Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Nursing Home Accommodation Provision

The Alzheimer's unit at St. John’s Hospital, Sligo, which has more than 30 beds, was closed down last year and all of the patients were moved out. The reasons given for the closure at the time were that the Mental Health Commission had issues with the unit and it also needed to be refurbished. No work has been done since and there is a rumour that the building is to be turned into office space.

I ask the Minister of State to reassure the House that it will not happen at a time of significant bed capacity problems.

I thank Deputy Martin Kenny for raising this important issue. The Government's core stated objective is to promote care in the community so that people can continue to live with confidence, security and dignity in their own homes and communities for as long as possible. That is clearly what older people and everybody in this House wants. We also have patients who are in genuine need of residential care, either on a long-stay or short-stay basis, and their safety and wellbeing is of paramount concern. The HSE is responsible for the delivery of health and personal social services, including those at facilities such as St. John's which is a 132-bed community hospital on the outskirts of Sligo town. Services provided include rehabilitation, convalescence assessment and long-term residential care. The hospital is registered with the Health Information and Quality Authority to provide 95 beds.

As the Deputy is aware, community hospitals like St. John's are an essential part of our national infrastructure and we are determined to maintain our public stock. While the standard of care delivered to residents in these units is generally very high, we recognise that many public units are housed in buildings that are less than ideal in a modern context. Without these units, however, many older people would not have access to the care they need. On that basis we need to upgrade our public bed stock and this is the aim of the five-year capital investment programme for community nursing units which was announced in 2016. The programme provides the framework to replace, upgrade or refurbish these care facilities, as appropriate. Significant work has been undertaken to determine the optimum scheduling of projects within the phased provision of funding to achieve compliance and registration with the Health Information and Quality Authority. This programme includes St. John's hospital.

The Alzheimer's unit referred to by the Deputy is located within the grounds of St. John's hospital. Historically, the unit admitted people who suffered with dementia related illness, mental health difficulties and acquired brain injuries. The unit was registered with the Mental Health Commission under the Mental Health Act 2001. This registration has ceased and the unit has only recently being vacated. This was in line with conditions set by the commission. Residents were facilitated in a number of different facilities, including older person services and nursing homes. The unit is now under the governance of the social care division's older persons' services. The plan for the immediate use of St John's is to facilitate the capital works in the long-term care area of the hospital which will require a number of residents to transfer from their existing wards to allow for the essential upgrade works to be completed. Once these works are completed, it is proposed that a designated dementia service will be developed in the existing Alzheimer's unit.

The Deputy will appreciate that all healthcare infrastructure developments require a lead-in time to complete the various stages. These stages include appraisal, project brief, design feasibility, a review of costing estimates and finalisation of financing. The project will proceed under the capital investment programme, which is part of Project Ireland 2040. The HSE's capital plan for 2019 is currently being finalised and will be submitted to the Minister for Health for consideration and approval. This will propose the projects that can progress in 2019 and beyond, having regard to the total available capital funding. All health capital projects, currently at various stages of development, are considered as part of this process.

While I appreciate that some of these facilities are old and need a great deal of work, this one was built 25 years ago. It is not an old unit but is in fact quite modern. Shortly after it was built, it was recognised that there were issues regarding in particular the toilet and shower facilities, sewerage works which had not been done properly and air quality. Nevertheless, it operated for 20 years and people lived there and were happy. It was their home. Over a year ago, however, they were moved out because it was said these works needed to be done. I understand it is a more than 30-bed unit and that very little work would put it back into service. If it was only built 25 years ago, it is not an old building that needs a great deal of work.

In his reply, the Minister of State said a feasibility study and all of that had to be done and he referred to the finalisation of financing, which is the big one. We need to see the finalisation of financing because there are huge bed pressures in the general hospital in Sligo. We are trying to get people out of the hospital. It is an issue that is always being raised. We raised it in the last few weeks in relation to trolley numbers. All of this is having knock-on effects. The absence of these beds at St. John's hospital has a knock-on effect on trolleys as it is all part of the same system. We need to see the works done as quickly as possible.

The Minister of State did not refer to the story which is going around and which appears to have legs in the view of people in Sligo. That story is that an assessment has been carried out to convert the unit to provide office space for the HSE. In the context of huge pressures on beds in facilities locally, to do that would be counterproductive and contrary to what any sensible person would want.

I thank the Deputy again for raising this very important issue. I want to reassure him on the points raised, in particular in relation to the toilets, the 30 beds, the financing, the bed pressures and also questions about office space. The national development plan is to provide for the continuation of the programme of replacement and refurbishment of community nursing units and long-term residential care facilities for older people. The Department and the HSE are engaged in the process to finalise the capital plan for 2019. This will determine what projects can progress in 2019 and beyond having regard to the total available funding and the relative priority for each project. The HSE and I recognise absolutely the value and importance of the services provided at St. John's. That is why a refurbishment plan is in place for the hospital in compliance with HIQA. Once these essential works are complete, the HSE advises that it is proposed that a designated dementia service will be developed in the existing Alzheimer's unit. I will raise the other points and concerns the Deputy raised with the Minister, Deputy Harris.

Archaeological Sites

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me to raise this issue. While I am grateful that the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon, is here, I ask him to express my serious disappointment to the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Madigan, at her non-attendance. It is not often that the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht is called on for Topical Issues. If she had sent word to me that she was unavailable, I would have happily deferred the matter as it is an issue of significant gravity.

Is the Minister of State attached to that Department?

If the Minister of State is not attached to the Department, the Minister should have informed Deputy Lahart that she was not available. As she has not, we can reschedule the matter if Deputy Lahart wishes.

If it could be rescheduled within the current week.

We will attempt to do that. As I understand it, the procedure is that if the responsible Minister informs the Deputy raising a Topical Issue that he or she is not available to deal with it, that Minister may assign it to a Minister of State with responsibility within his or her Department. However, it cannot be assigned to someone who does not have responsibility without the agreement of the Deputy raising the issue.

The matter is one of significance for the constituency of Dublin South-West, in particular the Scholarstown area, and I would like the Minister to respond in person.

We will try to reschedule for tomorrow. That gives us additional time to move to the third matter on which four Deputies are offering. The matter was listed by Deputies Alan Kelly, Jackie Cahill and Mattie McGrath and they have now been joined by Deputy Michael Lowry.

Post Office Network

I understand that the Minister of State, Deputy Canney, will be taking this matter on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Bruton.

An Post's decision, which came out of the blue, to move the post office from Liberty Square in Thurles to the shopping centre on the edge of the town was met with shock and disgust by the public, with thousands coming out onto the streets to protest, and by business people who are utterly dismayed by a Government and a company that would make such a decision, given the loyalty that has been shown to the service provider for many decades. I have represented Thurles since entering politics. In that time, I have never seen anger such as that expressed in respect of this decision. A number of years ago, the sorting office was placed outside the town. It was understood that the post office in the town would be done up as a result. That has not happened.

Financially, this decision does not make sense. Why move to a shopping centre where there is less footfall? Why pay rent, rates and other charges on top of a capital cost when all An Post has in the town centre now is a capital outlay for a building that it owns? This move is contrary to Government policy. As a former Minister, I can tell the House that a State agency contravening Government policy is a serious matter. The Minister, as an advocate of Project Ireland 2040 who has spoken about it with great fanfare, is aware that town centres are to be renewed. How can he say that An Post is adhering to Government policy if it moves this facility out of the town centre, which the Government, through Tipperary County Council, is about to spend over €6 million doing up? Financially, what is happening does not make sense. The board cannot stand over the decision and the board members' reputations will be damaged by a decision that is financially inept. It is up to the Minister and his Department to take this issue on board and change the decision for the good of the people of Thurles.

An Post's proposal to move the Thurles post office from Liberty Square is wrong. We have an €8 million plan to revitalise the square, which is being spearheaded by Tipperary County Council. That plan adheres to Government policy, which is supported by the Dáil, on regenerating rural town centres. It is a disgrace that the management of a State-owned company like An Post is acting in direct conflict with a national strategy that is investing large amounts of taxpayers' money in rural town centres. There is a significant question mark over An Post's reasons for wanting to make this move. In all of its press releases, it has failed to give a credible financial reason for the proposal. These facts require the Minister to change his stance on the issue. He must engage in a meaningful way with the elected representatives of the people of my home town of Thurles. He must immediately engage with An Post and instruct it to review its decision, which does not add up.

I have offered a solution. A Thurles businessman is willing to purchase the listed building, renovate it to the highest standard and lease it back to An Post. However, An Post has done everything in its power to ignore this solution.

The Minister of State should be assured that the people of Thurles will not let this issue go. If the Minister cannot be convinced to force An Post to review its decision, I intend to get to the bottom of the reasons for the move. The Dáil has a committee structure in place, and I will use every means possible to get An Post to come to account. This decision makes no financial sense, the people of Thurles do not want it and it is contrary to Government policy.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this important matter. Along with my colleagues, I am disappointed that the Minister, Deputy Bruton, is not present. He is in hiding. The Minister of State is newly reappointed. I mean nothing personal, but sending him in here with a script is a disgrace. The Minister is hiding behind the board of An Post.

This is a reckless decision. The people of Thurles have supported the post office's current location in Liberty Square for decades. The House has heard about the sorting office moving out with a view to reinvigorating the post office. There is something tangy about this. It is not in line with Government policy, so An Post cannot hide behind that. The company has stated that this is one of its few remaining profitable post offices. Why will the Government not tackle the shocking waste in the GPO, which is grossly overstaffed and so on? Why pick on rural towns? Why pick on rural Tipperary, which has already lost six post offices this year? Thankfully, a postmistress gave up her redundancy package in order to try to retain the service for local people.

This decision is outrageous and the people of Thurles will not accept it. They have set up a hard-working, dedicated committee of business people and community activists who look after people from the cradle to the grave. Will the Government please reconsider its position? The Minister cannot keep hiding. The committee will hunt him down. Fine Gael election candidates are running around the county, yet the Thurles committee cannot get the Minister or An Post's action committee to meet it or Deputies from Tipperary. When we met the company last week, we were treated with disdain by Mr. McRedmond and others from An Post. It was all waffle. There is no business sense or economic reasoning behind this decision. Above all, it is a slap in the face of muintir Dhúrlas Éile - the proud people of Thurles, founding location of the GAA.

I concur with my colleagues from Tipperary. We have met the chief executive and senior management of An Post. I met the Minister, Deputy Bruton, last week, but he refused to meet the Oireachtas representatives from Tipperary, which was disappointing. As a result of our conversation, the Minister communicated with me in writing today. He is holding the line on An Post's justification for this decision. The contents of his response to me are almost identical to what we were told by An Post's chief executive and management. Effectively, the Minister is refusing to engage, interfere in the decision or have any role in having it revoked. I would have thought that the Minister would have found this topic of such urgency and importance that he would be present this evening to give an explanation to the House, particularly the Members from Tipperary. That he is not is disappointing.

It is important to remember that the decision contravenes and contradicts Government policy on urban regeneration and renewal. As my colleagues mentioned, there is an investment programme for Liberty Square, which is an iconic centre and the heart and soul of Thurles town. Without the post office's footfall, there will be a severe impact on all of the businesses around the square and on people who depend on those businesses for their livelihoods. The decision is detrimental to the business community and is having a harmful impact on the attitude of older people, who feel that they are being let down by An Post in relocating the service.

I thank the Deputies for airing this issue. The Minister is not available, so I am taking this matter on his behalf.

The Deputy can take that up with him.

The Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment has responsibility for the postal sector, including the governance of An Post. However, it is important to remember that An Post is a commercial State body with its own board. Decisions relating to the post office network are an operational matter for An Post directly.

The environment in which the post office operates is changing and the network needs to change with it in order to thrive, particularly given the move to digital transactions. These changes are impacting on the revenue being generated by the network as a whole. In the face of serious declines in the volume of mail and post office business, An Post faced growing losses and has had to undertake a major restructuring of its business to continue to be able to provide its services. There is a widespread acceptance that the post office network requires modernisation to build, maintain and protect a service that meets the needs of communities across the country.

An Post's renewed vision for the post office network centres on the availability of new services in a modernised, revitalised network. In this context, An Post has confirmed its move to a new flagship post office in the Thurles shopping centre and the closure of its Liberty Square premises. The move comes as part of An Post's effort to transform the post office network and to invest in improved facilities for customers in locations with high footfalls. Thurles will become one of the first towns in the country to host the new post office design, which is intended to improve the service offering for post office users and attract a new generation of customers.

It is important to acknowledge that the move has understandably caused upset in Thurles, as the post office has been in situ in Liberty Square for many years and is part of the fabric of the square.

However, delivery of An Post’s ambitious plans for the post office network requires renewal of the physical infrastructure of the network and the move is part of this process. I understand that the CEO of An Post and company officials have met with Deputies and local representatives in recent weeks to hear the perspective of the local community and to discuss the issues raised due to the relocation of the post office from Liberty Square to Thurles Shopping Centre. An Post has advised that the new office will be in line with the company’s transformation programme, offering a new-look retail offering for customers, with a move away from old-style post office counter layout. This is driven by An Post’s move to offer new services and products, including financial services, to customers, and integrating its growing e-commerce business. The new layout will include dedicated customer areas, parcel lockers and self-service options. An Post has also indicated that any plan to revamp the Liberty Square premises would be hampered by the condition of the three-storey listed building, the lack of available development space and the prohibitive cost of overcoming either of these obstacles. Furthermore, the building has been the subject of repeated complaints over accessibility and excessive queuing caused by the lack of space in the office. Given the challenges it is facing, the company needs to pursue an ambitious agenda across its various business areas, and significant change and new business models are likely to be implemented in the coming years.

The willingness of the public to use the service the post office provides is essential for the survival of the network. Investment of €50 million in the network by An Post is based on encouraging communities to use the enhanced services that their local post office will provide through a modernised network. The company is continuing to make good progress in implementing its strategic plan, which will see a range of developments across the mail and retail businesses. A refreshed and modernised An Post brand was launched in recent weeks, alongside a new financial services proposition, An Post Money, and a new business-to-business brand, An Post eCommerce Solutions. It is Government policy that An Post remains a strong, viable company in a position to provide a high-quality, nationwide postal service and that it maintains a nationwide customer focused network of post offices in the community. The Government remains fully committed to a sustainable post office network, which is an important piece of economic and social infrastructure for both rural and urban areas.

We have heard all this before. I accept that the Minister of State is only standing in for the Minister but his reply was frankly rubbish. I have spoken to Mr. McRedmond and the chairman, Mr. Divilly. Their credibility is on the line. The decision is symbolic, An Post is going against Government policy, and the finances of the decision just do not work, as I have outlined. It makes no sense and the taxpayer is losing big time - hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of euro. The real issue is that An Post made a bad decision and cannot back down. It does not want to set a precedent but it did the same in Ballinskelligs, County Kerry. It was going to close that post office but there was an independent review, it reconsidered the matter, and - holy smoke - the post office is still open. I will visit it this weekend because it is run by my niece, the youngest postmistress in Ireland, who is 22 years of age. An Post got that decision wrong, considered what the community and local representatives said, and it reversed the decision.

It must do the same in the case of the post office in question. I call on Deputy Lowry, Fine Gael representatives and everyone else who supports the Government to ensure that An Post does the same in Thurles as it did in Ballinskelligs.

The Minister of State said the viability of the post office depends on the people using the service and I fully agree. The reality, however, is that people in Thurles do not want the post office moved to the shopping centre and will refuse to use it there. The car park is crammed and the shopping centre is difficult to access, especially for elderly people.

The Minister of State noted that An Post is a commercial, semi-State body, which I fully accept, but it made a decision that is not commercially viable and does not stand up. It complains the post office building and square are in bad condition, which they are but the responsibility rests on one company only, namely, An Post. Given that no money has been spent on the building for 40 years, how would a listed building of that age not be in bad condition?

On the current site's ability to provide facilities, there is 30% more foot space than in the premises in the shopping centre. The size is suitable and all it needs is a refurbishment. There can be all the necessary modern infrastructure in the post office on the square. If the move happens, the people will react by not trading with the post office at its new premises.

I concur with what has been said. The Minister of State has used many terms such as "flagship", "customer service" and "customer focused", but the Government does not give a hoot about the customers. It is trading recklessly, as I have stated on several occasions. We in the Rural Independent Group tabled a motion, which was passed comfortably, that supported introducing community banking services at An Post. Why has the Government not done that? It is stripping services. Last week, the CEO of An Post stated the Government is reducing social welfare and refusing to provide other services. It is one untruth and falsehood after the other. Ní neart go cur le chéile.

I urge the people of Thurles and the surrounding districts not to make the move, if the Government continues with it, and to keep their businesses in the square. While I hate division and I said, "Ní neart go cur le chéile", I encourage them to speak to the people in charge of the shopping centre. There are no big brand names. The small ratepayers - na siopaí beaga, na daoine beaga - want the service to be in the square and we support them in that regard. They should tell the people in the shopping centre that they do not want to move out there, that they will not move out there, and that they will not trade there. That might put a smile on the other side of their face. It is wrong and An Post is trading recklessly. It took accountants to force another board to resign today for trading recklessly. The Government will be found out yet. It is hiding, as is the Minister. He can keep hiding but he has nowhere to run.

We very much welcome An Post's commitment for a new brand, design and offering of services in Thurles. Our contention is that the new flagship post office can be delivered from the existing headquarters of An Post in Thurles. The facility exists, and is capable of being extended and refurbished and of housing the newly designed service of An Post. Will the Minister of State convey to the Minister, Deputy Bruton, that the Oireachtas representatives for County Tipperary, the local representatives, the local action committee and the people of Thurles, especially the business traders, are unhappy with the decision and are asking the Minister to intervene and tell An Post that the decision must be revoked?

To respond to Deputy Lowry, I will convey the feelings of the Deputies to the Minister. Deputy Kelly stated the decision in Ballinskelligs was reversed. An Post can change its mind if it finds that something is wrong. Deputy Mattie McGrath mentioned community banking in post offices. As I stated, An Post Money, which is a financial service, and An Post eCommerce Solutions, which is a business-to-business service, have been introduced. They are in place and in operation.

The question one might ask is why move premises and why not refurbish the existing premises. An Post has indicated that any plan to revamp the Liberty Square premises will be hampered by the condition of the three-storey listed property, the lack of available development space and the prohibitive cost of overcoming either of these obstacles. The building has also been subject to repeated complaints over accessibility and excessive queuing caused by the lack of space in the office. I am not from the area and I do not know the situation but I presume that the Deputies have received complaints in that regard.

I understand that the new premises is in Thurles Shopping Centre, which contains a number of retailers. There is a footfall of 55,000 and a multistorey car park with large volumes of available space, and it is located within 500 m of the existing branch office. Is that correct?

All the Minister of State's facts are wrong.

That information was provided by An Post.

National Broadband Plan Implementation

I welcome the Minister of State. On a daily basis, the entire process of the national broadband plan is becoming more and more like the national children's hospital debacle

We have claims that this project is different and the costs are not inflated. In my view, these claims do not stand up to scrutiny. Today, we have heard a claim by the Taoiseach, one which we heard previously, that the national broadband plan is not the original broadband plan and is some sort of new more expensive plan. That claim does not stand up. I draw the Minister of State's attention to a statement made by the then Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Mr. Pat Rabbitte, in 2012 that the Government's commitment was to high-speed broadband availability throughout the country during its lifetime. That was the Government of 2012 that lasted until 2016. The crucial point is that he stated there would be a minimum of 30 Mbps for every remaining home and business in the country no matter how rural or how remote. That lends a lie or mistruth to the Taoiseach's assertion in the Dáil today that what was envisaged back then is different from what is envisaged now. He needs to come to the House and correct the record. Back then, the expectation was that the State would invest approximately €500 million. The plan has not changed.

We also now have new revelations about the potential cost of the broadband plan. Today, the Taoiseach announced to the House that rather than the original estimate of €500 million, it is now expected to cost taxpayers €3 billion. When the plan began the objective was clear. There was an expectation the Government would spend in the region of €500 million to subsidise the creation of a fibre broadband network, which industry sources had estimated at the time would cost approximately €1.5 billion to build. We are dealing with an overspend greater than that of the national children's hospital.

The two major industry players, SIRO and Eir, pulled out before ever submitting a tender, believing the Government was not prepared to commit the necessary funds to deliver the rural broadband plan. In the Dáil today, the Taoiseach confirmed the remaining bidder, a private investment firm based in Boston with limited experience in the Irish market, expects €3 billion of taxpayers' money to build a project that everybody else estimated would cost €1.5 billion.

Today, the Taoiseach stated he did not know how much the biggest infrastructural project to be undertaken in the State in a very long time, which the Government committed to deliver, will cost. It is €3 billion and rising but he is not actually sure how much it will cost. We do not know when the plan will be decided, how it will be delivered or by whom it will be delivered. It is an absolute mess. I wonder whether lessons are being learned by the Government in all of this when we take into account the children's hospital fiasco. The lesson that needs to be learned is this. Once upon a time in this State if we needed public transport - trains and buses to go to every single part of the country - we had a State company to deliver it. If we needed telecommunications, we had a State company that delivered telecommunications. If we needed electrification throughout the country, we had a State company that delivered electrification. If we needed a postal service to get post to every village, town and house, we had a State company to deliver it. What we have done is dismantle those State companies bit by bit and allowed vultures, domestic and international, to asset strip those companies to the point that we cannot deliver anything. We are then dependent on vultures coming in, putting us over a barrel and dictating to us how much it will cost. They do not want to do it. They drop out if they cannot make a profit so we are left with one bidder and then that one bidder, a US investment fund, has us over a barrel. We have to go to dinner with them to see what we can possibly negotiate to deliver a plan that is of critical State importance. It is pathetic. Could we get the ESB to do it, please?

I thank the Deputies for raising this matter. As a rural Deputy, I have a serious interest in the issue. I apologise on behalf of the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Bruton. He could not be here due to an overrun in his time.

It is the Government’s commitment to ensure that every home, school and business in Ireland, regardless of how remote or rural, has access to high speed broadband. This is being achieved through a combination of commercial investment and State intervention in areas where commercial operators are unlikely to invest. Many of these areas are in more remote and difficult to access areas. This is a complex and challenging problem to solve given Ireland’s dispersed rural population and density of road networks.

In 2012, fewer than 700,000 or 30% of all premises had access to high speed broadband. When the Government came into office, this figure had risen to 52%. Today, more than 1.75 million, or 74%, of all premises can access high speed broadband services. Over the past five years, the telecommunications industry has invested more than €2.75 billion in upgrading telecoms networks and services. I welcome recent announcements signalling that the industry is set to continue to build on that investment, mostly in cities, towns and villages, in the coming years. However, commercial operators will only invest so far. There are approximately half a million homes, schools, businesses and farms that are unlikely to receive access to high speed broadband from the private sector in the near future. The State must step in to bridge this gap.

The national broadband plan entails not only the initial deployment of a predominantly fibre solution across 100,000 km of road network and 96% of the land mass of Ireland but also a 25-year commitment to operate and upgrade the service for the 1.1 million people in the intervention area. This is a key investment in Ireland's future and one which will impact on public spending for a number of years.

The national broadband plan is managed in the Department by an experienced team, including national and international experts. Work is ongoing to ensure the appropriate due diligence is undertaken on this key project before any decision is made or money spent. The cost of the national broadband plan has always fallen to be determined through the procurement process and, in the event that a subsidy is awarded, it will be subject to a cap to mitigate risks of overruns. It will be a costly project and the appropriate governance and contractual safeguards must be in place to protect public investment.

There is no intention to drag out this process. There is a determination to reach a decision in a timely manner but it is an important decision and one we are determined to get right. I am aware that the Government’s ambition to deliver high speed broadband is shared throughout the House. The solution must be one that serves everyone and leaves no one behind. The Minister intends to make information available following any decision for a detailed and informed debate on this important project. He expects to bring a recommendation to the Government on the national broadband plan shortly.

There might be no intention to drag it out but the Government has certainly achieved a monumental dragging out of a process that started back in 2012. The key fundamentals have changed in the intervening period of course. Earlier, the Taoiseach incorrectly told the Dáil there were three bidders for the national broadband plan and, as such, that gave confidence to the Government with regard to the pricing. The reality is there was only ever one bid placed. Other potential bidders had taken part in a dialogue but only one company ever sent in a formal bid. The Minister of State might confirm this is the case and, perhaps, the Taoiseach will correct the record on it also tomorrow. Granahan McCourt, the one remaining bidder, wants €3 billion of taxpayers' money for a €1.5 billion network, as estimated by most other companies. The company will ultimately own the infrastructure and any profits generated from the network will effectively also be retained by Granahan McCourt. It wants the taxpayer to pony up €3 billion to build a network that has been estimated to cost €1.5 billion. It wants to own it forever and a day and it wants all the profits that go with it. In anyone's mind, this is a fiasco and mess that has left us at this point, where the Government's back is to the wall. There are 542,000 premises and homes dotted throughout Ireland crying out for broadband and the Government has managed to put the taxpayer into this precarious position. It will need much debate and careful explaining by the Government to get out of this one.

It is unacceptable that a US investment fund should have the State over a barrel because of the fiasco of the process. We should draw a line under it, learn the lessons and start talking to the ESB or renationalise what is left of Eircom.

The idea that a US investment fund would charge €3 billion and then own the network is just beyond appalling. This is an absolutely predictable market failure on a massive level.

I agree, and we have said much the same as Fianna Fáil, about the need to use our semi-State bodies. I hope that Fianna Fáil will be humble enough to say that it made a mistake when it privatised Eircom. Let us admit that it was a mistake and recognise that "commercial operators will only invest so far", to quote the Minister of State. That is the key to understanding this fiasco. Unless we learn this lesson, we are doomed to repeat it over and over again. Let us get the State and its agencies and companies to deliver this essential infrastructure for rural Ireland.

I agree with Deputy Boyd Barrett about the privatisation of Eircom. It was a disaster from day one and it probably gave rise to part of the problem we have now. As the Taoiseach stated earlier, this is a huge project on the scale of the rural electrification scheme. It is a key infrastructure project and likely to be one of the biggest investments in Ireland. It is an investment in an ongoing service for this generation for the next 25 years and more.

In the event that the contract is awarded, the costs will be spread over the term of the contract and strict governance of these costs will be managed. Deputies have highlighted to the House the impact of not having broadband and how this has affected their constituents. They have also given examples. We need to ensure that the national broadband plan is delivered in order to enable all people to have access to the equal opportunities that high-speed broadband brings. High-speed broadband is the key to unlocking the potential that advances in digital technology can offer. The Taoiseach also stated that we want to do this right. To do so, the Government needs extra time. There is no intention, however, to draw this out. A decision will be made soon.

A question was asked on whether the ESB could roll out national broadband. The European Commission and the Attorney General have made it clear that it would not be possible to provide a subsidy to a commercial semi-State body such as the ESB to roll out the national broadband plan without a new public procurement process. We are where we are. The Attorney General has advised that there are significant legal risks around procurement law and state-aid law if the State was to mandate a fund directly outside a procurement process and economic undertaking, including a commercial semi-State owned entity such as the ESB, to carry out the national broadband plan.

I do not accept that.