carbon tax tomorrow. I see the Government's turf policy is very much in the same category: an emphasis on personal, individual behaviour while ignoring the systemic causes that drive emissions up.

I reject utterly the idea that turf burning is a cultural or uniquely Irish thing which must not be upset or challenged. That is nonsense. If we were to call out what is behind that idea, it is straightforward climate denial. It is no accident that the Deputies who have consistently denied the facts of climate change resort to this mystical cultural argument to defend the continued burning of turf. We could argue that coal is as much a cultural aspect of the lives of people in Poland, Germany or Spain. It is a building block of much of Britain. It is the foundation of the trade union movement not just in Britain but for working-class organisations across the globe. Does that mean those regions get a free pass to continue burning it? No, it does not.

How we stop using or burning turf is critical. If by September the State cannot show the households relying on turf a scheme that will fully compensate them financially and another scheme that will ensure their homes do not freeze and are fully retrofitted to the highest degree in readiness for that change, we have no business proposing such a ban or pretending even that we understand what we mean by just transition. We have seen with Bord na Móna that Government Ministers refer to just transition this and just transition that although they are utterly ignorant of what it means or should mean.

I will finish with a warning to the Green Party and others. When they support policies and actions that allow, as this has, political and vested commercial interests to rail against the impact of the policy on vulnerable households or communities, they do absolutely no good to the fight against climate change. They give succour to and shore up the arguments of deniers and sceptics and drive away ordinary people from the fight against the biggest single crisis facing humanity. This is the case with carbon taxes on ordinary people and it is the same with banning the burning of turf. We must translate climate action into policies which win people to the urgency of the fight. In this case, that starts with saying we need to make this change and this is how we will make it while we help those who are most affected by it.

That is why I ask the Government to take our amendment seriously and prioritise for retrofitting those households affected by any restriction on turf burning.

7:45 pm

Photo of Paul MurphyPaul Murphy (Dublin South West, RISE)
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We are experiencing a climate catastrophe. I often think from listening to debates in this House that this has not dawned on people enough. To quote the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's Working Group III report, there is a "rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all". We are in a biodiversity emergency and experiencing the sixth mass extinction event on this planet. We are also experiencing a cost-of-living crisis. Half a million people are in fuel poverty and must choose between heating and eating. All of these crises are rooted in a capitalist system of production for profit rather than production in the interest of ordinary people. It is in the interest of the latter that we must avoid the climate catastrophe and stop the biodiversity crisis. We need action to address all of these. It must be rooted in the idea of eco-socialist change and eco-socialist policies that put people's needs and our planet first.

The science is crystal clear: Ireland bogs are the richest in Europe, and bogs are incredibly good carbon sinks. Peatlands cover 3% of the world's surface but store 40% of all carbon in the soil. They store twice as much carbon as all the forests in the world. They are a treasure trove of biodiversity in this country, and burning them poses a threat to public health. They are the equivalent of Ireland's Amazon, so we have to stop mining peat. We have to stop mining our bogs. Incidentally, we also have to stop importing mined peat. There is no reason to continue with that when we are stopping its sale here. However, we must do all this in a way that ensures ordinary people are protected. Our amendment would expand the turf-cutting compensation scheme to all those with turbary rights, giving a grant to immediately meet the difference for people who face buying more expensive fuel if they are unable to buy turf. There should be upfront retrofitting of people's homes at no cost to ensure quality insulation.

All this can be done, but two questions must be posed. First, why has the Government not had a genuine just transition? Second, why is Sinn Féin's motion not calling for it? Why not call for what needs to be done according to the science and protect people by September? Why call for the postponement of urgent action instead of demanding that the Government do everything to protect people? It can be done. It is a question of political will and resources. It is about putting people and our planet before profit.

Photo of Seán CanneySeán Canney (Galway East, Independent)
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I am sharing time with Deputy Tóibín.

I have been listening to what has been said. The first thing that comes to mind is the phrase “mining of turf”. I never heard that phrase before and wonder where it came from. The burning issue of the day is turf. What are we going to do about it? The proposal made by the Minister is that we stop the sale of turf. I live in the constituency of Galway East, where towns such as Tuam, Loughrea, Gort and Athenry have social housing. In the social houses are Stanley 8 ranges that heat the water and radiators and cook the food. If, tomorrow morning, the local authority were told it had to replace all the heating systems with heat pumps, how long would it take to do so, and at what cost? One would not find enough heat pumps in this country or maybe in the rest of Europe to do what needs to be done. If we believe we can do it in the next 12 months, we are actually in cloud cuckoo land. What we need to do is very simple. Let us be reasonable about it. We need to phase out the use of turf and smoky coal. We have dithered on it for a long time. However, I guarantee, as a person who has come from the construction industry, that if the Government wants to replace the Stanley 8 turf-burning cookers around this country, it will take ten years. One cannot bring in something to stop the sale of turf to the people who rely on it – those who buy the 100 yards and the spread and use the turf to heat their houses for the winter and do all that needs to be done with it. The problem is that we are not putting the plan in place. We are having a knee-jerk reaction by announcing something without a proper plan. Through the warmer homes scheme, for all it is doing, and despite the cost of oil, we are still putting in oil-fired boilers instead of heat pumps. This is being funded by the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland right now, in 2022. It is madness.

We are going to have another fiasco like the one we had with the peat. We banned peat milling. We are now importing peat from elsewhere in Europe and causing more carbon dioxide emissions through the decision we made. There has been no planning. Really and truly, we need to proceed in a way that will work for people, the country and the environment. We have a certain amount of time to act, but bringing in a law to ban the sale of turf to neighbours, friends or family members is absolutely cuckoo and has to stop.

Photo of Peadar TóibínPeadar Tóibín (Meath West, Aontú)
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I thank Sinn Féin for tabling this motion. However, there is an irony that is not lost on people in that Sinn Féin Deputies voted last year in favour of the climate action Bill, which paved the way for the carbon tax and the turf ban.

I have an image in my mind of Deputy Paul Murphy leaving Dublin in search of a turf mine with a speech in his pocket calling turf miners around the country to action. Unfortunately, Aontú is the only party that voted against the climate action Bill last year, which Bill was the start of many of these issues. One of the first things the Taoiseach did when he assumed office was demote the Department of Rural and Community Development and lump it in with the Department of Social Protection. He left poor old Deputy Ring without a Ministry, which was a big crisis for the then Government. Also, there was no senior Minister for the west of Ireland at the time. Sligo, Mayo, Galway, including Galway East, Roscommon, Clare, Limerick and Tipperary are without a representative in the Cabinet. This is a Dublin-centric Cabinet and Government. The weight of Government Deputies in the capital is incredible and is deciding the direction the Government is going in this matter. Ireland is incredibly lopsided and getting worse. Dublin is overheating. Right now, a third of the country is a sprawling commuter belt. People are commuting from Connacht, Munster and Ulster to Dublin to work. Much of rural Ireland is being depopulated, especially of its young people. The average age in Balbriggan is 30 while the average age in Killarney is 43. Since rural Ireland is being left out, young people have no option but to go to the sprawling commuter belt to get a job and raise a family. The actions of this Government, particularly of the Green Party, the tail that is wagging the dog in the Government, are incredible. The Government, like the country, is completely lopsided. It is way out of touch, especially with rural Ireland.

Does the Minister of State realise rural Ireland is on its knees? Utility bills are going through the roof. Gas bills are coming in at €600 and €700 and it costs well over a grand to fill an oil tank for the home. It is more costly for people in rural areas than urban areas because they do not have the public transport. They rely on their own cars to get to work or the shops. People in rural Ireland are far more likely to use oil than gas for home heating. Home heating oil has increased in price radically by comparison with other fuels in recent times. Many homes in rural Ireland are older homes that do not have the insulation necessary to keep in the heat. People are living from overdraft to overdraft. Just at this time, the Green Party, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil think it is a good idea to delete a heat source from their homes.

What planet is the Minister living on, given that he thought that in the middle of an energy and cost of living crisis it would be a good idea to delete a heat source from people's homes? It is absolutely incredible.

Turf is the only source of fuel for many homes in this country. It heats the radiators and stoves on which families cook food. Families are completely dependent on it. The idea that the Minister would stop a son or daughter providing turf to a mother or father, or to a person who had put €300 or €400 into the credit union to buy turf to keep his or her family going through the winter period, is incredible.

I also heard the Green Party Minister talk about the fact that burning wet turf and timber is as dangerous as burning coal in terms of respiratory illnesses. Who in their right mind burns wet turf and timber in rural Ireland? Does he think they have no cop-on at all? People dry it out every year, and when it is nice and dry they decide to light it.

Most of these homes are in rural areas and are one-off houses. The particulate levels are well dissipated by the time they come into contact with other people. There is a chasm between the Government's understanding of what is happening in rural Ireland and people's experience. Dublin Ministers and Deputies living in a concrete jungle - in a city full of pollution - are pointing fingers at rural Ireland for being the cause and source of the damage that is happening. It is an incredible situation.

At the same time, that same Government is supporting the Mercosur deal which sees wide elements of the Amazon being floored of its trees so that beef can be brought thousands of miles into this country. That has a far bigger impact on the environment than anything produced in this country. At the same time, massive data centres are being opened in this State which suck in the electricity of half a county.

Rural Ireland cannot understand what is going on with this Government. A mother and father cooking on a range using turf they got from their son cannot understand how the Government can favour other policies yet damn those families who are trying to survive. I ask the Government to not just put out statements to say it had strong words with the Green Party Minister today. Rather, I want the Government to put the idea to bed that a generation comprising mostly older people coming to the end of their lives are expected to go without the necessary fuel sources to live and are instead expected to find investment from somewhere to radically retrofit their homes.

The Government talks about retrofit figures in the country. The retrofit figures on annual basis are paltry. Last year there were only 18,000 retrofits and ten deep retrofits in the State. The Government cannot on the one hand take away the fuel source of a community and on the other provide nothing in return.

Debate adjourned.