Dáil debates

Wednesday, 21 September 2022

Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

 

12:02 pm

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
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Tá muintir na hÉireann ag tabhairt ar na sráideanna agus tá siad ag éileamh ar an Rialtas beart a dhéanamh le dul i ngleic leis na fadhbanna móra ó thaobh na géarchéime costais mhaireachtála. Má dhéanann an Rialtas praghsanna leictreachais a ghearradh go dtí an leibhéal a bhí siad roimh an ngéarchéim agus iad a choinneáil ag an leibhéal sin le linn an gheimhridh, tabharfaidh sé faoiseamh agus cinnteacht do theaghlaigh a bhfuil eagla orthu ó thaobh arduithe breise le linn an gheimhridh seo.

Last weekend in Cork, 5,000 people marched against the Government’s failure to tackle the soaring cost of living. I have no doubt that thousands more will take to the streets in the capital city of Dublin this Saturday for the very same reason. Many of those who marched in Cork on Saturday had never protested before but they felt that they had no other choice. They told their stories of cutting back on essentials, of going without or of barely just getting by. I want to share some of the stories that they told the media over the past number of days.

Francis said

The people are being robbed. I'm frightened. I have to do without certain things to pay my electricity bill. I'm dreading the coming winter.

Margaret said:

It's going back to the 1950s. In the 50s, when you got up in the morning, there was only the fire to keep the whole house warm, freezing cold floors and cold running water. It's going back to that time.

Donna asked:

Do we should just buy a load of candles instead of turning on the lights. It is at that point for me, not turning on the immersion and washing in cold water in the middle of winter.

Sheila said:

The cost of electricity, fuel, food is frightening. If you run a car, I really feel for anyone on a State pension, they're afraid. People are living hand to mouth. You can't budget when you don't know what is coming down the road.

“When you don't know what is coming down the road” - that one sentence sums up all of the fears and worries that households are feeling across the State as they try to cope. It is easy to see why people are afraid. It is so simple; just look at what they are facing. Rents, and food and energy prices are going up. The fear is especially real when it comes to the extortionate electricity bills that households face. People are absolutely outraged when they see the scandalous hikes in standing charges by big profiteering energy companies that they are inflicting on households. These hikes are ensuring that people are fleeced even if they do all that they can to cut back on their energy use. The Government needs to act decisively. It needs to cut electricity prices back to pre-crisis level and cap them at that level to help get families through this winter.

This is a simple and straightforward plan to help more than 2 million households reduce their electricity bills at a time it is most needed. Sinn Féin’s plan would give certainty to households this winter. The Minister knows that this is possible. When I raised it with him last week on the floor of the Dáil, I told him it was happening in many other European countries. In the past 48 hours, the Dutch and the Danes have announced price certainty for their citizens. Cutting and capping electricity prices makes sense.

What households need now is clarity. What households are begging for is certainty - certainty that they will be able to make it through the winter. That is what a cap will do - reduce electricity prices to pre-crisis levels and fix them at that right throughout the winter. It is the right choice. It is the choice that a growing number of countries across Europe are making. I ask the Minister again if he will act to cut electricity bills back to the summer of 2021 levels and cap them at that level through the winter until the end of February.

Photo of Eamon RyanEamon Ryan (Dublin Bay South, Green Party)
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We absolutely acknowledge that these price rises are hitting and hurting our people and businesses across the country and we have to do everything to protect them. We also have to at every time remind our people that the reason for that is the war in Ukraine and the Russian Government’s use of energy of a weapon of war, which is a direct attack on our people. We will continue, as we have done over the past year, to look at the best way to do so.

I do not believe the Sinn Féin plan is the right one. I want to set out why. It is very similar to what the Tory party is looking to do. In fact, Jacob Rees-Mogg this morning, I believe, set out pretty much the same policy for Northern Ireland. Sinn Féin is following a Tory Government approach. I do not agree with it. The first problem in principle is that it would actually benefit the better off, who tend to use more energy, have bigger houses and bigger bills. They would benefit most from the approach the Deputy is suggesting.

Secondly, as in the Tory party approach, it would benefit the energy industries.

That is something that we do not need to do at this time. What we need to do is to apply windfall charges and give that money back to people rather than providing a cap where they get a free pass in any amount after that.

Third, I recommend the Deputy read the article written by Martin Wolf and published in The Irish Times today and originally in the Financial Times earlier in the week. The economics of this are deeply uncertain in terms of the potential cost and length and the effect on the public purse. We have to be careful with that because we need it to provide for social protection, such as the investment in social welfare increases through this difficult time.

The Deputy's plan is simple but it is not the right one. This is not easy. Every country has slightly different circumstances. We have to adopt and look at what the right approach is. I believe our approach is the right one - first and foremost with the likes of the investment in the fuel allowance and other social welfare provisions because we have to protect those on lowest income first and most.

The Deputy is against giving people an energy credit. I argue that it is actually the right approach because the price increases are such that they affect everyone. One could address that with a cap but that would really benefit the better-off. It is better to do the credit, mixed with social welfare contributions.

The third element we need because businesses are going to be hard hit this winter in particular is to look at business supports, which is what we are doing as part of the preparations for the budget package. Again, in doing that it is best to target. There is a particular problem for many small and medium businesses that happen to have high energy use, be that a refrigeration system, a heating system or other power usage. That is down to the local shop, café or hairdresser. There is a variety of businesses that are particularly badly affected so we should target and address that.

That targeted approach in social welfare and how businesses are supported is better than the Tory giveaway that the Deputy is advocating. There has been a lot of debate on this issue in the House in recent days. We need to recognise that the fundamental way to get us out of this is to have ambition in the development of our own renewable power such that we are not held to ransom. We also need to focus on being good on reducing energy use and being energy efficient and flexible.

Lastly, what we are doing is working in a European Union approach because the real story here is that Vladimir Putin is looking to divide Europe. That is one of the key things he is looking to achieve in the coming six to 12 months. We are working on that at the European energy council and the Heads of Government are working at the European Council to provide a united Europe response. That is why we will use European methods towards windfall taxation. It is why we will work with Europe on how we reform the market rather than going with the Tory party in a way that does not serve our needs.

12:12 pm

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
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The Minister is actually the Minister who opposed the reforms at European level last October. He opposed them. Sinn Féin has been raising these issues since last year. My colleagues here have been raising them with him. He has Tories on the brain. Maybe that is because he is in bed with the Irish Tories here. The fact is the Government has done the second-least amount in Europe to support households and businesses. Let us look outside of Britain. Yes, people living in Newry or Strabane will have certainty in terms of their bills, but so will people in Austria, France, Croatia, Poland and Romania. In the past 48 hours, it has been announced in the Netherlands. Denmark has announced it. The minister in Slovakia has announced that the Slovakian Government is going to bring in price certainty for customers. Why is that? It is because this is part of the European toolbox. The European Union set out that price certainty is one of the measures that countries could introduce. The Government is asleep, however. It is asleep and does not recognise the pressures that families are under. It does not recognise the pressure that all those individuals whose comments I have relayed on the floor of the Dáil are under or their concern at the sky-rocketing energy prices.

We need two things. We need to bring energy prices back to the level they were at before the crisis and then keep them there for winter. Why does the Minister oppose what Austria and France, Croatia, Poland, Romania, Denmark and the Netherlands have done and what Slovakia is going to do?

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Thank you, Deputy. The time is up.

Photo of Eamon RyanEamon Ryan (Dublin Bay South, Green Party)
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To think this is simple in terms of how one reforms the market or in terms of immediate measures does not serve the Irish public because it is anything but simple. At the energy council, however, we have been centrally involved in working with the Commission. I brought many of the energy ministers to Dublin last week, where we continued to discuss what is the right approach. Every country has slightly different circumstances. The five-point plan presented by the Commission for the immediate response in the next six months is the right one. It is to tackle the inframarginal pricing so that the generators to which the Deputy would give a blank cheque pay some of the money back. We need to take on the fossil fuel industry. It, too, has to make a solidarity contribution. We must recognise that liquidity supports are needed because there is a risk that the energy companies could fall. Critically, we need to be good at energy efficiency and demand management because that is a way to save money for people. By being clever in how we use energy, we can protect people.

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
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Answer the question. Why do you refuse to do what other countries in Europe-----

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Please, Deputy, let the Minister answer.

Photo of Eamon RyanEamon Ryan (Dublin Bay South, Green Party)
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The fifth measure has not been drafted into precise regulations but has our support. In terms of engagement with the energy ministers, the Taoiseach and I-----

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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The time is up, Minister.

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
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On top of that, other countries are giving price certainty. Go back to sleep. The Government is doing nothing.

(Interruptions).

Photo of Eamon RyanEamon Ryan (Dublin Bay South, Green Party)
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It is capping price using our purchasing power at an international level.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Deputy Doherty should not be intervening.

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
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The Minister will not answer the question.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Sorry, the time is up.

Photo of Eamon RyanEamon Ryan (Dublin Bay South, Green Party)
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The Deputy just does not like the answer.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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The Minister is finished.

A Deputy:

He is finished alright.

(Interruptions).

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Deputies, please. A little bit of decorum.

Photo of Catherine MurphyCatherine Murphy (Kildare North, Social Democrats)
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For months now, the Minister has been telling people to reduce their energy use. In fact, he previously told people to be clever with their energy use. He said that people should use their smarts to cut down on energy use and save money. People have been doing that. All over the country, people are desperately trying to dramatically reduce the energy they use. They are doing so because they can no longer afford to pay soaring bills. Increasingly, people to whom I speak are telling me they are afraid to turn on the gas or electric. They are afraid of the size of the bill they will receive and how high those bills will go through the winter.

People are being clever and conscientious but can the Minister explain how people can use their smarts to reduce the punitive standing charges that are now being imposed by energy companies? These standing charges bear no relation to the amount of energy a consumer uses. One could live in darkness for the next 12 months and it would make no difference to the charge one would pay. Those charges are rocketing. An article published in the Irish Independentthis week outlined the extent of the increases in standing charges. Some suppliers are now charging up to €700 on gas and electricity combined. Customers with pre-pay meters, who are usually the most vulnerable, are paying up to €900 a year. That is gouging. There is no other word for it.

As the Minister is aware, the standing charge was introduced as a means of reflecting the fixed cost associated with providing households with gas and electricity. It has nothing to do with the unit cost of energy. There is no reason it should be increasing at a rate that is similar to the increase in energy costs. I heard the Minister speaking about this issue on the "News at One" radio programme earlier in the week.He blamed the war in Ukraine and he blamed Putin. All present know Russia is responsible for the global energy crisis but some companies are using it as a pretext to jack up their prices. Representatives of the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, CRU, appeared before the climate committee yesterday and stated they were powerless to impose limits on the level of standing charges. They said it was a matter for this House to legislate. The Consumer Association of Ireland has also called on the Government to act. It wants the Government to empower the regulator to have a role in setting equitable standing charges that actually reflect the fixed infrastructural cost they are supposed to reflect. If the Minister really wants to see people rewarded for cutting their energy use, will he do something about the exorbitant standing charges?

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

Photo of Catherine MurphyCatherine Murphy (Kildare North, Social Democrats)
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I do not want to hear him devote his response to the geopolitical problem. What is the Government going to do and when it is going to do it?

Photo of Eamon RyanEamon Ryan (Dublin Bay South, Green Party)
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The first message we have to give to people is that, yes, we have to be smart and clever, but we also have to stay warm and comfortable through the winter and protect everyone's health. No one should be getting any message that involves restricting that comfort and basic health. The CRU appeared before the Oireachtas committee yesterday to addressing questions in respect of this and other issues. It is important, however, to give confidence to people, particularly the most vulnerable, that they will not be left in a situation where they do not have those basic comforts. There will be a moratorium on disconnection for vulnerable customers. It has been extended from 1 October to 31 March.

That moratorium is for all domestic customers. It now extends to the end of February. There will be an extended debt repayment period. From 1 November, debt repayments plans will be extended to give households a minimum of 24 months to repay debt. There will be reduced debt burden pay-as-you-go top-ups. New measures mean that debt repayment levels will be reduced to 10% from 25% on pay-as-you-go customers' top-up payments. For example, on a €20 top-up, only €2 will go towards the debt repayment instead of €5.

I will make two final points. There will be better value for those on financial hardship meters. All customers with a financial hardship meter will be put on the cheapest tariff from their supplier from 1 December 2022. Electricity suppliers must actively promote the vulnerable customer register. I could go on. There are other measures. This month, we will deliver a scheme that we introduced and that is taking time to deliver. It means that for those at highest risk who may depend on medical equipment, we will take specific measures in the houses identified. All of that is an important signal to give to customers not to turn off the heat or lights. We will all manage carefully but we do not want to see anyone going cold, lonely or at a loss.

On standing charges, as the CRU stated yesterday, this is not an issue over which it has regulatory control. We have to do a review. Earlier in the debate, we heard about what is being done in the European Union. There is a wider approach where we are looking at the whole-market systems and regulatory system. That cannot be done quickly or easily. An entire energy market cannot be completely changed in a week or two.

12:22 pm

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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It is in your hands.

Photo of Eamon RyanEamon Ryan (Dublin Bay South, Green Party)
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It takes time to work out what is the best regulatory system. We can and will look at this issue in regard to what the regulatory and market structures are but first things first because we have to get through a tough winter. We have to stand up to Mr. Putin in doing that. The first and most important thing is to protect the most vulnerable. We have a reduced use campaign, social welfare payments, protections for businesses and credits for customers. That is the combination of measures we are going to apply. I believe the approach we are taking in that regard is the right one.

Photo of Catherine MurphyCatherine Murphy (Kildare North, Social Democrats)
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I deliberately focused on one issue the Minister could do something about now, namely, extending the powers of the Commission for Regulations of Utilities in regard to standing charges so that where gouging is happening, the CRU could set an upper threshold that reflects the actual cost of providing the infrastructure. It does not relate to the unit cost of energy. Why is it increasing to the extent that it is? Approximately 217,000 electricity customers are in arrears and some 700 were disconnected in the first six months of this year. There are 148,000 gas customers in arrears already. Some of the most exposed people, those using meters, have standing charges of up to €900. This is absolutely mad. It has nothing to do with the price of energy-----

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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And a war.

Photo of Catherine MurphyCatherine Murphy (Kildare North, Social Democrats)
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-----and how it has to be dealt with at European level. Please deal with this one issue. It would make an immediate difference and it could be done quickly.

Photo of Eamon RyanEamon Ryan (Dublin Bay South, Green Party)
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Where there are excess profits, which is Deputy Murphy's concern, going to the energy industry-----

Photo of Catherine MurphyCatherine Murphy (Kildare North, Social Democrats)
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I spoke about standing charges.

Photo of Eamon RyanEamon Ryan (Dublin Bay South, Green Party)
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The real concern among members of the public is that they should not pay too much. The best way of addressing that, be it in a fossil fuel company, from which we will seek a contribution to feed back to the Irish public, or on the----

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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When?

Photo of Eamon RyanEamon Ryan (Dublin Bay South, Green Party)
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-----electricity side where we will do the same, is through the mechanisms I mentioned, specifically the effective windfall taxes we have within the European Union mechanism.

With regard to changing things, were it so easy that we could address and solve all of these problems with a flick of a switch or at a stroke of a pen whereby the regulator has a different position. I do not believe that would necessarily address the current problem or crisis. We are seeing a number of energy companies exiting rather than entering the market. This is so complex that, as I said in the Dáil debate last night, the view that we can completely reform and change a market such as this in an instant is not true.

Photo of Michael Healy-RaeMichael Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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I was shocked to hear the Minister proposing to ban gas and oil boilers by 2025. This is a huge mistake and I strongly urge the Government to review the facts and listen to the experts in this sector to solve the climate issue in the domestic heating sector. This is a knee-jerk reaction by the Minister that is damaging rural Ireland already. Firebird Heating Solutions, which is next door to me at home in Ballyvourney, Kingspan and Grant Engineering are members of OFTEC, the Oil Firing Technical Association. They are the experts and I ask the Minister to listen to them.

For 50 years, Ireland has been the envy of the world in the area of central heating. The industry employs tens of thousands of people throughout the country. This is something we should admire and be proud of. The Minister, with ill-informed decisions and ill-informed advisers, will replace Irish jobs and companies with non-Irish imports. This is a tragedy, especially when there is no need to do so. We all know the climate problem at hand. Currently, there are almost 700,000 liquid fuel boilers in operation in Ireland keeping homes and families warm in the winter. In general, these boilers are in rural homes which are generally poorly insulated. The home upgrade cost is large, even with the recently announced SEAI grants. In general, those living in these homes are the least well-off in our society and cannot afford the larger retrofit programme, even with the grants involved. The Government wants to retrofit 400,000 homes with heat pumps. This is not a valid option for the majority of the 700,000 homeowners who use liquid fuel. Ireland currently does not have the workforce to retrofit 400,000 homes. When did the Minister last look for a plumber to work in his house? He would have had a tough job to get plumbers to do 400,000 jobs for him.

This move to retrofit 400,000 homes is really a move to electricity. We are currently facing - if the Minister has not realised it - an electricity shortage this winter. Factories are planning production shutdowns due to electricity shortages. Older people are very nervous. How do we expect to fit on the electric grid 400,000 homes that are currently being run off-grid? Boilers run on 90 W motors for a short time during the day. Their use of electricity is minimal.

The Minister is also planning to put thousands of rural jobs in jeopardy again. The Government needs to look at all options. There is no silver bullet. Electricity is not the only show in town and I would like the Minister to realise that. For the past ten years, Firebird Heating Solutions, Kingspan, Grant Engineering and OFTEC have been doing engineering studies on the use of HVO, hydrotreated vegetable oil, in our boilers. They have successfully completed all trials and are ready to go. HVO is fossil fuel free. It delivers a 90% reduction in CO2 levels, potentially saving 32 million tonnes of CO2. Will the Minister wake up to issues such as this, if that is possible?

Photo of Eamon RyanEamon Ryan (Dublin Bay South, Green Party)
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The example of what we did on central heating is a very good one. It is fascinating to look at the census from the early 1960s which shows that about half of Irish homes did not have running water or an inside toilet.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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They do not have them now either.

Photo of Eamon RyanEamon Ryan (Dublin Bay South, Green Party)
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By the mid or late 1980s, as Deputy Healy-Rae said, around 95% of houses had central heating. There was an incredible change over two and a half or three decades. We are going to have a similar change in the next two and a half or three decades. We have to do it. We know we have to switch from the use of fossil fuels to stop the planet from burning. Another advantage of this is that we will switch to our own natural resources and local fuel. We will still be using central heating systems. In many cases, we will still use the same radiators. It will depend on the particular house. However, the switch in this case will be to heat pumps because there is a huge efficiency gain. Underlying this change is that it makes energy sense through the gain it provides in consistent, controlled, high-quality, lower cost heating. This is where we are going because it makes economic sense, it makes for better, healthier and warmer homes and we will be using our own power supply rather than power imported from Russia, Qatar or anywhere else on distant shores.

I agree with Deputy Healy-Rae on the quality of Firebird Heating Solutions, Grant and Kingspan Engineering. We could add Munster Joinery, which is down the road from Ballyvourney, and Glen Dimplex.

Those first three companies also distribute, sell and make heat pumps. We can and will be good at this. We do not serve people by trying to stick with fossil fuels. The signal of this war is to switch away from fossil fuels and we can and will do that in a way that helps and protects our people.

HVO will have a critical role, as the Deputy said. It is low carbon and involves taking a waste product and turning it into something that can replace oil. The clear policy and approach set out is to use those HVO fuels in the transport system. It will take that sector longer and be more difficult for it because the haulage industry and power plant vehicles with which the Deputy will be familiar need oil. HVO is more expensive and where we do not have an easy electrical alternative, it makes more sense to use it in the transport solutions we need, but not in domestic heating where we have a better alternative.

That is what the Government policy sets out. The Climate Action Plan 2021 last autumn sets out how we do this, including through a phased step away from fossil fuel towards the electric alternative. That is the sensible plan which keeps money in Irish people’s pockets and creates better, warmer and healthier homes, and it is the one we will stick to.

12:32 pm

Photo of Michael Healy-RaeMichael Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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I will tell the Minister the plan. There are four points. HVO is fossil fuel free heating because it is made from a waste. It should have a zero rate of carbon tax, zero duty and a VAT rate of 5% applied to it, if the Government is serious about climate issues in rural Ireland. It is not a fossil fuel, so why are we taxing it as such for heating? That is a good point. The Government should implement that. The Government can also show how serious it is about the climate issue by extending the biofuel obligations scheme to include HVO. That is sensible and it should do that. The Government should work with Irish companies such as Firebird Heating Solutions, Kingspan and Grant to agree a joint plan to make Ireland the world leader in this fossil fuel-free liquid heating and create even more jobs for rural communities. We are already leaders in liquid fuel central heating, as I outlined. Irish industry is ready, willing and able to deliver fossil-free heating to rural areas and has been for years. The Government has been very slow to show that it is willing to engage with it. I am not asking the Minister but pleading with him to listen to common sense for once in his life by listening to what I have just said. I ask him to implement this proposal. At least he would be showing he is awake and listening to somebody making a sensible point.

Photo of Eamon RyanEamon Ryan (Dublin Bay South, Green Party)
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What I am listening to at the moment is the people in the industry who are investing at scale and at speed. The Whitegate oil refinery, which we have retained, is important at this difficult time and is a strategic holding and business that gives us access to fuel supplies.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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The Government will not even talk to it.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Please allow the Minister to answer.

Photo of Eamon RyanEamon Ryan (Dublin Bay South, Green Party)
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It has said that the approach and policy we are taking will involve using some of the waste products and it can invest and use them in the transport fuel supply chain. This is the most secure and best investment but not the only one. We are going to invest massively in hydrogen and in ammonia in Cork and Shannon because that is where the offshore renewable power will come ashore. At the industry conference held this morning, it was evident that this is where the money, investment and jobs are going. This is where people agree that it is the right climate energy plan. This approach is working. The investment is happening. Decisions are being taken on the back of the plan that will protect us from imported fossil fuels. We should not change course and take a different direction.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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Baineann mo cheist le hábhar atá gar do chroí an Aire, is é sin cúrsaí oileánacha. Sa chomhthéacs sin, agus mar is eol dó, táimid ag fanacht leis na cianta ar pholasaí cuimsitheach do na hoileán uilig ar chósta na tíre. Faoi dheireadh thiar thall, tá an chosúlacht ar an scéal go mbeidh an polasaí sin críochnaithe roimh dheireadh na bliana, dar leis an Aire, Teachta Humphreys, ar aon nós, agus beidh súil ghéar á coinneáil agam go gcomhlíonfaidh an Rialtas an gealladh sin.

Bhí próiseas comhairliúcháin mar chuid lárnach d’fhorbairt an pholasaí sin agus chuir ionadaithe ar son mhuintir na n-oileán in iúl d’oifigigh na Roinne, i measc gnéithe eile, go raibh gá práinneach athrú a dhéanamh maidir leis an mbealach atá beartaithe chun infheistíocht a chur ar fáil do na hoileáin faoin scéim LEADER agus, go háirithe, go dtabharfaidh aitheantas do na hoileáin mar réigiún ann féin. Is éileamh é sin a luíonn le réasún ó thaobh dáileadh acmhainne de. Is é sin an réiteach is ciallmhaire, dar le muintir na n-oileán, agus aontaím leo. Is iadsan na saineolaithe sa chomhthéacs seo.

Faraor, níl faighte acu go dtí seo ach an chluas bhodhar. Táim ag impí ar an Aire agus ar an Rialtas go n-éistfidh siad le muintir na n-oileán agus leis na hionadaithe a chuir in iúl go soiléir na hathruithe atá ag teastáil, go háirithe, má tá siad i ndáiríre faoi pholasaí cuimsitheach agus inmharthana do na hoileáin a fhorbairt, a fhoilsiú agus a fheidhmiú, bunaithe ar mhianta agus ar éilimh mhuintir na n-oileán.

In a week in which the Minister happily launched sustainable development goals in what will be an annual event lasting for a week, which I welcome, I have a specific question on the policy being developed for the islands. Finally, after a very long time, it looks like we will get this policy before Christmas. As part of the consultation process for developing that report, the representatives of all of the islands asked for a number of things. Very specifically, they asked that the funding model under the LEADER programme be changed and that the islands, altogether, ar fud na tíre, be recognised as one region and that the funding would go to them as one sub-region. Despite my best efforts and the best efforts of my colleague in Galway, Deputy Ó Cuív, and other Deputies, there is little hope of a change so far judging from the answers we have got. In a week in which we are talking about sustainable goals, tá deis aige anois beart a dhéanamh de réir a bhriathair and to do something practical to ensure that there is sustainable living on the islands.

Photo of Eamon RyanEamon Ryan (Dublin Bay South, Green Party)
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Tá brón orm mar níl ach beagán Gaeilge agam agus ní raibh mé ábalta gach focal a thuiscint ach but if I understand the Deputy's question correctly, it addresses the issue of the future of our islands and how we, as a Government and people, can ensure they thrive. I will give a number of reflections on that issue. I had the pleasure of meeting Comhdháil Oileáin na hÉireann in the past year. I am very familiar with many of the islands as I spend a great deal of time on a variety of them, which I find to be a very rewarding experience. It is completely appropriate for the islands to get special attention and treatment because there are tremendous benefits in that in so many different ways. They are often a microcosm of wider Irish society and a place where we can test and see how we progress. My great hero is Richard Douthwaite, the great green economist, who used Inishbofin as an example. He said one can measure what is coming in and coming out and measure progress. The sad truth about our islands is that there has been a story of decline in population during many decades in the history of the State. I am glad to say that there are signs that this may be about to turn. We should look to encourage, accelerate and facilitate that.

Coming out of the Covid-19 pandemic, I note that on a number of islands where people are now able to work remotely they are starting to see that the islands are brilliant places to raise a family, live and work, often in different locations at the same time.

I support the Deputy’s proposal with regard to the LEADER programme that the islands be treated as a distinct region because they have characteristics that make them different to the rest of the country.

There are also very good and interesting examples in education, which is critical. On Inis Oírr, for example, I understand the secondary school has provided a great example that we could use on other islands. In many ways, if we were to work collectively together, we could have schools sharing resources and shared distance learning. That is critical in getting young people raised and educated.

One of the benefits of the islands is that they tend to have people who are very skilled in a variety of different ways. Island people have to be adaptable and able to turn their hand to different tasks. We could do with teaching the rest of the country some of what we call the island skills.

We could actually go to the islands and bring back those skills to the rest of the country in a way that would be very beneficial.

On energy, we have to treat islands differently because, with fossil fuels, it is very dangerous and expensive to bring such fuels out to an island and back. I was proud in my last term as Minister to double the grants that are specifically for retrofitting insulation of buildings. We have seen in places like Inis Mór in the Aran Islands a real success story, although it needs to go further, in terms of how community energy projects can work to improve housing, such as the example I mentioned earlier whereby we switch away.

My answer to the question is "Yes". These are áiteanna speisialta and we have to treat them in a different way. We have to work collectively within the islands to make sure we get the best schools, energy systems, transport systems and jobs. The Deputy suggested the LEADER scheme could be a path towards that.

12:42 pm

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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On another day, I would enjoy reflecting on the islands but, at this point, we are on the policy and the policy has to reflect what the people want. I do not have the time to go into that. The urgency is to get the policy published and then get it based on legislation. Specifically, I welcome what the Minister is saying in regard to LEADER. If I hear him correctly, he is saying he agrees that the funding for LEADER should be changed to facilitate the demand, or if not the demand then the request of the islanders that the islands be recognised as a specific region or subregion rather than aligned with each county throughout the country. That is specifically set out in the representations to us. I clearly hear the Minister say he supports that, which I welcome. I am asking him now to do something about that. If he does not take action, the powers that be are going to proceed with the existing scheme, which does not recognise all of the islands as a subregion or a region of their own.

We are past talking about what the islands can teach us. We know that. They are a microcosm of how to do things right. They have shown resilience. What we need now is to do something for them in terms of policy, legislation and funding. The most specific way to do that, this week or next week, is to change the funding model.

Photo of Eamon RyanEamon Ryan (Dublin Bay South, Green Party)
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My understanding is that the Joint Committee on Social Protection, Community and Rural Development and the Islands visited Bere Island last week or two weeks ago. I will be honest and say that the members of the committee also need to advise, to recommend and to come forward with regard to the specific policy decision and what the approach is.

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

Photo of Eamon RyanEamon Ryan (Dublin Bay South, Green Party)
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My understanding is that the Minister and the Department are considering that. They should take into account what the Oireachtas committee said, what the island people are saying and any further and other evidence that they can present.

I mentioned the experience I have had on the islands not to try to divert but to try to use that experience as I see it to try to inform that debate. As I said, I think we are at a point where we could very much turn the tide in favour of people living on our islands and that being an example and a benefit to our country. I very much support that.