Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Examinership Arrangements

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me to raise this very important topic.

This State has expended enormous amounts of money as aids to businesses affected by the pandemic, and rightly so. The purpose of this has been to preserve businesses and jobs affected by the pandemic. More important is ensuring that as many businesses and jobs as possible emerge unscathed when the pandemic is over and the country begins to reopen. It seems that despite the billions of euro in expenditure, there is still one missing ingredient that would make that expenditure infinitely more effective than it otherwise might be.

I came across the amazing statistic recently that the number of insolvencies in this country between 2019 and 2020 only rose by 1%. This blunt fact masks a different position. Many companies, particularly small and medium-sized enterprises and those at the lower end of that sector, are surviving in a zombie-like state, propped up by State supports and debt forbearance. This raises the bleak and frightening prospect of a tsunami of redundancies, particularly among small and medium-sized businesses, once these props are withdrawn. As I have said, the Government has already spent billions of euro on keeping those businesses afloat. For every one of them that goes under, a part of that money will have been lost or wasted, if one were to put it like that.

Under the examinership system, which was put in place in 1990 and amended in the Companies Act 2014, companies in financial difficulty can avoid going into liquidation by adopting a programme of restructuring accepted by creditors and agreed by the court. Two of every three examinerships succeed, thereby enabling thousands of jobs and livelihoods to be saved. However, only a very small number of SMEs have been able to use the examinership process, simply because the costs are prohibitive due to the fact that the matter must be agreed and subsequently supervised before being signed off by the High Court.

There was an amendment to the legislation to enable certain types of companies to use the Circuit Court but, unfortunately, that has not given rise to an uptake in the number of SMEs and small companies applying for examinership. In cases where the matter was dealt with by the Circuit Court outside Dublin, the costs proved higher than they would have been if the High Court had been the relevant forum.

A new, affordable system specifically tailored to the needs of SMEs must be established urgently and be in place before the pandemic supports and debt forbearance come to an end. A model has been proposed by the company law advisory group and it was published on 22 October last. A version of what was recommended by the group must be passed into law urgently. If such a system is in place when debt forbearance and the artificial State props that applied during the pandemic come to an end, thousands of jobs that may otherwise be lost may be saved. Something similar has been done in the UK, although the model is not exactly appropriate to this country.

It is not a question of reinventing the wheel. I am raising this to stress the urgency of the matter and to ask the Minister of State when we can expect to see the legislation to implement the recommendations of the Company Law Review Group, CLRG.

The State's longstanding preventative restructuring framework, examinership, is internationally recognised and has proven to be a successful tool for restructuring in its current form. However, the impact of Covid-19 on business has necessitated a review of the existing restructuring process, provided for by the Companies Act 2014, to determine whether it meets the needs of businesses as they respond to the economic impact of the pandemic.

It has generally been acknowledged that small companies encounter particular challenges in availing of examinership. The associated costs pose a significant barrier to access. Covid-19 continues to disrupt economic activity and may eventually give rise to increased numbers of companies in difficulty. While there will be companies among that cohort which should be properly wound up and cease trading, there will also be many companies with viable business models that are capable of being rescued. Small companies employ in the region of 788,000 people across the country, and contribute significantly to our economy. It is in our economic interest that those companies which are fundamentally viable have an opportunity to restructure and access an appropriate rescue process. The programme for Government contains a commitment in this regard.

For these reasons, in July 2020 the CLRG was requested to consider the issue of rescue for small business as a priority. The CLRG is a statutory advisory body charged with advising the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment on matters relating to company law. Its membership is broad and representative of key stakeholders in the area, such as Irish Small and Medium Employers, ISME, the Irish Business Employers Confederation, IBEC, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, ICTU, the Revenue Commissioners, insolvency and legal practitioners and regulators, making it uniquely well-positioned to provide an informed view on the matter. The CLRG completed its work within an accelerated timeframe, reporting back on 24 October 2020, as acknowledged by Deputy O'Dea. The report sets out a number of policy options for a proposed new process for the rescue of small companies, a summary rescue process which would be distinct from the existing statutory examinership process.

The issue of company rescue extends far beyond the distressed company and impacts on all creditors, which are often other small companies. Any new framework must reflect the delicate balance between sometimes competing stakeholders and provide sufficiently robust safeguards for the protection of creditors, in particular, employees and other small companies. I am acutely aware of the difficulties faced by small companies in our country and I am fully committed to progressing legislation to support their long-term viability and preserve employment. The recommendations contained within the CLRG report have been under active consideration by the officials in my Department. They have made proposals to me on responding to the report and progressing any necessary legislation as soon as is practical. My aim is to have the legislation in place by summer at the latest and ideally, as Deputy O'Dea mentioned, before the supports currently in place cease to be in operation.

I thank the Minister of State very much for his assurance that it is his intention to have the legislation to provide a system of examinership or restructuring, or whatever one wants to call it, specifically tailored to the needs of these companies in place by summer at the latest. That is most appropriate. If it is done, the necessary addendum to all the money that has been spent on those supports will be in place. I have one question for the Minister of State. I read the report of the CLRG and I note that there were certain fundamental matters on which there were fairly robust differences of opinion. Will the Minister of State take very careful account of those members of the CLRG whose opinion was that it is absolutely essential and critical that in any new system of examinership or rescue, such as is being proposed, the question of an automatic stay of execution in relation to creditors proceeding to put the company into insolvency should apply from a very early date? This could be possibly from the date on which the directors decide on this course of action or, at worst, from the date of the meeting of the creditors and shareholders approving that course of action. Second, will the Minister of State provide me with an assurance that whatever form the legislation takes, and we will have to debate it in depth, it will try to keep these matters as far away from the courts as possible, so that referral to, and involvement of, the courts will be very much a last resort?

What I will say is that the proposed new process for the rescue of small companies, the summary rescue process, will be very much distinct from the existing statutory examinership process. That is our intention. We intend to put the proposal out for public consultation. That will happen imminently. We certainly welcome the views and suggestions of all parties on how we move it forward. We are acutely aware that it must be done swiftly. As Deputy O'Dea said, when supports to businesses inevitably taper off as the restrictions lift, we want to ensure that as many sustainable businesses as is practically possible are protected and enabled to restructure in a timely and efficient fashion. That option is not currently available to them and I want to change that. It is my intention and that of the Department to move this process along as swiftly as possible. Obviously, that is partly in our control partly outside of our control, for example, in the case of pre-legislative scrutiny in the Oireachtas committees. I hope that all parties in the House will see the benefit of ensuring robust legislation is in place in this regard and that they will welcome it in order that we can advance this matter without further delay. There will be further engagement with stakeholders in the next number of weeks and we can move the process on from there.

Brexit Issues

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me to bring this matter to the attention of the Dáil and the Government.

Wilker Auto Conversions, based in Clara, County Offaly, last night informed 80 members of a workforce of approximately 100 of its intention to temporarily close its facility owing to components from the UK that it needs to complete work on its line being delayed at customs and ports. The company produces excellent products, which are primarily used in the ambulance sector. It services the HSE, among other public services in Ireland and the UK. It is the largest company engaged in this type of auto conversion in Ireland and the UK. The company's decision was shocking for staff, their families and their communities and our immediate concern is for them. An assurance was immediately sought from management that it would meet trade unions and assure the workforce, via the unions, of its commitment to the welfare and rights of its workforce and to finding options that may pertain to their income over the intervening period. That assurance was forthcoming.

The issue at hand is of great concern. It is one of the first cases of temporary job losses, with the potential further losses, arising from the implications of Brexit. It is not as if this company was ill-prepared. It had employed outside expertise to assist in ensuring it was in a position to meet demands placed on it as a result of Brexit. It would appear that that is not necessarily the same for UK companies that trade with Irish firms. This is a very worrying trend that needs to be addressed.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House and acknowledge the absence of the Minister for Finance, who could not be here today.

There are obligations on Government in a cross-departmental capacity in this area, whether it be the Departments of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Transport, or Foreign Affairs, and in respect of Revenue and Customs and Excise. The issues and difficulties that have arisen because of the unfortunate error on the part of the EU last weekend, when it sought to invoke Article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol, opened the door for many people north of the Border to raise issues in regard to the east-west trade between Britain and Northern Ireland. That has led to conciliation talks in an effort to resolve the issues, involving officials from the relevant Departments and officials from the EU and the UK. I hope and expect that the Minister of State, Deputy Troy, can bring to bear on those who are representing this country in those talks and negotiations to investigate also the issues that have arisen as a result of the case I have raised and many other similar ones that are brewing, if they have not already brewed.

My immediate ask is that the relevant Departments converse with the company in question, identify the issues at hand and work with other Departments to ensure that an effort is made to smooth the pathway to resolving those issues. We all feared the implications of Brexit. It was never going to be easy and the ramifications were always going to be there. This is one such ramification and it is of grave concern to me and my constituents. I want to be able to assure them that every effort is being made by our officials to ensure that this process is eased.

I thank the Deputy for raising this important matter. Like him, our thoughts are with the families in his constituency who are facing an uncertain time at the moment. The Deputy will be aware that the tax and customs affairs of any business are confidential and there is a duty of confidentially imposed on Revenue in this regard by virtue of section 851A of the Taxes Consolidation Act 1997. Accordingly, Revenue cannot comment on, and cannot provide me with details in regard to, the particular case that is the subject of the Deputy's concern.

However, Revenue has provided some general information that should be helpful to the Deputy in understanding the general situation as regards customs formalities and how they might apply in the case he has raised. Normally, import duties, including customs duty and VAT, are payable at the point of entry of goods into the EU from a third country. In such a situation of a direct import into Ireland from a non-EU country, the import duties would be payable at the point of importation unless alternative procedures have been put in place as agreed with Revenue.

As regards alternative procedures and as a way of supporting and encouraging trade and business, there are a number of customs procedures and authorisations which may be availed of whereby the payment of import duties can be suspended. An example would be where goods are imported and subject to certain modifications or alterations before they are either re-exported from the EU or released into free circulation on the European market. The suspension of the requirement to pay import duties is an important support for business, especially in the type of scenario I outlined, where there is a time lag between importation of the goods and their eventual circulation on the market after any alteration or modification.

To avail of any customs simplification process and to be able to defer the payment of duties, a business must apply to, and be approved by, Revenue for such a simplification. I am advised by Revenue that engagement with businesses on such a basis is a regular part of its engagement with trade and business. I am also aware that Revenue would have encouraged businesses to consider the relevance of such simplification to their business in the lead-up to 1 January 2021, as part of an approach to mitigate the impacts of the UK leaving the EU.

To avail of the type of simplified procedure I have outlined, a business must have the appropriate authorisation from Revenue. An application for such authorisation is made electronically and Revenue reviews the material supplied by the business to ensure that it meets the EU requirements and qualifies for the procedure. Depending on the level of complexity of the processing in Ireland, this can take some time and may require additional information from the business. In such instances, there may be ongoing engagement between Revenue and the business before the authorisation is awarded. In order to secure the authorisation, a financial security in the form of a comprehensive guarantee is also required.

I am further advised by Revenue that a retrospective authorisation may be issued in exceptional circumstances. Details of such circumstances should be submitted by the trader to Revenue, which will examine and make a decision on whether they meet the EU criteria for granting retrospection. The benefit of retrospection is that any customs duty or import VAT paid by the trader on goods imported under the inward-processing authorisation may be refunded.

In summary, authorisation for simplified customs procedures is very much a support and help that is available to business, but the facility to suspend the payment of import duties is a significant one. Revenue must ensure that the authorisation is appropriate and, once approved, covered by an appropriate level of financial guarantee. I am assured by Revenue that it actively engages with all applicants and is conscious of the importance of bringing such matters to finality as quickly as possible. Revenue has confirmed to me that it is actively engaged with the business identified by Deputy Cowen and its advisers on the current matter.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. I particularly welcome his final sentence indicating that the Department is in direct contact with the company in question. I am reminded of a communication I received from the Taoiseach early in January, having raised issues around this matter when other companies highlighted to me the difficulties they had with the new regime, notwithstanding the efforts and the commitments they made on foot of Government advice in advance of Brexit. The Taoiseach indicated at that time that his office was engaging extensively with stakeholders and businesses across all Departments and agencies to support businesses to continue to trade and to resolve any issues that might arise as quickly as possible. He indicated that our feedback in this area was particularly helpful.

I acknowledge the commitment made by the Minister of State on this matter. I expect that the response and engagement will be in line with the thrust of what was contained in the correspondence that was given to me earlier this year, which acknowledged the impact of the new regime and the way in which different Departments can come together to assist companies to overcome difficulties. It was also stated in that correspondence that the Government very much welcomed the conclusion of the EU-UK trade and co-operation agreement ensuring quota-free and tariff-free trade between the EU and the UK, which would mitigate the additional impact of a no-deal Brexit. The correspondence stated that this agreement, together with the withdrawal agreement and the protocol for Ireland and Northern Ireland, meant that Ireland's key Brexit objectives had now been agreed.

In a few short weeks, unfortunately, that has been brought into question by the error we are told was made by the Commission in regard to its communication last week, where it inadvertently sought to invoke Article 16 of the protocol. That in itself has caused difficulties. I again ask that in the context of the discussions that are taking place around the whole area of trade between our two countries vis-à-vis the agreement that has been reached, that every effort be made to accommodate the additional difficulties that have arisen. I welcome the commitment the Minister of State has given in this regard.

Deputy Cowen is right that there have been challenges since 1 January. There were always going to be challenges. We are moving to a new trading arrangement, with new requirements that many businesses have not had to deal with in generations. In that context, there have been interdepartmental meetings on a daily basis since the beginning of January. That has now gone down to every two or three days as some of the challenges have been addressed.

The Irish Road Haulage Association has raised issues in terms of the challenges its members are facing in getting product from the UK to Ireland. I understand it had a very productive meeting with senior officials in Revenue last week, who have given an undertaking to explore what further flexibilities can be enabled. I know that Revenue's systems have gone down on a number of occasions, particularly at peak times, because there has been so much traffic. That is very regrettable. I have spoken to senior Revenue officials today and they are trying to ensure it is addressed.

In acknowledgement of that, they announced yesterday further administrative easements to assist businesses challenged by this issue.

To return to the company in question, which Deputy Cowen highlighted, Enterprise Ireland supports to help businesses get Brexit ready are available to it. Enterprise Ireland and the Revenue Commissioners are engaging with the company. With regard to any company trading with the UK that is experiencing difficulty, not just the one in question,

the Revenue Commissioners have a 24-7 helpline in operation. They have staff at both Dublin and Rosslare ports 24-7. There is assistance available from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine at both ports. Enterprise Ireland has a number of supports that are still available to ensure businesses get every support they possibly can to overcome the challenges that have arisen owing to Brexit, which challenges were not of our doing but which we are left to deal with.

I thank the Minister of State very much for his assistance.

School Accommodation

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this important issue. Drogheda Educate Together Secondary School, Drogheda ETSS, is on Mill Road outside Drogheda. It currently has 110 students enrolled, an admissions cap of 72 for next year and 55 students on the waiting list. There is huge growth in the population in the area. Hundreds of houses are being built and there is major demand for education right where the school sits. The school has a three-year lease at present so there is no reason the Department of Education should not continue to sustain and support it in its present location, beside where all the families come from.

The key point is that the parents will not stand for the school being moved from this location. The school was on grounds adjacent to Coláiste na hInse at one stage and now it is on Mill Road. The Department, in its wisdom, proposes to relocate it a few miles away, on the grounds of yet another school, St. Oliver's, where I taught and which has more than 1,200 students. The Department proposes to take from St. Oliver's the recreation and amenity space its pupils and community enjoy and to put another school, a fabulous school, Drogheda ETSS, on the site. It will not wash or hold and the people will not accept it. Therefore, I urge the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, to enter negotiations with Educate Together, buy the site beside the school and do the business. That is what those affected want. It is our job as Deputies. Deputy Nash and I will work together to ensure we can deliver the school. What is happening is unacceptable and the parents will not accept it. I ask the Minister of State, whom I acknowledge is not ultimately responsible, to bring to the Minister the loud, clear and irrevocable message of the parents. They will not have the school moved for the third time. It is unacceptable that a school should be moved to four different locations before getting the site it so much wants. Houses have been built in the area and ten acres have been zoned for schools there so let us do the business.

I will put it simply to the Minister of State: this ridiculous, wrong-headed decision needs to be overturned, and it needs to be overturned now. To say that students, local families and the staff of the school were shocked at the decision and how it was imposed, without any consultation with the school community, is an absolute understatement. I have had a very close relationship with the fine school since the concept of an Educate Together school first emerged to serve the south Drogheda and east Meath areas and it was always understood that the school, in its temporary manifestation and as a permanent facility, would be situated in east Meath. This is where it is and where it ought to stay. Families chose the school for that very reason. The Department has, by its actions, broken the covenant of trust with the local community. Many families face a journey of over 40 minutes each morning to take their children to school. It is unacceptable to me and to them.

The messages I received from distressed young people over the past few days about the diktat coming from on high are absolutely heartbreaking. Since last March, we have known that the world has become much smaller for younger people. We are aware of how distressed and anxious they are, and this matter is only adding to the distress in my community. We have a duty to mind the young people.

Nobody from the Department has told me why the school cannot expand on the Mill Road site. I wish to be shown the appraisal and technical assessment that were done. I do not believe they exist. Why was St. Oliver's, Drogheda, chosen and not a site in the control of Louth and Meath Education and Training Board in Laytown? How much has the Department spent on the Mill Road facility to date? It seems the Department is content to allow hundreds of thousands of euro of taxpayers' money to go to waste as a site that has already been developed is allowed to go to waste. The Minister of State needs to front up and explain how this wrong-headed decision was hatched, and why. We need full disclosure and transparency now because the decision stinks. It is not a solution for Drogheda ETSS or the community. It might be a solution for the Department of Education but it will not wash with the people I represent.

I thank the Deputies. It appears the people of Drogheda say "No".

Yes, I have heard both Deputies loud and clear, and I have noted their frustration and passion. I thank them for raising this matter on behalf of their constituents. It provides the Department with an opportunity to clarify the position on the proposed interim move of Drogheda ETSS from its existing location on Mill Street to the State-owned Louth and Meath Education and Training Board site, which I know is at Rathmullan Road, Drogheda.

Drogheda ETSS is a co-educational post-primary school that opened in September 2019 as a regional solution to meet the demand for additional post-primary school places in the Drogheda and Laytown school planning areas. Regional solutions are generally put in place where projected growth in a single school planning area may not, of itself, warrant the provision of a new school. Where the combined demographic increase across a number of adjacent school planning areas indicates insufficient demand for a viable school, then a regional solution may be put in place to serve the areas.

As Deputy O'Dowd pointed out, Drogheda ETSS currently has an enrolment of 110 pupils, based on figures from 2020, and a staffing allocation for this year of 12.5 whole-time equivalent teachers. As we know, it is on a temporary site at Mill Road. The school was originally located on a temporary site in Laytown when it first opened, in September 2019.

As the Deputies are aware, a building project for Drogheda ETSS is included on my Department's school building programme to be delivered under the national development plan as soon as a new site is identified. In this regard, my Department continues to undertake a site-identification process in respect of suitable sites for the permanent school. To date, it has proven challenging to identify suitable available sites in the area in question. Currently, the Department is undertaking an assessment of two potential sites. Obtaining a site for the permanent location of Drogheda ETSS is a priority for my Department. I will be bringing the comments of the Deputies to the attention of the Minister, Deputy Foley.

In October 2020, the school authority submitted a request through its patron body for additional accommodation to enable it to enrol at least 72 pupils for September 2021 at the Mill Road site. The school authority had outlined its concerns about health and safety, curriculum provision, special education needs, child protection and Covid-19 safety in respect of the school's current location on Mill Road. As the Deputies are aware, there is a demand for additional post-primary school places in Drogheda for September 2021, and my Department wishes to facilitate Drogheda ETSS in ultimately growing to a 1,000-pupil school upon the delivery of its new school building on a permanent site while also addressing the need for additional post-primary school places in Drogheda for September 2021 and subsequent years.

Suffice it to say that the demand for accommodation for September 2021 and future years cannot be met at the Mill Road site.

I reassure the Deputies that the Department is meeting with the patron body tomorrow morning regarding its September 2021 requirements across its network of schools, including Drogheda ETSS.

The Minister of State does not have the full facts and I appreciate that is not her fault. There is plenty of room on that site. There is a three-year lease, of which this is the first year. I was out there yesterday. There is a large space on front of it and 20 prefabs could be put on it, not just two or three. The people will not move from this site. It would be unacceptable and outrageous that they would be asked to move four times to get the school they need. Some 2,000 parents have signed a petition and the children are angry. They live here and they want to go to school here.

Regarding the proposed site, St. Oliver's, more than €300,000 has been spent by the education board and the Department in preparing for a regional headquarters for the education board on that site. There is no way the school can go there. The only place it can go is on the site it is now for three years. There is a 10 acre site in that vicinity for a school zoned by Meath County Council, I have been told. The owner of the land says there is no issue and there is a letter to that effect with the school authorities. They have no problem accommodating any prefabs that may be proposed in the interim. They cannot be moved again. It is unacceptable and I will stand with and for those parents.

I agree that the Minister of State, unfortunately, does not seem to have all the facts. Deputy O'Dowd is correct. A letter was forwarded by the owner of the site to the school this afternoon confirming that there are no issues with road access, planning or the scale of the site. Relatively recently, the Department confirmed there were no issues regarding the expansion of the school to meet the needs it has in the short to medium-term.

On the St. Oliver's site, one thing we are forgetting is that in 2013 the Department of Education under Ruairi Quinn agreed with me that the Louth and Meath Education and Training Board, ETB, headquarters should be located on the grounds of St. Oliver's Community College. In the meantime, the Department of Education and ETB have been dragging their heels, obfuscating on this issue and, as Deputy O'Dowd said, have spent several hundred thousands of euro in planning fees and so on to try to get this initiative up and running but it has been delayed time and again. That should be the priority for the St. Oliver's site, rather than moving this school to a site where there is no demand, an already constrained site that is under severe pressure. I have a simple message for the Minister of State: get to work developing an imaginative proposal with Educate Together and the owner of the site to ensure the school can stay where it is supposed to be in the east Meath area and identify the permanent site now to fast-track the building of a new permanent facility to serve our area.

I thank the Deputies for their contribution. My understanding is that there are limitations around the Mill Road site, insofar as it can take a tranche of students for 2021 but not for 2022. It is possible to add two additional classrooms on the site without interfering with the play area. At a push, an additional two classrooms, making four in total, could be added but these would have to be put on the school's play area. An additional four classrooms could be provided, therefore, on the site for 2021 and this would be the maximum. While this could accommodate an enrolment of 72 pupils, the school could not then enrol any further pupils and would have no accommodation left for a September 2022 intake. That is the difficulty when one talks about long-term potential for this school, rather than being able to take a small cohort of pupils in for one year and then having to change again.

On site identification for a permanent location, the Department is actively trying to engage with the two sites it is looking at to see if there is a way this school can be provided for. The delivery of the ETB headquarters has been devolved to the ETB and departmental officials are meeting with the ETB tomorrow to review progress with the project and consider the next steps in progressing it, with a view to proceeding to tender and construction as quickly as possible.

The accommodation on the ETB side will have 13 classrooms as opposed to, say, six, two special education needs classrooms, 14 specialist rooms, a library, a staff room and there will be access to playing fields. I have heard what the Deputies have said and their impassioned pleas, which I will pass on to the Minister and the Department.

Broadband Infrastructure

I thank the Minister of State for taking the opportunity and the time to listen to us. Cobh is an area in east Cork I represent and I have worked with many lobby groups and activists down there over the years. There seems to be a problem. From the emails I have, one specific question resonates most in terms of what people are feeling throughout Cork East, particularly Cobh:

Please ask the Minister and the Government Department if it is the Government's policy to allow private enterprise decide whether families should have or not have superfast broadband based on their commercial criteria rather than on a Government strategy.

I put this to the Minister of State because of the potential in Cobh for businesses and broadband. In the current climate we are asking people to stay at home and work from home. From the old NET factory in Cobh along the front coast to White Point, which overlooks Roche's Point on the far side of the county, they have, I think, between five and 30 Mbps, which is below the European norm. In the other parts of the town, enterprises are cherry-picking the estates, which seems to be replicated in Cobh, Carrigtohill, Mitchelstown, Fermoy, the Mallow hinterland and anywhere else in the county. It is frustrating people and pitting neighbours against neighbours because some estates have very good broadband. When one goes in to try to promote businesses, tourism or whatever, people are extremely frustrated because they are not getting their fair share. People have contacted some of these companies and have been told it will be another four to five years before they get broadband and that aggrieves them. I will come back to the Minister of State on the intervention areas or the amber areas because there is a great that of frustration about those as well.

Deputy Pat Buckley: I thank the Ceann Comhairle for giving me the opportunity to speak and I thank the Minister of State for taking the time to listen to us. Cobh is an area in East Cork that I represent and I have been working with many lobby groups and activists down there over years. From the synopsis of emails I have, there is one question that resonates across what people are feeling in the whole of East Cork but particularly in Cobh. It says: "Please ask the Minister and the Government Department if it is the Government's policy to allow private enterprise decide whether families should have or not have superfast broadband based on their commercial criteria rather than on a Government strategy." I put this to the Minister of State because the potential in Cobh for businesses and broadband in the current climate

Deputy Moynihan, Kiskeam is not the Nirvana I thought it was.

We are going to try to make it that. We could talk about every village and community in my constituency but we are in negotiations on digital hubs and we know the way the world has changed over the past year or so. For rural communities, I believe this is for the better but the great enabler is broadband. The difficulty we have in Kiskeam is that Eir broadband is coming almost to the edge of the village on both sides, but not through the village. It is hugely important that it is brought through the village as a matter of urgency. I have been in negotiations with the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, on an exciting project we hope to bring to fruition within the community. That is why I used the precious time available to me in Dáil Éireann to bring people together to see if there is any hope we could get broadband connectivity in the village.

I could talk about every other community as well and I am not forgetting them. It is a great enabler but there is a significant lack of broadband connectivity throughout my constituency. I ask specifically this evening about the village of Kiskeam. We are told that people should live in villages and so forth. Will the Minister of State outline what the Department can do to help to ensure we have connectivity in the village and enable it to prosper and grow through other exciting projects?

The national broadband plan contract was signed with National Broadband Ireland, NBI, in November 2019 to roll out a high-speed and future-proofed broadband network within the intervention area, which covers 1.1 million people living and working in more than 544,000 premises, including almost 100,000 businesses and farms, along with 695 schools. The plan will ensure that citizens throughout the entire country will have access to high-speed broadband services and that nobody is left without this vital service.

The national broadband plan network will offer users a high-speed broadband service with a minimum download speed of 500 Mbps from the outset. The high-speed broadband map, which is available at broadband.gov.ie, shows the areas that will be included in the national broadband plan's State-led intervention, as well as areas targeted by commercial operators. There are 273,548 premises in County Cork, of which 79,424 will be provided with high-speed broadband through the State-led intervention. Government investment in the county under the national broadband plan will amount to €314 million.

Despite the challenges presented by the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, NBI has made steady progress on initial works. I am advised by NBI that as of 26 January 2021, more than 166,000 premises in 26 counties had been surveyed, which is ahead of schedule. The next step for NBI is to develop network designs to deliver the new fibre-to-the-home network to these premises and substantial design work is under way. More than 13,000 premises have been surveyed to date in Carrigaline and Midleton and network designs completed. NBI crews have started initial works for the build in the more than 4,500 premises in the Carrigaline area, including Cullen, Templebreedy, Carrigaline, Ballyfoyle, Douglas, Ballyphehane, Glasheen, Mahon and Kilpatrick, while surveys have started in Ballydesmond, Kiskeam, Umeraboy, Knocknagree, Rineen, Cullen, Coolinarna, Millstreet, Hollymount and Caherbarnagh. Cobh is in the Midleton deployment area and NBI has confirmed that surveys have been completed there. Kiskeam is in the Rathmore area and NBI has confirmed that surveys in this area too are complete.

The first fibre-to-the-home connections have been made and, in a test-and-trial phase, in Carrigaline, County Cork and Cavan. Network build works continue and these areas will be subject to technical testing and validation prior to a wider release. Since 26 January, retailers have been able to resell the service, and householders in these areas will be able to order high-speed broadband provided via the NBI network. Further details are available on specific areas within Cork through the NBI website, which provides a facility for any premises within the intervention area to register its interest in being provided with deployment updates.

Broadband connection points, BCPs, are a key element of the NBP, providing high-speed broadband in every county in advance of the roll-out of the fibre to the home network. As of 30 January 2021, 260 BCP sites had been installed by NBI and the high-speed broadband service will be switched on in these locations through similar service provider contracts managed by the Department of Rural and Community Development for publicly available sites and by the Department of Education for schools. The following BCPs in County Cork are now connected and the public can avail of public Wi-Fi at them: Ballindangan, Lissvard community centre, Aghabullogue community centre, Castletownkenneigh community centre, Whitechurch community centre and T.O Park Labbamollaga.

I thank the Minister of State for her reply. She was spot on with her figures, and while many of the names of those little towns and villages are a challenge, she was spot on with them as well.

On a serious note, I welcome the news of the Cobh-Midleton deployment area and the service being completed. I reiterate that Cobh is an island. It has only the one little bridge to enter it, in Belvelly. The residents always feel they are cut off in many ways. The Naval Service is based there and high-speed broadband is essential, especially given that Cobh has potentially the second deepest natural harbour in the world and it has a thriving tourist industry which we need to preserve. The businesses and the community that are along the waterfront, in particular, need high-speed broadband so they can grow their enterprise, grow Cobh, as part of Cork and part of the country, and put it on the map, as they have been doing.

I welcome the Minister of State's comments and, as I said, I will probably contact her about the amber intervention areas because there is much frustration about that. I do not have time to speak further but I appreciate her reply.

The frustration in the community of Kiskeam is that broadband was initially supposed to be provided by Eir but, for some unknown reason, the village was taken out of the plan. We were told at the time that villages would be on the Eir priority scheme. The Minister of State mentioned that the surveys had started in Ballydesmond, Kiskeam, Umeraboy, Knocknagree, Rineen, Cullen, Coolinarna, Millstreet, Hollymount and Caherbarnagh. Have those surveys been completed and, if not, when will they be? What is the envisaged timeframe after the completion of the initial surveys by which high-speed broadband will be connected, up and running and available to be offered to the communities? That is the question we want answered. When will it happen and what is the timescale from the completion of the survey to fibre reaching the homes, businesses and communities I represent?

I understand the frustration over the roll-out of the broadband connection points throughout the country, not least now with many people working from home. My understanding is those initial works have started and I can ask the Minister, Deputy Ryan, to follow up with the Deputy with completion dates on that.

In general, the Government is very much committed to the roll-out of the broadband plan. Within the Department, we continue to engage with National Broadband Ireland to explore the feasibility of accelerating aspects of the roll-out of broadband and to establish the possibility of bringing forward to an earlier date premises that are currently scheduled for years six and seven. Furthermore, National Broadband Ireland has established a dedicated team to investigate an acceleration of the roll-out from its current contracted schedule of seven years. All possible alternative network providers are being considered and substantial work has been completed by the team to date, with further actions scheduled over the coming months to explore the potential to accelerate the network roll-out and ensure we can mitigate any delays arising, in particular as a result of Covid-19.

On the specific points that both Deputies raised, I will follow up with the Minister to provide a timeline.

The Dáil adjourned at 6.28 p.m. until 10 a.m. on Wednesday, 10 February 2021.