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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 4 Dec 2013

Vol. 823 No. 3

Other Questions

Energy Prices

Thomas P. Broughan


6. Deputy Thomas P. Broughan asked the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources the measures being taken by his Department to tackle the problem of fuel poverty. [51567/13]

So far this winter we have escaped with relatively mild weather conditions, although it is very cold this morning. Last winter was one of the worst in living memory. The Government has reduced the term during which the fuel allowance is payable and the allowance has effectively been wiped out by the 33% increase in the price of gas. The Minister will be aware that the price of a standard bag of coal has increased by 10% to 15% and that there has been a 20% increase in the cost of a bale of briquettes. As energy prices continue to rise and with one third of elderly people living alone, what is the Minister doing to address this problem?

As stated by the Deputy, thus far, happily, the winter has been very mild. Let us hope it continues that way. As we enter the winter months I remain concerned about energy poverty and its impact on the most vulnerable in society. Energy poverty is a function of a person’s income, the thermal efficiency of his or her home and the price he or she pays for energy. As the Deputy will be aware, in November 2011 I published a strategy on affordable energy. It is being implemented by my Department in collaboration with the Department of Social Protection and other relevant Departments and agencies across the public sector.

To address the thermal efficiency of people’s homes, I have secured increased funds for the better energy warmer homes scheme in 2014. This scheme provides grants free of charge for vulnerable households to enable them to make their homes more thermal efficient. To date, more than 102,000 homes around the country have benefited from these free upgrades. My Department, together with the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, is also working to ensure the funds available under the better energy warmer homes scheme are targeted at those households most in need. The eligibility criteria for the scheme have been widened in order that the scheme captures more households at risk of energy poverty. In addition, the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, will soon pilot an approach that will allow it to identify households in extreme energy poverty at an earlier stage in the scheme application process, thus allowing it to prioritise the treatment of these applications.

The SEAI is also running a pilot programme for upgrading local authority homes through the better energy warmer homes scheme. Previously, the scheme had only been available to private homeowners. The goal of the pilot programme is to assess if the scheme can also assist local authority households that are vulnerable to energy poverty. The pilot programme is nearing completion and I expect to receive a report on its effectiveness this month. The SEAI has also published the Keeping Well and Warm booklet and website which informs vulnerable households of the advice and supports available to them. In the past four years 230,000 Keeping Well and Warm booklets have been distributed to vulnerable households.

While the numbers of electricity and gas disconnections continue to decline, my Department is engaging with the CER with a view to reducing further the numbers of disconnections.

The Minister has referred to the better energy warmer homes scheme, the target for which is 1 million homes by 2020, of which 102,000 have been insulated thus far. Has the 12,000 target for 2013 been achieved? I acknowledge this work is under way having seen teams of workers moving through local authority estates.

The Minister also referred to the pay-as-you-go scheme. He previously gave a commitment that pay-as-you-go meters would be installed before any supplier moved to disconnect an energy supply. Has this promise been upheld? Where stands the pay-as-you-go scheme?

Our colleagues across the water in the British Labour Party have indicated that if returned to power in 2015, they will immediately institute a price freeze of gas and electricity prices. They appear to have convinced the current British Government to look at implementing a similar policy. Is the Minister open to consideration of the introduction of price controls, given that since taking up office as Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources energy prices have increased by one third, which is outrageous?

As the Deputy knows, under the warmer homes segment of the better energy programme, the State bears the total cost of refurbishment of houses. The others are grant based incentive schemes in respect of houses in the private sector. We expect an additional 10,000 homes to be refurbished this year. This does not take into account the moneys being spent by my colleague, the Minister of State with responsibility for housing, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, on local authority houses. All of the evidence available at the time we were putting together the affordable energy strategy indicated that thermal efficiency was the most significant aspect in improving the quality of living of people vulnerable to energy poverty.

The Deputy referred to the decision made by the Minister for Social Protection on the fuel allowance. One could the pay allowance all year round and it would not have the same impact as the insulation and retrofit programme. The area based initiative is very important. As the Deputy will be aware, there are some houses clustered in particular estates, the quality of which is exceptionally poor and they need to be refurbished.

The Minister did not address my questions about the roll-out of pay-as-you-go meters or price invigilation. Given the general uselessness of the Commission for Energy Regulation during the years, is there not a strong case to be made for some controls in this regard? In a recent speech the Tánaiste spoke about increasing prices and the sudden appearance of bills which families could not pay. The reality is that many of these bills are imposed by the Minister, Deputy Pat Rabbitte, and his colleagues in the form of the property tax, the 50% increase in waste management charges, promised water charges and so on. What we are seeing is a hugely increasing forest of utility bills and a Minister who is not taking any action to control prices in the areas within his remit.

The pay-as-you-go meters have been a considerable success. Under the protocol we have put in place, there can be no disconnections where a pay-as-you-go meter has been installed or a payment plan entered into by the householder. This has worked exceptionally well. My Department is in discussions with the Department of Social Protection on the issue of house occupants resorting to the exceptional needs payment to pay energy bills being required to have a pay-as-you-go meter installed. The installation of pay-as-you-go meters has undoubtedly been a success.

On price controls, it is welcome that neither the ESB nor Bord Gáis increased its prices in this calendar year in circumstances where across the water prices increased by between 8.5% and 10.4%.

The damage was done in 2011-12.

I recall from private discussions with my old friend Deputy Broughan when he was a socialist that he was always in favour of a property tax, the conservation of water and water charges.

No, I was not. The Minister knows I was not.

A Cheann Comhairle, I was the Minister's energy spokesperson.

I know we are in the Christmas season-----

We are over time and I must call Deputy Naughten.

-----when some former colleagues of mine have a habit of standing on their head, but Deputy Broughan's forgetfulness is going too far.

No; the Minister is the one who has forgotten.

That will tell him.

I call Deputy Naughten.

Can this not continue? It is enjoyable.

No, we cannot. This is Question Time.

Post Office Network

Denis Naughten


7. Deputy Denis Naughten asked the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources the steps being taken to support the maintenance of the post office network; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [51555/13]

Post office network income is based on each transaction it processes on behalf of a client or customer. As the Minister is aware, the Minister for Social Protection intends to transfer social welfare payments to electronic format in 2014. If An Post fails to get that contract, it will have a devastating impact on its network.

It is Government policy that An Post should remain a strong and viable company, as the Deputy would wish, in a position to provide a high quality nationwide postal service and to maintain a nationwide customer-focused network of post offices in the community. Operational matters and the role of developing commercial strategies for the post office network are, of course, a matter for the management and board of An Post and one in which I have no statutory function. As shareholder, however, I have a strong concern and hopefully some influence regarding the ongoing commercial position of the company and I regularly liaise with it in this regard. The post office network has many strengths and has the largest retail presence in the country. I have been supportive of its attempts to diversify its income streams and to win a wider range of commercial contracts offering higher margins.

I have welcomed the selection of An Post as the provider of over-the-counter cash services for social welfare customers. The social welfare contract is the largest contract held by the post office division of An Post. As Deputy Naughten noted, the Department of Social Protection intends to implement a strategy whereby the bulk of social welfare payments will be made electronically. I understand the post office network will pitch strongly for the social welfare e-payment business when it is put out to tender by the Department of Social Protection. Having invested in the computerisation of all post offices, the post office network is well positioned to become the front office provider of choice for Government and the financial services sector. Progress towards diversification within the financial services sector is already under way, with the enhanced arrangement with AIB and the agreement with Aviva for the transfer of its branch offices' personal insurance business to One Direct.

In the context of the public sector transformation agenda, I will continue to engage with my colleague the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform on the consideration, as appropriate, of the post office network for transactional elements of the business of Departments and government agencies, and I have stressed to my Government colleagues that the network is ideally configured for over-the-counter transactions. Any such developments would, of course, need to be subject to public procurement requirements as appropriate.

Overall, I envisage a strong future for the network through the use of its existing strengths to remain a significant player as a front office for government services. In this regard, the post office network has secured over-the-counter local property tax payments. In addition, Garda fixed charges, television licences and passports can all be paid or purchased at the post office, as well as dog licences and toll fees. I also envisage a strong role for the post office network in the next phase of the standard bank account project, as the target segment for this project is already comfortable in using post offices for financial transactions.

I thank the Minister for his response. As he is aware, all agencies right across the Government are pushing for online services, the best example of which is the medical card system, which has been centralised in Finglas. The difficulty is that while the Government attempts to centralise everything and put everything online, the penny then drops. The Minister should clarify whether he is aware that the Health Service Executive, HSE, recently informed Members that the centralised system does not work and it now intends to establish a nationwide network of offices to provide face-to-face contact. At that stage, did the Minister make a suggestion to the HSE about using the post office network to provide such face-to-face contact? Postmasters nationwide possess a unique skill set and can do such work.

The honest answer to that question is that I did not, but it sounds like an idea that is worth examining. In that case I did not do what the Deputy suggested, but I have made several suggestions because the post office network has a unique retail infrastructure. I understand there are still 1,144 offices of one kind or another nationwide, which is in itself immensely valuable. However, while the point about the HSE raised by Deputy Naughten had not occurred to me, it strikes me as being worth examining. The business to which he referred from the Department of Social Protection last year was worth approximately €59 million to An Post and, consequently, is highly significant. Deputy Naughten must accept that I cannot simply decree that An Post will be the front office for government services nationwide. I have obligations in respect of competition law, State aid and all the rest but, subject to normal procurement and so on, there is a great deal more that An Post can do as a front-of-house service for government services.

I accept that there are difficulties in respect of tendering, but where there is a will there is a way.

With regard to Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, instead of centralising the scanning of documents in a building in Cork - where those involved decided to scan one side of the page only and forgot to scan the other side, leading to chaos last year - would it not have made far more sense to have asked people to scan such documentation at their local post office and e-mail it from there to SUSI?

I have two further questions for the Minister. First, has exploration taken place with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine regarding the online submission of single farm payment application forms or the cattle movement system? Second, rather than always looking internally, has An Post explored the possibility of becoming the lead agency for electronic invoicing to create additional income and perhaps a capability within the organisation that would bring new, alternative business into the network system?

I do not know SUSI like Deputy Naughten knows SUSI.

The Minister should sing it.

I understand the initial difficulties were subsequently corrected. I will not be dragged into discussing particular services that An Post might provide, because there are constraints on me. However, as I stated to Deputy Naughten - and the management of An Post agrees - there appear to be possibilities with regard to the use of existing infrastructure, especially in cases in which, for example, financial institutions are withdrawing from contact with the public. I am quite happy behind closed doors to take up the points Deputy Naughten has made with regard to the HSE and agriculture. I understand An Post has views in respect of the latter but am not aware of whether the HSE was ever discussed with An Post.

May I raise Question No. 98 in this context?

I am sorry, but the Minister did not take the two questions together.

Electricity Generation

Bernard Durkan


8. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources the degree to which adequate non-fossil-fuel-based electricity generation capacity is currently available; the future requirements in this regard in the short, medium and long term; the consequences in the event of a failure to meet targets in this regard in respect of economic development and energy security; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [51673/13]

This relates to a question that has already been dealt with. It relates to the degree to which Ireland is obliged to provide alternative non-fossil-fuel-based electricity generation facilities over a period and the extent to which it is possible to reach these requirements in the event of the necessary economic growth taking place, while at the same time being able to evaluate on a cost-benefit basis the proposals in their entirety.

As Deputy Durkan is aware, responsibility for national and international climate change policy is a matter for the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government. However, the overarching objective of the Government's energy policy is to ensure secure and sustainable supplies of competitively priced energy to all consumers. Ireland is currently heavily reliant on imported fossil fuels to meet its energy needs.

While it is acknowledged that fossil fuels will remain part of the energy mix for some time to come, progress is being made towards increasing the share of renewables in our overall energy requirements. The 2009 EU renewable energy directive set Ireland a legally binding target of meeting 16% of our energy requirements from renewable sources by 2020. In order to meet this target, Ireland is committed to meeting 40% of electricity demand from renewable sources. Provisional figures for 2012 indicate that 19.6% of electricity demand was met from such sources.

Wind energy has been the largest driver of growth in renewable electricity to date, contributing most towards the achievement of the 2020 target. In 2012, 15.3% of Ireland's electricity demand was met by wind enegy generation. At the end of the third quarter this year, the total amount of renewable energy generated connected to the grid was approximately 2,100 MW. It is estimated that a total of between 3,500 MW and 4,000 MW of onshore renewable energy generation capacity will be required to allow Ireland to meet its 40% renewable electricity target. Currently, projects involving approximately 3,000 MW of renewable energy have taken up connection offers under the Gate 3 grid connection programme.

A failure to meet our overall EU renewable energy targets would result in compliance costs and emissions permit purchases. The Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland has estimated that these could amount to around €100 million to €150 million per annum for each percentage point of the shortfall in renewable energy targets and a further €250 million in emissions permit purchases.

The development of the clean, indigenous, renewable energy resources which Ireland is fortunate to have in abundance holds the prospect of reducing our reliance on expensive fossil fuel imports, thereby improving our energy security and opening up opportunities for the engineering, ICT and communications sectors, with consequent potential for job creation. In response to Deputy Durkan's question about the economic impact, the potential is already recognised by IDA Ireland and Enterprise Ireland in their clean technologies strategies. As we look towards a new EU energy and climate change framework for 2030, we need to expand the portfolio of renewable energy generation options.

I thank the Minister for his comprehensive reply. In the examination of the various options such as wave energy, biomass and so on, is it intended to examine them in the context of their economic viability? Is it intended to examine their potential to come on stream at an earlier stage than anticipated? In the event that there is electricity generation using onshore wind energy, is it intended to take careful cognisance of the views of people who are concerned about health, visual and other impacts on the environment?

Work on wave and tidal energy is essentially still at research stage. The expert advice is to the effect that we look to have a propitious resource, but it is still not commercial. To answer the Deputy's question, these energy options will not be integrated early into the system, but, nonetheless, we are maintaining our investment and partnerships in continuing to test the research in that area.

Wind energy is an indigenous renewable resource and I hope the Government is extremely sensitive to the concerns of people as expressed in various forums and so on. Community acceptance is absolutely critical if we are to exploit what is an indigenous, valuable, renewable resource that has the capacity to create jobs, bring revenue streams into the country, provide rates and other revenue for local authorities and so on. It is very difficult to do it without community acceptance. It is essential that the Government and other institutions of State which are charged with implementation of plans in this area and which have responsibility for refurbishing the grid also demonstrate sensitivity and seek to gain community acceptance for necessary decisions.

What is the extent to which the cost of generating electricity for industrial and domestic consumers is likely to be affected by the ability of this jurisdiction to control its own energy sources or to rely on imported supplies? What is the extent to which these options can be demonstrated as being economically beneficial to these consumers?

Unfortunately, as price takers, we have little influence over the situation where we are importing 100% of our oil needs and 96% of our gas needs. Earlier Deputy Broughan tried to place responsibility for rising gas prices on me. I have responsibilities for many things, but I am not responsible for the global price of gas which reached an all-time high earlier this year. Deputy Durkan is right: if we are dependent on importing fossil fuels to generate electricity and we are in the position of price taker, it is a very difficult situation for us. The more alternatives we can create, the better, especially if they are created from an indigenous resource.

Broadcasting Sector Regulation

Patrick O'Donovan


9. Deputy Patrick O'Donovan asked the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources if he has considered introducing guidelines, regulations or other legal instruments to cover the issue of user generated content being broadcast on TV, radio or other broadcast platforms; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [51568/13]

This question relates to the broadcast of unsolicited texts, tweets and emails from sources that are not substantiated in the broadcast media and the implications this has, in particular, for those operating in a political context.

The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland is the statutory independent body responsible for regulation of the broadcasting sector which includes oversight of compliance of all broadcast content, including user generated content broadcast on television and radio. In line with its responsibilities in this area, the BAI already has in place a number of codes, including the code of fairness, objectivity and impartiality in news and current affairs and the code of programme standards, with which broadcasters are required to comply in regard to content being broadcast on television and radio. The monitoring and enforcement of compliance by broadcasters with these codes are matters for the compliance committee of the BAI which is also independent in its functions. With regard to Internet-based platforms, the BAI does not have any regulatory power in respect of online content, including user generated content made available online by broadcasters. I have asked my Department to discuss this issue with the BAI to see how, if possible, it might be addressed in so far as it relates to broadcasters.

More generally, social media and other platforms to which the Deputy refers are online platforms that allow people to create, share and exchange information and to comment among themselves in virtual communities and networks. To date, these media have not been subject to a formal regulatory regime akin to that used to regulate traditional radio and television broadcast media, either in Ireland or other jurisdictions. There is a range of reasons for this, not least the rapidly evolving nature of the technologies involved, the sensitivities around regulating media and the multi-jurisdictional nature of the Internet.

There are no simple answers to the challenges posed by the development and abuse of social media and user generated content on online platforms, not least because of the international basis of the services and because any possible policy response falls across a number of Departments. In recognition of this complexity, my Department maintains open and regular contact with all Departments and State agencies with responsibilities in this area. My Department also monitors international developments with a view to ensuring domestic policy within its remit reflects best practice and that the regulatory framework is amended, as necessary.

I accept the fact that social media in general are a force for good. However, my issue is with broadcasting first party comments by third parties through tweets, text messages and so on, especially for persons operating in a political context.

I note from one of the Minister's previous contributions that a comment was attributed to him by a national broadcaster and he was not even in the studio at the time. In a recent election an unsolicited tweet had a major impact on the result. I accept what the Minister said about the compliance element and the BAI's role in this issue, but given the fact that we are in a changing environment in which the broadcast media are behind the curve in the advancement of technology, this matter must be examined. There is a built-in unfairness. If an anonymous person using a platform is broadcast by a national, local or regional broadcaster without any attention being paid to the fact that it could be a hoax tweet, text message or e-mail, the damage can be substantial.

I do not disagree with the Deputy. There are inherent pitfalls, but I wonder if it is all that novel. This also happened in the era of the telephone and has gone on in the era of texting. It is remarkable when some interviewees are followed by showers of congratulatory and laudatory text messages praising them to the sky. I am sure it is purely accidental. It is a question of editorial judgment and control. Programme makers ought not broadcast such a communication to which the Deputy referred without first seeking to validate its provenance. There is the same responsibility for social media and online content.

I accept that "Barry from Balbriggan" could very often be "Sheila from Stillorgan" and that "Sheila" might be working in the press office of a government or an opposition party, but that does not take away from the fact that the broadcasters have a responsibility for which there is no regulatory framework. I ask that consideration be given to having a regulatory framework for the third party use of tweets, text messages and online communications, including penalties when they are not corroborated properly.

This is a fundamental issue. The editors of programmes have scant regard for the origins of communications. They read them willy-nilly in all programmes. The editors and presenters of these programmes are ultimately responsible for not verifying tweets and other communications.

It is a matter of editorial control. I appreciate that the media, for example, have a tendency to recognise qualities in politicians who, for example, leave their party that they never recognised while they were in the party. RTE implemented new guidelines after the presidential election and these guidelines are invoked. The BAI's code of practice was also published after the presidential election. Steps have been taken to deal with this phenomenon. However, no country I know of has satisfactorily attended to the issue and I do not dispute the substance of Deputy Patrick O'Donovan's question.

Written Answers follow Adjournment.