Tuesday, 26 April 2022
Home Heating Fuels: Motion (Resumed) [Private Members]
I thank Sinn Féin, in particular Deputy Kerrane, for bringing forward this very important motion and giving us the first formal opportunity to discuss on the record of the Dáil the proposed criminalisation of the sale of turf for supply. One would swear to God it was some sort of an illegal drug the way we are talking about it. I never thought the sale and supply of turf would come to this. I would like the Minister to look around him. He was very welcome to Kerry this morning. I said it to him today and will say it again, any time a Minister comes to our county we welcome him or her with open arms.
The Minister should look around him. Where is the support for this? The backbenchers in Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil know that this will be their death knell and final nail in the coffin because they are losing rural Ireland. The Green Party does not come into this equation at all because this is about what Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are going to do. The only thing for them to do is to back the Sinn Féin motion and say that this will not be accepted in any shape or form. The people have had enough.
If the people who went before us heard us, as legislators, discussing this issue they would ask how it had come to this or ask what had gone wrong with our politicians. The Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, is the Minister for reintroducing wolves to rural Ireland, shorter showers, car pooling and everyone walking or cycling to a village to get into a car that would not be there in the first place. He is a Minister who has his foot firmly placed in his mouth from early in the morning until late at night. At this stage, he and his party are an embarrassment to the environmental movement in Ireland. They are doing more harm than good.
I thank Deputy Kerrane and Sinn Féin for giving us the opportunity to talk about this issue. I have no personal gripe with the Minister, but the Government has annoyed and upset many people in rural Ireland over the past fortnight. What has been done is unfair. The Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, must now realise that what he is trying to do to the people of rural Ireland is blackguarding. He is here now. He has tried to blackguard the people of rural Ireland.
People can die of the cold as well as because of bad or smoky air or whatever else it is called. However, they are more likely to die of the cold this winter due to the cost of fuel and everything else. This is the time of year when people take out a sleán and go to the bog. The Minister must realise that China, Russia, Poland, Romania and the USA are digging mountains of coal at the present time. We are all under the one sky, whether the Minister realises that or not. The Minister is focusing his attention on poor people who go to bogs in places like Fybagh, Reaboy and Gneeveguilla or the bogs in Barna. The Minister is trying to stop those people from cutting a bit of turf and selling it to their neighbours, something they have traditionally done. The Minister is trying to take away their traditional rights and culture. He is wrong and should not be hurting ordinary hard-working people in rural Ireland who want a bag or box of turf. With the power he has, what he is trying to do to people is a disgrace.
I thank the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, for coming to the House. The State pension is €13,100 per annum. The minimum wage is €21,840 per annum. People have to pay for groceries, house and car insurance and the price of a car. People in rural Ireland can barely live on what they have at the moment.
I spoke on radio during the week with the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins. He mentioned the €2 billion the Government will spend on energy grants for people in Ireland, but he forgot to mention that that is only for ESB and gas. I was accused of not knowing what I was talking about. I had to remind the Minister of State that 67.8% of the people in County Limerick rely on oil and solid fuel to heat their homes.
They are the people who elected him and Deputy O'Donovan to come up here and look after them in a time of crisis. They are the people who Deputies Niall Collins and O'Donovan will go to looking for votes. They sent them up here to get them fairness until there are alternatives. They have the likes of the Minister drawing a line across it and saying that we should get rid of turf, solid fuels and coal, and tax everything out of existence. If that happens, the 70% of people in County Limerick who rely on these fuels and have no alternatives will suffer but everyone living in areas with gas and public transport will actually make a saving. That is on the Government Deputies who are present, and every other Deputy from Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael. When Deputies Niall Collins and O'Donovan go to the doors in County Limerick, that is what they will hear from the 70% of people in the county who are affected. They asked the Deputies to represent them but they have not been doing so. I will be watching which way they vote on this.
I am glad to have the opportunity to speak on the motion which addresses such a significant issue. As of now, do we know whether the sale of turf is banned? As far as the Taoiseach was concerned earlier today, it is okay to sell it this year. It is a case of kicking the can down the road as far as he is concerned. Of course, he will be gone from next year so he does not care. The Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, who is now present in the Chamber, came out last week and said that grannies would not be arrested for burning turf. Does he dream up this nonsense and turn it out of his mouth for the craic?
This Government has no idea what is happening on the ground. Its Deputies are frantic. Today they are saying they had a robust meeting of backbenchers. They are all in deep trouble in their constituencies and they know it. They will get it hot and heavy. They are on the ground and going around in a bubble, just waiting for the next nod-and-wink grant aid announcement so they can lay claim to taxpayers' money and glorify their part in the allocation. The groups involved tell me they are insulted by such claims as it is the groups themselves that are working their butts off to get the grants in the first place.
I refer to the lack of interest shown by the Taoiseach in the House this afternoon when we raised the issue of the struggles that farmers, fishermen and ordinary mothers and fathers are going through thanks to this Government. All he gave was a smirk and sarcastic comments that have no place in the Dáil. We have constituents coming to us to ask how they will be able to pay the ever-rising cost of daily living or whether they should pay to heat their homes or to put food on the table. The past couple of weeks have made this island a laughing stock, with the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, announcing what he dreamt of overnight and Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael Deputies jumping up and down, frantically trying to hide from being behind this shameful announcement. Those Deputies are completely guilty of what went on during the Easter break. I heard a so-called expert stating on RTÉ Radio 1 last Saturday morning that wet turf is dangerous. Where did RTÉ find this comedian? No one living in rural Ireland burns wet turf unless he or she is crazy. The good people of rural Ireland would never do the likes of it.
It appears the panic light finally lit up in the Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil headquarters when they realised they had crossed a line with the Irish people, who are absolutely fed up with the nonsensical and detached policies the Green Party is imposing on us in rural Ireland morning, noon and night. The Green Party is acting as if it is the conscience of the country. It is high time for the rural Deputies in Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael to stand up for their constituents. The Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, has no right to dictate to people on how they should heat their homes. In my county, 38% of people are dependent on fossil fuels, mainly turf. These are not just elderly people. They are families with no other source of heating. How dare the Green Party try to create such hardship? When I heard about the ban, I thought it was a late April fools joke. It is a joke. Limiting it to villages with a population of 500 or more is still a joke. It is not acceptable. We will continue to burn turf in rural Ireland whether the Minister likes it or not.
I want to make the Minister and Sinn Féin aware that I and my Rural Independent Group colleagues have tabled an amendment to this motion. Our amendment calls on the Government to provide an explicit commitment that it will ensure the sale, marketing and distribution of turf at voluntary or commercial level will be permitted permanently. We are not giving up our traditions for the Minister's vanity project that is going nowhere. We want this to be permitted permanently. We do not want it to be kicked down the road by any Government or party. The Government must make a firm and permanent commitment to the people of rural Ireland. That is what we are seeking.
The amendment also calls on the Government to investigate the possibility of categorising turf use as a protected cultural practice under such instruments as the Council of Europe framework convention on the value of cultural heritage for society, also known as the Faro Convention. I raised this issue with the Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin, through a parliamentary question. To the best of my knowledge, one year later I have not received a response. The Government thinks it can do what it likes and that it is not accountable to us as politicians and fellow Deputies, or to the people of rural Ireland, but it will not get away with this one. It is not happening - not now; not ever.
I thank Sinn Féin. I will be supporting the motion. I, along with colleagues here, have fought consistently to raise matters relating to housing, health and climate change on the floor of the Dáil but we were laughed at. I am no climate denier and I am not here to demonise the Green Party. We have to make fundamental changes in the context of climate change but the absence of leadership and the divisive manner in which that is being tackled fills me with despair. I absolutely despair that it has become a divisive conversation. I never agreed with carbon tax. It is a divisive tax that punishes the poor while letting the big polluters off the hook. What the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, has done here, aside from creating a communications fiasco, is even worse in the sense that he has divided people from each other under the guise of a climate change action when what we really need is leadership, unity, solidarity and to get a message across that we are in it together. We should have learned from Covid that we cannot split and divide. We have to get a message across that we need transformational change. That is not done by making an announcement that people will not be allowed to use turf from September.
Of those in my constituency, 23% or 25% use turf. What provision has been made in respect of those people? The debacle of various backbenchers and other Deputies going on radio programmes to speak on this is appalling and unacceptable. It is setting climate change way back. The Government is doing this at a time when energy prices are going through the roof. We have heard the figures. I looked them up. The price of home heating oil rose by 58.5% between February and March and by a further 126.6% in the 12 months to March 2022. I do not have enough time in my few minutes to quote all the other statistics. The Minister knows them well. On top of that, average rents in the county from which I come, outside the city, have increased by 19%. I ask the Minister to listen to these figures. Houses and rent used to be cheaper outside the city. Rents in the county increased by 19% from 2020 to 2021. In Galway city, they cannot rise any more, but they still rose by 8.8% in a short quarter.
On top of that, the Government's amendment to the motion cynically refers to the number of deaths per year as a result of air pollution. I welcome that the Government is beginning to look at things like that but it has included that statistic in a very cynical way in this context. None of its amendments have ever referred to the number of people who die each year from poverty, bad housing or being left on hospital trolleys. Dr. Hickey in Sligo has said at least 300 deaths every year are directly related to the person having spent two or three days on a trolley. In my city, people are being left for seven or eight days on a trolley and, furthermore, they are without visitors, but that is an issue for another day.
What should we do here when we are faced with the existential threat to the planet of climate change? Should we go down a divisive road of telling the turf users who make up 23% of the people in my county that they cannot use it in September; they can sit and freeze? Should we tell them that turf burning will have to stop at some stage, outline the way that will be done and show them what we are going to do for them because they will help us with our climate strategy? Should we keep on with these idiotic debates where we vote for or against something and the Opposition divides up in different ways, with the Labour Party telling us one thing or Deputy Tóibín, for whom I have the greatest of respect, proudly stating he did not vote for the climate action Bill? We are facing an existential crisis and we need leadership and transformational action but that is sorely lacking.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the motion. I thank Deputy Kerrane and Sinn Féin for bringing it forward.
One issue that must be recognised, as mentioned by Deputy Martin Kenny, is that in the case of many social housing developments, including, for example, in Tuam and in different parts of counties Galway and Roscommon, ranges and stoves are installed and people are getting €1,300 per year to heat those homes. The councils are not going to have the heating systems in all those properties changed by next September. Many of the people living in them buy either a plot of turf or a few trailer-loads of turf from someone.
It is necessary, first, to understand turf. I will not deny I am a bogman. I was on the bog this morning, where I met and talked to a few people. There is an attitude that the way this is being handled is like a bully in the schoolyard taking it out on the small children. People feel they are being targeted while, at the same time, 7,000 tonnes of coal are being burned in Moneypoint to keep the lights on. I am not saying that does not need be done. I know we are under pressure. Six artic loads of diesel or oil are being used to keep the generators going but we are talking about people burning a bit of turf. A transition is needed and we must resolve this issue. Nearly every Fianna Gael and Fianna Fáil Deputy from around the country has taken part in radio station discussions and agreed with Opposition Deputies that this cannot happen. However, when a vote is called or whatever, they still will run into this House and do the same thing.
We need to resolve this issue. During the Covid pandemic, we were told to use one bottle and then another bottle to clean our hands. Let us say we have a peat briquette in one hand and a sod of turf in the other. What is the difference? The Government has said a peat briquette is okay. Ministers will say that people in UCD and other places have done tests on this, but I have done my own tests. If something is allowed to season, its moisture content is brought down. I backed the proposal by the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, on reducing the moisture content to below 25%. I understand he is leaving it at that. He needs to work with the industry over the next few years to resolve this issue. On top of that, clarification needs to come rapidly. What happened, however, was we had a one-line statement on turbary rights and, hey presto, that was that.
There are ten different ways in which people can own a bog. There are fee simple rights, for instance, and acquired rights. What about the people who historically took a plot of wet turf and used it, whether they lived in a town of more than 500 people, in a city or wherever? There are people with turbary rights who live in cities. The understanding of this issue is complex. I have fought many a day with the people in the National Parks and Wildlife Service, NPWS, but, in fairness to them, they have a fair knowledge of what went on and the different types of ownership in bogs. Lisnageeragh Bog covers 3,000 acres on one side of the road, which the people in the NPWS worked to preserve. On the other side of the road are 100 acres, where people cut their bit of turf. What about the people who gave up their bog and were told by the NPWS they would be given turf? By the way, the State pays at the moment to take turf to people's houses. What about the people who were asked to take money and buy turf somewhere? What about those who moved to relocation sites under a licence? Does that amount to a turbary right? No, it does not, but all that was given was a one-line statement on turbary rights.
Since 2020, the price of home heating oil has gone from 43 cent a litre to approximately €1.30 today. The price of gas has gone up by 45% to 50%. People cannot just knock off one light and we cannot tell them they have to stop using turf in September. We need a just transition. In saying this, I am not going against the Government. I am trying to work with it. The Turf Cutters and Contractors Association, TCCA, is willing to work with it. The one thing the Minister must do is come down off the high horse when it comes to the September deadline. What is needed is for him to work with the industry to ensure that in larger urban areas, the moisture content is brought down and the peat briquette is made sound. Whether with timber or peat, the moisture must be brought below the 25% level he requires. That is achievable if it is done in that way. We do not have to complicate it by talking about this town having 100 people, that one having 500 and the one with 50,000 being a no-go area. The Government needs to introduce something whereby, in the case of a population over 5,000 or 10,000, as with timber, there is a requirement that the moisture content be at a certain level.
People seem to think we in rural Ireland are gorms who go out and cut and burn a tree and split the chimney liner to make sure we do harm. That is not done. The wood is seasoned and the same is done with turf. I spoke to a person today who has turf in his shed for two years to let it season. I guarantee the moisture level of that turf is below that of a peat briquette. There needs to be rationality and common sense brought into this discussion. Above all, we need to hear from people who know a bit about it. I have listened to stuff in here tonight that would make you vomit if you come from a bog. I have listened to the BS that came out of some people about mining turf. By the Lord Jesus, we are hearing about mining, above all things. A lot of people are talking about bogs who know nothing about them.
I came from the bog, grew up in it and lived in it. I am proud to be from it. I can tell the Minister now that he needs to sit down and talk to his backbenchers and others. We will work with him but the bottom line is that the machines were out today in every bog in the country cutting turf. He cannot tell people next September that they cannot buy that turf. It is cut and it is done.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on behalf of the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, on this Sinn Féin motion on the rising cost of home heating fuels and to respond to some of the issues that were raised in the debate. Sinn Féin has expressed the view that the May carbon tax increase should be cancelled, excise duty on home heating oil should be temporarily removed and plans to regulate the sale of turf should be scrapped. I have listened carefully to the debate this evening and will take this opportunity to remind Deputies of the rules governing energy taxation in Ireland and to highlight the importance of carbon tax to Government policy on climate action. I also will reiterate some of the measures put in place by the Government to mitigate the impacts of price increases.
Many contributors spoke about the pressures on people, whether in rural or urban Ireland, in dealing with the cost of living and rising inflation in recent months. We all get that and want to work on it. The initiatives brought forward by various Ministers have seen more than €2 billion of taxpayers' money being used to take the pressure off people and reduce their costs. The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, went through some of those initiatives earlier. We recognise that they do not alleviate every pressure or cost for people and families throughout the country, regardless of where they live. There is no one denying that. We want to work continually on this issue and respond as best we can.
I compliment some of the speakers tonight. However, comments about rural Ireland being on its knees are not fair on rural areas. I was in a part of Kerry today where 2,500 jobs have been created by one company, Fexco. Every part of rural Ireland has stories like that. There are parts under pressure, just as there is pressure in some urban areas, but the constant debate in here about how rural Ireland is dying or on its knees is not fair on our rural areas. There are many parts of rural Ireland that are thriving and I want to work with Departments to enhance and develop them. I ask Deputies not to keep talking down our own country. People in those parts of rural Ireland have ambitions and want to thrive. They want to avail of Government schemes, create jobs and do well. They do not want to be insulted in here by being told their areas are dying. That will not help them to attract the investment they need from any Department, whether in jobs, education or anything else. Deputies should not continue to insult rural Ireland. We accept that some parts need extra help or need to be regenerated.
Let us not generalise. There are many urban areas that also need regeneration. It is welcome that capital expenditure funding of €10 billion is available to be channelled into rural and urban regeneration throughout the country to enhance different areas and allow them to go on and develop. There are some parts of the country that have been neglected for 30 or 40 years and investment is needed in them. However, for Deputies to come in here constantly and say in these debates that rural Ireland is on its knees is an insult to rural areas.
Deputy Healy-Rae did not say it. Others, who live in urban Ireland, did. We need to be clear about this. There are people here talking about cutting turf who I would say never were on a bog. I can tell them, with the back problems I have, that I have spent time on a bog. I know all about it. Some Deputies have that experience but there are plenty of people speaking here who probably never were on a bog, footed turf and brought it home but who claim to be experts just because this issue is popular.
Let us have a real and proper conversation about how we can achieve a just transition over time. It is what the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, wants to do and we are working with everybody to achieve it. Let us not exaggerate what is being proposed. It is not about banning the cutting or saving of turf. It is about managing and regulating its sale in certain urban centres and other areas. Let us be clear about that.
No. Deputy Michael Healy-Rae is after speaking about what I said. What I said to him was that we are looking at regulating the sale of turf, not stopping the cutting or sale of turf. The Deputy should check the record of what I said before accusing me of saying something wrong.
Going back to the various parts of the motion that relate to fuel tax, it is important to remind the House that the driving forces behind the current energy prices are generally outside of the control of the Government, and most reasonable people understand and accept that. We have to work within that and try to reduce the cost pressures on people. This point has been discussed at length in recent weeks. I have made it clear that there are limitations to what the Government can do in its response, but we will certainly try to channel taxpayers' money to ease the pressure in that regard. We have said many times that the final retail price of fuel is determined by a number of factors, most of which are global phenomena and out of the Government's control. Market dynamics have driven up the pre-tax cost of kerosene dramatically in recent months. No one is denying that. It is clear for anyone to see. It is also clear that taxation of energy products is not behind the current prices and their increase.
As mentioned earlier, kerosene is subject to mineral oil tax, which is comprised of a non-carbon and a carbon component, known as carbon tax. Kerosene for home heating has a non-carbon component rate of €0. The carbon component is currently €84.84 per 1,000 l. Consequently, if we were to temporarily remove excise duty on kerosene, we would in effect undermine our carbon tax measure as the Government would come under pressure to remove carbon tax on all fuels and, before we knew it, there would no longer be a coherent response to probably the biggest medium-term challenge we face, which is climate change. Anybody living in Ireland, rural or urban, wants us to play our part to tackle climate change and save and preserve rural Ireland. Let us be fair and honest about that. We know they do, but they want it done in a just way that is fair to everybody. They want us to play our part to protect rural Ireland the way we know it, live in it and enjoy it, for our generation and many generations ahead. We need to remember that in these discussions.
Carbon tax is fundamental to our achieving our climate change strategy of halving emissions by 2030 and reaching net zero no later than 2050, and it is critical, in the Government's view, that nothing is done to endanger that strategy. This also explains why the Government opposes cancelling the carbon tax increase due to commence on 1 May. However, we have brought in other measures to deal with the consequences of that and to make sure that that carbon tax does not put added financial pressure on anybody who cannot afford it. That is why the measures were announced in recent weeks.
The Government has also made clear the restrictions it faces with VAT on kerosene, which is at a special parked rate of 13.5% and cannot go below 12%. In this regard, the House should also note that the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, wrote to Commissioner Gentiloni on 10 March and outlined the various actions he had taken to mitigate the cost of energy for households and businesses to date. He acknowledged the importance of the energy and tax and VAT directives, in particular the framework they provide for a consistent application of these taxes across all member states. However, he outlined the limitations of the changes to annexe III to the VAT directive insofar as they specify that reduced rates may be applied only to gas and electricity and, therefore, that other fuels remain outside the scope of the reduced rates. In this context the Minister asked the Commission to consider allowing member states to respond to the crisis with greater flexibility than is permitted under the current directives.
On 23 April, the Commissioner wrote to all finance ministers regarding the energy crisis, responding to points the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, and his European counterparts had raised. The Commissioner highlighted the current flexibility provided by EU directives, including the newly agreed amendment to VAT rates. The Commissioner also indicated that the Commission does not envisage any further revisions of the EU taxation framework to respond to the current crisis. Therefore, there is very little room for significant changes on the VAT side regarding kerosene.
In summary, it is necessary to respond to the current energy price dynamics, and in this regard the Minister, Deputy Michael McGrath, outlined earlier what has been done to date to try to deal with those dynamics and alleviate the pressures. However, our response cannot be at the expense of climate action policy, and I think most people would agree with that. It is a matter of taking away some of the financial pressure. 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 to develop and to create our own energy not only for ourselves but also for export. 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.
As for other actions, we heard earlier the list of measures the Government has taken to mitigate the impact of increased fuel prices from the Minister, Deputy Michael McGrath. I remind Deputies that the measures taken by the Government have been proven to more than offset the May increase in carbon tax, and they do so in a progressive manner that reaches those most in need. Significant enhancements of the fuel allowance will protect those most vulnerable to energy poverty, while the reduced excise rates on auto fuels, reduced VAT on energy bills and the €200 utility credit will mitigate impacts across society.
As for turf, as Members of the House heard earlier, the Government recognises that turf cutting by citizens for use in their own homes is a traditional activity across many peatlands. The burning of large quantities of turf, however, is associated with harmful levels of particulate matter emissions. These emissions can have a considerable public health impact. Therefore, Government policy will look to address these public health concerns while respecting local traditions in personal use of turf for home heating. That involves cutting and saving of turf. To be very clear, no ban on the burning of peat is proposed, but instead a regulatory provision will be made to reduce and prohibit the sale of sod peat in larger clusters of urban settings while allowing the traditional sale in rural areas and use by families there. That is respected. It is a matter of finding a way to plot a course through this. The Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, wants to work with us all to guide us through that and to reduce the harmful effects where such fuels are used in large urban centres. We can all see the benefits of the reduction in the burning of coal in many of our urban centres. We all know and recognise that. The question is how we can build on that initiative to protect the greater public health for us all.
I assure the House that the current energy price crisis remains an immediate priority for the Government. Our response to date has been comprehensive and immediate. While many of the forces dictating the current situation are outside of our control, the Government will continue to use the policy responses we have to mitigate the impacts on businesses and consumers and to take the pressure off many people living in both rural and urban Ireland. We must, however, remain committed to the policies which are critical to meeting our obligations on climate action. The carbon tax is a key pillar of Government policy to transition to a decarbonised society. The policy of ring-fencing carbon tax receipts for welfare supports for those at risk of energy poverty also ensures that this transition is done in a just and progressive manner. Similarly, the policies proposed on turf cutting are part of our broader commitments on climate action and to improve air quality for everybody. Accordingly, I do not accept the motion before the House and present the Government countermotion for consideration.
In the midst of a cost-of-living crisis of fuel supply insecurity and price hikes, the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, wants to ban the sale of turf from September. Since that came out, it has been one long fiasco after another. After showing complete disregard for the 9% of rural households in this country who depend on turf to heat their homes, it quickly went to the Minister making outlandish and dismissive statements like "we won't jail your granny" and unworkable suggestions relating to population limits. All this shows a strange disregard for the reality of the situation so many people face. There are people in Tipperary choosing between heat and food. That is where we are in 2022, and that is on the Government's watch.
No matter how much the Minister, Deputy Ryan, wants everyone to make the transition immediately, the Government has made it impossible for many. I have spoken to many people across Tipperary who would like to have their homes retrofitted, but that is out of their reach, and the coalition is to blame for that. It failed to plan properly and instead rolled out schemes that discriminate based on people's level of income. It is plain wrong, and now it wants to ban turf, which is the only fuel that has not gone up in price with inflation. The price of home heating has increased the most, and the Government would not cut excise on it. Instead it wants to add the carbon tax. Far more people live in energy poverty than receive the fuel allowance, yet at a time when there is an immediate crisis the Government would prefer to see them with fewer choices available to them.
Of course we must take steps to ensure that people live with proper air quality and a good environment for future generations. Sinn Féin supports that, no matter what the Government and some in the Opposition who spoke earlier want to spin. We are not climate deniers, but the Government is going about this backwards. It is undermining the climate action message with a fixation on punitive measures. The Government should have identified those who are dependent on turf and at risk of fuel poverty and supported them to transition by prioritising them for schemes like retrofitting or putting electric cars within their reach. This Government has not even established how many people are in energy poverty here because it has not lived up to its commitment to do so in the 2016 strategy to combat energy poverty. Sinn Féin will bring forward a Bill to address that in due course.
I call on the Government, especially its backbenchers who are conspicuous by their absence this evening, to scrap plans to ban the sale of turf from September 2022, cancel the carbon tax increase due to commence on 1 May and temporarily remove excise on home heating. I call on the Government Deputies who have called foul over this to stand by their recent commitments and support this motion.
The vast majority of people who use turf as their main fuel are those who are in poorer circumstances across the country. They live in rural Ireland and do not have many options. They, more than anyone else, need retrofitting grants that are an awful lot bigger than those the Government is offering. They cannot afford to retrofit because they do not have €25,000. Retrofitting costs €50,000, with the Government providing €25,000. Where will they get the other 50% or €25,000? The Government is now telling these people they can no longer burn turf. It is unbelievable that the Government can screw things up to such an extent. It steps into one big pothole after the next. Every time it seems to come up with a solution for something, it finds a way of screwing it all up. There is no need to go down this route. The Government should concentrate on ensuring it can provide adequate options for people. If people had options, they would embrace them. Instead of doing that, the Government is taking out a big stick and beating people up because they happen to live in rural areas and turf happens to be the most convenient and cheapest fuel they can find.
Most people who burn turf have a bog close to them. They can hire someone to get a couple of hoppers of turf or cut them themselves during the summer. They can get them home and put them in their shed. Turf is a fuel that is immune to wars or turbulence across the world because it belongs to people and they have access to it. That is what seems to be missing and people do not recognise that. The Government does not seem to understand why people in predominantly rural Ireland are so angry about this. They feel it is an assault on something they, their families and everyone belonging to them have done for so long. It was there when their backs were to the wall. Prices are increasing for everything, including the other fuel option for people, namely, oil. Prices for oil firing are going up all the time, as are electricity prices and the price of everything else. However, turf is the fuel people own and the Government is saying it will ban it.
I just cannot believe it. I understand that the green movement is an international movement. I understand what it is about but I cannot believe there can be such short-sightedness in trying to develop alternatives for people. Why on earth did the Government go down this route? What is wrong that people cannot see the common sense of doing the right thing for everyone? Doing the right thing means the Government should provide for the people who have the lowest income and the least choice before taking out a stick to beat them up, yet the Government continues to do that. It needs to withdraw its amendment, support our motion and get rid of this stupid nonsense that is going on here tonight.
As Sinn Féin has acknowledged previously, and acknowledges in the motion, the Government cannot do everything when it comes to the cost of living and, in particular, the energy crisis that households right across this State face. However, there is a glaring anomaly in relation to rural households, the vast majority of which rely on home heating oil and nothing else to heat their homes, and the reduction and removal of excise duty.
The Minister went to great lengths to tell us about the difficulties in relation to reducing VAT. He spent from October last to April telling us that VAT could not be reduced. Eventually, we heard it could be reduced. That has not happened for home heating oil, which has to be reduced. The same applies to the many rural households that rely on turf. Many people, of whom I am one, do not necessarily enjoy going to the bog. We go reluctantly. Many members of the generation before us are much happier to go to the bog and actually enjoy it. A previous speaker stated there is a kind of mystic belief for people when it comes to bogs. It is so much more than that for our older generation. I am thinking of my nanny who is 90 years of age. She would go to the bog tomorrow before she would go anywhere in the world. The bog means so much to that older generation. Turf cutting is being phased out and turf is not going to last forever. New homes are being built without chimneys. Young people do not have the same interest in going to the bog. It is going to phase out naturally. That should be allowed to happen.
It is not unreasonable for people in rural communities and for those of us on the Opposition benches to ask for alternatives to be put in place before the Government takes away the only source of fuel that rural households have. That is a reasonable ask from Opposition parties. All of us, including people in rural communities, want to play our part when it comes to climate action. Everyone wants to do their bit. However, for rural communities it is more difficult to play that part because the alternatives are not there. We do not have the same options when it comes to public transport. In many cases, it simply does not exist. We have not had the same options as regards changing home heating. People have to have money in their pocket if they want to take up the grants the Government has made available. That, in the first instance, is an immediate problem.
There are various views in the House on the carbon tax increase. Again, the difficulty for those of us who live in rural communities is that there are no alternatives. The carbon tax is almost irrelevant for people who have a lot of money. They can buy an electric car and upgrade their house without having to think twice about it. From Sunday, the Government is piling a carbon tax increase on people who do not have that disposable income. They cannot afford the alternatives. They will be the people who will make the difficult decision not to turn on the heating. They will contribute to the 3,000 people who die in Ireland every year due to fuel poverty. It is a great stain on our State in this day and age that this is happening.
With respect, I wish Members on the Government benches would stop talking about the cost-of-living package in the budget last October, which was months ago. They keep referring to the social welfare increases that are now totally irrelevant. There were no social welfare increases for two years. People who are on those higher social welfare rates have incomes of approximately €50 a month below the minimum essential standard of living, MESL, which would protect them from poverty. None of our social welfare rates do that. There has also been a consistent over-reliance on the fuel allowance. There is no link to the fuel allowance and people who are at risk of or are living in fuel poverty. People get the fuel allowance if they get a certain number of payments. That is it. There is no link between the fuel allowance and fuel poverty. It does not exist.
Government Deputies also spoke about allocating to households that are at risk of fuel poverty. How can the Government do that when it does not know who is in fuel poverty? We do not have the data. The Government did not meet the commitment outlined in the strategy in 2016 to look at those houses that are in fuel poverty. That is the first step. As a Deputy said earlier, we have not said what needs to be done in relation to action for rural communities. The first thing we have to do is identify households that are experiencing fuel poverty or are at risk of it. We have to prioritise them for retrofitting.
We heard that energy upgrades would be deployed rapidly and at scale. Where are they being deployed rapidly and at scale? The warmer homes scheme has a waiting list of two years to get a home retrofitted. That is only if someone receives the fuel allowance, which is allocated to a small number of the population.
On turf, the Government has to consider what it is asking people to give up. People rear their turf and when they put it in the range it heats every radiator in the house and the water. People can cook breakfast, dinner and tea on the range. The Government has to consider what it is asking people to give up.
This motion has been brought forward in good faith by those of us who come from rural communities and know the impact this fiasco over the past two weeks has had. It has caused worry and stress, particularly to our older generation who deserve far better. I ask the Government to reconsider its position on the motion.