In so far as this Bill seeks to extend electricity to rural Ireland, I think it will meet with universal support. Everybody has deplored the fact that the amenities available to the people living in rural areas are far inferior to those supplied to the urban districts, and anything that can be done to lessen that disparity between the people living in the cities and towns and those in rural areas should be done as soon as possible.
There is no doubt that the extension of electric current, generally, to people living in rural dwellings will very largely improve the living conditions of our people in the country. It will contribute very largely to alleviating the drudgery which is associated with the work of the rural dweller's wife in the home and around the homestead. The household duties of the womenfolk in the country will be made lighter if electric current is provided. It will also contribute to higher efficiency in the work on the farm, and particularly in the farmyard, in the preparation of foodstuffs for live stock, in the grinding of corn and all types of dairy work, the churning and separating of milk, and all the various activities carried out on the farm. It will be helpful also in regard to the fuel situation in rural areas, particularly where turf is not extensively available, because farmers may be enabled, first of all, to use electric current directly, if it is not too expensive, or at least they can use electric current for the preparation of wood fuel.
All these amenities are so desirable that, at a first glance, I think, the rural community will be inclined to be enthusiastic in support of this Bill. There is, however, always the consideration of cost. Any amenity or any utility service can be made useless if the cost of these services is prohibitive. I do not think that any farmer, however, would expect to get electric current at a lesser price than that at which it is provided in our urban areas. I think that that is a fair principle to be adopted. I was under the impression that this Bill set out to provide electric current to our rural areas at the same price at which it is provided in the urban areas, and that that was the purpose of the subsidy provided for in this Bill. I am quite sure that the Minister will fall in with the suggestion of Deputy Allen, who is a member of his own Party, that there should be no disparity in cost as between dwellers in the rural areas and dwellers in the urban areas. In that connection, it must be remembered that even though the cost for rural areas may be the same as the cost in the urban areas, the service may still be too expensive; if rural conditions should be as bad as some people anticipate they will be after the war. That, however, I think, is not a consideration at the moment for the Minister for Industry and Commerce, and it is not a consideration that we can deal with when discussing this Bill. We must assume that agricultural conditions will be at least sufficiently good, after the war, to enable the rural community to pay the same price for electrification as the urban population are able to pay, and there is no reason to expect that the standard of living should be less in the rural areas than in the urban areas.
This Bill, in addition to providing for rural electrification, sets out to extend the work of generating electric current—the work of harnessing our rivers—and it sets out also to provide the necessary capital for those works. There is, however, one point that strikes me in regard to this Bill, and that is, as to why development should be confined exclusively to rivers and the harnessing of water-power from rivers. Of course, that is in addition to the extension of steam-generating stations. I am convinced that there is great scope for the development of tidal water-power in this connection; that there is great scope for the development of electric current from every natural source in the country; and I believe that it should be one of the functions of the board to investigate all the possibilities in those directions.
I am glad that this Bill provides—I am not sure whether it is under this Bill or previous legislation—the Electricity Supply Board with power to investigate and survey the possibilities of all our rivers, and that its scope of operations is not confined to the larger rivers upon which work is at present being undertaken, or in regard to which schemes are being prepared. I think that, in addition to having the power to survey the possibilities of our larger rivers, there should also be a provision in this Bill for the utilisation, if necessary, of some of the £7,500,000, which is provided in the Bill, for the development of our smaller rivers. As the Minister pointed out, there is a possibility that generating equipment may not be available for some time after the war. It is proposed to go ahead with the scheme in regard to the River Erne. The work on that river may be held up by the lack of some particular type of plant. I do not think that the entire development work should be thereby suspended. Instead, the Electricity Supply Board should proceed, as far as possible, with some other scheme. A considerable amount of preliminary development work can always be carried out, even though it may not be possible, for lack of plant, to complete a scheme. If the power is not provided in this Bill—and I think it is not—I should like to see the Minister given power to undertake work in connection with the smaller rivers in some of our more mountainous counties, such as South Kerry and Wicklow, where you have a high fall and where there is considerable potential power—perhaps a greater amount in proportion to the cost than would be available in the case of some of our larger rivers.
In this connection, both Kerry and Wicklow are outstanding, in as much as, though the rivers may be small, the fall is very considerable. Therefore, it is possible that power could be more cheaply generated on these rivers than on some of the larger rivers. Again, I am not a technical expert and I do not know how far this consideration may carry in the development of electrical current, but I think it is desirable to have the generating station as near as possible to the point of large consumption. In Wicklow, mining of various kinds and development of minerals are being undertaken and, for that reason, it would be desirable to have electrical current generated as closely as possible to where that development is taking place. I believe that the smelting and working of minerals by electrical current is possible and it is, certainly, desirable, having regard to our lack of fuel resources.
I said at the outset that all sections of the community, particularly the rural community, would be enthusiastic about this Bill if they were not deterred, to a considerable extent, by the question of cost. I do not mean only the cost to the consumer; I have also the cost to the general taxpayer in mind. It is desirable that the cost both to the consumer and to the general taxpayer should be kept as low as possible. I understand from the Minister's statement that a very large proportion of the cost of supplying electrical current to our community in both urban and rural areas will be capital cost—that is to say, repayment of the principal and interest. So far as the repayment of the principal is concerned, no question can be raised. But many questions can be asked regarding the cost of the money raised for a purpose such as this. Here, we are undertaking to raise £40,000,000 for rural electrical development in the course of ten years. That is a very large amount of money and, even though the interest rate may not at the moment appear to be high, a question arises as to whether that money should not be raised at a still lower rate of interest. There is over £120,000,000 on deposit in the banks earning only 1 per cent. Why should it not be possible for the State to raise money for a work of national development such as this at a rate not exceeding that which a deposit earns in the bank? It should be possible to raise money for a purpose such as this at considerably less than 3 per cent. A very large saving could be effected in that way and it might, perhaps, reduce the amount of subsidy which would be required and reduce the cost to the consumer.
While that may not actually come into the Bill, it is implied in the general principles of the Bill and it is a most important consideration. The State is borrowing more and more money from the community and that has the effect of putting more and more money into circulation. It is a question as to whether the State, by paying a high rate of interest upon money so created, is not simply paying pensions which have not been earned to considerable sections of the community—pensions which, it is desirable, should not be paid. We all know how desirable it is to encourage saving and investment, but here you have assets actually created by the State through national development for which the State has to pay money to private individuals both inside and outside the country. I do not think that is justifiable. That is a consideration which, I think, would very largely reduce the cost of this scheme.
There are many details of this Bill which will need careful examination and perhaps amendment by Deputies. There is, first of all, the provision with regard to exemption from rates. That applies to all development schemes and all property owned by the Electricity Supply Board. It creates a position that, I think, is not fair to rural authorities. If you have an extensive area of land in a particular county taken over for, perhaps, the purpose of flooding, or the provision of reservoirs, a very substantial burden is thrown on the ratepaying community if the rates on that land are wiped out. That system, I think, is inequitable, and I do not see how it can be justified. On the question of the acquisition of land there have been many complaints of injustice and, indeed, of grave injustice relating to the acquisition of land carried out in the past by the Electricity Supply Board. Where the board acquired an entire farm holding for the purpose of submerging it, the compensation paid in the past was, in most cases, more or less reasonable.
I, however, have known cases in my own constituency where portions of holdings were acquired, and while the amount of compensation paid per acre may have appeared reasonable enough, it was later found that, by depriving a farmer of the best portion of his land, he was placed under a great disability. Since the more fertile portions of the holding had been separated, it meant that the holding was rendered uneconomic. While a farmer might have received £400, £500 or £600 compensation for the acquisition of portion of his holding, he found, in the course of a few years, that the compensation paid was dribbling away from him in his effort to try and carry on on an uneconomic holding, one from which the best land had been separated. It is difficult for any tribunal to appreciate and fully understand the problems which arise in matters of this kind. I am sure that the tribunal, in awarding compensation in many of these cases, considered that they were acting justly, but I think that if they were to review these cases after the lapse of six or seven years they would find that individual farmers were badly treated.
Another matter which, I think, will need to be amended is the system proposed in the Bill of levying fixed charges on the basis of floor space in a farmer's house and outbuildings. My main objection to that system is that it discourages the provision of the best type of farm outoffices and equipment. In a climate, such as ours, it is highly desirable and, in fact, necessary that a farmer should have as extensive cover as possible not only for his live stock, but for his hay and cereal crops. Every encouragement should be given to him to provide the largest amount of cover in his haggard. We all know that the amount of floor space that would be employed in hay barns and that would be needed by a farmer growing cereal crops would be very great. Substantial losses have been sustained by farmers due to the damage done to crops in the haggard before threshing. When materials become readily available in the future, it is desirable that every farmer should have sufficient accommodation to safeguard his cereal crops from this type of damage. That means that very extensive outbuildings will need to be provided in our rural areas. Farmers should be encouraged by every possible means to extend their range of outbuildings. If one were to compare the range of outbuildings on farms in Denmark and other Continental countries with what we have in this country, one would find that we are very far behind in that respect as we are in so many other respects. Much leeway has to be made up in that direction. I do not think that we should have a provision in this Bill which would deter and discourage farmers from providing additional buildings on their holdings. At the moment, I am not sure what alternative to this direct charge should be provided, but some alternative will have to be found before the Bill is passed.
With regard to the development of steam-power generating stations, I am entirely in agreement with the utilisation of peat for this purpose. I think that the conversion of peat into electric current is the most economical method of using this fuel and of making it available to the general public. There is very wide scope for development there. There are very great possibilities in it for this country, having regard to the lack of other kinds of fuel. There is no doubt whatever that, as conditions are at present, hydro-electric power developed from rivers is not sufficient by itself. No matter how far we proceed in the harnessing of the water-power on our rivers, there will always be variations between summer and winter months, and for that reason hydro-electric power must be supplemented by steam-power. The erection of generating stations in our larger bog areas is the most desirable solution of the problem. I think the Minister will find that this House will be prepared to cooperate with him in the enacting of this Bill and will be prepared to assist him with constructive amendments on the Committee Stage.
There is one aspect of this whole question of electrical development which requires consideration and which has been referred to by some other Deputies: that is, the continuance of the authority of this House over the work of the Electricity Supply Board. There should be some definite provision for an annual review of the work of the Electricity Supply Board by this House, just as there is, on the occasion of the Estimates, an annual review of the work of the Post Office and other Government Departments. While this board is not a Government Department, it is, at the same time, engaged in operations which are very similar to the work of a Government Department. It is also engaged in the expenditure of public money far in excess of what is available to many Government Departments. Further, I think this House, as the National Parliament, should have a direct voice in the control and supervision of the work of the Electricity Supply Board, similar to that which is provided, through the Estimates, for the various Government Departments.