Energy (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2006: Instruction to Committee.

In the Official Report, 28 March 2006, vol. 617, col. 62, while I welcomed a single debate on the Criminal Justice Bill 2004, I indicated to the House that when new matter is introduced to a Bill by amendments wider than the scope of the Bill as passed on Second Stage, the House should be given the opportunity to debate the principles underlying the amendments. Therefore, I welcome the fact that this motion will today be debated in the House. As this issue concerns an important point of principle from a parliamentary perspective and the present arrangement for this debate is ad hoc, it is my view that the position should be regularised by an appropriate amendment to Standing Orders as Members may see fit.

Hear, hear.

I move:

That, notwithstanding anything in Standing Orders, it be an instruction to the committee to which the Energy (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2006 may be recommitted in respect of certain amendments, that it has power to make provision in the Bill to:

(a) provide for the conferring on Bord Gáis Éireann the power to create capital stock in amounts that are equal to the net assets of the board;

(b) provide for an increase in the statutory borrowing limit of Bord na Móna plc;

(c) provide for the treatment of lands affected by mines and former mines by rehabilitation of such lands and for the compulsory acquisition of lands for the purposes of such rehabilitation; and

(d) provide for the continued validity of planning or other consents for electricity, gas and other infrastructure developments upon commencement of the Planning and Development (Strategic Infrastructure) Act 2006;

and to change the name of the Bill to take account of these provisions.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle and his office for his advice in facilitating this motion. I had no difficulty in accepting that it is an important principle. The proposed amendment to Standing Orders will have my support when it goes before the Committee on Procedure and Privileges.

I intended to introduce the three proposed amendments on Committee Stage in June 2006. It was advised, however, that the amendments would be more appropriately introduced on Report Stage to provide an opportunity for all Members to debate the issues. The intention to introduce the proposed amendments on Report Stage was signalled on Committee Stage and drafts of the amendments, together with explanatory notes, have been provided in advance to each Member. I thank the Opposition Members for facilitating this.

The amendments relate to the issue of capital stock in Bord Gáis Éireann, BGE, the increase in the statutory borrowing limit of Bord na Móna plc, the rehabilitation of mine sites and to safeguard the status of works already approved or under way prior to commencement of the Planning and Development (Strategic Infrastructure) Act 2006.

I propose to insert a new section in the Gas Act 1976 that confers on BGE the power to create capital stock in amounts equal to the net assets of the board. It is Government policy to support the establishment of ESOPs in commercial State companies in appropriate cases. The basis for the policy is to provide an incentive to employees for enhancing the value of a company. Up to 5% shareholding in a company, subject to an upper limit of €38,000 per employee, may be provided in return for changes that give value to a company.

BGE is a statutory corporation that does not have shares in the way that a company set up under the Companies Acts would. This provision is necessary, therefore, in the absence of the introduction of legislation to convert BGE into a limited company and to give the board the power to create capital stock for the purposes of the ESOP. The board will only create capital stock for distribution of the appropriate share to employees when final agreement on the ESOP is reached.

I propose to raise the statutory borrowing limit of Bord na Móna plc to a new limit of €400 million. The upper limit of €127 million has remained unchanged since the passing of the Turf Development Act 1998. The core business of Bord na Móna plc has been the supply of peat to peat-fired electricity generating stations as well as producing peat-based products for use as domestic fuel and in horticulture. While the company intends maintaining these businesses, its future strategy is to develop interests in the renewable energy sector including investment in co-fuelling peat-fired power plant with biomass, windfarms and possible waste-to-energy. Bord na Móna also intends to develop a waste management facility, including landfill and composting.

The strategy will be financed through a mixture of own resources and debt. The statutory borrowing limit needs to be increased, therefore, to allow the company to borrow the required resources. An increase in the statutory borrowing limit does not constitute approval to increase actual borrowing to this limit. Shareholder interests will be protected at all times. Any proposal from the company will be subject to my prior approval and the approval of the Minister for Finance before any commitment to capital expenditure is made.

In June 2005 I secured Government approval for the rehabilitation of abandoned mine sites at Silvermines, County Tipperary, at a cost of €10.6 million over a four year period. North Tipperary County Council has agreed to undertake the rehabilitation works operating as an agent on behalf of the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources. The rehabilitation programme for Silvermines cannot be carried through without this proposed legislation. It will provide powers to expend funds on mine projects, will grant powers of entry to lands and compulsory acquisition of lands where necessary and will give discretionary powers to recover State expenditure on rehabilitated lands. While it is anticipated the compulsory acquisition powers will not be required, it is safer to cover all eventualities. This will ensure the project can be planned and progressed without running the risk of encountering unnecessary and possibly lengthy delays.

The proposed legislation is an interim measure pending enactment of a comprehensive minerals development Bill, approved by the Government last June for priority drafting. This interim legislation will be repealed when the minerals development Bill is enacted. I recommend the amendment because the rehabilitation programme cannot proceed without the legislation. The local community in Silvermines has put up with a difficult environmental situation for long enough and I expect to see serious progress on the project next year.

I propose an amendment to the Planning and Development (Strategic Infrastructure) Act 2006. The effect would be to ensure that on commencement of the Planning and Development (Strategic Infrastructure) Act 2006, no additional consent requirements are superimposed where an application for approval has been made. The same applies to where a consent given in respect of electricity transmission lines, strategic gas infrastructure or State developments which require an environmental impact assessment. It is, therefore, essentially a clarifying amendment, which also safeguards against unnecessary duplication of applications for strategic gas infrastructure, in line with the intention of the Act.

Could this affect the Corrib gas field?

This amendment must be made in time for commencement of the Planning and Development (Strategic Infrastructure) Act. I understand from the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government that the strategic infrastructure provisions of the Act are to be commenced later this autumn. Given that the infrastructure effected comprises, in the main, energy infrastructure I agreed that the Energy (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2006 would be the most suitable vehicle by which to make the necessary amendments to the strategic infrastructure Act.

I thank the House for facilitating a discussion on these amendments.

We have learned the degree to which Bills are subject to change on various Stages. The practice that has grown up in the past several years is accommodating for the Government but not for the Opposition or the public. In future, Ministers should bear in mind that it is not for their convenience alone that legislative procedures are put in place. I hope this is the last time we see this type of presentation to the House. It would have been far better to withdraw the entire Bill, redraft it from scratch and reintroduce it on Committee Stage.

Hear, hear.

The motion before the House is "an instruction to the Committee to which the Energy (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2006 may be recommitted in respect of certain amendments". In other words, part of the Bill is on Report Stage while other parts will be recommitted so that changes can be retrospectively applied on Committee Stage. This is not and never has been the correct approach to take. It reflects poorly on a Department to present it to the House of Parliament in this fashion. I do not say this by way of any personal animosity towards the Minister. The message that this is bad practice should be transmitted to all staff in the Department.

The provision to allow Bord Gáis Éireann the power to create capital stock seems to represent a logical progression. I said on Committee Stage that I intend to submit several amendments on Report Stage. One of these proposes the insertion of a new section dealing with gas installations and the safety thereof. It has been reported to me that some of the practices in this regard are not necessarily in accordance with best practice in terms of health and safety procedures. There is no reason this section cannot be incorporated into the Bill given the manner in which we are dealing with these provisions.

Much debate has taken place recently about gas prices. In regard to the application of Acts of the Oireachtas and the procedures thereafter flowing from them, I hope that adequate information is made available to all those who have a role in making associated decisions. Some of the information to which I and other Members had access in recent months in regard to gas supplies seems to have surpassed that which was available to the regulator when recent price recommendations were made.

It is natural and appropriate to provide for an increase in the statutory borrowing limit for Bord na Móna. The Minister has told us this limit has remained unchanged since the passing of the Turf Development Act 1998. He also mentioned that Bord na Móna is getting involved in developing waste management facilities. I know all about this because it is based in my constituency. I was not the most enthusiastic supporter of this development because I believe it will lead to problems in the future. A waste management facility should not be located in a wetlands area. Some other location should be found where it would be easier to ensure it does not drain into other places and cause pollution.

In recent times, there seems to be a reluctance on the part of Bord na Móna to respond to correspondence from Members of the Oireachtas. I do not know why this is so but it is bad practice. It is something that never happened before but it has been brought to my attention on several occasions recently, particularly in regard to rehabilitated lands acquired by Bord na Móna over several years. In many such cases, the original owners are of the view that since the land has been exhausted by Bord na Móna and is now available for rehabilitation, why should they not have some opportunity to get involved in it? Bord na Móna's response seems to be to give no response.

This is not the Minister's problem but it is a policy that must be carefully monitored. What applies today in regard to one issue can apply to something else tomorrow. State and semi-State bodies should always have due regard for the representations of Members of the Houses of the Oireachtas. I have no difficulty with the principle of this provision. My concern relates to the location of the waste facility, not because I have a NIMBY attitude but because I believe it is structurally unsound. I will return to this issue in the future.

The Joint Committee on Communications, Marine and Natural Resources has discussed the issue of the rehabilitation of lands affected by mines and former mines. I and other members of that committee are aware of the necessity to introduce legislation in this regard and this Bill is the appropriate place to do so. The name of the Bill should be changed to better reflect its content. It is not an energy Bill as such but a regulatory and miscellaneous provisions Bill.

It should be called "Noel Dempsey's Energy Bill". It will be talked about for centuries.

It could be called the "Obfuscated Energy Bill". The rehabilitation of lands affected by mines is a laudable and long overdue measure that will be of great importance to the people who live in the affected areas.

The fourth amendment relates to the continued validity of planning or other consents for electricity, gas and other infrastructure developments upon commencement of the Planning and Development (Strategic Infrastructure) Act 2006. Now is certainly the time to introduce a measure of this nature. I am not certain, however, whether it should be interposed as an appendage to this Bill. The policies drafted by my party in this area have regard to the need to incorporate some type of planning and development strategic infrastructure regulation Bill to ensure we do not remain stuck forever and cannot move forward.

As I said before in this House, I am reluctant to give sweeping powers to bodies, statutory or otherwise, such as the HSE. Power is vested in this House through the person of the Minister, who is accountable to the House. I totally oppose any changes in this regard. We are gradually reaching a situation where there seems no limit to how much consultation, planning, investigation and mediation takes place before action can be taken in many areas. We all recognise the rights of people to object and I have done so myself on many occasions. However, objectors must recognise when they have exhausted due procedures. I do not agree with the notion that it is acceptable to deliberately delay or hinder any process to the extent that it becomes non-viable.

There is a grave danger we may be heading in that direction. I do not contend that objectors are always wrong. They may well be correct in many instances and they have the right to make their objections. However, we should bear in mind that one cannot repeatedly take one's case to a court of law unless one has plenty of money. We do not want to have an environment such as that in the United States where people with deep enough pockets can keep going back to court with charge, counter-charge, amendment, resubmission and so on. We need only look to the procedures in regard to prisoners on death row in that country, where appeals can go on for 20 years. We cannot afford that type of luxury in regard to planning and development.

Debate adjourned.
Sitting suspended at 1.30 p.m. and resumed at 2.30 p.m.