Report on Procurement Process Audit of National Broadband Plan: Statements

It is an honour to speak to the House as Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment. I look forward to working with colleagues, who I know have put considerable work into this area.

I want to talk about the background to the Smyth report. The report was before Government recently and has been published. The background, as Deputies are aware, is that the national broadband plan is an ambitious plan. It set out to ensure that every home, school and business in Ireland, regardless of how remote or rural, will have access to high-speed broadband. In international terms this is a highly ambitious plan. No one is to be left behind in terms of getting access to broadband. The broadband specification set out, namely, a minimum of 30 megabits, will be considerably exceeded. Indeed it was considerably exceeded by all three. The plan aims to deliver fibre to the home in the great majority of cases. It will be a high standard of broadband access.

We all know from our lives about the importance of access to broadband. We know about its impact on what people can do. We know about the ease with which people can communicate, stay in touch and get options for business, leisure, social contacts and so on.

The position is that the final tender was submitted to the Department on 18 September. That is now under a process of detailed assessment and the assessment is continuing. In parallel, the independent process auditor to the procurement process was asked to provide a report to the Taoiseach and me to assess whether the process has been compromised by meetings which took place between the former Minister, Deputy Denis Naughten, and Mr. David McCourt. Mr. Peter Smyth's primary role is as an independent consultant who has been contracted as process auditor in respect of the national broadband plan procurement process. He was secured by an independent tender on the basis of which he was selected. In that capacity he is required to audit the procurement process against the appropriate guidelines and processes. The auditor is independent of the Department and in this capacity formally reports to the Secretary General as Accounting Officer for the Department.

Last week the Government noted and accepted the conclusions of the independent auditor's report. I imagine all those present have read the report. Essentially, the auditor took four critical tests against which he judged what had occurred with regard to meetings, in particular meetings that were neither minuted nor where an independent person was in attendance. The four tests are set out in page 16 of the report. The independent auditor considered whether the former Minister was privy to any sensitive information that could have been of benefit to Granahan McCourt. The second test was whether the former Minister took any decisions within the process that benefited Granahan McCourt. The third test was whether the former Minister was in a position to influence changes in the tender documents. The final test was whether the former Minister was in a position to influence the evaluation of the submissions. Based on the consideration of these four elements, the independent process auditor was satisfied that the former Minister, Deputy Naughten, did not influence or seek to influence the conduct of the tender process in favour of Granahan McCourt or otherwise.

The auditor went on in his general conclusions to say that the meetings between the former Minister and Mr. David McCourt gave cause for concern as they suggest an ongoing engagement outside of any formal need for them to engage with each other in the normal course of the Department business, including the business of the State-led intervention under the national broadband plan. Mr. Smyth indicated that these meetings in and of themselves gave cause for concern. However, when he considered them against the four tests and when he reviewed all the information to which he had access, including the decision register, the evolution of the tender documents, the evaluation process for the various submissions and the information that could have been available to the bidder through contact with the former Minster and so on, he drew the conclusion that he was satisfied that neither the former Minister nor Mr. McCourt had the opportunity to influence the conduct of the tender process in favour of Granahan McCourt or otherwise. He also concluded that the decision of the former Minister to resign, thereby removing himself from the process, insulates the process from any apparent bias created by his engagements with Mr. McCourt. Those are the important conclusions.

I wish to comment on the overall procurement process. The process auditor has had access to all the key documentation over the 2.5 years of his engagement with the project to date. This has given him extensive knowledge of the practices, procedures and processes relating to this procurement. In his role, he has found appropriate guidelines have been adhered to in the procurement process. He has confirmed that the processes and decision-making are fair and objective and follow agreed processes.

It is now my priority that the procurement process is brought to a conclusion in a fair and transparent manner. I propose to revert to Government in the coming weeks with a recommendation. In bringing this process to a close I recognise, as do all my colleagues in the House, the profound benefits that high-speed broadband will bring to our citizens, urban and rural, living and working in Ireland. These benefits and opportunities are at the heart of why the national broadband plan exists and why the Government is determined to deliver it. We have all had personal interactions with many people throughout the country, especially in rural areas, who have been seeking a solution to the issue of connectivity. Digital connectivity has multiple positive impacts on the lives and livelihood of citizens throughout the country. The objectives of the national broadband plan aim to ensure that high quality reliable and future-proofed connectivity is available to every home and every business nationwide.

Some 1.1 million people live in the areas covered by the State intervention. The towns, villages, parishes and townlands are home to communities which need this service to thrive and prosper. These are communities with many self-employed people engaged in running more than 44,000 small to medium enterprises and more than 55,000 farms. The direct effect of the State investment will ensure that all citizens across the country will have the same access to quality, high-speed broadband. People of all ages and backgrounds will benefit from the roll-out. The benefits of access to high-speed broadband are as diverse as the people whose lives will be affected by this major advance in service.

As people who already avail of this service know, high-speed broadband is a transformative tool and is essential for the operations, compliance and services of businesses in every corner of the State. Access to reliable broadband services has the potential to support net job creation. This will happen through the growth of existing enterprises and the formation of start-ups in areas that previously did not have access to high-speed broadband. Farmers, for example, are already keenly aware of the benefits precision farming techniques can bring to their lifestyles and Iivelihoods. Agricultural benefits can be realised now and in the future by the adoption of smart farming methods. These methods can improve productivity and herd nutrition and allow for data-driven crop management, all of which lead to techniques that can reduce carbon emissions and improve environmental outcomes.

Digital resources are increasingly becoming part of the day-to-day education system. Using technology can benefit children in the school and at home, but children will require access to broadband in the home to fully avail of these resources. There are 674 national schools in the State intervention area. The national broadband plan will ensure that these children benefit from an equality of opportunity available to all pupils and students in the country.

I am conscious of the time remaining so I will short-circuit my remaining comments. I have already outlined the benefits of the roll-out of the national broadband plan. The Government's commitment to broadband has acted as a catalyst to the industry, which has responded in rolling out high-speed broadband. The increase in commercial availability has been dramatic. We have close to 75% coverage for commercial broadband. The challenge relates to the 23% in the intervention area, which covers almost 96% of the land area of the State. Providing equality of opportunity, to which the Government is very committed, is a challenging task. I hope we can develop a proposal that will commend itself, but at this stage evaluations are continuing. I hope they will conclude soon so that I can bring a recommendation to the Government shortly.

My understanding is that each side will have six minutes as part of a dialogue with the Minister. I thank the Minister for outlining the importance of the national broadband plan. We have been hearing about it since 2012 and we know how important it is. The people who do not have broadband certainly know how important it is. My motivation throughout this entire debacle has been to try to ensure we get a contractor that can provide the necessary service to those 542,000 homes.

I want to understand the motivation of the bidder throughout its rather unusual interactions with the former Minister. I cannot understand the necessity for all the meetings, phone calls and private dinners. I am not raising any issue about the previous Minister on this, but I wonder what the motivation of the bidder was. I have been concerned about it for some time. Mr. Smyth, in his report, rather bizarrely looks at only one side of the equation. He seeks to understand whether some influence has been exerted, and concludes that there was no influence exerted, nor could there have been, because he accepts that at three private meetings at least no discussions took place about the national broadband plan. He relies on the statements of the bidder and the former Minister in that regard. I do not know whether that took the form of a questionnaire or whether he had face-to-face meetings with those concerned to establish the facts about that. Perhaps the Minister can advise us in that regard.

The Minister stated that, in the four tests used by Mr. Smyth, all appropriate guidelines and procedures were considered. I want to highlight one particular guideline. The communication protocol between the Department and external bidders sets out the procedure very clearly under two headings. Under the heading on canvassing, it sets out the prohibition that applies and states that direct or indirect canvassing by a bidder, consortium member, bidder member or their suppliers or advisers in relation to the project or the procurement, or any attempt to obtain information from any of the agents or employees of the Department, its political representatives or its appointed advisers concerning other bidders, or a solution to a final bid tender or procurement in general is prohibited. It then provides a remedy for such action, stating that any breach of the section will entitle the Department to immediately disqualify the bidder concerned.

If there was more than one bidder the Minister knows that its lawyers would be down in the courts now arguing that the remaining bidder, which has clearly breached canvassing rules, should be excluded from the process. Given that at least one of these dinner meetings in Mr. McCourt's home took place while the two previous bidders were in the race, it is astonishing that Mr. Smyth did not recognise a significant breach of the rules set out in the communication protocol. The same applies in respect of section 7 of that document, which deals with the separation of functions within the Department's divisional units. It states that it is recognised that the day-to-day functions of the Department, in carrying out its remit, may involve engagement with stakeholders who are bidders in the process. Mr. Smyth relies on that to suggest that some of the meetings were casual in nature. While that is the case, there were three meetings that were not and could not come under this heading. It then sets out the protocol to apply in respect of any such communications, namely, that officials in the Department will not at any time discuss the NBP procurement process outside the NBP team. We have direct proof that this happened.

I am conscious of the time. If the Deputy wants to ask a question, he should do so.

I have posed a few questions already and the Minister will respond. We know, based on the minutes of the meeting in New York, that this happened. That put the person concerned in a very invidious position, because that person was expected to take minutes on discussions outside of the process.

It has been reported that the programme director for the NBP tweeted this weekend, in response to an article posted by The Sunday Business Post: "A decision on the only game in town will hopefully be made in the next couple of weeks".

A second tweet read: "A lot of theoretical nonsense [Ash], these guys have no understanding of the telecoms market which is very complex as you know and we have just dropped almost 20 million on getting the best advice possible from people who do understand telecoms." The account in question has, I understand, tweeted around five times since it was created. The communications protocol I outlined earlier states that, as a general matter, members of the NBP team shall not discuss or communicate in any way matters relating to the procurement outside of the NBP team.

The Deputy's time is up. The Minister will not have an opportunity to respond.

He will have plenty of opportunity. It goes on to state that where communications with a third party takes place, whether oral or written, involving a member of the NBP team, the NBP team member will state that they cannot discuss any matters relating to the procurement process. Can the Minister confirm that this person is in fact who he says he is on Twitter? Has he carried out any investigation to establish that? Does he believe it is appropriate for the programme director to engage in this kind of communication at this stage of the process? Why did the programme director take it upon himself to make these unsolicited comments?

The Minister has 42 seconds in which to answer.

The auditor was not able to conclude that no discussions took place. He concluded that this was one of the areas that he could not confirm because he only had access to the statements of those involved. However, he indicated that such meetings that were not minuted or where there was not a witness gave cause for concern, but that when he considered them against the four tests he was satisfied that neither the former Minister or Mr. McCourt had the opportunity to influence the conduct of the tender process. He did not assert that he knew what took place at the meetings.

He had access to the entirety of the protocol on communication. That was one of the documents to which he was-----

The Minister must conclude.

Finally, I acknowledge that tweets were sent which were attributed to the director of the programme. This should not have happened and will not happen in the future. All engagement with the media will be managed through the press office. The individual concerned has been very passionate and energetic in developing the project. That is fair.

I presume this was agreed to with the Business Committee. This is the reality. Deputies have six minutes each. If they use up the time, the Minister will not have an opportunity to answer. Deputy Stanley has six minutes, which includes time for the Minister to answer his questions.

I welcome the opportunity to address the Minister on this issue. My point of view and that of my party is that we want the broadband plan to be rolled out yesterday. It is supposed to be rolled out by 2020, but that commitment in the programme for Government is obviously dead. I do not believe there was any intention on the part of the former Minister to gain personally from his meetings with Mr. McCourt. However, it does show how easy it is for big businessmen and Ministers to meet and how often it happens. As an observer of the process and seeing it at first hand, it certainly shocked me. The problem with such meetings is that they show a certain panic on the part of the Government and departmental officials. It illustrates the power of the one bidder who is left. The Government has left the roll-out of the entire national broadband plan in the hands of one venture capitalist. On the one hand, an American venture capitalist is the only bidder. He can name his price, or the Government will lose him. On the other hand, there is the French venture capitalist who owns Eir which was sold off by Fianna Fáil in 1999. That party owns a lot of the infrastructure on which it is to be rolled out. The Government is trapped. How is it going to find its way out? Does it have a plan B? Some have said in recent days that the process may collapse. It is certainly shaky. If it goes ahead as matters stand, it will be a shambles because of the way it has been compromised.

There is one other thing I want to ask about. Given the fact that the bidder had so much access to the Government and whoever else, do we have any idea if the taxpayer has been left exposed as a result? We have heard figures of €500 million and €3 billion. Where do Joe and Mary taxpayer stand in all of this?

Six years ago we, in Sinn Féin, proposed an examination of the State infrastructure, the ESB network, the network of heavy duty cables across the State known as the backhaul system and the metropolitan area networks in 104 towns. We proposed examining that infrastructure as the backbone of a publicly owned network. Is the Government looking at it as a plan B?

Moreover, I want the Minister to address the issue of the contractor. The bidder has changed substantially. There were three parties involved in the process and the 300,000 premises that were easiest to reach were sold off.

The Minister will not have time to answer the Deputy's questions.

Two parties walked and there is one consortium left. That consortium has changed utterly. Is the Government concerned about this? It is just Granahan McCourt at this point.

Procurement procedures provide that all meetings must be attended by at least two departmental officials or one departmental official and a designated adviser to the Department. We know that did not happen, as Mr. Peter Smyth found out. My concern is that it leaves the State and the taxpayer open to a challenge in the future. The word I would use is "bizarre". Where does it leave the State and the contract?

The Minister has about a minute and a half to reply.

The process chosen was a competitive dialogue and three parties entered the race. In the course of developing the process two dropped out. The tender was developed, with a lot of interaction between the team acting on behalf of the State and the bidder. There is very deep knowledge of the exact cost of the different elements.

On a point of order-----

What is the point of order?

I wish to clarify the question. If a local authority wants to fit a front door to a house, it must obtain three tenders if the cost is more than €500. We are talking about hundreds of thousands of euros of taxpayers' money. For the life of me I cannot see how the Government can continue with the process. Is the Minister satisfied with it?

In any tender process the State will eventually pick just one provider. There will be a process wherein different tenders will be evaluated. That is always the case. In the area of telecoms it is not exceptional to end up with just one tender. It has happened in other areas. The State has taken huge precautions to evaluate and match stride for stride the costs and all of the different elements that have evolved. There is very detailed knowledge of the way the process has developed. It has been designed to protect the taxpayer in terms of its exposure and in order that the process will provide the best value. However, at the end of the day, the matter will have to be decided after the final evaluations have been carried out. Independent evaluations are being carried out in looking at the robustness of the technology, value for money, governance and so on. It will all be done very carefully.

The State infrastructure, namely, the metropolitan area networks, MANs, and other means of access are being used under the plan. The bidder has changed, but in all cases the bidder had to go through the various pre-qualification tests. When the make-up of the bidder changed, the pre-qualification tests had to be gone through again.

With the Acting Chairman's permission, I will engage in a direct exchange of questions and answers with the Minister. My first question is, frankly, how much is this going to cost the taxpayer.

The cost will have to be decided at the end of the process. An evaluation of the cost is ongoing and until it is completed, I will not have a final figure. That is the truth. The work which is ongoing will influence the final cost.

Approximately how much will it cost the taxpayer? What provision has the Government made for delivery of the national broadband plan?

At this stage, the Government has not made a decision on the proposal. When the evaluation is completed, it will decide whether it will be included in spending proposals in future years. As this has not yet been decided, there is no figure for the final cost, nor has there been a decision by the Government to back any particular proposal.

I quote the Minister: "It is now my priority that the procurement process is brought to a conclusion in a fair and transparent manner. I propose to revert to Government in the coming weeks with a recommendation." Is it possible that the Government will conclude that it will not proceed with the national broadband plan?

Of course, that is a possibility. The process has been a competitive dialogue which three parties entered. They developed a high spec proposal to deliver broadband to homes. They will use all existing infrastructure to minimise the added cost, but nonetheless delivering broadband with a speed higher than 100 Mbps to every single house in the country will be an expensive process. The Government will have to decide whether the price, the value, the technology and the governance process are fit for State backing.

Given Deputy Bruton's vast experience as a Minister and as a Member of this House, and the fact that we all respect him, could he please be a little more forthcoming on what he assesses to be the approximate cost of delivery and the likelihood? Given that a decision is due in a matter of weeks, there must be some assessment at this stage of the cost and of the likelihood of there being a successful bidder. In other words, the people want to know whether Granahan McCourt will end up being the final bidder and, ultimately, whether they will end up paying a king's ransom through their taxes for the privilege of having Granahan McCourt as the successful bidder. We have reached endgame on this one. We are sick of being told that it is a matter of the tender process and it is secretive. If I picked up the phone to the CEOs of a number of companies or if I scratched the surface hard enough, I would know fairly well that people are talking to each other informally anyway. It is a small town. In fairness, it is a small country. What we want at this stage is for the primacy of Parliament to be recognised and for there to be some straight answers from Government in recognition of and out of respect for our mandates.

I ask the Minister to give us some indication at this stage. If there is only one bidder left in the room, what of the technical appraisals needed to be gone through at this stage of the process? Given that it has gone on for years, if one is close to endgame there must be something that the Minister can impart to us by way of public information to which we are entitled at this stage in relation to the cost, the process and whether there will be a successful bidder or not.

The Deputy will be aware that I have been in here dozens of times speaking about schools where there were ongoing tenders and no Deputy ever asked me the cost of a school and the stage of discussions in terms of reaching a cost that would be fair to both the taxpayer and the provider.

There is only one bidder left.

We have never sought that information here. I can assure the Deputy that since the final tender was submitted in September the State has been seeking to protect the taxpayer. Every element of this is being gone through with a fine tooth comb to ensure that to the best of our ability we can present to Government a robust test to protect the taxpayer. That still may not meet the criterion. It still may not be accepted, and I am not saying it is. I can assure the Deputy that what is going on now is that detailed eye-to-eye work or fist-to-fist work, whatever way the Deputy would like to take it, to reach an agreement that is robust and that I can bring to Cabinet.

I have 43 seconds left. A figure of €3 billion is in the public domain as a potential cost. What credence does the Minister give to that figure?

Is the Minister making provision for the potential of liability at this stage? Is he anticipating any litigation by the underbidders in this process?

I will not speculate about the final cost. This is a negotiation which has to be done in a way where we protect to the best of our ability the taxpayers' interest. That is what is being done. That is not served by speculating about final costs. This will be done in the way it is always done in tender processes. It will be done behind closed doors in an attempt to protect the taxpayer to the best extent that we can.

We now move on to Solidarity PBP, Deputies Bríd Smith and Paul Murphy. I suggest the Deputies put both their questions.

I propose three minutes each.

Do the Deputies want to put both their questions and let the Minister answer?

I will follow the style of the previous speaker. I thought that was effective.

Quite right, three minutes each.

Using schools as an example of the tendering process was a bad choice on the Minister's part given the recent debacle of what happened in the previous such tendering.

I would like the Minister to comment on the competitive tendering process itself. The Minister states it provides the best value for the public. It is cheaper and more efficient, we are told, than to get a public utility company or a semi-State company to build it. Would the Minister acknowledge that we made a bags of that and a contract that was supposed to cost €500 million now looks likely to cost us over €2 billion?

When the dust settles on this farce and the State is on the hook for €2 billion plus, at the end of this rainbow will we see a notorious character, Mr. Denis O'Brien, who came very lately into the bidding process, who may well be the biggest benefactor of all of this debacle, more so than the 750,000 people who are waiting to receive broadband?

Lastly, what was the role, if any, of the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Creed, in all of this?

Under the competitive dialogue process, a State company entered the process. The ESB was involved in a tender at the early stage. However, the company did not go to the final tender stage. At a certain point, in September 2017, the company dropped out.

It was open to anyone. Incidentally, they all proposed the same technology, in other words, fibre to the home. There was an opportunity. It was open to anyone to bring forward either the technology or the execution.

I know of no role that Deputy Creed played in the process.

On the prospects already asked of the Minister of any legal challenge that may emanate from unsuccessful bidders in this process, if anyone is looking at the previous Minister's culinary experiences and his meetings and calls and drinks with McCourt, could that form a legal challenge to the State and has the State prepared for such a possibility?

The auditor, who has been working on this process from the start, who has had access to all of the papers, documentation and meetings, concluded that he is satisfied that neither the former Minister nor McCourt had the opportunity to influence the conduct of the tender process in favour of Granahan McCourt or otherwise. He concluded that the process is robust and that the decision of the former Minister to remove himself from the process insulates the process from any apparent bias that might have been created by the meetings, which it has been acknowledged were not minuted.

The Minister did not respond on my question.

I am sorry, the Deputy's time is up. I call Deputy Paul Murphy.

The Minister did not answer my question on the late entrance of Mr. Denis O'Brien into the process.

Deputy Bríd Smith's time is up. Deputy Paul Murphy has three minutes.

The Minister might answer that question about the role of Mr. Denis O'Brien.

Would the Minister agree that the conclusions of the auditor's report fall into quite a narrow band that suit the Government politically? The conclusions effectively find that it was correct for the former Minister to resign but also find that the circumstances which led the former Minister to resign do not damage the tendering process. Would the Minister agree that it is a narrow band for something to fall in and that it is politically useful for the Government?

To go back to Deputy Bríd Smith's question, the make-up of the group and any evolution of the make-up of the group has always gone to a pre-qualification test and the procedure provided for any change in the make-up of the group to be retested against the pre-qualification criteria. In respect of any changes, they were satisfied that the process, which was independent from the Minister, then or now, was robust.

On the question in relation to the narrow band, I do not accept the Deputy's assertion. The position is that the auditor viewed this against a very wide range of issues, namely whether the former Minister was privy to any sensitive information that could have benefited Granahan McCourt; if he took any decisions within the process that benefited Granahan McCourt - the auditor concluded the former Minister did not; whether the former Minister was in a position to influence changes in the tender documents - the auditor concluded he was not; and whether the former Minister was in a position to influence the evaluation of the submissions, particularly the refined detailed solution and the final tender, and the former Minister was not. This was not a narrow base. This was a broad-based look at whether the process at any point had been undermined by the meetings which, admittedly, were not minuted and at which no witness was in attendance.

How was the process not undermined by the former Minister reportedly informing the consortium that its position was "likely to result in the bidder seeking a level of subsidy that he as a minister could not recommend"? That information, as Deputy Catherine Murphy has raised, is extremely relevant to the outcome of the process.

That information was provided by the former Minister at a formal meeting that was fully minuted. He was part of the team and was in a position to indicate that the bid was, in the view of the State, far too expensive. He expressed that opinion, which was absolutely correct. There was nothing wrong with that. He was telling the bidder that the price was too high, as one would expect him to do in a negotiation.

The report confirms that the integrity of my constituency colleague, Deputy Naughten, was, as I always said, never in doubt. An earlier speaker stated that broadband is a privilege. It is not. Rather, it is a necessity throughout the country.

The Minister has held responsibility for various Departments in his time. He is well aware that many people wish to meet him. If his diary for normal working hours is full, would he meet a person in regard to a contract outside those hours? All Members hold meetings at weekends or early in the morning. It is often necessary in the course of business. Are departmental staff available outside normal working hours?

The procurement process for broadband and other matters is subject to EU regulation and very complicated. Should the process be examined?

The Minister stated that broadband is being evaluated. When will that process be completed? There has been uncertainty in that regard for some months. When will work commence on the provision of broadband to the areas of rural Ireland where people are crying out for it? When will that work be completed?

Obviously, I cannot give a date for the roll out because a final tender has been submitted and unless or until that is accepted by the Government there will be no announcement in that regard. If the proposal is accepted, the Government and the contractor will be in a position to announce a date for roll out and so on.

I cannot comment on the issue of the availability of staff. Clearly, there is advice on how one should manage such meetings. I do not wish to comment in that regard other than to note that the auditor considered that some of the meetings were a cause for concern. However, crucially, when he examined the context in which those meetings occurred, he concluded that neither Deputy Naughten nor Mr. David McCourt were in a position to influence the tender process. In that sense, his conclusion is clear.

I asked the Minister whether, in his ministerial experience, it is possible to meet a member of the Department outside normal working hours if that person's diary is full.

I ask the Minister to nail down a timeline for the evaluation process because many people are wondering when the roll out will happen. He may not be able to give a completion date, but when will the evaluation process be completed such that the provision of services can begin? What is the plan B for the delivery of broadband to the people of rural Ireland in the event that the Minister, having considered the evaluation, is unwilling to proceed?

The evaluation process is nearly complete. It will be completed within weeks and I will be in a position-----

Will it be completed before Christmas?

I will not say that it will be done before Christmas, which is almost upon us. However, it is very advanced.

Of course, one can get access to an official. If one schedules a meeting, one will be able to find an official to attend it, depending on convenience and the ability of the appropriate person to attend. I will not offer an opinion on meetings of which I know nothing apart from what is contained in the report.

The next speakers are Deputies Danny and Michael Healy-Rae. They have three minutes each but must allow time for the Minister to respond within that timeframe.

I wish the Minister well in his very important new role. I pay particular tribute to the former Minister, Deputy Naughten, and thank him for his help and co-operation. I wish to put on record that I do not care what was eaten or how many dinners or breakfasts there were. I am interested in representing the people living in amber areas who contact my office on a daily basis, pleading for me to help them get broadband connectivity. They do not care who attended dinners or what goes on in this House. They want the Minister to drive this process on by the end of the month.

I am not interested in post mortems or blaming anybody or trying to find faults with the procurement. All I am trying to do is see whether this can be driven on in order that rural people in amber areas all over the country and, most importantly, those in County Kerry, are provided with broadband of acceptable speeds. Whether for leisure, education or other purpose, proper broadband in one's home is as vital as sewerage, electricity and water connections.

The Minister is highly competent and has been around the block. He knows his way around the Houses of the Oireachtas better than anyone else. I ask him to use his ability and the excellent staff of his Department to drive this process on and ensure that people get what they want. I urge Members who are trying to chip away at and undermine the process, for God's sake, not to look behind the process or we will trip over what is in front of us. All we want is progress and I wish the Minister well in that endeavour. I am relying on him to ensure that the evaluation will be completed by the end of the month, the contract will be awarded and work will commence in early 2019.

I wish the Minister well in his new portfolio. I thank the former Minister, Deputy Naughten, for his great work as Minister. It is clear that he was wrongly forced to resign. I hope he is appointed to another job in Cabinet.

How long it will take to ensure that the entire country, including County Kerry, has a proper broadband service? Is the Minister certain that the right option is being taken? Were all avenues explored with the ESB? If we had started rolling out carpet when we started rolling out broadband, the country would be covered in carpet. When the roll out commences, I ask that it be done systematically, similarly to how one would begin at the door if sweeping the floor. The way it has been done to date has driven people across the country mad.

A house might have houses with broadband on three sides but have none itself, with no reason other than that it has to wait for the next phase. There must be some methodology. If a person is clearing the yard with the bucket on the machine, he or she starts on one side and keeps at it until finished. The way broadband is being provided so far is purely haphazard. People cannot understand what is happening or why they are left behind when people all around them, in front and behind, have broadband. It just does not make sense.

I acknowledge what the two Deputies are saying about the importance of hacking on. It has to be said, however, that the auditor process is important. Many acknowledged it was open to interpretation that there might have been a conflict of interest. In practice it has been found that having examined all the evidence, the auditor has concluded what he has. That is the reassuring thing. I cannot give an estimate as to the duration at this point because we do not have a contract signed. We can give an estimate of duration only when we know the next step.

I acknowledge the point the Deputies made. The commercial people who have committed will go halfway up a lane and leave some houses without a service. They remain in the amber area and it will be for the new contractor to pick up the others. That is the way they have done it, however. They have said, "Thus far and no further." That has been done on commercial grounds by the individual companies involved.

Deputy Catherine Murphy and Deputy Eamon Ryan have the next slot. They have three minutes each, which includes an opportunity for the Minister to reply.

With regard to the national broadband plan, the communications protocol comprises the ground rules that were set, yet it was not used as one of the tests in respect of which Mr. Smyth was asked to be satisfied. The communications protocol covered bidder, Minister and officials. Throughout the process, we have to ask where the officials were while all the meetings were taking place. Some of the meetings were minuted and others were not. Undeniably, they breached the protocol. Why were the officials not advising against the kinds of interactions or refusing to leave themselves open to allegations of a protocol breach? The tweet mentioned by Deputy Dooley seems to indicate a mindset in the Department involving a very senior official suggesting the decision has already been made. Will the Minister confirm that this is not the case and that there is a robust process under way? At what level is the official? Will he be taking part in the process? Can the Minister really describe this as a competitive tendering process if there is only one bidder?

Will one of the tests be for affordability? If not, there will be limited take-up and this will have to be revisited.

Affordability has always been a test, in the commercial area and in any other. The proposal is that, in the vast majority of cases, the service must be available at the same price as in any other area.

Obviously, when there is only one bidder left, one has to take far greater care in overseeing the process. That is why it is going on the way it is going on. There is a lot of work being done by the State whereby one does not have the normal two people vying on price. The State has to do a lot of vetting and checking at each step on the road to determine whether what is being put forward is reasonable. That is why all the evaluation is taking place.

The decision has certainly not already been made. The person who issued the tweet should not have issued it. He has played a major role in this, however. He has always been very important and passionate. He recognised that what happened should not have happened, and it will not happen again. Any such communication will go through the press office in the normal course.

What role will he have?

The report has set out the evaluation against the four crucial tests to determine whether any of the meetings that took place could in any way have undermined the fair delivery of the tender. It was concluded that they could not.

Has it been decided whether, in servicing the final houses, we will be using ESB poles or Eir poles? What is the process for deciding that now?

The tenderer will obviously use whatever is available to deliver the service. In the vast majority of cases, it will be existing poles, not new poles. They will be existing poles on the existing networks of others or State networks.

What percentage of the houses does the Minister expect will be reached by cable and what percentage will have fixed wireless or other wireless technologies?

It is my understanding that the request - this applies to all the tenderers - was such that 2% could be other than fibre to the home, but that was expandable to 5% in certain conditions. That was a specification. As it evolves, the vast majority of homes will have fibre to the home.

Who carries the risk with regard to take-up by customers of the service? Where is the commercial risk in that? How much is carried by the Department and how much by the bidder?

These are the sorts of issues in respect of which this State needs to ensure the assumptions being made are reasonable in the first place and determine what would be a fair allocation of risk in the event that the conditions are not fulfilled. That is the sort of issue being dealt with in the detailed evaluation process that has been taking place.

How can the Oireachtas evaluate whether this is an appropriate process and whether we are getting good value for money when, in truth, the Minister's comments earlier were very general? He referred to the merit of broadband, on which no one disagrees, but we have no detail on the sorts of questions I have just asked. What role will there be for Opposition spokespersons during the final stages of the process of assessing some of the technical issues so they can have some sort of understanding as to whether this is a proper deal or not? How does the Minister intend to involve members of the Opposition, although perhaps not in this House, and give them much more detail than they have been able to get in three minutes here today?

It is my understanding that much of the evaluation material will be published so Deputies will be able to see it. There may be elements that cannot be published.

After the fact.

It is the same with any selection of a tender. Deputy Bríd Smith did not like me drawing a parallel with another sector about which I have some familiarity. We do not lay out before the Dáil the different people competing for a tender and ask 158 Members to make a decision. That is not the way tenders were decided in the Deputy's time, no more than in my time.

I call Deputy Denis Naughten to make a statement to the House.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle and Business Committee for giving me an opportunity to speak. I want to make it clear that it is the Department and not the Minister who is responsible for the governance and evaluation of the national broadband plan competitive dialogue procurement process. On the conclusion of this evaluation, the Department makes a recommendation to the Minister, and the Minister then brings the matter to the Government for a decision.

It is important to put in context my engagements throughout this process. During the debate here in this House last February, speaker after speaker highlighted the need to progress the project actively after Eir's withdrawal. A member of the communications committee at the time said:

It seems extraordinary that the tender has not yet been put in place.

It may be considered unfortunate to lose one bidder, but surely it is careless to lose two bidders. What happens if we lose the third bidder? What is plan B?

He went on to say:

I think this is a national emergency that requires emergency measures. I hope the Minister will act accordingly.

That is what I did - act accordingly to keep the remaining bidder at the table. At no time did I interfere or try to interfere in the process to benefit any bidder. I facilitated every meeting request from all the bidders in the dialogue process. The fact is that I, as Minister, was kept at arm's length from the detail of the procurement process, and I was asked to be present at some pivotal points in the process on the request of my officials. Such meetings were directed by officials both in terms of the briefings before such engagements and the meetings themselves.

The Smyth report shows I had 40 meetings with all the bidders since my appointment as Minister in May 2016. If one browses through the lobbying register, it is clear that meetings between the telecoms industry and Members of this House happen regularly. Just like Deputy Dooley and others in this House, my job required me to meet representatives of the telecoms industry because it is responsible for connecting every home, business and farm in the country in order that no one is left behind in this technological age. Should we have a closed-door policy for Ministers and an open-door one for everyone else just for the sake of these optics? As Mr. Smyth states in his report, the facts are that I did not have information available to me that was not already available to the bidder or bidders by virtue of the fact of it being a competitive dialogue process. My only objective throughout has been to keep the bidders in the process - both Eir until the time of its withdrawal and Granahan McCourt-Enet-SSE subsequent to the withdrawal of Eir - in order to ensure that every citizen in the country was treated equally by delivering broadband to the 1.2 million people who are without this basic, vital service.

Some of my engagements with Mr. McCourt have been the subject of incomplete reporting in recent days. Eight of the ten engagements I had with Mr. McCourt were when Granahan McCourt was the sole bidder in the process. I did not discuss the procurement process at any of the dinner engagements with Mr. McCourt. Furthermore, Mr. McCourt did not at any time canvass my support or seek to lobby or influence me on the procurement process. I did not give preferential access to any bidder in the process. By the time SIRO withdrew in September 2017, I had met the NBP participants on 23 occasions - ten times with SIRO, Vodafone and the ESB, six times with Eir and seven times with Enet-SSE. When Eir withdrew from the process in late January 2018, I had met the remaining NBP participants on 17 occasions - nine times with Enet-SSE and eight times with Eir. This included meetings on electricity policy with both the ESB and SSE.

In recent months, a theme of innuendo and aspersions inside and outside this Chamber has emerged which questions the capability of the last remaining bidder to deliver. This is not for any of us to determine now. That is the job of the 80-strong expert evaluation team. We must ask, however, what is driving this narrative and for what gain. Is it to collapse the plan altogether, perhaps? It may have that desired effect, which would cause more heartache for 1.2 million people in rural Ireland. I appeal to colleagues to let the evaluation team do its job. Over the past 34 months, some of the most capable people in Europe, with experience in highly complex procurement projects, have been working on this project. I reiterate that at no time did I interfere or try to interfere in the process to benefit any of the bidders, and the Peter Smyth report concludes this.

Finally, another voice from last February's Dáil debate:

The frustration on the ground is reaching boiling point... If it is not delivered soon, the benefits may be lost forever as investment will not flow to rural and regional Ireland. Successive Ministers have failed miserably to bring this crucial national project to completion.

My only objective and goal as Minister was to bring this project to completion for the families, business owners, workers and farmers of rural Ireland, who have been waiting for far too long to become equal citizens in this digital age.

I invite the Minister, Deputy Bruton, to bring the debate to a conclusion. He has five minutes.

I will not need five minutes. I thank the Deputies for their contributions. I think everyone acknowledges how hugely important this project is. Internet access is probably more important to rural Ireland than anything else if we want strong rural and regional development. This is the infrastructure of the future, and the ambition we have for it is right. I acknowledge the very significant work Deputy Naughten has put into this project. There is absolutely no doubting the effort he has put into it and other parts of the Department's brief. Clearly, from the questions that have been raised, people recognise that this is a very challenging project in many respects. It is highly ambitious. I do not know of any other country that has committed to this level of ambition. I know of many that have fallen short of such a level of ambition. My only determination at this stage is to bring this process to a fair and impartial conclusion in order that Government can take a decision as to whether this is a technically robust solution, whether the governance of all its aspects, including the risk to which the State could be exposed, is adequate and whether it represents value for money for the taxpayer. I think these evaluations are at a point at which we will very soon be able to go to Government. I assure Deputy Eamon Ryan that this information will be published and he will be able to see the evaluations that were conducted.

I thank an tAire and all other Members for their co-operation in the debate.