Other Questions

Apprenticeship Programmes

Michael Colreavy

Question:

6. Deputy Michael Colreavy asked the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources if an apprenticeship initiative will be rolled out across other semi-State companies and State bodies similar to the one launched by ESB recently. [10505/15]

One of the consequences of the collapse of our economy was that many infrastructural projects came to a sudden halt and, in tandem with that, there was an end to the engagement of apprentices. The announcement by ESB of its intention to create 300 new apprenticeships is welcome. Will the Government engage with other State and semi-State agencies to determine whether there is an opportunity to take people out of unemployment and train them for skilled jobs under apprenticeship schemes? What scope is there for such schemes? The national broadband roll-out, which we have just discussed, might offer potential in this regard.

The information sought by the Deputy is an operational matter for the individual State companies in the first instance. The Government is fully committed to renewing and significantly expanding the apprenticeship system in Ireland. The recent announcement by the ESB Networks training centre of excellence in Portlaoise of plans to recruit 300 new apprentices in the coming years is a significant development in this regard.

There are several other State bodies under the aegis of the Department actively participating in apprenticeship and graduate schemes. Bord na Móna, for instance, recruits apprentices on an annual basis. I understand it currently has 28 apprentices ranging from first to fourth year serving their apprenticeship in the trade of construction plant fitting, mechanical automation, maintenance fitting and electrical. The company reviews the apprenticeship programme on an ongoing basis and plans to recruit apprentices each year based on the business requirements.

In addition, Gas Networks Ireland is committed to providing opportunities for young adults through apprenticeship and graduate programmes. These personnel will be provided with specific training which will ensure Gas Networks Ireland continues to have the appropriate core technical competencies within its business to deliver its work programmes and ensure the ongoing success of the business.

The Engineers Ireland graduate placement training programme allows young engineers to gain experience in an engineering environment and the host organisation to benefit from their skills and enthusiasm. The Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland currently has three graduate energy engineers on this 23-month graduate programme. To date, SEAI has enabled 32 interns to participate across 15 local authorities under the SEAI-led energy intern programme which commenced in 2010. Under this programme, support has been provided to 70 SMEs in identifying energy savings of €1.75 million for their businesses. Electric Ireland has taken this programme and developed it into the Energy FIT programme which was recently launched in GAA clubs countrywide.

I thank the Minister of State for that information. I accept, of course, that companies must make their own decisions in regard to operational matters. However, if I were Minister, I would be surprised and disappointed if State and semi-State companies did not have due regard to Government policy and priorities. If we are serious about taking people off the unemployment lines and getting them into quality jobs, we must seriously ramp up the apprenticeship programme. In fact, I would go further and say that any infrastructural projects in which the State invests must include a social dividend clause which requires the engagement of a specific number of apprentices. Building for the future is about more than building blocks; it is about giving people the skills to build for our future. The people are just as important, if not more important, than the blocks.

The Deputy makes a fair point. In regard to the national broadband roll-out plan, I am getting a lot of information from industry that there is potential in this regard. If the roll-out is to go to every single house in the country, we should be planning and preparing for that. I am glad the officials are already having those conversations. There must be joined-up thinking between the different interdepartmental groups and the various Ministers. It is about upping the ante and co-ordinating our efforts. There is scope to look at bringing in people who are coming out of certain courses and looking to add value to their qualification. Ensuring there is a component of skilled apprenticeships is a social dividend, as the Deputy noted. I thank him for raising this particular issue.

Ní bheidh mé ábalta labhairt as Gaeilge anocht mar níl ach beagán Gaeilge agam. I welcome an Aire Stáit. I understand the issue of apprenticeships is really a matter for the Minister of State at the Department of Education and Skills, Deputy Damien English, but the Minister of State, Deputy Joe McHugh, also has a role to play. Given that many semi-State companies outsource their work, is it possible that we could seek a social dividend, as Deputy Colreavy has suggested, which would require such companies to take some apprentices on board? That is where much of the work will come from in future.

It is a sensible suggestion. I have spoken to a number of companies that are outsourcing in different spheres. It is a demand and supply issue and they are operating in the real world of business. If they get the contracts to do the work, they need the people who can do that work. My information is that there is a gap there. "Gap" sounds a little negative; I should say there is potential there to bring recruits on board. Not to throw it back to the Deputy, but perhaps he might seek a meeting with the Minister of State, Deputy Damien English, on the back of Deputy Colreavy's suggestion.

I certainly would not mind having this conversation and we can do it sooner rather than later.

National Broadband Plan Implementation

Noel Harrington

Question:

7. Deputy Noel Harrington asked the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources the criteria he will prioritise in seeking tenders to implement the national broadband plan in respect of those areas which have had little or no broadband service to date; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [10231/15]

I very much welcome the provisions under the national broadband plan. A previous Administration introduced a national broadband scheme. It did not have the same level of funding and it had flaws. It would be a mistake not to recognise it did not deliver what was envisaged, although it delivered a good 3G network. The national broadband plan is better funded and I predict it will have a much better outcome in delivering broadband to the country. What areas are being prioritised in terms of public money and how the market will meet the national broadband plan?

I thank the Deputy for his question. The national broadband plan aims to ensure that every citizen and business, regardless of location, has access to a high-quality, high-speed broadband service. This will be achieved through a combination of commercial investments and State-led intervention in areas where commercial services will not be provided. The commercial telecommunications sector is investing approximately €2.5 billion in network upgrades and enhanced services, with approximately 1.6 million of the 2.3 million premises in Ireland expected to have access to commercial high-speed broadband services over the next two years. These significant investments represent a step-change in the quality of broadband services available.

Last November the Minister published a national high-speed coverage map for 2016. This map is available at www.broadband.gov.ie. The areas marked in blue represent those areas that will have access to commercial high-speed broadband services by the end of 2016. The amber areas show the target areas for State intervention. The map allows all members of the public, be they business or residential, to see whether their premises or homes will have access to commercial high-speed broadband services by the end of 2016 or whether they will be included in the Government's proposed intervention.

A public consultation on the map, which commenced in November, closed on 12 February. A total of 29 submissions have been received to date and will be assessed over the coming weeks. This will help inform the key decisions that require to be taken to finalise our comprehensive intervention strategy which will be published for consultation in July.

The strategy will address a range of important issues on the intervention, including the optimum procurement model, ownership and governance options, funding issues and levels of service for end users. Part of the analysis being undertaken involves consideration of identifying and prioritising strategic connection points, such as enterprise parks, schools and other points of economic or social activity in rural communities.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

The proposed intervention will also be subject to state aid clearance from the European Commission.

Following the public consultation this summer, a detailed procurement process, in line with EU and Irish procurement rules, will be undertaken to select a preferred bidder or bidders. The Department will design the tender in a way that maximises efficiencies and keeps the cost of the network build as low as possible. It is anticipated that the first homes and businesses will be connected in 2016 and connections will continue thereafter, with the intention of having all premises connected within a five year period.

This complex and ambitious project is a key priority for Government. It aims to address conclusively current connectivity challenges in Ireland.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. My question is on those locations the market will never enter without State subvention. The State should intervene in these peripheral areas first. In a reply to an earlier question, the Minister of State mentioned the islands and other areas where there is no hope the market will intervene, and these should be the first priority. As technology develops and better systems become available, those areas where the market can make a viable intervention will become less clear and predictable. To achieve value for money and sensible broadband roll-out to rural areas, the plan should start where the market is least likely to go and meet the market halfway. This would be a sensible approach.

Areas have already been identified in the amber sections of the national broadband plan maps produced by the Department. This is with regard to 90% of the geographical area but 30% of the population. These are the most peripheral areas. Earlier we spoke about the islands, and several islands down south, such as Sherkin Island, Bere Island and Oileán Chléire, are close to the Deputy's heart. Communities in the most peripheral areas think the further away their area is, the more likely it is to be dealt with last. I have raised this point, and as part of the procurement process we examined whether those areas which are always last could come first. This is the type of creative thinking we need.

We are having a parallel conversation about how to save post offices, and Bobby Kerr who chairs the group has been considering the potential of post offices to become Internet cafes. We cannot have Internet cafes on Tory Island, Sherkin Island or Bere Island if we do not have broadband. We need creative thinking about where to start, but now is the time to have the conversation and feed into the procurement process.

The islands are a good illustration, but there are areas on the mainland which are equally isolated. If we are going to intervene where the market will not, I suggest we do so where the market will never be in a position to provide broadband. If we are going to do so, we may as well do it sooner rather than later. With improving technology and better systems, the market will approach more isolated areas, and as time goes on, it will become less clear where State subvention should be, but we should first work in those areas where State subvention is definitely required.

No doubt Deputy Harrington's suggestion will feed into the conversation. I do not have a problem with it and it is a good suggestion. The Wild Atlantic Way had a number of tourists last year, and before it was actively or aggressively promoted, it was a success. Somebody researching it on an iPhone in Bavaria and deciding to go to south Cork or north Donegal will expect to have Internet access when travelling the Wild Atlantic Way to find out what is happening in Galway, Clare, Sligo, Malin Head or Kinsale.

Public consultation will be launched in mid-2015. Will the Minister of State give an idea of the date on which this might happen? Will he give an update on the metropolitan area networks? I understand they have been rolled out in some towns.

I am familiar with the MANs from a number of towns and industrial estates in my county. Gweedore industrial estate has a MAN, as do larger towns such as Letterkenny, Carndonagh, Buncrana and Donegal town. At the time, overall responsibility for the MANs was given to Enet and I have had a number of conversations with its CEO. The company wants to work on various projects on its MANs throughout Ireland. I suggest the Deputy gets in touch with Enet's CEO because no doubt there are MANs in his constituency. I get the feeling the company is open to ideas on potential creative solutions. It is working in Ennis at present. From what I hear, the company is looking to engage with the Government and there is potential. The MAN in Letterkenny was not enough on its own to provide the proper infrastructure for big companies such as Pramerica, United Healthcare and Zeus. Project Kelvin, a North Atlantic connectivity to Coleraine, Lifford and Letterkenny, provides another solution. MANs are certainly part of the mix, and for the Deputy's information, Enet is open to conversation.

Questions Nos. 8 to 10, inclusive, replied to with Written Answers.

Postal Services

Michael Moynihan

Question:

11. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources the discussions he has had with An Post regarding delivering its services to all communities; the type of business model that will be used; if he will provide a guarantee that no post offices will close in 2015; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [10510/15]

I wish to ask about the discussions with An Post regarding the delivery of services to all rural communities and the type of business model to be used. Will the Minister of State provide a guarantee that no post office will be forced to close in 2015?

It is Government policy that An Post remain a strong and viable company that is in a position to provide high-quality postal services and maintain a nationwide network of customer-focused post offices in the community. The post office network faces significant challenges given the impact of the economic downturn over the last few years, changes in technology and customer retail preferences. However, it is also well positioned to become the front office provider of choice for government and financial services sector electronic transactions, as well as the more traditional over-the-counter transactions.

The Minister recently established the post office network business development group under the chairmanship of Mr. Bobby Kerr. The group's terms of reference are to examine the potential for existing and new Government and commercial business to be transacted through the post office network; to identify the new business opportunities for the post office network, taking account of international experience; to engage, as necessary, with the public sector, commercial bodies and other interested parties in pursuit of the above objectives; and to prepare an interim and final report for the Minister in accordance with an agreed timetable.

The group’s work will be of strategic importance to the future of the post office network. Its final report will be available during the course of this year. Operational matters, including the closing of post offices, are issues for the board and management of An Post.

Is the new post office network business development group, launched by the Minister, Deputy White, last month and chaired by Mr. Bobby Kerr, the only initiative taken by the Government thus far in the context of the announcement prior to the local and European elections by the former Minister, Deputy Pat Rabbitte, of a whole-of-government approach to the development of An Post? Is this the only initiative being taken by this Government almost a year since the announcement of a whole-of-government approach in this regard?

It is not the only initiative. While whether a post office remains open or closed is not a matter for the Government, the importance of retention of post offices has been a matter of huge concern for members of the Fine Gael and Labour parties, particularly backbenchers. The strong conversation around the need for retention of post offices led to the establishment of the post office network business development group, which is expected to report soon on the issue of the sustainability of post offices. As part of this critical mix, there will need to be a sharp focus on banking.

Earlier this morning I spoke to the postmaster on Tory Island, Mr. Jimmy Rogers. People from Tory Island who wish to withdraw money from their post office accounts are required to travel to the mainland - some people on Tory Island believe it is the mainland, with which I agree - to withdraw money from their post office accounts via an AIB ATM. Post offices need to engage more in banking services. It is also important that there be a greater focus on the availability of government services through An Post, which is where the conservation is at. As I am a member of the post office network business development group, I do not propose to engage in predicting the likely outcome of its review. Discussion on the matter is ongoing.

I take it that nothing, other than the launch of the group, has happened since last April, when the former Minister, Deputy Rabbitte, announced a whole-of-government approach in this area.

I have examined this issue in depth. In the many years I have been a Member of this House, and for many years prior to that, the closure of post offices and the detrimental effect of this on rural communities has been an issue of concern to Members on all sides of the House. We must be bold. We need to change the memorandum of understanding for An Post. As in the case of the ESB, which has a public service obligation to deliver electricity to every house and business in the country, An Post should be required by public service obligation to maintain the post office network as it currently stands. Enough is not being done by An Post in terms of business service provision. We need to encourage it to focus more on this area and we need also to focus our attention on the generation of business that will sustain our post offices. If we do not do this, we, or others, will be here in five or ten years' time discussing the same issue. It is time we faced down this issue. We must also change the memorandum of understanding of An Post, given the change in its constitution.

We are out of time and must move on to the next question.

The statistics are indicative of what has happened in the three years between 2011 and 2014. During that time, 24 post offices closed. During the six-year period between 2004 and 2010, 345 post offices closed. On the basis that this has been the trend, the Government takes this matter very seriously. The Government has faced enormous pressure at parliamentary party meetings in relation to the need for retention of post offices. Post offices are a critical part of the community infrastructure. Friday is an important day for the elderly in rural and isolated communities. They do not all go to bingo on a Wednesday night, so visiting the local post office on a Friday is often the only point of contact for them. There is a massive social dividend here that needs to be protected.

I take on board the Deputy's constructive suggestion. I look forward to engaging further with him on the matter when it comes to the debate on the report of the post office network business development group, which, as I said, is being chaired by Mr. Bobby Kerr.

National Broadband Plan Implementation

Bernard Durkan

Question:

12. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources the extent to which he expects targets in respect of high-speed broadband to be achieved in all areas throughout the country in the short and medium term; if such provisions will bring the quality, speed and availability of broadband in the country up to best international standards; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [10500/15]

This question seeks to focus attention on the urgent need to ensure the availability throughout Ireland of high-speed broadband services to facilitate modern industry and the domestic market.

The national broadband plan outlined the Government's commitment to deliver a high-speed broadband connection to every citizen and business in Ireland, regardless of location. It reflects the Government and European objectives to deliver new opportunities for jobs, growth and social inclusion. The digital agenda for Europe commits to the delivery of 30 Mbps broadband to all citizens by 2020. This was to be achieved through a combination of commercial and State investment.

The commercial telecommunications sector is currently investing approximately €2.5 billion in network upgrades. Approximately 1.6 million of the 2.3 million premises in Ireland are expected to have access to commercial high-speed broadband services over the next number of years. These very significant investments represent a step change in the quality of broadband services available.

While the enhanced investment by industry is very much welcome, it is exacerbating the divide between those areas benefitting from the accelerated commercial investment and other areas, predominantly rural, where available commercial speeds remain very basic. The Government's broadband intervention will ensure the availability of high-quality future-proofed broadband services to all other parts of the country. It is anticipated that speeds of at least 30 Mbps will be delivered through the Government's intervention and the network will be designed to cater for future increased demand from consumers and business.

To definitively address the broadband challenges faced by Ireland, the State intervention under the national broadband plan will present a long term future-proofed solution which will address those areas of the country identified in the mapping exercise conducted last year with no present or planned next-generation access services. Through the national broadband plan, it is our objective to ensure that all citizens in every part of the country have access to high-speed, high-quality broadband services that will put Ireland at top of the class in terms of access to broadband services throughout Europe.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. In regard to his statement that Ireland is at the top of the class in this area, that is the same response I was given to a similar question 15 years ago, although not by Deputy McHugh.

I want to emphasise the necessity of the completion of the plan at an early date rather than over a lengthy period. It is possible to have an industry providing lots of jobs in a rural area where there is no demand or pressure for housing or commercial development, provided there is good broadband service in the area.

Despite our best efforts to date, the provision of the broadband service we lack has not manifested itself yet. Could the Minister of State outline any initiatives that could be taken, apart from the national broadband plan, to co-ordinate efforts and to mark it in terms of achieving particular objectives along the way in order to make this a reality as quickly as possible?

That is a fair question. We have outlined the time period. We will seek to move the procurement process forward towards the end of this year. In 2016, we will start to roll out broadband in the areas that are not commercially viable for private companies. People do not want to hear about a three to five year period for the provision of broadband. Deputies live in the real world and when companies approach them with an idea for locating in a rural area, when they tell them there will be no broadband for some time that is not what they want to hear.

Deputy Durkan's question is critical. It is important that we continue to seek creative solutions in the interim in terms of what we can do with private companies. Private companies can work with each other. For example, Vodafone and the ESB worked together on projects in the 50 largest towns. There will be a further roll-out in that regard in the second phase and third phase. A lot will happen at that level. As Minister of State with responsibility for the Gaeltacht, I am pushing very strongly the agenda that we would provide broadband in Gaeltacht areas where we are trying to attract investment. There is a sense of urgency in that regard. I appreciate the Deputy's position. He is correct that he has heard it said previously that we will get it right. He heard that years ago. However, it is about getting it right, and it is also not just about providing a solution of 30 Mbps because children in the Visitors Gallery will be going to secondary school in a few years and their expectation will be akin to that of Paddy McGilligan in the 1920s, namely, that they will just press a button on the wall and they will have access to broadband-----

I thank the Minister of State.

-----in the same way that we take the electricity supply for granted.

I am ever hopeful for the people in the Visitors Gallery. I sincerely hope they are not applicants for the old age pension before it all becomes a reality. That is not a reflection on the Minister of State, but I want to emphasise that it would be very beneficial if the Minister of State and his colleague were to inquire of the service providers - the stakeholders - as to how quickly they can deliver in particular areas throughout the country. We are inundated with requests on a daily basis for services that are required now.

Deputy Stanton wishes to ask a brief question. We are nearly out of time.

The Minister of State referred to the short term. Knockraha in my area is very close to Cork city. Eircom has said it is not commercially viable to provide broadband. Is there anything the Government can do in the short term to make it commercially viable for Eircom or another company to provide broadband as soon as possible?

We could do a number of things. I accept you have requested brevity, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle. I will respond to Deputy Durkan on the demands for the here and now. We must continue to engage with the private companies because they are looking at alternative solutions. If I hear from people within industry that there is a deficit in the number of apprentices, then the Government can help. One element we can deliver is to train up more people and give them the skills and expertise in order that they can be available to those companies.

In response to Deputy Stanton, Members across the House all hear the same thing every day from people with business ideas who want to go to a certain area where there is no broadband. The situation is reflected in the critical mass of oral parliamentary questions today which predominantly relate to broadband. That is the issue. Deputies have their ears to the ground. We must respond to the demands of the electorate in our constituencies and ensure people are not discriminated against in terms of service provision. That is why it is critical that the State-led intervention is done correctly. We do not want to be faced with a situation whereby once the procurement phase commences, things are not done right and we are back to square one. We are ploughing ahead. I am happy with the efforts, number of meetings and the work that has gone into it at an official level.

Television Licence Fee Payments

Michael Moynihan

Question:

13. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources if he is satisfied that moneys collected via the RTE licence fee are being spent in the most efficient way; if a value for money analysis been carried out; if there are any planned stakeholder meetings; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [10507/15]

I will be very brief as I know we are nearly out of time. Is the Minister of State satisfied that all moneys collected via the licence fee is being spent in the most effective and efficient way because significant concern exists, which we hear on a daily basis, about the money that is being spent on RTE? It is a major issue. Are any stakeholder meetings planned on the spend and other serious issues relating to the State broadcaster, RTE, but in particular the licence fee?

First, it should be noted that RTE is not the sole recipient of licence fee revenue. Licence fee revenues are distributed in accordance with section 123 of the Broadcasting Act 2009 in the following prescribed manner. From the gross TV licence fee receipts, the Department first deducts commission payable to An Post in respect of its role as the Minister's issuing agent for TV licences. TG4 also currently receives €9.245 million from the gross receipts. Following these deductions, 7% of the net revenue is paid to the broadcasting funding scheme. The scheme, which is operated by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, BAI, was established to provide funding in support of the production of high quality programmes by independent producers and broadcasters on Irish culture, heritage and experience, and programmes to improve adult literacy. The scheme also supports certain archiving projects being undertaken by broadcasters. Any revenues remaining following these payments are provided to RTE. The purpose of the TV licence revenues paid to RTE and TG4 is to facilitate the pursuit of each broadcaster's public service objectives, which are set out in the 2009 Act.

Statutorily mandated annual and five yearly reviews are conducted by the BAI which must consider whether each broadcaster has fulfilled the commitments set out in its annual statement and make a recommendation as to whether there should be an adjustment to the level of public funding. The first five-year review was undertaken in 2013 and this work included a wide-ranging process of stakeholder engagement with market players and other interested parties, involving both face-to-face interviews and written submissions.

The results of that review, and the Government response to it, acknowledge the very significant programme of cost savings implemented by RTE since 2008, whereby it has reduced its operating costs by 30% and reduced its staff by more than 500 people. Members will be aware that a service which was provided in the UK has been taken off the air. It is also worth noting that these efficiencies were achieved in a period where RTE's annual revenues fell by 26% and where, despite the impact of this period of restructuring on the broadcaster, RTE continued to deliver its full range of services and achieved a break-even position in 2013.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

As the Deputy will be aware, the Government response to the five-year review tasked NewERA with conducting an independent assessment of the scope for further efficiencies within RTE, including an examination of achievable efficiencies in its performing groups service model and the manner in which it delivers Irish language radio services. As part of this review, NewERA has also reviewed the scope for optimising the use of independent productions as part of RTE’s programme output. The Minister is currently considering the findings of the NewERA report prior to bringing it to Government and intends publishing it shortly thereafter.

I wish to make a point of order, if I may.

This morning, Priority Questions lasted 45 minutes. Am I correct in saying that Standing Orders specify that they should stop after 30 minutes? If that happens, it means that the rest of us have a lesser opportunity to contribute on Question Time. In future, could I ask that Priority Questions would finish when they are supposed to finish, namely, after 30 minutes in order that the rest of us should have an opportunity to ask our questions?

I will take up the matter with the Ceann Comhairle. I agree that we went over the allocated time by ten minutes. We will move on to the next business.

Written Answers follow Adjournment.