I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate. Most of the objectives of the Bill are unexceptional and can be fully supported. For example, the Bill proposes the introduction in primary legislation of a legal framework to increase energy efficiency as it relates to energy suppliers and distributors. Anything that contributes to energy efficiency must be welcomed. The amendment to the Electricity Supply Board (Superannuation) Act 1942 is also included in the legislation to restate in primary legislation the superannuation arrangement for certain former employees of the ESB. This is unexceptional. The legislation contains an amendment to the Gas Act 1976 to restate in primary legislation the superannuation arrangement for certain former employees of Bord Gais who transferred to Gaslink.
The amendment of the Energy (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1995 will reduce the risk of theft of gas and electricity, and obviously anything that reduces theft of anything is welcome. There are also provisions to amend the Electricity Regulation Act 1999 to improve electricity and gas safety and I welcome those. The main provisions of the Bill are welcome and there is little in it that is controversial.
In the Minister's speech, however, he said things that were both controversial and contradictory to answers he gave earlier in the day during Question Time. During his speech he referred again to the privatisation of ESB. He had indicated during Question Time that there would not be a fire sale of assets happening in the immediate future. He later came into the House and said, "As Deputies are aware, a group co-chaired by my Department and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform has been mandated by Government to report back by end November as to the best approach to the proposed sale of a minority stake in ESB. Subject to a positive decision by Government after consideration of the report of this group, I would envisage the specific transaction being progressed through 2012." One minute the Minister was saying we would not have a fire sale, that there is no rush and we would get full value, and then later the same day he stood up and said we would sell it all in 2012 as a fire sale.
What are the real facts? Is one view his personal view of the matter, that he would take from his Labour Party background, and is the other the script provided by Fine Gael or the Civil Service? It is important the real Deputy Pat Rabbitte stands up and clarifies the matter as he is trying to face in two directions at the same time.
Ministers should remember they have now been in Government for nine months and this has given them plenty of time to form their own views on many matters and plenty of time to confirm what they said in opposition and what we said in government: that the troika does not mind as long as we adhere to the bottom line and as long as the necessary structural change is made to ensure stable finances in the future. It cannot be argued that selling an entity like ESB has long-term structural benefits in terms of price or benefit to the economy because we will lose the dividend that would be brought in. It is different if pension age is changed, that would have a long-term structural effect and saving. Policy must be sustainable in the long-term and the ESB has proven to be sustainable in the long term.
This is and always was an ideological decision on the part of Fine Gael and it is sad to see the party of James Connolly, which holds the balance of power in this Dáil, siding with the hawks in Fine Gael rather than with the consensus of all other parties in the Dáil. I do not envy the Minister's position and I suggest he follow his gut feeling in the matter and not back this issue. If he stands firm and does the right thing he will find that the colleagues who share Government with him are so fond of power, they will relent. He will also find the troika is not an immutable body and it too will relent as long as the bottom line is right. The Minister will then be the hero of the hour and in such circumstances I will be the first to salute him. If he gives in to Fine Gael, he will always be remembered as the Minister who betrayed the principles of his party and sold the family silver for short-term expediency.
Fianna Fáil in Government made a firm decision that the power lines were not for sale, in part or in whole. Sinn Féin opposes the sale, as does the ULA and the other Independent Members behind me, with one or two exceptions. The majority in the Dáil opposes this sale, as long as the Labour Party stands with its principles. I ask the Minister to think seriously about this issue again, to stand firm and protect strategic infrastructure. I have outlined again and again the dangers that will arise if we privatise the electricity transmission and network system where shareholder interest will predominate, no matter how small the minority stake is, because it will be an obligation of the board to recognise the fiduciary responsibility of the minority shareholder.
I welcome the energy reduction demand target and energy efficiency fund. This will add nationally to energy conservation, reduce imports of oil and gas and result in a reduced carbon footprint. I am concerned, however, at the Minister's remarks when he talked about going from an Exchequer funded system to a "pay as you save" framework, where he tries to use the fund to offset Exchequer investment. That is happening at a time where the Minister is answering parliamentary questions to say he cannot give a second warmer homes scheme grant to people on low incomes because he does not have the money to do it, even though we know the poor in this country suffer significantly from fuel poverty because of a lack of thermal quality in their houses.
The Minister must be more ambitious. The warmer homes scheme focuses on those in fuel poverty and on low incomes and we should be making more resources available for this work, not less. In government, we provided €43 million in 2008, €92 million in 2009, €100 million in 2010 and €109 million in 2011. The Government provided another €30 million for the scheme in the jobs initiative. At the time, the Government claimed this €30 million would create 2,000 jobs. As we pointed out last week, every job created in terms of extra PAYE and PRSI and reductions in job seeker's allowances is worth €20,000. According to the Government's own figures, for expenditure of €30 million, the Exchequer will get a direct return of €40 million. There is, therefore, no limit to the funds that can be put in place because the scheme will fund itself. The argument from the Department of Finance about dead weight has been made many times: people do it anyway, according to the Department. If that is the case, many are doing it on the black market and the State is not getting its share. We know the building industry is on its uppers so if activity is stimulated and the grant is 35% or less for those on higher incomes, the scheme pays for itself immediately through reductions in the numbers on welfare and increases in PRSI and taxes. It is extremely difficult to persuade the Department of Finance to accept this argument which I made on many occasions when I served as a Minister.
It is important that the Government recognise that a scheme of this nature must be self-financing. If one is seeking a return on capital spending in respect of a 100% State-funded a project to build a school or a road and if one takes it that the clawback in tax, PAYE and PRSI contributions will be approximately 35%, one will be obliged to find the other 65%. If, however, one provides a grant of 35% and one bears in mind the fact that once people begin to do certain things to their homes, they will automatically want to do others, in real terms the grant will amount to approximately 10% or 12% of the total expenditure involved. In such instances, the State is getting its money back with interest. Members must continue to make this argument until those who never seem to perceive the logic of the position are convinced that what I have outlined is a mathematical certainty.
The only counter-argument is that which contemplates the theory of dead weight. I do not accept that there is dead weight in the economy. It would be fine to make this counter-argument if people were in the mood to borrow and spend money, but they are not willing to do this at present, unless they are provided with incentives. As a result, there is very little dead weight which really refers to someone who does the work, even if a grant is not available. One of the major challenges we face relates to the black economy. I refer to people who have work done, not all of which is put through the books. If it is a grant-aided scheme, it is not possible to obtain a grant unless all the work is put through the books. Any dead weight would, therefore, be more than offset by removing people from the black economy.
What are the Minister's proposals in respect of persons on low incomes who need the benefit of immediate savings? The pay-as-you-save scheme is fine for those on high incomes. I put solar panels in place on my house and, owing to the fact that I would not get my money back for seven years, I did so because I wanted to save the environment rather than for any other reason. However, I was in a position where I could happily make a saving in meeting my energy needs over a seven-year period. The idea that someone who is already in financial difficulties should borrow money from his or her utility company and then pay it back while not making a gain for seven years is incredible. What will happen in respect of the pay-as-you-save system brought forward by the Minister which will be operated by utility companies is that those who can afford to have the work carried out or borrow from the ESB or whomever will be fine. However, those who have really been put to the pin of their collar financially will not be able to afford to have the work done.
The old system was best. Those participating in community employment schemes or rural social schemes, etc. such as the Te Teolaí scheme in the Gaeltacht were actually carrying out the work that was necessary in people's homes. Not only was there no cost involved, this led to the creation of social employment. There is one very successful project in Galway that is staffed by members of the Traveller community. The individuals concerned are involved in carrying out work under the warmer homes schemes. There is an extra social benefit in this regard in that people's perception of the Traveller community is being altered.
When dealing with schemes, it must always be remembered that the weakest in society encounter the greatest difficulties in completing forms, etc. There is an urban myth that those to whom I refer know about everything. Some of them do and some do not. Elderly people, in particular, find completing forms daunting. It is much easier for them to have someone from the warmer homes scheme come to their house and help them complete the form. The work is generally done for them by community groups and they benefit from other intangible supports. I am not seeking to denigrate the excellent work being done in this regard by private companies throughout the country, I am merely trying to emphasise the contribution made by community groups.
If we are serious about reducing our dependence on oil and gas imports, the simplest way to do this would be through the conservation of energy in all its forms. The greatest hedge against the future — the troika must love this — would be to reduce the amount of heat lost from people's houses as a result of bad insulation, etc. Such lost energy merely pollutes the atmosphere with CO2. If the Government wants to create jobs and change the structures which obtain in order that we might import less oil and if it wants people, particularly the less well-off, to be comfortable, it should invest its money in the way I have outlined. It should see the money for which provision is made in the Bill as additional rather than as substitute funding.
As stated, the Bill is unexceptional from the point of view of substance. I will be examining it in much greater detail prior to Committee Stage in order to discover whether any technical issues arise. I cannot argue with the principle underpinning the Bill which my party will be supporting. I look forward to a detailed debate on the provisions of the Bill on Committee Stage.