Estimates for Public Services 2018: Vote 29 - Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment

This is the mid-year review of the 2018 Estimates for Public Services: Vote 29 - Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment. We are engaging this afternoon with the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Naughten, and the Minister of State, Deputy Kyne, who has responsibility for natural resources and digital development.

Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses, or an official either by name, or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. I wish to advise that submissions and opening statements made to the committee will be published on the committee website after this meeting.

I welcome the Minister and the Minister of State to this meeting. I ask the Minister to make his opening statement.

I thank the Chair and the committee for inviting me this afternoon and I welcome the opportunity to meet the committee to consider the mid-term expenditure position and performance across the six Vote programmes within my Department. I will keep my opening statement brief to allow the committee sufficient time to examine the programme expenditure to the outturn at the end of June. I am joined by Minister of State, Deputy Kyne, who has responsibility for community affairs, natural resources and digital development.

I am also joined by Finola Rossi, our finance officer, Jim Whelan from our finance unit, Ciara Kennedy the national broadband plan division, Ben King from the Eircode division, Triona Quill from the broadcasting policy division, Eileen O’Connor from the energy efficiency and affordability division and Eileen Doyle from the mining division.

The total provision for my Department for 2018 is €587 million, comprising €215 million for capital investment - including a €6 million carryover from last year - and €372 million for current spending, of which €222 million, or approximately 60%, represents a pass-through in TV licence receipts. By the end of June, my Department had spent €62.4 million of its capital allocation, representing 90% of the profiled expenditure. On current expenditure, my Department has spent €172.9 million, representing 96% of profiled expenditure. Appropriations-in-aid are running at €110.2 million, representing 96% of profiled receipts.

This year my Department continues to progress projects in areas of national strategic importance, including: the national broadband plan, in line with the Government’s ambition that opportunities presented by digital transformation will be available to every community and every premises in Ireland; the trading online voucher scheme to support more small companies to trade online and to help them increase sales, jobs and exports; the digital skills for citizens training programme, to help some 25,000 citizens to get online for the first time and participate in the digital economy and society; continued investment in energy efficiency in our residential, public and commercial building stock and homes of those in energy poverty to drive the reduction of CO2 emissions from the built environment; the electric vehicle grant scheme aimed at decarbonising transport; the integrated mapping for the sustainable development of Ireland's marine resource programme, INFOMAR, and Tellus geo-environmental mapping projects; protecting our natural environment and promoting the transition to a resource-efficient circular economy; and progressing the climate action agenda and Ireland’s transition to a low-carbon economy.

I call Deputy Dooley.

How does the Chair intend to proceed?

Perhaps the Deputy could limit his questions to programme A and communications in the first instance.

That is subhead A3. On the national broadband plan, the Department is behind on the spending projections to the tune of approximately €4 million. Can the Minister provide an indication as to why that is the case? Was the Department behind in terms of the roll-out? Had the Department projected that the roll-out would begin sooner and could the Minister bring us up to date on where we are on that project?

On the national broadband plan, the expenditure relates to the required activities under each phase of the programme. Due to the complexity of the procurement process and the scale of the project, it can be difficult to accurately forecast the monthly expenditure on an annual basis. For example, expenditure on certain activities in a particular month or quarter may not be reflected until subsequent months or quarters. The level of underspend has no impact on progress in the national broadband plan procurement process and the timeline for the subsequent roll-out. Additional expenditure would not have led to the conclusion of the procurement process any faster or, subsequently, to an earlier start point to the roll-out. That does not have a bearing on the roll-out and the money that has been required at various times in the process has been available to that process. As members can see, year on year there have been sufficient funds there to do that. Thankfully, we are nearing the end of this complex process and the Department is currently evaluating the final tender which was received towards the end of last month.

There is a Vote in the Dáil. The bells have probably been ringing for a minute already. Does the Deputy wish to come in briefly before we suspend?

On that point, are we any closer to getting a start date and a completion date for the roll-out of the national broadband plan? Is the Minister satisfied that the tender that has been lodged is in compliance with that detailed procurement process that was under way? Is he also satisfied that the new bidder has sufficient capacity to meet the expectations as set out?

Has the Minister checked the legal standing of the company? Does he have any knowledge of a court action that is being taken in the United States by at least one party in the remaining consortium, if it is a consortium? Can he give the committee any clarity on whether the remaining entity complies with the procurement process that was undertaken?

I will allow the Minister to give a brief response before we suspend for the vote in the Dáil.

I understand that procurement documentation, which was issued to all bidders in 2016, sets out a mechanism for the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment to assess and approve or reject any changes in the membership of the bidders. It is appropriate for such a mechanism to be put in place for a procurement process of this scale and duration. I have been advised that the bidder submitted a request for approval of an alteration in the bidder membership before the procurement process entered its final stage and that the Department assessed this request in accordance with the criteria, as set out in the procurement documentation and procurement rules. I understand the change in the bidder membership was approved following this assessment. I have also been advised by the Department that the bidder for the national broadband plan procurement process is led by Granahan McCourt and that the bidder has nominated a number of key subcontractors, including Enet, Nokia, Actavo, the Kelly Group and the KN Group to assist with the actual delivery and physical roll-out of the national broadband plan.

Did the Minister have a direct conversation at any stage with anyone from Granahan McCourt about the potential change in the consortium, or any changes in the consortium? Have any meetings taken place here or in the United States at which that matter has been discussed?

I have had a number of discussions with David McCourt about this project. There was a discussion in New York. I am not privy to the exact detail of that at the moment. We can get the detail for the Deputy. A full minute is available and we can furnish it to the Deputy.

I have to suspend the meeting until after the vote in the Dáil.

Sitting suspended at 3.12 p.m. and resumed at 3.28 p.m.

We shall resume discussions on programme A, communications.

The Minister was responding to some of the queries I had raised, namely the discussions with David McCourt.

I met Mr. McCourt and his brother Frank in New York in July. I am aware that the Deputy, and many other Members here, have met with Mr. McCourt at different stages. The only issue raised in relation to the consortium was with regard to SSE. At that discussion Mr. McCourt made the point that a request may be put into the Department for an evaluation around a change in the consortium. That is not a matter for me. I would have no direct input or role in that. That was a matter for the procurement process.

Did the Minister express any opinion on that occasion as to whether the Minister thought that might be possible?

Not at all because it is not a functional role for me and at no stage have I ever given any indication regarding anything like that. I have no input or role in that.

Knowing everything that he knows now, including that the bid has been submitted, is the Minister confident that it will be successful? Is he confident that the consortium, as it is now constructed, has the capacity to deliver against the bid? Is he confident that there will be significant roll-out of broadband next year? Is he confident that the 542,000 premises will have broadband by the end of 2020?

I have confidence in the procurement process. It has been long, detailed and frustratingly slow, particularly for the 543,000 families, businesses, farms and schools across the country that have been waiting on high-speed broadband. All of these matters are part of the evaluation that is ongoing at the moment, and I am not going to comment on the detail of that evaluation. It is taking place within the Department at the moment.

The Minister said he is confident in a process that has reached this point. The reality is that a venture capital company is the bidder for one of the largest infrastructural projects this State has ever offered, and probably ever will offer. I find it somewhat troubling that the Minister is still expressing absolute confident in an "iterative" procurement process, as he has described it in the past. It has been through every machination. We have seen some of the biggest companies, those which normally roll-out this kind of infrastructure, including Eir, the ESB, Vodafone, John Laing plc and SSE, and which are all household names and recognised for their capacity to roll-out this type of infrastructure, pull out of this process. We are left with one venture capital company based in the United States which is now fronting up to deliver this infrastructure. I hope it happens. I do not want to pour cold water on the desire of the Minister to roll out this project. I share his desire to see that happen. However, I have serious reservations and concerns about a process that goes on for such a long time and the stated intention of which - to roll-out the service - has been delayed so many times, yet at the end of the process a venture capital company that is accustomed to taking high risks for high reward and which will suffer no real reputational loss if it does not work is the sole bidder. My real concern is that the companies I have mentioned - ESB, Vodafone, Eir, SSE and John Laing plc - have departed the scene because they did not see a value proposition for them. If that does not send a signal to the Minister and his Department that there is potentially something very wrong here, that leads to more questions. The Minister now has an opportunity to explain to us why he believes we are still on track.

As I have said on numerous occasions in the House and at this committee, this is not a normal tender or procurement process. I have explained that in detail. This is a competitive dialogue procurement process. It is unusual in an Irish context to have such a process. It is unusual to have such a large project here. A competitive dialogue procurement process is the only type of procurement that is available when one does not know what the final solution will be. When this process started on 22 or 23 December 2016 we did not know what the final solution would be. We did not know if there would be a wireless-based solution or fibre-based solution. Three bidders suggested a fibre-based solution, and each has withdrawn at different times during this process, for one reason or another.

They have given their reasons. They are all commercial companies and have to make their own decisions. However, I am confident that this process will provide us with a bidder and a final solution that will deliver high-speed broadband to every home in Ireland. That evaluation is ongoing. I await the completion of that evaluation. Once I have it to hand, I can go to the Government.

I will conclude on this point. The Minister stated that the process was unusual. The competitive dialogue was certainly unusual. It could be well argued that it has delivered a rather unusual result. All of the commercial companies I have mentioned which have such vast amount of experience in rolling out such infrastructure, Vodafone, ESB, SSE and John Lang, have fallen by the wayside. The unusual result is that a venture capital company is now the sole bidder and the company charged with delivery. If the Minister does not consider that an unusual result, he should. It should create very considerable concern for the State, which has so much money and reputation tied up in this and which has responsibility for rolling out this broadband. I know it will take time to establish whether this is the right decision, but grave concerns have been expressed by myself and others during this process. It is incumbent on the Minister and to think very seriously about where he is going from here and whether there is the capacity to roll out this really important service within the expected timeline.

Several Deputies need to go to the Dáil. I will call Deputy Stanley next.

I have a few questions for the Minister. I will try to cover them as concisely as possible. By the end of June, €3.941 million had been spent under subhead A3. The total Estimate was just over €19 million. What proportion of that has been spent on the national broadband plan? Why has there been such a large underspend in that regard? That is one question.

The Minister's answers on the broadband plan to date have been strange. I am not sure how a Government can plan its functions and budgeting for the next several years without having some ballpark figures for what has been earmarked for this, that and the other under the capital plan. How much is the Government budgeting for the national broadband plan? The Minister has submitted some figures. Surely to God the Minister for Finance has asked him to pencil in a range of figures for what is needed from the coming years' capital budgets to fund the national broadband plan. Is it between €250 million and €500 million, between €500 million and €1 billion or between €1 billion and €1.5 billion? I do not know, but the taxpayer would like to know and, as a Member of Parliament, so would I.

There have not just been dropouts in this process. The day that Eir was allowed to choose the richest 300,000 pickings out of 840,000 was one of the days when this process went under and got into trouble. I said it to the Minister on the day of that press release. I was being constructive. My red lights were flashing and the Minister's should have been flashing too. The Minister has followed this very closely. I do not doubt that he wants to get broadband into every home in the country. I do not doubt his sincerity. However, I have said to him many times that this plan is in serious financial, legal and logistical trouble. As Deputy Dooley stated, it is in the hands of venture capitalists. Two venture capitalists are making mincemeat of the Department and the 80 officials involved, whether they are direct employees of the Department or were subcontracted to help with this.

One is the French owner of Eir, which was sold off by Deputy Dooley's party in 1999. That was unfortunate because if we owned the infrastructure, as the ESB now owns its infrastructure, we would be in a completely different place. We need to be in that place but we are not there. Many right-wing commentators even starting to say it is where we should be, and that we should use infrastructure controlled by the State. However, we are where we are.

I have believed for a long time that we are in serious trouble. I want jobs to be created in rural areas. I represent a rural constituency, as does the Minister, and I do not want people driving to Dublin every day when they could work in towns such as Timahoe, Coolrain, Camross, Mountrath and Rosenallis in County Laois and towns in County Offaly. Are the costs accelerating? Are the delays in announcing when the tendering process will be complete being caused by legal difficulties as we try to join up the impossible? We are dealing with newcomers to the consortium now, people who have been in and out of the High Court more often than some barristers, such as Senator McDowell. These people have the best legal advice, not just in this country but in the western world, and the Minister is up against the big guys here. The State and the taxpayer will be casualties as might part of the rural broadband scheme.

Is the cost increasing because of the cherry-picking and because SIRO, ESB, Vodafone and several components of the Enet consortium have now jumped ship? Are we not now in a much more precarious situation because of the dropouts? We are caught between two venture capitalists - the owner of Eir and the owners of the Enet consortium, which is still in the bidding process.

The cost to the Department is €19 million. Why is it so low? What proportion is being spent on the broadband plan? I hope the Minister does not tell me that the Government has not put in a ballpark figure for the capital expenditure on the NBP. There has to be a range and some official, the Minister or his deputy must put a figure on it.

The spend under subhead A3, ICT programmes, to the end of June was €3.9 million. The spend to the end of September was €6.7 million, of which €5.6 million related to the NBP. The €15 million that was allocated was for the national broadband plan. The variation is due, in the main, to the lower than anticipated expenditure levels on the NBP, which reflected the stage and the complexity of the procurement process. The variance also relates to the timing of payments relating to Eircode postcodes. The significant aspect relates to the plan, and not just this year. In previous years, there was also an underspend because procurement was a complicated process.

On funding, an initial stimulus allocation of €275 million for the State-led intervention under the NBP is in the Government's six-year capital plan. It was always acknowledged that further Exchequer funding would be needed over the lifetime of the plan. Funding in principle of €500 million from the European Investment Bank was announced in April for the plan and €75 million was also committed under the European regional development fund. Following discussions and subject to the completion of the assessment by my officials, and their presentation to me, there will be further engagement with the Department of Finance.

On Deputy Dooley's point, over the past five years €2.75 billion has been invested in building our high-speed broadband networks across the country, the vast majority of which are a direct result of the national broadband plan and of people wanting to get ahead of the plan. Deputy Stanley highlighted one aspect of that, but there are other companies. Deputies Dooley and Stanley, in particular, have spoken to private telecoms companies, and I am sure Deputy Eamon Ryan has also, and it has been explained to them that the investment being put in here is not just in relation to market share in Ireland, but it is being used as a test bed for other parts of Europe because of our unique circumstances, our national broadband plan and the broadband task force which has facilitated the speedy deployment of infrastructure across the country. The Minister of State, Deputy Kyne, has assisted me with that. There is no doubt that there is now a far more friendly and positive atmosphere to direct investment in this country. There is direct engagement with a senior official in each local authority, which facilitates the roll-out of infrastructure, telecommunications and broadband infrastructure around the country.

I would say to Deputy Dooley that this is a unique project, and there is nowhere else we can compare this to because nowhere else has decided to bring this scale of speed of broadband to rural areas. Nowhere else in Europe has the type of isolated rural communities and homes that we have here. The objective and scale of this project are unique. It has been complex and frustrating but we are nearing the end of the process.

Would Deputy Stanley like to come back in?

I would like the Minister to clarify something. He said there was €275 million in the six-year capital plan. There is a €500 million loan from the European Investment Bank, EIB, and €75 million from the European Investment Fund, EIF. This all comes to €0.85 billion. What period of time does this cover? He said the figure of €275 million was for six years. Over what period of time does the Minister expect the €500 million from the EIB and the €75 million from the EIF to be spent?

I think the Minister is nervous of this process. If I was in his shoes and sitting in his seat, I would be nervous of it because of the precarious situation. He said it was an unusual process. It is the most unusual process I have ever heard of. I am not an expert in commercial activity but I am around long enough, as are most people in this room, to know that if one is bidding for anything, or if one plans to build a house, a bungalow or an extension, one does not run with the first person to put in a bid. The county councils cannot do that. They must get up to five tenders, and they must get three bids for works of more than €500. Here the State will potentially spend billions of euro and there is one tender. It is lunacy and the Government has no control over it. The Department's officials, that is, the 80 people in total employed in this project, will be made into minced meat. The taxpayer will pick up this bill.

I am conscious that Deputy Eamon Ryan would also like to comment under this topic, and Senator O'Reilly is also indicating. I ask the Minister to be brief.

On Deputy Stanley's question, this is a competitive dialogue procurement process. If one was building a house, one would go for a standard tender, such as a four-bedroom, three-bedroom, two-bedroom, one-bedroom or five or six-bedroom house, and it is easy to set the specifications for that. However, Science Foundation Ireland, for example, holds a number of different competitions where it sets a challenge to provide a solution. How one comes up with the solution is all part of the bid process and it is the same with this.

Prices were submitted last year at the end of the tendering process but, independent of that, the Department, through its own expertise, had independently costed the project. We had a good idea of the price this would come in at and what the costings would be for materials, labour, roll-out, etc.

The Minister has no control. He has to come up with a solution but they control the price and the Minister either runs with the price they demand of the Department or he drops the project. That is the choice.

Senator O'Reilly is next. I will bring in Deputy Ryan then because he has to ask a question in the Dáil. It would be appreciated if the Senator could confine his contribution to questions to allow Deputy Ryan to contribute.

My questions are born from a concern that we get high speed broadband into every home in the country. That is what we want to achieve.

Will the Minister give a timeframe for getting broadband into every home?

Is he confident that the preparatory work by councils to sort out the infrastructure at local authority level to make sure we are good to go is working well?

Will the Minister set out annual targets for the State-led intervention? Each year, will he tell the provider the number he wants done and will that be on the public record? Will he benchmark them and monitor each stage to ensure there is an ongoing examination in the public interest? This is the most serious project since electrification.

Will the people who get the State procurement in the diverse and spread-out areas of the country have high-speed download on a par with other areas in the country or will they be poor relations? Will there be any difference?

How does a minimum speed of 30 Mbps compare with other countries in Europe?

Could the Minister comment on the status of the Eir roll-out? It is not a State intervention but the Minister is still responsible for it. What part of the country is left to be provided for?

I appreciate the Senator's brevity.

If the Minister will excuse me, I may not be able to wait for the answers but I will read them.

The answers will be on the record.

I agree with Deputies Dooley and Stanley. Ireland has lost large companies, one after the other, which had decades of experience in putting wires up in the country. The Minister says it is competitive dialogue but there are no competitors. The remaining players have no experience when compared with the ESB, Vodafone, John Laing Group and so on. We are in trouble on this.

What is the role of Enet or the other companies the Minister mentioned in this? Are they being contracted by Mr. McCourt?

Representatives from Eir appeared before the committee a few weeks ago and they clearly indicated that the NBP should be done on the electricity wires. That was strange, because one would think they would generate a lot of money from using their poles, but they could not have been clearer in saying that does not make any sense. Why would there be two sets of poles? They said it would be much better to use the ESB poles because they are connected to every house whereas the telephone poles are not. Eir does not want to continue with the 2 million telephone poles. Does the Minister expect that the electricity wires will be used to get to houses rather than the telephone poles?

What percentage of houses does the Minister think will end up with fibre to the home? What percentage will use another technology? Can the Minister give an indication on that?

Is the cost of €5.5 million so far this year mainly for lawyers and consultants? Is it the case that nothing has physically been spent anywhere and all the money was for advisers to the scheme?

My main question is whether ESB poles will be used. I have nothing against Mr. McCourt or his previous experience but the Minister is taking a big gamble. If something goes wrong with ESB, SSE Airtricity or Vodafone, these companies have 10,000 people to call on in order to resolve the problem. What happens if it goes belly up and the remaining bidders, who do not have that substantive presence in the country, state that it is more difficult than they thought and that they cannot proceed? What recourse would the State have in the context of picking up the pieces? I could see how we might do it with SSE Airtricity or Vodafone because their operations are huge, but it seems that we are involved in a very unusual process.

I will come back to Deputy Stanley with one comment. The EIB funding will be drawn down by the bidder rather than the State. In response to Deputy Eamon Ryan, as part of this competitive dialogue and procurement process, all of the bidders in this process would have had to prove at various stages during the procurement process that they had the capacity and financial resources to deliver this project. That is all part of the assessment criteria and the assessment of the final bid. That must be clearly evidenced and documented.

Will ESB poles be used? I am sure that not only ESB poles but also other ESB infrastructure, the metropolitan area networks across the country and other State-owned infrastructure will be used. We are looking at potentially up to 100% fibre, which will not be the case. We do not know how much less than that it will be. This is part of the ongoing work and engagement that has been taking place between the bidder and the Department.

What is the role of Enet?

Granahan McCourt is the bidder in this process. It has nominated a number of key sub-contractors. That would have been part of the documentation it submitted on 18 September. They include Enet, Nokia, Actavo, the Kelly Group and KN Group. They are involved in the delivery of the broadband contract across the country.

Enet has a great deal of experience in the context of putting in ducting and installing hundreds of metropolitan area networks. Why did it pull out?

Enet has not pulled out.

It is not part of the consortium.

I am in a difficult position in that I am basing what I am saying on the information that has been presented to me. I am not directly involved in this procurement process. I am relaying the information I have received from the procurement team to the Deputy. The bidder, Granahan McCourt, issued a statement on 18 September outlining the people involved in this bid and their role. Any alteration to the make up of the consortium must go through an approval process within the Department and the procurement team.

In response to Senator O'Reilly's questions about the preparatory work by councils, some councils are very good. However, I think the Minister of State, Deputy Kyne, would agree with me that we are disappointed with some local authorities. We have been engaging with these local authorities. It is important that every local authority is ready to roll this out. The current roll-out with regard to the Eir network is happening across the country at the same time. The same thing will happen with regard to the roll-out of this. There will be timelines involved and targets to be achieved in the same way as Eir has had targets to meet.

At present, they have built out to 220,000 premises. The recent data submitted by Eir to the Department indicates the company has passed 180,000 premises nationwide as part of the rural deployment. However, the information received from Eir on its overall fibre deployment indicates that close to 220,000 premises have been passed throughout the country. That is the current state of play.

Senator Joe O'Reilly asked me whether those on the final phase of the national broadband plan will be the poor relation in terms of speed. In fact, the exact opposite is the case. The standard delivery that we are looking at is 150 Mb of download speed and 100 Mb of upload speed. A business would be able to avail of up to 1 Gbit of download speeds. These are very significant numbers. The reason is that at the start of this process the target for the definition of high-speed broadband was 30 Mbps. As I have consistently said throughout this, what we did not want is a situation when we awarded the contract that we would have a technology that was obsolete. That happened with the national broadband scheme previously. If we had been looking for a 30 Mbps download speed it would effectively be obsolete by the time we would complete the build-out. We have written into the procurement process that it must meet the changing demand. As the committee will be aware, the European Commission is setting demands of a gigabit society. We can accommodate this within the infrastructure that we are rolling out and we are determined to do that. I think I have answered those questions.

Senator Joe O'Reilly asked me about setting year-by-year targets. The draft NBP contract includes extensive governance and oversight mechanisms to ensure the efficient and effective roll-out of the network. These measures include monitoring of build-out milestones and key performance indicators on both a time and deployment area basis. Monitoring and reporting will occur monthly, quarterly and annually, a bit like the ongoing monitoring of the Eir contract.

I thank the Minister. We will now move on to programme B - broadcasting, if the Minister wants to make a brief opening statement.

RTÉ and TG4 are funded through a mix of commercial revenues obtained largely from advertising, Exchequer grant payments and licence fee revenues.

Broadcasting licensing fee receipts are estimated to be €222 million in 2018. The broadcasting programme provides for €190.7 million in television licence fee receipts to RTÉ to enable the company to meet its statutory obligations as a public service broadcaster. In addition, the programme provides €4.2 million in television licence fee receipts and €31.5 million in grant payments to TG4 to produce a comprehensive range of programming in the Irish language.

Programme B also funds new television and radio programmes through the broadcasting fund, operated by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland. The fund receives 7% of the net television licence fee receipts, which amounts to €14.7 million in 2018.

Expenditure on the broadcasting programme to the end of June was €124.6 million, representing 99% of profiled expenditure.

Deputy Stanley and Senator McDowell indicated.

The big issue in broadcasting is the €40 million not being collected in licence fees. The committee spent a long time putting a report together. I would have differed in terms of what was recommended at the end of it, which was basically that the State would use Revenue to collect it. I put forward a proposal on behalf of my party that there would be registration, both at purchase and at the point of connection to a service, that would bring everybody onto a database. If one were on the database and did not have a licence, one would automatically receive a fine bar one could give a valid explanation as to why, for instance, if one had got rid of a television altogether. Otherwise, viewers would be caught within that net.

It is frustrating that we are here again and the licence fee receipts are still €40 million down. What action is being taken? We came together and did a lot of work on that report.

Members of the committee made a significant contribution to it. It is an issue the Minister has discussed with myself and other Deputies in the House. We do not want to see the licence fee increased but surely we must get in most of the €40 million to deal with the issues in RTÉ.

My second question relates to the €190,724,000. Given what is going on, is that a realistic target to bring in? That is a huge sum and I wonder if it is realistic.

Does Senator McDowell wish to ask his questions now? I will ask the Minister to answer the two sets of questions together.

He may answer Deputy Stanley first.

On the TV licence, the payments to RTÉ as of June this year were €91.1 million, and are €2 million ahead of payments for the same period last year.

What period was that until?

That was until the end of June.

It was the first six months.

Yes, for the first six months.

That will still fall €10 million short if it is replicated in the second half of the year, because €90 million and €90 million is only €180 million.

Traditionally, during the second half of the year more enforcement takes place. I presume there are plans for that. It would be done through An Post which is the contractor for its enforcement.

The specific question referred to what is being done to try to gather up this €40 million. We are well over a year on. Other countries have achieved far higher rates of collection. The Minister knows I do not want it increased but we do need it to be collected.

I am very conscious of the Minister's time to answer all the questions.

There are two strands to that. First, there is the broadcasting (amendment) Bill which has undergone pre-legislative scrutiny here and is now with the parliamentary draftsman. We hope to get a draft of that very soon. The second strand, which was on foot of this committee's report recommendations, is that a working group has been established on foot of a Government decision in July of this year to examine the possible options to reform the collection of the TV licence fee. The working group will consider a number of options for the reform of the TV licence collection. It is intended that the group will report back to Government by the end of March 2019 with its recommendations. To answer Deputy Stanley's question regarding the proposal from the committee relating to revenue, other possible options will be examined in relation to the practical delivery-----

Does that include the proposal I put forward relating to registration that operates in other countries?

We can ask them to look at that as well. There is no difficulty about that and the terms of reference would allow for that to happen. It is grand talking about a notional mechanism to collect it but we want to see, in practical terms, what the most effective way is to collect the maximum amount of TV licence. The working group will report back to me by the end of March 2019, and I will then bring its recommendations to Government.

The non-collection is one item that has been mentioned and there is the cost of collection. That is approximately €12 million and it goes to An Post. That leaves €50 million which is either not collected or collected and given to a body other than the intended beneficiary. I reiterate my view that if the local property tax is in the hands of Revenue, as well as details every dwelling in the country, then subject to situations where there are multiple occupancies of single properties - for example, in Dublin where there might be four apartments in a building and the landlord pays his or her local property tax on the entire building - there is a mechanism to impose a flat rate per house.

It seems to me the whole rationale for a television licence has completely fallen away. On my phone I can watch YouTube-----

-----and RTÉ and all the rest of it. The Minister's predecessor, former Deputy Pat Rabbitte, talked about only people in caves not having some form of such things and then we got the celebrated cave tax, as was proposed. If we are being honest about it, there is a very simple mechanism, which is to impose a sum per household regardless of whether they have a big yoke up on the wall or are looking at laptops around the house, however they are looking at this material. It should be possible to extend it to bedrooms in hotels or something like that. How many hotels would let rooms without making broadcasting available in them? We know what the catchment area for the licence fee is. The Minister will be loath at this stage to pull the carpet out from under An Post and take €12 million from it but it is largely wasted money. We could adjust the local property tax and collect the same amount of money.

There is another point on which I would like some information from the Minister. We are inundated, as we drive between this place and where we live, with advertisements telling us about paying the licence fee and all the rest of it. The ads are getting more sophisticated, humorous and amusing to try to keep us interested. Does RTÉ provide that advertising free? Does An Post pay for it? Is it a subsidy to RTÉ? I think the Minister's Department pays for the advertising on RTÉ that tries to persuade people to buy their licences. It is ridiculous to urge people to do what one could do by pressing a few buttons on a computer. It would be simple to extract information from the system using Revenue's local property tax system.

I will return to the multiple dwelling issues. There are electricity connections too. One can work out fairly quickly what a household would owe that way. We could do it instead of procrastinating and establishing working groups to consider it. It is a year since I suggested it here. Surely the Minister can come up with a "Yea" or "Nay" to it and say it is the sensible way to deal with it.

I will make substantially the same point. RTÉ is in a crisis. Yesterday the BAI took the unusual step of issuing a statement effectively telling the Government to get off its hands and provide the money or the mechanism to allow RTÉ to access the money. I am critical of RTÉ. Today we asked for the executives of RTÉ to appear before the committee to address their failings as identified in a recent peer review carried out by the European Broadcasting Union. RTÉ has a long way to go in addressing its internal matters around value for money and all of that. The BAI is the independent authority charged by the State with protecting and preserving our State broadcasting service. In its determination, RTÉ and TG4 are significantly underfunded and that is a matter for us and the Minister. We can deal with the legacy issues in RTÉ and we will. This committee has always been good at holding RTÉ to account in that regard. We will bring the director general before us and challenge her and her management team on what they are not achieving.

Undoubtedly the retort will be that they do not have the wherewithal to do it because politicians have sat on their hands and not grappled with the funding issue. We took the challenge from the Minister. He is good at giving us challenges and he has referred quite a lot to the committee. We carried out a detailed piece of work. We did not shy away from making tough enough recommendations that are not necessarily politically advantageous to any of us or to our parties but we did so in the best interests of public service broadcasting.

As are others, I am frustrated that it will continue to take another working group until quarter 1 or quarter 2 of next year. Where is this going? There was plenty of scope in the document provided by the committee to give the Minister the wherewithal to draft a memo and take it to the Government. For some reason the Minister chose not to do this and he has passed it on to another committee. That is disappointing.

This cannot be taken in isolation. There is a real crisis here. We do not have to get into the background of it. I have my views on the way in which the Government is looking at this. The Taoiseach, in particular, seems to be infatuated to some extent with the personalities and aura of money that revolves around the social media companies. He is adept at getting selfies with the presidents of the various social media companies and we know his desire to promote himself through fake accounts or others on social media. There is an important foundation that our State broadcaster provides in holding all of us to account in a really independent way. It is an important cornerstone of our democracy. It is under challenge and attack because of the way in which social media companies are developing and evolving. They are getting the advertising spend and the eyeballs and, sadly, RTÉ, TG4 and other broadcasters are not able to keep pace. We really need action and no more procrastination.

Independent broadcasters, in particular independent radio broadcasters, that do excellent work and under their licence carry out public service broadcasting, have also been under significant attack as a result of the shift away from more mainstream media activity. They also need support in developing public service content. I appeal to the Minister to look at what support can be provided to them. We published a Bill to assist local radio stations, in particular, and regional radio stations in the production of public service content through a mechanism similar to the sound and vision fund. In an overall context, will the Minister look at providing the appropriate funding? It really is important in terms of the preservation and protection of our democracy.

Senator McDowell is right that €52 billion is there. It is part of what we are looking at, with regard to whether there is a far more effective way of collecting it, in terms of the broadcasting (amendment) Bill. We will bring forward primary legislation on this issue. The working group is specifically looking at how we could implement in practical terms some of these measures. The Senator raised the issue of bedrooms in hotels. If we look around the room we see four televisions. Each colleague has a television in his or her office. There are more than 1,000 televisions in Leinster House for a single TV licence. It is very hard to justify this. Many areas need to be examined with regard to how the television licence applies. With regard to Senator McDowell's question on who funds advertising, it is funded by RTÉ itself.

To answer Deputy Dooley, what we are trying to do is come up with how to implement it in practical terms. If I came forward with a proposal that we could not implement on the ground, he would be the very one who would come in here and tell me he had told me so, that I would not be able to implement it and that I had got it wrong.

The working group, which comprises various Departments and agencies, including the Revenue Commissioners, will examine how we will implement this practically and maximise the return on television licence collections.

Senator McDowell is correct. If a significant amount of money was raised, we could consider a reduction in the overall cost of the licence to consumers. I am glad that the Senator has changed his approach to this matter. Before the committee hearings, he was critical of the fact that people would have to pay for television licences for their second homes, perhaps in County Roscommon or elsewhere. Instead of calls for incremental increases, there is the potential for a reduction in the overall licence fee once we determine how to implement this.

Deputy Dooley asked about local radio stations. Through the Broadcasting (Amendment) Bill and due to the important role that they play, we intend to reduce the fees that such stations pay to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, BAI. This will provide them with a financial benefit. If anyone doubts the public service role that local radio plays, he or she should remember how, when electricity went out around the country during Storm Ophelia, the only way the emergency services and National Emergency Co-ordination Group could get messages out to the public was through local radio. It was an effective tool, as were the national radio services provided by the private and public sectors. We want to see that role acknowledged through the Bill. We also want to provide bursaries for young journalists in the broadcasting sector. My preference is to see those bursaries extended into print journalism, but we must start somewhere and this legislation provides for that.

Before the Minister gets away with what he just tried to do, he may recall that I indicated my concern that someone who, for instance, lived in Tallaght and had a caravan in Courtown was being asked by the Minister to pay for two television licences per annum. If that person was paying at the top rate of tax, which most workers reach quickly, it would entail him or her earning approximately €600 to pay for his or her licence fee obligations.

Regarding other matters and holiday homes, I pointed out that I was in a peculiar position, in that we had made a family decision that we would not have a licence-----

What was that?

I meant we would not have a television in respect of-----

Has the inspector come out to investigate?

In fairness, the Senator did make that point.

I have had to keep writing letters to my local would-be inspectors pointing this out. It is absurd that, within the law, I can start looking at my laptop or mobile phone in a holiday home and see an RTÉ programme without being required to have a licence. If this fee were placed on the local property tax, two people with an expensive holiday home in Roscommon and another in Dublin would pay more than the fellow in Tallaght who had the caravan in Courtown, and that would be fairer.

Once the representations are made to the inspector and not the local Deputy, I do not mind.

We are moving on to programme C, energy.


The Senator might get locked up.

There are only 15 minutes or so for the Minister to respond, so I might call on Deputies one after the other to ask their questions after the Minister makes his opening statement.

I am happy to take questions if that speeds up the process.

Yes. We are on energy, page 21 of our document.

I only have one question, and I know that the Minister must get away. The number of new electric vehicles, EVs, is to be 1,200 this year. What is being done to increase the figure? The Government has a target of 500,000 by 2030. How will achieving that be possible at the current rate of progress?

I believe that the figure to the end of June was over 600 pure EVs. I will get the Deputy the exact number, as I do not know it off the top of my head.

It comprises of a combination of supports, including a €5,000 VRT relief and a €5,000 purchase grant. On top of this, every purchaser of a new EV or second-hand EV registered since 1 January of this year will be entitled to a grant of up to €600 to support the installation of a home charger. We have also provided a grant of up to €7,000 for the purchase of EVs as taxis, hackneys or limousines. We have reduced the benefit-in-kind to 0% for battery EVs since the beginning of 2018 and they now attract a low tax rate. The issue that is continually raised by, thankfully, rural colleagues is the charging network. Additional significant money is being invested in the network this year and we intend to replicate or increase that next year. We accept that the infrastructure built over the past number of years requires upgrade and modernisation, some of which we cannot even get spares for now. There has been a time lag in this regard because of the decision of the CRU regarding the ESB's ownership of the network. We now have a roadmap. When I was in San Francisco three weeks ago, I met people from a company that is working on new technology that could help to extend the roll-out of EV charging points throughout the country. This company is currently engaged with the ESB in this regard.

That is good news because I know from my engagement with people on the use of EVs that one of the greatest inhibitors is the bad experience of those who are using them because of the lack of charging points, particularly in suburban, rural and semi-rural areas. There are only a relatively small number of charging points in many areas and they are often not working or are poorly policed by local authority traffic wardens in terms of parking. There is need for a rethink in regard to the roll-out of this network and its rapid delivery. Another issue which I have been pushing with the Department of Finance through Fianna Fáil's negotiators from a budget perspective is the tax relief on the hybrid model. I understand the Minister is a user. The current relief expires this year but it needs to be rolled out for a further term. There is little doubt that people have range anxiety and, like the Minister and others, distance issues in regard to the electric vehicle. It is not a suitable mode of transport for many people owing to the current range. To get people to move towards the hybrid model, the tax relief needs to be extended. I am sure this has been identified by Department and it will continue to pursue it. Hopefully, it will come to pass in the forthcoming budget.

As I said the greatest issue regarding the EVs is the roll-out of the fast-charging network, which when available will act as a good advertisement for moving to these vehicles.

There are two cohorts of people. There are many people for whom an EV would be suitable. In terms of the roadshow, we are working with staff in car sales and showrooms encouraging people to test drive an EV. For many people who commute to Dublin or other major towns, and some rural and provincial towns, an electric vehicle would be suitable. For Deputy Dooley and I, an electric vehicle, because of range, is not suitable. The hybrid model is the solution in this regard. As stated by the Deputy, I drive a Toyota hybrid. There are a range of hybrids on the market. I would encourage colleagues who are thinking about replacing their vehicles to consider a hybrid vehicle. It is important that the budget sends the right messages in this regard.

They are part of the ongoing engagement I am having with the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, on the budget measures that will be announced next week.

I thank the Minister. What measures is the Government taking to try to address the big problem of transport in general? There are, of course, domestic vehicles but then there are also the large trucks. There is a desire to try to move some of the commercial vehicles more towards compressed natural gas. Looking at our public transport fleet, what can be done there? A dreadful decision was taken recently to purchase 110 buses, I think, it was last year, in exactly the same format as before. They are just diesel buses. That was really regrettable and I know it is something the Minister has a strong view on. What can he do from his Department to ensure that does not happen again and to try to promote a move away from petrol and diesel within the semi-State commercial area and in the commercial sector generally? In addition, the whole area of heating needs to be looked at as a way of reducing our emissions. I see there is some money for the deep retrofit programme under a pilot programme. We have looked at our targets in the past and we have to ramp up the deep retrofits to get to where we would expect to be. Forget about 2020. We would really have to accelerate activity to get there even by 2030. Can we hope, or can we help the Minister, to get more moneys from the Exchequer through the budget to assist in that process?

I will deal with the deep retrofit first. The big challenge for me at the moment is not actually more money. It is to actively encourage people to carry out these upgrades now. The other challenge is to get contractors to do it because many of the contractors are not prepared to get into this sector. We are going to see a significant ramp-up in the next few years in the funding that is going to be available but it is important we have the capacity within the system to carry out the work and the demand as well. What we have done with the warmer homes scheme is expanded the range of work that will be carried out. It is extended now, effectively, to a deep retrofit.

We are wrapping homes with external wall insulation if they do not have cavity walls, doing the attics and looking at whether the windows and doors need replacing as well as the heating system. We are talking about a significant investment. It is free of charge to anyone in receipt of the fuel allowance, anyone long-term unemployed with children, anyone receiving the carer's allowance, where the carer is residing with the person being cared for and anyone receiving the domiciliary care allowance. There is a significant amount of money there now. It would really assist me if colleagues would encourage their own constituents to apply to the SEAI for that. The application form is very simple and the SEAI takes it from there. It is funded directly by my Department to provide this service to the public and I encourage people to do that. That is based on the knowledge and understanding we have gained from the deep retrofit pilot here in Dublin.

On the issue of trucks and heavy goods vehicles, I do not disagree with Deputy Dooley's point on public transport. As and from the middle of next year, all public transport vehicles purchased will be low emission vehicles. That is set out in the national development plan. In respect of the commercial semi-State sector, An Post has now announced it is transitioning its fleet to one that will be completely zero emissions in the next decade. That is right across the country, starting initially inside the canals in Dublin over the next 18 months and then extending beyond. The Garda has purchased electric vehicles as has the Defence Forces. We are actively encouraging other State and semi-State bodies to do the same. Electric vehicles can deal with some of the heavy goods vehicle demand. In fact, we are launching a new electric light goods vehicle in Dublin tomorrow morning. The other side of it then is compressed natural gas and biogas.

We hope we will be in a position to make an announcement soon regarding the supports for biomethane. A paper on that, which would allow for Bio-CNG in the market is due. It is operational in the Deputy's constituency. We attended the launch of Clean Ireland and the operation of its refuse trucks in Shannon. Hopefully, we will see more of that happening throughout the country.

I will bring in Deputy Eamon Ryan. Once again, the Minister has limited time.

I appreciate that. I had to go to the Dáil for Questions to the Taoiseach and am glad to come back in on this. I have a few questions about energy. How is the €500 million climate fund being managed? What are the timelines for spending it? How does it fit into the budget process? There is a risk that in response to just about everything the Minister asks for, the Minister for Finance will say that it will come from the climate fund. How does that integrate with the standard budget process?

With regard to EVs, at a meeting of the Joint Committee on Climate Action last week, the ESB said that we should have a public fund for fast-charging points in recognition that of the problem in this regard. If two or three charging points are installed in car parks in every hospital, Garda station, library, council office, primary healthcare centre or Department building, there would be a significant network. Most of the public car parking in Dublin city centre comprises public service car parking places. We got a sense that approximately €25 million would be needed for an immediate quick injection of charging points. I am interested in whether the Minister is considering that. How do we deal with the legacy investment? We made an investment of approximately €25 million ten years ago. What happens to that? Is it written off? Is it just transferred to the ESB as its asset and the new CRU process continues?

In respect of the deep retrofit programme, is it not time to make a switch and say that we will no longer do small jobs? There is a risk that if we do a small job and come back five years later believing that we need a bigger job, it will be harder to do. Perhaps the Minister would be correct to say at this point that the axe will fall and that from hereon, they will all be big jobs; with the financing securitised and the construction standardised in order that contractors can do 100 or 500 jobs. Then we will get the contractors to engage. Surely now is the time to do that. The scale is so significant that it must involve retrofitting every house. To make that happen, perhaps it is time to switch to deep retrofitting everything.

Following on from the meeting of the joint committee last week, we were told by the Secretary General that in the next day or two, we would have a copy of the consultation paper the Minister is presenting on the national energy and climate plan. Could we get that in advance of the committee's meeting on Thursday?

I have not seen the paper; it has not come to me yet. The Deputy is right about a deep retrofit. What we are trying to do now is move away from carrying out small works on homes to ramping up the warmer homes scheme. We have also launched a pilot deep retrofit scheme for people who are not fuel poor to look at the type and scale of work that needs to be done on individual houses so that we have a template to ramp that up. Significant capital funding is available through the national development plan to do that.

I have also been in discussions with the Minister of State, Deputy Kyne, who has been engaging with his former colleagues and Teagasc with regard to how we could use the agricultural advisory network throughout the country to assist in encouraging people to carry out deep retrofits of their homes and upgrade them. We have had some engagement with the EIB about funding to see whether we could put a structure in place that would encourage people to pay as they save in respect of energy.

Only last week, I wrote to all of the commercial banks asking them to look at bringing in incentives for people who carry out energy upgrades of their homes or who buy an electric or low-emission vehicle. From 2019, the NZEB regulations in respect of new builds will mean that new homes will experience a 70% improvement in energy and carbon dioxide emission performance compared to the 2005 standards. That is a significant step forward.

The climate action fund was launched on 9 July. Yesterday was the closing date and a total of 100 applications were received. One of those applications is from An Post, which is considering rolling out charging points to post offices and where it has public car parking spaces in the State. A number of those parking spaces are accessible to the public. The intention is that the climate action fund will drive the agenda to roll out some of this infrastructure because the funding will come from motorists and that will be invested in the alternative infrastructure that is needed to drive innovation. We require primary legislation to formally establish the fund. The fund will be continually replenished over time. It will be a separate fund that will be drawn down from through proposals and bids. In the short term, the intention is to ensure we can start to invest immediately in the building and upgrading of infrastructure. We have a comprehensive network but we need to upgrade it so that we cab gave timely repairs and more fast chargers available at locations. That is part of the discussions that have been ongoing between this company in the US and the ESB.

The committee has been informed that our new building standards still provide for fossil fuel heating systems and our new school building standards preclude renewable heating systems and insist on fossil fuel. In a country that must deep retrofit everything, permitting fossil fuel heating seems like madness. If it involves other Ministers such as the Minister for Education and Skills, could the Minister not just insist that we stop using fossil fuel heating now?

I have had engagement with the Minister for Education and Skills as recently as the past ten days. It is something we want to see and schools are a good example of that. Through the SEAI, the Government is carrying retrofits of schools and the intention is that every public building will be retrofitted over the next decade as part of the NDP. It makes far more sense that as new public buildings are being constructed, they will be built without a reliance on fossil fuels.

The Minister has to leave us. However, if members had questions about programme F - appropriations-in-aid and the Environment Fund, and put them in writing, would he respond in writing?

With the members' agreement, we will leave programme F. If members wish to write to the Minister, he will reply to them. We now turn to programmes D and E. Could the Minister of State, Deputy Kyne, make a brief statement programme D - natural resources?

The aim of programme D is to manage Ireland’s mineral, hydrocarbon and other geological resources in a sustainable and productive manner. Funding of €26.7 million under this programme allows my Department to provide reliable geoscience support for environmental protection and the sustainable development of Ireland's natural resources. The programme provides funding of €3.7 million for mining services, including €1.4 million for remediation works at historic mining sites at Avoca and Silvermines. It also includes an allocation of some €12 million for Geological Survey Ireland, GSI, services, including €8 million for the for the Tellus and INFOMAR mapping projects. The INFOMAR project is Ireland's national seabed survey and is managed by GSI in co-operation with the Marine Institute. The Tellus project consists of airplane-mounted geophysical measurements and ground geo-chemical sampling.

Data from the project will allow for improvement in geological maps, new radon mapping and agricultural mineral maps. This data will also facilitate better land use planning and research. Under the GSI groundwater programme, ongoing monitoring will provide key data relating to Turlough flooding to the Office of Public Works, OPW, and the local authorities. Expenditure on the national resources programme to the end of June was €7.2 million, representing 66% of profiled expenditure.

I take this opportunity to acknowledge the work of the exploration and mining division and of GSI over the past week in assisting and advising Monaghan County Council on the mine collapse at Drumgossatt, County Monaghan. This is a matter of significant concern to that community and I compliment the team for their ongoing work and advice in this regard.

I thank the Minister of State for his opening statement. With regard to petroleum exploration, the briefing document on outputs and measures of success in the Department references that the number of wells drilled this summer was zero. Is that correct?

Given we opened up all our licence blocs a number of years and provided major incentives to encourage seismic activity, data sharing and so on and given also that the cost of oil is, again, $60 to $70 a barrel, how many wells are expected to be drilled next year?

A number of licences are in the offing, one of which relating to the Porcupine Basin recently progressed to the next stage.

My concern is that we are putting all this effort and resources into an industry which we should allow to die because it is the greatest threat to our future in terms of pollution. Exploration of these wells costs approximately €100 million a pop, that being the cost of the Dunquin field a number of years ago. There is no investment by the Department in offshore wind in the same seas. Wind is our greatest resource. We do not need exploration; we know it is there. How is it that all this money is being spent on petroleum exploration yet no drilling is taking place and, at the same time, no work is being done on capturing an energy resource that everybody knows is going to be the future for energy? Why are we investing in the dead resource rather than the new one?

The budget for natural resources is €26 million, of which €504,000 is spent on petroleum services, which is not a significant spend. The Deputy mentioned that the cost of drilling a well is €100 million but that is private investment, not State investment. I agree with him that offshore potential is significant. In this regard, Ireland has been described as the equivalent of Saudi Arabia in regard to oil. The Taoiseach's office has taken over responsibility for the Maritime Area and Foreshore (Amendment) Bill 2013. Foreshore licensing is highly complex and it has been a matter of responsibility for many Departments over the years. The Taoiseach's office has taken a leadership role in advancing the Bill, as the delay in dealing with it has stagnated development of the offshore energy.

I agree that the spend in this area is small. Consideration should be given to moving that spend and the attention of our engineers and so on to the licensing of offshore wind, marine engineering and the international licensing and regulatory environment. These skills could be put to good use in offshore development. We are regularly hearing at the Joint Committee on Climate Action hearings that nothing is happening because a licensing and administrative structural process has not been progressed. The Minister of State is a Galway man. This is going to make the west coast wealthy. Why are we betting all of our money on the old energy rather than the new one?

Will there be a new round of licensing for oil companies in Ireland and, if so, what is the timeline for it?

It has not been brought to my attention that there are plans for a further round. We are currently dealing with the 2015 round. On the issue of investment in other areas of offshore energy, the SEAI and the Marine Institute are investing in research on offshore wave and tidal potential. There are three test sites, one of which is in Galway Bay. The planning process for it was controversial but nevertheless permission was granted for floating devices on wind, tidal and wave energy. There is a smaller test site off the Cork coast and another is planned for Belmullet. There is investment by the Department in the offshore area, including in respect of new technologies.

I agree there is investment but the research on wind and tidal energy is very much long term and we will not know the outcome for 20 or 30 years. It is a long shot but worth doing. The State needs to invest in licensing, planning and strategic environmental assessment, and seabed and other surveys for offshore wind energy, which is not a 20-year bed or a five-year bed. This is happening on a large scale in other European countries, America, Japan, Chile and elsewhere. Ireland is being left behind and forgotten about. We could raise significant funding in Brussels immediately if we had in place a licensing process for west of Ireland offshore wind but nothing is happening. The Minister of State, is from Galway. Investment in this area would switch on County Galway and counties Mayo and Donegal but there is nothing in this regard in the budget.

Funding is provided through the SEAI and the Marine Institute for projects on test sites, including testing of new technologies and floating pontoons such that turbines will not have to be embedded in the sea floor. The potential for the west coast is huge. There are also pitfalls in terms of the weather extremes in that area. This issue is being examined in the context of scaling up the size of wind turbines. It is generally accepted that the higher the turbine, the greater the potential to generate energy. Testing of the floating devices is ongoing. The delay in progressing the Maritime Area and Foreshore (Amendment) Bill 2013 is stagnating development in regard to the offshore. The Taoiseach is prioritising this legislation and it is hoped it will progress quickly having been delayed for some time.

Will the Minister of State confirm that no new licences will issue in the foreseeable future?

No new rounds of licences will issue.

There will be nothing other than the continuation of existing licences.

Two applications for licensing options in the Celtic Sea are currently under consideration. There are also applications to convert existing licence options awarded under the 2015 Atlantic margin round. We are still dealing with 2015 Atlantic margin round. There is no plan for a new round.

Are the two applications for conversion of licences granted in 2015 moving to a new stage?

All the work relates to licences moving to a new stage rather than to a new round.

We are in the middle of a democratic process in regard to the issuance of new licences and what should happen to existing licences. I am nervous because rounds issued in the past were granted during interregnums. I suggest that the Department put a hold on new licence applications until the democratic will of this House is made clear. I understand there is no money order requirement in the Maritime Area and Foreshore (Amendment) Bill 2013 and, therefore, it is highly likely it will progress to Committee and Report Stages. We should be careful not to agree licences when we are dealing with legislation that may create difficulties in that regard.

I welcome the debate within the committee. No decision has been made on whether the Bill proposed by Solidarity will progress to the next Stage. I read the transcript of the hearings held by the committee a number of months ago.

Has the next Stage of that been decided? Will the Bill be allowed to proceed to Committee Stage? I am operating under the law-----

I will be cheering it on to Committee Stage. I will give the Minister of State and the Department a heads up. It is a racing certainty that it will go to Committee Stage and enactment.

That would be subject to a decision of the Dáil as this is a minority Government. It is subject to all parties and what the views opposite will be we do not know. I am operating under the existing law but there is no discussion on a new licence round. The last round was 2015. Anything else that comes before me relates to the different stages of the licensing process and moving from there.

We are in the process of preparing a draft report on that, which will come before the Minister in time. We are going to move on to programme E - inland fisheries.

Programme E provides grant aid of €33 million to Inland Fisheries Ireland, IFI, which is responsible for the conservation, management and regulation of our inland fishing resources. The inland fisheries programme includes an allocation of just under €18.8 million towards the single allocation platform, SAP, costs of IFI and the Loughs Agency, a North-South body co-funded by my Department and Northern Ireland's Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs. A sum of €14.3 million for non-pay current and capital expenditure by the two agencies is also included in the programme. The 2018 grant allows IFI to continue to deliver on its licensing and enforcement responsibilities along with rehabilitation of our rivers and streams. The delivery of a wide-ranging set of investments, innovations and promotions under the national strategy for angling development will ensure that Ireland's fish stocks and angling infrastructure are protected and enhanced for both their economic and recreational value to the communities and visitors they serve across Ireland.

Expenditure on the inland fisheries programme to the end of June was €13 million, which represents 97% of profiled expenditure. I will refer to two areas we are looking at now. One is the eel hardship scheme, the Minister and I will be briefed on in the coming weeks, if not this week. There is €1.2 million in the 2018 Estimates to finalise that scheme and a commitment for the scheme in 2019 and 2020 as well. There is also €300,000 for the lagarosiphon major weed control programme on Lough Corrib. That is vital to ensure that important brown trout fishery and lake is protected against invasive weed. There is also a €1 million capital allocation for the agreed project to replace IFI's rigid inflatable boats, RIBs. This is a health and safety matter following the recent tragedy involving a Coast Guard RIB. The IFI worked extensively with the Marine Survey Office on a revised technical specification. The first RIB was delivered to County Donegal in June 2018 and another two are planned in the coming weeks. The IFI also intends to use an estimated €1.2 million to replace end-of-life vehicles within its fleet.

The Minister of State mentioned metrics. We received a briefing note, I presume from the Department, which is welcome. One of the key metrics I would love to see, however, is the salmon run this year river by river. The Department or IFI could provide it to me separately and directly. It not does not use river by river in this assessment but that is one of the key metrics because that would measure what is happening in the Atlantic as well as in our rivers. Has the Minister of State heard any anecdotes or does he have any evidence on this from IFI? Perhaps it is still too early and the salmon are still running. Was the end of drift netting ten or 15 years ago has been successful? I am interested in the number of rivers going in and out of catch and release, or any catch, as an indicator. What is the status of our wild salmon population?

Unfortunately, the ban did not have the anticipated impact and certainly not what was spoken of at the time. We have had a difficult decade but there are signs over the past year or two that figures are improving. It is hard to know the exact cause, although there has been speculation on whether it could be global warming, sea lice or supertrawlers. We do not know. We are part of the North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organization, NASCO, area, which is an international committee that collaborates and works to protect the fisheries.

We have a scientifically managed salmon fishery. Salmon numbers are either counted or an assessment is taken of fry and redds. It is internationally accepted that we use the best expertise we have to try to measure salmon stocks. We have a conservation limit and if that is reached, the river can be open or closed or under catch and release. It is very much a scientific basis for the 147 rivers, or sections of rivers, and estuaries. The number of salmon that return in comparison to the smolts that leave our river system has been a worrying trend for some time. There is, anecdotally, a view that circumstances have improved in the past year or so and they are positive for the coming year as well. We will publish the figures for this year in the next month or so with a view to making recommendations for next year on whether rivers will be open, closed or catch and release.

I have been hearing similar anecdotes and that is why I asked whether there was any science behind it. I look forward to reading that report when it comes out. Our ultimate metric is what has happened, water quality, fish numbers and aquatic life. All the other metrics are interesting but the primary purpose is to restore natural biodiversity. If we are succeeding or failing in that, then everything else - the number of inspections, fines, prosecutions or whatever - is of secondary importance.

I agree. Has the committee met with IFI or the scientific team to get their point of view?

The IFI has written to us. We do not have any time in our schedule up to Christmas but we said that we would look again in the new year to see if we could meet. It is certainly an issue.

It has great expertise in the area. I will furnish the committee with the details of this year's figures as they come in. They will go out for public consultation and a statutory instrument for the coming year will come before me just before Christmas.

I thank the Minister of State, the Minister and their officials for attending. I propose that the committee publish the opening statement and briefings from this meeting on the website. Is that agreed? Agreed.

The joint committee adjourned at 5 p.m. until 2 p.m. on Thursday, 11 October 2018.