Priority Questions

Energy Conservation

Niall Collins

Question:

1. Deputy Niall Collins asked the Minister for Communications; Energy and Natural Resources the number of jobs supported by better energy homes now; the equivalent number in July 2011; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [36214/12]

The Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, administers the better energy programme, which includes the better energy homes and warmer homes and workplaces schemes. Exchequer funding of €76.146 million has been allocated to the better energy programme in 2012, which is projected to deliver 597 GWh in energy savings this year and is the equivalent of €34.2 million in the value of energy saved. The original budget allocation for the better energy programme for 2011 was €60 million. This was supplemented by the Government on taking office with an additional €30 million under the jobs stimulus package, with the total outturn for 2011 amounting to €94 million. Based upon the SEAI’s analysis, the funding supported the retention of more than 5,700 jobs for 2011 as a whole. While the measurement of jobs created and retained is complex, the SEAI continues to monitor the relative labour intensity of the better energy programme.

Since the start of 2012, there has been a notable decrease in applications across all measures in the better energy homes programme. Analysis by the SEAI suggests a number of factors have impacted upon the level of new applications, including milder weather, reduced disposable income and some misconceptions about the continued availability of grants. The SEAI continues to analyse the trends and underlying causes to inform decisions about the programme in the context of budget 2013. In light of that, and to optimise the use of remaining funding for the rest of the year, I recently approved a reallocation within the better energy budget to enhance the funding allocated for better energy warmer homes and better energy workplaces. This reallocation will support the retention of jobs in the retrofitting sector by redirecting funding towards areas of continued strong demand and related levels of economic activity in the sector. It is the case that the notable decrease in better homes applications will have an impact, as yet unquantified, on the retrofitting industry.

The Minister indicated that falling demand was one reason for his recent decision to divert some of the budget. What level of demand is apparent currently in terms of the quantum of applications on hand? Is the Minister minded to continue the scheme for the foreseeable future? Everyone is aware of the benefits of the scheme but the circumstances of some people will change and they might find themselves in a position where they will be able to avail of the scheme even though for various reasons they have not been able to do so to date. Will the scheme continue to exist in 2013 and 2014?

Is the Minister minded to continue the parallel scheme that is running for recipients of the fuel allowance? I do not recall the names of the agencies involved but in Limerick a body in Southill provides warmer homes funding for people who do not go through the SEAI scheme. They go through the social welfare route with the minimum criterion that they are in receipt of the fuel allowance.

The position is that the SEAI is still doing research to establish why there are fewer applications. It is undoubtedly the case from previous studies that if the winter is very bad, the spike in applications is evident for anyone to see. Therefore, the mild winter is plausible as a part explanation but it is not the full explanation. It would appear that people are reluctant to put their hand in their pockets to match the grant aid. The grant aid on offer is based on the presumption that people will come up with their own investment in insulation and retrofitting.

On whether it is the intention to continue the scheme, the programme for Government commits to making the transition from a grants-based system to a pay-as-you-save model, a financial model that envisages repayment over a number of years. It could be three or four years but it has not been fixed yet. The payment will be made essentially from the savings that will accrue. The intention is to continue the scheme for 2013, which is what interests Deputy Collins.

My initial view was that minor adjustment to the grant levels for some functions might explain why there were fewer applications, but that does not explain it because where the grant did not change at all, the number of applications have declined by exactly the same amount. The matter still bears some research.

Is the remaining budget for the rest of this year sufficient to meet the applications to the Department or the SEAI? Has the Minister left people hanging? I hope the answer is "No".

The answer is "No". In fact, we will direct any extra money to the workplace scheme in particular, where there is increasing awareness and uptake on the part of SMEs. It is not the case that there are not many householders in the queue. It is just that the numbers have fallen. There are many in the queue and they will not be left hanging.

Postal Services

Martin Ferris

Question:

2. Deputy Martin Ferris asked the Minister for Communications; Energy and Natural Resources his views on the standard of service provided by An Post; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [36216/12]

Under the Communications Regulation (Postal Services) 2011 Act, An Post is statutorily required, as the designated universal service provider, to provide a universal postal service. The essential element of this obligation is the collection and delivery of mail to every address in the State on every working day.

The universal service obligation is a form of safety net, ensuring by way of regulatory obligation that a minimum set of services is provided at an affordable price for the benefit of all users, irrespective of their geographical location. It is a fundamental principle of the regulatory framework for postal services and is an explicit requirement of the EU postal services directive which has provided for the gradual and controlled opening of the postal services market to competition.

An Post discharges its universal service provision and through it the obligation to deliver mail on every working day to all premises in the country. This service is complemented by a nationwide retail footprint via the post office network. The latter provide valuable services to the population, including payment of social welfare benefits. In addition, An Post is leveraging its retail footprint to provide other services such as banking, insurance and the administration of State savings schemes. I consider that An Post provides a valuable nationwide service to the public.

More generally, as shareholder, I do have a strong concern about the ongoing commercial position of the company and I regularly liaise with the company in this regard. The reality is that the core mail business has suffered a major fall-off and that has impacted seriously on the company’s revenue flow. In response, the company is proactively seeking to keep costs down and diversify its business. An Post has many strengths and has the largest retail presence in the country. I have impressed on the company the need to exploit further its unique position in this regard and I have been supportive of its attempts to diversify its income streams to win a wider range of commercial contracts, including within the public sector, offering higher margins and keeping costs down.

I am certain all Members agree that An Post provides an excellent service, both in respect of the service it is compelled to provide and in respect of its social role in maintaining contact with people, particularly those who are more isolated from the general community. I am somewhat puzzled by the decision of the Commission for Communications Regulation, ComReg, to take a case against An Post on the grounds that it is failing to fulfil its target of next-day delivery. In the ten years I have been a Member of this House I have received many complaints about ComReg, but I can honestly state I have received no complaint about An Post. According to sources within An Post, ComReg has refused to state where the alleged failures are and has not provided hints as to how matters might improve. Instead, it appears this case will potentially be the cause of the imposition of a €12 million fine on An Post, which would be detrimental to it as a service provider. What is the Minister's view on the case being taken? Does he agree ComReg has once again highlighted its deficiencies as a regulator?

I can confirm for the Deputy that legal proceedings have been commenced by the independent regulator, ComReg, against An Post on the basis that the company has failed to achieve the next-day delivery targets fixed by ComReg. The application by ComReg seeks to have imposed a financial penalty of €11.9 million on An Post for breach of the quality of service standard as measured by ComReg in 2010 and 2011. As the Deputy will be aware, ComReg is the independent regulator in this regard. I can accept that next-day delivery is a valid measure of postal standards. However, most Members of the House would share the view advanced by the Deputy that this issue is not a chief concern for postal users, at least not as conveyed to Members. In the context of the financial and commercial challenges confronting An Post, failure to achieve a nationwide 94% target for next-day delivery is scarcely the primary issue. Against this background, I am obliged to note I share the experience of the Deputy and other Members across all parties when I state complaints about next-day delivery do not feature among the matters brought to Members' attention concerning the postal services. No Member, including those in government, wishes to see one State organisation engaged in litigation against another, especially in the midst of the critical financial crisis in which the country finds itself. However, the fact remains that ComReg is statutorily independent in the discharge of this and all of its other functions.

It is mind-boggling at a time when An Post is attempting to diversify and provide an even greater service, that ComReg effectively is attempting to impose a penalty on the company that certainly will not improve the services it provides. I do not believe I have heard of any Deputy ever having received a complaint about An Post in respect of next-day delivery. An Post provides a fantastic service that, as legislators, Members should be prepared to defend against anyone who is so-called independent.

It is a reasonable question as to the extent to which the imposition of a penalty of €11.9 million on An Post would correct the perceived deficiency. Greater challenges than this face An Post. I suspect the extent of electronic substitution, the decline in its core business, the challenges that confront it from competition and so on rank higher in the matters that confront its management. Consequently, I must concede I share the surprise that there are such legal proceedings. Preferably, one hopes two public organisations can resolve this issue consistent with the remit of the independent regulator.

On Question No. 3, Deputy Luke 'Ming' Flanagan is not present. As Deputy Niall Collins has tabled Question No. 4, the Minister may proceed to answer that question.

The Leas-Cheann Comhairle is not taking No. 3.

Not for the moment.

Energy Prices

Niall Collins

Question:

4. Deputy Niall Collins asked the Minister for Communications; Energy and Natural Resources his views on whether Bord Gáis should be allowed to increase its prices by up to 10%; his further views on whether such a move would add to persons financial hardship; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [36215/12]

Responsibility for the regulation of gas prices is a matter for the Commission for Energy Regulation, CER, which is an independent statutory body. Bord Gáis Energy’s gas tariffs for domestic customers continue to be regulated by the CER and are reviewed each year. I have no function in the matter. The regulator is undertaking its annual detailed review of the Bord Gáis Energy, BGE, tariff. This involves detailed assessment by the regulator of BGE’s own recent proposals on gas prices, followed by a consultation process, which will begin at the end of July. The level of increase in the tariff will not become clear until BGE’s detailed submission is fully analysed. I am advised that a decision by the regulator is likely to follow at the end of August on whether any increase should be applied to the BGE tariff from 1 October next. In making its decision the regulator takes account of the need to protect consumers from unnecessary price increases by ensuring only reasonable legitimate costs are recovered by BGE. These would include the price of gas in the global market, currency fluctuations and financing cost-efficient network investment for safety and reasons of security of supply.

There are a number of ways for consumers to take actions on rising gas prices, and measures are in place to assist them. They can shop around to get the best possible price and service deal from suppliers, bearing in mind that other suppliers can and do offer competitive prices and products to those charged by BGE. They can also take steps to improve the efficiency of their gas usage, which delivers demonstrable savings.

The regulator is working with gas suppliers to ensure vulnerable customers are protected through, inter alia, the installation of pay-as-you-go meters. The long-term policy responses for Ireland to combat vulnerability to high and volatile gas prices continue to be increasing the use of renewables, better energy efficiencies and reducing the reliance on gas in the fuel mix. Implementation of the measures set out in the Government’s energy affordability strategy is also key to protecting the interests of vulnerable customers.

There is an anomaly in that the wholesale price of gas on the international commodity market is falling, while, at the same time, Bord Gáis is seeking a 10% increase. The public is finding this difficult to understand and while that is not too bad, it will find it even harder to pay. As an entire set of new charges, including water charges and property taxes, will be rolled out in the next few years, everything possible must be done to try to curb and control the price of fuel, energy and electricity. While the Minister has stated the regulator is independent, which may be the case, to what extent does the regulator consider the public interest from the perspective of how people will actually pay for such an increase? When making this point, I am mindful, for example, of the recent survey conducted by the Irish League of Credit Unions which, to its credit, is a broadly based and independent organisation that is to be found in every community throughout the country. Its recent survey of people's disposable incomes and the remainder thereof at the end of a particular month has credibility. Moreover, it was conducted on a cientific and factual basis and showed that the majority of families of their membership did not have any disposable income available to them at the end of the year. When the regulator informs itself, will the Minister ensure it takes into consideration the aforementioned survey carried out by the Irish League of Credit Unions because it was a fine piece of work? The majority of people, particularly in urban settings, who are members of the credit union movement will find themselves in the category of those who face hardship.

In order to inform the regulator properly, can the Minister ensure that he gets that survey as part of his decision making process?

I will indeed ensure the regulator is fully cognisant of the contents of that report. There is a long way to go on the analysis of whether any price increase in warranted. The main drivers in international gas prices are the euro-sterling exchange rate, network costs and volume consumption trends. The weak euro may indeed have assisted many of our SMEs in exporting from the country in recent times, but it works the other way when importing fossil fuels such as gas and oil. That has been an issue.

I assure the Deputy that I will bring that report to the attention of the regulator. I have already communicated my views to the regulator, especially in so far as they relate to protecting the most vulnerable in our society. The regulator reports that there has been a very good uptake in "pay as you go" meters and that the fears last winter about disconnections and so on largely did not materialise. The protocols we put in place at the time - no disconnections provided the customer signs up to a pay plan or installs a "pay as you go" meter - have been quite effective. I would like a faster rate of uptake of the meters and I hope that takes place between now and the beginning of the winter.

Natural Gas Grid

Mattie McGrath

Question:

5. Deputy Mattie McGrath asked the Minister for Communications; Energy and Natural Resources the circumstances surrounding the underground gas exploration that occurred during the commissioning of the new Bord Gáis high pressure pipeline between Middleton, County Cork and Ballyporeen, County Tipperary and the gas explosion in Leixlip, County Kildare; the safeguards that are in place to prevent a re-occurrence of same; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [36897/12]

The matters raised by the Deputy are operational matters for Bord Gáis Éireann. The company’s gas safety operators are regulated in accordance with the safety regulatory framework established by the Commission for Energy Regulation, which has statutory responsibility for gas safety. I have no function in this regard.

The first incident referred to by the Deputy occurred in May 2010, as Bord Gáis Networks was inspecting the Curraleigh West to Midleton pipeline prior to bringing the pipeline into operation. BGN advises that the gauge used in the inspection showed evidence of having been subjected to abnormally high temperatures. There was no evidence of an explosion and the underground pipeline was not breached. Further testing was undertaken and the line has been re-tested on a number of subsequent occasions and is operating satisfactorily.

Following this incident, BGN commissioned an independent external review of procedures in relation to this incident and, based on the review findings, made amendments to technical commissioning and purging procedures. The national gas safety committee, chaired by the CER and representing the gas industry, the Health and Safety Authority and my Department, monitored this incident throughout and continues to supervise the ongoing BGN analysis into the technical issues involved, which the committee has determined was not a pipeline integrity issue.

Investigations by the regulator and by BGE have been carried out to establish the cause of the gas incident which occurred in Leixlip last January. The regulator's investigation has been informed by work carried out by Burgoynes, UK-based experts in such investigations, with considerable experience in the Irish gas market.

Information not provided on the floor of the House.

BGN’s investigation into Leixlip is ongoing due to legal and other issues and the unavoidably protracted process of interviews with all the parties involved. The completion of the investigations and subsequent findings continues to be overseen by the national gas safety committee. BGÉ operates safety management systems, technical audit and inspection and training programmes across all activities of its networks business which encompass its own staff, business partners and contractors employed for network maintenance and safety works.

Safety is BGÉ’s first priority and the company is committed to ongoing development and maintenance of the gas networks and systems to ensure safety and to deliver continuous safety improvement and performance. I have every confidence in BGÉ’s priority commitment to safety and its safety and emergency response service. There is never room for complacency however, and BGÉ itself is correctly engaged in a constant process of safety review and enhancement, working with CER.

I thank the Minister and I accept his point that it is an operational matter. I do not want to be scaremongering, but I have good information that there was an explosion not too far from the Tipperary border. The Minister may say there is an independent internal review and that it was not a pipeline integrity issue, but I still have huge worries. I would not have had a clue about those pipelines only that I saw the helicopter flying overhead when it was being developed. It was a tremendous job of work and I saw the testing that went on at the time.

The worry is that the competent contractors that Bord Gáis has had in place since long before the pipeline was built are no longer in place. Commitments are not being honoured by Balfour Beatty, among others, which got the contracts to carry out the work. There are major worries about this and while I do not want to peddle misery, it will be too late to talk about it if something serious happens and standards lapse in these companies, some of which have experience here but many of which do not. Many of them do not have the knowledge, expertise, capabilities or responsibilities. They are in at low cost, but we cannot afford this for a major piece of energy infrastructure, nor we can we afford it from a health and safety point of view more importantly. The Health and Safety Authority closes down small businesses and farms every day of the week, and rightly so if there are problems, but this is a major issue of national importance and that is why I put down the question. I appeal to the Minister to insist that there is some fairness and continuity of good practice, which was delivered by the many contractors of Bord Gáis for decades, one of them in my own town of Clonmel - MP Ryan and Company - and which have since been left high and dry, while companies with possible shoddy records are doing this work. That cannot happen.

I must confess that I did not even know about this incident until the Deputy put down the question. However, I was only recently engaged in exchanges in the House with Deputy Catherine Murphy about the unfortunate incident that happened at Leixlip. There is a very careful safety framework in place and it is effectively supervised by the national gas safety committee, which includes organisations like the Health and Safety Authority and technical personnel from my Department.

It is important to state that there was no explosion, nor is there any evidence that the underground pipeline was breached. It is true that the inspection revealed evidence of abnormally high temperatures, but there was not an explosion and the pipeline was not breached. Going back over the years, the safety record of Bord Gáis Éireann is very good. I was in Cork recently and met senior personnel in the company and they are very proud of their record on this. I think I can give Deputy McGrath the assurance he is looking for.

I agree that the company has a proud record. I am just worried on behalf of people who come to me. I cannot say whether there was an explosion or not, but I am told there was. I am not doubting the Minister's word. My worry is that there is a serious slippage of standards with the changeover in companies and organisations. We cannot afford that because it will be too late when something serious happens. The proud standards that we had must be adhered to. They were delivered by people with knowledge of the area and with all the expertise and qualifications and I would be worried, with the cut-price race to the bottom, that we would have an inferior service and maintenance. In spite of the Health and Safety Authority and everything else, it is something that could happen. I do not want that to happen and I know the Minister does not either.

I agree with the Deputy that anything short of best practice would not be acceptable in this area. I have assured myself that best practice obtains and will continue to obtain.

Media Mergers

Luke 'Ming' Flanagan

Question:

3. Deputy Luke 'Ming' Flanagan asked the Minister for Communications; Energy and Natural Resources his views on large parts of the media being controlled by a single owner; if he will introduce legislation to limit the percentage ownership of our media by any one person; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [36894/12]

The issue of media ownership and the concentration of that ownership in the hands of limited numbers of individuals is a sensitive and critical issue for Governments in every developed country. It is all the more so here due to our small scale and the relative ease with which this concentration can occur. The reason this issue is such a critical one stems obviously from the critical role the media plays in our democracy and the potentially harmful effects an overconcentration of media ownership may have on the freedom of the press and on the plurality of views available to the public.

Last year, the Government approved the draft heads of a new consumer and competition Bill, as submitted by the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Bruton, who has primary responsibility for promulgating it. Part of that decision involved giving effect in legislation to the recommendations of the report of the advisory group on media mergers and to transfer responsibility for public interest considerations relating to media mergers from the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation to my Department.

The Government remains committed to implementing a set of robust measures that will allow for a transparent and objective assessment of the public good in media mergers cases and to do so as quickly as possible. Officials from my Department are actively engaged in the drafting process and I have written to the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation on the subject on several occasions around the Bill's content. My primary concerns are that it pays sufficient attention to the preservation of media plurality and to diversity in media, as well as providing that the powers are sufficient to ensure the Government can act when these are threatened.

The consumer and competition Bill 2012 is one of a large number of Bills currently being drafted by the Attorney General's office. I gather it is likely to be later in the year before a draft Bill is ready to be published by the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation and brought before the Oireachtas. In the meantime, the existing provisions set out in the Competition Act 2002 continue to apply.

I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for allowing me to put my question again. He is very fair to let me in as I was not here earlier when I should have been. I apologise for that.

What is the role of the media? Is its role to make a fortune for someone or is it to report the news accurately? I know the realities of business mean that one has to make money at it if one wants to keep it going. At the level that some people are running the media, it is not about delivering the news but controlling it. I am glad the Minister said something will be done about it because it seriously threatens democracy.

Many times in the Chamber when I look up at the Press Gallery I ask myself who is really going to get the message out of here. When they listen to what we have to say, what sort of mangle does it go through before it is actually reported? In my opinion it goes through one particular mangle that constantly attacks anyone who is not of a right-wing view. This needs to be tackled because it is not on. In a democracy, everyone should have their say, should be reported equally and be treated fairly. That does not happen, however. Two large national radio stations are owned by the one person. That is not acceptable and something needs to be done about it immediately.

I agree with the Deputy that the media is not like other businesses and media enterprises are not like other enterprises because of the formative role media can have on the very character of our democracy and the coverage of public affairs. I agree with him that diversity of content and ownership are central. The Sreenan report sets out several principles concerning the public interest test which are central to the Deputy's question.

The heads of the new competition Bill were approved last July. I regret an amount of the Government's legislative programme has been dislocated at the behest of the troika to cause other legislation to receive attention. The new competition Bill is proceeding, however, and will have regard to the Sreenan principles. It will transfer responsibility for the media to my Department and, in the interim, my Department is working with the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation to produce the best legislation we can. Hopefully, it will meet the challenge Deputy Luke 'Ming' Flanagan has put to us.

I hope the Minister is serious about tackling this matter at a micro level in Leinster House. I find the system which decides on who sits in the Press Gallery astonishing. The single owner I referred to earlier has someone in Leinster House who controls who comes in and out of the Gallery. This needs to be addressed. While there may be nothing untoward going on in this regard, it is about how it is perceived. How else can one perceive it when the chief political correspondent of the largest newspaper in the country has a major say over who else can report on what is happening in the Dáil? Will the Minister address this matter as well?

From long years of experience, I am unlikely to dip my toe into organising who should sit in the Press Gallery. Detailed matters such as that might be best avoided.

Undue concentration of media ownership in Ireland would be unacceptable. I hope the legislation, when published, will reflect that. The media has a powerful influence in reporting and analysing current affairs. It is important, as the Deputy said, that different points of view are fairly represented. One person's negative media coverage may be seen quite differently by somebody else. We live in a valley of negativity at the moment for reasons to do with the economic collapse of four years ago. There ought to be room, however, for different analyses and points of view. That diversity and plurality of view ought to be reflected in a healthy media and democracy.