The Government is being urged to use October’s Budget to tackle energy poverty and break Ireland’s dependence on fossil fuels for home heating.
A cross-section of social, environmental and voluntary organisations issued the call ahead of the National Economic Dialogue, which takes place in Dublin Castle today.
The conference will see Government leaders, charities, trade unions, academics and business groups gather to discuss priorities ahead of Budget 2024.
The theme of this year’s dialogue is ‘The economy in 2030 – enabling a sustainable future for all’ and will focus on longer-term factors that will shape economic trends and drive living standards in the future.
The Government said that the meeting is not intended to produce specific budget proposals or recommendations.
Michael McGrath said ‘budgetary policy cannot become part of the inflation problem’
Speaking in advance of the conference, Minister for Finance Michael McGrath said that the difficulties created for people by the rising cost of living will be at the forefront of his mind ahead of Budget 2024.
“We must also be conscious that our economy is now at full-employment and it is important that budgetary policy does not add to inflation – to put it another way, budgetary policy cannot become part of the inflation problem,” Mr McGrath said.
“While the public finances are in robust shape, we know that we face real vulnerabilities in relation to the concentration of corporation tax receipts, an ageing population and the need to finance the climate and digital transitions,” he added.
Minister for Public Expenditure, National Development Plan Delivery and Reform Paschal Donohoe described the National Economic Dialogue as an important milestone in the annual budgetary calendar.
“I look forward to a productive and insightful discussion on the choices and tools required to sow the seeds for future development of our country into the next decade,” Mr Donohoe said.
In advance of today’s meeting, organisations including the Society of St Vincent De Paul, Friends of the Earth, Threshold, the Disability Federation, Age Action, the National Women’s Council and the Irish Heart Foundation issued a joint statement.
The groups described the latest CSO figures, which show the number of people unable to keep their homes adequately warm doubling between 2021 and 2022 and reaching a record high, as an “unprecedented crisis”.
The 27 organisations are calling on the Government to address inadequate incomes by raising social welfare rates in line with cost-of-living increases.
They want to see measures that tackle cold homes for low-income renters and homeowners, as well as steps to bring down bills and guarantee everyone’s right to energy.
Clare O’Connor, Energy Policy Officer at Friends of the Earth, said initiatives must also be introduced to reduce our dependency on fossil fuels for home heating and ensure a fair energy transition.
“It is powerful to see so many organisations join together to call for an end to our dependence on dirty, expensive fossil fuel heating as a core part of tackling energy poverty and ensuring warm homes for all,” Ms O’Connor said.
“It’s also essential that Budget 2024 tackles income adequacy by raising all core social welfare payments by a minimum of €25,” she added.
Ciara Murphy said reducing Ireland’s reliance on fossil fuels could lower energy poverty levels
Ciara Murphy, Environmental Policy Advocate at The Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice, said common and just solutions are needed to tackle social and environmental degradation, which she described as two sides of the same coin.
Ms Murphy said: “Reducing our reliance on fossil fuels by retrofitting homes and providing more efficient social and affordable homes can simultaneously reduce our emissions while also reducing the prevalence of energy poverty in our society.”
Fleachta Phelan, Senior Policy Associate at Disability Federation of Ireland, said that disabled people have long lived with higher than average energy bills, due to the many extra costs of having a disability.
“It is deeply worrying to know that people who cannot work because of their disability or health condition are cutting back on necessary heating due to a lack of sufficient income,” Ms Phelan said.
“The Government must act to address disability poverty in Budget 2024,” she added.
Social Justice Ireland (SJI) called for the Budget to be split in two with once-off windfall tax gains being invested only in one-off infrastructure projects and accounted for separately.
SJI’s CEO Dr Seán Healy said the normal budget should be presented using the regular budget process.
“This would mean that Government could then ensure that regular Budget expenditure is funded through recurring revenue and there would be no sudden surprises of discovering a huge shortfall in revenue when the windfall taxes no longer flow,” Dr Healy said.
The National Women’s Council (NWC) urged the Government to invest in childcare and public services to tackle systemic inequalities.
“We call on the Government to deliver a public, not for profit childcare model,” said NWC’s Head of Campaigns Rachel Coyle.
“Equally, we must see investment in a universal State pension as the best way to ensure equality and an adequate income for women in old age,” Ms Coyle said.