I welcome the Minister, Deputy Rabbitte, and the Minister of State, Deputy O'Dowd, to this meeting of the joint committee. I also welcome the Secretary General, Mr. Dunning, and his officials. Before we commence, I remind members of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. The purpose of today's meeting is to hear from the Minister and the Minister of State regarding their policies and priorities for the year to come. I apologise for holding them up. As this is the first time the committee has convened since 19 July last, we had to address certain house-keeping matters. I ask the Minister, Deputy Rabbitte, to address the committee.
Priority Issues for the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources: Discussion
I thank the Chairman and the members of the committee for giving me an opportunity to set out my policy priorities as Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources. Given the span of the brief in this portfolio and the relatively limited time at my disposal, I will focus on what I consider to be the key priorities. I look forward to elaborating on them and other issues during the subsequent question and answer session.
As the committee is aware, I have responsibility for policy in the areas of communications, broadcasting, energy and natural resources. Members will readily see that this wide remit encompasses areas of major economic and social importance. Members may recall from our Estimates discussion, which took place as recently as July, that the voted expenditure to the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources is relatively small. In 2011, it amounts to €495 million, or less than 1% of the total voted expenditure budget. The number of people employed in the Department has fallen to 260 from 339 at the beginning of 2008.
The strategic importance of the Department should not be judged by its spending or its number of staff. It is self-evident that energy and communications are critical to sustainable economic and social development. Broadcasting and the media are important industries in their own right. They play key roles in our democratic, sporting and cultural lives. The Department must oversee the regulation of key national resources such as petroleum and mineral exploration and our inland fisheries resource. My Department operates the corporate governance and general oversight role of seven commercial State bodies, which employ 21,425 people, and eight non-commercial State bodies, which employ 769 people. Independent regulatory authorities operate under the general aegis of my Department in the areas of energy, communications and broadcasting.
The work of my Department involves external interaction with numerous stakeholders, notably commercial private entities. The days of State monopolies in the energy, communications and broadcasting sectors are over. While this may be a welcome development on competitive and consumer choice grounds, it has resulted in a complex policy environment in areas that - in any event - are complex by their nature. In addition, a strong EU policy framework traverses most of the Department. The cumulative effect is a challenging environment for policy makers. As we cannot stand still in policy terms in these dynamic areas, I intend to drive an ambitious policy programme in the various sectors. My Department is responsible for ensuring significant parts of Ireland's essential economic infrastructure run smoothly and efficiently. Our work is more challenging and more important at a time when the global and domestic economies are facing such turbulence.
The current policy framework in the energy sector rests on three fundamental pillars: competitiveness, security of supply and environmental sustainability. I recognise that the cost of energy in Ireland is a key element in the competitiveness mix. Contrary to some misleading commentary, Ireland's wholesale and retail electricity and gas markets are characterised by strong and vigorous competition regulated by an independent statutory regulator, the Commission for Energy Regulation. The retail electricity market is fully deregulated. The small to medium business segment of the gas retail market will be deregulated from 1 October next. From then on, residential consumers will form the only regulated part of the gas market. As a result, business and domestic customers will increasingly be able to avail of competitive offerings from electricity and gas supply companies that are active in the retail end of the market.
It is sometimes claimed that we have the highest electricity and gas prices in EU. That is not borne out by EUROSTAT data, however. According to data published recently by the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, Irish electricity and gas prices at the end of 2010 were competitive when compared with any of our European neighbours. In other words, our prices are about average. Over the two years to the end of 2010, the two predominant trends in Irish electricity and gas prices for domestic and business consumers were convergence to the EU average and falling prices. The reality is that Ireland is vulnerable to volatile international gas and oil prices. International energy prices have risen significantly in the past year. The wholesale gas price for the coming winter is more than 30% higher than the price for last winter.
The regulator's recent decision to approve a 21.7% increase in the Bord Gáis Éireann tariff from 1 October next is the first price increase for that company's residential gas customers since September 2008. It follows three successive price cuts. The increase in the price of gas internationally is also the cause of the recent increases in the price of electricity. I am acutely aware of the impact of these increases on businesses and domestic consumers. I assure the committee that, in consultation with the regulator and the energy companies, I am determined to ensure everything is done to restrain costs which are within our control. I will meet the chairs and the management of the State-owned energy companies again shortly to impress this imperative on them.
I am concerned about the impact of gas and electricity price increases on vulnerable households. I intend to submit a memorandum on an energy affordability strategy to the Government shortly. The various supports to address fuel poverty which come under the aegis of the Minister for Social Protection are important. A fundamental element of the fight against fuel poverty must be to improve the energy efficiency of the homes of those in fuel poverty. The warmer homes scheme, which is funded by my Department, plays a key role in this regard. My objective is to see this scheme maintained and accelerated. Energy efficient and well insulated homes are a permanent and the most cost-efficient way of addressing fuel poverty over the longer term. I am glad to announce that it has been agreed with the energy companies, with the approval of the regulator, that no disconnections will take place this winter as long as families in financial difficulty have entered a pay plan or have agreed to the installation of a pay-as-you-go meter.
I have referred to our exposure to international prices. Achieving security of supply requires us to reduce our dependence on imported fossil fuels, reduce our carbon footprint and invest in our infrastructure. There are a number of priority infrastructural programmes and projects. EirGrid's national grid development strategy, GRID 25, is of key importance in terms of improving our infrastructure and enabling us to meet our binding renewable energy targets. The East-West electricity interconnector between Ireland and the UK will be completed by the end of next year. It will improve security of supply and increase competition. The North-South electricity link from Meath to Tyrone is a key strategic project. It is critical to ensuring energy supply adequacy on the island of Ireland. In line with the commitment in the programme for Government, I have established an independent commission of international experts to review and report, within six months, on the case for and cost of undergrounding all or part of the 400 KV power lines between Meath and Tyrone. I expect to have that report of the commission in the near future. After consideration by Government, the report will be published. I stress that the enhancement of the North-South link is an essential investment in the interests of both economies and all energy consumers North and South and I am determined to see it delivered. I will also give priority to advancing commercial development of gas facilities and enhancing our ability to respond to any oil supply shortage.
I take this opportunity to formally reiterate the Government's commitment to deliver 16% of all our energy from renewable sources by 2020. This is consistent with our EU obligations. We will achieve that through our national sectoral targets of 40% renewable electricity, 12% renewable heat and 10% renewable transport. Overall renewable energy use grew by 14% during 2009 and by 15% per annum on average in the period 2005 to 2009. In 2009 alone there was a 23% increase in wind generation with renewable energy sources now generating approximately 15% of our electricity consumption.
Increased use of renewable energy also contributes to our environmental targets. Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland figures show that renewable energy sources reduced our CO2 emissions by almost 3 million tonnes in 2009. The recent spike in gas prices shows that it is wrong to predicate policy on the availability of volatile imported fossil fuels. Studies by EirGrid and SEAI have also indicated that wind generation does not adversely impact on electricity prices.
Energy efficiency plays a key role in meeting our sustainable energy targets. It also reduces energy bills and helps redress fuel poverty. The Better Energy programme is central to my efforts to meet the 20% energy savings target in 2020. More than 96,000 homes have now been grant-assisted to improve their energy efficiency, resulting in economic activity of more than €280 million since the scheme's launch. I was pleased to bring the investment this year to €100 million which means that, on a different aspect, 6,000 jobs have been created this year.
Energy suppliers are also being asked to participate in the programme through voluntary energy saving agreements. I anticipate that as the programme develops energy suppliers will be an important delivery mechanism.
It is my intention that a new energy policy framework will be published in 2012. Energy policy will be reviewed over the coming months in consultation with stakeholders. The new framework will take account of developments in recent years since publication of the White Paper.
The provision of high speed broadband is a key strategic national goal. The country is now playing catch up for the lost years of lack of investment in broadband which followed the privatisation of the State's telecommunications network and the subsequent multiple changes in ownership in Eircom. Good strides have been made in more recent times, in broadband penetration, speeds and competition, but much more needs to be done to improve our national broadband infrastructure.
Commercial operators have invested steadily in rolling out critical communications infrastructure in Ireland in recent years. The investment has been of the order of €400 million to €500 million per annum. The State, too, has invested where it has identified market failure. Initiatives such as the metropolitan area networks, the national broadband scheme and major international interconnectivity projects are delivering important infrastructure and services to areas of Ireland which could not be served commercially. As a result of the combined efforts of Government and the private sector, a basic broadband service will be available to all citizens across Ireland ahead of the EU target date of 2013. Meanwhile speeds of up to 100mbps are now available to 0.5 million households and industry investment is set to continue in the upgrading of services available.
I am critically aware of the need to move now from the provision of basic broadband services to ensuring the widespread availability of next generation, high speed broadband. This is also a key Government priority and will be the key to delivering future economic and social development. Under the NewERA proposals in the programme for Government, there is a commitment to co-invest with the private sector and commercial semi-State sector to deliver bigger bandwidth to more places as quickly as possible.
Only yesterday, I convened the latest meeting of the next generation broadband task force. Its purpose is to discuss how best to deliver the optimal policy environment and to identify a roadmap for the speedy delivery of high speed broadband across Ireland. The task force is looking at issues such as appropriate targets, investment plans, and the role of Government in driving and facilitating investment. I chair the task force, which comprises CEOs of all the leading telcos as well as the Minister of State, Deputy Fergus O'Dowd.
I am pleased to say that the work of the task force is progressing apace and that working with industry we will be in a position over the coming months to identify the optimal policy to deliver wider access to high-speed broadband across Ireland. This will require careful balancing – allowing industry to continue on its investment programmes, and at the same time identifying where the State can facilitate development in areas where it is currently not commercially viable to provide an enhanced service. It will also require input from a range of public service entities, including the communications regulator, ComReg, which will auction significant bands of spectrum over the coming months. This spectrum will facilitate the roll-out of next generation mobile broadband services while delivering significant revenues to the Exchequer.
There are also specific communications projects and programmes that I wish to advance over the coming period. Earlier this year, for example, I launched the rural broadband scheme, which aims to identify the last remaining premises in Ireland which do not have a broadband service. The three month application phase for the rural broadband scheme closed at the end of July and just over 5,000 applications have been received. I expect to proceed with a procurement process for a service provider over the next two months. This programme builds on the national broadband scheme and will ensure that all citizens will have access to a basic broadband service before the EU target date of 2013.
In tandem with the roll-out of basic broadband to consumers, I am working to ensure the roll-out of 100mbps to all second-level schools. A successful pilot programme has already delivered 100mbps broadband to 78 second-level schools. The national roll-out of this programme is of fundamental importance to delivering on the commitment in the programme for Government to integrate ICT in teaching and learning across the curriculum.
I have been engaged in discussions with the Minister for Education and Skills on the full roll-out, including the issue of funding. The committee will appreciate that finances are extremely tight but this is such an important strategic project in the context of preparing our students to be part of the digital workforce, and in terms of delivering innovative educational outcomes, that we must strive to ensure that it is implemented.
Encouraging digital participation is a key priority for me and I am anxious to see schools, businesses and citizens make the most of the opportunities presented by an emerging digital society. Recently I launched a €1.6 million scheme, known as "Benefit 3", which is aimed specifically at targeting those segments of society which are in danger of being left behind in terms of technological advancement. These include the unemployed, the socially disadvantaged, the elderly and persons with disabilities. It is envisaged that grants will be awarded to successful projects later this month and I expect training to commence across the country in projects under the scheme from October. This scheme will enable between 30,000 and 40,000 people throughout Ireland who would otherwise be left behind in the knowledge society to acquire the basic practical Internet use skills to improve their quality of life.
While we continue to support infrastructure development, and encourage citizens to participate in the digital economy, we also support industry through the work of the Digital Hub Development Agency, and the National Digital Research Centre. The Digital Hub, as the committee will be aware, supports 77 small enterprises employing more than 800 people in Dublin 8. The National Digital Research Centre, which is based at the Digital Hub, supports the translation of research ideas into commercial business propositions. In the coming months I will be considering the optimum model for continuing these services in the longer term, with a view to ensuring synergies with similar initiatives across the public sector.
As mentioned, encouraging participation in the digital economy by business and citizens is an important priority. Internet security and consumer confidence are, therefore, key elements in persuading citizens and businesses to make more effective use of the Internet. I intend in the coming months to establish a dedicated cyber security unit within my Department, with a view to monitoring and responding to cyber security issues. My over-riding key priority in the communications area, therefore, is access, namely, ensuring the infrastructure is in place to access basic and high speed Internet services, encouraging citizens and businesses to get on-line and avail of the social and economic opportunities the Internet brings, as well as safeguarding consumer rights.
Turning to broadcasting, I referred to the forthcoming spectrum auction. This partly arises from Ireland's national digital switchover strategy which provides for the closure of the analogue television network from the end of 2012 and the release of the resultant spectrum, with the benefits to which I alluded. I am keenly aware of the challenges the initiative brings, in particular for Irish households reliant on the analogue television network. All households reliant on the aerial television network will need to upgrade to digital television services by the end of 2012 or they will lose access to television services. To overcome the challenges the digital switchover brings, we must also assist people with information and practical assistance to ensure no one will be left behind as Ireland goes digital. I will implement a substantial information campaign providing households with information on the digital switchover and their options for going digital. This information campaign will start later this year.
In conjunction with this, my Department is developing plans to address the particular needs of vulnerable households as they prepare to go digital. In this context, the expertise and local knowledge of the many voluntary and charity organisations around the country will be of critical importance in ensuring the success of the switchover process. I have asked my Department to ensure that, to the greatest possible extent, these organisations play a major part in our information and assistance campaign.
My Department is also examining the effectiveness and efficiency of the current model of television licence fee collection in the light of the programme for Government and the issues surrounding the current licensing model. These issues include the current levels of evasion, inequities in the system, the cost of administration and the problems being posed by convergence of technologies. I expect that my officials will be ready to provide me with a first report with initial high level recommendations before the end of the year. However, based on the experience in other countries, it is likely to take a minimum of two years before a fundamental system can be implemented.
As regards the broadcasting market, regulation is the responsibility of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland. In the case of the State broadcasting companies, they are facing serious financial problems, largely arising from the major reduction in advertising and sponsorship revenue. The focus must be on forensic cost control by management in these organisations. I acknowledge the work already done in that regard. I also recognise the major contribution made by the private broadcasting sector and will continue to work with it on the various issues that arise.
As I pointed out when I brought the postal Bill through the House just before the summer, the postal sector worldwide has evolved significantly in the past decade. Some 90% of letter post is now business-related, while the other 10% is from Deputies - sorry, that was not in the script - which has implications for how postal service providers, including An Post, must position themselves. An Post must look afresh at its relationships with its customers and its competitors and adapt accordingly. It must actively seek to meet the needs of its users and consider ways of harnessing the potential of electronic communications and incorporating them into its product offerings and grow its business accordingly.
An Post faces very serious challenges, particularly as its core mail revenue continues to decline. It is also heavily dependent on State contracts to generate revenue. On the plus side, it has many genuine strengths such as a dedicated workforce, its trusted brand and strong visible presence in every community in Ireland every working day of the year - a presence that very few, if any, of its competitors will be in a position to replicate. With its staff, it must play to these strengths and ensure its resources are aligned with the needs of its users. Doing so will involve significant change. This is under way, but it must be strongly driven in the light of the challenges the company faces. Above all, it must reduce its overall cost base and successfully innovate to attract the core revenue it is losing.
On the procurement process for a national postcode, the committee will be aware that this is under way and being managed on a ring-fenced basis by my Department. The final decision to proceed with implementation of a national postcode will be one for the Government and based on appropriate financial, technical and operational considerations.
The development of policy, legislation and the oversight of the petroleum, minerals and inland fisheries sectors are important objectives in the natural resources sector. I intend to bring forward a significant Bill to modernise and consolidate the legislative code for mineral exploration and extraction.
Completion of the development phase of the Corrib gas project is of critical strategic importance for Ireland. Production of gas from the Corrib gas field will significantly strengthen Ireland's energy security of supply as it will reduce our reliance on gas imports and, I hope, help to encourage further exploration in the Irish offshore. At peak production, the Corrib gas field will provide for over 60% of Ireland's natural gas needs. Unless further commercial discoveries are made in the short term, however, Ireland's energy security will begin to weaken once peak production from Corrib has passed. For this reason, it is of critical importance that Ireland can encourage an immediate increase in the level of exploration activity in the Irish offshore and, in particular, in drilling activity. To achieve this and because at this time Ireland does not have the capacity to establish a State oil and exploration company, it needs to maintain a realistic fiscal regime that reflects our relative attractiveness as a place to invest in petroleum exploration. We also need a regulatory framework that is appropriate in terms of its transparency and effectiveness. I recognise the need to promote public confidence that exploration for petroleum will be carried out to high standards in terms of ensuring the safety and protection of our environment. I have recently written to those Members who represent areas in which onshore exploration drilling might be proposed in the future to set out for them how any such proposals would be subject to detailed scrutiny.
We must also be realistic when we consider how Ireland might benefit from its natural resources. Talking about "potential resources" that we do not know are actually there, as if they are resources on which we can bank, is not helpful.
Measures for the conservation and exploitation of the inland fisheries resource contribute to the economic and social fabric, in particular of rural and coastal communities. In adopting policies for this sector my Department aims to ensure such measures maximise the social and economic return for these communities and the State.
I will conclude with a brief reference to public sector reform. I have alluded to the major reduction in staffing levels in my Department in recent years. As I indicated during the Estimates discussion in July, I have some concerns in this regard about the impact on the achievement of our wide and ambitious policy programme. Given the complexity of the policy environment, it is important that the Department maintains the necessary expertise to discharge its policy advisory and other roles. My Department also has a small but crucial technical cadre in areas such as exploration, mining, energy, communications and the Geological Survey of Ireland. These are key roles in terms of protecting the State and the public interest and it is important that they are adequately resourced.
My Department has set out a strong programme of reform under the Croke Park agreement. In particular, it has embraced the concept of shared services with the IT function now administered by the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the payroll function now administered by the Department of Finance. These measures are expected to yield approximately €440,000 savings in a full year. This is additional to approximately €2 million in payroll savings since 2008 arising from the reduction in numbers to which I already referred. The Department also has realised savings on the non-pay administrative budget side of €1.474 million.
I will continue to ensure that my Department contributes fully to public sector reform. Given the scale of the Department, at 260 staff, this is most likely to be in the form of increased shared services, employment of specialists and interns, as well as joint procurement initiatives with other Departments. In these remarks, I have touched on key areas of my brief and look forward to attempting to answer any questions the Chairman and members may have.
Before bringing in members, I thank the Minister for his comprehensive contribution covering all aspects of his responsibilities.
As Minister of State with responsibility for the NewERA project, I will be happy to appear before this joint committee, as soon as the authority is established, to account fully in reply to any questions members may have in this regard. I understand there already is a date in mind.
I understand the Minister of State has an urgent matter to which he must attend.
Yes, if that is in order.
Very well. I call first on Deputy Ó Cuív.
I welcome the Minister before the joint committee and compliment him on his recent interview on "Morning Ireland", in which he took what I consider to be a measured view in respect of the possible sale of State assets. I welcome his clear statement that no transmission assets, whether in the network or the major transmission networks, would be sold off and that he certainly would not propose any bargain basement sale of assets. In this regard, we must consider the strategic importance of the State assets and, as the Minister noted, to consider unintended consequences that might arise were we ever to sell a significant portion of the State assets under the aegis of his Department. I commend the Minister on the cautious approach he is taking, on the clear statement that basic infrastructure will not be sold and on what I understood to be a clear indication that, aside from the transmission assets in respect of gas and electricity, he would take a highly cautious approach in respect of State assets.
On the issue of price raised by the Minister, I examined this subject over the summer. It is important to recognise that those countries with low prices at times of high oil and gas prices are those with nuclear power or some method of producing electricity other than from oil and gas. The Minister might provide details on the average proportion of the cost of electricity that is attributable to the cost of the raw material used, that is, to oil and gas. What proportion of the cost of supplying gas is attributable to the cost of the gas purchased on the wholesale market, as in our case most of it is bought from abroad? How much of the price relates to, for example, the operating costs of the producers or generators of electricity and of those entities that transmit it to people, as well as to the retail costs associated with collecting the bills and so on? How much of the price relates to the raw material cost and how much to other costs? It would be useful to know this because one then would be in a position to benchmark one's performance against fluctuations in the cost of the raw material. I presume everyone aims to get down the manageable costs, as we do not have as much control over the international costs.
In his contribution, the Minister made what I consider to be a genuine statement of concern regarding the impact of gas and electricity prices on vulnerable households. Has he asked his colleague, the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Burton, to reverse the retrograde decision to reduce the free electricity allowance from 2,400 units to 1,800 units at a time of rising electricity prices? While the previous Government indicated it would make a saving in this area in the last budget, it was not intended to reduce the free electricity allowance. As has happened with Telecom Éireann, the intention was to induce the utilities to make the saving because they are being paid on the button every time in respect of these electricity bills. In other words, if one tells a company that one intends to pay a few hundred thousand electricity bills on time every time via automatic transfer and with no collection costs, it would give one a discount. This issue predominately pertains to the ESB and to Bord Gáis and the vast majority of free electricity users are with the former. The previous Government's fallback position, in case the utilities did not jump into line, was that it simply would take it back from them in a dividend. I ask the Minister to approach his ministerial colleague and ask her to reconsider this highly retrograde decision and to do what the Minister has stated here, namely, to show concern for vulnerable households.
The Minister mentioned the warmer homes scheme and so on. All evidence suggests that in the main, fuel poverty issues arise in respect of rented properties. Has the Minister had discussions with the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government on setting building energy rating, BER, standards for rental properties? I worked on this issue while a Minister and believe it is of absolute importance that, through the rental subsidy scheme in particular, as well as through the PRTB, thermal qualities and BER standards are laid down for rented properties. People should be given four or five years in which to come into line in this regard, after which it would be illegal to rent a property unless it reached a certain BER standard.
In his contribution, the Minister stated "EirGrid's national grid development strategy, GRID 25, is of key importance both from the viewpoint of improving our infrastructure and enabling us to meet our binding renewable energy targets." May I take it from this welcome comment that the strong proposals in Mr. Colm McCarthy's report on the sale of State assets to the effect that all this investment should be thrown out the window and future development be frozen is now dead in the water and that Mr. McCarthy's recommendations have been rejected? Where this is the case, I would welcome it. In common with all members present, I also welcome the Minister's arrangement that there will be no disconnections, provided that people co-operate.
I will try to be as brief as possible while referring to a subject that was not touched on. The Minister is aware that members have expressed some concern regarding the REFIT programme, which appears to be a licence to print money for some large companies. I have been informed that it could involve up to €1 billion over time and it appears as though all the risk is to the State and none to the aforementioned companies. The issue does not pertain to the actual producers of electricity as they must sell it on through Airtricity, the ESB or Bord Gáis. They are getting a certain amount per unit produced and in addition, were the price to rise over time were we to encounter an oil price spike, they would be allowed to collect all the benefit. I understand the unit price is 6 cent at present and were the price to rise to 10 cent, 11 cent or 12 cent, they would get all the windfall profits. Moreover, I understand one cannot get into the REFIT programme without connecting up through one of these major companies. I understand this issue is with Europe at present and I ask the Minister not to agree on anything until members have had an opportunity to discuss it. The issue predates the Minister coming into power and my colleague brought it forward. It has been brought to my attention that there are very serious issues. No matter when one is told there is a problem, if one finds one on examination, one should call a halt until one resolves it. There is great concern.
On broadband, we could examine a lot of issues. The only long-term solution for broadband provision is fibre to every house and masts for those who are using mobile broadband and are not located at a premises. I ask the Minister to clarify the position. He referred to providing broadband to more places as quickly as possible, the widespread availability of broadband, and so on. I know where the non-availability will be. We live on a tiny island. It is not logistically difficult to do. I understand the gross cost the State would have to bear would be much cheaper than that for building roads. We spend a lot of money going halfway. If we recognised that the ultimate answer to having the best telecommunications in the world was to bring fibre to every premises in the country, we would suddenly find we would be able to do it. We could then go out to the world and say that no matter where one is, one can do business.
The reality of the modern world is that even high-tech business people from high-tech companies, because of time differences involved in world trading, conduct a lot of their business outside their place of work. They want to be able to work wherever they are, such as when they are away on a weekend. Businesses on the west coast of America and in Japan and Australia all start at different times and business people do not see why they should have to come to work in the middle of the night. The idea that businesses only need broadband where they are based is at odds with the reality of people's lives.
Other countries seem to be much more aware of the fact that modern businesses want their employees to work wherever they are. High level business people are involved in recreation, attend courses in places such as Delphi, which provides services for senior executives, and still want to be able to plug in. It is important that we can provide such a service. We should go for broke and it is important that we do so.
The Minister referred to the auction of bandwidth spectrum over the coming months. Will the people awarded the spectrum be required to provide 100%, rather than 80% or 90%, cover? Will it be a condition of the auction? The Minister should make it a condition if it is not.
I understand a report done by the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland on the use of the public subsidy, namely, the licence fee, given to RTE and based on 2009 accounts, has been with the Department for some time. The Minister alluded to it in reply to a question I asked in the Dáil. I was not sure whether I was losing my memory in regard to whether the report had been made available. I understand it has not been made available by the Department publicly or to other Departments. In view of the debate on broadcasting and the balance between the private sector and public service broadcasters, can the report be made available to committee members? It would be very important.
The Minister knows my concern about postcodes and the Irish language. I am sure he will note that.
On natural resources, this committee is trying to get public confidence in what the State has been doing. I am aware of the advice being given to the Minister and that which was given to us when we were in government. We improved the licence terms for the public. It is fair to say that in the past six or seven months - the issue may have been hyped up because of the election - a lot of concern has been expressed about licensing terms.
I ask the Minister to defer any decision on exploration licences until this committee has had an opportunity to reassure public opinion that we are getting the best deal possible. The committee is committed to giving time and effort to this issue. The small delay involved would be more than compensated by the increase in public buy-in to what we are doing. As we will obviously be doing our work in public, there is an opportunity, therefore, to persuade the public at large that whatever terms we have are the best.
Will the legislative code for mineral exploration and extraction cover oil and gas? If it does not, is it intended to introduce any legislation on the possible use of so-called fracking, hydraulic fracturing? There has been concern about it and the Minister mentioned it in his speech. Is he preparing a legislative code on how the issue will be treated? There may be long-term emissions which do not come under EPA guidelines. Will the legislative code be introduced before any licences are issued to people who may be trying to extract shale gas in the Lough Allen basin?
The Cinderella section of the Department is inland fisheries. This country is full of inland water. The section is in the wrong place and I have made this point before. My view was that the manner in which the marine function was broken up was probably not a good idea. Salmon is a peculiar fish because it does not know the difference between the sea and inland waterways and keeps coming in and out. Inland fisheries should be aligned with rural recreation. Obviously, the maintenance of clean water is an issue for the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government as well, but there are much greater resources involved than pure clean water. We have a fantastic opportunity to create one of the best tourism products one could ever dream of, and also recreation for our own people, on inland waterways.
Waterways Ireland comes under the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, responsibility for marine and fisheries is covered by the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and inland fisheries is the responsibility of the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources. It seems to me that at times there is a lack of communication on this issue. A first step should be some synergy between the inland waterways and inland fisheries functions because they both concern the same thing, namely, a fantastic inland resource that is underdeveloped.
The Deputy's comments cover a large range of areas. Would the Minister prefer to take his questions now?
I have taken note of each question. It might be fairer to other colleagues on the committee to ask questions and I will go through them all. I do not propose to skip any.
That is fine.
I thank the Minister for his presentation, all 32 pages of it. Deputy Ó Cuív has raised a number of issues I intended to raise.
I want to focus on energy security and its value to citizens. The Minister referred to the Corrib gas pipeline and its contribution to energy security. The Minister can correct me if I am wrong. Are we not purchasing the gas from the company at a market value? If we are not, what is the value to the Irish taxpayer?
In regard to natural resources, the Minister spoke about energy, in particular oil and gas, off our coasts. There has been a lot of discussion in many areas in the west and south coasts that a number of dry holes will be drilled. I understand 12 licences have been issued for the next 12 months.
None have been issued yet, but potentially, there are 15.
Does that include the Porcupine Basin off the south west coast? I worked on oil rigs in the Porcupine Basin in the late 1970s and early 1980s. We were told there was a significant find but because of the depth - I believe 1,600 ft to 1,800 ft - it was not possible to extract it because the technology was not available. The big mistake at the time was to become very dependent on the company for what was there and the geologists' report and so forth. When a company made a find, it kept it top secret and as no departmental official was on board the oil rigs at that time we depended on what the company told us. Any future drilling should be conditional, the Department having somebody on board to oversee all aspects of the drilling procedures and define the potential strength of any possible find.
The Minister has said that 15 wells might be drilled in the coming years. After the 1980s the oil companies brought rigs from outside Irish waters with their own staff on board to de-unionise the oil rigs and they succeeded in doing that. I worked with the Irish Transport and General Workers Union and subsequently SIPTU. All the rigs are non-unionised, which needs to be addressed. Many people who worked on rigs in the 1980s and 1990s and have all their safety passes up to date are currently unemployed. Companies coming in should be required to hire people from a pool of oil rig workers who currently live here and who have the experience and knowledge of working on oil rigs. It is bad enough that what we will get from any potential find by comparison with what other countries get will be minimal. Right now the Minister has a different view from when he sat on this side of the House, but that is beside the point. When we have full information on the potential before us we can have that debate so that we can understand how that potential might be realised. It is very lucrative for oil companies to come in and on top of that there is no benefit to the Irish workforce, which needs to be considered. I believe Mr. Jack O'Connor was involved in some of the talks on the matter in which I was involved in the late 1990s so there is such knowledge in the trade union movement.
On upgrading the aerial television network to digital, the Minister said in his presentation that we must also assist people with information and practical assistance to ensure that no one is left behind as Ireland goes digital. What does he mean by practical assistance? Will it be financial assistance or some kind of technical assistance?
The Minister said that people who are unable to meet their energy bills this winter would not be cut off and that meters would be installed and so forth. If "pay as you go" meters are installed and next winter is as severe as the past two winters there is a danger that people will not have the money to put into them. If people have a supply line and are behind in their payments there is always a chance that they can make it up at a later date by using less electricity when the weather improves. However, people with "pay as you go" meters are in a worse position because if they do not have the money to put in, they must suffer the consequences.
The Minister said "An Post must look afresh at its relationships with its customers and indeed its competitors and adapt accordingly." He mentioned harnessing the potential for electronic communications. Modernisation in telecommunications and so forth effectively leads to job losses. Is it the intention to reduce the An Post workforce through modernising and utilising electronic communications? It strikes me that people will lose their jobs or not be replaced when they retire.
I recently met the acting harbour master in Fenit. I understand there is exploratory work on wave and tidal energy, which I believe will be significant in the future. As an island we have great potential around our coast particularly the south west and other parts that I do not know that well. The mouth of the Shannon has an 8 knot tide coming and going, which offers great potential through the concept of reversible turbines or anything of that nature. The same is true for wave energy. While it is only in its infancy, nothing should be spared in this regard. In the long term this is one aspect that would be far more cost effective than wind energy. I ask the Minister to give me a report on that.
I thank the Minister for his presentation. Other members may have mentioned some of the issues I will raise. I welcome the announcement that there will be no disconnections this year for anybody in difficulty with their energy suppliers. However, I ask the Minister to insist that where people enter into a pay plan the companies will not enforce the installation of a "pay as you go" meter for the reasons Deputy Ferris outlined. If customers cannot afford to pay an energy bill, they will not be able to afford to keep the meter fed either. A payment plan is a much better option for people experiencing difficulties and the energy suppliers should be forced to accept payment plans as the first choice for people in difficulties.
In County Donegal there have been long delays for people having work carried out under the warmer homes scheme - in some cases up to a year. People have been notified that works would take place which subsequently did not take place owing to budgetary concerns. These are the people who would be at risk of fuel poverty and who are suffering as a result of increases in the energy costs. I ask that the warmer homes scheme be adequately funded and that work will be done in a timely fashion so that people's energy costs can be reduced.
I agree with Deputy Ó Cuív that the only solution to the issue of broadband is to provide fibre to every house. I understand that the ESB may be investigating that at the moment and considering fibre wrapping regarding the electricity network. This would be a very positive development that the Government should actively encourage. Given that the ESB is the only provider that has a connection to every house, it would be a very cost-effective way to provide fibre to every house and ensure that people have access to a world class broadband service.
This committee has decided to look at the licensing arrangements for offshore exploration and to report on the matter. We are doing this in an effort to build public confidence in the system and to see if any changes can be made. I ask the Minister not to grant any further exploration licences until the committee has completed that work. I note that the Department is also considering a review; therefore, it would be premature to grant any more licences before the committee does its work and recommends any changes in order that there would be a system in place that enjoyed public confidence. The public believes the conditions offered to the energy companies are over-generous. It is ironic that the people of Norway will benefit more from the Corrib gas field than the people of Ireland. We must examine and address this and the committee is the appropriate place in which to do so. By working to a tight timeframe, the work could be concluded expeditiously and recommendations made that could effect policy change.
I note that the Minister said he had written to all Members in areas that might be affected by hydraulic fracturing. Part of my constituency lies in the Lough Allen basin and I have not received any correspondence; perhaps, therefore, the Minister might forward it to me. The issue is vitally important and we should seriously consider if we should even allow hydraulic fracturing to take place at all. We should follow the French model and ban it completely while waiting to see what are the environmental and other impacts.
On inland fisheries, there is a particular problem in the north west where there is a big difference between the prices for licences on either side of the Border. This leads to great difficulties for communities and tourism product providers who are trying to develop a tourism product to attract people to use the inland waterways, lakes and rivers. The matter must be reconsidered and measures put in place to encourage communities to develop tourism products which are a driver of economic regeneration in rural areas.
The Spirit of Ireland group has proposals for hydroelectric and wind generated power projects and the building of reservoirs of seawater to generate electricity. Has the Department considered any of these proposals and what is its attitude to them?
I welcome the Minister. I want to focus on broadcasting. I was pleased when the Minister reiterated his support for the State broadcasting sector, while acknowledging the major contribution of the private broadcasting sector. While I appreciate he has an overarching policy position on this issue and is not involved in day-to-day operations and that the BAI is responsible for regulation, it is important to point out that many local radio stations are suffering severe financial downturns, with their very existence under threat in some instances. RTE is engaged in significant cost-cutting, as has been widely reported. Unfortunately, sometimes the public perception is that the top ten earners are indicative of the sort of money being given to contract and freelance contributors. While declaring an interest, I can assure the Minister and the committee that many freelance contributors are struggling as a result of the financial downturn. There have been severe reductions in the fees being paid, even by RTE. It is an indication of the climate in which we are operating that there is public resentment at the sums of money being given under existing contracts, about which RTE cannot do anything until they come up for renewal. The Minister will agree this area is one in which he would encourage RTE to bring the salaries of the top ten earners more into line with economic reality.
Unfortunately, however, significant numbers of those contributing to radio and television programmes at all levels on a freelance or contract basis are earning sums significantly removed from the sort of money being touted in the general media. The same goes for local radio stations. Whatever realignment of finances the Department controls, it should ensure strong support for the protection of public service broadcasting, a unique concept that is under threat across Europe and in this country, while acknowledging that whatever financial support is given to local radio stations through levies and the licence fee should continue. I hope the Minister will shortly bring forward the proposals outlined in his presentation for improving the efficiency of the television licence fee collection system. Not only is that revenue now relied upon to a significant extent by the State broadcaster, it also contributes to the support of local radio stations for a variety of programming.
The Minister talked about An Post reducing its cost base and successfully innovating to attract the core revenue it is losing. With the passage of the Bill before the summer recess, the debate in both Houses focused on the protection and continuation of rural post offices to ensure cherrypicking would not happen once deregulation was under way. While I understand and appreciate that the Minister's hands are tied because of the EU directives on deregulation, it would be helpful if he reiterated his support for the outstanding contribution the postal network makes to life in general and particularly its strong social and economic impact in small towns and villages. It is innovating and attempting to expand its services. I hope the Minister will use whatever influence he has to encourage more innovative concepts that would allow post offices not only to continue but to grow economically and be profitable.
I agree with the comments of Deputies Ó Cuív and Pringle about oil and gas exploration. This matter has now become controversial. I would go so far as to suggest the war has started in the north-west carboniferous basin, the correct title for the area in which the licences have been granted to the two companies involved, Tamboran Resources and Lough Allen gas company. It is a misnomer to refer to it as the Lough Allen basin; the companies refer to it as the Bundoran shale area. It covers a geographical area of counties Sligo, Leitrim, Fermanagh, Cavan and Roscommon. The company which is most active in this regard is Tamboran Resources which has engaged in discussions with local authority members, most recently in County Leitrim, and also held a public information meeting in Carrick-on-Shannon last week, the third public meeting that has been held, with two others by protestors and others who are completely and unequivocally opposed to fracking, the common term for hydraulic fracturing, where significant amounts of water are pumped below the surface to fracture the rock and release methane gas which is then capped and brought to the surface and distributed. The Minister will be in the eye of the storm on this issue. I hope he will ensure that all relevant information on the licence options and the conditions under which the licences have been granted are not only put into the public domain but that the Minister's Department will be proactive in attempting to offset the many myths, inaccuracies and misconceptions that have already become embedded in the public mind in the counties I have referred to, where there is outright hostility, in the main, to any attempt to drill using this concept of hydraulic fracturing, which is new to Europe. It has been developed over the past 50 years in the United States. A film called "Gasland" is currently in circulation. Although it is riddled with inaccuracies it has scared the living daylights out of those people who have seen it, including me. The Minister is aware of the ongoing Rossport and Corrib controversies. We may be looking at another Rossport in the north-west unless the Department is proactive in blowing away many of the myths and in telling people the truth, in so far as the Minister is aware of the truth.
I would be grateful if the Minister would comment on this final point. It seems to me that because this is a new concept in Europe there is not an adequate regulatory or monitoring framework in place. The people in the areas to which I have referred need great reassurance. Those who attended last week's meeting were not all representative of the wider population, many of whom are unaware of or ignorant of this concept. They are being led by very strong and hostile opponents to the concept. It is vitally important, in the national interest as well as in terms of a possible potential health hazard connected with hydraulic fracturing, that the Department take a proactive role in this. Otherwise, the war will be lost. It is a war. I never experienced such hostility as I did at the public meeting I attended last week, which was primarily an information meeting by the company. The hostility was frightening. Therefore, in the interest of those who are in the area and who will be the first to be affected and in the national interest, it is important that the Department, in issuing the licence, should discuss the regulatory framework under which the licence holder will be expected to operate. The Department must be more proactive.
I am not attempting to lecture. I am genuinely concerned that people will not get the full facts. They are already deeply distrustful of the regulatory environment, mainly because of their experience of EU directives on turf cutting and special areas of conservation and a variety of regulatory frameworks coming out of Europe. They need to be given reassurance. I am sure the Minister will agree that it is a matter for the Government and for public representatives to ensure that there is a balanced argument on this matter, that the truth will out and that people can come to objective conclusions as to whether this concept is in the best interest of the health of the people who will have to live with this legacy, irrespective of any potential financial benefits to the country.
I thank the Minister for his presentation. I will make three brief points. First, alarm bells rang when I heard pay-as-you-go meters suggested as a means to combat fuel poverty. We have all witnessed such meters, perhaps in rented or student accommodation, which had to be fed every two minutes. Pay-as-you-go meters that use cash encourage crime. They are a ready source of cash in houses. A system using tokens or cards which could be provided through the Department of Social Protection, for example, would be preferable. I ask the Minister to look at that. Who would regulate these meters? They can eat money. Who would regulate the agency that collects the money?
I welcome the rural broadband scheme. Many of us live in areas where broadband is not accessible. This problem is not confined to rural Ireland. Broadband is often not available close to built-up areas. People are prepared to pay an arm and a leg to get proper broadband services. Will there be regulation in areas where users are tied in to a particular broadband provider? The rural broadband scheme will ensure that broadband is available in all areas but a company will then provide the service. Will charges be controlled or regulated in broadband deprived areas where there is only one provider?
Since the Minister's predecessor allowed the importation of bio-fuels local producers of bio-fuels have been seriously damaged. The industry has been taken over by the petrochemical companies. The previous Government increased excise on bio-fuels from 37% to 42%, making Irish producers uncompetitive. Although the price of grain and oil seed rape has gone up from €320 to €400 per tonne this will not always be the case. There will always be a demand for food but we need bio-fuel production as a back-up. Will the Minister, in consultation with the Department of Finance, seek to reduce the excise duty on locally produced bio-fuels? I am not referring to imported bio-fuels. Many small operators in the south-east and in other parts of Ireland have gone out of business because of this increase in excise duty. The excise duty on bio-fuels produced in Ireland should be reduced to the previous rate.
I thank the Minister for his presentation of his Department's priorities to the committee. It would not be appropriate to discuss matters in great detail but I will respond to the Minister's presentation.
I will refer to some minor issues. I share Deputy Ó Cuív's concerns regarding the proposed REFIT programme using wind energy. An undue burden will be placed on the consumer of electricity. If the supplier has been guaranteed a price by the consumer, in good market conditions the benefit should return back to the consumer through the public service obligation levy. I am concerned that the REFIT programme may not deliver this. A case should be presented before the Minister signs off on the programme. We must have an opportunity to examine concerns surrounding the REFIT programme.
The potential for the micro-generation of wind energy in rural areas is untapped. The take-up has been disappointing. Can the Minister look at increasing incentives to provide for micro-generation so that small producers, such as small industries, farms, townlands or households, could provide wind energy? This would have immense benefits at the level of consumers and citizens. It would have an environmental benefit as well as providing for cheap and reasonable power. We are not looking closely enough at this potential.
I know the closing date for the rural broadband scheme has passed. There are still hundreds and thousands of households which did not avail of the rural broadband scheme. There may well be newer households that come in. In spite of what we all like to think, construction has not stopped. There will still be construction, particularly in rural areas that cannot avail of any broadband service. I am aware of many households that are still on dial-up and could not avail of the rural broadband scheme. Could we possibly get a rollover, an enhanced rural broadband scheme, or a second rural broadband scheme in the short term?
I welcome the digitisation of our television services. Part of the Minister's remit would be maintenance of postal services, but An Post is a very significant player. While the Department might always seek to reduce the amount of television licence revenues that go to the company, with the advent of digitisation we could end up with the total abolition of a licence where non-payers are simply cut off. That could be done under a digital service. The Minister should be aware that digitisation could well signal the end of the collection of the licence fee and the production of a licence, and therefore another nail in the coffin of An Post in financial terms. I hope other business can be brought into smaller post offices in urban and rural areas in order that they would remain viable. An example would be motor taxation services, and liaison with other Departments could offset a potential problem for post offices.
The MANs scheme was funded by the Department in association with all the local authorities. We have high quality, high band infrastructure in many of our towns, but they are not linked. I say with tongue in cheek that it is like an Arab's rosary beads. It is nothing. It has been very disappointing, considering the level of investment by previous Governments. There is potential to provide for a high quality fibre service to those towns if they could be linked to a proper service. I would like the Minister to explain how the Department will deal with that and recoup the investment that has been made in many towns. The take-up by the private sector has been very disappointing. This could be seen as one way of getting that back.
Much of the Department deals with offshore and onshore mineral explorations. They are obviously elusive. We have not been able to land anything, especially on the offshore side. The resources are finite and valuable. Whatever policy is arrived at, it must be done in the best interests of the citizen of this country. The exploration companies must provide the vehicle for doing it, but we must keep in mind that we are working for the citizen.
The warmer homes scheme is very good. I have had a few cases where there seems to be a disproportionate take-up of the scheme where contractors have easier access to homes, namely, urban areas as opposed to rural areas. Contractors are simply resisting doing the work required in rural areas, even though applicants would have qualified for the job. I only have a few minor cases of this, but it may be a broader problem. Perhaps the Department could look into some of the statistics. I imagine there would be more business in the urban areas anyway, but I am making the point that there is disproportionately more in urban areas than in rural areas. I would like the Minister to look at that.
I will cut out the issues that have been covered. I thank the Minister for his wide-ranging introduction to the work of his Department.
It strikes me that wind energy is an area in which Ireland could be become a world leader. We have great potential, yet there are countries with much less potential that are getting quite a lot from wind energy production. I saw a report recently where a British consortium was interested in getting access to the development of wind energy in Ireland for export to Britain, or indeed for use in this country. Can the Government contribute to this process in any way?
A second area touched on by one committee member is wave and tidal energy. I realise this is at a very early stage, although there have been some long-term practices of tidal energy in the Saint Malo area of France. Given that tidal energy development is at an early stage, is it possible for a competition to be devised that would encourage inventors and entrepreneurs to come up with a workable model of something that might point the way towards the future and put Ireland ahead of other countries? Given that we are an island, we are in such a position. If there were patents involved, perhaps the State could obtain the benefit of that as well.
I will leave aside the question on hydraulic fracturing, although other members closer to the issue have raised it. I would have considerable concerns about it. Geothermal energy has not been mentioned by anyone until this point. An attempt is being made in this area in my own constituency. There are many obstacles in its way, but I would like the Minister to keep a close eye on what is happening in other places. I understand there is a project in Ballymena in Northern Ireland. It would be a useful way of getting energy without any pollutant effect when it becomes possible to develop it more fully.
I strongly support the Minister's public remarks on oil and gas exploration. I realise our big problem is that any exploration which has been carried out has yielded very little success to date. If the next round of licences being offered show success, would the Minister be willing to look at the situation again to get the greatest level of benefit for the State? I realise we need to have some more success before we could make more stringent demands on those finding the oil and gas than is currently the case.
I welcome the schools broadband project, which is an excellent idea. It is very important that schools everywhere get full access to broadband.
My last point is about the television licence fee. Deputy Harrington might not like my suggestion, but I will make it all the same. Would it be possible to have the fee deducted at source for those on benefits, such as pensions and social welfare?
That is in place already.
I will leave it at that.
I thank the Minister for his comprehensive presentation. I will be brief because many topics have been covered. I will ask a couple of questions on broadband. Since entering the House four or five years ago, I have met many owners of businesses, especially in rural areas, who have been forced to relocate or have decided not to locate in a specific area because the type of business in which they are engaged requires access to broadband. Figures produced by the Irish Small and Medium Enterprises Association, ISME, suggest that 97% of small businesses use the Internet, 84% have websites and an increasing volume of goods is being sold on the Internet.
For the past four or five years we have continually heard that broadband will be rolled out to rural areas but it is always put off until tomorrow. I welcome the proposal to establish a task force, set targets and introduce a roadmap to ensure progress is measurable. I note the point regarding discussions with the Department of Education and Skills on bringing 100 mbps broadband into schools. However, only 78 schools have benefited thus far. When the Minister appeared before the joint committee in June, he indicated that while he was sympathetic towards the Department given the lack of funding, he was critical of the failure to proceed more quickly with this project. Will he provide an update on the progress made in his discussions with the Department of Education and Skills?
The Minister outlined the serious challenges facing An Post, including a decline in the number of items of post. He also noted that the company is heavily dependent on State contracts, including, for instance, services connected to the licence fee. I do not expect the licence fee to disappear, as Deputy Harrington suggested, but believe it will continue in some form. Given the contraction in the banking sector and its ongoing difficulties, does the Minister envisage An Post acquiring new responsibilities in areas such as social welfare payments? The company could be used as a vehicle for distributing social welfare payments and so forth. It is in the interests of all citizens that An Post continues to be an integral part of the economic, communications and social fabric of the country.
On the switch to digital broadcasting, will the Minister provide a definition of what is meant by practical assistance to members of the public? He referred to the key role played by community television and community groups in the changeover. What does he mean by that statement? Such groups are also very much involved in rural areas.
I welcome the Minister's statement that people will not have their gas or electricity supply disconnected. However, as Senator Pat O'Neill noted, it is important that electricity charges do not increase for those who opt for pay-as-you-go meters. It is vital that this form of metering is regulated.
The Minister stated that energy costs here were in line with costs elsewhere in Europe at the end of 2010. Will the recently announced price increases result in prices here significantly exceeding the European average?
I agree with much of what is in the report but will refer only to those elements of it about which I have a question or wish to raise an issue. I am aware that time is pressing and will speak more quickly than I usually do. I welcome the guarantee that those in financial difficulties will not have their energy supply disconnected once they have entered a pay plan or agreed to the installation of pay-as-you-go meters. I concur with Deputy O'Mahony's view that we must not make it more expensive for poor people to do the right thing. In other words, those who enter a pay plan or have a pay-as-you-go meter installed must not be penalised.
The report notes that An Post faces serious challenges and is heavily dependent on State contracts. What was the value of the State subsidy received by the company in 2009? I understand An Post did not cost the State anything that year. While I do not wish to rehash a recent debate on the postal services legislation in the Dáil, privatisation or competition effectively results in for-profit companies using a postal sorting and distribution system that was paid for by taxpayers. What return will taxpayers receive for the use of infrastructure for which they paid?
Most of the issues I have relate to the Minister's statement. He states that Ireland does not have the capacity to establish a State oil and exploration company. This purported statement of fact is a matter of choice as Ireland has the capacity to do what it chooses. Does the European Union have such a capacity? Has the Government discussed at European Union level whether the EU has the capacity to establish an oil and exploration company for all member states? Has this issue ever been addressed?
On page 29, it is stated that legislation is forthcoming which will modernise and consolidate the legislative code for mineral exploration and extraction. When will the relevant legislation be introduced? The Minister's predecessor granted licences four days before the previous Government left office. Pending the introduction of new legislation, processes and technologies must not be used unless they have been verifiably and independently found to be safe in respect of human and animal life and food security.
On the same page, the Minister states he recognises the need to promote public confidence. I add the rider that we should only promote public confidence when we also have confidence in the processes that are about to be used. On the issue of hydraulic fracturing, even if it were shown that the film "Gasland" was not 100% accurate, I would have much more confidence and faith in an independently produced information pack than I would in information provided by the companies who were the subject of the film in question, namely, the firms engaged in hydraulic fracturing in the United States. I note again that France has banned the use of hydraulic fracturing owing to serious concerns about the consequences of using the technology.
The Minister said we must be realistic when considering how Ireland might benefit from its natural resources. We have to do an awful lot more than take the word of the for-profit companies which are supplying data to the Department before we can know whether we are getting a good, bad or middling deal. I have noted with the Minister and the Department an attempt to downplay the possible value of our resources. Some of the companies are indicating there are potentially good deposits of oil and gas, of which we are the custodians. Yes, we need to be realistic, but we should not depend on those in whose interests it would be to mislead us about the quantity and quality of what is available as our sole informants.
I thank the Minister for his letter. I live in the eye of the Lough Allen basin, the large area for which only exploratory licences have been granted. The Minister explained that the licence granted was mainly for desk studies and that there would be a full public consultation process and an environmental impact study before any decision was made on extraction. I understand this. However, the problem is this: the chief executive officer of one of the companies granted an exploratory licence is quoted in the local press as saying the first drilling will be on public lands in a well hidden area. That scares me and the people in the Lough Allen basin because it implies that the company knows an awful lot more than we do about how far the discussions have gone. What public company is it? Where is the land on which it has been agreed drilling will take place? Is it not extremely presumptuous of any company executive, assuming the press report of these comments is true, to agree to buy or lease publicly owned land before exploration has been completed and a decision to grant an extraction licence is made? It is for reasons such as this that people are concerned. I will be asking for a total ban on the use of this technology until it is independently and verifiably proved not to cause economic, social or environmental harm or harm to animals or humans.
I thank each of the committee members who have raised important questions. I am beginning to regret my foolhardy commitment to deal with each point individually because we will be here until midnight at that rate. We will probably end up resuming the discussion on this issue during Question Time tomorrow. Many of the issues raised feature in questions that have been submitted.
I did not deal with the issue of State assets raised by Deputy Ó Cuív because the Government has not made any decision on it yet.
The Minister articulated it well, on which I compliment him.
There is no question of control of the network by either Bord Gáis or ESB being handed over or sold to anybody. Whatever decision is made by the Government, it will be informed by this.
The question of vulnerable households was raised by the Deputy, and he specifically raised the question of the proportion of the electricity price due to various factors - how much is contributed by the importation of fossil fuels, transmission, distribution and operational costs and retail costs. Generation costs are generally in the order of 60%; transmission and distribution costs, 34%; and retail costs, 6%. That is the general rule of thumb.
Of the 60% that represents generation costs, how much is due to fuel and staff costs, overheads, write-offs, etc.?
Let us try to make progress, if we can.
My understanding is that the generation cost consists mainly of the import bill. I do not have the precise figure for which the Deputy is asking - I do not even know if the Department has it - but the regulator who must make decisions on submissions about price increases from time to time has detailed information and I will obtain it for the Deputy. My understanding, however, is that the bulk of the generation cost is due to the importation of the raw material.
On the possibility that the GRID25 plan may be abandoned, the answer is no. It is not the intention to withdraw from the strategy. I hope it can be rolled out at a lower cost than that envisaged when it was conceived, for all the reasons I need not go into. Quite an amount of time has passed between the conception of the plan and its delivery; we are talking about the best part of a decade. Just because we are in a slump, we should not presume we will be in one in seven or eight years time. Strengthening the grid is very important. It is also important in building our renewables capacity. I hope works can be done for a great deal less than envisaged, but abandoning the commitment is not a possibility.
Deputy Ó Cuív also raised the issue of disconnections, as did at least half a dozen other colleagues. It is important for the peace of mind of those in distressed circumstances that a commitment has been given - this will be enforced against the energy companies - that there will not be any disconnections for households that have entered into payment plans or agreed to the installation of pay-as-you-go meters. On the point raised by Senator O'Neill, as I understand it, the system will be based on top-ups, similar to mobile phone top-ups. I accept the point that in some cases there will not be the wherewithal for it to function as intended, but at least there will not be a disconnection because the person concerned does not have a pay-as-you-go meter or, alternatively, a payment plan. What has happened up to now when there have been disconnections is that the problem has been made 100 times worse by the cost of reconnection and so on; at least that will not be the case from now on. The usual procedures for discharging fuel bills for peoplein extremis will apply.
If people do not have the money, they are disconnected.
We must afford the Minister a chance to reply.
The point is that if disconnection is allowed, the cost of restoring power is a great deal more expensive.
But there will not be disconnections.
That is what I am saying. There will not be disconnections, whereas in the past, when disconnection took place, there was a disconnection fee, which was even more onerous. If the approach works in the preponderant number of cases, it will be a big advance. I do not dispute what the Deputy says, that some people will still be in trouble in terms of being able to run the system, but that is a matter for the Department of Social Protection and so on.
On Deputy Ó Cuív's point about the allowance, the problem is that it is not especially well targeted. I have been talking to my colleague, the Minister for Social Protection, in the context of a memorandum we are preparing on an affordable energy strategy to bring to the Government, to which the issue obviously relates.
Deputy Ó Cuív has also raised a point he has raised with me in private, about the danger that the REFIT programme will become a licence for some big developers to print money, and he has asked that the committee be permitted to discuss the issue before further decisions are made. I would be glad to see the committee teasing out the issues involved because it is difficult terrain. There have been applications with the Commission for a considerable time in relation to the renewal of the REFIT programme, but I am happy to hear the committee if it wants to devote some time to the issue. I think the Deputy and other colleagues would accept that the programme provides a floor price without which we would be unable to get new entrants into the market. Given that the market price is volatile, we will not get new entrants unless we take such steps. However, that is not to say we do not have to achieve a balance. I am more than willing to avail of the committee's wisdom on the matter.
On broadband, Deputy Ó Cuív has said his preference is for a fibre connection to every house, and a number of colleagues reiterated similar convictions. I think I said in my formal remarks that a task force was dealing with the issue of next generation access. It has the participation of the chief executives of all the leading telecommunications companies. We are teasing out the issues involved and I hope we will conclude our work by the end of the year, after which our report will be brought to the Government to be dealt with. When Deputy Ferris says "go for broke", he might mean it literally in that the Forfás calculation for the cost of a fibre connection to every home is some €2.5 billion.
That is critical investment, is it not?
The problem is that we do not have €2.5 billion and the industry would challenge the proposition. For example, cable is not fibre, and some 500,000 homes receive 100 megabits without access to a fibre connection. We are urging where we can.
Reference was made to the role of the ESB which is also a member of the task force. I am anxious for its networks to assist with the roll-out of fibre connections in so far as they can do so. I have been talking to the ESB about this for the past three months and think it is willing to make its contribution. That is an important dimension for those members of the committee who have expressed concern about rural Ireland. The private sector is investing about €500 million per annum and members will be aware of the aggressive advances that some of the private companies have made. I do not see the point of the State seeking to replicate this.
I heard what Deputy Harrington said about the investment made in the MANs which remain unlit in some towns. We regularly talk to the operators of the MANs about the issue and progress is being made, but it is an example of how the uptake of the fibre in the ground is often determined by price rather than by easy, immediate availability. Senator O'Neill made this point. The huge investment made in the MANs was not wasted. Sometimes we find that it takes a progressive employer in a town to ensure a MAN is lit. Nevertheless, price is still a factor and the task force is seeking to examine that aspect.
Deputy Ó Cuív mentioned the difficult issue of the spectrum auction. I know the committee has a heavy schedule, but both the committee and I might benefit if it invited ComReg to make a presentation, as part of which it could discuss the spectrum auction. That would help everybody to understand what is at issue and what is possible. As the committee knows, management of the spectrum is a matter for the regulator.
To be honest, I have only recently become aware of the existence of the report Deputy Ó Cuív mentioned in relation to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, but I will arrange for it to be available to whomsoever before the month is out.
Does the Minister know when the Department received the report?
I do not, to be truthful with the Deputy.
Can the Secretary General clarify the position for the Minister?
If he whispers in my ear before I finish, I will pass on the information to the committee.
Can he also explain why it was not made public?
I gather it was received at the beginning of the year.
Therefore, it has been with the Department for six, seven, eight or nine months and has become the third secret of Fatima.
As the Deputy well knows-----
It is meant to be the Department of communications. We should not forget this.
We need to receive the answers to all of the Deputy's questions, if we can. I ask him to refrain from further interruptions.
As Deputy Ó Cúiv well knows, if we went rummaging around in the musty cupboards of all Departments, I am sure we would turn up some archaeological gems.
Absolutely, but that would be the Department of heritage. Perhaps that is where the report will be shortly.
A number of colleagues, including Deputies Ó Cuív and Ferris, mentioned offshore exploration. I accept that Deputy Ferris speaks from some experience of the issue. I confirm to him that, as normal, once the gas is brought aboard, it will be available at the international market price. That has always been the case. There is no case where the big oil and gas companies make oil or gas available to the locals at a knock-down price. However, security of supply is an important issue for us as an island nation and from that point of view I hope there are more fields like the Corrib gas field. As members well know, ironically, the dispute started as a row about the very issue Deputy Ferris raised: the use of local labour. I know it is an issue dating back to the Kinsale field and all the rest. I have a good deal of sympathy with it. It moved on in the case of the Corrib gas field to being a row about safety and it has long since moved on from being about safety because everything known to man that can be done has been done. One should not tempt fate but it must be the most protected project in the history of exploration at this stage from the point of view of safety if that was the concern. The fact that it has moved on to a different dimension now has certainly damaged our prospects of similar finds, of that there is no doubt. It has taken 17 years to bring on board a small field compared to four or five years in the case of Norway. It is no wonder that the place is not teeming with exploration possibilities.
I was very conscious of that when I took over in the Department. I felt that if I had plunged into a revision of licensing or fiscal terms against that background, all it would have done would have been to ensure that there would not be any exploration at all. I am having difficulty in understanding why that is such a difficult concept. If that is the conviction of people who proposed to Google this and write articles based on what they found on Google, why do they not say that? If the terms are such a giveaway over the past 20 years, why are there not legions of exploration vessels out there, which there are not? It is in the national interest that we increase the activity and hopefully establish that there are real prospects out there. Unfortunately, that has not proved to be the case in the past decade during which 19 holes were drilled, which was fewer than two a year; with that number, one might as well be looking for a needle in a haystack. That is the kind of thinking behind what we are trying to do.
If this committee wants to start the business of examining what changes, if any, might be made, I am happy to co-operate with that, but it seems that it would not be in the national interest for me to delay work that was initiated a very long time ago based on the changes that were made as recently as the 2008 Finance Act. That is the general background. I am aware that there are a number of parliamentary questions tabled on this area for tomorrow.
Several Deputies, including Deputy Ferris, raised the future of An Post and Deputy Ferris specifically raised whether the position is likely to lead to further loss of jobs. I share his concern and respect for An Post. I acknowledge what the Deputies have said about the significance of An Post in rural Ireland in particular and I understand fully the remarks Deputy Colreavy made in this regard. The problem is that the core business of An Post is dropping alarmingly every year. I have figures somewhere for that which show, for example, that its core business in 2009 dropped by minus 10%, in 2010 it dropped by a further 10% and this year to date it has dropped by a further 6%. That is pretty shocking. The men and women who deliver the post know this directly because they know the volume of mail in the post bag. They know this is happening. Some of it is due to the difficult economic circumstances we are in but it is mainly due to electronic substitution. I hear on the radio that some of those engaged in electronic substitution would not know how to write a letter or, if they did, one would not be able to read it because they cannot spell, but that is separate problem that my colleague, the Minister, Deputy Ruairí Quinn is dealing with. We will all be digitised when he is finished.
Deputies Ferris and Dowds raised the question of the potential of wave and tidal energy. Deputy Ferris was right in saying that the exploration of this issue is in its infancy, but I am advised that our resources in this area, especially off the west coast, are especially propitious. There is a fund in the SEAI that helps some of the research that is going on in this area. It is in its infancy and it may have very considerable potential. There is frustration in the Department because a number of very exciting challenges, like that confronting the Department and the country, are constrained, to one degree or another, by the absence of resources, the kind of research and investment one would like to put into this area.
I agree with Deputy Colreavy on many things I have heard him say since he was elected to the House, but one of the things on which I would differ with him is when he said it is not a fact to state that the money is not there, that it is a choice and that Ireland can do what Ireland can do well. It was the situation that Ireland could do what Ireland could do, including make a hames of everything, if that is what Ireland wanted to do and did, but it is not true now. Ireland cannot do what Ireland would like to do. We now have to answer to other masters in other places and they have laid down a very strict template and if we do not comply they will stop writing the cheques, and that would be a pretty serious situation. If I were to put it to Mr. Chopra that I have pet projects in the Department that I would love to advance and can I write big cheques for them, I am not sure he would be impressed.
Is there any way private providers could be encouraged to put in a small amount of investment?
The Minister to continue without interruption.
The sooner we can all move to a situation where we can thank outsiders for their help and wave them good bye on a flight at Dublin Airport the better, but for the moment there is nothing for it but to suffer on and try to make sure that priorities are dealt with and people in vulnerable circumstances are protected. That is the situation we have to confront.
I apologise to Deputy Pringle for omitting him from the explanatory letter I sent out and I will correct that tomorrow. I did not realise the Lough Allen Basin tumbled into Donegal but Senator Mooney corrected my geography on that and suggested that five counties are affected here.
The first thing to say about this is that there is no fracking going on at present so people should not work themselves up into too much of a lather about fracking that is not happening. I am concerned about what Deputy Colreavy described and what Deputy Pringle said. I do not take lightly the beliefs being engendered at present that there may be a health hazard or safety implications on foot of this. This is a new phenomenon for Ireland. I have not had any opportunity, no more than anybody else here, to establish, on an evidence basis, the causes for apprehension about this. Licensing was granted in February of this year for work that amounts to no more than desktop surveying. I do not think anybody has put a spoon in the ground. At present, none of the dreadful things that I read on leaflets, as I passed through Carrick-on-Shannon over the summer, are happening or if they are, they are not happening because of this. I will take very seriously the claims that have been made arising from a film, "Gasland", which is being hawked around. As Minister, I have to take such concerns seriously. I will see how we can get independent sources that do not have any vested interest in the outcome to examine whether there is a reason for concern in this respect. I presume everyone agrees that if we could find more gas, onshore or offshore, it would be of considerable advantage to us all in dealing with the plight in which we find ourselves. We have to put that into the balance as well. I will correct that omission. If I can provide information on this issue, as it is developing, I will be glad to do so.
I accept the points advanced by Deputies Pringle and Ferris about the tourism significance and potential of our inland fisheries. Like Deputy Ó Cuív, I had thought it would make more sense for all of this to be dealt with by a single Department. I am not entirely certain of that anymore. There are different interests at play in the marine sector. The focus of the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in trying to get an aquaculture industry up and running in this country - I am advised that it has the potential to create a significant number of jobs - would not necessarily be the same as the focus of those dealing with the tourism spin-off from angling and inland fisheries. It might not be any harm that the two areas are dealt with in separate Departments. I am willing to have the matter teased out further.
Officials from the Department have met the promoters of the Spirit of Ireland group, about which Deputy Pringle asked, on a number of occasions. I have met them as well. I understand the name of the organisation has been changed to National Hydro Energy Limited. The feasibility of this visionary project is disputed. My British counterpart has expressed interest in it. The promoters of the project met departmental officials recently to set out where they think they can take the project.
Deputy Harrington suggested that individual premises have not yet been covered by the rural broadband scheme. We did our best to advertise the scheme on local radio and in local newspapers. I am sure some people out there missed the notices or are not interested in the entire idea. I hope we are ready to send the names and addresses of those without a service to the existing companies to see how many such people can be dealt with quickly. If that cannot be done, we will procure the wherewithal to provide a service to them. I do not know how severe we are in this regard. If some cases are known to the Deputy, perhaps he can still get them under the wire at this stage. I am willing to have a look at that.
I am not an expert on bio-fuels. I understand that production has doubled in the last couple of years. I do not think it would be possible to limit any tax changes to domestic production. One would run into difficulty with EU rules if that were the case. This aspect of the matter is affected by market prices. Farmers are going through a positive experience at the present time, unlike the rest of us. If the price on the market is higher, farmers tend to go with the market. This area probably merits some more attention and knowledge on my part about what is at issue.
Deputy O'Mahony spoke about the role of the community during the changeover. Someone else asked what is meant by "practical assistance". I suppose our view on the matter is not all that different from our view on rural broadband. The people most likely to be affected by the calamity of not having access to television - I cannot think of a bigger calamity that could befall a community - are best dealt with through local organisations. I refer to community organisations, charities, the GAA and the IFA, for example. We have spoken to the IFA, the GAA and local community organisations. We have asked them to sell this idea. The practical assistance that is envisaged mainly involves the provision of advice and technical assistance. Some people will feel that the technical business of installing a set-top box and so on is beyond them because they do not know how it might be done. Practical things like technical advice and assistance are needed in such circumstances. We will try to use the community infrastructure to make sure no area of the country is left without easy access to information and help. Discussions on these matters are ongoing. The Department intends to engage in a promotional and advertising programme. It will start later in this term and proceed from there.
I accept entirely what Deputy O'Mahony has said about the significance of the roll-out of broadband to schools. The Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources is concerned to ensure broadband is rolled out to schools, notwithstanding the financial constraints we are facing. The discussions that followed the leaving certificate results and the ongoing debate about issues relating to the curriculum confirm me in my conviction that it is important for this tool to be available to second level schools. I understand from the discussions we had over the summer that my ministerial colleague, Deputy Quinn, shares that conviction. We are jointly attempting to source the funding to allow that to happen. We can make a contribution on that front. As Deputy Ó Cuív is aware, funding in this area does not roll over from one year to the next, unfortunately. When one is dealing with this issue, it hamstrings one further if one cannot spend one's allocation in a given financial year. I hope the merit of this project will be recognised.
The most recent meeting of the task force on new generation access, which took place yesterday, dealt with the arguments advanced by Deputy O'Mahony in respect of the uptake of broadband by businesses, particularly small and medium sized enterprises. It is important to say that big business in this country has no difficulty at all in getting access to adequate broadband. The uptake of broadband by small and medium sized enterprises is disappointing.
The various work groups working for the task force have been engaged in meeting ISME and the SFA in this regard. The attitude in many cases is that so long as one has a website, that is fine and one does not need to take it any further, and even that step has not been taken by a majority of small businesses. There is tremendous potential in this area. The arguments advanced by several Deputies about the business case for promoting demand stimulation in this area are important and something the task force takes seriously.
On Deputy Dowds' geothermal interest, we are committed to producing a Bill on the geothermal area, which is a new one in the Irish context. I hope we will have that Bill early in the new year.
The minerals development Bill is taking up a considerable amount of time at present. To whoever asked whether that includes oil and gas, it does not as it concerns lead, zinc and so on. Much of the legislation is very old and we need a modern statute in this area. The aspiration is to try to have it together by the end of the year because it is important that it is brought up to date.
I would be glad to resume tomorrow but I think that answers most of the questions.
It does, apart from the observations on local radio stations from Senator Mooney, who is no longer present.
Yes, I heard what Senator Mooney said and think he was very fair in striking a balance in terms of the public debate that usually goes on in this area, which implies that everybody employed by the national broadcaster is paid at the same level as the top ten mainly, if not exclusively, contract staff. That is not the case, as members know. It is the case, as Senator Mooney said, that contract staff are taking a proportionate hit in the circumstances in which we find ourselves. I have had discussions with the director general and have expressed the Government policy, which is that the national broadcaster will, I am afraid, have to get its costs under control in the climate in which we operate. We are not in circumstances where we can subsidise it, no matter how important the work going on. There is a significant retrenchment taking place currently, as Senator Mooney set out in a balanced way.
I was concerned with the Minister's comment on targeting the free electricity and telephone allowance. To my knowledge, the people who get that are either older people or people with disabilities. I do not know how it can be targeted better unless a means test is introduced for the older people. We need to watch this carefully because issues arise.
On an important question, my understanding is that drilling licences have been issued for fracking or for the extraction of shale gas in Northern Ireland, which could have huge potential for us because geology does not know any border, just as people do not know a border except as a line drawn on a map. Has the Minister discussed this issue with his colleagues across the Border? The Northern Ireland Executive, or whoever controls minerals, gas and oil in Northern Ireland, might allow fracking to take place in Fermanagh, giving rise to the challenges outlined by Deputy Colreavy, which concern us all. I would not like to see Fermanagh destroyed. What guarantee have we that this would not affect areas south of the Border and cause all of the damage we are concerned about? I have no doubt Deputy Colreavy will be able to inform me later what his colleagues in Northern Ireland are doing to ensure they put a stop to any progress in this regard, but my information is that drilling licences may have issued in the North. It would be remiss of us to simply leave the issue at that.
The Minister referred to ComReg and spectrum management. While I welcome his idea that we would all talk to ComReg, before it attends the committee, will the Minister clarify whether it is the Minister at a policy level or ComReg that decides whether the issue of the licence would be for 100% coverage of the State? In other words, when a licence is issued, does the recipient have to provide, say, 100%, 80% or 70% coverage and, in the ultimate, who has the decision under legislation as to the coverage of the spectrum allocation licences? If it is suggested it is ComReg, it is about time we took it back.
No, I have not discussed the fracking issue with my opposite numbers in Northern Ireland. I take the suggestion that it might be helpful to do so because my understanding is that a licence has been granted in Fermanagh, although that might not be correct. I am also aware that the British Parliament has prepared a report on the issue which, to be honest, has not featured among my weekend reading as yet, although I intend to get around to it.
On the issue Deputy Ó Cuív raises in respect of electricity allowances and so on, all of this area is the subject of discussions among three Departments at present in terms of the memorandum I am taking to Government on affordable energy strategy. While I do not want to kick sleeping dogs, I presume when the last Government made the decision to take away the medical card from the over 70s, it, like me, had a view that not everyone over 70 needed a medical card. Similarly, the reasoning in this case is that there are some people in retirement who are in relative comfort as well as those who are finding it very difficult to make ends meet. That is the only point I was making.
In regard to pensions, the Minister was very dismissive of it as even being a debatable point.
We will try to stick to the topic of the day.
On the complicated issue of spectrum, it might be best to bring in ComReg and hear from it. The answer to Deputy Ó Cuív's question is that policy is for the Minister and the management of it is for ComReg. ComReg will present arguments about what is feasible and what technically it can do. I am happy to contribute to that.
Can we all have a copy of this fracking document that the Minister is only giving to people near the Border? Some of us are being asked the same questions even though we are a little removed from it, and I suspect all committee members are being asked about it.
They are asking about it around Carraroe, are they?
I do not live near Carraroe, as the Minister is probably aware.
I thank the Minister for his comprehensive overview of the Department's priorities. From the point of view of the committee, and it has been alluded to by members and the Minister, our challenge is to assemble the information against a backdrop of normal political jousting and present the facts so that we can instil confidence in the public about the decisions taken. There will not always be agreement. Deputy Ó Cuív said earlier - perhaps it was in private session - that he hoped to achieve consensus where possible, which is what we are trying to achieve.
As it came through clearly during today's discussion, we have prioritised two areas for our initial workload. The first is that of the renewable energy feed-in tariff, or REFIT, which we must try to get right as a balance must be struck between small or micro-generation and the larger companies. The second is to establish the facts as best we can with regard to the whole area of exploration for hydrocarbons, so we can have a position which establishes whether it is the crock of gold at the end of the rainbow or whether the gas is as elusive as a rainbow. That said, we also intend to bring ComReg to the committee so we can raise questions about broadband and spectrum auctioning on an ongoing basis, along with other issues.
I thank the Minister for attending. I look forward to the Minister of State, Deputy O'Dowd, having an opportunity to come to the committee to give his overview of the Department when the NewERA company is established.
As there is no other business, I will adjourn the meeting.