Dáil debates

Wednesday, 14 September 2022

Measures to Assist with Household Bills: Motion [Private Members]

 

7:35 pm

Photo of Darren O'RourkeDarren O'Rourke (Meath East, Sinn Fein)
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I move:

That Dáil Éireann:

notes: — the latest round of announcements of electricity price hikes ranging from 27 per cent to 34 per cent to take effect next month; and

— that households are dealing with annual electricity bills, some €1,000 higher than they were a year ago; condemns the constant dithering by this Government despite the urgency of the cost-of-living crisis including: — the refusal of this Government to bring forward an emergency budget before the summer recess despite calls on them to do so, with people left to face the full impact of continuing energy price increases alongside wider increases such as food and back-to-school costs without adequate support as a result;

— the opposition by Minister Eamon Ryan, acting on behalf of the Irish Government, to reform the wholesale electricity market back in October 2021 which would if implemented at the time have helped to reduce the bills of households and businesses sooner; and

— the failure of the Government to sufficiently accelerate the development of our own renewable sources of energy in and around the island which are key to ensuring energy affordability, sustainability and security over the medium-term; and calls on the Government, as part of a wider package of cost of living measures, to immediately: — cut household electricity bills and cap them at 2021 prices;

— introduce cash payments to assist low- and middle-income households with their other energy bills;

— make a double Child Benefit payment for every child in recognition that households with children tend to spend more on energy bills; and

— introduce a windfall tax so that excess profits are not made during the period of the crisis.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the motion. I am sharing time with Deputies Ó Broin, Mac Lochlainn, Kerrane and Doherty. This motion sets out a number of proposals that we believe are essential to address the cost-of-living crisis. They are specifically focused on the price of electricity. I call for support for the motion across the House. We need an aggressive and comprehensive response to an unprecedented crisis which is having a significant impact on families and is the most pressing concern for families around the country. We set out in the motion our proposals to cut household electricity bills and cap them at 2021 prices, to introduce cash payments to assist low and middle-income households with their other energy bills, to make a double child benefit payment for every child in recognition of the fact that larger households have greater energy and electricity demands, and, importantly, to introduce a windfall tax in order that excess profits are used for the benefit of our population and people in need. The motion has a number of proposals which will be part of a suite of social welfare and taxation measures that Sinn Féin will propose in our alternative budget in advance of the Government's budget.

In my contribution, I will focus on a couple of aspects, namely, the electricity price cap and the windfall tax. They are intimately related proposals. A clear recognition that the market is broken and must be reformed underpins both proposals. This has been clear for over a year. Gas is being used as a weapon of war. Any of us who have engaged with those working in this sector have had it indicated to us that it was apparent, as far back as this time last year, or earlier, that the tap was being turned by Russia.

The electricity price cap is the right move at the right time. It provides certainty for families who are under huge pressure. It provides a reprieve for families at a time of great pressure and uncertainty. While it is not a permanent solution, it buys time to introduce the sort of systematic reforms that are needed. We have to get the balance of universal measures and targeted measures right. We need to lean towards prioritising targeted measures. As a universal measure, it has the advantage of maintaining the link with usage. It is, in effect, an electricity unit price cap as opposed to an electricity bill price cap. We saw the Government's proposal for a credit being introduced slowly earlier this year.

We have seen the various kites flown in recent weeks: it could be a €600 credit over three payments or it could be further beyond that; it would be denied to Travellers in halting sites, as it was before; it would be denied to some living in multi-unit buildings where there is only one meter; and it would be given on the double to people with holiday homes - energy credits will be a bonanza for those people. That proposal from the Government has the same weaknesses that it always had. It goes hand in hand with a windfall tax, individual and important elements to address a broken market, and the super-excess and crisis-related profits of energy companies. There are two parts to any windfall tax, which are the huge profits being made by energy generators, which the European Union refers to as a solidarity tax, and the huge windfall that arises for renewable companies because of the pegging of gas prices to electricity prices. The suggestion that Sinn Féin is at risk of writing a blank cheque to energy companies is the greatest bluff of them all, especially coming from Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, who are the parties that sold off our gas assets. Vermilion Energy reported a 267% increase in Corrib profits between 2020 and 2021. In the second quarter of this year, the parent company recorded €214 million in profits, up 28% year on year. That was all sold off to the private interests. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael also sold off our gas utility companies, deregulated the market and, as they did with so many things, treated energy as a commodity not as a right and a utility. This Government fought for a year against reforms of the EU energy market. Why? It was to protect the profits of the energy companies in the hope, nothing more, that they would invest those profits in new energy infrastructure, some of which was hoped would be renewables. We missed the opportunity of the Iberian exemption, despite having a real opportunity to make the exact same case. This Government has a clear track record of not doing enough. The Sinn Féin proposals contained in tonight's motion point in the right direction.

7:45 pm

Photo of Eoin Ó BroinEoin Ó Broin (Dublin Mid West, Sinn Fein)
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I thank my colleagues, Deputies O'Rourke and Doherty and others for tabling this important motion today. Like Deputies right across the House, pretty much every day I am dealing with families who are experiencing a level of financial stress that I certainly have never seen in my time as a Deputy in this House. For example, I am dealing with housing assistance payment, HAP, tenants who are unable to keep up with the cost of living and their top-up to the landlords. They are begging their local authorities to give them a discretionary uplift, which they are being refused, and therefore they are imminently at risk of homelessness. I am also dealing with private renters who are just above the thresholds for social housing and who are working two jobs to keep the roof over their head. This is despite the fact that the Government has not increased the social housing thresholds since 2011 and continues to refuse to do so. Again, those same families are unable to make ends meet or are fearful of what will happen if they get a notice to quit, which would render them homeless. I am talking to mortgage holders who have now had two interest rate hikes. If the second hike is passed on by their bank, that will wipe out everything we are hearing from Government with regard to the meagre measures it is proposing to deal with the rising cost of energy. I raise these three cases because they are real-life cases that I and many other Deputies are dealing with day in and day out. Common to all of these families is that they simply cannot afford the cost of heating their homes or using utilities to keep their children fed and to keep clean the clothes on their backs. The idea that giving those people, on its own, a cash payment no matter what amount, simply does not deal with the key concern they have which is that even with a cash payment, the prices themselves are too high and people are fearful of further price hikes.

The great merit to the Sinn Féin proposal that Deputy McDonald outlined earlier today, which Deputy O'Rourke has just outlined, and which Deputies Doherty and Mairéad Farrell will outline in fine detail when we publish our alternative budget on Friday week, is that it deals with the immediate cost by dragging those costs back to summer 2021 levels, it puts money back in a targeted way into the pockets of lower income families, and it ensures that they will not have any further price rises between now and February or March of next year. I do not see how anybody could think that this was not the most sensible way to approach this.

Today the Taoiseach was incredibly disingenuous when he used the phrase "blank cheque". From all of the media that Deputies Doherty, McDonald and others did yesterday, the Taoiseach is aware that the purpose of our proposed windfall tax is to be a tax on excessive profits if companies choose to try to use it as a blank cheque, which is something they would not be able to do under our proposals. This is sensible and it is needed. If the Government does not do something like this, those families out there who are under such enormous pressure, will have the worst winter in decades. It does not have to be that way. The Minister can make a real difference and I urge him to support this proposal.

Photo of Claire KerraneClaire Kerrane (Roscommon-Galway, Sinn Fein)
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When it comes to the energy crisis, workers and families are really being failed by this Government. The Government announced a cost-of-living package back in February when inflation was at about 5.5%. For much of that time the Government added what was announced then with what was announced in the budget four months beforehand, which was the Government's cost-of-living budget. Throughout recent months, inflation has climbed to more than 9% and yet people are still waiting for help. Aside from the electricity credit, which by the time it was paid nearly five months after it was announced had been wiped out, the only other energy support that was announced was the fuel allowance. The fuel allowance is an extremely limited scheme. The vast majority of households, and particularly workers, are locked out of the fuel allowance. They do not receive it and they have never received it.

In June the additional needs payment was announced. It tweaked what was there in relation to the urgent needs payment. This was welcome. I welcomed it at the time. This, however, is one way in particular in which Government is failing households. This payment was widely promoted by Ministers. I would like to think that it was presumed obvious that demand for this payment would be high given that it was particularly aimed not just at those on social welfare but also at workers. Yet, the entire process around this emergency social welfare payment is up in a heap. Demand for that scheme in January or February was about 5,000 or 6,000 applications. As of July, it was more than 17,000 applications. Figures I received earlier this month from the Department of Social Protection show that 95% of current applications are taking between five to eight weeks to be finalised. Can the Minister imagine having a bill that cannot be paid in a household struggling and waiting up to two months for what is supposed to be an emergency payment? Before the Dáil recess, the Minister had said that the Department was giving consideration to putting that payment online as an option for people. That is still, apparently, being looked at by the Department. We need to return these payments to the community welfare officers within our communities if we are going to make sure that this support is available to people when they need it. Applications like that need to be resourced properly in order that people get support when they need it. If they are waiting for two months, it is no good. Clearly, demand for that scheme is going to increase. The proposals in this motion are exactly what is needed. They reduce costs and put money back into people's pockets. Existing supports that are there need to be resourced. Emergency social welfare payments cannot take two months to be processed.

Photo of Pádraig Mac LochlainnPádraig Mac Lochlainn (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
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The response of the Government to this energy crisis has been dithering, dithering and dithering again. If one looks at the league table of European countries and what they have provided to their people as a percentage of GDP, Ireland is right there at the bottom of the list. Only Denmark is worse. This is just a shameful response to an unprecedented energy crisis that our people face, be it home heating oil, solid fuels, or petrol or diesel for their cars. Wherever they turn, for businesses, for workers or for families, this has had a crippling burden on them. The Government's strategy has been to wait until the winter and put something on the table then. What Sinn Féin has put before the Minister must be implemented.

It would cut and cap electricity charges to the levels prior to this crisis and there would be direct, targeted payments for those who most need it. There are issues around child benefit and there is also the need to address the rent crisis due to the Government's shambolic management of our housing system.

This Government has been appalling in its response to the energy crisis. It is at the bottom of the European league table. Centre-right politicians across Europe are ahead of the Government when it comes to the taxes that are required - the windfall taxes on the companies. Across the water, Nicola Sturgeon has banned evictions and said there needs to be a freeze on rents. All across Europe there are examples but the Government is behind the curve. It needs to listen to Sinn Féin tonight and finally do what is right by our people.

7:55 pm

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
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It is time for the Government to wake up to the reality of where ordinary workers are at. Families are facing a cost of living crisis they have never seen before. Many of them are being forced into decisions they thought they would never have to make, like whether to put food on the table or to keep the heat going. Families that once would donate to the food banks are now standing in those queues waiting for those same parcels. The choice before the State is simple. It can, on one hand, allow citizens to fall into poverty and financial hardship or wake up to the reality, step up to the plate and fulfil its duty and act. That is what the Sinn Féin motion before the House calls on the Government to do today, to act in the interest of our people in the middle of this cost of living crisis.

Our motion is very clear and has a number of areas. First is energy. Compared to last summer with the winter we now face into, households are paying an average €1,300 more on their electricity bills. Sinn Féin says that needs to stop. We need to cut those bills for those families, workers and households. We need to bring it back to its level prior to the crisis, back to €1,000 on average. We need to do that during the period of this winter and to not only give families a reduction in their electricity bills but also something so valuable in these pressing times, certainty that the bills will not increase and that on this issue the Government has their back and can say "we are with you on this and are taking the pressure from you". It is a simple proposal. It is one the Minister's European colleagues in other jurisdictions have implemented. Romania has extended the cap on energy prices until August next year. France has nationalised its system to allow for certainty in energy. Other countries have used different models. We should be doing the same. We need a government that understands the crisis that families are in and that is not willing to dither but rather to act in the interest of people. It can be done just as others have done. Energy and electricity prices can be brought back to where they were pre-crisis and bills reduced by up to €1,300 annually and kept at that level until the end of February. It is time-limited. It is not a blank cheque or any of the sound bites the Government throws out. Instead of grappling with our suggestions that would help people, it tries to dismiss them and brushes them away. On top of that, we also need an excessive profit tax similar to that in Italy. The Minister will be familiar with that. It has increased the rate recently to ensure energy providers are not profiteering through the crisis. The Government could give a commitment to underwrite the difference in the price of electricity charged to households and the cost to the companies of delivering it. Those are two proposals that can work. But we recognise that families and workers are facing many more pressures, including that of heating homes with the price of home heating oil or gas or the increased costs of food and clothing, as well as petrol and diesel to go from A to B. They are essential costs in this day and age. That is why we need to see the Government go further. We need cost of living cash payments targeted at those who are most in need. Individual incomes for those over 18 years below €21,000 need €500 in their pockets in the next month. We need to see step-down payments for people earning up to €70,000 to help them get through these winter months. Politics is all about choices. The Minister knows that. I know that. These issues are about choices but many people sitting at home who might be tuning in to this debate cannot see the choices. All they see is the rattle of the letter box and another bill which has increased coming through it. They are afeared of the postman or postwoman walking down their lane. It is time for the Government to act. As Deputy Mac Lochlainn observed, the Financial Times has pointed out that this Government is the second worst in Europe in relation to its spend as a proportion of GDP in supporting businesses and households during this energy crisis. The Government needs to wake up to what is really happening. It needs to understand the depths of the crisis and where workers and families are at. We are putting on the table the solutions that are needed. These are the policies I would implement were I Minister for Finance and I say to the Minister that these are the policies he and the Green Party should be implementing were they worth their salt in this Government.

Photo of Eamon RyanEamon Ryan (Dublin Bay South, Green Party)
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I thank the Deputies for raising this critical issue and allowing us to have this debate this evening. Clearly, the situation we are witnessing with increases in energy bills and the cost of living is the matter of utmost concern and is central to everything at this time in the country. We are keenly aware of the growing pressure on families and businesses. We have been thinking about and working on this for the past year and a half because this started some year and a half ago for a variety of different reasons. It began with the Russians starting to turn off the gas over a year ago in anticipation of the war. We have been working and talking at length with our European colleagues and other colleagues to get the right policy response. It is affecting every European country. It is the impact of international gas prices going up, on which we are agreed. I heard that for the first time today. For the last year there has been all this debate, confusion in my mind, as to what is the cause of the problem. The cause of the problem is the war in Ukraine; that is putting up the price of gas and that is putting up the price of electricity. Many people have avoided saying that or disagreed with that or doubted it but after this summer, it is as clear as day. Thank God, at last, we know what the problem is. Energy, and with it the inflation that comes from its price increases, is being used as a weapon of war by the Russian Government. It wants the cost of living to divide us, to undermine western democracies and our support for the citizens of Ukraine as part of the war effort. We cannot divide. We have to stand strong and protect our households and businesses as we do so.

As the said Taoiseach today, there is no question. Do we have to intervene? Of course we do. The question is to get the intervention right. We started a year ago. We have been intervening. I want to review some of the measures in my contribution. We will go further in the budget in two weeks. However, I agree with the Taoiseach that we must be careful to respond in the right way. I am afraid that Deputy Doherty does not have the right plan. I do not think the measures he proposes are the optimal but that they may be contradictory and counterproductive. I understand he will come out on Friday and explain the details and not on Friday week, as Deputy Ó Broin said. That will be very useful because it bears really detailed analysis. These are complex markets and interventions. I know very well the French, Spanish and Romanian measures and those of others. We have looked at them in detail with our colleagues and came to our best conclusions. They are not finalised yet because we are still working with the European Commission. However, it seems the combination of measures that Deputy Doherty is proposing will not work well. I wait to hear the finer details because it needs details. We need to do highly complex market interventions. The Deputy needs to that on Friday and not Friday week and I look forward to hearing it.

We do need to introduce a windfall tax on both the electricity market and on fossil fuel companies. That is what we are working with the European Union to do. It is better to do it in a co-ordinated EU way because what Putin wants to do is to divide us and create division and doubt in Europe. So we are working on that.

The Commission presented the proposals today. They are so complex that it is necessary to look at each country to see how they might apply. There is flexibility and, in my contribution, I will outline why I think there needs to be flexibility in how we adapt to them. We were very much central to designing, promoting and supporting them in that European Council and also at a further meeting of energy ministers which took place on Sunday and Monday where we again took the opportunity to discuss in detail the right thing to do.

There has been a suggestion that nothing has been done; that is not a true. The €2.4 billion worth of measures that we implemented are important and I think we can learn a lot. We need to understand what they were and what they could be in the upcoming budget. I will set out some of the global market developments behind this. I want to set out the role of the Commission for the Regulation of Utilities, CRU. The key thing we need to focus on is protecting our householders. I want to outline what we have done in some of those energy-efficiency and welfare supports. First, it is important to describe what has been happening with prices in the market and to clarify that those energy price increases were not created by the Government or by regulatory decisions. Price regulation in the energy market ended many years ago. Suppliers compete with each other and set their own prices as one would expect in a competitive commercial and liberalised market.

Increases in wholesale energy prices followed a rise in international gas prices, which has been the principal driver of the increases. Some 50% of our electricity comes from gas and it is setting the market price. Those prices started to rise back in 2020 for a variety of reasons, including increasing demand in Asian markets and power generation in Europe switching to gas for different reasons. As I said, early in this process the Russian Government started to switch off gas in the expectation of reducing the stores of gas Europe has in advance of a war. I believe that was done strategically in advance of knowing a war was going to take place to try to weaken the European position. That is why there has been so much focus on gas storage over the summer. We came into this spring and summer with very low European gas stocks because of those actions by the Russian Government.

There was an increase in gas prices earlier in the year but what happened in the last week of July and the first three weeks of August was beyond compare because the markets saw for real that Gazprom was about to switch off the pipe, in particular Nord Stream 1 which supplies so much of Europe. That is why over this summer the scale of the price increase accelerated even further again. That is why we need to respond.

It is a Europe-wide phenomenon. Some countries are more exposed than we are because they are directly connected and have a much higher percentage of Russian gas in their systems. That is why the European Energy Council met in Brussels last Friday. It was an extraordinary emergency meeting to assess what could be done and consider different measures to try to protect consumers across the Continent.

In that meeting, the Commission set out a five-point plan for immediate emergency measures. There was a range of other medium- and long-term measures. However, because of the price increases over the summer we realised that together all of us in Europe needed to act fast now to protect our people.

Serious measures include the capping of revenues. The European proposals include caps, but it is the cap on the revenues of those energy companies making supernormal profits. That is the right cap in my mind. I look forward to hearing Sinn Féin's proposals on an alternative cap that does not give them a blank cheque. In a sense rather than capping the revenues, Sinn Féin would allow it to continue. I would like to see Sinn Féin's further analysis giving the detail on getting that combination together.

The second measure is the introduction of a solidarity levy on the fossil fuel extraction industry. Our primary example of that is Corrib and we need to be appropriate and clever in getting it right in line with European law and so on to ensure we can also participate in that. That is what we have discussed in the Council and since.

The third measure is critical. I have been trying to highlight its real benefit. It is incentivising demand-reduction, particularly at peak times. President Von der Leyen set out the Commission's paper this afternoon. The reason we focus on that peak hour, particularly with larger energy users, is that if demand can be reduced at that time, it brings down the price for everyone. That is a really practical way to help householders and businesses. That last plant at the peak time is the most expensive.

We need to provide liquidity and support mechanisms for energy businesses which are in difficulty and may not be able to pay the advance collateral for householders' bills over the following two months.

I support the proposals for a wider cap on international gas market prices which are completely out of kilter with where they should be. To get that right we need to work with countries such as Japan, South Korea and Norway to ensure it can be effective and work. Europe needs to use its purchasing power to try to protect our householders. That is complex and not easy. The Commissioner asked what the mandate was. In my contribution I said, "Go for that as best you can but it will only work if there is real international co-operation in what we do."

I am sorry I do not have time to set out all the measures. I set them out in my contribution to the Seanad earlier, including everything we are doing with CRU to protect vulnerable householders, all the critical social welfare payments along with the energy credit. I disagree with Sinn Féin; I think we need a credit. This is so significant that it is appropriate to get a payment out to every household. While I accept targeting social welfare at those with the lowest pay and the most vulnerable, I am not sure that cutting out a whole swathe of Irish society from getting that credit is the right response. We need to stay united and protect all our people, but these are unprecedented times.

8:05 pm

Photo of Donnchadh Ó LaoghaireDonnchadh Ó Laoghaire (Cork South Central, Sinn Fein)
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Households are facing the worst cost-of-living crisis in a generation. Ordinary workers and families and indeed small businesses cannot take any more and they certainly cannot face into a winter with bills that continue to skyrocket and could cripple them. Households need long-term solutions to this cost-of-living crisis, not one-off measures which will do nothing to fix the root cause of the problems households are facing. It is predicted that households can expect to pay a total of €1,200 for gas and electricity for just two months in winter. That is scandalous and beyond what many families can manage. How does the Government expect households to cope with this? Arís agus arís eile, feicimid go bhfuil an Rialtas rómhall, uaireanta ar luas seilide.

People are put to the pin of their collar. The scale of the response must match the scale of the crisis. The Government currently lacks the vision and ambition to deliver long-term solutions to this crisis, instead preferring short-term measures as useful as trying to fix a broken leg with a plaster. Analysis by The Financial Timesfound that Ireland has the second weakest response of 24 countries, ahead only of Denmark. While the Government expects households to shoulder excessive prices, companies are allowed to enjoy windfall profits. Tá na réitigh ag Sinn Féin. Tá an fhís agus an dúil againn an ghéarchéim seo a réiteach. Táimid ag moladh laghdú ar chostais leictreachais agus gníomhartha chun iad a choimeád síos.

We need to cut and cap. Sinn Féin proposes reducing electricity prices for households and keeping them at 2021 prices from October until the end of February at €1,000, inclusive of VAT and standing charges. Sinn Féin also proposes income-linked cost-of-living cash payments starting at €500 for low-income families and individual tapered gradually to €100 for those on incomes of up to €70,000, as well as a doubling of child benefit as families use a significant amount of energy.

Sinn Féin has the solutions that will give certainty to households in Cork and throughout the country that they will be able to weather this winter without significant financial hardship. It is high time for the Government to take this on board and offer the relief, certainty and protection that families, workers and businesses need this winter.

Photo of Denise MitchellDenise Mitchell (Dublin Bay North, Sinn Fein)
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Energy price hikes are crippling people throughout the State. Households are facing into the worst cost-of-living crisis in living memory and are getting hammered left, right and centre by ever-rising prices. A clear sign of the Government not understanding the pressure people are under was when the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, recently suggested ways for people to reduce their energy bills, as if they had not been doing that already.

The Government dismissed the Opposition's calls for an emergency budget during the summer recess. It ignored the crisis coming down the road and it has made little progress in developing sustainable energy alternatives to move us away from fossil fuels. This motion tonight offers solutions to stop people from having to make hard decisions this winter. Sinn Féin is calling on the Government to reduce energy costs by capping prices based on 2021 figures. We want the Government to introduce targeted measures to assist low and middle income workers and families in a meaningful way with these bills. We want it to pay a double child benefit payment, which recognises the stress that is being put on young families. We need the Government to bring in a windfall tax on the companies that are gouging people across this State. The Government cannot dither and delay any longer. It is time for the Government to wake up and realise how stretched people are. It needs to act in their interests instead of letting costs spiral and people be ripped off by companies seizing an opportunity to make enormous profits. The time for sitting on its hands has long passed. The time for action is now.

8:15 pm

Photo of Imelda MunsterImelda Munster (Louth, Sinn Fein)
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As we approach the winter, we are facing into the worst cost-of-living crisis that we can remember for generations. Europeans are facing into a winter of record energy prices, but in Ireland people are contending with energy cost increases on top of what was already an unmanageable cost of living. We have extortionate rents, childcare costs that are equivalent to a second mortgage, and mortgage increases. That is just to mention a few. Energy is only the latest crisis that people in Ireland have to contend with. People were already on the brink, but this winter they are going to be pushed over the edge.

The Government's response to this crisis has been disgraceful and slow. It has failed to accelerate the development of our own renewable energy resources, which is key to ensuring energy affordability, sustainability and security. The Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, opposed reform of the wholesale electricity market in October 2021, which would have helped reduce energy costs. The building of new data centres was encouraged all the way, despite repeated warnings about their effect on our energy sustainability and security. On top of all this, the Minister continues to increase carbon taxes. It has been said repeatedly over recent months that people will not be able to heat their homes this winter. People will have to choose between heating their home and feeding their family. It is a crisis situation. The Minister seems to value the protection of the market above everything else, including his own people. His dithering and inaction are going to have serious consequences for ordinary people.

Over the summer, Bord Gáis announced that operating profits rose by 74% in the first part of this year. Frankly, that is disgusting given the current situation. Our Private Members' motion has outlined the measures that we would introduce. If we follow the Government plan and offer only energy credits without capping prices, those credits could be next to worthless if energy companies keep hiking up their prices. It is two weeks to the budget and, like other colleagues, I am asking the Minister to wake up and deal with this crisis in a meaningful way. He should implement our proposals for the sake of workers and families across the State.

Photo of Pa DalyPa Daly (Kerry, Sinn Fein)
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This motion aims to assist people with their household bills. We need to reduce the costs and put money back in people's pockets. The last straw was the latest round of announcements on electricity prices going up from 27% to 34%. For many, that was the straw that broke the camel's back, in addition to mortgages and back-to-school costs.

I spoke last week with a large employer of 130 employees in County Kerry. He showed me his electricity bills. The difference between January 2019 and January 2020 was a 35% increase. In February it was 36% and in March it was down to 31%, but in April and May it was back up to a 78% and 70% increase, respectively. The manager told me that in his 25 years in the business this is the most uncertain time that he has ever faced going forward. He has no control over costs, and even though he has adopted every cost-saving measure throughout his building, as he is in the hospitality sector, he wants to deliver a service that reflects good things about County Kerry. He needs all the help and support that is available.

We have heard a lot about people in their own homes and the increased costs of €1,000 in their electricity bills. The refusal of the Government to bring forward an emergency budget before the summer recess left people on their own. The refusal of the Minister, acting on behalf of the Government, to reform the electricity market, has already been mentioned. It would have reduced the bills of households and businesses sooner. We need to cut household electricity bills. We must cap them at 2021 prices. We need to introduce cash payments, a double child benefit payment and a windfall tax.

The manager also gave me a list of all the different increases ranging from food prices to his rates bill. We have heard about gougers earlier. The biggest gougers in the country are in the insurance industry. In 2020 and in 2021, in the middle of Covid, his insurance bill was €65,000 and €67,000, but the insurance industry has reared its ugly head again and his insurance bill for the year is €160,000. On top of everything else, there is a real threat that it will put him out of business.

We have tried to introduce measures. The old reliables - the usual suspects - are getting away with it, but they have been joined now. We must act soon - in the budget - to reduce the costs for everyone.

Photo of Ivana BacikIvana Bacik (Dublin Bay South, Labour)
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All of us speak on the motion this evening in the context of what the Minister has rightly described as unprecedented times. In effect, we have a three-pronged crisis - a cost-of-living crisis, an energy crisis and a chronic housing and homelessness crisis. This is framed by the overarching spectre of the climate emergency. It is indeed an unprecedented time. On this side of the House, as well as on the Government benches, we are all conscious that if these crises are not urgently addressed by the Government we are going to see severe hardship visited upon families, households and businesses over the coming bleak winter. We are going to see the poorest households forced to take impossible decisions between heating or eating. We are going to see thousands of working families driven into poverty and debt and we are going to see yet another generation of young adults unable to find or fund secure accommodation and be forced into emigration.

Already, many of us are hearing harrowing stories from people. In my constituency - Dublin Bay South, which is also that of the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan - I hear of people faced with eviction and notices to quit, who are devastated at the prospect of trying to find suitable or affordable accommodation anywhere local. We are told by charities about couriers, people who are working and who deliver food to others, but who cannot afford to buy food for themselves. They are turning up for free dinners handed out by the charities. That is simply not acceptable. We hear from small business owners, who are faced with soaring energy bills that are now reaching the level of an additional rent or leasehold. These are extortionate costs that households and businesses are facing, and we need to see concerted and urgent action from the Government on it. That is why we in the Labour Party very much welcome the opportunity tonight to debate the upcoming budget and the package of measures necessary to address this hardship.

I mentioned that yet another generation of young adults is forced to emigrate. I am from a generation that grew up in the 1980s when emigration and unemployment were high. We were facing a 20% unemployment rate and, like now, we were seeing families at their wits end with unaffordable prices for food and fuel. Some things are very different from the 1980s. Now we have what could be described as a paradox of plenty where we have got a successful macro economy.

We have Exchequer figures showing a surplus of €6.3 billion for the first eight months of this year alone. We do not have the sort of unemployment figures that we had in the 1980s and that is obviously extremely positive. All the more reason, then, to address the spiralling cost of living because the resources are there. We in the Labour Party have called on the Government to take ambitious, radical and creative measures, to adopt State-led measures of the sort and scale that we saw during the Covid pandemic in order to tackle the hardship that will be faced by so many families, households and businesses but what we are hearing from Government is a lack of urgency. It appears that there is no reassurance forthcoming from Government. We are told to wait and see what the forthcoming budget will contain. People are really fearful now about what is coming down the tracks and yet it appears that in Government Buildings the blinds are down, the shutters are up and obviously the heating is off as we all seek to cut costs on energy.

I am meeting people who tell me that six months or a year ago the incomes they had were sufficient to meet their costs. I am talking about two-income households, about people in what would be considered good jobs who are no longer able to meet costs like the €1,200 monthly that people are having to pay for childcare and early years education. That is what parents are paying in Dublin Bay South now. People are having to think twice about bringing a child over six years of age to the doctor because each doctor's visit is costly. We know that households are now facing the prospect of energy bills of up to €6,000 per annum next year. These are the sorts of burdens and hardships that have to be addressed. We really need to see very strong and urgent action from the Government.

On the energy crisis, we in the Labour Party have called for a three-pronged approach. We want to see the immediate introduction of a windfall tax on excessive profits in energy companies. I raised this earlier today with the Taoiseach. I very much welcome, as do my Labour Party colleagues, the moves at EU level that the Minister spoke about to devise such a tax. We have also called for a maximum price cap on energy bills and the extension of eligibility for the fuel allowance for low and middle income households. It would cost €15 million to bring 16,000 new households within the eligibility criteria for fuel allowance. That in itself would be a significant way of alleviating hardship for those families. On the windfall tax issue, the Minister mentioned very briefly in his opening remarks the Corrib gas field, which I raised earlier today. The Taoiseach mentioned that we import 75% of our gas but there is a glaring elephant in the room here. The Corrib gas field supplies about one quarter of our gas needs. It is local supply, on this island. Revenues from Corrib increased almost fourfold last year and the company is enjoying another year of bumper profits yet nothing has happened to increase the cost of production or supply of Corrib gas. There is no international competition to boost the price of Corrib gas and yet the price has increased dramatically. That is why I raised with the Taoiseach earlier and raise again now with the Minister the proposal that we look at what powers are available to Government to ensure that the cost of indigenously produced gas can be reduced in order to go some way to meeting the cost of this energy crisis. Clearly this is not a panacea but is just one measure that could be considered. We are proposing that Government would look at existing legislation, including the Fuels (Control of Supplies) Acts 1971 and 1982, which were introduced by previous Fianna Fáil Governments to equip the State with the power to regulate and control the supply and distribution of fuel including gas and invoked previously during the oil shortages in the 1970s. When one looks at that legislation, one sees that there are clear powers there that could be invoked on a temporary basis for the duration of this emergency to ensure that all Irish-produced gas could be sold to the State on a cost-plus basis, in substitution for the current distorted international prices which are not relevant to the market for Corrib gas. We all acknowledge that the market at EU level needs radical change in any case. Indeed, the EU and Ms Ursula von der Leyen have acknowledged that. Just looking at our own supply, though, there is a measure available to Government now because the State could then sell Corrib gas into the Irish market at a reasonable cost-plus price. We have done some creative thinking on this and I urge the Minister to consider this measure.

Clearly there are also many other measures that need to be introduced to alleviate the pressure on households and to ensure that families and individuals can get through the winter ahead. We need to see vastly enhanced environmental initiatives incentivising a rapid switch, nationwide, to renewables. I know the Minister has already brought forward some measures on that but there are some things that could be real win-wins like increasing the grant for solar panels, for example. We should be really encouraging more and more households to invest in and switch to solar power because that will have a double-positive effect of both reducing emissions and tackling household energy bills.

We have also argued in the face of this chronic cost-of-living crisis that Ireland needs a pay rise and that as a minimum we should see an increase in the minimum wage so it becomes a living wage. That is something that the trade unions have called for and that is clearly necessary. We also need to support small businesses facing the massive hikes we have all heard about in energy bills and basic costs. My colleague Deputy Nash has proposed the introduction of a temporary wage support scheme modelled on the pandemic-era schemes to provide much-needed relief to small and medium enterprises who are struggling with vastly-increased bills.

Of course, in the face of a chronic lack of housing, we need to see massive State investment in a building programme providing public homes on public land and affordable homes for all. We are also asking the Government again to adopt the Labour Party's legislation providing greater protections to renters around security of tenure and against rent hikes, including a freeze on rents for three years. We have also called for a number of emergency measures to address the unprecedented cost-of-living crisis, including a cap on childcare costs to €200 per month because that would bring us into line with the sorts of costs faced by parents in other countries for childcare and early years education. That is the sort of immediate measure that could be brought in and we received some interesting costings from the Exchequer on that. At €270 million a year, it is not an excessive cost when one looks at the difference that investment would make to so many households. We have called for the introduction of a climate ticket, giving people unlimited access to public transport around Ireland for €9 per month. This is the sort of innovative measure we saw introduced in Germany on a pilot basis this year which proved to be so successful. Our costing on that is around €150 million to bring that in for the three months to the end of this year. It would make a dramatic difference to households who are currently facing huge transport costs, would really incentivise a switch to public transport and help us to tackle our climate emissions. We have also called, as we have done for many years, for the immediate extension of free GP care to all children under 18 which can be done for a reasonable sum.

I am conscious that we will have other opportunities to debate the budget. We in the Labour Party will be putting forward a fully costed, alternative budget but the real message tonight is that we must see urgent measures from Government. We are in a situation where we have an Exchequer surplus and we need to see that money invested to help alleviate the hardship that so many families and households face and to address the real and chronic fears that we are hearing about all across the country.

8:25 pm

Photo of Jennifer WhitmoreJennifer Whitmore (Wicklow, Social Democrats)
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We are in the worst cost-of-living crisis in more than four decades. The price of everything, including basic necessities, is soaring. People all over the country are worrying about how they are going to feed their families and heat their homes. The speed with which prices are increasing and the extortionate levels they are reaching are unprecedented in their scope, scale and catastrophic impact. Even before this crisis, Ireland was the second most expensive country in the EU, with living costs 36% above the EU average. Our housing costs were the highest in the EU. The price of goods and services here were the second highest in the EU and our fuel costs were the fourth highest in the EU.

Today what was a cost-of-living crisis has become a cost-of-survival crisis for a large and growing cohort of our population. We all know what this cost-of-survival crisis looks like. Food costs that are expected to increase by up to €700 per annum. House prices have now exceeded Celtic tiger levels with nowhere near the same recovery for wages. The recent ECB interest rate increase is going to apply even more pressure on already-struggling homeowners. Meanwhile rental costs long ago soared into the stratosphere and are now priced at more than €1,600 per month nationally and an extortionate €2,200 in Dublin. There appears to be no upper limit when it comes to rental prices despite the Government's failed attempts to curb increases with rent pressure zones that are not fit for purpose. Childcare costs are equivalent to a second mortgage for parents and the notion that we have free education once children progress to school is a bare-faced lie. Parents have to fork out up to €1,500 at this time of year when children go back to school just to provide the basics like uniforms, school books, transport and so-called voluntary contributions which schools demand because the Government does not provide sufficient money for them to heat classrooms and keep them clean. Healthcare costs for services like GP care and therapeutic care are another burden that fall disproportionately on families who have children with additional needs and on adults with disabilities.

8 o’clock

Then, of course, there are the energy costs; the primary reason we are having this debate. Energy prices are now out of control, obliterating the incomes of workers and families and threatening the very survival of businesses. It is not just gas and electricity prices that are soaring. A bag of coal, for example, has increased nearly threefold going from €16 up to €45. The cost of home heating oil, which is used by 40% of households, has doubled to €1,400 for 1,000 l of fuel. The stress, pressure and worry these enormous price shocks are causing the length and breadth of the country are truly extraordinary.

Many workers and families are fearful of the future and they are particularly fearful of this upcoming winter. They simply do not have the money to pay the kinds of extortionate bills that are now mounting up month after month. In June, there was widespread shock when the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, revealed that nearly one third of households were experiencing energy poverty. The previous record high for the number of households in energy poverty was 23%, which was nearly 30 years ago. Following further increases in energy prices, the number of households in energy poverty has now reached 43%, which is nearly half the population. This is almost double the previous high in the 1990s. The worst-case scenario, which does not seem beyond reality now and which was outlined by the ESRI to the Government, was that the number of households in energy poverty could climb to 70%. This would be catastrophic. Therefore, the Government must act now to avoid that worst-case scenario becoming a reality.

It is clear that the energy market is broken and when markets are broken, it is the job of the State to intervene. So, what should happen to ensure that those who desperately need assistance get a sufficient amount in as rapid a way as possible? In a crisis like this, which has the potential to do untold levels of societal and economic damage, every policy approach that could provide relief needs to be carefully considered. Nothing can be discounted. Governments across the EU are dealing with similar crises but in countries like Germany, which recently announced a €65 billion support package, we have seen real tangible action. We will have to see commensurate financial firepower used here to ensure that workers and families are protected from the worst excesses of this crisis.

A core part of our approach and a call of the Social Democrats is for a windfall tax. Energy companies are currently making grossly excessive profits on the backs of ordinary workers and families. The Social Democrats have been calling for the Government to act and introduce a windfall tax for a long time now, and it is unfortunate and regrettable that there has been no action from Government on this. The Government waited until the European Commission finally signalled that a windfall tax was warranted before it began to show any interest in pursuing these companies with any vigour. While it is welcome that the EU is now moving ahead with a windfall tax, the Government should have already been ready to act to try recoup some of the obscene profits that are being made on the backs of families.

It is grotesque to see the level of amoral profiteering by energy companies that is accompanying a catastrophe like the war in Ukraine which is causing so much loss of life and destruction. The introduction of a windfall tax must be prioritised and these companies must be pursued. While the windfall profits of energy companies are taxed, the companies whose very survival is threatened by this crisis must be supported by the Government. This will not only protect individual businesses; it will protect the economy ensuring that when this crisis subsides, the economy can bounce back.

We need an energy crisis support scheme using the template provided by the Covid-19 support schemes to ensure that businesses and jobs are protected. Targeted supports for workers that are graduated based on income levels must also be part of the solution. When the Government first announced its €200 electricity credit in December 2021, it said that it was opting for a universal measure. That was against the advice of experts like the ESRI and the Central Bank of Ireland. The Government said it was because it would help it get that money and support to families quickly. We know that was not case, however. It took up to six months for that money and that credit to actually land in people's accounts.

There is no excuse for the Government having sat on its hands for the past year and fail to devise a way to target these payments where they are needed most, which is at low and middle-income earners. Deputies in this Chamber and other high-income earners do not need the same level of support as those on low and middle incomes. I think that is something on which we should all be able to agree within this Chamber. Why then is it proposed that we would receive the same level of support as those on a minimum wage? Why would that credit go to all of us and not be targeted?

It is astonishing that nearly a year after the first energy credit was announced, the Government still has not figured out a way to target those payments to those who need the support most. Spreading resources too thinly will inevitably mean that those on the margins who are struggling to keep their heads above water will be plunged into poverty. A failure to plan is a recurring theme with this Government, or perhaps I should say that plans do not ever seem to get beyond the publication of a new strategy document. The climate action plan is a case in point. The Government prides itself on its alleged environmental credentials but the evidence does not support the sloganeering. The reality is that our emissions are going up while retrofitting targets are looking increasingly fantastical. The waiting list for retrofitting for those most at risk of fuel poverty on the warmer homes scheme is now more than two years. The low-interest loan for retrofitting, which was promised in the spring, still has not materialised and now the Minister is flying kites with regard to banning gas boilers from 2025 despite the fact that those homes need a building energy rating, BER, of at least 2B to get a Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, grant for a heat pump. What planet is this Government on? We need the Minister's climate action to catch up with his climate rhetoric.

We have no idea how long this energy crisis will last but it could be very prolonged. Therefore, we need to massively scale up our renewable energy production, our grid capacity and our retrofitting plans. This does not just mean publishing glossy plans and posing for pictures on bikes. It means resourcing schemes adequately, enabling offshore wind generation and meeting targets instead of missing them. This country's antiquated energy infrastructure and its woeful inability to plan for its future energy needs is the fault of successive Governments, all of which have been led by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. This is not a political attack; it is a political fact. That failure to plan and invest is now exacerbating an energy crisis that is causing untold levels of damage. The Government must act now, first with emergency and targeted measures to put out the flames of the cost-of-living inferno and then to actually deliver on the climate action plan.

8:35 pm

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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I move amendment No. 1:

To insert the following after "not made during the period of the crisis": "— examine the measures needed to develop a wholly publicly owned and not-for-profit energy system, including the nationalisation of all existing energy generation in the State in order to fully address both the current energy crisis and the climate crisis"

I thank Sinn Féin for bringing forward this motion on the cost of living and for giving us an opportunity to discuss what is a really dire crisis. This People Before Profit amendment is simply an addition to the Sinn Féin motion. We agree with all the proposals Sinn Féin has put forward. We are adding an amendment suggesting that we must look as a matter of urgency at the question of taking the energy production and supply sector in this country into public ownership and running it on a not-for-profits basis to address the immediate crisis we are facing but also to have a sustainable situation in terms of providing the energy we need for our people to live, for our society and, indeed, to tackle the climate emergency we face. We think the time has come when we must look at doing that.

I want people to dwell a little bit on the term "cost of living". If we think about the term "cost of living", it is an absolutely disgusting phrase. Think about it - there is a price tag attached to living. There are companies who make money by giving or not giving people the things they need to live. It is considered acceptable that private for-profit corporations control those things people need to live and have the power not to give them to people or charge so much for them that people cannot afford them. These are things that people need to live. This is not discretionary spending like popping off somewhere for a holiday or going to a very expensive restaurant, but things people need to live. There is a cost to it and a price tag and there are people who profit precisely from the fact that a person may not be able to afford those things or that there is a shortage in the supply.

That is obscene, but it is the reality of the cost-of-living crisis. Hundreds of thousands of families, pensioners, students, working people and people with disabilities are fearful that they will not be able to afford the cost of those things that people need to live this winter - heating their homes, providing hot water, putting food on the table, paying their bills and paying their rent. What a terrifying prospect, yet at the same time, the companies that provide the things and own the resources that people need to live are enjoying a bonanza in profits. It is immoral and obscene that that could be the case, that the shareholders of those companies are enjoying a bonanza and people are sitting back who have done nothing yet are seeing their wealth and profits increasing while other people are scared, suffering and enduring real hardship.

This is not just true of energy, but also of the housing crisis. A man in his mid-70s came to me this week. He had worked all his life in construction - he had been a project manager - and had built many of this city's large shopping centres. He broke down in tears in front of me. He is 76 years of age and he just broke down in tears because his landlady was selling the place where he had lived for years. He has never been on the housing list, so he has no chance of getting social housing. He will go on the list, but he does not have even the remotest prospect of getting somewhere to live and there is nowhere for him to rent. As he cried in my office, he told me that he had paid his taxes and worked all his life and had never asked for anything but was now facing the prospect of homelessness. He asked me what he was supposed to do. This is the type of suffering that people are enduring.

It is not morally acceptable that old people, people with disabilities and families with children will turn off their heating this winter when they need it, will not have money to pay their bills and will cut back on food. The State has the resources, and the companies which are generating significant profits, have the money to sort out this crisis and shield people from it if there is a willingness on the part of the Government to use those resources and redistribute the profits that are being made in order to protect those who are suffering. It is entirely a political choice of the Government to protect either the interests of ordinary people or the interests of large corporations.

I will make a brief proposal. With all the money the Government has, it should buy up some of the empty properties that are being constructed at the moment. Either investment funds buy them or we use our money to buy them in order to deliver affordable and public housing at scale quickly. If we use that extra money to do so, we will make a serious dent in the housing crisis. This is a serious proposal. The Government is saying that it has all of this extra money but that it cannot depend on that money in future years. That is a fair point, but it is worth saying that corporate tax receipts are due to increase from €15 billion to €20 billion this year. That means that there has been an increase of approximately 33% in the corporate sector's profits this year. That is staggering. We should deliver public housing by using that money to buy up all of the property that is being constructed and will otherwise be bought by international investment funds. We could deliver thousands of additional public housing units. Where anyone is threatened with eviction from a housing assistance payment, HAP, or rental accommodation scheme, RAS, tenancy, let us buy the house immediately, prevent people from being put on the street and save the State money in the long term.

8:45 pm

Photo of Mick BarryMick Barry (Cork North Central, Solidarity)
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We are debating measures that need to be introduced to assist people with household bills. The clearest and simplest step that can be taken is to increase welfare benefits and pay to rates that match inflation. However, this would go directly against the policy of the Government. The Government effectively wants to cut workers' pay, including the pay of the lowest paid workers. The increase in the minimum wage is below 8% and the rate of inflation. The Government cut the minimum wage last year and is planning to cut it again next year.

The Government's policy is also effectively to cut the pay of 300,000 public sector workers, among them the heroes and heroines of the pandemic, including our nurses and other health service workers. A pay increase of 6.5% was negotiated by the Government. However, given the rate of inflation, that is clearly a pay cut. Inflation is currently in or around 9%, which does not even account for the large hikes in gas and electricity prices that are to happen on 1 October. I appeal to those public sector workers who have a vote on this issue to vote "No" and reject the Government's pay offer, which is in reality a pay cut. I appeal to working people and trade unionists not to vote for a cut in their pay.

This raises the question of what the alternative is. The president of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, ICTU, and general secretary of Fórsa, Mr. Kevin Callinan, stated when the negotiations concluded that it was the best deal that could be got on the basis of negotiation. What this implies is that, if a better deal is to be got, there will have to be a struggle in order to get it. That is correct. Vote "No" and get the unions to ballot for industrial action. Some 300,000 public sector workers have the power to face down the Government. Cost-of-living protests are taking place this month and will continue through the winter. If the unions put their power and influence behind those demonstrations and mobilise as many of their members as possible, those demonstrations could put the Government under considerable pressure.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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Deputies Fitzpatrick and Shanahan of the Regional Group are sharing time.

Photo of Peter FitzpatrickPeter Fitzpatrick (Louth, Independent)
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We will have five minutes each. I welcome the opportunity to speak on this important issue of major concern to people. The spiralling cost of living is a hot topic in every household. Ireland is one of the most expensive places in Europe to live, with prices 40% higher than the EU average. With prices skyrocketing at rates not seen for four decades, people are lying awake at night concerned about how they are going to survive the winter. My office is receiving high volumes of calls from constituents who are genuinely terrified. They are already extremely financially restrained and simply do not know from where the extra money is going to come. For example, new figures have revealed that the cost of living is more than €4,000 per month for a family with two children. That is unsustainable.

The Government needs to get on top of this situation now, as the current measures that have been introduced are not enough. For example, the introduction of free school transport has not worked. On the contrary, many students have been left without transport, which is an added worry for parents who, for the past number of years, have relied on this form of transport to allow them to get to work on time. It was acknowledged by the Tánaiste this week that free school transport was a mistake, given how it is overprescribed. The Taoiseach disagreed with this statement at the talk-in this week, positing that the long-term embedding of behavioural changes could counteract the impact of this failing, but these behavioural changes will not help the affected families now. What are we going to do about this situation now?

The cycle to work scheme is a great initiative, but only if one is living in close proximity to work or college. Therefore, travel costs for commuters to work and college must be reviewed, especially for rural Ireland. Spain has recently implemented measures offering free travel on state-owned suburban and regional public transport from 1 September to 31 December 2022, thanks to a windfall tax.

Germany introduced a nationwide ticket costing €9 a month, offering unlimited travel on most public transport, apart from express intercity trains. Such initiatives will provide relief to commuter costs amid this cost-of-living crisis. I urge the Government to consider implementing similar in Ireland as soon as possible.

The fuel allowance payment is a great payment which helps many people. However, it is a means-tested payment. Recently, I had a constituent being refused due to being €6 over the income threshold. As the fuel allowance payment is €33, this €6, which is less than one hour’s work, has cost this lady €27 per week. Due to the rise in the cost of living, the means assessment qualification must also rise. Instead of raising the monetary allowance granted for fuel allowance, I suggest an increase in the means assessment so it can benefit more people who badly need this assistance. For example, middle-income workers, like my constituent, are constantly missing out on allowances such as the back-to-school clothing and footwear allowance due to being slightly over the means test.

We also need to look at the combined housing costs such as rents, mortgage rates, gas and electricity, which are the most expensive at 89% above the EU average. While the Government's ten-year housing plan may bring relief in the long term, more immediate action is needed to relieve the burden on renters, with many people paying more in rent than they would if they had a mortgage. Also, many students are at breaking point amidst the accommodation crisis, choosing to stay in hostels or sleep in cars or even tents rather than face a long commute each day. This is not good enough, especially leading into colder weather. Although a rent-a-room scheme could prove successful, the sharp increase in rents throughout the country reflects a worsening of the unprecedented scarcity of rental homes. The latest figures from daft.ie showcase that the cost of renting in Louth has risen by over 8% in the past year, with average rents now at €1,420. Because Louth is located along the commuter belt, my office has received numerous calls from students near and far from across Ireland in search for accommodation for the upcoming year. This includes students who are hoping to study in Dublin. If they have to commute, they may as well locate themselves closer to their chosen college, in places such as Dundalk and Drogheda.

Additionally, many of my constituents who have been working from home since the pandemic are weighing up their options coming into winter. Many consider it more-----

8:55 pm

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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The Deputy’s time is up.

Photo of Peter FitzpatrickPeter Fitzpatrick (Louth, Independent)
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-----costly to work from home with the price of heat and gas on the rise, as well as rising electricity and Wi-Fi costs.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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I have to interrupt the Deputy because there are three speakers.

Photo of Matt ShanahanMatt Shanahan (Waterford, Independent)
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Over the space of 12 months, there has been a €1,000 increase in annual household gas and electricity bills, with some commentators suggesting this could end up reaching up to €6,000 per annum. This is unsustainable for households and domestic businesses. I know of business owners who are paying up to €100,000 per year in gas and energy bills and who are now facing tariffs that would bring that cost up to €360,000 per year. The economic and the social fallout for families and businesses will be staggering without immediate and significant market interventions. We also need to demonstrate our ability to accelerate capital power development projects that we have been virtue signalling now for some time.

Earlier today in the Dáil, the Taoiseach said he expects that this crisis could extend up to a further 18 months and possibly beyond. There is no doubt the climate policy we have adopted, although laudable, is coming back to hurt us. Carbon taxes and the removal of indigenous energy production are having a significant effect on our ability to meet this crisis. Today, I also heard the Taoiseach reference our position that we would like to remain with what European solidarity will propose, but we ourselves have to be proactive. To that point, I will raise some issues that will probably come up in our Regional Group’s motion tomorrow.

Can we consider banning the threat of any electricity supply discontinuation to domestic or commercial customers during this crisis, particularly to hospitals, homes, schools and nursing homes? We should suspend the licensing regime that is in place for forestry thinning. This is dysfunctional at the moment. Using those thinnings and brash, we could reopen the 250 MW midlands power stations in Lanesborough and Shannonbridge to burn biomass. This is eminently feasible and just requires policy legislation. We could also set a national cap on the unit price of electricity within the State, raising a long-term loan to pay for verifiable surplus cost to power generators, which would be repaid through electricity bills over a 15-year period. We have seen this being enacted in other countries in the EU. Furthermore, we could exempt planning for rooftop flush mounted solar PV panels on domestic, agricultural and commercial buildings. I am sure it is not lost on the Minister that the Irish Farmers’ Association, IFA, is across the road tonight, having with met the Minister today. That is a policy we signalled two years ago and we have yet to implement it.

As the Minister knows well, we are in a crisis, as are families and businesses. We need to act proactively to protect the vulnerable, but we also must consider the livelihoods of our citizens and our business owners.

Photo of Peadar TóibínPeadar Tóibín (Meath West, Aontú)
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If there was ever a crisis that highlighted the chasm between the pressure people are under and the lack of Government action, this is the crisis. Though this issue has been ramping up week after week since before the Russian invasion of Ukraine and at least since the start of the year, week by week, families are being squeezed dry of their money. Whole sections of our population are now falling into food poverty. Some 47% of the State is in energy poverty at the moment. It is outstanding that such a section of society would be dealing with such energy poverty. We have the ability to pay for energy, accommodation, food and necessities such as those, but this is slipping through the fingers of even middle-income families under the Minister’s Government.

The most frustrating element of all of this has been the apathy and the unwillingness of the Minister’s Government to change and take action. If I were to give a sentence summing up what the attitude of the Minister’s party has been, it is laissez-faire. Let the people look after themselves in this. It is mortifying that the Tories in London have committed to a windfall tax for energy companies before the Minister’s Government has even considered the issue at all. Green Party ideology is at the heart of this problem. We are the only country in Europe that does not have a gas reserve at a time when gas supply and gas prices are at the heart of this issue.

Incompetence is also at the heart of this issue. Just this week, Irish people have been able to draw down payment tariffs for the microgeneration of electricity in terms of small-scale wind, small-scale solar and bio-digestion. This is being done ten years after the Six Counties have done so and we are the last country in Europe to be able to do that. Just this week, I listened to the Minister, Deputy Ryan, speak in measured tones about the seriousness of offshore wind energy as all the Ministers gathered around from all over Europe. Twenty years have gone by and seven offshore wind turbines have been built off the coast of Ireland. That is incompetence on a grand scale. The Minister refused to reduce the VAT on fuel, citing that the European Union will not allow it, yet Spain has already achieved this and has reduced the VAT on fuel. The Government is still allowing for carbon tax to increase year after year. It is unforgivable that the Government is increasing carbon tax when people are suffering so much. The Government has refused to decouple the price of non-gas generated electricity from gas-generated electricity.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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I thank the Deputy.

Photo of Peadar TóibínPeadar Tóibín (Meath West, Aontú)
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Again, it points the finger at the European Union on this issue. However, Spain and Portugal-----

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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We are over time.

Photo of Peadar TóibínPeadar Tóibín (Meath West, Aontú)
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-----have managed to get a dispensation in this and they are carrying on. The Government’s attitude reminds me of Homer Simpson when he ran for mayor under the slogan, “Can't somebody else do it?”

Photo of Carol NolanCarol Nolan (Laois-Offaly, Independent)
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We can safely say that the only temperature that will be rising over the winter months is the temperature of ordinary people's anger and frustration. That anger has already reached boiling point in many locations throughout the world as people see the collapse in access to affordable heating and energy supplies. Gas and electricity prices are fast reaching the stage of becoming the equivalent of a second mortgage payment. Social housing tenants are living in dread of not being able to pay their rent. Older people are being terrified into darkness and cold because of the sheer and utter largely imposed crisis that our own energy policies have created.

The forced march towards reliance on renewable sources of energy without a proper system of alternatives being in place represents to my mind one of the most despicable acts of political negligence and contempt I have ever witnessed towards the lives and businesses of ordinary people. Energy suppliers are leaving the market due to unsustainable costs.

We saw, only yesterday, the announcement by Panda Power that it will be exiting the Irish market, the fourth supplier to do so. This will lump tens of thousands of customers onto higher tariffs at a time of already exorbitant costs. The Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications has been going around like some kind of political ostrich, with his head in the sand. The Greens, with their spineless allies in Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, put their hands to their ears like little children, when everyone with an ounce of cop-on and objectivity was pointing out the sheer stupidity of the current approach to energy policy. All three Government parties, through recklessness and mismanagement, have condemned our people to a drop in living standards not seen in 40 years. Government Members should hang their heads in shame.

9:05 pm

Photo of Danny Healy-RaeDanny Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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If members of this Government, including the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, were in any other jurisdiction, they would be tried for high treason. The first thing the Government did was to close down Bord na Móna. The price of electricity has gone up every day since. Everyone driving on the roads is being robbed by the tax content in the cost of fuel. Four energy providers have left the market this week. There will be no competition and ESB bills are going to be dearer. It looks like 150 social houses in County Kerry will remain vacant because there is no funding for voids to turn them around because the Minister wants them to be retrofitted to the highest standard. There are 150 houses vacant. The former Taoiseach, the Tánaiste, Deputy Varadkar, stopped the drilling in 2019. The gas fields of Kerry, the Corrib and Kinsale could be probed further. Some 200 million barrels of gas and oil could be drilled out of Barryroe. The Government pays no heed to that. It refused, point blank, planning permission for Shannon LNG and the Minister is against it. That is criminal. People on the road are paying the amount of tax they are paying and then the Minister suggests that one car would do everyone in a village. Yet, he and his party members and Ministers fly first class and peer down on the lot of us. That is what this Government is about. If it were any other jurisdiction, its members would be tried for high treason because the people in the country are highly regarded.

Photo of Michael Healy-RaeMichael Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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The reality of the crazy decisions that this Government has taken is hitting home with people now. With the whole energy issue we have, the fact is that people are facing a winter where a bag of coal could possibly cost €45 or maybe even €50. The Government should not be telling people to go and retrofit their homes. These people do not have €20,000, €30,000 or €40,000 underneath the bed to produce before they can avail of the grant that is being provided. There is a craziness to what the Government has done. I have heard people today, for example, in the Labour Party, giving out about the cost of living when they are after blindly voting for carbon taxes. To be honest, there were people around this Chamber who said the Government was not going far enough, fast enough. Where are they now? What are they going to tell the people in their constituencies? They all voted for increased taxes. Now is the time that there should be no increased taxes because people need to pay their ESB bills to keep the lights on. There are disabled, vulnerable and older people who are really fearful now of the bills that are coming in the post. They cannot afford to fill oil tanks because of the cost. They are worried about the price. Even a drum of gas to work a gas cooker is expensive. These people are really struggling. The Government and those who support it and have supported it, including Opposition Members, have done this. We cannot let them be forgotten about because they blindly supported the Government. It is crazy.

Photo of Richard O'DonoghueRichard O'Donoghue (Limerick County, Independent)
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Businesses trying to build an enterprise on green energy are having obstacles put in their way. I understand that it is proposed in a Bill on Committee Stage to introduce planning regulations that will allow 60 kW of solar panel power generation. That is not sustainable for any business because any business needs 100 kW of solar panel power. Any house that was built in the 1980s and 1990s would have run on 12 kW of energy. Any house built from the 2000s onwards with heat pumps and geothermal heating needs 16 kW of energy. Yet, businesses are being capped at producing 6.5 kW if they want to help, even though they can produce 20 kW to help and give more back to the grid. The Government has regulated that 6.5 kW is the maximum they can produce. That is not going to help in the case of people trying to ensure there is renewable energy for somebody else. It is an absolute joke what the Government is doing to the people of Ireland at a time of crisis with electricity bills.

Photo of Michael CollinsMichael Collins (Cork South West, Independent)
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The crisis this country finds itself in is mainly down to bad Government decisions. The Government has gone to lengths to blame everyone but itself through this recession. The Rural Independent Group has been warning of this shocking recession coming. Instead of taking fast action, the Government has thrown gallons of petrol on the fire. The carbon tax that was heaped on the people of Ireland was completely supported by Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, the Green Party, Sinn Féin, the Labour Party, the Social Democrats and the usual nod-and-wink Independents. We pleaded with the Government not to go ahead with that tax, as people could not afford to pay the extra to fill the home heating oil tank. They could not afford to pay the extra for the diesel and the petrol. All the same parties that are whingeing and crying now did not give a damn. They crucified the ordinary people to get cash to pay for pet projects around our capital.

In my constituency in west Cork, I have met shop owners, including the owners of Centra and SuperValu stores. I have met representatives of the hotel, farming and fishing sectors. Many more businesses and people in west Cork have turned to me as they know I was the only Deputy in west Cork who spoke of a crisis when all others were in favour of crucifying the people further. This recession makes all previous recessions look like a holiday. It saddens me to see that this Government is totally inactive. Instead of finding quick and fast solutions, such as cutting the tax take on fuel and taking on energy companies making mass profits, it is kicking solutions down the road. Instead of helping in a time of crisis, it is boasting about huge tax takes but is not giving anyone hope of getting anything major back.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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Cad a dhéanfaimid feasta gan adhmad? Cad a dhéanfaimid feasta gan an páirtí Glas? This is unbelievable and bizarre. The Government is literally trying to starve and perish the people with its policies. I actually believe that now. Kindergarten children would not do what the Government has done. It shut down the plants and power supplies and then tried to say we have no ESB. EirGrid told our group 15 months ago that there was a threat. The Taoiseach, after his meandering around Béal na Blath, came up and said the Government would set up an investigation. He will go down in history for setting up more investigations and inquiries, and whatever else, to see why we did not know about the energy crisis. This is part of the global world. On the 21st of this month there is another big global meeting. I am sure the Minister for Foreign Affairs and others will be attending as our representatives. To hell with the people. It is all a power grab. The Government does not care about the people. I used to talk about the little people and the poorer people, but it is all of the people of our country now. We are supposed to have a sovereign government here. All that is bothering it every day is Ukraine and Europe. To hell with our people. To hell or to Connacht is back again in style.

We cannot keep up with the price increases. Many energy companies have left the market. Here we are rubbing our hands today. Parties voted for more carbon tax and full carbon tax. Now they are whingeing. They cannot have it both ways. If they vote for these issues and for their pet projects, they see where it ends up. We should open up Barryroe again. We should get Shannon LNG going again and reactivate our peat plants.  Imagine, the peat plant in Lanesborough was dismantled and is now functioning in Poland.  We are importing peat from Poland and other countries.  As I said, the white coat men should come along and pick up a few of the people here who are making these policies.

Photo of Thomas PringleThomas Pringle (Donegal, Independent)
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I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for the opportunity to speak on this very pressing issue.  I completely support this motion to introduce measures to assist with household bills.  It has been a difficult summer for many households across this country and I know that many in County Donegal have been struggling to keep up with the never-ending rise in household bills.  What I have found extremely alarming is the level of anxiety among my constituents.  There is a strong sense of fear of this coming winter and sheer panic at the thought of trying to make ends meet.  Surely, when met with such anxiety among the citizens, the Government should recognise its own failure.

This is a failure to protect households and a failure to provide any type of comfort to those worrying endlessly about what is to come.

We should have had an emergency budget by now but instead we have let people face the full impact of rising prices alone. We read stories every day of people having to choose between heating and eating, yet the Government still seems completely detached from this reality. RTÉ aired a devastating documentary on Monday night entitled "Broke" and I implore everyone to give it a watch to see what is happening on the ground. The documentary told of Ireland’s cost of living and the incredible wave of emigration that has been seen in recent months. A business in my home town of Killybegs featured and the business owners told the story of how their popular restaurant was forced into closure. The customers of the restaurant are experiencing huge increases in costs as well as the business itself. That is the problem and that has not been recognised at any stage by the Government. It is time to start listening to the people. Where has the clock gone? Will we keep on going? There is no time left.

9:15 pm

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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There is no power to run it.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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The two and a half minutes are up.

Photo of Thomas PringleThomas Pringle (Donegal, Independent)
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They are up; I should have said nothing.

Photo of Michael FitzmauriceMichael Fitzmaurice (Roscommon-Galway, Independent)
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First, on the voucher the Government gives out for electricity, I hope that this time people who live over their premises get the rebate back because the last time they did not. Second, if the Minister of State wants solutions, I have a suggestion. In six to seven weeks, Lanesborough and Shannonbridge power stations can burn biomass. We are exporting biomass because we have no place to use it and we could use it there. I have talked to people in the ESB and they said it is no problem and it would take six to seven weeks to get it up and running. I mention Derrybrien wind farm. Here we are saying that the EU said this, that and the other. Is the EU our master now or are we going to leave people cold and in the dark? The reason this has happened is bad policy from the EU down through the years. What has happened in this market is the ESB was here one time and because of EU law it had to be broken up, no more than Bord Gáis is being broken up at the moment. Now the EU is finally seeing that it was a mistake that this was done through the years. If the ESB was in total control of our energy and was able to put the money into it then it would not have us in the mess we are in at the moment.

I want to hear the plan the Government has going forward because I heard that the emergency task force has met. From what I have heard there does not seem to be a plan going forward. The one thing that needs to happen is that if the data centres are knocked off first, heavy industry is protected and we must make sure that the ordinary people are provided for. To be frank about it, if we run through any more problems or people worrying in this country, we will need to bring a motion to the Dáil on the Minister and the position he has taken. The lights could go out in this country and it cannot be tolerated. We are running a risk with the agenda we are following. Whatever madness has gone on during the past two or three years between Europe and politicians in Ireland means we will run short of food, heat and electricity.

Photo of Marian HarkinMarian Harkin (Sligo-Leitrim, Independent)
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The motion condemns the dithering by the Government, despite the urgency of the cost-of-living crisis. This statement is true because compared with our EU counterparts the Government has not responded in a proportionate way up to now. TheFinancial Times analysis, which covered September 2021 to August 2022, examined the funding allocated to households and businesses to shield them from the cost-of-living crisis as a percentage of GDP. Greece was top of the list at approximately 4.6%; Italy was at 3%; France at 1.8%; the UK at 1.5%; and Ireland at 0.25%. That tells its own tale. I acknowledge we are expecting a significant increase in budget expenditure but up to now we are way behind and budget day will have to deliver a budget bazooka to deliver the package that households and businesses need because the bills of so many small businesses, service providers, farmers and families are out of control at this stage. This evening, as we debate in this House, many are struggling to pay previous bills and the thought of what is facing them in the coming weeks and months is paralysing many. We needed an emergency budget before the summer recess. The cost-of-living crisis is not starting in budget week for my constituents in counties Sligo, Leitrim, Roscommon or Donegal. It started nine months ago, and while I wait to hear about the specific Government actions, many families, households and businesses are struggling badly.

I fully support the call for a windfall tax. Some companies are making obscene profits on the backs of struggling families. Their businesses will flourish, while SMEs, delicatessens, small service providers and restaurants will close their doors and farmers will be unable to pay their bills. We should have moved much earlier, like other EU member states did. When the operating profits of Bord Gáis Energy grew by 74% in the first half of this year while the ESB, Energia and SSE Airtricity will see their income from wind energy increase sixfold, it is reasonable to say we are late to this table. In any suite of measures we need to see a substantial increase in the income threshold eligibility for fuel allowance, a significant increase in fuel allowance and much broader eligibility scope for carers and all those with disabilities.

Photo of Joan CollinsJoan Collins (Dublin South Central, Independents 4 Change)
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I support the motion. We are two weeks away from the 2023 budget and promised measures to alleviate the cost-of-living crisis. Like most responses from this Government I expect it will be too little, and it will certainly be too late. We should have had a mini-budget in the early summer. This is not just a crisis in heating and lighting for people and it is not a crisis confined to the winter months. People have been suffering from the cost of living over the summer months and what is kicking in now is that energy costs will cripple people, as well as the cost of their food shops. It is also a crisis in rent and rising food prices, especially staples, with a 10% increase in inflation in the past year. That means those on starting incomes will get a 10% cut and it will be higher for those on low wages or welfare, who spend one quarter of their incomes just meeting their basic needs. Today we had the announcement of an 80 cent increase in the hourly rate of the minimum wage, bringing it to €11.30. This is well below the median rate, which is probably closer to €14 per hour. It also does not equate to a basic weekly wage, given that large numbers of part-time workers often only work for 15 to 20 hours per week. The trade union movement should be coming out strongly for a €15 per hour minimum wage, linked to a major recruitment campaign, not just to sign up workers but to organise workers in the workplace to fight to end the scandal of low pay.

On the question of energy prices, there are mixed messages coming from the Government, with the Minister saying the Government prefers a credit and Deputy Coveney on the radio this morning not ruling out a cap in prices. The reality is that we need both, as the motion calls for, a cap set at June 2021, alongside targeted measures for those most in need. No one in this Chamber needs a targeted measure, and certainly not one in the order of €600. The price of energy was capped in France, Spain and Portugal and it has benefited the people there. The inflation rate is just below 6% in France compared with ours. It also stops companies from pushing up prices and gouging people because it is easy to see who is doing that. I also support a publicly-owned and not-for-profit energy system, including the nationalisation of all existing energy generation in the State to address the energy and climate crises.

A mass protest took place in Cork on 17 September leading to one in Dublin next Saturday, 24 September. Theses have been organised by the Cost of Living Coalition, which includes a wide range of groups representing pensioners students trade unions left parties and mica protestors. I will be on that protest and I encourage people to come out in their tens of thousands to demand the action that is needed to confront this crisis.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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I apologise to Deputy Pringle that I cut him short. I deprived him of vital speaking time.

Photo of Thomas PringleThomas Pringle (Donegal, Independent)
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The Leas-Cheann Comhairle will have to make it up to me.

Photo of Ossian SmythOssian Smyth (Dún Laoghaire, Green Party)
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I welcome the debate and I thank colleagues from all sides for their contributions. This is clearly the main item of interest and concern to Irish people, who are facing unprecedented wholesale gas prices, which directly impacts electricity and gas prices in our homes.

We know that over the coming winter we will face higher energy costs, as continued price rises take effect. As I previously outlined, the Government has taken action in 2022 in response to rising energy prices and has put in place a €2.4 billion package of policies to support consumers. The Government is aware that this is not enough and further action will be needed. In April and May, 99% of domestic energy accounts were credited with the electricity costs emergency benefit payment. The total cost of the scheme was just under €377 million. This was of benefit to an extraordinary number of households and is in addition to increased funding for supports such as the fuel allowance and funding to reduce VAT on gas and electricity bills and excise duty on petrol and diesel, making a total allocation of €267 million. Of that, €202 million was taken from carbon tax receipts. That money was sent to the SEAI for residential and community retrofit schemes in 2022.

The Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications has published a review of the strategy to combat energy poverty. A new action plan will set out measures for this winter, as well as longer term measures, and will be published shortly after the budget. A cross-departmental steering group chaired by the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications has been established and is developing the new action plan. My Department has also been engaging with relevant Departments and agencies on a bilateral basis. This process is running in parallel to the Estimates. The group will also work with the ESRI and the CSO as a research network to improve the measurement and monitoring of energy poverty in Ireland and to provide insights that enhance policy design to protect vulnerable households and ensure supports are targeted towards those most in need.

In relation to Government policy in this area, I emphasise that electricity and gas markets are commercial, competitive and in line with EU policy. They result in greater choice for consumers and businesses in terms of suppliers, products and prices. The position of successive governments for almost 20 years has been that competitive energy markets result in greater choice for consumers and businesses in terms of suppliers, products and prices, and support competition to drive down prices. Within this overall competitive framework, the best long-term policy is to support households with their energy costs through energy-efficiency measures to provide sustainable and long-term protection against energy poverty, to continue with the development of indigenous renewable electricity and to enable Ireland to reach EU renewable energy targets and our own national energy and climate target of delivering at least 80% of renewable electricity by 2030.

We need to promote further electricity interconnection, both to the EU and the UK, and further integrate with the EU internal energy market. In pursuing our objectives of decarbonisation, we need to support those who are vulnerable. Our collective efforts have led, for example, to date in 2022, to over 2,350 free upgrades being provided to homes at risk of energy poverty through the SEAI's warmer homes and warmth and well-being schemes.

The renewable electricity support scheme, RESS, has already begun delivering sustainable and cost-effective indigenous renewable electricity projects. Projects under the first RESS auction are expected to contribute an increase of approximately 15% to our renewable energy generation capacity by the end of 2023, while projects under RESS 2 are expected to deliver an additional increase of nearly 20% to our renewable energy generation by the end of 2025. To date, RESS 1 has seen 353 MW of new renewables connected to the grid, pushing grid-connected renewables to approximately 5 GW. This year will be a record year for the connection of new renewables. About 700 MW will be added, consisting of RESS and non-RESS additions, with over 400 MW more expected to be delivered by RESS 1 next year and close to 2 GW expected from RESS 2 projects between 2024 and 2025. We have had a record year this year and expect another next year. The nature of the RESS auctions means that renewable generators partaking in them pay back to electricity customers when electricity market prices are high. The CRU calculated that RESS 1 projects are expected to return €313 million to consumers through the public service obligation levy over 2022 and 2023.

Further electricity interconnection connecting our grid to the UK and France is under way, improving energy security and allowing us to export great amounts of electricity during high wind generation periods.

I re-emphasise the critical importance of the role of the CRU, which oversees non-price aspects of competition. It has taken and continues to take steps to increase transparency, customer protection and consumer engagement in retail markets.

As I have outlined, in August under response 6 of the national energy security framework and following engagement with customer representative groups, energy suppliers and network operators, the CRU announced enhanced consumer protection measures including an extension to moratoriums on disconnections, better value for those on financial hardship meters and promotion of a vulnerable customer register.

I will outline the Government's commitment to helping households with their energy costs, particularly low income households and those in danger of energy poverty. I have already provided detail on the various welfare allowances, which include the fuel allowance, the living alone allowance and the household benefits package. The Government is acutely aware of the impact on households of increasing energy costs. The Government's primary response is to increase funding for the social welfare system to counter rising costs of living, of which energy costs are one of the biggest drivers. To address this directly, budget 2022 increased the weekly rate of the fuel allowance. Throughout 2022, the Government has responded to rising energy prices with further increases to that allowance.

The Department of Social Protection also pays an electricity or gas allowance under the household benefits scheme. The household benefits package is separate from the fuel allowance scheme and a further €203 million will be spent on the scheme in 2022. Over 483,000 households will benefit from this to assist with their household bills, including gas and electricity bills. The gas and electricity element is paid at a rate of €35 per month, 12 months of the year. Targeted supports provided under the supplementary welfare allowance scheme, the exceptional needs payment and the urgent needs payment may be made to help to meet an essential, once-off cost which an applicant is unable to meet out of his or her own resources. In addition, under the supplementary welfare allowance scheme, a special heating supplement may be paid to assist people in certain circumstances who have special heating needs.

I reiterate that there are supports in place to assist with household and business energy costs and mechanisms are there which can be used to provide further assistance. Moreover, our regulatory framework underpins a competitive market in which consumers can make considerable savings. That framework also provides protections to consumers via the energy regulator, the CRU. As set out in the amendment, the Government has already put a €2.4 billion package of measures in place to support people to meet the cost of energy. It continues to monitor this unprecedented and evolving situation closely to inform ongoing consideration of further action, particularly in the context of the imminent budget 2023. I welcome this debate and thank all Deputies for their contributions.

9:25 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I thank the Minister of State. To respond, Deputy Ellis, sharing with his colleagues.

Photo of Dessie EllisDessie Ellis (Dublin North West, Sinn Fein)
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It has come as a huge shock to those in my constituency of Dublin North-West who depend on domestic fuel oil to see that domestic fuel costs in Dublin, which averaged around 68 cents per litre just last year, have since increased to a staggering €1.32 per litre, having reached a peak in May of almost €1.76 per litre. It costs €1,300, on average, to fill a tank. How long the fill would last depends on usage. A poorly insulated house uses more fuel. Larger families use more fuel as well. A full tank might only last a couple of months before a second fill is needed in order to get through the remainder of the winter. This is beyond the means of many pensioners and low income families. Many are being forced to choose between putting aside what little money they have to heat their homes and putting food on the table.

Everything is rising in cost. Electricity and gas suppliers and fuel companies have put up their prices on a number of occasions over the past year. A situation is developing where vulnerable old people will try to save money on energy costs by not always heating their home and putting themselves at risk of hypothermia. We cannot put the elderly or families at risk of fuel poverty.

Energy companies are making exceptional profits in these times of crisis. Bord Gáis, for example, has seen its profits surge by 74% in the first half of this year. It is reasonable that some of these excessive profits should be taxed and used to alleviate the dire circumstances faced by many people in my constituency.

Other measures to alleviate the hardship people are experiencing that the Government could implement now would be to give a double child benefit payment to every child, cap electricity prices and assist low and middle income families by means of a direct cost-of-living cash payment to support workers and families.

9 o’clock

Families are suffering now and, as winter approaches, it is going to get worse. Now is the time to implement remedial measures to alleviate some of the pain resulting from this cost-of-living crisis.

9:35 pm

Photo of Brian StanleyBrian Stanley (Laois-Offaly, Sinn Fein)
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The windfall tax we are proposing would be an anti-inflation measure. Sinn Féin is putting forward a proposal to protect households from any further price gouging by big electricity suppliers. We are calling for electricity prices to be reduced and capped at 2021 levels throughout the winter period, until at least February 2023. Irish households have experienced soaring price hikes and energy costs as well as other crippling increases in prices in a whole range of areas including food, transport and others. They badly need support. There have been almost 50 energy price increases over the past year. The Financial Timesplaces Ireland 26th out of 27 countries in the EU with regard to State support for households during the energy crisis. Those are the facts as set out by the Financial Times. This Government can no longer sit on its hands while workers and families struggle and people freeze with the cold this winter. The so-called market is broken. Sinn Féin is calling for a proactive response to this crisis. We would establish a fund of €1.6 billion, which is affordable, which would be ring-fenced from this year's budget surplus of €4.5 billion. That is without going near the contingency fund of €2.5 billion. This would be supported by revenue from a windfall tax on energy companies.

This windfall tax would be applied to any excess profits made by electricity suppliers as has been done in a number of other European countries. This is an anti-inflationary measure which would reduce prices at source and help right across the economy. The €1.6 billion fund would provide households with energy security and certainty throughout the winter. It would save households in the region of €600 on their bills and would stop price gouging by the big suppliers. Our approach is in stark contrast to the Government's, which is inflationary. We are not writing a blank cheque for energy companies to extract profits. Any excess profits would be taxed to stop this. That is the difference. Instead, we want to fix energy prices so that ordinary people can be protected and so that households have certainty.

Sinn Féin also proposes cost-of-living cash payments. Those earning €21,000 a year would receive a cash payment of €500 while those earning €40,000 would receive €407. The figure would be tapered further on incomes up to €70,000, beyond which nothing would be received. These emergency measures would help households throughout the winter and are badly needed.

With regard to energy security, a number of years ago, I raised in this Chamber the need for the power stations at Shannonbridge and Lough Ree to be kept open. The power station in Edenderry has been co-fired and is now moving completely to biomass. The same thing could be done in those two power stations. I pointed out that these are in pivotal positions on the energy grid. The cutaway bogs surrounding the stations have ample space for solar panels. They are plug-in points to the electricity grid. We need dispatchable power. Wind power could also be plugged in at these sites. The wind does not blow all of the time. There could also be a hub for biomass to be connected in. These should have been power generation hubs. We were not listened to. I published a document five years ago, Powering Ireland 2030, that would have moved us to 80% renewable. We got no hearing on it. The media and those on the Government benches were not interested. Nobody was interested. I raised some of these issues with the Minister of State's party leader, who was on the Joint Committee on Climate Action at the time, and he told me that, if we were stuck for power, we could import nuclear power from Britain. At that time, I told him that what we needed was dispatchable power here in this country. We could have had that. We could have had the dispatchable power we need but we were not listened to.

One of the best ways to get that dispatchable power is through biomass. We were in a position to do that. Those two power stations should have been converted. That was not done but should be done now. Those two power stations need to be reopened for that purpose and to become plug-in points at those pivotal positions on the national energy grid so that we can generate power at those sites from solar and wind but, because the wind does not blow all the time and the sun does not shine all the time, also from biomass.

Gas must also be recognised as a transition fuel. We have to recognise this reality. There are coal mines in China as big as County Dublin and County Laois put together. I am not arguing for that here. I know we have to move away from fossil fuels but we also have to recognise the reality that gas results in lower carbon emissions than coal. We can agree on that much. The emissions are far lower. That should have been done at the time. Instead, Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and now the Green Party have sleepwalked us into this energy security crisis. What is the Government's proposal? It is to import generators. I heard the Taoiseach on the radio yesterday morning. He did not inspire confidence in me. If I heard him correctly, he said that it would be 2023 before these emergency generators were in place. I understand that a figure of €40 million was mentioned. What are these to be fuelled with? Is it diesel? Is that the case? What are we going to fuel these emergency generators with? We had a sustainable way of reducing carbon emissions. Fair enough, we had to move away from peat but we could have used biomass, biogas, anaerobic generation and all of the other means we could use to generate electricity. We did not do that. This Government, and every Government over the past 12 years, has dragged its heels with regard to planning regulations for offshore wind generation. After 20 years, we have seven turbines off our coast. It is a scandal. We should be exporting energy. We should be a net exporter of energy to the rest of Europe. We are not doing that. Instead, we have sleepwalked into this crisis. We are now hostage to the big energy companies, which have us over a barrel. We need to take some control.

The measures put forward by Sinn Féin tonight go some way towards doing that, as we hope the measures to come out at European level over the next week or so to tackle the big generators also will. That serves that purpose. The specific measures we are proposing will help to deal with the suppliers and the smaller generators. I also ask the Minister of State, as a matter of urgency, to forget about all the culs-de-sacthe Government has allowed us to walk into and to look again at Shannonbridge and Lough Ree. Let us face up to common sense and work with good companies such as Bord na Móna, which we own, and the ESB to get this power going. EU rules can be waived in an emergency. The Minister of State and I both know that. In an emergency, all bets are off with regard to the rules. We both know that. Let us move to a greener future in which jobs and energy security are produced and in which prices are lowered. Let us implement the measures put forward by Sinn Féin tonight along with the once-off financial package for households.

Amendment put.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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A vote has been called, which is deferred until the voting block arises next week.