Minerals Company Bill, 1944—Second Stage.

Question proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time".

The purpose of this Bill is to amalgamate two companies that were set up by statute in 1941 to conduct mineral development activities. In that year two Acts were passed. One established the Slievardagh Coal Mining Company and the other the Minerals Exploration and Development Company. Experience of the operations of these concerns raised the question whether it was necessary to have two separate organisations, having regard to the similarity of their working and to the possible economies that might be effected, both financially and in the use of equipment, if they were brought under a single management.

It was decided that the two companies could be amalgamated, and that has for all practical purposes been done by administrative action. Both companies are at present working from the same offices, employing the same staff, and the same persons constitute the board of directors in each case. It is desirable, however, that that amalgamation which has been brought about, so far as practical consequences are concerned already, should be reflected in the legislation, and the purpose of the Bill is to amalgamate these two companies into a new company which will be known by the simpler title of "Mianraí Teóranta".

Each of the Acts which established these statutory companies provided for their financing by means of repayable advances from the Central Fund. The Acts imposed limits on the amounts that could be advanced from the Exchequer in each case, and in the case of the Slievardagh Company that limit has not been exceeded. In the case of the Minerals Development Company it has been exceeded. The limit was raised by Emergency Powers Orders from the original figure of £50,000 to £200,000, of which £180,000 has been advanced. This measure proposes to fix for the new company a limit of £400,000, which will include the amounts already advanced to the two existing companies. The increase made in the limit fixed to the advances authorised to the Minerals Development Company was due to the activity of that company in the production of raw materials for the manufacture of superphosphate. Having regard to the need for superphosphate in present circumstances, the company was instructed to proceed with the exploitation of the rock phosphate deposits in County Clare, and of pyrites deposits in County Wicklow, despite the fact that proper equipment was not available, and that the development of the deposits under present circumstances would be far more costly than would be the case in normal conditions.

Each of these companies has been involved in losses so far, losses which could have been avoided only by a suspension of activities during the emergency because proper equipment could not be procured. Having regard, however, to the need for the three classes of minerals which are now being produced—anthracite from Slievardagh, phosphate rock from Clare, and pyrites from Wicklow—the Government requested the companies to proceed with the working of the deposits and to endeavour to maintain output at the maximum level—to carry on their activities, as it were, regardless of the fact that financial loss would accrue. It suspended the payment of interest on the advances previously made and authorised new advances when the financial position of the company so required. That situation is one which is unavoidable. In the case of the coal deposits, the Slievardagh Company itself advised that the working of the deposit should be suspended until proper equipment could be procured. From a purely commercial point of view that would be the advisable course to adopt, because where there is only a limited amount of coal, to the extent that any part of the deposit is extracted and sold at a loss, the future profit-earning capacity of the company is diminished. Similarly, in the effort to procure superphosphates a definite decision was arrived at to proceed to exploit rock phosphate in Clare without the proper equipment and to procure all the pyrites we possibly could in County Wicklow, even if the costly process of handpicking the ore extracted had to be resorted to.

The company has succeeded in procuring a small single unit flotation plant which will be installed in Avoca and will increase the output of pyrites there, but the proper type of equipment, which would include a multi-type flotation plant, cannot be secured from any source at present. Neither can the equipment which the company would need to carry out the function of mineral exploration placed upon it by the original legislation. The company has been carrying out certain mineral exploration work and non-repayable advances have been made to the company for that purpose. In the case of the Slievardagh company part of the amount expended has been recovered by reason of the fact that a privately-owned concern became interested in the deposits which were being investigated and acquired a lease of the land with the intention of working the deposits, which lease was given on condition that part of the money spent on the exploration of the deposits would be repaid.

In the case of the work done by the Minerals Development Company in that regard, a wide area has been covered but one could not regard the results as satisfactory in the absence of a diamond drilling equipment without which proper reports could not be prepared. It is considered that each of the companies has definite commercial possibilities. The Slievardagh Mine has proved to be capable of maintaining a substantial weekly output which would be a remunerative output if the proper mining machinery were available.

At war prices?

When I refer to the possibility of a remunerative future for the company I am contemplating the sale of coal at the current price of anthracite coal, whatever that may be.

Current at the time?

Current at the time. There was a number of anthracite coal mines carried on in normal times. At the present time, the price at which the company can sell coal is fixed by order. It has no relation to the cost of producing it. It is the price which is deemed to be appropriate having regard to the price at which other privately-owned concerns are allowed to sell.

The phosphate rock deposit in County Clare probably will not offer any prospect of protracted development. Although the size of the deposit has been shown by recent exploration to be larger than was originally believed, the rock is so located that it can be worked only by mining operations, and it is, therefore, likely to be more costly to win than previously when the rock was secured by quarrying. There may also be some question as to the advisability of completely exhausting that deposit in peace times when supplies of phosphate rock could be secured from abroad, in so far as it is the only known deposit in the country, and if a similar emergency were to arise in future it might be advisable to have some of the phosphate resources of the country left undeveloped for that eventuality. The Avoca mine is much more likely to prove to be a remunerative proposition capable of quite large-scale development.

At the present time the ore is being extracted solely for the purpose of the pyrites contained in it, and although that pyrites has been extracted at a loss and sold with a slight subsidy it is much cheaper than the pyrites we can procure from the Iberian peninsula. On the pyrites now imported from Spain and Portugal a very heavy subsidy has to be paid in order to enable the superphosphate to be sold at a reasonable cost to the farmers here. But the development of the Avoca mine for the purpose of making available concentrates of zinc and lead and copper will not be practicable until the full equipment required can be procured. The company has also been engaged, of course, in exploration work on similar deposits elsewhere, but there is no prospect of commencing work on any of those other deposits until the end of the emergency makes possible the procuring of equipment.

I think that can be described as the whole purpose of the Bill—to effect the amalgamation of the two companies in law, which has already been done in practice, and to raise the limit placed on the total amounts that may be advanced to the company for the purpose of development.

Would the Minister say what he calculates as the total deposits of rock phosphates in Clare?

I would not attempt to estimate that at the moment. The phosphate rock area has been proved to be much larger than was originally anticipated, but how much I cannot say.

Is the company investigating the Bantry pyrites?

As far as County Cork is concerned—I do not know if these are the mines to which the Senator is referring—Duneen Bay, Derreenalomane and Mountain Common, are being explored. That is for barytes.

I think, from the Minister's concluding remarks, that he would agree with me in what I was going to say before he concluded, that this is only a Minerals Development Bill in so far as it deals with the extension of money advances; that apart from that it is purely a machinery Bill, or an administrative Bill, whichever you like to call it; otherwise, purely a method of changing the manner in which the two previous companies had carried on business. So far as the question of the extension of the advances is concerned, I am afraid I am not a geologist; I know nothing about minerals, and I am not qualified to make any comment upon the manner in which those companies have up to this or will in the future carry on their technical work, but when it comes to the fact that the Minister has come here and has asked us to extend very considerably the amounts of the advances that are to be made, and when we consider that extension side by side with the fact that this is an administrative method which divests completely the elected representatives of the people of control of those advances, then I think that the Bill which he has brought in, whilst seemingly short and seemingly innocuous, is one that would give a very fair opportunity of discussing here in this House the whole system of carrying on semi-commercial undertakings by means of what may perhaps best be described as dummy companies.

I do not mean "dummy" in the offensive sense. I say "dummy" because it is a company that is owned by the State as apart from the people who are in it, the people who are working it, and who are, therefore, responsible for seeing how the revenue comes in and how the expenses go out. So far as these two companies are concerned, I understand from the Minister that the position is that the directorate is exactly the same in both cases. I should like the Minister to explain to the House the qualifications of those directors. I am not making anything in the nature of a personal attack on them, but I want to know, so to speak, the reason why individuals were appointed; if they were selected because one man had a particular knowledge of a certain angle, or another had a particular knowledge of business methods, and so forth. I should also like the Minister to explain to the House the remuneration that is paid to those directors, because, so far as the accounts which are laid on the Table are concerned, from my inspection of them I have failed to find in them anything more than a comprehensive statement that there is such and such an amount available after the directors have been remunerated.

I think the House should be told whether the directors of this company are whole-time directors, or are part-time directors, or are civil servants. We have got to consider, in relation to this new company, or the remaining company, to be more accurate, whether it is the best method of getting at what is desired.

The Minister stated that he hoped that this company would have commercial possibilities after the war. In the other House he was particularly at pains to show that because of the very speculative nature of the undertaking involved the company was not one which had any commercial possibilities. I may have misinterpreted him here to-night, or I may have misinterpreted him in my reading of the Dáil debates, but it does appear to me that the two views were blowing hot and cold, so to speak. I am inclined to agree to some extent with the Minister that there are certain concerns which it is necessary for the State to assist financially, in which the methods of the Civil Service would not be satisfactory, but we have got to make sure that, if we are substituting something for those methods —methods which have grown up in the Civil Service to ensure integrity in the spending of public moneys—we will substitute something which is a complete safeguard of the public interest. I move the adjournment.

Debate adjourned to Wednesday next.
The Seanad adjourned at 9 p.m. until 3 p.m., Wednesday, 21st February, 1945.