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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 28 Feb 2012

Vol. 757 No. 1

Topical Issue Debate

Eating Disorders

On 22 February, I raised the issue of pro-eating disorder websites at a briefing on eating disorders by Bodywhys that coincided with eating disorder awareness week. These websites define and promote anorexia and bulimia as conscious choices and a lifestyle. They are called pro-ana and pro-mia websites and exploit the vulnerability of people whose ability to reason logically is impaired. Sites often contain sections such as thinspiration, with inspiring text and photos of very thin celebrities or manipulated photographs. A tips and tricks section offers information on the calorie values of certain foodstuffs and drugs, as well as suggestions to mask dieting behaviour and the anorexic body shape.

A study published online in the European Eating Disorder Review in January 2009 was based on research on school students in Belgium. Some 12.6% of girls and 5.9% of boys aged 13, 15 and 17 had access to pro-anorexic websites. Visiting such sites was associated with a higher drive for thinness and higher levels of perfectionism. No such figures are available for Ireland but, based on the number of people who have contacted me as a Deputy, ex-school principal and teacher, I have no doubt that the figures are just as depressing for Ireland. Bodywhys points to the dangers of the websites, such as that they are potential triggers into an unhealthy, destructive lifestyle, that people can get competitive about how thin they are, and that an unwell person can see weight loss control as an achievement whereas it is a reflection of obsessive and potentially deadly behaviour. These sites can encourage and maintain the disorder. They can be salacious, sensationalist and disrespectful of the dignity of people affected by eating disorders. They also show a lack of respect for professionals, clinicians and researchers who devote their time to the study and treatment of eating disorders and related problems.

America, France and the UK have made efforts to block access to such websites but have not been successful. It is important that Ireland also investigates ways to protect our young and vulnerable people and learns from actions taken by other countries.

I thank Deputy Mitchell O'Connor for raising this important issue and I share her concerns. I am responding on behalf of my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, who has responsibility for mental health issues. The Internet is an international and worldwide phenomenon. It has no borders and no single organisation controlling it. Therefore, efforts to combat harmful material and activities on it can be hampered by the multiplicity of jurisdictions, differing legal systems and differing societal norms.

In this instance, many of the pro-eating disorder websites which the Deputy refers to may be hosted outside this jurisdiction, principally in the United States. As such, they are subject to the US jurisdiction, the free speech provisions of the US Constitution apply and the action that could be taken against them here is limited. While acknowledging these difficulties, there is a self-regulatory framework in place for Internet service providers in Ireland. The Internet Service Providers Association of Ireland code of practice and ethics sets out clear guidelines and minimum standards in respect of dealing with complaints regarding suspected illegal material online.

Although treatment services was not the primary issue raised, a special allocation of €35 million was provided for mental health in budget 2012 in line with the programme for Government commitments, part of which will support the treatment of eating disorders. The €35 million funding will primarily be used to strengthen community mental health teams in both adult and children's mental health services. Over 400 additional staff will be recruited to support initiatives under this package. It is intended that the additional resources will be rolled out in conjunction with the scheme of appropriate clinical care programmes currently being developed. Three areas will be prioritised this year, one of which will be the treatment and care of patients with eating disorders.

HSE services for people with eating disorders are embedded in the community mental health service and with primary care. Individuals with eating disorders frequently present to the primary care practitioner with complications of their condition and early intervention at this level greatly improves outcomes. The HSE has developed a mental health in primary care accredited training programme for primary care practitioners with Dublin City University with a view to enhancing the capacity of primary care to recognise, assess and treat a range of mental illnesses, including eating disorders, within the primary care setting.

The HSE also provides funding to Bodywhys, the national voluntary organisation supporting those with eating disorders to which Deputy Mitchell O'Connor referred. Bodywhys provides a range of support services for people affected including specific services for families and friends. Bodywhys also works closely with the health promotion units throughout the HSE. I can assure the House on behalf of my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Lynch, that the management and care of eating disorders and mental health services generally will continue to be a priority for this Government. I will pass on the Deputy's concerns about the Internet and access to information.

I am heartened to hear the response of the Minister of State. I am very concerned about the number of parents in my constituency who contacted me about these websites. I looked at them for research purposes and I was shocked by the images of thin people proffered as thinspiration. There is also the promotion of a bracelet project, where pro-mia or bulimic sufferers, are advised to wear blue beaded bracelets around their right wrists and pro-ana or anorexic girls are encouraged to wear red beaded bracelets around their left wrists, which allows children to identify other followers and foster a sense of community. We can be cocooned in the House and not realise what is going on with our vulnerable young people. Another website has a list of the thin commandments, containing instructions for sufferers such as "if you aren't thin, you aren't attractive", "what the scale says is the most important thing" and "being thin and not eating are signs of true willpower and success". These websites are promoting unhealthy and dangerous diseases as lifestyle choices. As a Government, I am glad we are exploring ways of protecting our vulnerable people and I am glad to hear the Minister of State say that Internet service providers of Ireland have a code of practice. I call on the Internet service providers to look at the websites mentioned and ensure minimum standards in respect of dealing with complaints.

The information Deputy Mitchell O'Connor has put before the House is disturbing. Whatever methods can be used to ensure this information is not available to vulnerable young people should be taken. The point made about the difficulty in controlling sites coming from outside the country is a reality but we should do whatever we can. By raising the matter, Deputy Mitchell O'Connor has done a service.

Foreshore Licences

Is the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government not responding to this matter?

No, I am taking it.

With all due respect to the Minister of State, I am sorry that the Minister, Deputy Hogan, is not present because he will be taking the decision on the Providence Resources foreshore licence. My appeal is to him in the first instance but also to the Government more generally to reject the Providence Resources foreshore licence application to drill for oil or gas in Dublin Bay.

It has been suggested that those who are concerned or opposed to the drilling live in Dalkey and the immediate vicinity of the proposed drilling. I want to emphasise that this is an issue for the whole of Dublin Bay and has wider national ramifications in terms of environmental, public consultation and planning issues, as well as the management of this country's natural resources.

The proposed drilling is to take place 6 km off Dalkey. Even Providence Resources admits there would be potential for oil spills. The Government has to understand if there was an oil spill that close to the coast the whole of Dublin Bay would be contaminated within hours. There would simply be no way to prevent the oil coming ashore. As I understand it, it will not be the responsibility of Providence Resources to prevent that happening, rather it would be the Irish Coast Guard. We would have no chance of stopping major contamination of the entirety of Dublin Bay, given the proximity of such oil drilling if the project goes into production as an oil well.

That is a risk too far for Dublin Bay. Any economic advantages that we might hope to derive from producing oil or gas would be completely outweighed by the environmental damage that would be done to one of the most important natural amenities in this country and the most important natural amenity in Dublin. It could ruin tourism, the marine environment, our beaches and our natural heritage and do all sorts of damage which makes the risk too great to take.

One might consider taking that risk if there was some significant economic advantage. I would not take the risk, but some people who are desperate, given the current economic climate, might think it is a risk worth taking if the State got something back in terms of jobs and revenue. Such is the licensing arrangement in this country that we will get virtually nothing back.

The company is allowed to write off 25 years of previous losses and capital costs before tax kicks in on any profits it would make. Given the fact that Providence Resources is partnered by an Malaysian multinational, there would also be the opportunity of transfer pricing of costs incurred elsewhere in the multinational which means that virtually nothing would come back to the State. The only beneficiaries would be Providence Resources and a Malaysian multinational.

In these circumstances, there is simply no case whatsoever for allowing drilling close to the coastline in Dublin Bay. In Norway, no oil drilling takes place closer than 25 km to the coast. Wherever there is oil drilling, there is a public inquiry. The Government is refusing to grant a public inquiry on this licence. In Norway, the state gets 70% of the profits and revenues from oil production, while we will get next to nothing. I appeal to the Minister of State not to take risks with Dublin Bay, reject the foreshore license application and, at an absolute minimum, give us a public inquiry before any decision is made to grant such a licence.

I apologise on behalf of the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Phil Hogan. He was not able to be here to reply to the debate. I will convey the views of the Deputy, of which he is aware, to him. I thank the Deputy for raising this matter for debate.

Primary policy responsibility for the exploitation of offshore natural resources, including the tax regime applicable to such projects, is a matter for the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources. Such projects are subject to a number of statutory consents under the Gas Acts and the Petroleum and Other Minerals Development Act. Projects involving works within the 12 nautical mile outer limit of the foreshore are also subject to consent under the Foreshore Acts.

The Department received an application from Providence Resources for a foreshore licence in respect of site investigations and the drilling of an exploratory well off Dalkey. I am advised that this is the first such application under foreshore legislation for this type of project. Notice of the application was published in the press on 5 January 2012. The notice provided details of how the application and accompanying information could be inspected and the means by which the public were invited to make submissions on the proposal.

The application and supporting information were available for inspection in hard copy at two Garda stations and are available electronically on the websites of the Department and the project proponent. The closing date for the receipt of submissions by the Department was 2 February 2012. In the order of 700 individual submissions, of which 350 are duplicates, and 4,100 submissions of the same online petition were received by the Department during the public consultation period. All submissions received have been published on the Department's website and have been forwarded to the applicant inviting its response to the issues raised.

The licence application will be the subject of an environmental assessment by the scientific and technical advisers on the marine licence vetting committee. Their assessment will involve a detailed examination of the application, related information and issues raised in submissions received from the public and prescribed bodies, and the applicant's responses to those issues. I expect the environmental assessment will consider, inter alia, potential impacts on European sites, sensitive species, other legitimate uses within the area the subject of the application and navigation issues.

A determination will be made on the application in due course, taking account of the recommendations of the marine licence vetting committee and the Department. Should the project progress to commercial exploitation, it would be the subject of further formal applications for consents from the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, in the first instance, and then An Bord Pleanála under the Planning Acts, and a full lease or licence under the Foreshore Acts, all of which will require the submission of an environmental impact statement and environmental impact assessments by the relevant consent authorities.

That is all too late. Now is the time to act. If Providence Resources discovers oil or gas in any significant quantities it is unprecedented for any company in that situation not to be allowed to go into production. In reality, this matter will be decided on this application. Normally such applications are not allowed.

Countries like Norway, where best practice is followed, simply do not allow drilling for oil or gas close to coastlines. The public consultation process that went into this application was pathetic. Providence Resources must have had years to prepare its application. The public only found out about it because local residents groups in Dalkey, Protect Our Coast and Save Our Seafront, rang the alarm bells and public meetings were called at very short notice to inform people they needed to make submissions.

It was only in the immediate area of Dalkey and Dún Laoghaire that people had time to do that. People in Sandymount, Ringsend, Clontarf, Fairview and Greystones were not informed of the application even though they would be directly affected if there were any damaging environmental consequences. For that reason, there should be a proper public inquiry so that every stakeholder and resident in the Dublin Bay area is given an opportunity to have his or her say.

Best international practice is that one does not allow drilling so close to the coast. There is always a public inquiry, drilling takes place at safe distances out at sea and the state gets a proper share of the revenues. None of those criteria is in place. Therefore, there is no reason to take this risk or allow the licence to proceed. I appeal to the Government to reject the foreshore licences, establish rules that will safeguard our environment and have proper public consultation and management of natural resources in the future.

I have already outlined the consultation process to the Deputy. There has been a large number of responses.

That is because of us.

As well as those responses, the application has been referred to standards prescribed by the consultees. These include the Marine Institute; the Marine Survey Office; the Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority; Inland Fisheries Ireland; and the National Parks & Wildlife Service. As well as that, because of the nature of the proposal it has also been referred to Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council, Wicklow County Council, the Dublin Port Company, the Dún Laoghaire Harbour Company and the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources.

A wide range of bodies are being consulted on the licence and there has also been a major public reaction. The Deputy has made his voice heard very clearly. I will convey his concerns to the Minister, Deputy Hogan. The various submissions are being considered, including those by the various bodies to which the application has been referred.

Fire Safety

I thank the Minister of State responsible for housing, Deputy O'Sullivan, for attending. The revelation last week that there are serious fire safety problems at Belmayne, Dublin 13, was absolutely shocking to residents of the estate and to people across the whole Dublin north fringe in Dublin North-East. After the Priory Hall disaster, it is truly incredible that another problem of fire safety has arisen close-by in Belmayne. In other areas of the north fringe, residents already faced the ongoing challenges of dealing with pyrite remediation and the Priory Hall issue. They now face another appalling set of circumstances.

I was first informed by the voluntary housing body Clúid that at least 225 homes in the area are affected by the fire safety problem. Some media reports state up to 300 homes are affected. Could the Minister of State clarify this? Does she know how many homes will have to be evacuated while repairs are being carried out? How long will it take? How will residents be rehoused and compensated while their homes are subject to remediation work?

The first priority is to resolve the matter for Belmayne residents and to ensure the fire safety features in all homes on the estate and the whole north fringe are of the highest possible standard and subject to remediation. Serious questions need to be asked yet again about the planning and fire safety regulatory authorities and how this situation could possibly have occurred yet again in the north fringe. Residents feel the Department, Dublin City Council and the developer, builder and management company - Kitara Limited, LM Developments and Stanley Holdings - have kept them in the dark and let them down very badly in respect of the way in which this matter has come to public attention. It has been reported, for example, that fire-stopping features in the homes involved are defective because of a small gap having been left in the plasterboard dry lining. This would allow smoke and fire through if a fire were to take place.

I contacted the fire chief, the Dublin City Council housing manager, Mr. Brady, the city manager, Mr. Tierney, and the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Phil Hogan, last week and asked a number of questions that I would like the Minister of State, Deputy O'Sullivan, to answer this afternoon. I want to know whether the fire brigade invigilated the estate and when the fire safety certificates were issued, and whether the fire brigade raised any concerns regarding the timber frame construction of apartments and homes. A very unusual method of construction was used in a significant part of Belmayne. Most important, did the fire brigade ask about fire safety standards when the city manager, Mr. John Tierney, recently purchased 45 units, which are managed for the local authority by Clúid? Can the Department, Dublin City Council and the fire brigade confirm that constituents are not in immediate danger? Can an urgent repair programme be carried out without the evacuation of all the affected homes? What urgent action will the fire authority and Dublin City Council take to ensure the safety of my constituents?

The executive manager of the fire brigade told me that, in early 2011, investigations were carried out in Belmayne estate by the fire brigade following complaints by three residents. The investigation concluded that Dublin Fire Brigade is not recommending any further action in relation to the Belmayne development, yet we heard one of the householders concerned complain bitterly on the Joe Duffy show last week that this issue was not followed up at the time. I hope the Minister of State will answer these questions.

It was reported in the Sunday Independent this Sunday that, in 2006, inspections of Priory Hall estate were carried out by officials of the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government and that a departmental inspector subsequently raised fire safety and building control concerns, including the absence of fire collars on pipes and poor and inadequate insulation. This was in addition to a health and safety investigation in 2006 which closed down the Priory Hall estate as it was being built. Ms Sinéad Power, one of the outstanding leaders of the Priory Hall residents and a constituent of mine, asked me today whether the Department knew about fire safety defects in 2006 and whether her life and those of all her neighbours were put at risk by the Department for the past five years. Will the Minister of State respond to these allegations regarding the continuing Priory Hall debacle?

I am responding on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Hogan. I may not be able to answer all the questions today but I will certainly revert to the Deputy on those I am unable to answer in so far as that is possible.

I understand that Dublin City Council, through Dublin Fire Brigade, was notified by the developer of a construction defect in some properties at the Belmayne housing complex on 19 January 2012. The developer, acting responsibly in consultation with his fire engineer, consulted the local authority and undertook to carry out remedial works to all affected properties. The fire officer carried out an inspection and determined that remedial action was necessary and timely. Having regard to a number of alternative fire safety controls within the complex which are all functioning and subject to a regular maintenance programme, the fire officer was satisfied that evacuation was not called for. Further inspections were carried out by the fire office on a number of vacant units after which the fire officer was satisfied the remedial works proposed will remedy the defect. Remedial works have already begun, and are likely to take up to one week for each affected apartment.

Clearly this is a stressful and distressing situation for the residents concerned. Residents will be offered alternative accommodation in Belmayne or nearby for the few days while the repairs are being carried out on their apartments, to minimise the inconvenience to them caused by dust and noise.

Dublin City Council and the fire consultants for the developer have agreed on the necessary remedial works. These will involve inserting fire-proof board to seal a 75 mm gap in the voids above ceilings and the removal of service ducts to be rebuilt with full fire-proofing construction. A project manager has been assigned to oversee the works with the assistance of two superintendent inspectors, clerks of works. Works on all the affected apartments are expected to be completed within three months.

Compliance with the building regulations is first and foremost the responsibility of the building owner and developer. Enforcement is a matter for the local building control officer in whose functional area the relevant building is situated. Neither the Minister nor the Department has any direct role in enforcement.

The responsible parties in this case are facing up to their obligations in carrying out remediation works and bearing that cost together with the costs of relocating residents. This is clearly not a similar situation to that in Priory Hall.

With regard to Priory Hall, the legal proceedings are continuing and it would be inappropriate to anticipate their conclusion. In particular, the appeal by Dublin City Council against the court order to pay the costs associated with providing alternative accommodation for the residents will be heard by the Supreme Court on 24 April 2012.

The overriding priority in relation to Priory Hall is to facilitate the return by residents to their homes as early as possible. In this respect, it will be necessary to ensure that these homes are made fit for purpose and that the costs of so doing fall where they should. I have asked Dublin City Council to do all within its power to achieve this objective. My Department will continue to liaise closely with Dublin City Council on the evolving circumstances at Belmayne and Priory Hall.

We all share the Deputy's concern about the effect on the residents in both estates. I hope the people of Belmayne will be reassured that they will have to leave their homes only for a relatively short period.

I thank the Minister of State for her response. She and the Labour Party leader, the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Eamon Gilmore, who met residents of Priory Hall, are partly responsible for trying to unwind the terrible circumstances, particularly for the 48 families of owner-occupiers. Have any proposals been brought to the Cabinet's economic management committee regarding the relevant financial institutions and the mortgage difficulties of Priory Hall owner-occupiers?

The Minister of State did not address the question I asked on the tranche of perhaps 90 homes bought relatively recently in Belmayne by the city manager and Clúid. Were they invigilated by the fire safety authority and Dublin city council specifically before they were purchased?

The north fringe has the potential to be a wonderful new urban district. People often reflect on the fact that this huge territory, an urban district the size of Tralee or Waterford, was to be built over a few years and was to have a very high population density, with 30,000 or 40,000 people. Grave mistakes were made there, particularly by the last city manger, Mr. John Fitzgerald. With all those difficulties, the north fringe now stands on a precipice. It is up to the Minister of State to try to lead the way to ensure the estate turns out to be beneficial.

I have called endlessly, under the legislation of 2004, for a commission of inquiry into all aspects of the planning and development of the north fringe. Looking back at the record of the past five years, since the Pyrite scandal broke in 2007, a short sharp investigation is needed. We have an organisation in Dublin city, which I proposed, called the North Fringe Forum. The area is not a strategic development zone but would the Minister of State consider making the north fringe an SDZ to give it a statutory basis? Would she also consider appointing directly from the Department some sort of executive manager, overseer, czar or gauleiter? He or she could be put in charge of remedying the difficulties we now have in the north fringe. He or she could be in charge of the local area plans to try to get this project back on the rails. Otherwise, this has the potential to be one of the biggest disasters in the history of Irish planning.

I may not have the answers to all of the Deputy's questions and, if not, I can revert to him later. Unfortunately, we are dealing with a number of legacy issues concerning things that were not done properly in the past. We must learn from them for the future and ensure that we put proper systems in place so they cannot possibly recur. We are working on that and will put such systems in place. Together with the Minister, Deputy Hogan, I am determined to do that. We will certainly examine the Deputy's general suggestions on the north fringe because, as a local representative in the area, he is more familiar with the situation than I am.

The Deputy asked me about the number of people affected as well as whether inspections were undertaken prior to taking over certain properties. I do not have a direct answer on inspections but I know that about 300 dwellings, which is approximately 25% of the units at Belmayne, are affected by the immediate problem. They include private residents as well as local authority and voluntary housing body tenants. Therefore, a number of different types of residents are affected.

As regards Priory Hall, I have been in touch with the Dublin city manager, as has the Minister, Deputy Hogan. There are ongoing discussions, as the Deputy is aware.

Was the Sunday Independent report accurate?

I did not read the Sunday Independent report, to be honest, but there are ongoing discussions. We are all trying to find a solution for the people who have been affected. The residents of Priory Hall have had to go through a dreadful situation. We will continue to work towards a solution. It appears that the situation in Belmayne can be rectified relatively quickly and people can be back in their homes after a short period.

Electricity Charges

I thank the Minister for attending the House personally and I know he has made a significant effort to be here.

It has been decided that bills of under two units per day, which I understand from the ESB is equivalent to having a fridge freezer on all the time, or using a cooking plate for 20 minutes, or having four 60W bulbs on for three hours, will be charged at a higher standing charge. This is focused at vacant dwellings and holiday homes that are vacant for most of the year. At first glance, one might say "Fair enough, if you can afford to have a vacant home", but there are many reasons why houses are vacant and why somebody may wish to leave a fridge freezer on. People may have had to go away to get work, for example.

It is not as if there was not an alternative to what is being proposed. I understand the ESB is stating that the saving would be €8.5 million for 170,000 customers. It is hard to see how that saving would be made, but it is what the ESB states. That means there is a saving of €50 per customer per annum. In some case, however, that can rise to an extra charge of €150 per customer. What justification did the ESB give for this? It said it is more expensive to read meters, in addition to which the company must send out bills and administer customer services. It seems rather strange, however, that there would be customers services for vacant houses.

I hope the Minister will take up this matter with the ESB and tell the company that if houses are vacant for large parts of the year, customers could perhaps agree to be billed once or twice a year. In that way savings could be made with fewer meter readings and bills, and all the other excuses the ESB is using for this charge. What is the point in sending out a bill for less than two units a day?

The Minister should tell the ESB that there is another way of solving this problem, which is very simple. People with properties lying vacant for extended periods should notify the ESB so that the meter will not be read and they will not get a bi-monthly bill.

I thank the Minister for making an effort to be here. The ESB is increasing the standing charge for customers who use less than two units of electricity per day. According to the ESB's own figures, this will amount to €9.45 in a two-month bill or €56 over an entire year's billing period. It mainly concerns vacant dwellings, including holiday homes. One unit of electricity amounts to using an electric shower for ten minutes, operating a washing machine for 90 minutes, or watching a 28-inch television for nine hours. Most of us use 14 units of electricity per day and will thankfully be exempt from the standing charge.

To be fair, the Minister has said that people in receipt of a free electricity allowance will be exempt, as will those on an ESB household budget plan or with pay-as-you-go meters. It is also important to exempt elderly people who may have vacated their dwellings to live in nursing homes, may be ill in hospital or may be living with a son or daughter.

I am amused by the ESB stating the standing charge is for administrative costs because the company has changed its meter-reading process, certainly in Cork city. The ESB is increasingly moving away from meter reading, so I would like to hear an explanation for that. The ESB should clearly set out which customers will be affected by this increase. I hope the Minister will agree that we must protect low-income households from this increase, and the elderly in particular.

The Minister's role is crucial in this matter. The ESB must answer to its shareholders and explain this decision fully. If we look closely at those who should be offered exemptions from this increase, I think we will find that the net will get bigger.

I call the Minister, Deputy Rabbitte.

He is in training.

I would like to draw the attention of Deputies Ó Cuív and Buttimer to the fact that responsibility for the regulation of the electricity and gas markets is a matter for the Commission for Energy Regulation, which is an independent statutory body.

The residential electricity market has changed dramatically over the past two years with the introduction of competition. Suppliers are required to respond to competitive pressure while at the same time maintaining a balance between business viability and customers' needs. Prices in the electricity retail market have been fully deregulated since April 2011. Price setting by electricity suppliers, including Electric Ireland, is a commercial and operational matter for the companies concerned.

The regulator was established in 1999 to regulate the electricity sector in Ireland. In 2002, its remit was extended to cover the natural gas market. The regulator is independent of all operators in the market and acts in the best interest of energy customers in Ireland by working to ensure that consumers benefit from regulation and the introduction of competition in energy markets.

An electricity supplier can increase or decrease the rates charged to customers in line with what has been signed up to in the contract. This may include increasing or decreasing the unit rate, the standing charge, or any additional charges on bills.

Deregulation enables business and domestic customers to engage proactively with suppliers and seek better value offers from them and-or switch to other suppliers with lower prices. Since deregulation, Ireland has had some of the highest switching rates in Europe. Switching to an alternative supplier can deliver immediate benefits to consumers. The process is quick, easy and capable of delivering real savings to every household and business.

The background to this particular matter is that Electric Ireland, the ESB's customer supply business, introduced a low-user standing charge on 1 February 2012. The charge applies to that minority of customers who use an average of two units, 2 kW, or less per day in any billing period, which is typically 61 days. Standing charges will be increased by 15.5 cent, including VAT, per day or €9.45, including VAT, per two-monthly bill. Based on analysis of last year's consumption, Electric Ireland estimates between 130,000 to 175,000 customers, 10% to 13% of its existing customer base, may be affected. The increased standing charge will not apply to customers who receive a free electricity allowance or those on household budget plans and pay-as-you-go meters.

I would have been very concerned if it were the case that low-income households and vulnerable customers were to be affected by the standing charge increase. I can tell Deputy Buttimer I have been assured by Electric Ireland that such customers will not be affected.

I thank the Minister. His response was balanced and beautifully delivered.

The idea of a low-usage Electric Ireland customer changing to a new supplier is not a runner. Is the Minister willing to suggest to the ESB that there are many other ways of saving the same amount of money without pegging it on the customer? The simplest answers to this problem are to cut down on administration and get the customers in question to accept electronic billing. There is no point in reading a meter that has no charges on it. The ESB has known for years which low-use customers, such as those with holiday homes, are involved because it has an averaging system to anticipate usage. This charge and the reasons given by the ESB for it are unjustified. Will the Minister ask the ESB to examine alternative ways to make savings which, with the co-operation of the customer, would cut down on administrative and meter-reading costs?

I thank the Minister for his reply and his commitment that low-income households and vulnerable customers would not be affected. The ESB is trying to cod us all. It is discouraging energy efficiency as this charge will penalise low energy usage which is contrary to the policy pursued by the Government and everyone else.

There is a need to monitor the effect of the low-usage charge. I hope the Minister, with the ESB, will assess who the charge affects and review the category of users who have exemptions with the need to re-examine this decision in the next several months. I believe the ESB has changed its meter-reading process - it certainly has in Cork city - and is not reading them as often as it claims.

I welcome the Minister's commitment in his reply that low-income households and vulnerable customers would not be affected. I hope the ESB will review this charge.

I was merely explaining the background of the impact of deregulation to Deputy Ó Cuív, which he understands well. I was not suggesting the increase in the charge in the particular case of customers who use two units of electricity per day would cause them to switch supplier. Rather I was pointing out that since deregulation there has been considerable switching.

That is the usual padding they put in the answers. When I was a Minister I used to strip all that stuff out myself.

I am reluctant to get into the business of telling the ESB how to do its job, however.

The Minister could ask them.

I heard the Deputy's points about changing the reading of meters in question and a once-off annual billing.

There has, however, been some misconception in the public domain about this charge. Conclusions were jumped to that this was a charge on the poor. It is not a charge on the poor.

This is a charge on holiday homes or premises vacated, for whatever reason, in the main. I have already relayed to the House the assurances given to me that those customers on a electricity allowance or on household budget packages will not be affected by this charge. I want to assure Deputy Buttimer that this is the information I have.

If Deputy Ó Cuív is correct that his is a more common sense approach to invigilating this and his billing system would make more sense, I am more than happy to bring it to the attention of the ESB.

I do not want the Minister to go any further than that. I appreciate his role and I would be grateful if he just passed on those suggestions.