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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 18 Jan 2012

Vol. 752 No. 1

Other Questions

I remind Deputies that the Minister is allowed two minutes for his initial reply and four minutes are allowed overall for supplementary questions and replies, with a one-minute limit on each supplementary question and reply.

Telecommunications Services

Sean Fleming


6Deputy Sean Fleming asked the Minister for Communications; Energy and Natural Resources the progress made by him in his talks with the telecommunications industry in the forum he established; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [2630/12]

Under the NewERA proposals in the programme for Government, there is a commitment to co-invest with the private sector and commercial semi-State sector to provide next generation broadband access to every home and business in the State. The next generation broadband taskforce, which I convened last summer, has an important role to play in this regard. The taskforce, which I chair, comprises the Minister of State, Deputy O'Dowd, the CEOs of all of the major telecommunications companies operating in the Irish market and CEOs of some other companies that provide broadband services. The purpose of the taskforce is to discuss and report on policy issues and proposals in regard to the provision of high-speed broadband across Ireland.

The taskforce, and four working groups reporting to it, are considering issues such as targets, spectrum policy, private sector investment plans and the removal of barriers - for example, local authority wayleave processes - to facilitate investment. I expect that the taskforce will help to identify how best to deliver wider customer access to high-speed broadband generally and thereby assist in delivering on the commitment in the programme for Government.

The taskforce will conclude its deliberations shortly. I intend to consider the findings, conclusions and recommendations of the report of the taskforce and to make a submission to the Government in this regard. It is my objective to move quickly thereafter to put in place the optimal policy environment for the delivery of high-speed broadband.

A favourite term of expression among public servants is "shortly" or "in the near future". Could the Minister give a more precise definition of what "shortly" means? Does it mean one, two or three months, or three years?

The Minister is now ten months in office. Does he not believe it is time he moved on with regard to broadband? What is his policy, rather than that of the industry, on bringing fibre-based broadband to every home and business? What is his policy on the availability of mobile broadband for those who want to use broadband on the move? Has he set out for the taskforce basic requirements that he needs the industry to meet?

What does "shortly" mean? I do not know what it means in the public service, but in this case-----

What does it mean to the Minister?

-----in answer to this question, it means "before St. Patrick's Day". It is not two years, three years or anything like that. We will bless the report with the shamrock before St. Patrick's Day.

The work of the task force, as is made very clear, is technology neutral. The merit of it is that it is a unique partnership between Government and the chief executives of the leading operators here. What we are trying to do is to design a road map for the future to find out where the weaknesses are and to prepare for next generation access. I explained there are four different working groups looking at different aspects. The Deputy has a later question concerning spectrum auctioning. Spectrum policy is one of the issues under consideration and another is the remarkable variations that apply in different local authorities in terms of facilitating investment in their own county. These four separate work groups are involved in detailed, painstaking work that comes back to the task force itself.

While I would not like to tell the Deputy that the next meeting of the task force will be the last meeting, I think it will be the last meeting but one and that we will have the report completed by St. Patrick's Day. I hope it will identify the strengths, weaknesses and deficits, and where investment has to be made for the next generation broadband.

Does the Minister agree the industry has its interests, which are mainly shareholder interests, and also that some in the industry reputedly, from what we read in the media, have huge financial constraints in regard to what they can do or want to do? I would be interested in finding out what the Minister said the Government wants to do in this regard and the minimum that is acceptable to the Minister, whether directly done by the industry or done by the State.

Second, does the Minister believe in this idea that all technologies are neutral or does he agree that some technologies actually give better results than others? Does he agree that for a fixed premises it is very hard to beat fibre-optic cable? Specifically, has the Minister plans to ensure that, as was done in the 1940s when we decided to roll out electrification to every house in the country, fibre-optic cable is rolled out pervasively throughout the country to ensure high-speed access to both businesses and individuals?

The Deputy is right in the sense that any of these private sector companies have a duty to their shareholders - there is no doubt about that. However, they also have a vested interest in serving the largest segment of market they can get in this marketplace and, in the process, encouraging a competitive dynamic that does exist, in all fairness, despite the small marketplace. I do not see any point in the State doing what these companies can do well. The problem is that there are areas in which they are less than keen and interested, and there is less of a return for their shareholders. That will leave the Government with a challenge.

It is not a question of whether I believe technology is neutral or that all technologies are neutral. All I am saying is that a guiding principle of the task force is that it will approach the problem from a technology neutral point of view. It would be very difficult to bring together the heads of the telcos operating in Ireland, who have a different interest, and tell them I am only going to roll out fibre-optic cable to homes. If I were to do that, apart from the wisdom-----

It would be stupid to do that.

-----it would be stupid to say that and to proceed on that basis. We will avail of all the technologies that are there to make sure we roll out high-speed broadband to the optimum number of homes in Ireland.

Better Energy Programme

John Browne


7Deputy John Browne asked the Minister for Communications; Energy and Natural Resources the allocation for the better energy homes scheme in advance of 2011; the additional resources committed in the jobs initiative; the outrun at the end of the years; the provision for 2012; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [2615/12]

Catherine Murphy


13Deputy Catherine Murphy asked the Minister for Communications; Energy and Natural Resources the amount of revenue arising from the imposition of the carbon levy that is planned to be ring-fenced for direct use by the Sustainable Energy Authority Ireland towards home energy retrofitting grants in 2012; the overall planned spend by him on fuel poverty alleviation measures in 2012; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [2576/12]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 7 and 13 together.

The Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, administers the Better Energy programme on behalf of my Department. The SEAI was initially allocated €65 million for the programme in 2011. On taking office and in the context of the jobs initiative, I announced an increase of €30 million in funding for the programme, which brought the final capital allocation for the Better Energy programme in 2011 to €95 million. The provisional outturn for 2011 is approximately €91 million.

Measures being supported under the Better Energy programme are those designed to deliver the greatest energy savings, thus maximising the value achieved from the Exchequer allocation. The additional €30 million provided to the programme for 2011 under the jobs initiative delivered a further €30 million in private sector investment.

As announced in the context of the budget, the Government has again committed significant funding of €76 million to the Better Energy programme for 2012. The programme will continue to underpin economic activity throughout this year, supporting at least 4,500 jobs and realising significant energy savings. The budget allocation for 2012 was agreed in the context of the capital review conducted by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. The Better Energy programme meets the key criteria governing the Government's investment priorities. These criteria are as follows: consistency with the programme for Government objectives, including returning to sustainable public finances; supporting sustainable employment and employment in the immediate delivery phase; and meeting critical economic and social infrastructure deficits.

The Better Energy programme is directly funded by the Exchequer through my Department's Vote. The Exchequer receives its moneys from a variety of sources, including the carbon tax. Revenue from taxation receipts, including the carbon tax, is a matter for the Minister for Finance.

The 2012 allocation for the energy poverty strand of the Better Energy programme is just over €17 million, which will enable 17,000 low-income homes to be retrofitted this year under the warmer homes scheme. In November, I launched the Government's affordable energy strategy, which sets out the range of tangible time-based measures to tackle energy poverty in a cohesive and cross-governmental way. The strategy identifies a number of priority measures, including a commitment to review the national fuel scheme in terms of examining the feasibility of aligning income supports with the energy efficiency and income of the home. We will also progress the phased introduction of minimal thermal efficiency standards for rental accommodation.

Ensuring greater access to energy efficiency measures for those most in need and reforming the eligibility criteria for energy efficiency schemes will ensure that funding under warmer homes is as targeted as possible during 2012.

I do not need to tease out some of the information further as I just wanted to know the outturns. Where it is up to the Minister for Finance to decide on the amount, is the carbon tax not ring-fenced for particular projects? What really irritates people is that they are paying for something definite, which the carbon tax is, so the carbon tax should be about offsetting in a very demonstrable way the use of fossil fuels.

Second, is it likely the Minister will target people who receive the fuel allowance? There has been a cut of six weeks in the fuel allowance this year. It seems there is a certain element of reducing the impact on those houses, if the house meets the criteria for upgrading, but this is targeted in a certain way due to the impact on the fuel allowance. Is there any relationship with that? Is there a relationship with the Department of Social Protection? Does the information regarding payments such as the fuel allowance come from that Department? If not, can that happen?

I agree that what the Deputy mentioned in regard to ring-fencing the carbon tax appears logical. The legal advice, however, is that we cannot have hypothecated taxes in the way we do business in this jurisdiction. I remember raising the same point in terms of the Criminal Assets Bureau, CAB, and the drugs barons, to the effect that where moneys are recouped from drug barons by the CAB they ought to go back to the communities where people's lives have been destroyed by the pushing and selling of drugs, and so on. At the time I set up the drugs taskforces, the Attorney General would not permit that, stating it was not possible under our system to earmark a tax in that way. It does, however, go into the general maw of the Exchequer and I have no doubt the Minister for Finance would say it balances out in the end.

The fuel allowance is a matter for the Minister for Social Protection. In answer to the Deputy's question, there has been very little contact between one Department and another down the years. This has led to the rather crazy situation wherein we are spending the kind of money I mentioned on improving thermal efficiency in homes while, at the same time, throughout the past ten years we have spent in the order of €2 billion in fuel allowance which, in many cases, goes up the chimney. It is not the best way to spend money and I do not know how long it will take to reorient that kind of mindset.

After the cut, the fuel allowance applies for 30 weeks. No doubt the Deputy has noticed that since this Government came to office the winter weather is immensely milder - it is like a spring day outside today. That has been one of the big advantages of the change of Government.

I have some supplementary points. First, the motor tax fund was ring-fenced in respect of the local government fund. I do not know how that could have been done if it is not possible to do the same in this case. Second, the Minister reports there is very little relationship between the two Departments regarding this scheme. Would he consider having a relationship with the Department of Social Protection concerning this scheme in order to go about it in a systematic way, given there are people who are already categorised as requiring fuel allowance?

That is a sensible suggestion. I would be glad to do that. I do not have the document with me but we have published the affordable energy strategy. If the Deputy has had the opportunity to read even the executive summary, in that we set out that kind of reorientation of policy in this area.

It is not my business to speculate about the future of fuel allowance or how it may proceed. I will say only that at least in some cases, perhaps in very many, it is not the best use of money. In the work of the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, and work in which my Department is involved in improving the thermal efficiencies of homes, I have met some of the people concerned. Any who have had jobs done such as general or attic insulation, replacement of boiler and-or more, report a world of difference. Whatever happens, I hope we will maintain the warmer home scheme which is a far more productive use of money. However, I do not want that to be interpreted as any signal that the fuel allowance is being terminated in any way. That is not the case.

I welcome what the Minister stated about introducing building energy rating, BER, as a condition of rent allowance. I started that process in Government when I was in the Department of Social Protection. To be honest, I do not know why my predecessors had not done this because it is a no-brainer. When one looks at the statistics one finds that people in rented accommodation make up the largest numbers of those who experience fuel poverty.

The Minister did not answer part of Deputy's Browne's question. According to the estimates we have he is providing €64.6 million - let us say €69 million because we will not argue about €4 million or €5 million. I understand the pension levy is to be taken again this year, amounting to €30 million. Am I right? The pension levy the Government introduced last autumn is to run for three years.

What has that to do with the issue?

That supplies €30 million, which means the normal Exchequer contribution to this scheme comes only to between €30 million to €40 million this year. If the Exchequer provided €60 million last year, to which the Minister has added another €30 million from the pension levy, that makes €90 million. This year the Minister will get the €30 million again because there is a levy on pensioners again. The total sum, according to the figures we have, is €64 million. That means that other than the money being taken from the pensioners to fund this only €30 million is to come from the Exchequer, a halving of the money that came this year.

Either I am a bit dim-witted or we are at cross purposes. I am not sure I understand what the Deputy means in respect of the pension levy. What does that have to do with retrofit? My predecessor provided for €65 million in the budget of 2011. My colleague, the Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan, acceded to my request that an additional €30 million be made available, bringing the total to €95 million. In the event, €91 million was spent.

This year the Government has provided for €76 million to be spent on better energy, which is something of a reduction in keeping with all the other reductions across the board we have had to make in order to make fiscal targets. However, it is still a significant investment in this area, given the times we face. I explained to the Deputy that what I am trying to do is maintain the momentum because interest has been stimulated among people who realise they can make significant savings in their energy bills if they do this work. I am trying to maintain that momentum until I get to the stage where the pay as one saves scheme will be in operation. When it does, in a partnership between the energy supply companies and the banks, there will be a model where the householder can make an application and pay for the work from the savings that accrue over three or four years, whatever time it takes. That is the model we are working on at present. It is rather complex but it is very important that it is not too complex for the citizen to access.

I do not pretend to be stupid but I genuinely do not understand the Deputy's point about our taking such a sum from the pension levy and thereby giving only so much to retrofitting. One could say, equally, that such a sum was taken in the levy but only so much was given to health or environment. I do not know why the Deputy is putting it on my head.

The reason is the initiative-----

We are considerably over time.

I must explain this to the Minister.

You can explain it to him afterwards over a cup of coffee.

The jobs initiative was about giving the €30 million to beef up the amount of money on these schemes. Fair enough, last year the Government did that. However, given all the three card tricks that go on in the Department of Finance, although the €30 million is to come from the system again this year I notice the figure for spending has gone back to the initial figure of last year, more or less. What the Government is doing, therefore, is taking the €30 million and putting it into the Exchequer. That is the usual three card trick the Department of Finance plays. It says it will get extra revenue and provide it for something in particular. It does that the first year but the second year it cuts the amount from the Exchequer and the money raised becomes a tax like every other tax.

Television Licence Fee

Charlie McConalogue


8Deputy Charlie McConalogue asked the Minister for Communications; Energy and Natural Resources if he will outline discussions he has held with the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government on amalgamating the household charge with the TV licence fee; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [2642/12]

Michael McGrath


15Deputy Michael McGrath asked the Minister for Communications; Energy and Natural Resources if he has considered the abolition of the TV licence in view of new technologies that are circumventing it; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [2646/12]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 8 and 15 together.

The current television licence system is such that, except for certain classes of social welfare recipients, if one owns a television set one is liable to pay a television licence. An Post is responsible for the collection of television licence fees and for identifying those persons who have unlicensed televisions sets.

The programme for Government commits to examining the role and collection of the television licence fee in light of existing and projected convergence of technologies and to transforming the television licence into a household based public broadcasting charge to be applied to all households and applicable businesses, regardless of the device used to access content.

In line with this commitment, my Department is examining both the effectiveness and efficiency of the existing model of television licence fee collection in the context of the changing technological environment. It is also examining the applicability of various international models for the funding of public service broadcasting. In carrying out the review to date, my Department has been mindful of the need to provide certainty as regards the funding base for public service broadcasting.

Although it is subject to a certain degree of evasion, the existing television licence fee system has provided a stable funding base for our public service broadcasters. Any changes that may be implemented on foot of the review must continue to provide a secure funding base for public service broadcasting while also recognising the reality of new mechanisms to access television content.

The replacement of the television licence fee by a household charge would not have any negative impact on those who comply with the legal requirements to have a licence and pay the fee. Since a key objective is to reduce evasion, it will, however, impact on those who evade payment. The work undertaken by my officials to date indicates that a household charge is a viable proposition for consideration which can provide a transparent funding arrangement for public service broadcasting. It can also address the issue of new mechanisms to access television content.

The work to date also highlights issues which require further consideration. The issues include how to levy and collect the charge. I hope to have a sense of the timeframe and scale of implementation involved in taking this proposal further in the coming weeks. Enabling legislation would be required for this measure. As part of their work on this issue, I can confirm my officials have held preliminary discussions with the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government on the development of a suitable database of eligible households. I expect these discussions to continue once a final decision on the timeframe and scale of implementation of any household-based public broadcasting charge is made.

I thank the Minister for his comprehensive answer. As he said, if one were to introduce a broadcasting charge for every household and every applicable business, income would not go down but only up. Other platforms for watching television, such as the iPhone or whatever other way, are still a bit far-fetched for 99.9% of people. However, they are growing in popularity. Will the Minister accept the status quo is not a long-term option because of technological change?

To facilitate as wide a range a discussion as possible, will the Minister provide an issues paper on the future of the television licence for consideration by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Communications, Natural Resources and Agriculture, so it can debate them and have a structured input in the Minister's consideration of the matter?

The Deputy is correct the status quo is probably not feasible for two reasons, first, the phenomenon of technological convergence and, second, the extent of evasion. Notwithstanding the best efforts of An Post - I have not been given any credible argument as to why some other agency would do better than An Post - there is still a 15% evasion rate which costs RTE about €25 million a year.

It also costs the Exchequer, TG4 and the broadcasting fund.

Yes, there is the exception of the statutory provision for TG4 and the fund. Up to €25 million in evasion is a significant factor.

While Deputy Ó Cuív claimed 99.9% of the population would not watch television on platforms other than the conventional television set, I believe there is a digital divide in that younger viewers access television content on other platforms. The Ceann Comhairle and I still watch it on the old television set. I suspect Deputy Ó Cuív likewise.

He is still using a black and white set.

No, I think Deputy Ó Cuív has upscaled.

The Minister of State is very wrong. I am very good at using my iPhone.

The household charge envisaged in this question, a broadcasting charge, is not an additional charge. Such a charge would replace a television charge.

I have no hesitation in co-operating with Deputy Ó Cuív and the Opposition in presenting before an Oireachtas committee on this matter.

Would it be possible for the Department, which has access to all the legal advice and so on, to provide a preliminary paper on the issues it is examining? It would allow us to come back with our thoughts on the matter to be added into the mix and fed into the process.

That is possible.

Gas Exploration

Patrick Nulty


9Deputy Patrick Nulty asked the Minister for Communications; Energy and Natural Resources if his attention has been drawn to the fact that his Department plans further research on hydraulic fracturing and is currently in the process of drawing up specifications for a more comprehensive research project alongside other stakeholders; the names of these stakeholders; if they will include local community groups in the areas affected such as Clare Fracking Concerned and the Irish Farmers Association; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [2579/12]

Patrick Nulty


14Deputy Patrick Nulty asked the Minister for Communications; Energy and Natural Resources if his attention has been drawn to the fact that his Department has instructed the Environmental Protection Agency to carry out research into the natural gas extraction process hydraulic fracking, which included consultation with the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, on this method; his views that the university’s research will be impartial in view of the fact that this university is the hub of the oil and gas industry for the North Sea and also receives generous funding from this same industry; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [2578/12]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 9 and 14 together.

In October 2011, the Minister, Deputy Rabbitte, requested the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, to conduct research and advise on the environmental implications of hydraulic fracturing as a means of extracting natural gas from underground reserves. The EPA is funding preliminary background research into the environmental aspects of shale gas extraction and into the regulatory approaches of other countries with a view to helping to establish best environmental practice.

This research is in the form of a desk-based study being carried out by the University of Aberdeen. The EPA consulted with the Department before finalising the terms of reference for this study and a report in respect of the study is expected by the end of February.

The university was one of several parties approached by the EPA based on its expertise in the relevant field and was subsequently awarded the contract. Universities across the world forge links with industry relevant to their area of expertise. However, impartiality is accepted and recognised as a key element to all academic research.

The EPA proposes to commission further, more extensive research on hydraulic fracturing in 2012 with a working group involving representatives from my Department and the EPA established to develop the scope for this study. The research is expected to examine the environmental considerations relating to the use of hydraulic fracturing generally and will not be specific to any particular location or part of the country.

The final specification for this research will only be prepared after the EPA, which is an independent statutory body, has considered the output from the study under way at the University of Aberdeen.

My Department has not received applications for nor licensed the use of hydraulic fracturing in the Irish onshore at this time. Any such application that involved hydraulic fracturing would be subject to an environmental impact assessment. The assessment would include a public consultation phase of four weeks or more which would be advertised on my Department's website and in the local press. This would afford local community groups and the general public an opportunity to comment on the project and its potential environmental effects. My Department would also seek and be guided by the expert advice of other relevant statutory authorities. The outcome of the environmental impact assessment would help determine whether an exploration licence would be granted.

I thank the Minister of State. It is vital that the research undertaken is objective and is seen to be so. The University of Aberdeen is funded substantially by the oil and gas industry and the Government should examine whether having the research done by a university whose key funders have a vested interest is appropriate, given that fracking is banned, for example, in New South Wales, Australia and Quebec and Canada. The environmental authorities in New York found that 260 different chemicals were used in the process. Does the Minister of State agree that the precautionary principle should apply, that the previous Fianna Fáil-led Government was premature in granting the initial exploratory licences and that there should be a moratorium on fracking in the State until more knowledge and information becomes available to ensure the safety of the entire process?

A.licensing option has been agreed and no fracking licence has been granted. If an application is made for the second phase, the exploration licence, the local authority will be involved as a planning application will be necessary. The Department will also seek advice from the EPA. I respect the agency's independence and professionalism and it has been consulted. The University of Aberdeen is the repository of knowledge which the agency has approached and we are happy to take the university's advice. Subsequent to this, there will be more intensive research into the impact of hydraulic fracturing. There is no question, therefore, of getting a biased or one-sided report from an academic institution. Aberdeen university and other high quality universities are objective, otherwise, by definition, they would not be universities. They have to be objective in their assessments.

If gas is extracted following hydraulic fracturing, all the European environmental directives will apply, including those relating to environmental impact assessments, mining waste licences, water frameworks, REACH and habitats. There is a strong body of directives which must apply if we proceed to that stage but the Department has received no such application.

Will the Minister of State clarify whether the licensing procedure will be suspended until the research in this regard is available? Does he not think it is bizarre that young couples cannot build in County Leitrim because of the EPA standards relating to septic tanks, yet he is considering causing mini-earthquakes that could have an impact on ground-water?

Is he aware that a number of reputable scientists in the US have argued publicly that insufficient scientific data are available there, the home of hydraulic fracturing, to make a balanced decision? The journal, Scientific American, recently published a report that the disposal of the waste water deep underground in Ohio caused an earthquake, which registered 4 on the Richter scale. Even in the context of using zero chemical hydraulic fracturing in Ireland, mini-earthquakes will be caused in areas where the detail of ground-water is unknown and the impact of pumping the waste water back underground is not knows. Should this process not be suspended through a clear indication from Government until all the data are available?

Does the Minister of State know the seanfhocal a dheireann, is é an bóthar mór an t-aicearra? The high road is the short cut and the short road is not necessarily the short cut. We are all aware of the difficulties that arose because of Corrib Gas. The Department is repeating the mistake by taking the narrow permission by permission approach without developing an overarching policy on fracking that would not only take into account the narrow environmental concerns but also societal and community concerns. Does the Minister of State believe using physical pads that could be removed in counties Leitrim of Clare is an acceptable development, given the nature of the beautiful countryside? Earlier, I used the Croagh Patrick analogy in the context of oil.

I agree with Deputy Nulty. I was not aware of the fracking issue or that licences had issued because not every Minister knows what every other Minister does every day. I regret that the initial licences were granted by the previous Government before we developed a policy on fracking. As soon as fracking was brought to my attention, I stated a policy was needed before further licences would be issued. I regret the issuing of the initial licences because once one goes down that route, money will be invested and then if a Minister's policy is not to proceed with fracking, the investors are left high and dry and the community concerned will have been treated in a cavalier fashion. Will the Minister develop a broad-based, joined up policy on the extraction of gas by hydraulic fracturing that would take into account not only environmental issues but also social issues affecting tourism, communities and so on? Is he willing to give an undertaking to publish such a policy before further licences are issued in this process?

I inherited the decision made in the month prior to the election by the previous Government to issue licences. Part of the recitation of the licence is that the Department will have to consider but not necessarily grant an exploration licence, which is the second phase, as part of the application. Environmental issues must be dealt with and EPA guidelines, European directives and planning issues must be brought to bear in tandem with the international knowledge the agency will gather. However, no hydraulic fracturing is taking place in the State and no application for same is before the Department. When one is made, all the relevant processes will apply, including planning and consultation. The objectivity of the EPA is respected internationally and I cannot imagine a Government disagreeing with its advice on any environmental matter. If gas can be extracted without impacting on the environment and all the other issues are addressed, we have to consider that because of our energy deficit.

Written Answers follow Adjournment.