Dáil debates

Tuesday, 7 March 2023

High Energy Costs: Motion [Private Members]


7:55 pm

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I move:

That Dáil Éireann: acknowledges that:
— unsustainably high energy bills continue to put workers and families under significant financial pressure;

— average gas and electricity bills have more than doubled over the past two years;

— recent figures from the Economic and Social Research Institute estimate that the share of households in energy poverty has increased to 29 per cent, a record high;

— the Society of St. Vincent de Paul Ireland launched a report this week which confirms the number of households unable to heat their homes more than doubled in 2022;

— the Government demonstrated zero foresight and a complete inability to plan for the very predictable increase to prices when they refused to reduce and cap electricity prices, having been called on by Sinn Féin to do so, despite many governments across Europe having the wisdom to do just that e.g., Germany, France, the Netherlands, Austria, Poland, and elsewhere; and

— the reluctance from the Government to introduce a windfall tax has served to protect the excessive profits of energy companies;
— the fact that the most recent budget designed by then Minister for Finance, Paschal Donohoe TD, and Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Michael McGrath TD, left workers and families with no certainty in respect of rising energy costs and bills;

— the decision of the Government last month to leave households with no meaningful relief or support from now on for their electricity bills, which remain unsustainably high;

— the position taken by the Government and Minister for Environment, Climate and Communications, Eamonn Ryan TD, in resisting fundamental reform of the European energy market in October 2021, and until as recently as September 2022, which served to further protect the excessive profits of energy companies and leave households at the mercy of the markets;

— the position taken by the Government and then Minister for Finance in opposing windfall taxes on the excess profits of energy companies until as recently as August 2022, which served to further protect the excessive profits of energy companies; and

— the rip-off of Irish consumers at the direction of the then Green Party Minister, Eamon Ryan TD, and his Fianna Fáil Government colleagues since 2009, via the large energy user rebalancing subvention, which favoured big business at the expense of domestic bill payers; and
calls on the Government to:
— provide financial relief and certainty to households by reducing electricity prices for households to their pre-Ukraine War levels of June 2021, and capping them at that level; and

— introduce an energy windfall tax on the excess profits of large energy companies without any further delay.

In recent weeks, households have received energy bills through their doors that have caused shock and worry for people. A person from Tipperary who is on a modest income contacted me after receiving an electricity bill amounting to €622. She said that she cannot cope any more. She has cut her energy use by as much as she can and, to use her own words, she says that she sits in the dark most of the day to keep the lights off. That is the reality under this Government. The woman in question says that she is barely keeping her head above water. Another person who contacted me received an electricity bill for €1,100 in January. We have heard of Úna Ní Chonaire Fulham, who received a bill for €2,285 for a period of 71 days. Last week, one of my colleagues, Deputy Guirke, raised the case of Kitty from Trim, who is over 100 years old and who received an electricity bill for nearly €1,000 for a period of less than two months. That is what is happening in the real world. Energy prices are crippling household finances. They are driving households into energy poverty, hardship and despair. Over the past two years, electricity prices have doubled. Workers and families are trying their best to manage their finances and make the numbers add up but there comes a point where there is nothing left to cut and no more room to manoeuvre. People have reached that point.

Last week, Electric Ireland announced that it would reduce electricity prices by 10% but only for some of its business customers. For households, there was nothing. They, and those who are with other suppliers, continue to pay sky-high energy bills that are causing serious hardship and draining the incomes of all households. The Government made a decision last month not to provide any meaningful support to households with their energy bills until October at the earliest. That was wrong. The consequences of that decision will be dire but they will not be suffered by those on the Government benches but by people who are struggling to pay the bills and keep the lights on.

Much of the Government's justification for refusing to provide any meaningful support for households with their energy costs is that we are entering the summer months. However, if the Minister does not already know, he can read Central Statistics Office publications that will tell him very clearly that households consume as much electricity, if not more, in the months of April, May and June as they do in the months of October, November and December.

The only measure to support families the Government can point to in last month's announcement is the extension of the reduced VAT rate on electricity to the end of October. That will benefit the average Electric Ireland customer by €54 between now and then. That is less than €7 per month. Households continue to face extortionate electricity bills without any meaningful support and there is no further intervention by Government. That is simply wrong. The Minister cannot abandon these families in this way. He must respond to Kitty and to all of the other individuals who are afraid of their lives to see these types of bills coming through their letter boxes.

The wholesale price of energy has dropped over recent months. It is outrageous that energy companies are not passing on these reductions to their customers in full and that so many of them are set to enjoy massive profits on the back of these household hardships.

In many ways, the Government has facilitated, even defended, profiteering by energy companies during this crisis. It is apt that the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, is sitting opposite us today because he is the person who opposed reforms of the wholesale electricity market that would have cut company profits and reduced household bills. The Minister signed a joint statement with others in October 2021 opposing "any measure that conflicts with the internal gas and electricity market". For months, the Minister's colleague, then Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, opposed taxing the windfall profits that energy companies were making on the back of this crisis and said, it would be "the wrong direction to go." He said it would undermine tax certainty in the energy sector. The then Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, deliberately took the side of the big energy companies which were fleecing people and, like the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, abandoned ordinary people being fleeced in terms of high energy prices. It was under pressure from EU countries that the Government was forced to do a U-turn on both of these issues but its instinct to protect the profit margins of energy companies at the expense of struggling households was revealed.

The Government has delayed the introduction of these windfall taxes and will implement measures that will allow electricity producers to retain all of their windfall profits for the first 11 months of 2022. When the energy crisis hit households, the European Commission put forward options that governments could implement to protect citizens. One way was to regulate retail energy prices. Sinn Féin proposed this measure to reduce and cap electricity prices to provide certainty and financial support to households. The Government rejected it. Countries right across Europe are now doing what Sinn Féin has been calling on the Minister to do, which is to ensure that there is certainty for their citizens in relation to electricity prices. In Germany, The Netherlands, in France, Poland, Austria and elsewhere, they are doing what we were asking the Government to do but instead it has taken a decision to leave households at the whim of energy companies and deal with record energy bills that are simply unaffordable. That choice is the wrong one.

Today's motion asks the Minister to reverse that. Just like the Minister reversed his decision on windfall taxes and on the wholesale energy market, it is time he stood up for consumers and makes sure that Government acts to reduce energy bills for people.

8:05 pm

Photo of Darren O'RourkeDarren O'Rourke (Meath East, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I thank Deputy Doherty for bringing forward this timely and important motion. It is clear that Government can and must do more to protect energy customers. We have only to look at the recent reports which point to an increase of 135% in the number of people unable to heat their homes. According to the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, more than 40% of households are now estimated to be living in fuel poverty. Some 25% of parents have had to cut down on household bills, such as gas and electricity, in order to afford food for their families. Consumer energy bills have increased to, on average, €4,300 per year. Those in arrears number in excess of 282,000 for domestic electricity and in excess of 140,000 for domestic gas - in excess of 20% of domestic gas customers. At the same time, Shell's profits doubled to €36 billion in 2022. ExxonMobile made a staggering €51.5 billion profit in 2022 which equates to a profit of €5.8 million every hour. Profits at the Corrib gas field trebled in the first six months of 2022 to an estimated €560 million. In the first six months of 2022, the ESB's profits more than tripled to €390 million. Operating profits at Bord Gáis Energy increased by 74% in the first six months of 2022. While hiking charges for ordinary customers, Centrica, or Bord Gáis, said its earnings in 2022 will be eight times its 2021 earnings in total. In addition, Energia increased its profits by 50% in 2022. These are staggering and eye-watering statistics and it is clear that the greatest intervention a government can make to protect consumers is a windfall tax coupled with an energy cap or break. The Government, instead, has resisted those moves at every turn. That has significant consequences and comes at a significant cost.

Initially, when this Government estimated the potential impact from a windfall tax, it said it could bring in in the region of €1.9 billion based on the huge profits in 2022, in particular. Let us not forget that gas prices were in a place where they had never been before. There was a huge potential for Ireland. Of course, we are very limited in terms of fossil fuel companies, in that we have only Corrib, but the huge potential for Ireland is from the amount of renewables on our grid. We have such a weak windfall tax in relation to that. As confirmed to me in a reply to a parliamentary question today, it will run from December 2022 to June of this year. We are missing all of the considerable profits they had dating back to 2021. It is a disgrace and is directly linked the Minister and the Government delaying taking action.

Photo of Johnny GuirkeJohnny Guirke (Meath West, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Last week I raised the issue of massive electricity bills received by a 100-year-old woman and a 77-year-old man. Since then, horrendous stories started to pour in about excessive electricity bills and people not knowing how they will pay them.

I spoke to a carer the other day. She takes care of an 89-year-old woman. When she visited that woman last week, she had a coat and a scarf on in her own home in the middle of the day to keep warm. She will not boil the kettle between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. in the evening because of the cost of electricity. This is how old and vulnerable people are living in this country.

Over the past two years, soaring wholesale gas prices have pushed up domestic energy costs to unprecedented heights. It is the same for home heating oil where four-in-ten households use home heating oil for central heating.

Petrol and diesel on the world market has gone down by 40% from $139 a barrel to $77. Why are we not seeing this at the pumps, while these energy companies are making eye-watering profits and one third of our people are in energy poverty?

The emotional and mental health issues these bills are causing people cannot be overstated. People with disabilities or ill-health and people with children fear living in cold and damp houses.

All the while, the Government is still talking about bringing in a windfall tax on these energy companies. Either the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, is so far out of touch with what the people are going through or it is not a priority for the Government. Let me tell the Minister about a man who bought a wood-pellet stove one year ago, replacing solid fuel to cut down on emissions. The stove cost €5,000. Fitting it cost €1,500. A 15 kg bag of pellets cost €4.50. Today, the price of the bag of pellets is from €10 to €12. With the cost of wood pellets going through the roof, it is essential for the Government to take steps to make wood pellets affordable and to make sure wood pellets, as an alternative to coal, turf, etc., are seen as affordable by many struggling families who made the change to wood-pellet stoves as recently as a year ago but who are now paying more than double the price for pellets. Many people are now talking about taking out the wood-pellet stoves because of the cost. This is how the green agenda is working for ordinary people in Meath West and other parts of the country.

Photo of Claire KerraneClaire Kerrane (Roscommon-Galway, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I was contacted by an elderly gentleman in my constituency who returned home from hospital recently and now has to use an oxygen supply at home. This is obviously increasing his energy bills considerably. His electricity bill recently arrived. It was for €1,248. He then received a revised bill, after his meter was read, of €1,700. He cannot afford this bill and he knows that he will not be able to afford that level of bills going forward. He is, of course, one of many. The question is, how are these people supposed to afford these bills month in, month out?

Like many Deputies in this House, including those on the Government benches, I have been advising and directing people to apply for an additional needs payment where they have unaffordable utility bills. Many in this House have done that as well, particularly for those people who are working and who are not able to access the fuel allowance. They have no supports whatsoever as they do not get the fuel allowance.

I was made aware this week of letters being returned by the community welfare service to applicants for this support telling them that they have to provide the service with evidence that they have engaged with the Money Advice & Budgeting Service, MABS, to negotiate with the energy provider before they will get emergency payments. I have been dealing with additional needs payments since they were introduced last June, yet this is the first I have heard of that. I am not actually sure whether MABS is aware of the requirement. This has not been communicated. It needs to be examined urgently instead of leaving people high and dry.

I would appreciate it if the Minister updated the House on the €10 million fund that he announced last December as part of the energy action plan, how it will help households and, in particular, when it will be introduced.

Electric Ireland needs to be proactive in its approach to dealing with people in energy poverty. It needs to write to all of its customers who are in debt and let them know of the supports available through MABS and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. Unfortunately, it once again appears that it is up to the likes of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul to pick up the tab and do the Government's job in supporting some of our most vulnerable citizens across the State. That should not be the case.

8:15 pm

Photo of Mark WardMark Ward (Dublin Mid West, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

The electricity bills dropping through the letter boxes of ordinary workers and families in my area are pushing people into poverty. The Government is out of touch with the cost-of-living challenges. The Taoiseach even questioned the validity of research published by Barnardo's that claimed that one in ten parents had used food banks in the past year. He went on to state that he wondered about the scientific basis of such a survey. I invite him and the Minister to do some qualitative research in my area and to meet the people who run the Clondalkin Cares food bank. The number of families availing of this service has increased dramatically in the past four years. They come from all over my constituency.

The service also collects data on why people are using the food bank. At the top of the list is the increase in the cost of energy. Families are left with stark choices between eating and heating and between turning lights on and turning them off. It is reprehensible that energy companies are refusing to pass the significant savings made from wholesale electricity price reductions on to households. The Government has mishandled this situation from the start. The then Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, opposed windfall taxes. The Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, opposed the reform of the wholesale electricity market for months. The Government also decided not to reduce and cap electricity prices.

While the increase in electricity prices is impacting on everyone, it seems that it is being felt more by some of the more marginalised members of our communities. My office has been inundated with calls from the Traveller community of Oldcastle Park, whose members have told me that their energy costs have tripled since South Dublin County Council recalibrated their electricity meters and with the increase in the cost of living. The recalibration all but wiped out any benefit they would have got from their energy credits. In the past week, at least seven families from that one small location have been in touch with me. They now report that they are unable to afford food and often wake up cold and in darkness after the emergency energy has been used up. The general population received their first energy credits last March, but members of the Traveller community in my area did not receive them until December. Why has the Government allowed this differential treatment between families in the one area?

Photo of Ruairi Ó MurchúRuairi Ó Murchú (Louth, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

International oil and gas prices have fallen and the Government has spoken about how it would at this stage have expected energy companies to pass that on. There is talk of engagement and ministerial discussions with energy companies, but we are going to have to see action given how under pressure families are. Households have been left to try to find the money to pay unaffordable bills. We have heard the Government's statements – there is a general acceptance that people are being ripped off. We can talk about hedging and so forth, but the fact is that the decrease in prices paid by energy companies, which have been making major profits, is not being passed on. The Government has opposed reform of the energy sector at European level. It has opposed to windfall taxes; it definitely was not in favour of them until the EU made the jump.

People have already experienced sub-zero temperatures in the past while, but there could be a real cold snap in the near future. People are dreading the next bill and are under severe pressure. We need to do something to help them. Even with the credit applied by the Government, households are shocked by their bills. According to a report published by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul last week, a large number of households are unable to heat their homes. The number of people who find themselves in this position has doubled. According to the ESRI, almost 30% of households are now in energy poverty. That number could be greater.

We have heard about bills of €1,000 or €1,200 landing on people who are elderly and vulnerable and we know that Energia, Electric Ireland and all the others have to engage better, but pressure needs to be put on them. I was in shock when one of my constituents told me of her bill of €719.14. It was smaller than other people's bills, but she had only been paying €100 last year. Even a month or two later, it had still only been €200.

We are dealing with crazy factors. We need the Government to act. We need a proper windfall tax. We need to ensure that electricity prices are capped or a brake is put on them, as people are already under severe pressure and we cannot let that increase. This is not good enough. We need action.

Photo of Eamon RyanEamon Ryan (Dublin Bay South, Green Party)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

It is unprecedented and I recognise that it is difficult on households across the country. We have a responsibility as the Government to try to protect our people and help them to get through this time, when energy is being used as a weapon of war and high prices are hitting home.

I will set out what we have been doing. People opposite have heard it before, but it bears repeating. The response has been the correct one. It was the response that could be the most targeted and most effective in terms of getting cash to those who needed it to help protect them at this time.

There are no easy solutions and some of the simplistic analysis is not true. It is not true that we opposed windfall taxes.

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

It is.

Photo of Eamon RyanEamon Ryan (Dublin Bay South, Green Party)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

In fact, I argued for them the most at the European Council.

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

The Dáil record will show that the then Minister for Finance opposed them.

Photo of Eamon RyanEamon Ryan (Dublin Bay South, Green Party)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

When we introduce the legislation in the coming weeks, it will be seen that we have some of the highest standards and most rigorous application of those European tools.

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

The Dáil record will show that the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, opposed a windfall tax.

Photo of Eamon RyanEamon Ryan (Dublin Bay South, Green Party)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

The Government approved windfall taxes and will introduce them. The Deputy will say that the way we do it means we are the weakest in Europe in that regard, but the exact opposite is the truth. Similarly in terms of market reform, it would be easy to say we should just apply a cap. Some of those windfall measures effectively apply a cap, but other caps would come with large potential costs to the Irish people and would not have the same targeted capability that we introduced by using measures in the social welfare system. I fundamentally believe that the Sinn Féin approach would have been the wrong one to protect the people of this country. What the Government did was more targeted, more timely and more effective, and it is not over. We are not through this crisis yet and we do not know which way the war will go. While gas prices have come down from their incredible highs of less than a year ago, they are still two and a half times the historical average over the previous five years. We have to continue learning by doing and by assessing where we need to go next. Included in that is reform of the European energy markets. For anyone to say that that would be simple and all we had to do was whatever with the market system-----

Photo of Darren O'RourkeDarren O'Rourke (Meath East, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

The Government has to want to do it in the first place.

Photo of Eamon RyanEamon Ryan (Dublin Bay South, Green Party)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

We want to do it to ensure it is optimal for the public, but simplistic solutions-----

Photo of Darren O'RourkeDarren O'Rourke (Meath East, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source


Photo of Eamon RyanEamon Ryan (Dublin Bay South, Green Party)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

The idea that, but for the political will, we would suddenly have a market system that both delivered cheaper renewable power that we have access to and gave us security is not the real world. We will work and engage with Europe on that reform - we are in the middle of it, with a European Council meeting last week - and I look forward to hearing Sinn Féin's suggestions on what the new market structures would be. Let us have a debate on what exactly Sinn Féin wants the market system to be. That is the complex issue that we have to consider and deliver on in the next year. According to the analysis, it will take approximately a year. I referred to a trilemma energy policy earlier - low prices for our people, secure power and decarbonised power.

First, I will set out what has been happening to prices in the market. The most immediate factor affecting energy prices in Ireland is sustained high international gas prices which have risen and remained high since the second half of 2020. It started eight or nine months before the war started. Russia started to turn off the tap. This has been going on for some time. Data supplied by the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, CRU, indicates that the electricity and gas bills for an average household have increased to a combined total of more than €4,000. We all recognise this has had a huge impact on our people.

In the aftermath of the invasion of Ukraine, at its peak during August last year, wholesale UK natural gas spot prices were trading at 600 pence a therm which is 13 times higher than its historic level of 15 pence a therm. Due to high gas storage levels, warmer than average winter conditions and policy efforts to reduce natural gas demand across Europe, wholesale gas prices have fallen and are currently well below the peak values of last year. Putin is losing. He is not winning the war. Europe is stopping the importation of Russian oil and gas. There has been a 40% reduction in Russia's oil and gas revenue. There has been a 40% increase in Europe - Ireland had a record year too - in the deployment of renewable power and heat pumps. We cannot let Putin win, but we must also protect our people through these times. Wholesale prices are still trading at 120 pence a therm which is two and a half times their historic level and Ireland faces a particular challenge in this regard as we are a price-taker on international markets. Irish electricity and gas prices have historically been higher than other European countries due to long-standing circumstances such as geographical isolation, our dispersed population, our fossil-fuel dependence and our small market. The best long-term approach for Ireland to protect our consumer householders from volatility on those international wholesale energy markets is to invest in energy efficiency and renewable energy and to expand interconnection with European neighbour markets and deepen the internal market in energy which is what we are doing. That is why we must operate within a European market system.

In line with higher wholesale prices, household electricity and gas bills rose steeply in the final quarter of last year and have remained elevated since. The recent reduction in wholesale gas prices in Europe is welcome, although prices have remained significantly higher than pre-crisis levels. With wholesale energy costs accounting for a significant percentage of total supplier costs, a sustained period of falling wholesale gas prices can and will lead to retail market price reductions. However, supplier-hedging resulted in a significant proportion of energy purchased several months in advance and has impacted on the ability of suppliers to reduce prices notwithstanding the decline in the wholesale cost of gas. We, like others in this House, want to see that reduction happen as soon as it possibly can. However, due to the different forward-hedging strategies of energy suppliers before this winter we cannot force that on energy companies. Each has different circumstances as regards how far forward it has hedged. A more sustained period of lower wholesale prices may be needed before retail gas and electricity prices fall.

The action we took in the past 12 months was correct. We introduced a €2.4 billion package of supports last year and an additional package of one-off measures worth €2.5 billion in budget 2023. Last month, we announced a further €1.2 billion package to help and in April and May last year, 99% of eligible domestic electricity customers were credited with the first of the electricity credit payments. That was the appropriate measure to take. Look at what happened in the last year. On each of the four times we gave every household - 99.1% of households got this - a direct cash payment of €200, the number of houses in debt difficulty on their energy bills dropped by approximately 50,000. That is below historic norms. It is still hugely difficult. Gas bills are particularly challenging at present and as a Government we have said we will continue to review that. Those measures, combined with a large significant increase in social welfare payments - to give people real certainty, to give them cash to help them cope with exceptional and incredibly difficult bills - were the most important and best response.

It is not only that. We are developing the establishment by working with partners such as the Money Advice & Budgeting Service, MABS, to ensure support schemes are in place for those householders facing difficulties. We all know and are concerned about examples of householders who have bills they cannot pay. The best way is to work with organisations such as MABS, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and the supply companies and to provide hardship funds so that in those circumstances no one is forced to go without heat or power. We have said consistently throughout the past two years of this crisis, especially to our older people who might be worried and decide to cut back on their heat and comfort, that people should not do that. There will be social welfare provisions to ensure they are able to provide for their basic most important energy needs, including their comfort and health through this difficult time through additional needs payments; hardship funds; working with people directly; and working with the supply companies to ensure they respond and engage with consumers. We also recognise this has the potential to affect - and has in many instances directly affected - businesses. That is why we introduced the temporary business energy support scheme and why we continue to amend it to ensure it hits the target and works for businesses. It is a better way of doing it. Rather than being dogmatic and ideological it is better to test market support systems and to keep evolving them and ensuring they deliver what we need to do. In August, following the Government's enacted legislation on the negative public service obligation, PSO, levy, the CRU published the annual PSO levy decision which outlined an annual saving of €89 per household electricity account. Last month we announced that all domestic bill-pay customers will automatically receive a monthly payment of €12.73 from March for seven months in 2023. Prepayment customers will receive the PSO payment through an adjustment in their daily charge. I could go on but the mechanism of giving the money directly to those households most affected through social welfare payments and giving every household credit cash supports was the right approach rather than some notional market cap that would be uncertain in terms of what the cost would be to the Irish public and the benefit to customers.

8:25 pm

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Notional. It is being applied across half of Europe.

Photo of Pat BuckleyPat Buckley (Cork East, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I will cut straight to the chase. I thank Deputy Doherty for tabling the motion and I ask the Government to withdraw its countermotion. The Minister mentioned a few payments. He should remember one thing. Governments are supposed to serve the people. The payments the Minister mentioned are taxpayers' money. The Government is giving it back to the same people. It is not targeting it. I refer figures from the Society of St. Vincent de Paul's summary report, Warm, Safe, Connected. It is about energy deprivation. In 2021 the number of people who were unable to keep their homes warm was 160,368; it is now 377,415. In 2021, more than 355,000 people went without heating; in 2022, it was almost 500,000 people. In 2021 the number of people in arrears on utility bills was 350,805; in 2022 it is 469,218 people. They are possibly the people who were not too embarrassed to tell the truth. Many of the speakers mentioned the suffering in families. The people who cannot afford it are paying the most - they are living in deprivation - including the elderly, people with disabilities and, as someone mentioned, people who need medical apparatuses in their homes. I called to a house a while ago of a lady whose four-year-old son was sitting on a cushion and needed oxygen 24-7. She was worried about how she would pay for the pump. I left that house in tears because what can be said to these people?

The Minister mentioned going to social welfare offices for payments if a person is lucky but embarrassment is attached to it. This motion is about the fact that we must look after our people. It is in the report and it is in many other reports that one in ten people is going to food banks. It is not too long ago that I remember a food bank being opened not too far from me - not in my constituency - while the country was supposed to be booming. We certainly must stop the companies from price gouging.

We must also remember that small businesses are struggling. I spoke on a Topical Issue matter a while ago about a businessman whose electricity bill went from €44,000 to €70,000. It is not sustainable.

We have to get realistic on this. I ask the Minister to withdraw the countermotion and do the right thing for the people we in this House are supposed to serve.

8:35 pm

Photo of Patricia RyanPatricia Ryan (Kildare South, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this important motion. I thank my colleagues Deputies O'Rourke and Doherty for tabling it. Energy costs remain extortionately high for households. Frankly, it is not good enough that the Government has announced no meaningful supports for ordinary people until October. It is not good enough that energy companies enjoy excess profits at the expense of households trying to get by. The latest report from the Society of St. Vincent de Paul on energy poverty makes for harrowing reading. I worked with the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and I know what it is like both for those who come in and those on the opposite side of the counter trying to help.

I particularly want to draw the attention of the Minister to the fact that energy poverty impacts more on older households. The Ministers said a few minutes ago that people should not go without. He needs to live in the real world. Page 16 of the report of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul outlines how 7% of older single adults are experiencing utility bill arrears. The sharp increase is due to the Government's failure to act. Older people have raised families. They have worked and paid their taxes all of their lives. Now they are rationing heating due to out-of-control energy costs. It is tragic that at a time when older people should be enjoying the fruits of their labour, they are instead shivering from the cold or frightened at the thoughts of the next bill.

My office is inundated with calls and emails from people struggling to get by. Recently I met a young man who decided he would return to education but who has been landed with an energy bill of €545 for one month. He is a single man living in an apartment on the housing assistance payment. My office has explored every possibility and every avenue open to see whether we can do something but, sadly, it looks like he will go into arrears. I am sure the office of the Minister is also inundated with similar heartbreaking cases, although sometimes I wonder. I urge the Minister to support our motion and help those who need it most by providing them with financial relief and capping electricity prices at pre-Ukraine war levels. In his speech, the Minister spoke about Putin losing. The only ones I see losing at present are our elderly. The Government needs to do something or get out.

Photo of Paul DonnellyPaul Donnelly (Dublin West, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

The Minister was right in one thing he said in his speech. The market system delivers. It delivers billions in profits for the energy companies. Last week business customers of Electric Ireland got welcome news that their bills would be reduced for the first time in a long time by 10% for electricity and 15% for gas. This is great news for them but many households are still waiting for news on reductions in their bills. They continue to pay sky-high energy bills, with electricity and gas bills more than double what they were two years ago. Kevin from Clonsilla showed me his bill from Bord Gáis. His previous bill was €393.54. His latest bill was a shocking €822.97. This is despite wholesale electricity prices being 41% lower January than they were in December and 20% lower than they were in January 2022 according to the CSO. It is outrageous that the energy companies do not pass on these reductions to households.

The Minister is sitting on his hands as usual. As has been mentioned, a shocking report from the Society of St. Vincent de Paul shows that the number unable to heat their homes more than doubled in 2022. This week we will have a cold spell, with parts of the country going to experience temperatures of -6°C. People are terrified of the next cold snap. Households consume as much, if not more, electricity in the months of April, May and June as they do in October, November and December. However they receive little or no support for these costs despite bills remaining sky-high. As our people experience huge bills and are frightened of going deeper into debt, the Minister speaks about them going to the community welfare officer. The Minister should try it. I challenge him. People get some support, but if they go back again and again, they will get no support.

On 4 May 2022, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, the then Minister for Finance, said windfall taxes on energy companies was the wrong direction to go. He said it would undermine investment and tax certainty in the energy sector. We know where his heart lies and where he wants to be. We need to act now to ensure people have energy security. We need to stand up for the people of Dublin West and people throughout the State and not for the energy companies and their windfall profits.

Photo of Mairead FarrellMairead Farrell (Galway West, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

My colleagues have already pointed out that this week we heard the news that Electric Ireland would reduce its prices for some of its business customers but not for households. I have to admit I could not believe this when I heard it. We have energy companies making bizarre sums of money and record profits off the backs of households that are struggling to get by. In recent months my office has been inundated with people who simply cannot afford to pay their energy costs. They simply cannot afford to pay for their food. It is not something that is just happening in my office. It is happening in offices throughout the State.

I cannot believe the Minister said he is telling people not to go without. Believe you me, people are going without. If he cannot understand at this point that people are going without, he should not listen to me but to Barnardos, which issued a report last week that showed how many parents and families are going without food because they cannot pay the cost of living. If the Government believes a certain reality exists at this time, its members had better start listening to people because it is not the reality for people on the ground.

I have constituents in homes that are so badly insulated they have to pay crazy amounts of money to try to keep them heated. Even then they do not stay heated. There are people who could not get the full energy credit to help cover the rising costs. People may be legally renting a house that has been split up into flats and they all have the same MPRN. This means the house receives only one energy credit. This single credit is then split multiple ways. This is often in substandard accommodation with a low BER and the credit does not go very far.

There will not be much respite for people in the coming months. My colleague Deputy Donnelly has just spoken about the freezing temperatures we are expecting in the coming days and weeks. There is research that states households consume as much, if not more, energy in the months of April, May and June as they do in October, November and December. While this spells trouble for many households, it is great news for energy providers. They can certainly extend their thanks to the Government because there is still no sign of a windfall tax. We heard that the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, said previously that it was the wrong direction to go. The Government made the decision not to cap or reduce electricity prices despite governments throughout Europe doing just this. The time to cut energy costs is now.

Photo of Seán SherlockSeán Sherlock (Cork East, Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

The Minister speaks a lot about hedging and the market. We have all had the briefings from the electricity companies and providers such as Electric Ireland. According to a document we received, the providers state they buy electricity in advance, which is hedging. Electric Ireland says this saved its residential electricity customers €650 over the past two years.

We cannot have this debate without having a fundamental critique of the electricity market and the energy market throughout the European Union. If we rely on a market that hedges its prices or buys forward, then given the shocks that have come into the system because of what is happening in Ukraine and the anticipated future shocks given the geopolitical situation at present, then what is in place by way of a hedging market will not provide the stability households need to be able to pay for their energy costs in future. I am trying to be fair in my analysis and I do not think this is unfair analysis.

This is not personalised in any way but I worry deeply when a Minister of the Green Party speaks about energy independence and accepts the fact there is a market that is hedging by its very nature. I worry when a Minister of the Green Party does not fundamentally critique the nature of this market. Why are we as a country not pushing back against this very issue that places so much uncertainty on households, not only in Ireland or on this island but throughout the European Union? This is something that will have to be fundamentally critiqued because it cannot sustain itself.

I hear the Minister suggesting that somebody can go to the St. Vincent de Paul or can rely on other such means, whether via a charity or via the Department of Social Protection for an additional payment under the supplementary welfare allowance scheme. Let me tell the Minister that, in 2022, the sum total that was spent supporting people to meet the cost of their bills when they presented their case or their application form for supplementary welfare allowance to a community welfare officer was €1.8 million. That is what was spent by the Department of Social Protection through the community welfare officers and through the supplementary welfare allowance scheme in supporting people. In other words, the massive advertising campaign that was undertaken through gov.ieis clearly not working, and despite any attempt by the Government to say somebody can go to the Department of Social Protection for those supports, the evidence is in the meagre amount of money that was spent last year. The Government probably spent less in paying out than it spent on its advertising campaign on the so-called additional needs payment that was trumpeted. This is going to have to be looked at if the Government is to provide real and meaningful support for households to meet the cost of their energy supply.

It is clear to me working families do not know they can access such payments, as I know from my constituency office. The Minister will state it is a matter for the Minister for Social Protection, but if the Minister, Deputy Ryan, comes into this House and says people can access the supplementary welfare allowance scheme, let me tell him respectfully that not enough people know of the scheme and not enough people are availing of the scheme and, therefore, that is a systems failure and a failure of Government. It could meaningfully help people if it was presented and marketed to them in the right way.

Let us bear in mind that figure of €1.8 million as one of the supports the Minister talks about. Centrica plc, the British company that owns Bord Gáis Energy in Ireland, said it expects its adjusted earnings for its financial year in the 12 months to the end of June 2023 to triple to almost €1.8 billion. I have pointed out the meagre €1.8 million paid out, yet Centrica is earning €1.8 billion. Record European gas prices during the summer ensured revenues by Vermilion Energy from the Corrib gasfield for the first nine months of 2022 more than doubled to €189.9 million. Corrib gas helped Vermilion to total revenues for the first nine months of 2022 of $2.63 billion, up from $1.3 billion for the same period in 2021.

Let me speak briefly about the ESB. As I said, we have had briefings from the ESB in regard to this concept of hedging, but hedging does nothing for the household that is struggling to pay its bills at the moment. Profits at the ESB soared in the six months to the end of June 2022 amid surging energy prices. Earnings, including a one-off gain from what it called “exceptional volatility” in global commodity markets, jumped to €390.3 million from €128.4 million in 2021. If we accept the fact Electric Ireland decided in 2022 to forgo profits in its residential business by giving the €50 credit to each of its 1.1 million residential customers, we would have to say that was arguably a very small gesture on the part of the provider, and I am not sure how meaningful it was. If we look at the bills we in this House have all seen, it was meaningless. However, it could be more meaningful and I hope the ESB will look at that. We know it is giving its business customers a decrease at a time when it says it cannot throw profits from one entity into another, but this begs the question of why the same savings could not be passed on to residential customers. It is another question that has to be answered.

The bottom line for us in supporting this motion is that while there is an acknowledgement of what the Government has done in regard to things like expanding the fuel allowance, which every Opposition party called for, there is more that could be done in regard to the supplementary welfare allowance scheme to ensure more working families have access to those supports that are housed within the Department of Social Protection. However, that has to be done on the basis there is a change of the criteria to ensure more working families, in particular, can come into that scheme and the Government ensures people know about it.

I am an old-school politician. I spend a lot of my time filling in medical card application forms, disability allowance forms and supplementary welfare allowance forms. I am old school in that sense, but it keeps me honest and keeps me close to the people. I am not sure I could say the same about this Government because I am not sure that, of late, very many of them have had that connection with real people in regard to how they are struggling in their everyday lives. If the Minister, Deputy Ryan, could speak to his counterpart to ensure more funding flowed into the supplementary welfare allowance scheme so it was made available to working families on fixed incomes, that would be a meaningful gesture.

On energy independence, I still cannot understand why the Government is not taking more of a risk and being more adventurous about ensuring more marine area consents are issued, for example, so people can start to map our south-west coast and not only rely on what is going to happen on fixed platforms for wind on the east coast. More risk should be taken by the Government to ensure we can set up the platforms to deliver the wind, bring the energy ashore and create energy independence. I worry about the conservative, cautious and risk-averse nature of this Government in respect of the possibility and potential for offshore wind energy on floating platforms to be brought ashore. Be more adventurous, take those risks and let it happen.

8:45 pm

Photo of Jennifer WhitmoreJennifer Whitmore (Wicklow, Social Democrats)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I thank Sinn Féin for bringing forward this motion. However, I feel an overwhelming sense of déjà vutoday. It was only a few short weeks ago we were debating a Social Democrats motion on the same issue. Unfortunately, in the weeks that have passed, nothing has changed other than that the desperate pleas from people in our communities are getting louder as the bills are getting bigger. Since we last discussed this issue, people have been out in the media, telling us all about the anxiety-inducing bills they have been receiving, and we would all have spoken to such people in our constituency offices. It affects pensioners, families, single people, carers and voluntary groups such as youth clubs and sports clubs. This issue affects everybody and it has become clear this is a key failing of the Government.

I would hasten to add this was entirely foreseeable, entirely predictable and entirely avoidable. The Minister is correct in saying this crisis did not start with the start of the war in Ukraine, and there were six or nine months prior to that where energy prices were creeping up. Indeed, at that time, in September 2021, I raised it with the Minister as an issue and asked that he start to prepare and to work with people to address it. Therefore, it has been going on for quite a while, although I do not think any of us could have foreseen where we have ended up. If the Minister and the Government had listened to constituents, climate activists, the energy sector and those in opposition, it could have been avoided.

As I say in many of my interactions with the Minister, we want the Minister to do this well. All of us in our constituency offices hear from people who are struggling so much.

It would be my preference that the Government worked, supported those people and got the job done, but unfortunately that is not happening. However, there are ways to provide more support and certainty. Sinn Féin's motion mentions the windfall taxes and the cap on energy prices. The former are something we have all been calling for and I note the Minister specifically mentioned "windfall measures", because it is not just a windfall tax; there is not just one item. I believe we are to have a solidarity tax that will apply to the fossil fuel companies and be applied to the taxes from last year. There will be a cap on the earnings from electricity generation from wind and solar. However, that is only coming in from December to June, which is a short timeframe. The fossil fuel windfall solidarity tax will only be applied to a few companies here, I imagine. I am interested to learn what companies it will apply to.

We also need to hear from the Government about what dividends it will be taking from the likes of the ESB and when that will be happening. It is difficult talking to constituents who are struggling and who have heard of these huge profits because they cannot understand it. Instead of the profits being made by the State companies going back into them, which I appreciate goes into grid investment and other things, it is important, especially at this time of crisis, for the profits to go to people who are struggling. I will be interested to hear about the dividend the Government will be applying, including when it will apply and how much it will be, because the price increases have been relentless. Some energy companies increased their prices on five separate occasions last year.

The next point has been made as well, namely, that it is difficult to explain to people why businesses are going to see a reduction in their energy costs when households who get their energy from the same company are not seeing a comparable reduction in theirs. That businesses are getting this reduction is welcome, but it needs to apply to householders as well because, in reality, householders were subsidising businesses for 12 years. We are now seeing those householders are again being disadvantaged and that should never be allowed to happen. Who is looking after the householder here? We have a market that is completely out of whack and the regulatory system we have in place is not able to control it. It is not able to manage it to protect those consumers. It seems the only mechanisms the regulator can provide as a form of protection come down to providing information or determining what constitutes a vulnerable customer. The regulator does not really have any teeth and that is something we need to look at. We are moving into a different energy system and a different energy future, so now is the time for us to be looking at that regulatory system and working out what we want from it as a country. We must ask who we want to protect. I want to protect our most vulnerable, our householders and businesses as well, but the balance must be there. Now is the time. There is an opportunity to look not just at the energy market and how it operates but at how it is regulated and how people are protected. That is a key thing that needs to happen.

The Minister talked about the best long-term solution for providing security and resilience to people being renewable energies, retrofitting and making people's households and businesses resilient. Every time I get the opportunity I will tell the Minister I do not understand why he is not giving more supports for solar. I really do not understand it. It is the quickest and cheapest way to reduce people's energy bills. It is the most efficient way to do it. It can reduce their bills by 40% and can be done in a matter of days. I do not understand why the Minister has not grasped that. He has spoken about a rooftop revolution, but we are not seeing it. I ask that he take this seriously and examine it. While the Government provides cash supports, credit supports and social welfare supports for people now, we do not know what is going to happen next year from with the energy markets. We know what is needed next year from a climate perspective. Providing solar, having a widespread roll-out and much greater intervention by the State in the provision of the technology would make many households much more resilient to these price shocks and more climate sustainable. Will the Minister look at that and take it on board?

On price caps, we in the Social Democrats have also called for these to be introduced. We diverge from Sinn Féin on these caps to a small degree. We ask that the Minister look at caps based on the German model. The caps there are based on a percentage of the historical usage. That would mean we do not run the risk of people, especially the wealthy, overconsuming and not being aware of their energy consumption. Such caps would allow us to plan as they are not open-ended but based on historical usage, and this would enable us to model the cost. Germany has done that and no one can say it is flathúlach when it comes to its policies. It is very fiscally conservative. That sort of cap has worked there and it would give people here certainty. It is not just a matter of the incredible costs people are facing but also the fear people are facing about what those costs will be. A price cap would give people certainty and they need that clarity. I thank Sinn Féin for putting this motion forward.

8:55 pm

Photo of Bríd SmithBríd Smith (Dublin South Central, People Before Profit Alliance)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I thank Sinn Féin for the motion. I think all of us have put similar motions before the House, and while sometimes you might feel you are banging your head off a brick wall, it is important we revisit this issue and keep revisiting it again and again. We should do so mostly because the Government is failing the population on this. Businesses get the supports and then they get the reduced bills from the energy companies. There are market explanations for that. They are very convoluted. You would want to have a degree in economics to begin to understand them or impart what is in them. However, that does not make it logical, sensible or acceptable that market rules can drive up the cost to ordinary consumers to an immoral level while at the same time talking about how the prices will come down. I had a briefing from Electric Ireland in the recent past and it is very doubtful the curve that is now dancing around the energy price graph is going to come down at all. I was told it is most likely to dance, that is, to go up and down repeatedly.

I note the Government mostly blames energy prices and the housing crisis on Putin's war. I have no doubt the invasion of Ukraine has made a major impact, but that does not really explain it.

It does not explain why we could produce electricity in the 1930s and 1940s and deliver it all over the country at a low price to citizens and also build tens of thousands of houses across the State, at scale, and provide people with proper, well-built and well-designed public housing, but we cannot do so now in the 21st century. This country is the third richest on the planet per head of population according to the World Bank. The people we, as elected representatives, deal with are not the third wealthiest individuals in the world. They are among the poorest and most hard done by in Europe because they are struggling to cope with the cost-of-living crisis.

We must also keep an eye on food inflation. It is running at 16% in the past three months. I raised this issue last week in the context of the Department of Social Protection because food inflation is now having a major impact on the delivery of school meals. The companies who deliver those meals are struggling to do so on the basis of the amount the State gives them per child. We have major challenges ahead of us. The one we are addressing tonight, however, is that of high energy costs. As people's winter gas and electricity bills have arrived in recent weeks, it has become clear that the previous one-off payments and the proposed measures will barely scratch the surface for all these people. Allied to the panic they feel about the lifting of the eviction ban today, there is now terror on their faces because of the bills they are facing for gas and electricity.

I am struck by the fact that these two things are linked. The root causes in this regard are the free market, the deregulation, in the context of this debate in particular, of the energy system and the profiteering of major corporations. Between September 2021 and 2022, the price of food items rose by 18.7% on average. The prices of some items, including dairy products have risen by as much as 49%. In the context of energy, the annual profits of the five largest integrated private sector oil and gas companies, Chevron Corporation, ExxonMobil, Shell, BP and TotalEnergies, soared to $195 billion in 2022. This is nearly 120% more than in the previous year. Those profits now stand at the highest level in the industry's history, and this industry has some history. In the first six months of 2022, the ESB's profits more than trebled to €390.3 million. Operating profits at Bord Gáis Energy increased by 74% in the first six months of 2022. Corrib gas profits trebled in the same time, to €560 million.

I heard the Taoiseach make an extraordinary statement in this Chamber last week. It was not about ending the eviction ban, and that this was in the public interest, and nor was it that free public transport is not a good idea. It was the even more extraordinary claim that the ESB never had a not-for-profit mandate. He also stated that, unlike others, he is not ideological. Perhaps he missed out on the 1980s, the 1990s and the early 2000s, the era of Reagan, Thatcher and neoliberalism. I refer to the neoliberalism that privatised everything the State ran efficiently, and, particularly in this case, the energy system. The results include the rip-off pay-as-you-go companies we see today and the district heating systems that charge commercial rates to a large number of residents, including some living in public housing. We did see the remit of the ESB change in the early 2000s, from one of being not-for-profit to the present commercial position in a newly created competitive market. It removed the aim of providing the cheapest, most efficient and much-praised market that the ESB delivered before it was deregulated. People here paid the lowest amount, before that deregulation, in the whole of Europe for their consumption of energy. The change in this regard was completely justified on the basis of the usual capitalist crap, which holds that if there is competition, then there will be lower prices, more efficiency and better choices. We have that competition now and the prices have been driven up to an astronomical level. People do not get much choice, because even though they can change from one electricity company to another, they are not seeing the benefit of doing so anymore.

Sinéad Mercier, an academic, pointed out last year that the ESB was forced to artificially increase its prices to attract competitors into the new energy market the State spent millions on creating. When the ESB's statutory requirement to operate on a not-for-profit and break-even basis was repealed in 2001, electricity prices skyrocketed and energy poverty increased, leading to an annual excess of 2,800 cold-related deaths and a sharp spike in the number of disconnections. If this was not ideological and if the outcome of this change was not very political, then I do not know what is. I say this because it was driven by prioritising the needs of profit over the needs of people. The Taoiseach might not accept this, but windfall profits, energy poverty and the current crazy market system will ensure high gas and other energy prices for ordinary people regardless of the wholesale markets. All these things are the results of the privatisation and liberalisation of the energy market.

Today, we have the bitter fruits of those so-called reforms. These include massive profiteering, as I have just pointed out, in food and energy and a reluctance, if not hostility, from this Government and others, to retake control over vital systems and to reverse privatisation and liberalisation. We do want windfall taxes on profits and once-off payments to help the poor to be able to pay their bills, but this will not deal with the root causes of the crisis. We must retake control of the energy system. This is called renationalisation. It means restoring the not-for-profit mandate of the ESB. All the customers would then flock to the ESB because it would be able to charge lower prices. We could then take control of the renewable energy sector, which we must build up quickly and on a grand scale in order to deal with the climate and energy crises. Reversing neoliberal policies as a response to the energy and climate crises is what we must do. The marketisation of energy makes meaningful climate action and price control impossible. If we do not do as I suggest, matters will only get worse.

People Before Profit will be launching a document on this subject in the coming weeks. It will be concerned with how we can renationalise the energy sector. Equally, as part of the Cost of Living Coalition, which also includes the Social Democrats and Sinn Fein, along with trade unions, students' unions and housing bodies, we will be organising a major demonstration on 1 April against this Government's high cost-of-living charges. April Fools' Day is the day on which we wish to ask the Government who it is fooling and why it is not doing something to control the cost of living for ordinary people. Against this background, are the vast profits we have just heard about. It is shameful, immoral and outrageous that something is not being done to service the population of this country.

9:05 pm

Photo of Seán CanneySeán Canney (Galway East, Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

This energy crisis is impacting everyone. I am fearful of the future. I refer to how we are driving people in every which way to use electricity, be it to heat their homes, using heat pumps, using electric vehicles and other transport. The question is how we are going to manage the supply of this energy in the future. We must plan for an increase in population. I know young couples who built houses and who went down the route of putting in heat pumps. They did everything right and in accordance with the regulations, ensuring that they had clean and passive types of houses. Then they received electricity bills of up to €1,200. That is unsustainable in any society. We have to rebalance and recalibrate our thinking in respect of this matter.

When building a house now, the construction costs relating to the mechanical and electrical installations and the modern appliances required to ensure that one can control one's heating system, be it of the underfloor variety or whatever, can amount to between €50,000 to €60,000. The comparable cost 20 years ago would have been a fraction of that. Construction costs are going up, and this is all deemed to be an investment in a greener economy and in saving our climate. What is being missed here is the increased cost of doing all of this as a result of the current energy crisis.

The reason we have an energy crisis is not all down to war; it is down to the fact that we are using more electricity and we are not producing green electricity. Closing down Shannonbridge and Lanesborough prior to having alternatives in place is a typical example of us putting the cart before the horse and not making sure that we had a plan in place to develop the green infrastructure we need prior to cutting off the existing heating mechanisms. A significant amount of local authority or social housing in this country is heated by Stanley 9 ranges, which, compliments of the tenants in those houses, are fed by turf. Until we retrofit all of these houses, people will have to continue to burn solid fuel in them. In order to ensure that people can heat their homes, we must be able to continue to cut turf. That is the reality; there is no alternative.

The retrofit scheme is there to help reduce energy use in houses. Earlier today, we saw an example of the costs of installing the various retrofit items that are required in a house increasing by more than 40% over a three-month period. The increase involved is from €59,000 to €80,000. That is the kind of investment people must make in order to try to comply with the vision for a greener world. The warmer homes scheme is great, but people must wait up to 24 months to have work on their houses. The microgeneration scheme is another great scheme, but, again, many people have been left with a bad taste in their mouths on the basis that the payback they were to get from the energy companies is not forthcoming or is not coming through quickly enough. They are getting a very small fraction of the energy cost. It is important that we look at what we are doing in terms of where we are going with all of this new technology. Are we making our houses healthier to live in? In ten, 15 or 20 years' time we could be retrofitting houses with something else.

Going back to energy supply and the cost involved, the energy companies must be quicker to reduce their prices when the cost of energy goes down. There is no excuse to hang in for a month or two afterwards and have the consumer bear the brunt of the cost. The profits that are being made on the back of the misery of people are immoral and should stop. The Government must challenge the energy companies more, and in a way that will ensure it gets results. As a small country, it is important for us to make sure that everybody is taken care of, be it the person who is on a fuel allowance or the person who has invested all of their money into a mortgage to build their own house. We must support these people right now. We cannot talk about another review, plan or policy document. We need to do it now.

9:15 pm

Photo of Michael CollinsMichael Collins (Cork South West, Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I thank Sinn Féin for putting forward this motion. Petrol and diesel prices are at an all-time high, which is increasing the cost of transport for businesses and individuals. This can have a knock-on effect on the wider economy because businesses may pass on the increased costs to consumers. This will result in higher prices for goods and services.

Despite the widespread impact of higher energy costs, the Government has been slow to respond. The refusal to reduce and cap electricity prices has been criticised by many, and the Government has taken no action. The Government's reluctance to introduce a windfall tax has also protected the excessive profits of energy companies. Last autumn, my colleagues and I in the Rural Independent Group moved a motion seeking to have a windfall or excess profits tax placed on all energy companies, yet the Government has been sleepwalking on the issue. Budget 2023, as the motion points out, did not provide any certainty for rising energy costs and bills, leaving households and businesses with no meaningful relief or support. This has been a significant source of frustration for many, who feel that the Government is not doing enough to address the issue. The energy crisis is affecting thousands of families. It is a crisis that should not exist, and it is one that we must address as a matter of urgency. The exorbitant prices being charged for electricity and home heating oil are resulting in a severe crisis that is leaving people without the basic necessities of life.

The Government must put pressure on the energy companies to do the right thing and pass on the savings to households. It is not enough to express disquiet; we need direct intervention to ensure that the residential sector benefits from falling wholesale costs. The Government must take action. That is the main point we have been making for months in the Dáil. It seems the Government is afraid to take on the energy companies. It is pandering to them, as if they have some kind of power or hold over it. As far as I know, the State has a shareholding in one of the companies. The companies make millions of euro in profits. I have no issue with any company making a profit because that is what a company should be doing, but to do so while its loyal, faithful customers are suffering is astonishing. The Government is leaving it to happen. People are coming to me with bills of between €400 and €800 that they cannot pay They are astonished, worried and upset. They do not believe the Government is there to help. Once again, those in Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party have turned their backs on the people instead of protecting them.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I, too, support the motion tabled. The people I represent and those I meet outside my constituency are perplexed by what is going on. They see the price gouging and they see their bills. They saw how the Government imposed a carbon tax on top of what it already had in place at a time when there were high energy costs. What is going on?

The Government had to dragged kicking and screaming to decouple wind energy, which is much cleaner, safer and cheaper than other sources of energy. Has the Government implemented that yet? The Government's failure to act is an abdication of its responsibility under the Constitution, Bunreacht na hÉireann, to look after the citizens of this country. The Government should not do them ill; it should do them good by any means possible. It blackguarding them, however. It is as if it wants to squeeze the lifeblood, the very energy, enthusiasm, and spark that ignites them. We saw 1848 being commemorated, the national flag being honoured and the Taoiseach attending events yesterday. There was among people pride in our flag. Of course we have pride in the red, white and orange. The Government is not fit to carry either the flag or the baton of power. It has reneged on every promise it ever made. That is as sure as I am standing here. It will not look after the people in any shape, make or form. It adds penury to them and then it stopped people when they had their own source of energy, turf. The Acting Chair, Deputy Ó Cathasaigh, is looking at me, but he need not travel far from in his constituency to get to Moneyaha Bog where he will see banks of turf. I will take one if it is issued. I never took one in my lifetime but I often brought home turf for people.

People who have energy want to be able to use it but they cannot do so. They are being stopped from doing so. The chimneys are being blocked up. That is the kind of blackguarding we have. New houses cannot have chimneys. This is at a time when the Government cannot stop people flying drones over Dublin Airport. What in God's name is it doing? Kindergarten children would do better. I do not say that lightly. I do not want to insult the intelligence of anyone in the Government. They are intelligent enough. As for the advisers, they would make up meitheals of men and women. The Minister is heading off globetrotting. There is no carbon tax on flights. He is going all over the world. I hope he will go to Kim Jong-un and perhaps stay out someplace like that so he would not come back and bother us anymore. Let the people alone. I have nothing personal against the man, but he should go away somewhere, have his pipe dreams, eat his lettuce, put it in his south-facing window boxes and do whatever else. Leave the people of Ireland alone. That is all I am asking here tonight.

Photo of Marc Ó CathasaighMarc Ó Cathasaigh (Waterford, Green Party)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

If he goes flies far enough, he may find the flag that is red, white and orange.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

He can stay there beside the flag.

Photo of Richard O'DonoghueRichard O'Donoghue (Limerick County, Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Members are eating into my time. I thank them not to do so.

Once there is proper investment in infrastructure, there is not one person in this House who does not wish our energy costs will go down. People do not mind whether it is provided by wind energy, solar energy or any other source of green energy but, like everything else, the Government puts the cart before the horse. Does the Minister of State, Deputy James Browne, know that Ireland is paying 60% more for electricity than any other European country? Why is that? The Government decided to close down plants that were providing energy, even if they were being run on turf. Plants are being run on coal and other fossil fuels, but the Government closed down and dismantled the one running on turf.

Other ones are being run on coal and fossil fuels, but the Government closed one that was run on turf. It was dismantled and sold off to other countries, reinstated to supply power for other countries and now today there is emergency legislation to build plants and run diesel generators for the power we are short. Did you ever hear anything so ludicrous? The Government has no clue how things work. If you want green energy, you put the infrastructure in first. The Government is full of deadlines but no infrastructure. The Government pushes the deadlines with no infrastructure. It pushes the change, with no other change in place, so we can change to it. The Government pushed inflation through the roof because it has no alternatives. Put in the alternatives, invest in the alternatives and then we will all change. That is what is there. Put in the alternatives and we will change to alternatives; that is how we work. No, the Government pushes for the alternatives which are not there, that are above in the clouds and it asks for sacrifice until it can introduce the alternatives, which are a decade away. That is not planning for the future, it is destroying the people the Government is here to protect for the future.

9:25 pm

Photo of Danny Healy-RaeDanny Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I thank Sinn Féin for bringing this motion forward. It is a serious issue for people. They are driven down through the ground with the costs of electricity. The Minister was blaming the war but we know that gas is cheaper now than it was before the war started. That is a fact, but the Government will not bring down the cost of electricity. It will not cap the cost, thought it was asked to do so several times. There are different categories of people. Business people are paying three and four times what they were for electricity, people who were paying €70,000 and employing people, who are now paying €360,000. There are people who were paying €200 or €300 who are now paying €1,000 or €1,200. Old people are afraid to boil the kettle and barely light a fire. They light a small fire if they are lucky enough to have turf. The Government tried to stop us doing that. What is happening is so wrong. The Government did not make any attempt at capping the cost of electricity because it is getting more tax out of it, of course. Now that the Minister, Deputy Ryan, is going so well in the Green Party, he is looking for an advisor for an advisor. Can you imagine that? I suppose he was limited with the amount of advisors he got, so he decided to get an advisor for an advisor.

I can clearly see what is happening. The people in rural Ireland, people Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael got votes from, are disenchanted, very hurt and angry. The Greens are happy because they are getting everything they want and more. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael cave in to them just to keep themselves in power. Power must be something, to say that they are leaving them do what they are doing to the rural people, the good people who are trying to keep going, kept the country going back over the years and kept people employed. People were told to put in heat pumps. I know a young fella who built a new house a year and a half ago. His bills have now gone up to €1,250 a month for electricity because of the heat pump. It is nothing else, it is the heat pump. This is what the Government is telling people to put in and not to put a chimney in the house. God almighty, the Government had support in the countryside always and the people depended on it. They are gone from the Government now; it should realise that. The Greens will not suffer. They are doing fine. The Government must realise it is leaving people down and must act to do something about the cost of electricity. People can only go so far. You cannot get blood out of a turnip.

Photo of Peadar TóibínPeadar Tóibín (Meath West, Aontú)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Gerry Clarke, a 77-year-old pensioner from Navan, got a bill for two months of €1,600. Kitty, a woman over 100 years old, from Trim, gets a bill of nearly €1,000. These people are simply the collateral damage of this Government's inaction on the cost of energy at the moment. They are not alone. Right now, a full third of the population is in fuel poverty. That means these individuals are suffering significantly due to their inability to heat their homes. They are going without food in many cases to do that. People are being pushed into overdrafts, if they are lucky enough to get into an overdraft. People are being pushed to moneylenders to try to make ends meet. On the other side of the equation are the energy companies, which are making massive profits. Shell and BP made €70 billion worth of profit. Even the Irish companies such as Electric Ireland are making massive money. Bord Gáis Energy and the Corrib gas fields are seeing their profits increase massively at a time when the price of gas is 58% lower than it was last August. It has fallen significantly from the peak.

Three things are happening. People are being hammered with the cost of fuel, energy companies are profiteering and gouging those families for profits and they are doing that on the basis of the volatility created by the war. In my opinion, it is in the Government's interest to keep prices this high. The Government slapped on carbon taxes a number of months ago because it wants high prices. High prices reduce consumption, which is an objective of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party. High profits sweeten the pot for foreign investors in terms of investing in electricity supply in this country. There is no doubt in my mind this is not happening by accident. The Government is not sitting on its hands by accident. It is watching and waiting to see what happens. Other countries like Britain, Italy, Greece, Romania and Hungary were able to put in windfall taxes, to harvest billions of euro from those taxes and to invest that in helping people suffering due to the cost increases in energy.

Photo of Joan CollinsJoan Collins (Dublin South Central, Independents 4 Change)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

It seems this Government thinks the cost-of-living crisis has been dealt with for now. It has ignored calls from groups like Age Action and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul for proper increases to core social welfare payments of at least €8 to €12. It ignored calls for the fuel allowance to be given to more people on fixed and low incomes. It took away badly-needed supports in terms of relief on excise duty and energy bills. There are still thousands of people around this country struggling to pay their bills, struggling to put food on the table or have exhausted their savings keeping the light and heat on this winter. People have seen their heating and energy bills double or triple over this winter. That was with a fairly mild winter. We are facing a cold snap over the next few days. People are going to be really concerned about their bills. People just cannot afford to live like this any more. On the release of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul's Warm, Safe, Connected report last week, we heard that up to 40% of households could be living in energy poverty at the moment. Some 469,218 people are now in utility arrears and 21.5% of single-parent families cannot keep their homes warm enough. It is the same for 19.5% of people who cannot work for health reasons, 17.4% of unemployed people and 13.5% of renters. Those figures almost doubled or have more than doubled since 2021. If that is not a crisis, I do not know what is.

People may have heard a morning radio programme last Friday during which a mother, Tracy Carroll, from Kells, County Meath, who is a full-time carer for her daughter, contributed. Her daughter has complex medical needs and needs 24-7 care. She also has a son with additional needs. Family carers, as we know, are means-tested. She is on a half carer's rate and did not get the fuel allowance, which would have been a targeted support for carers. She has to heat her home 24-7 and her daughter has a suction pump which has to be charged fully throughout the day. Her gas and electricity bills have jumped tremendously. She admits she was granted the €200 energy credit, which everybody else is getting, and an additional €200 as a carer. She said that is a help, which it is, but it is not dealing with the core payments.

She said whether to heat her home or feed herself is the question in her head all the time. She said it is greatly affecting her mental health. We are living in a First World country and people should not have to choose between heating their home, having a shower or feeding their children and themselves. The point has been made about the massive excess profits big energy companies are making due to the increase in energy prices. Last month the Government took away supports for people struggling with bills and did not extend schemes like the fuel allowance or the working family payment to those who need them; instead it put in place one-off payments for people on social welfare and fixed incomes who needed permanent increases just to stand still.

Oxfam found 50% of inflation in Europe and the US during the cost-of-living crisis has been caused by companies raising prices to increase profits. The Government has no problem taking supports from people who desperately need it but is dragging its heels on introducing a windfall tax on the excess profits of the large corporations causing this crisis. Inflation may be slowing down but prices are not going down any time soon. Age Action found pensioners have 23% less in spending money than in 2020 and the fuel allowance is worth €300 less in real terms. Once-off payments are welcome but not good enough. They just cover up the structural problems in our social welfare system for people on low pay.

I thank Sinn Féin for putting the motion forward which I support. This crisis will not go away any time soon and people still need help paying bills and rent and putting food on the table. The Government has not done nearly enough to stand up to the profit and greed of the large corporations driving this crisis. I support the setting of electricity prices for households at June 2021 levels and a cap at that level. Tax the corporations and give supports to those who need them. Anything less allows big energy companies to make billions in profits off the backs of hundreds of thousands of people struggling to make ends meet.

9:35 pm

Photo of Marian HarkinMarian Harkin (Sligo-Leitrim, Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Tonight we are discussing another motion on high energy costs, and with good reason. Everyone in this Chamber is receiving emails and is meeting constituents, families, individuals, carers, people with disabilities, those on low, fixed incomes, those who have to measure the value of every €5, indeed every euro, they spend, and people telling us they cannot make ends meet. They are making hard choices between food and fuel. They are afraid of their living lives of the next bill that arrives on their doorstep. This is not the story for everyone. Everyone is hit, but some are in crisis. The numbers in crisis are increasing week on week.

I have read the countermotion. The Government has provided both universal and targeted supports but are they enough to stop hundreds of thousands of people being unable to keep their homes warm? Are they sufficient to stop hundreds of thousands of people falling further into utility arrears? The answer to those questions is no, as evidenced by the most recent survey on income and living conditions conducted by the CSO. Those CSO statistics tell us that in 2022, 377,000 people were unable to keep their homes warm, an increase of 135% on 2021. Nearly 500,000 people have gone without heat, an increase of 28% on 2021. Almost 500,000 people are in utility arrears, an increase of more than 33%.

Those are just the headline figures and they hide the devastating picture for many families. When we focus on households unable to keep their homes warm enough, we see certain types of households are hit hardest. Of one-parent families, more than one in five cannot keep their homes warm. It is similar for those with a disability, people who are unemployed, carers and renters. Many people below the headline figures are in real trouble.

The Minister has put a number of measures in place but things are getting worse. The Minister cannot just speak of the long list of one-off payments in his countermotion without looking at the wider context and the real-life experience of people trying to pay bills day by day. The average electricity bill has increased by more than €100 every month. For a family which is caring, it is much higher than that. Home heating oil has increased by €100 to €150 per month. That is already an extra €250 per month. On top of that, inflation stood at 8% in 2022 and is expected to hit 6.3% in 2023. That is an increase of 15% over two years. Set that against the Minister's increase in budget 2023 of core social welfare payments by 12%. That was a 5% increase. Those payments are not keeping pace with inflation, or even close to it.

Inflation figures do not take energy inflation into consideration. Food inflation in the past year hit 12.8%; in the past three months, it is nearly 16%. That clearly shows further action by the Government is needed. It tells us of windfall taxes but they are already late and we do not have a date for their introduction. We have heard from many colleagues of the obscene profits - I will not list them because the Minister already has the list – made by energy companies. Is it any wonder that week after week and month after month the Opposition calls for an immediate windfall tax to be put in place and for further targeted supports for those who need them most?

Photo of James BrowneJames Browne (Wexford, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I move amendment No. 1:

To delete all words after "Dáil Eireann" and substitute the following:

"acknowledges the Government's response to the significant increases in energy prices for households and businesses due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine;

notes that: — the Government introduced an unprecedented package of supports to protect consumers, including a €2.4 billion package of supports during 2022, and an additional package of once-off measures worth €2.5 billion was included in Budget 2023;

— in February, the Government announced a €1.2 billion package to help families, businesses, pensioners, carers and people with disabilities, including:
— families with children will receive a bonus Child Benefit payment of €100 per child in June;

— a once-off €100 increase in the Back to School Clothing and Footwear Allowance in July;

— the Hot School Meals Programme will be extended to all Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools (DEIS) primary schools from September, benefiting 64,500 children;

— a second lump sum of €200 will be paid in April to people on the Working Family Payment, lone parents, low-income families, carers, those on disability payments, and pensioners among others;

— lower Value Added Tax (VAT) and excise rates will continue to apply on gas, electricity, petrol, diesel and marked gas oil until October;

— simplified application process for the Temporary Business Energy Support Scheme (TBESS) and the level of relief has been increased to 50 per cent of the cost of eligible energy bills; and

— the 9 per cent VAT rate for hospitality has been extended to August;
— in April and May 2022, 99 per cent of eligible domestic electricity accounts were credited with the first Electricity Costs Emergency Benefit payment of €176.22 (excl. VAT), with the total cost of this scheme just under €377 million, and this was of benefit to over 2.1 million households;

— under the second Electricity Costs Emergency Benefit Scheme, the first of three further €200 electricity credits was applied before Christmas, and the second payment was credited to bills in the January/February billing cycle, with the next payment of support being applied in the March/April billing cycle;

— as of 6th January, 2023, the number of domestic electricity accounts in receipt of their first (November/December) credit was 2.15 million, meaning 99.1 per cent of all eligible customers have now had the credit applied to their account;

— combined with the first Electricity Benefit Scheme, over 2.1 million households will have automatically received €800 of income support through their electricity bill at a total cost of €1.59 billion between Q2 2022 and Q2 2023;

— this is in addition to increased funding for supports such as the Fuel Allowance, reducing VAT on gas and electric bills, reduced excise duty on petrol and diesel and a total allocation of €267 million (of which €202 million is carbon tax receipts) to Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI) residential and community schemes, including those targeting households at risk of poverty in 2022;

— in 2023, a total of €235 million will be spent on SEAI dedicated energy poverty schemes and Local Authority retrofits, and this funding will target 6,000 free upgrades under the Better Energy Warmer Homes Scheme, with a further 2,400 B2 retrofits of local authority homes next year;

— separate to the Fuel Allowance scheme, the Department of Social Protection pays an electricity or gas allowance under the Household Benefits Package, and a further €203 million will have been spent on the package in 2022, with over 483,000 households expected to have benefited from this;

— in 2022, 4,438 free upgrades were provided to homes at risk of energy poverty through SEAI's Warmer Homes and Warmth and Wellbeing Schemes;

— the Commission for Regulation of Utilities (CRU) ended its regulation of retail prices in the electricity market in 2011, and in the gas market in 2014, and given that prices are no longer regulated, they are set by all suppliers as entirely commercial and operational matters by them, with each company having its own different approach to pricing decisions over time, in accordance with factors such as their overall company strategic direction and developments in their cost base; and

— CRU has recently announced a further extension of the moratorium on disconnections for all bill-pay customers until the end of March 2023, and this is in addition to the strengthened consumer protection measures announced last September, which are now all in place, with these measures including a stipulation that suppliers must offer payment plans of up to 24 months;

recognises that:

— the new TBESS will support eligible companies, covering 40 per cent of the increase in their energy bills; and

— the TBESS scheme was due to expire on 28th February, however, as the impact of higher energy costs continue to be keenly felt by businesses across the country, the scheme was extended to 30th April, 2023, and the monthly limit on aid under the scheme was increased from €10,000 to €15,000 per qualifying business in relation to a trade or profession, subject to an overall cap of €45,000 in cases where a business is carried on from more than one location, with the enhanced limits applying for claim periods from 1st March, 2023;

further notes:

— the implementation of Council Regulation (EU) 2022/1854, which provides for a cap on market revenues in the electricity sector and a temporary solidarity contribution based on taxable profits in the fossil fuel production and refining sectors;

— on 22nd November, 2022, the Government announced the decision to introduce measures to address windfall gains in the energy sector through the implementation of Council Regulation (EU) 2022/1854, an emergency intervention to address high energy prices;

— the legislation to implement this decision is currently being developed, and a general scheme of this legislation is expected to be brought to Government in the coming weeks;

— the Government decided to set a cap of €120 per Megawatt Hour (MWh) for wind and solar, which goes further than the European Union regulation of €180 per MWh in order to fully capture windfall gains, whilst maintaining appropriate future investment signals, and excess revenues will be collected and used to support electricity consumers;

— the cap on market revenues will operate from December 2022 to June 2023 inclusive, as set out in the Council Regulation;

— the Government has decided to implement the Temporary Solidarity Contribution of Council Regulation (EU) 2022/1854 on fossil fuel production and refining companies that earn unexpected surplus profits in 2022 and 2023;

— the Government has also decided to implement the temporary solidarity contribution to apply to taxable profits which are more than 20 per cent above the baseline period from 2018 to 2021, which will be subject to a rate of 75 per cent, and losses from previous years will not be considered in the calculation of the taxable profits; and

— the proceeds to be collected from the implementation of Council Regulation (EU) 2022/1854 (cap on market revenues of non-gas electricity generators and the temporary solidarity contribution) will be highly dependent on the level of wholesale gas prices over the coming winter;

further acknowledges that:

— in April 2022, CRU wrote to Eirgrid and ESB Networks notifying them that it would unwind the Large Energy User (LEU) Rebalancing Subvention with effect from 1st October, 2022, the network tariffs had been rebalanced, since October 2010, in favour of LEUs following a 2009 Government decision;

— the 2009 Government decision was made to help safeguard jobs in some of Ireland's most-critical and export-orientated industries, at a time when unemployment was rising at a fast rate;

— the impact of the decision to unwind the rebalancing is estimated to reduce an average domestic customer's annual bill by €40; and

— following the introduction of Network Tariffs for the period October 2022 to September 2023, to include the unwinding of the LEU rebalancing, and the CRU decision to bring the Public Service Obligation levy to a negative value, domestic customers and small commercial customers are expected to see a small decrease in overall network costs when compared to last year; and further recognises that the European Commission is carrying out a review of the electricity market and may propose adjustments following an impact assessment, and Ireland will engage with this programme of work with a view to, inter alia, maintaining the integrity of the all-island Single Electricity Market."

I welcome this debate on high energy costs and their impact on Irish consumers. I thank colleagues from all sides for their contributions. The Government is deeply aware of and concerned by the pressure on people and businesses from the unprecedented high energy prices. It is a priority for the Government to provide supports to alleviate that pressure and intensive work has been and will continue to be undertaken to address the challenges faced by consumers. Energy market developments are monitored and Departments are working to support households and businesses in meeting energy costs. The Government introduced a suite of measures worth €2.4 billion in 2022 to assist households with energy costs. Budget 2023 provided a further €2.5 billion in once-off measures to support households with the rising cost of living. The measures in budget 2023 included a €400 lump sum for fuel allowance recipients, a €200 lump sum for pensioners and people with disabilities getting the living alone allowance, a €500 cost-of-living lump sum to all families getting the working family payment and double payment of child benefit to support all families with children. A €500 cost-of-living payment for people receiving carer’s support grants will be paid in November. A €500 lump sum cost-of-living disability support grant will be paid to all people receiving a long-term disability payment. In February the Government announced a further €1.2 billion package to help families, businesses, pensioners, carers and people with disabilities to cope with cost-of-living pressures.

In April and May 2022, 99% of eligible electricity accounts were credited with an electricity costs emergency benefit payment of €176.22, excluding VAT. The total cost of this scheme was just under €377 million and it was of benefit to an extraordinary number of households. Under the second electricity cost emergency benefit scheme, the first of three further €200 electricity credits was applied just before Christmas. The second payment was credited in bills in the January-February billing cycle and the next is being applied in the March-April cycle. As of 6 January 2023, the number of domestic electricity accounts in receipt of their first November-December credit was 2.15 million, meaning 99.1% of all eligible customers have had the credit applied to their account. Combined with the first electricity benefit scheme, more than 2.1 million households will have automatically received over €800 of income support through their electricity bill at a total cost of €1.59 billion between 2022 and quarter 2 2023.

The Government has also increased funding for supports such as the fuel allowance, reducing VAT on gas and electricity bills and excise duty on petrol and diesel and a total allocation of €267 million, of which €202 million is carbon tax receipts, through Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, residential community schemes, including those targeting households at risk of energy poverty in 2022. The energy poverty action plan, published in December 2022, in response to rising energy prices, sets out a range of near- and medium-term income, social protection and consumer protection support measures. The plan provides for the establishment of a €10 million fund to further support people who are at risk of energy poverty in 2023. There is also a provision in the plan to legislate to extend the definition of vulnerable customer, to include financial vulnerability, which will extend the protection against disconnection for non-payment of account for a longer period over the winter.

The temporary business energy support scheme, TBESS, was due to expire on 28 February. However, as the impact of higher energy costs continue to be keenly felt by businesses throughout the country, the scheme was extended to 30 April 2023. The monthly limit on aid, under the scheme, was increased from €10,000 to €15,000 per qualifying business, with regard to a trade or profession, subject to an overall cap of €45,000, in cases where businesses carried on for more than one occasion. More than 18,700 businesses have registered for TBESS and more than 11,200 claims have already been approved. These approved claims have a value of €22.7 million, with €18.2 million already paid into the business bank accounts.

The Government will implement EU regulation 2022/1854, which seeks to address windfall gains in the energy sector by collecting excess revenues from those companies that have unexpectedly benefitted from high energy prices and redistribute those revenues to alleviate pressure on affected energy consumers, while the proceeds from the implementation of this regulation, including the temporary solidarity contribution from fossil fuel companies and the cap on market revenues in the electricity sector can be used to provide financial supports to households and companies affected by soaring energy prices. The Government has provided and will continue to provide supports to people and businesses affected by the unprecedented high energy prices.

9:45 pm

Photo of Pa DalyPa Daly (Kerry, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

The impact of the energy crisis in my constituency in County Kerry has been far reaching. Average gas and electricity prices have doubled in the past two years. The number of households in energy poverty has increased by 29% and all the time, the Government refused to reduce and cap energy prices, or introduce the windfall tax. The result has been that older people are in the dark; families are checking how much they eat in a week in order to keep the lights on and businesses face bills that tripled or quadrupled constantly. Cafés and restaurants, some of which have been in operation for 20 or 30 years, have had to close. Something has to give.

While the worst of this winter may have passed, there is no guarantee that energy prices will come down. The St. Vincent de Paul report with regard to energy poverty was mentioned. More than 1,400 calls for help, per week, were made to St. Vincent de Paul in counties Cork and Kerry last December. This was an increase of 30% on the figures in the run-up to Christmas 2021 and, according to a report in the Irish Examiner, St. Vincent de Paul was facing the most demanding Christmas period in decades.

Businesses were also suffering. Ballybunion health and leisure centre had to cut back on services, due to the high bills it was receiving, and was ineligible for support under the TBESS. The renewal of that scheme is incredibly important, because it showed how out of touch the Government was, in that businesses which did not work off the mains were not included in the scheme. I have two bills in front of me. One of them was received by the Tralee community development project. The group deals with women's groups and mental health organisations. Its bill in January and February 2022 was €3,917, for the use of 17,000 units of electricity, but in January and February 2023, the bill was €6,623 for 6,000 units fewer. The meals-on-wheels system in Tralee is supposed to move into the building, but that is under severe threat, because of the massive increase in its energy bills.

The reducing and capping of June 2021 prices has not happened. It should happen. I call on the Minister of State to help the businesses and people of County Kerry.

Photo of Rose Conway-WalshRose Conway-Walsh (Mayo, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I thank my colleagues, Deputies Doherty and O'Rourke, for bringing forward this motion. I am conscious, as we are talking about this motion, that sub-zero temperatures are forecast for the next few days. Energy poverty and deprivation are piercing the homes and hearts of many people throughout this country. The Minister of State listed many things he said the Government has done, but it is giving people money to give to companies to make more and more profits, all the time.

I will tell the Minister of State how it is impacting people in a house I was in over the weekend. The woman is a lone parent who has a child with a disability. She apologised for having to do so but she carried in a big drum of oil to pour into the tank. I asked what she was doing. The woman told me it was the only way she could afford to heat the house and the drum used to be 35 l, but now it is 30 l. I was told she can manage it this way, that the oil would last her five days and she could not afford anything else. The woman said she is ashamed going to get the oil, but it is the only way she can make do. This is what the Minister of State and the Government do not get. The Minister of State sits here tonight - the Minister, Deputy Ryan, and other Government Members were here - still refusing to put a cap on electricity prices. Germany, France, the Netherlands, Austria, Poland and many other countries have done just that, but the Government refuses to do it. Are all those countries wrong?

The Minister of State needs to clear something up for us. The Minister, Deputy Ryan, is telling us a tax will be applied on generators from December 2022 to June 2023. On the very same day, the Taoiseach is telling us that it will be applied for December 2022. Which is it? The statements directly contradict each other. This Government does not have a clue about what it is doing with energy poverty and deprivation.

I refer to the electricity bills coming in. Electric Ireland is asking to be paid direct debit. Huge sums of money are taken out of people's accounts by direct debit and they are left in a situation where they cannot afford food for the rest of the year. Some €800 too much was taken from me by direct debit. Electric Ireland is saying one cannot cancel the direct debit, because one's credit rating will be impacted. The Minister of State should not talk to me about liquefied petroleum gas, LPG, and TBESS. People in rural Ireland and businesses know exactly what the Government thinks of them. We are still waiting for some kind of a grant to be given to those businesses, when they were excluded from TBESS.

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Gabhaim buíochas le gach Teachta Dála a labhair ar an ábhar seo. Is ábhar fíorthábhachtach é seo mar tá daoine amuigh ansin ag fulaingt le billí atá ag dul in airde. Tá daoine ag fáil billí €1,000, €1,300 agus €1,500. Tá go leor Teachtaí ar an taobh seo den Teach ag cur billí mar seo os comhair an Rialtais anocht, ach níl sé sásta éisteacht. Tá a fhios againn go raibh an Rialtas seo sásta tacú a thabhairt ach ba é an tacú a bhí sé ag tabhairt ná tacaíocht do na comhaltaí móra fuinnimh. Nuair a bhí an tAire, an Teachta Ryan, ag cur in éadan an athraithe a bhí de dhíth orainn ó thaobh na hEorpa de, bhí seisean ag seasamh ar thaobh na gcomhlachtaí móra fuinnimh. Nuair a bhí an Teachta Donohoe mar Aire Airgeadais, ní raibh sé ag iarraidh cáin a ghearradh ar na profits millteanacha a bhí na comhlachtaí seo ag déanamh. Ghlac sé cinneadh seasamh ar thaobh na gcomhlachtaí fuinnimh mhóra agus neamhaird a dhéanamh do dhaoine atá i gcruachás.

Déanann an moladh atá mo dhuine ag cur os comhair na Dála anocht ciall. Tá leath den Eoraip ag cur an mholta seo i bhfeidhm ag an bpointe seo. Táthar á dhéanamh ar fud na hEorpa, is é sin, sa Fhrainc, sa Pholainn, sa Ghearmáin agus san Ísiltír. Feicimid go bhfuil rialtais ag teacht isteach agus ag déanamh an rud ceannann céanna á dhéanamh acu agus atá Sinn Féin ag iarraidh ar an Rialtas seo a dhéanamh, is é sin, cinnteacht a thabhairt do dhaoine go mbeidh an praghas atá gearrtha ar leictreachas ag ísliú go dtí an leibhéal ina raibh sé, sula raibh an cogadh ann agus na praghsanna seo ag dul chomh hard sin. Is é sin an rud atá os comhair na Dála inniu.

The Minister and this Government are good at self-congratulations, but not one of its Members addressed the issue of the countless Deputies on this side of the House who gave example after example of bills, not in the hundreds of euros, but bills of more than €1,000, for families that are absolutely crippled as a result of energy costs.

Not one of the Ministers who spoke on the Government side of the House gave an explanation as to why the Minister, Deputy Ryan, refused the reform of the wholesale market, which would have driven down prices, and only did so, belatedly, when the European Commission forced it. No one on that side of the House explained why the then Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, opposed a windfall tax on the profits of those energy companies for months and months. He argued it at Oireachtas committees. He argued it during parliamentary questions. Only when the European Commission came in on this last year, belatedly, was the Government forced to make a U-turn. The reason those positions were adopted is the same reason the Government is refusing tonight to step in and support the families who are hard pressed with crippling electricity bills. It is because it has abandoned these people. The Government is on the side of the energy companies and has taken the wrong side on this debate.

There are solutions. The Government can and must act. Right across Europe, member states are doing exactly what Sinn Féin has called on the Government to do. They are coming in with a cap. They are giving their citizens certainty on the amount by which electricity will be cut. That is something that was allowed by the European Commission as far back as March 2022. In Germany, electricity and gas prices for households are capped at 40 cent and 12 cent per 1 kWh, respectively, for 80% of last year's consumption. This is going to last until the end of 2023. In the Netherlands, electricity and gas prices are capped for the duration of 2023. They are locking in a price of 40 cent per 1 kWh and freezing the price of gas. Similar price caps are being introduced in France, Poland, Luxemburg, Austria, Slovenia - I could go on. When the Government criticises Sinn Féin's proposal to help struggling families, it is criticising everything those other member states have done.

The Government puts out red herrings that these are blank cheques and all the rest of it. This has already been dealt with by these members states. For example, in the Netherlands, the Dutch Parliament adopted motions to prevent energy suppliers from profiting from the price caps. These motions proposed the monitoring of wholesale prices and energy tariffs. What this amounts to is that suppliers are only compensated for what is necessary to cover their costs and no more.

There is a simple decision before the House: stand on the side of hard-pressed families who are crippled with high energy costs or, once again, do what the Government has done before and abandon them to the mercy of these energy companies, the profits of which the Government refuses to tackle.

Question put.

9:55 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

De réir Bhuan-Ordú 80(2), cuirfear an vótáil ar ceal go dtí am vótála tráthnóna amárach.