Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill 2014: First Stage

I move:

That leave be granted to introduce a Bill entitled an Act to amend the Freedom of Information Acts 1997 and 2003 by including EirGrid as a public body covered by the aforesaid Acts.

I thank the Cheann Comhairle for giving me the opportunity to introduce the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill 2014. The intention of the Bill is to amend the freedom of information legislation by including EirGrid as a public body to be covered under freedom of information. Everybody agrees that EirGrid should come within the scope of the freedom of information provisions. No one in his or her right mind would oppose such a change.

Not only would this be good for the public, it would also be good for EirGrid to have its decision-making process subject to public scrutiny through freedom of information legislation. This Private Members’ Bill proposes to amend existing freedom of information legislation to provide for this.

Recently, 35,000 submissions were made on EirGrid’s Grid Link proposals. If ever proof was required that people wanted information to enter the public arena, this was it. The 35,000 submissions on this one project show that the public is keen to know what is happening in EirGrid. The main reason behind this legislation is the Government, specifically the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Brendan Howlin, rejected my amendment before Christmas to include EirGrid in the Freedom of Information Bill 2013. I was genuinely surprised that the Minister rejected this because I believed he was committed to freedom of information. He stated:

EirGrid is regulated by the Commission for Energy Regulation, CER, which means there is transparency in how its network business is regulated, and significant information is published by the CER on its website.

That was a pathetic and nonsensical answer. As in a current advertisement on television, I was waiting for the big brick to come down and land on the Minister’s head.

I am giving the Government an opportunity to reverse what it knows was a wrong decision on the part of the Minister. Amendments were also tabled to include Irish Water in the freedom of information legislation which were also rejected by the Government. However, it has bowed to public pressure to agree that Irish Water should come within the terms of freedom of information legisation. It will also do a U-turn on EirGrid. It is not sustainable for any Member to tell the public that EirGrid should not come under freedom of information legislation and the Government knows this is the right move. Ministers should not be guided by the mandarins or someone who might tell them otherwise.

EirGrid is effectively a pylon company. It sees this as its mission. It must change this approach and examine the underground option. In the past it claimed the cost of undergrounding would be 20 times higher than that of pylons. Now it accepts it would only be three times higher. The only conclusion one can draw is that every figure EirGrid has given on this issue has been wrong. I can guarantee that before very long the underground option will be cheaper.

EirGrid has also given wrong information to the Minister on how long it would take to fix a broken line underground, giving the impression that it would take 25 days. During a public hearing during a planning process at Portlaoise before Christmas, my brother, Mr. Padraig Fleming, a county councillor, asked if there would be a threat of blackouts if underground cables failed. EirGrid explained there would not be because it would lay a parallel duct to which it could switch over. It has been peddling this nonsense that there would be power cuts if there was a fault with an underground cable. Ministers were not aware of the mad steer they were getting.

The expert panel established to examine overgrounding or undergrounding relies on EirGrid for information. Again, this is not sufficient and the panel should have access to separate information. The latest effort by EirGrid to buy off legitimate objections by communities across Ireland will not work. It is an affront to the public to use public moneys to buy off objections. We need to see how the board of EirGrid arrived at this conclusion that it thought it could buy off the public. The public has no confidence in EirGrid and neither does the majority of Members of the Government parties. Freedom of information legislation would help EirGrid. I, therefore, look forward to the Government supporting my legislation to bring EirGrid within the terms of freedom of information legislation.

Is the Bill being opposed?

Question put and agreed to.

Since this is a Private Members' Bill, Second Stage must, under Standing Orders, be taken in Private Members' time.

I move: "That the Bill be taken in Private Members' time."

Question put and agreed to.