Tuesday, 4 October 2022
Ceisteanna - Questions
I propose to take Questions Nos. 8 to 14, inclusive, together.
The Cabinet committee on economic recovery and investment first met on 8 July 2020. It has met on a total of 21 occasions, most recently yesterday, 3 October. The next meeting has not yet been scheduled.
Membership of the committee comprises the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Employment and Trade, the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, and Transport, the Minister for Finance, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform and the Minister for Media, Tourism, Arts, Culture, Sport and the Gaeltacht. Other Ministers or Ministers of State attend when required.
The Cabinet committee on economic recovery and investment is responsible for issues relating to the economy and investment. It had an initial focus on developing the July jobs stimulus in 2020 and has since overseen the development of the Government’s economic recovery plan as well as the review of the national development plan. It is also overseeing the development of government’s national digital strategy. Regular updates and analysis of economic developments are also provided at these meetings. Issues relating to the economy are regularly discussed at full Cabinet meetings where all formal decisions are made.
A recent national port study published by Wind Energy Ireland found that Belfast Harbour is the only port on the island ready to construct offshore wind farms. The sector has repeatedly warned the Government that it cannot build 7 GW of offshore wind energy by 2030 from a single port. The opportunity that renewable energy affords our island in terms energy security, affordability and job creation cannot be overstated. There is an urgency to all of this so we need a step change in the pace of delivery from Government that reflects the scale of the challenge in meeting the 2030 target.
If the State does not adequately and strategically invest, we will lose high-quality jobs and supply chain business to other countries. We need to invest in our grid, in developing battery storage and the green hydrogen sectors and in reducing the cost of producing renewable energy on the island. The offshore wind delivery task force is due to complete its work by the end of 2023. Its work will conclude with a roadmap. What preparation is being made now by Ministers to act on the task force strategy once published?
I have an email in front of me from an accidental landlord who has a tenant in receipt of the housing assistance payment, HAP. The person has to sell the property but does not want to evict the tenant. The landlord asked Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council if it would it buy the place at a reasonable price of approximately of €295,000. The council said it would not do so if a tenant is residing in the property. This is a social housing supported HAP tenant. For four years I have been highlighting a similar case in the St. Helen's Court apartment complex owned by a vulture fund, which is trying to evict. This is going on all over the place.
Will the Taoiseach please answer without clever sliding around with language, as the Minister does on this when he says he has told councils they "may" buy properties where people could be evicted? Can he instruct local authorities that they must - I emphasise “must” - buy houses where families and households are going to be evicted into homelessness, particularly when they are already HAP, RAS or leasing tenants?
It is truly shocking that the Government and the EU have been so slow to address the broken electricity pricing system. Last Friday, the EU Governments finally agreed to act. Sadly, “as little as possible and as late as possible” seems to be the policy there, with a token windfall tax that lets oil and gas companies keep the vast majority of profits. How will that even work for the likes of Corrib gas, which has €1.2 billion in write-offs against profit? The tax will not even apply to the electricity companies we see making bumper profits in Ireland, and the ESB made €679 million profit last year. The plan calls for the decoupling of the price of renewable electricity from gas only to set the price against coal. Anyone will tell the Taoiseach that coal is also at historically high levels, which means we will continue to pay four times the price for wind energy. Does the Taoiseach accept we will still be paying far over the odds for renewable electricity? Will the energy companies continue to make huge windfall profits?
We know the greatest risk to jobs and economic recovery this winter is the ever-growing cost of energy and the energy security crisis, yet the Government has not countenanced any kind of cap on energy prices despite most other EU countries pursuing some version of a cap. We saw a report on Euractiv at the weekend. I see the Taoiseach is shaking his head so he might clarify this. It appears the EU energy ministers have now asked the Commission to examine how the Spanish and Portuguese model of a price cap on gas can be extended to the rest of the EU. Can the Taoiseach confirm if Ireland is in support of a price cap on gas at an EU level? Can he confirm whether the Government has considered any mechanism to cap the price paid for gas at the Corrib field? In our Labour Party budget proposals, we called for the temporary nationalisation of the gas field to help us to control the input price of the 30% of our gas needs that we produce here on this island alongside the implementation of the Spanish and Portuguese model, given they have limited the price of gas for electricity production. Has the Government considered either of those options and will it support the EU plans for a price cap on gas?
A tax warehousing arrangement allowed a business to park unpaid VAT and PAYE tax debts that arose from the Covid-19 crisis for a period of 12 months after businesses resumed trading, and there was subsequently a further extension. Support for businesses during Covid was appreciated by all, particularly employment supports, rate cuts and the opportunity to warehouse tax. Will similar arrangements be extended during the period of cost-of-living inflation?
We are very excited in County Clare to see enabling works under way to develop a 1,400 MW €15 million offshore wind farm off the coast of Moneypoint, the Green Atlantic wind farm. Just like Aberdeen in the 1980s, when it became Europe's petroleum capital, we can exploit economic opportunities in the west of Ireland. Will the Government support research and development, higher education courses in the region and spin-off industries, all backed up by robust local infrastructure? There is more to this than offshore wind. There is a whole spin-off industry that can be developed with the support of the Government.
Economic recovery, but for who? Tens of thousands of pay-as-you-go gas and electricity customers are yet to be convinced that the Government has a plan to protect them from disconnection this winter. Meanwhile, PrepayPower made profits of €14.2 million in 2020, up 27% from the previous year. It is majority-owned by Ulric Kenny, who increased his wealth by €30 million in 2020. A major shareholder is Andrew Collins. According to The Timesrich list, he made his third fortune from PrepayPower and is reported to have spent €1.7 million on an engagement ring back in 2014, when the country was reeling from austerity. The other big prepay energy company, Pinergy, is owned by Peter Coates, whose family are listed as the 16th wealthiest family in the UK, worth €10 billion, and their wealth increased by more than €200 million last year. PrepayPower is clearly a mechanism for transferring wealth from ordinary householders to the rich. Why will the Taoiseach not stand up to these profiteers this winter?
Last week, in the Minister, Deputy Donohoe’s budget speech, he said we would have an inflation rate of 8.5% this year and 7% next year, and he announced a series of increases in various payments, all inadequate and the vast majority below the rate of inflation. One group of people got absolutely no increase at all for the 13th year in a row, and that is foster carers. These are people who are providing vital care for children at about one twentieth of the cost of doing it in residential care and with generally much better outcomes. There are two rates of foster care allowance, one for children aged between zero and 12, which is €325 a week, and the other for those children over 12, which is €352 a week. That has not been increased since 2009. Since then, there has been at least a 20% increase in prices and they have not got any increase. This is not about paying foster carers; it is about ensuring they have the money to take care of the children in their care and provide the basics, such as food, heating and so on, but also extracurricular activities. Will the Government agree to increase the payment to carers?
Deputy McDonald raised the issue of Wind Energy Ireland. There is no question but that the next ten years will be an exciting ten years in respect of offshore wind development, and it is very important that we do that in a managed and controlled way. The Minister has already issued consents for the first seven wind farms and there is an auction to happen later in the year. That process is under way. The Maritime Area Regulatory Authority, MARA, the new agency under the maritime legislation, has been established and advertisements are out for the CEO of that agency, which is vital in terms of facilitating planning. The capacity of An Bord Pleanála in respect of wind energy and maritime developments in particular is being enhanced and supported through specific financial resourcing of extra staff. Ports are coming forward with plans in respect of developments and infrastructural investment so they can be ready to benefit from the ecosystem that Deputy Cathal Crowe correctly outlined in terms of the spin-offs that can happen in regard to wind energy. Deputy Crowe is correct that there is a huge potential spin-off, particularly for the west of Ireland and areas that are more rural. To me, this is the equivalent of the financial services sector over the next ten to 15 years. Ireland can become a net energy exporter because of the resource we have with offshore wind. The Government is determined to drive forward with this in every possible way.
Deputy Boyd Barrett raised the situation for somebody in a HAP house or on RAS who is being evicted, and said that a particular council did not see fit to buy a house. The Minister has made it very clear that they can buy a house and they should.
In a situation where somebody is in a HAP or RAS tenancy, they should not be evicted and the council should buy the house. That facility is now there and the Minister has made that clear to the councils. However, the Minister cannot make every operational decision in respect of every housing unit in every local authority area across the country. On another day, people in this House routinely condemn central government for overreach into local authority decision-making. The principle is that we want to stop or reduce evictions, and the facility now exists for local authorities to buy houses in situations like that.
The Deputy mentioned the European Union in terms of the energy security meeting and the windfall tax. We are committed to a windfall tax. The Energy Council last week agreed an approach to a windfall tax and a solidarity tax from fossil fuel producers and a windfall tax from wind generation. The Deputy referenced the ESB. We own the ESB. The State owns the ESB so the facility is there for the State to take a bigger dividend from the ESB in respect of any windfall profits that are made on the back of the crisis. Not all of its profits were on the back of the crisis.
Some had to do with financialisation products and so forth. We want the ESB to continue to invest in renewables also.
We do not believe in giving energy companies a blank cheque, which the Deputy's party does. The Deputy's party has a view that we should just give a blank cheque to the energy companies. We believe in giving supports to the consumers, not to the energy companies. We want to support the customers and reduce their bills and, at the same time, use the windfall tax and the solidarity payment to help the overall taxpayer in terms of meeting the needs of households, protecting jobs and businesses and so on, which is important.
Deputy Bacik raised the matter of caps. There are two issues. The European approach to caps is different from the Sinn Féin Party's view or the United Kingdom Government's view, in that some - not all - are looking at wholesale caps. What happened in Portugal and Spain had unintended consequences for energy security and supply. France ended up buying a lot of it because it cost less. This is a very complex market and we have to be extremely careful. We have a particular supply line from the UK and Norway, which is important in terms of energy security. I do not believe in any arbitrary cap that would undermine that security of supply. Having spoken to people in Europe - we had a meeting yesterday ahead of the meeting we are having later this week in Prague - the European Commission will in all likelihood be tasked with seeing if it can come up with a realistic set of proposals, which will be difficult to do for 27 member states because everyone is in a different situation. The idea that you could have a uniform mechanism is a bit unrealistic. For example, Hungary, Bulgaria and other countries have particular dependencies.
Deputy Cathal Crowe raised the issue of the Green Atlantic wind farm and the whole area of the west of Ireland. I think I dealt with this issue. We would be prepared to support courses and programmes in third level in the region.
Deputy Barry asked for whom the economic recovery was. It was for the 400,000 workers who were unemployed when this Government came into office and who are now working. That is fundamentally what the economic recovery is about.
In terms of prepay, there are mechanisms that the Government, with the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, CRU, is taking to try to alleviate the pressures in that area to make sure that people are not cut off or nothing untoward happens.
Deputy Pádraig O'Sullivan raised the matter of the tax warehousing facility and supports for businesses. We are concentrating in the initial phase on the temporary business aid scheme. This is in line with the European Union's temporary aid crisis framework. We do not envision the full panoply of schemes that we used for Covid-19, but we are going to keep the situation under review. We have to see how this scheme works in terms of uptake and at what level of sufficiency is reached. We are limited at the moment in terms of the temporary crisis framework that Europe deploys. Europe itself is reviewing that.
I think that covers everyone.
Apologies. The Government is going to examine that matter. It did not feature in social protection because it comes under Tusla, but the Government will examine that situation.