Communications, Energy and Natural Resources: Statements, Questions and Answers

I thank the House for the invitation to outline my policy priorities. Given the span of the brief in my portfolio and the relatively limited time at my disposal, I will use this address to focus on what I see as the key priorities. I look forward to elaborating on these in the question and answer session.

I have responsibility for policy in the areas of communications, broadcasting, energy and natural resources. As Members will readily see, this is a wide remit encompassing areas of major economic and social importance. The voted expenditure in my Department is small at €495 million in 2011 and the numbers employed have fallen to 260, down from 339 at the beginning of 2008. This presents challenges to my Department, which has a large regulatory, economic and competition policy brief. Over time, staff have shown great flexibility in reconfiguring internally to address emerging priorities and to work co-operatively with the regulators and agencies under the aegis of my Department to ensure our shared expertise is appropriately deployed.

It is self-evident that energy and communications are critical to sustainable economic and social development. Broadcasting and the media generally are important industries in their own right as well as playing key roles in our democratic, sporting and cultural lives. The Department must also oversee the regulation of key national resources such as petroleum and mineral exploration as well as our inland fisheries resource. My Department also operates the corporate governance and general oversight role of seven commercial State bodies employing 21,425 persons and of eight non-commercial state bodies employing 769 persons. In addition, three independent regulatory authorities operate under the general aegis of my Department in the areas of energy, communications and broadcasting.

The work of my Department also involves external interaction with numerous stakeholders, notably commercial private entities. The days of full State monopolies in the energy, communications and broadcasting sectors are gone. This may be a welcome development on competitive and consumer choice grounds but it results in a complex policy environment in areas which by their nature are complex. Added to this is the strong EU policy framework that traverses most of the Department. The cumulative effect is a challenging environment for policymakers. Equally, however, these are dynamic areas where one cannot stand still in policy terms. Accordingly, I intend to drive an ambitious policy programme in the various sectors. My Department has the responsibility of ensuring that significant parts of Ireland's essential economic infrastructure run smoothly and efficiently. While the global and domestic economies face such turbulence, the work we have is both more challenging and more important.

I will commence with the energy sector. The current framework for energy policy 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 electricity and gas markets, both wholesale and retail, are characterised by strong and vigorous competition regulated by the independent statutory regulator, the Commission for Energy Regulation. The retail electricity market is now fully deregulated. The small to medium business segment of the gas retail market was deregulated from 1 October last. From now on residential consumers form the only regulated part of the gas market. As a result, business and domestic customers can increasingly avail of competitive offerings from electricity and gas supply companies active in the retail end of the market.

It has been claimed that Ireland has the highest electricity and gas prices in EU. However, EUROSTAT data published recently by the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland show that Irish electricity and gas prices at the end of 2010 were competitive when compared with our European neighbours. In other words, our prices are at the EU average. In the two years to the end of 2010, the two predominant trends in electricity and gas prices for domestic and business consumers were convergence to the EU average and falling prices. The reality is Ireland is vulnerable to volatile international gas and oil prices. In the past year, international energy prices have increased significantly. The wholesale gas price for the coming winter is more than 30% higher than last winter.

The recent CER decision to approve a 21.7% increase in the Bord Gáis tariff from 1 October is the first price increase for the 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 can assure Members that I am determined, in consultation with the regulator and the energy companies, to ensure that everything is done to restrain costs which are within our own control. In the case of State-owned energy companies, I will shortly be meeting again the chairs and management to impress this imperative on them.

I am also very concerned at the impact of gas and electricity price increases on vulnerable households. I will shortly be submitting a memorandum to the Government on an energy affordability strategy. The various supports to address fuel poverty which come under the aegis of the Minister for Social Protection are very important. In addition, a fundamental element of the fight against fuel poverty must also be improving the energy efficiency of the homes of those in fuel poverty. The warmer homes scheme funded by my Department plays a key role in this regard and it is my objective to see this scheme maintained and indeed accelerated. In the longer term, energy efficient and well insulated homes are a permanent and most cost-efficient way of addressing fuel poverty.

I am also glad to have been able to agree with the energy companies, with the approval of the regulator, that there will be no disconnections this winter provided families in financial difficulty have entered a pay plan or agree 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. As regards infrastructure, there are a number of priority programmes and projects.

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. It is vitally important that we recognise the national and local importance in economic and social terms of reliable and efficient energy infrastructure. For example, the east-west electricity interconnector between Ireland and the United Kingdom will be completed by the end of next year. It will improve security of supply, as well as increasing competition. The North-South electricity link from Meath to Tyrone is also a key strategic project and 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 placing underground all or some of the Meath-Tyrone 400KV power lines.

I expect to have the report of the commission in the near future. After consideration by the 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 on both sides of the Border, 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 shortages.

The sale of a minority stake in the ESB as an integrated utility, as agreed by the Government, is an early demonstration of the commitment by the Government to the programme for Government's objectives and its obligations under the EU-IMF memorandum of understanding. This sale will be advanced by means of a defined process involving a full evaluation of the best approach to be taken, including consideration of the size of the minority stake to be sold. That process will be progressed by a group co-chaired by the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, also including officials from the Department of Finance and availing of expertise from the National Treasury Management Agency and NewERA. Full consideration will be taken of the energy policy and regulatory framework in this evaluation, and appropriate consultation will be engaged in. The group will report back to the Government with a recommendation by the end of November.

The decision to sell a minority share in the ESB recognises the strategic importance of the energy sector to the economic and social functioning of the State, and that the State must continue to have a strong and direct presence in electricity, particularly in the regulated transmission and distribution networks. This presence must be maintained in a way that protects overall economic competitiveness and does not deter private investment. The process to analyse options for the minority stake sale in the ESB will fully reflect these principles.

I take the 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 power generation, with renewables now generating around 15% of our electricity consumption.

Increased use of renewable energy also contributes to our environmental targets. The Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, figures show that renewables reduced our CO2 emissions by almost 3 million tonnes in 2009. The recent spike in gas prices show that it is wrong to predicate policy on the availability of volatile imported fossil fuels. Studies by both EirGrid and the SEAI have also indicated that wind power 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 by 2020. Over 96,000 homes have now been grant-assisted to improve their energy efficiency, resulting in economic activity of over €280 million since the scheme's launch. I was very pleased to increase the investment this year to €100 million, which means that for 2011 the scheme is supporting 6,000 jobs. Energy suppliers are also being asked to participate in the programme through voluntary energy saving agreements.

As regards energy, it is my intention that a new energy policy framework will be published in 2012. Energy policy will be reviewed in the coming months in consultation with stakeholders. The new framework will take account of developments in the past few years since the publication of the 2007 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 both in regard to broadband penetration, speeds and competition. Much more needs to be done, however, to improve our national broadband infrastructure.

Commercial operators have been investing steadily in rolling out critical communications infrastructure in Ireland for several years. That investment has been of the order of €400 million and €500 million per annum. In this regard, it is important to highlight that Ireland's demographic factors present significant challenges for companies operating within network industries, including the electronic communications industry. Not only do we have considerably fewer people per square kilometre than many of our comparator countries, but it is also the case that our propensity for ribbon development of one-off housing adds to the mix of challenges.

The State has invested where it has identified market failure. Initiatives such as the metropolitan area networks, MANS, 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 the 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 100 megabytes are now available to 500,000 households and industry investment is set to continue in the upgrading of services available.

As regards international comparisons of broadband penetration, various analyses are conducted periodically. The ComReg statistical report for the end of 2010, for example, noted that the latest OECD broadband data up to June 2010 ranked Ireland 13th of 19 EU states surveyed for fixed line broadband penetration per 100 inhabitants and third of 18 EU states surveyed for wireless broadband penetration per 100 inhabitants. A wider report on broadband services in 72 countries published in 2010 by the University of Oxford and the University of Oviedo, Spain, concluded that the broadband services available in Ireland were capable of meeting the requirements of broadband applications and overall, in terms of broadband quality and penetration, ranked Ireland 13th of the 72 countries studied.

International comparisons must be viewed in context and can present challenges. Issues such as advertised versus actual speeds, geographic spread of services, topography, population density and the number of people per household must all be taken into account when making comparisons between different jurisdictions. The important point that I wish to emphasise is that Ireland, while it may be behind the average for some measurements, is ahead on others and we have made significant improvements on some measurements in recent years. It is also the case that Ireland will meet the EU target of having a basic broadband service available to all citizens by 2013. The challenge now is to accelerate the roll-out of high speed broadband.

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 provide next generation broadband customer access to every home and business in the State. The next generation broadband task force has an important role in this regard. In June this year I convened the task force, which I chair, and which also comprises the Minister of State with responsibility for NewERA, Deputy Fergus O'Dowd, the CEOs of all of the major telecommunications companies currently operating in the Irish market and CEOs of some Internet service provider companies. The purpose of the task force, which will conclude its deliberations by the end of this year, is to discuss the optimal policy environment required to facilitate the provision of high speed broadband across Ireland. 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 sector entities, including the communications regulator, ComReg, which will auction significant bands of spectrum in 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 programme that I wish to advance in the coming period. Earlier this year, I launched the rural broadband scheme, which aims to identify the last remaining premises in Ireland which do not have access to a broadband service. The three month application phase for the rural broadband scheme closed at the end of July and approximately 5,000 applications have been received. I expect to proceed with a procurement process for a service provider in 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. Clearly finances are extremely tight but this is a key strategic project in the context of preparing our students to be part of the digital workforce and in terms of delivering innovative educational outcomes.

Encouraging digital participation by all our people is a key priority and I am anxious to see schools, businesses arid citizens make the most of the opportunities presented by an emerging digital society. I recently launched a €1.6 million "Benefit 3" scheme which is specifically aimed at targeting those segments of society that are in danger of being left behind in terms of technological advancement. These include the unemployed, socially disadvantaged, elderly and people 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 some 40,000 to participate.

While we continue to support infrastructure development and encourage citizens to participate in the digital economy, we are also supporting industry through the work of the Digital Hub Development Agency and the National Digital Research Centre. The Digital Hub Development Agency currently supports 77 small enterprises employing over 800 people in Dublin 8. The NDRC, which is based at the Digital Hub and whose annual report I had the pleasure of launching earlier this morning, is supporting the translation of research ideas into commercial business propositions. In the coming months I will consider 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 I mentioned, encouraging participation in the digital economy by business and citizens is an important priority. Internet security and consumer confidence is a key element 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 assisting in identifying and protecting Irish businesses from cyber attacks. My overriding key priority, therefore, for the communications area is access, ensuring the infrastructure is in place to access basic and high speed Internet services and encouraging citizens and businesses to get online and access the social and economic opportunities which the Internet brings while safeguarding consumer rights.

Turning to broadcasting, I referred to the forthcoming spectrum auction. This spectrum partly arises from Ireland's national digital switchover strategy which provides for the closure of the analogue television network before 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 this initiative brings, in particular for Irish households which are reliant on the analogue television network. All households reliant on the aerial television network will need to upgrade to digital television or they will lose access to television. To overcome the challenges that digital switchover brings, we must also assist people with information and practical assistance to ensure that no one is left behind as Ireland goes digital. I will implement a substantial information campaign providing households with information on the digital switchover and on their options for going digital. This information campaign will start shortly.

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 to 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 light of the programme for Government and the issues surrounding the current licence 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. Based on the experience in other countries, however, it is likely to take a minimum of two years before a fundamental system change could be implemented.

Regulation of the broadcasting market is the responsibility of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland. The State broadcasting companies are facing serious financial situations largely arising from the major reduction in advertising and sponsorship revenue. The focus must be on forensic cost control by management in these organisations and 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 them on the various issues that arise.

As I pointed out when I brought the postal Bill through the House before the summer recess, the postal sector worldwide has evolved significantly in the past decade. Some 90% of letter post is now business-related and this 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, look at ways of harnessing the potential of electronic communications and incorporating them into its product offerings and grow its business accordingly.

An Post faces serious challenges, especially as its core mail revenue continues to decline. It is also heavily dependent on State contracts to generate revenue. On the plus side, An Post has many genuine strengths, such as a dedicated workforce, a trusted brand and a strong visible presence in every community in Ireland on every working day of the year — a presence that very few, if any, competitors will be in a position to replicate. An Post and its staff must play to these strengths and ensure that its resources are aligned with the needs of its users. To do so will involve significant change. This is already 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.

In relation to the procurement process for a national postcode, the House will be aware that this is under way and is being managed on a ring-fenced basis by my Department. The final decision to proceed with the implementation of a national postcode will be one for Government and will be based on appropriate financial, technical and operational considerations.

The development of policy, legislation and oversight of the petroleum, minerals and inland fisheries sectors are important objectives in the natural resources sector and 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 help to encourage further exploration in the Irish offshore. At peak production the Corrib field will provide over 60% of Ireland's natural gas needs. Unless further commercial discoveries are made in the short term — many people are helping me in that search; they are out there every morning — Ireland's energy security will begin to weaken once peak production from the Corrib field 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 an increase 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, Ireland 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 safety and protection of our environment. I have recently written to Members of this House who represent areas where 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 we can bank on, 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 that such measures should maximise the social and economic return for these communities and the State.

I wish to conclude with a brief reference to public sector reform. I have alluded to the major reduction in staffing levels in my Department in recent times. As I indicated during the Estimates discussion in July, I have some concerns in this regard in terms of its impact on 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 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, Food and Fisheries and the payroll function now administered by the Department of Finance. These measures are expected to yield almost €500,000 savings in a full year. This is additional to some €2 million in payroll savings since 2008 arising from the reduction in numbers to which I referred. The Department has also realised savings on the non-pay administrative budget side of almost €1.5 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 and joint procurement initiatives with other Departments.

In this address, I have touched on some of the key areas of my brief. I look forward to attempting to answer any questions colleagues may have.

With the leave of the House, I would like to share my time with Senator Darragh O'Brien.

I welcome the Minister to the House. He has made a wide-ranging contribution and it is difficult for him to touch on every issue.

I raise a pressing issue for which the Minister's Department is, to some extent, responsible. A 65 year old lady, Ms Teresa Treacy, has been in jail since 13 September. I ask the Minister to address that issue when he replies to the debate. The case is disturbing to anyone observing it from the outside. I would like to hear the Minister's insight on the case.

Radio Telefís Éireann is facing a deficit of €30 million this year. In November 2010, Fine Gael proposed that the salaries of all managers and presenters should be capped at €200,000. Is that proposal being pursued by the Minister's Fine Gael Cabinet colleagues? RTE appears to be unsustainable. Public service broadcasting is all very well but commercial broadcasters are providing the same service without subsidy. Why should RTE get such favourable treatment at enormous cost to the taxpayer? Will Fine Gael follow through on its proposal?

One fifth of customers of the national broadband service have expressed dissatisfaction with broadband speeds. Download speed and coverage are felt to be inadequate. The Minister referred to a proposed improvement in broadband service and the auction of new licences. Will there be benchmarking — a dangerous word in this House — in achieving better services? I am always sceptical of surveys that say 99% of customers are satisfied. There are always 1% who are dissatisfied.

The Minister referred to the Fine Gael NewERA document. The Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Joan Burton, in an interview on Newstalk in February last, said she thought the NewERA document contained extraordinary figures which would also involve the creation of about ten quangos. The Minister for Finance remarked, in passing, that the document was dreamt up by some person in the Fine Gael public relations office. There was a public relations add-on. I wonder if 105,000 jobs will be created.

With regard to the creation of quangos, the Government previously stated it was going to get rid of them. I welcome the Minister's work with the energy suppliers, including the ESB, Bord Gáis and others in regard to ensuring no family or person is left without heat and light this winter or Christmas given it is predicted we will have a difficult winter.

The pay and conditions and pensions of semi-State agencies, including the ESB, are unsustainable. I heard one of the union leaders, Mr. Jack O'Connor, defending his earnings. He is no James Connolly given he is earning €100,000 per annum.

The Senator cannot refer to people who are not here to defend themselves.

I would like to invite him to the House to defend himself. Union leaders are trying to defend the indefensible at a time when the vast majority, the 400,000 people unemployed and those in receipt of social welfare benefits, have to pay enormous electricity and gas bills. I accept there have been increases owing to the cost of oil and gas. However, pay is a big issue.

I would like to hear the Ministers views on fracking, which is a concern in the north west and of which there have been a number of studies. President Obama has set up a committee to examine the issue. Also, the French Government has put a moratorium on fracking and the EU is looking at it. In the US, Maryland, New Jersey and the City of Buffalo have all banned fracking because of a fear of water contamination. I would be concerned if we were to proceed without full knowledge of the possible downsides in this regard. Once water is contaminated it remains contaminated forever. I would like to hear the Minister's view on that point.

I welcome the Minister to the House. Fianna Fáil is totally opposed to the sale of any element of the ESB. I assume the Minister's colleagues in the Labour Party are also opposed to it.

The original memorandum of understanding did not refer to the sale of State assets to the tune of €2 billion, rather it asked for a review of State assets and possible privatisation of State-owned assets. The revised memorandum of understanding negotiated in July by the Government states that the Government will consider options for an ambitious programme of asset disposal. The Government, when deciding to sell off the family silver, will not be able to hide behind the deal done by the previous Government as it is its revised memorandum of understanding that will bring about privatisation of the ESB and other strategic State assets.

An issue of concern to me, one which I raised earlier this year and last year, is that of e-billing, in particular the imminent Vodafone plan to bill all its customers via e-mail. The judgment by ComReg in regard to O2 states that an e-bill is permitted where positive consumer consent is obtained and that a paper bill is to be provided, “as standard where such consumer consent is not obtained”. Those words are important. I am sure the Minister, like the Consumer Association of Ireland, will be concerned to hear what Vodafone plans to do. Vodafone has 43.6% of the Irish mobile phone market. The Consumer Association of Ireland, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, the Money Advice and Budgetary Service and Fianna Fáil are concerned about this move towards e-billing, in particular on the basis that Vodafone has already sent the following message: “From Your November Bill, Say Hello to Paperless Billing and a Better Environment”. I am delighted Vodafone sponsored the Dublin team to the All-Ireland final this year. I am sure it is a big employer in the State but it is flying in the face of the laws of this country in that it has already stated that from Monday next it will inform approximately 170,000 of its customers that they, whether or not they like it or have Internet access, will in future receive their bills by e-mail. Also, a person wishing to have a paper bill must opt to have one, which is against the judgment made by ComReg in regard to O2 trying to do the same thing.

Vodafone has also intimated that the person requesting a paper bill will have to pay for it. People are already paying tariffs to Vodafone. I believe that a person who is paying a bill is entitled to receive it in whatever manner they require. The Minister in his statement mentioned the difficulties that An Post is experiencing in regard to remaining viable. I put it to the Minister that there are thousands around the country who do not have access to e-billing because as the Minister stated they do not have access to broadband. We have a long way to go in that regard. I am concerned that Vodafone, which is a mobile giant, is deciding, contrary to what the Department says, to go against ComReg's judgment against O2 that a paper bill is to be provided as standard. It should not be that a person must opt to receive a paper bill. One should not have to do that. I am interested to hear the Minister’s views in this regard.

My concern about this is intensified because people are already trying very hard to manage their day-to-day household bills. The Minister is aware of that and has referred in that regard to increased energy prices and people's struggle to meet them. I believe this move by Vodafone will take from people their ability to budget properly for their day-to-day bills. Vodafone has approximately 400,000 clients, which is just short of half market share in this country. I want to know what the Department is doing about this. Has the Department had any contact with Vodafone on this issue or is it to be allowed to fly in the face of the laws of this State and a ruling by our communications regulator? We must put down a marker on this. O2 was allowed to get away with it. If Vodafone gets away with this, other utility companies will follow in the same vein. Of course, we want companies to be more efficient and environmentally friendly but they cannot ignore the laws and regulations of the State. One cannot simply tell people who do not have access to the Internet that they will no longer be receiving paper bills and that if they request one they will be charged €2 for it.

I was pleased to hear Deputy Doyle, Chairman of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, raise this concern in the Dáil. I am sure the Minister will address this issue so as to ensure Vodafone is not allowed get away with this. ComReg exists for a reason. We have a regulator and laws for a reason and we cannot allow a massive mobile phone company to act with complete impunity and against the interests of its customers.

I join colleagues in welcoming the Minister to the House. Today we are at a crossroads in the history of the State. A wasteland of inaction and mismanagement by a succession of Governments in the past ten years has left our finances in tatters, another generation lost to emigration and our economic sovereignty surrendered to the troika of the EU-IMF-ECB.

I do not want to dwell on that issue but to look ahead to our shared future. Being an optimist, I firmly believe in the future prospects of this great country. For too long a cloud of despair and depression has hung over our republic. Human nature dictates that while we sympathise with someone who is moaning all the time about the state of the world or the economy we eventually tire of negativity. We want to move on. We have to move on.

Investors will only be attracted to Ireland if they see it as a country of optimism that is seeking opportunities and not stuck in a cycle of self-criticism and pity. Hard decisions have to be made. Issues that have been put on the long finger, including full State ownership of certain assets, must be addressed. In view of agreements made with external lenders, we are obliged to raise funds from the disposal of State assets to pay down our debts. This is not the best time to be selling State assets but it is the best time to invest in new assets. If we can persuade the troika that we should be allowed to retain some of the money raised from the sale of State assets to be reinvested in new strategic assets such as water, broadband and energy we can then sow the seeds for a quick recovery.

There is a commitment in the programme for Government that in line with the NewERA proposal, a strategic investment fund are to be established by the Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan, Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin and the Minister of State, Deputy O'Dowd. I have no doubt the Minister, Deputy Rabbitte, also had an input in this regard. This is further proof that the Government is looking forward and will be proactive in taking steps to get the economy moving again.

With regard to energy, the programme for Government sets the framework for how we can get Ireland working efficiently again. In areas such as energy, communications and natural resources we can see the building blocks of future prosperity. In the programme, we have identified the need to target new technology sectors and to focus on the application of technology innovation in established areas of the economy, such as energy generation.

As Ireland is an island on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, we are in a perfect location to exploit natural resources in the production of green energy, namely, wave, tidal and wind power. The sea around our coast amounts to approximately ten times Ireland's land area. The economic benefits to the country are limitless and are being harnessed.

Wavebob was founded in 1999 and is based on the Maynooth Business Campus. Its vision is to be the leading global wave power technology company, providing a reliable, highly efficient, tunable and cost effective means of producing useful power from ocean waves. Having carried out sea trials in Galway Bay for a number of seasons, the company has expanded its expertise in the field of wave power technology. This is an example of the significant talent that lies within Irish technology companies. Wavebob's recent announcement of a research collaboration with Spanish technology giant Abengoa is proof of how Irish companies can tie up successfully with international firms to develop solutions for tomorrow's world.

The west coast is ideal for wind farms, as the prevailing south-westerlies roar in from the Atlantic. Onshore wind turbines operate at 50% above the average European capacity.

Under the Gate 3 application process, the Commission for Energy Regulation, CER, controls which renewable energy producers can connect to the transmission and distribution network. The production of some 3,900 MW from renewables are envisioned under Gate 3 and successful applicants are receiving their estimated connection dates. As of 30 June, there were 1,459 MW of installed wind energy capacity from the Gate 1 and Gate 2 schemes. There was some capacity before these schemes.

There may be problems with the Gate 3 system, in that some of the projects may not have full planning permission. Although I am open to correction, An Bord Pleanála has refused permission for the Lettermuckoo project in Connemara because of its impact on the landscape. Other wind farms are in special protection areas. Furthermore, some Gate 1 wind farms signed contracts in December 2005 and have been given target connection dates of before September 2014. This will delay the roll-out of renewable projects, impacting on our target of renewable generation accounting for 40% electricity consumption by 2020.

We need joined-up planning. State agencies must work with one another to facilitate the swift construction of the renewable network. The faster we reach our target, the better it is for the economy. Some projects have planning permission, access to finance to build the infrastructure in close proximity to the grid and legal interests in the land in respect of which applications have been made, yet they are outside the Gate 3 process. It may be time to revisit the system in advance of the Gate 4 process in order that those projects that are shovel ready can get priority connections.

Under the programme for Government, we will ensure that wind farms are built in locations where the wind regime is best. They are to be built in large numbers or in clusters to reduce the cost of connection to the grid under the new plan-led Gate 4 process as opposed to the existing developer-led system.

As part of the programme, we have undertaken to double funding for home energy efficiency and renewable energy projects until the end of 2013. This will be achieved through €30 million in Government funding to support an additional 2,000 jobs in 2011. By 2020, 1 million homes will be upgraded. Through better building insulation, we can reduce our expenditure on diminishing fossil fuels. This will be good for the consumer, the environment and the economy. There will be a net social benefit of €6 billion.

Another element of our 2011-16 programme will see us refitting micro-generators wishing to produce their own electricity for homes, farms and businesses. We will facilitate the sale of surplus electricity to the grid. I was delighted to learn that Nines Photovoltaics, an Irish company based on the Institute of Technology, Tallaght, campus, has been awarded €1.2 million through the European Commission's Framework Programme 7, FP7, to develop its solar cell manufacturing unit. According to Mr. Ed Duffy, the company's chief, approximately 10 billion solar cells were produced globally in 2010, consuming 25 billion litres of water and other chemicals. By reducing the environmental cost of producing these cells and accelerating the degree of process control, production costs should decrease. The use of affordable cells to produce electricity comprises another element that businesses can use to reduce costs. New industry looking for places to locate factories will consider many factors. A guaranteed supply of clean energy nearby is one of those factors.

Another is broadband. Ireland needs access to the fastest broadband speeds, as the Minister correctly outlined. I do not doubt that we will achieve our targets. The objective of 100 MB is critical, particularly so in the Shannon industrial area in my part of the world.

Many of us will fondly remember the creatures of our old coinage, be it the little hen on the old penny, the bull on the shilling or the Irish wolfhound on the sixpenny bit. The most recognisable was the salmon that graced the back of the florin or two shillings from 1928 to 1968. It was used on the old 10p following decimalisation in 1969 until 2002 when the punt was removed from circulation with the advent of the euro. We remember the ancient fable of Fionn Mac Cumhaill and the salmon of knowledge. The salmon represents sea fishing and freshwater game fishing. As such, it plays an important role in the psyche of the Irish. It is the Government's duty to protect our salmon stocks from fishing and pollution.

As we rebuild the economy, we need to consider the sectors in which we can recover the quickest as those that should be promoted, for example, tourism. Season after season for decades, our rivers have attracted overseas anglers to land the famous wild Irish salmon. Through careful management of our salmon stocks, we can recover from the overfishing of rivers that were closed to fishing by reopening them through the catch and release system or harvesting. This precious resource must be protected for the enjoyment of future generations.

The geology of Ireland dates back 2.5 billion years. As such, 70,000 sq. km. of our landmass contain a variety of minerals laid down over millions of years. Ireland has produced lead, copper, zinc, gypsum, calcite, dolomite, silver and gold as well as other exploitable minerals. Ireland is Europe's largest zinc producer, accounting for 32% of zinc produced. With the turbo speed of the industrialisation of nations like China, the demand for natural resources has increased rapidly. Ireland is being seen as a location for further exploration, which will lead to the creation of jobs. Our petroleum affairs division will play a key role in maximising benefits accruing to the State from the exploration and production of oil and natural gas. These resources belong to the people of Ireland. As their representatives, it is our duty to ensure these resources are developed to create wealth for the nation. The western seaboard is the site of much exploration for petroleum products. Some areas that were believed to be uneconomical to develop due to the depth of the water are being re-examined.

Sitting on the edge of Europe, looking out onto the Atlantic Ocean and knowing that this is an era of depleting global oil stocks, we can take comfort in the fact that we have exploitable natural resources, our renewable energy can be harnessed and our universities are producing graduates that are coming up with solutions to everyday problems. The Government did not create the financial crisis, but we will take the measures to facilitate recovery. No group, be it employer or union, can be allowed to put our recovery at risk. We will do everything in our power to get Ireland back working. We owe it to the thousands of children forced to leave in order that they might return with their experiences and ideas. We have the people and the vision in the form of the Minister and his Cabinet colleagues to make Ireland great again.

I welcome the Minister. Like others, including my Independent colleagues, I am concerned about the growing availability of images and movies depicting the exploitation and physical and sexual abuse of children on the Internet and other evolving technologies. It is difficult to comprehend why legislation is not yet in place requiring Internet service providers, ISPs, to block immediately and ideally remove at source child pornographic and abusive content that is illegal under Irish law. Child pornography site blocking has been advocated by the Garda and Interpol and is being debated in Europe in the form of a proposed directive on combating child pornography and the sexual exploitation and abuse of children. I urge the Minister to be mindful of the children's rights dimension of his mandate and to work closely with his Cabinet colleagues to ensure that the "best interests of the child" principle is the primary consideration in all forthcoming legislation affecting children.

We can scarcely have a greater responsibility than to protect children and their rights, safety and innocence. In the ongoing absence of appropriate filtering or blocking of such images and movies depicting the exploitation and physical and sexual abuse of children on the Internet, does the Minister think the best way to advance dealing with the issue is through legislation and if so will he outline to the House what legislation he intends to introduce?

I will move on to another matter, and the Minister will be glad to hear I will not take up ten minutes. In these extremely tough times, we know it makes sense to seek mergers of various State-funded bodies. However, any such action should be carefully evaluated to ensure these achieve great savings while remaining totally effective. With this in mind, I note the recent press release of 28 July which stated the Minister for Arts, Heritage and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Deenihan, welcomed a new report on the future of the audiovisual industry. The report, Creative Capital: Building Ireland's Audiovisual Creative Economy, identifies the Irish audiovisual sector as a pillar of Ireland's creative industries and a major opportunity to deliver growth and jobs to the economy in the coming five years. CRAOL, the network of community radio throughout the State, launched an interesting response to the assertions in the report from PricewaterhouseCoopers by pointing out that while the proposal built around acquiring the broadcasting funds currently administered by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland may be cost neutral it is not cost-value neutral.

A decision to move the fund towards a small number of audiovisual producers will remove it from a much larger number of citizens using the resource for employment, creativity and the vital fuel for local community building. Furthermore, the report claims on growth and employment are entirely aspirational, provide no figures for assessment and should not be a cause for precipitous action. Significantly, the report seeking the transferral of this fund to the audiovisual industry makes no reference whatsoever to the vibrant Irish commercial and community radio sector.

On the community media front, every week 2,000 community radio volunteers and more than 100 staff engage with an estimated 120,000 listeners in 22 fully licensed community stations with a further 40 community stations at various stages of development throughout the country. This is a significant and growing media sector using the sound and vision scheme for development purposes as envisaged by the 2008 Broadcasting Act. CRAOL makes the point that logically, a broadcasting fund should be administered by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland as it is best placed to have a more strategic overview of the media sector as a whole than would the Irish Film Board. If the aim of the report is to establish a single content funding agency then, as the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland under its sound and vision scheme already funds indigenous film, would it not be more logical that the Irish Film Board be subsumed into the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland?

I wish to share time with Senator John Kelly.

I welcome the Minister to the House. We all know the expanse and extent of his remit and brief. The important decisions and policy matters that must be addressed in his Department will have profound implications for the country for decades to come. There is very little scope, if any, for error. Reference was made to someone going bald headed. I suppose I would qualify under this category, and I wish to use this opportunity to go bald headed for what I believe is the condescending, cavalier and confrontational style of EirGrid, which will lead to more trouble throughout the country and make the Teresa Treacy case in Tullamore look like a teddy bears' picnic. One would have to be heartless not to be dismayed and disturbed by the sight of a well-meaning 65-year-old woman ending up in Mountjoy Prison because of power lines and pylons cutting through her farm. Teresa Treacy need not have ended up in prison if EirGrid had done its job properly.

EirGrid is based in Ballsbridge. Does it understand the land and rural values and respect country people? In my experience, it is not upfront, co-operative or transparent in its dealings with landowners or considerate when it engages in what it regards as consultation. It is not meaningful consultation and I have first-hand experience of it. The plight of Teresa Treacy in Tullamore does not surprise me and there will be many more Teresa Treacys if EirGrid does not cop on and radically change its tactics, which at present represent and reflect a rather heavy-handed corporate culture not one of consideration and genuine and honest engagement with communities. Its stand today seems to be that it has the power and to hell with everyone else, which is unfortunate because we all know that at this time more than ever we need reliable and sustainable infrastructure to build our economic recovery.

I see this in my community in Ratheniska and Timahoe where another proposed 25 km line, the Laois to Kilkenny reinforcement line which is vital for the south-east Kilkenny and Waterford region, will go through the property of 110 landowners. Sound and sensible farmers and families are now up in arms with EirGrid. Tensions are mounting and opposition is gathering as a direct result of EirGrid's tactics and its arrogance, ignorance and what I can only describe as bully boy tactics. It behaves more like the KGB than the ESB at times. Only last week, EirGrid threatened with a solicitor's letter and legal action a local farmer, a gentleman who would not say boo to anyone. EirGrid alleged he was recording a conversation taking place in his farmyard. All he had in his hand was an old Nokia phone. This is the type of absurd and unfounded accusation that gives rise to local suspicions and leaves EirGrid the laughing stock of the community. This type of carry on serves only to get people's backs up and fuel community dissent and divisions.

If EirGrid does not change tack it will open the floodgates for protests which will impede the roll-out of critical infrastructure and see Ireland shunned for vital foreign direct investment as important projects are needlessly and unnecessarily held up. All reasonable people I know in the area accept we need a secure and safe supply of electricity and solid infrastructure as a basis for economic growth and recovery. However, EirGrid is going about this entirely the wrong way. It must be called to order before it has another half a dozen Teresa Treacys on its hands.

I have no doubt as to the sincerity and bona fides of Teresa Treacy, and her family, friends and neighbours. Unfortunately, the same cannot necessarily be said about some of those who have now got involved in her campaign. Sinister elements have jumped on the bandwagon and are deliberately misrepresenting the Teresa Treacy case for their own political advantage and ulterior motives. In many ways, these people are even worse than EirGrid in their cynical manipulation of the issue and of this woman for their own selfish ends. These ready to go protesters are blackguarding Teresa Treacy and damaging the cause of reasonable objections and legitimate concerns where they arise. Some of these protesters appear to draw their authority from Marx, that is Groucho Marx, who famously coined the phrase, "whatever it is, I am against it." This seems to be the manner in which they are proceeding.

It takes more than wearing an open neck shirt in the Dáil or a woolly hat in the woods to make one a real friend of the earth or a genuine environmentalist. Therefore, it is only fair that I mention that it has been suggested the forest in Tullamore is of significant historical and archaeological value. However, the trees in question are a commercial crop, predominantly evergreens, planted with the assistance of grants for the purpose of being felled and harvested. This is not Glen of the Downs orWatership Down. There is no Bambi in the woods, and a sensitive habitat is not at stake as has been contrived by certain reckless elements whose actions serve only to keep Teresa Treacy in jail rather than sincerely seeking solutions which would see her released from this terribly stressful ordeal.

Will the Minister take this opportunity to allay concerns regarding the future of two significant semi-State companies, namely, Bord na Móna and Coillte? There has been widespread speculation in the media and elsewhere that some senior political figures have been in negotiations with and aiding and abetting foreign investors to buy out Coillte, for instance. This would be a very retrograde step and very shortsighted. Bord na Móna and Coillte are two strategically significant companies managing some of our most important natural resources. Between them they manage in the region of 1.2 million acres or close to 10% of the country's land mass. In the interests of best development of our natural resources, tourism, leisure, sporting activities and, most important, the critical issue of public access, it is vital that these companies remain in public control, whatever the other proposals for their development or merger.

I welcome the Minister to the House. I have a number of concerns and issues which I wish to raise with him. The first issue relates to the warmer homes scheme. This scheme which is working very well. I do not have information on how it is being operated in other counties but in my county of Roscommon the people who had their attics insulated in 2009 and 2010 were promised, where necessary, that wall insulation would follow. However, they are now being told in 2011 that their walls will not be insulated but anyone applying to the scheme in 2011 will have both attic and walls insulated. I do not know what SEAI is playing at. I will give the Minister a list of those people in Roscommon who had attics insulated in 2009 and 2010 and have now been verbally refused wall insulation. I ask him and his Department to make inquiries in this regard.

I too wish to raise the issue of fracking which was raised by Senator Daly. He voiced his concerns and even being a man from the south west he is concerned about the north west but he should have voiced his concerns to Conor Lenihan——

I could be wrong but Conor Lenihan is not here.

Senator Kelly to continue, without interruption.

——instead of the Minister, Deputy Pat Rabbitte, because Conor Lenihan granted the licence to explore in the Lough Allen basin. I ask the Minister to introduce a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing in the Republic of Ireland until the completion of a study of the potential impact of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water resources by the United States environmental protection agency. This study commenced in February 2011. An interim report is expected in 2012 with additional reporting expected to be published in 2014. It is hoped the 2012 report will be of particular guidance to the Irish gas exploration case.

On another issue, I question what protection is available to people with regard to wind energy. Many people think wind farms are beautiful in the distance but many others do not want them at their back door and they have legitimate concerns. By all accounts there are proven health risks associated with wind farms and these are not disputed. When I have inquired as to the protection provided for people, I am told their concerns will be taken into consideration, I have never seen any local authority or An Bord Pleanála taking their concerns into consideration. The developers are supposed to work in an open and transparent manner but this is not happening. Instead of informing those who live nearest a proposed wind farm, the developers pick out suitable areas, contact the farmers concerned and do sweet deals at the kitchen table. They give the farmers a lot of money and sign a contract to rent their land for 20 or 30 years. At that stage they inform the rest of the people in the locality that the wind farm will be going ahead. At this stage they begin the negotiating process with the locals, when the deal is already agreed which cannot be reneged upon. I am conscious that county councils are desperate for rates and it is their policy to grant permission for wind farms no matter where they are to be located. An Bord Pleanála will overturn any provision in a county development plan about the distance of wind farms from homes. The regulations in the UK and Europe stipulate that if a wind turbine is 135 m tall it will be at least 2 km or 2.5 km from the nearest house. I suggest there should be similar regulations in this country as this would alleviate many fears.

I refer to the issue of natural gas and the Corrib gas field. Bord Gáis undertook surveys of many towns in the west to ascertain the viability of bringing natural gas to those areas. The surveys were based on the populations of those towns and as a result, they did not consider towns such as Irishtown, Charlestown, Kilkelly, Ballaghadereen. We proved to Bord Gáis that Shannonside Co-Op in the town of Ballaghadereen uses more electricity than the whole town of Castlebar. The Western Development Commission has issued a report which has been forwarded to the Minister. The report states that €13.5 million in energy costs in the west by bringing natural gas along the route of the N5. I ask the Minister to give it favourable consideration.

I am very grateful to my colleague, Senator Barrett, for allowing me to share his time. I will speak for three or four minutes and Senator Barrett will speak for six minutes.

The Minister has perhaps the most important portfolio of all of the Ministers in the current Government. The reason is it important is that the major existential threats which will face our species in the years to come are not the IMF or the ECB or Anglo Irish Bank or disturbances between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael over interpretations of history. Those major threats will be to our food, water and energy supplies. In 60 to 90 years time our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will face a crisis with regard to these core elements. There is no other area where we need to have a greater emphasis on long-term strategic planning, both as a civilisation, as a member of a European community and as a national society, than in energy policy. In particular, all arguments about the aesthetics of wind farms or the rights of people as against pylons — I must add here my strong disapproval of the disproportionate action of Ms Treacy being incarcerated when people who have driven the country into the ground are totally free — but the major threat we face is our dependence on hydrocarbon fuels. This is the overwhelming crisis which we must face. Whether one is a believer in global warming, a global warming sceptic, an agnostic about global warming, or somebody with an open mind, I say forget global warming. There are three key reasons it is essential for us to wean ourselves off the necessity of burning carbon if our species is to survive. The obvious reason is that there is not enough carbon left. This is a supply issue. We will hit peak oil, peak gas, peak wood, peak turf, peak everything which is not renewable, within a very finite period of time. In the case of oil, this will occur in the lifetime of even those of us who are in the later stages of middle age.

The economic arguments are overwhelming. It is extremely bad for a society to be entirely dependent on the importation of energy from abroad. It distorts our balance of trade. This is the real economy and it is not the shuffling of false economy through financial institutions which cream off interest and tell us they are generating wealth. This is the real economy and this is what we must grapple with.

Perhaps the least politically correct of my arguments is that there is a profound geopolitical threat to us from being heavily dependent on imported hydrocarbons, especially when those hydrocarbons come from some of the most unstable societies in the world, societies which may be a coup or a Jihad away from turning off the faucet for us. The arguments in favour of making ourselves less dependent on hydrocarbon fuels and less dependent on imported energy are overwhelming.

The Minister referred to exploration. While I am not necessarily a fan of the Tea Party exhortations to Sarah Palin at meetings to, "Drill, baby, drill," if there are exploitable hydrocarbons we need to use them, pending the adoption of more sustainable forms of alternative energy. Putting an emphasis on exploration would be a little like the piano key industry looking at dwindling sources of ivory from nearly extinct herds of African elephants and saying, "We should look at India for some more elephants," when clearly that industry should be finding another material other than the tusks of elephants. What we need to do in order to sustain ourselves in the future is to find something other than burning hydrocarbons.

There are not that many in either House with a background in science. My background is far from energy policy, but I have a big interest in it and would be delighted to have a chat with the Minister next week as I intend to visit people on both sides of the Corrib debate on Friday. We should not limit ourselves to 10%, 12% or 16% in terms of renewables. Instead, we must put huge effort into making this one source of energy we have available here a centrepiece of our future energy policy. I am sorry if I sound unsentimental about this, but while considerations relating to dead birds or spoiled views are important, they must take secondary importance. I also support the Minister's efforts in the area of insulation.

I will make two final points. First, we need to start a debate on the notion that at some fixed date in the future, perhaps ten or 15 years from now, we will move towards zero tolerance for private cars burning hydrocarbons. This would be one way to remove up to 50% of our requirement for hydrocarbon derived energy. Second, we must look rationally, calmly and maturely at nuclear energy. I do not advocate we have, but we must remember that in the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster of 27 years ago, there is no evidence that there is any excess of foetal abnormalities or leukaemia that occurred as a result of that accident, an accident which was as a result of a horrifically maintained and obsolete nuclear energy plant. I urge the Minister to keep an open mind on the issue of nuclear energy.

I welcome the Minister and it is always interesting to hear his views. I welcome the mention of the auctioning of the broadcasting spectrum. Auctions are important beauty contests which lead to massive legal costs afterwards because those judged to be not beautiful enough tend to have large numbers of lawyers. A straight auction properly organised by the Department, with the money going into the Exchequer would be better than what has occurred previously.

The Minister spoke about the vigorous competition in the energy sector and the prices being achieved. The McCarthy report published in April suggests we have a long way to go to get a fully efficient energy sector. Therefore, I hope we are targeting not only the average price as reported, but also the lowest prices. The McCarthy report puts forward some ideas in that regard to which I will return.

I support the selling of the minority stake in the ESB. As I understand from the McCarthy report, wage costs in the ESB are extremely high, particularly the high wage of the chief executive, which I am aware the Minister and his colleagues have tried to tackle. We would have a counterweight against those high costs if there were some private sector investors in the company. What we might call the monopolistic rents in the ESB — acquired because of its traditional monopoly position — and also the threat that it can turn off the lights have allowed wage costs to increase dramatically. Based on the McCarthy report, the CEO earns almost four times as much as the Taoiseach. I do not see the case for that.

What is required in the case of the energy efficiency programmes is publicity. It seems strange that when the benefits accrue so manifestly to people to have their houses insulated, they require a subsidy.

The idea of postcodes has been around for some time. It is much easier to send a letter to somebody in Leitrim or Donegal than it is to someone in Fermanagh because of the need for a postcode there. What benefits do postcodes generate? What do they offer, apart from making it more complicated to remember addresses? I have often wondered why this idea is still being proposed. Perhaps the Minister has some thoughts on that one.

Since this country had to be rescued on 1 December 2010, accountability has become a requirement. An issue in this regard which falls within the Minister's ambit is the huge floods in Cork some winters ago. The question of what caused those floods has not been resolved to the satisfaction of the people of Cork city. The responsibility appears to lie between the ESB, which is under the Minister's area, and Cork City Council. We were extremely lucky there were no fatalities as a result. What measures are in place to ensure we do not have a recurrence?

The preface to the McCarthy proposals is that given the over-borrowed nature of the State's balance sheet, asset disposal is inevitable. I support the Minister's proposal in that regard. In particular, we should aim to get out of banking, particularly zombie banking, very quickly and sell Anglo Irish Bank and the Irish Nationwide Building Society and NAMA. We must get the economy working again and these national entities are unwanted.

With regard to the point the Minister made regarding broadband, the Comptroller and Auditor General is much less optimistic about our progress and points to very high average costs of €1,180 per subscriber. The forecasts that 126,000 people would apply for a scheme were hugely optimistic as only 35,500 did so. Broadband was given apple pie status by some of its proponents, but as often happens, the Minister and the Minister for Finance have had to pick up the bill.

The McCarthy report points out that the general performance of State companies has resulted in rapidly increasing indebtedness and failure to provide for pension fund liabilities. We should look at some of the proposals put forward in his report. The Irish Academy of Engineering calls for significant cost reductions in the energy sector and calls on the Minister to revise downwards wind penetration. It also suggests that the proposed investment in renewables up to 2015 should be greatly curtailed. We are approximately 42% worse off in GDP per head than was expected when the national development plan was being drawn up. It is necessary that Departments, particularly in meeting IMF targets, review many of their activities. Given the problems raised in the Wright report, the Department of Finance did not have the requisite expertise for this task. It is to be hoped that this Minister has in his Department and available to him the ability to tackle the problems documented by the McCarthy report in Bord Gáis Éireann, the ESB and the other companies under his control. It is essential from the national point of view that they participate in getting our finances back in order and making the country competitive again.

Cuirim céad fáilte roimh an Aire. Is breá an rud dom a bheith ar ais sa Teach agus muid ag plé na ceisteanna fíor-thábhachtacha seo. An chloch is mó ar mo pháidrín inniu ná cúrsaí ola agus gáis agus an achmhainn nádúrtha sin atá eadrainn agus go mbeidh muide mar thír ag baint an leasa is tábhachtaí agus is fearr gur féidir linn as an gás agus an ola atá thiar ó chósta na hÉireann.

The Minister spoke generally about the gas and oil resources we have available to us. I am interested in hearing his opinion, as a former trade unionist, on the SIPTU document, Optimising Ireland's Oil and Gas Resources, which proposes quite radical changes in the licensing system in order that the country will get a much better return on the oil and gas resources we have available to us. One of the main recommendations in that document is that no new licences would be issued for the industry until the Oireachtas review is completed, because the industry could have a massive impact on job creation here, on tax revenue and on helping us to get out of the situation we are in. The document looks at the imposition of royalties, alternative models for licensing and the potential for job creation. It also looks at some of the companies that have already been given licences which have made a discovery of oil or gas but have not brought them into production and urges that they be asked to either start production or relinquish their licences. The document also proposes a higher percentage of tax, in line with international standards.

The document is not a Sinn Féin document, but is one I imagine the Minister would take seriously because it comes from a trade union background. It shows that we are at the bottom of the league when it comes to a return from our gas and oil resources. This is important at a time when we need to maximise those returns. It is in line with the Labour Party's election manifesto, which stated: "Labour will also ensure that Ireland's royalty regime extends to the Corrib gas field as part of a wider review of the tax regime and conditions of oil and gas exploration". Is that Government policy or was it just the Labour Party policy? Did the Labour Party have to renege on this policy now that it is in Government? The document does not suggest that we are not in a position to have a State development company to maximise the return on these resources. It cites a number of different approaches and models that could be taken on board and I urge that this happens.

Security of supply is also one of the three major priorities but there is no security of supply in the current licensing regime and no guarantee that companies bringing these resources inland will sell to the Irish market. There is nothing in their contracts to compel companies to do so. We do not have security of supply and I ask that this be inserted into the contracts being developed.

Tax write-offs are a major issue. I have heard the Minister argue on a number of occasions that oil companies must make a major investment and that it is very difficult to get them to come here unless we offer a low tax regime. However, the real issue is that the companies get to write off all of the costs, as outlined in the report "Optimising Ireland's Oil and Gas Resources". Ireland gets very little back from the investment. We must examine models in other regimes.

I agree with Senator Kelly on the fracking issue and call on the Minister to take on board suggestions not to allow fracking to go ahead until the review has been seen.

The policy of no disconnections by the ESB sounds good in the media but I am worried about how it will work in practice. It does not address the underlying issues that people are not in a position to pay their ESB bills. It is dependent on people entering into a pay plan or having a meter installed. There is no point in saying that a pensioner in Connemara is not disconnected because the power is coming to the meter if the person does not have the money to put into the meter. If the person has no money to put into the meter, there will be no electricity. That measure will not resolve the underlying issue of people not having money.

I agree with the calls regarding Teresa Treacy. It is scandalous that she is still in prison and that a large company is riding roughshod over our citizens. I urge the Minister to intervene in any way possible with other Government representatives to have the issue resolved. Her suggestion is in line with the Minister's policy of having power lines underground in other scenarios. A related matter is the ratification of the Aarhus convention. Ireland is the only country that has not ratified it and, if the convention had been ratified, the legal position of Teresa Treacy would have been strengthened and she could have taken a stronger case.

On a more parochial matter regarding the ESB, we are waiting for a 110 kW line to west Connemara. Perhaps the Minister has some information on when this will be rolled out. It is essential to the development of our area.

Sinn Féin does not agree with the sale of a stake in the ESB, which seems to be contrary to the policy in the election manifesto of the Labour Party, which stated that "it is important that our gas and electricity networks are kept in public ownership, so that access to this vital infrastructure is not jeopardised". Has the Labour Party policy changed on this matter? Sinn Féin does not see selling the State assets as the way to go in the difficult time of the current financial situation. On the contrary, it is akin to having a flock of golden geese laying eggs and killing one of them to eat it. Sinn Féin would much prefer the €700 million that will be given to unguaranteed bondholders in the former Anglo Irish Bank to be used to invest in the infrastructure of companies such as the ESB to undertake the developments mentioned by other Senators.

I echo the comments of Senator Kelly about the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland. I know people who, having insulated the attic, had the same experience of being turned down in respect of cavity wall insulation. It is a policy that changed midstream and we would like clarification.

I would like to ask about the last mile scenario in the rural broadband scheme. When broadband was rolled out in many rural areas, we were told there would be access because the exchange was enabled. In reality, as the lines along the final mile to people's houses were not upgraded by Eircom, people in those areas could not receive fixed-line broadband. What is the situation in that regard?

I welcome the comments of the Minister regarding the digital switchover and I hope support will be provided for those who cannot manage the switchover. I agree with the points made about the level of salaries at RTE. RTE makes the argument that it must pay the salaries because that is what the market demands. As someone who worked at TG4, I know that RTE poached much of the talent at TG4, such as Gráinne Seoige and Daithí Ó Sé. They were not paid €500,000 when they worked at TG4 and there is plenty talent around them. We should not use the argument that we must pay high salaries because these are the only people who can do the job. The review of the broadcasting sector should ensure that all broadcasters are fulfilling commitments to broadcasting in the Irish language, go bhfuil siad ag cur an méid cláracha atá siad in ainm a chur ar fáil trí Ghaeilge ar fáil.

Regarding postcodes, Ordú Logainmneacha should be taken into account in whatever system is used so that Irish language names of villages and towns are taken into consideration. Perhaps a GPS-based system would be better because it will pinpoint exactly the house or the place in question.

An Bord Pleanála made a good decision on wind farms in Connemara. There was sleight of hand when a wind farm application was being forced through without the locals being informed about it. A local director of services overturned a decision by his planner on planning permission and, thankfully, An Bord Pleanála overturned that again because the proposal did not suit. Sinn Féin would like to see suitable planning for wind farms and more local involvement in the decisions. The Minister said he would like to see co-operative development of wind farms and I would like to see more local communities involved in the development of wind farms. Perhaps assistance can be provided for local communities to develop wind farms in order that profit does not go into private hands but is returned to the community, helping to regenerate the community. Theastaigh uaim cúpla ceist a chur maidir le cúrsaí fógraíochta. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as ucht a theacht isteach. Tá súil agam go labhróidh mé leis faoi chuid de na ceisteanna eile am éigin eile.

Does the Minister wish to respond to the main speakers or will we move to questions and answers?

With the permission of the Leas-Chathaoirleach, I will respond to some of the points because otherwise I will forget many of them.

Some five or six Members indicated they wish to ask questions of the Minister.

I will deal with some of the major points raised. It is encouraging to note that the pall of economic gloom that hangs over Europe does not intrude consistently in this beautiful Chamber, and many colleagues seem to think it is life as normal.

That is what the Minister thinks.

I wish that was the case but it is not.

Senator Daly raised the question of broadband and the inadequate speeds in certain parts of the country. That is true; however, after years of being disadvantaged by the manner of the privatisation of Telecom Éireann and the subsequent rip-offs at different stages, a great deal of progress has been made in recent years. By comparison to other countries, we are not doing that badly. A broadband service is available and exceptional service is available to large enterprises. There is a problem with speed and bandwidth in parts of rural Ireland. Senator Barrett raised the observations of the Comptroller and Auditor General and, in fairness to the Government that made the decision on the national broadband scheme, I think the Comptroller and Auditor General misunderstood what was being attempted. In other words, the national broadband scheme was an intervention by the State where the market had failed to deliver a broadband service. It was procured in the usual way in order to serve local electoral areas. It is not really fair to say that X million euro was spent on it. If one divides the number of people who have linked up to it into that X million, one gets a per-household cost. That distorts the picture. All we can do is to provide access; if a great many people do not want to take it up, we cannot go out with a whip and oblige them to. That is what happened here, and it is salutary. The policy up to now has been that the State will intervene where there is market failure. That may not be an adequate response in the context of accelerating change. However, the task force I chair is considering next-generation networks and so on. For people who say we must roll out a superhighway to every door, which was implicit in what Senator Ó Clochartaigh said, it is salutary to recall this. First of all, it is not feasible in the current environment. The commitment would cost the State in the order of €2.5 billion, and that kind of money is not around. However, if it was around, I am not sure the take-up would be at anything like that level of connectivity. The purpose of the task force is to compile a report that will attempt to map the country based on the contribution that can be made by the private telecommunications companies. The black spots will then be a challenge to the Government in terms of how it proposes to tackle the areas that are disadvantaged for reasons of topography or distance.

One or two contributors implied that broadband is delivered only over cable. In fact, broadband is delivered over a number of platforms — it could be mobile wireless, fixed wireless, copper cables or fibre-optic cables. We are making progress in that regard, although I would like to see a greater degree of uptake, especially by SMEs, than is the case at present. However, that is perhaps another day's discussion.

I agree with Senators Whelan, Daly, Ó Clochartaigh and others, who raised the question of the unfortunate incarceration of the lady in Tullamore. We have been endeavouring to do everything possible behind the scenes to mediate an acceptable outcome. It is an unfortunate situation; I can think of half a dozen people whom I would prefer to see hanging their Armani suits on the back of a door in Mountjoy Prison. However, maybe it is a good thing that Ministers do not make those decisions, due to the separation of powers. What has happened is regrettable, but I must inform Senator Ó Clochartaigh that placing cables underground is not the solution. This lady's preoccupation is with her commercial forest and the commitment by the company to regrow the trees. If the lines were placed underground, the trees could not be replanted. What she wants is for the trees to be replanted to restore the symmetry of her forest; therefore, placing the lines underground would not have solved this problem. Sometimes one encounters these difficulties. However, I am glad to hear the Senator say that if we get around to extending that line to Connemara, we cannot anticipate any such problems and we will get a free run.

It will not be possible to dig down. There is too much rock.

Senator Daly raised the question of salaries at RTE. I do not agree with Senator Crown's contention that this Department is the most important, but there are one or two things within it that are important. However, whenever I try to address these, somebody will ask me, "What about Pat Kenny's salary?" or "How much is Marian Finucane being paid?" What am I supposed to say? The fact is that the ordinary staff at RTE were the first out of the traps in taking pay reductions in the current crisis. I have made plain to the new director general, Noel Curran, that we cannot go on running an overdraft in RTE. As a result, he has embarked on a programme of redundancies that I understand is oversubscribed. I do not know how many people will unfortunately feel obliged to leave the employment. There are serious cutbacks at RTE. This is not exceptional; all Senators, including Senator Daly, reckon it is worth a line in theEvening Herald. However, the personalities, or celebrities — I do not know what one would call them — are on commercial contracts. I do not have the power to intrude in a commercial contract, but the director general has made plain that when they are up for revision, the profligate years will be over.

The Minister might encourage his Fine Gael colleagues to encourage the capping of their salaries at €200,000, as they said they would in the run-up to the election.

I will, of course, be delighted to talk to them. The point is——

The Minister to continue, without interruption, please.

The point I want to make is that the profligate years are over.

Senators Daly and Barrett raised a point about the cost base in the energy companies, and Senator Daly raised explicitly the issue of pensions. The cost base is an issue. There are negotiations under way between the management of the ESB and the group of unions, the purpose of which is to get 20% off the cost base by the middle of November — I think the deadline is 20 November. Those discussions are proceeding apace.

I do not think Senator Barrett entirely accepts that things have changed in latter years. There is serious competition in the electricity market. There is a huge market in the neighbouring island which is catered for by six companies; there are four companies here, and there is competition.

This brings me to the question raised by Senator Darragh O'Brien about the disposal of a minority stake in the ESB. The genesis of all this, of course, is the memorandum of understanding with the IMF and the EU. I do not know how so young a colleague as Senator O'Brien could have forgotten that. It is very recent. Yes, we did try to moderate it. In the programme for Government we have committed to the disposal of up to €2 billion of non-strategic State assets. The troika takes a different view. The Senator is right in saying that we modified the commitment, in the most recent negotiations at the time of the interest rate changes and the job initiative, to an ambitious programme of disposal of State assets. If Senator O'Brien was still here, I would not be able to answer the question of what "ambitious" means. I will tell Senators one thing, though: it means more than €2 billion. That is the situation we are in.

Looking at the menu of State assets, one can see that to realise real value one must target the energy companies. We can talk about selling the remaining stake in Aer Lingus or the forests on Coillte land, but the amount of money involved, on the scale of the indebtedness, is not significant. Therefore, it is the view of the Government that the sale of a minority stake in an integrated vertical utility such as the ESB is the best approach. It would allow us to maintain control, which is critical in respect of issues such as security of supply, control of the transmission network and so on, as referred to by Senator Ó Clochartaigh. I am very hopeful we will secure a compatible investor. It is a profitable company which is returning an enormous dividend to the Exchequer every year. As such, it is an attractive prospect for a certain type of investor. The detail of that is being worked out by the group to which I referred, chaired by my Department. It is due to report by the end of November.

There is no question of anybody trying to sell State assets. The author of the McCarthy report made the point that he was not proposing they be put on eBay next week. While market conditions remain as they are, the question does not arise. One cannot foresee the troika forcing us into any type of fire sale. Members will have noted the public remarks today by the European Commissioner for Regional Policy that, unlike other countries, Ireland has complied with the strictures imposed on it, painful as that has been. I do not wish to use the clichés employed by my predecessors along the lines of turning corners and so on, but we have been performing well. If the countries into which we are trading were not themselves in some difficulty, the prospects for a return to economic growth would be significant in the short term.

The most important question is the one raised by Senator Mulcahy as to whether we can secure a divvy-up of the proceeds. The notion of disposing of State assets and putting the cheque in an envelope to Monsieur Trichet in Frankfurt is not accurate. We are seeking to secure a share of the proceeds, which would allow us, through the NewERA vehicle, some flexibility in terms of investment, whether in broadband, energy or water. Senator Crown raised the issue of water supply, which is a matter of vital importance. People in this country think that because water falls so frequently from the sky we have no problem. That is not the case. We have a major problem which must be addressed by modernising our water facilities. The proposed bord uisce, or whatever it will be called, must be established. In order to take action in these areas we need access to a parallel stream of investment.

Senator Ó Clochartaigh raised the question of a better return for the State on oil and gas discoveries and asked whether I read the relevant SIPTU document. I have read that report and it is an interesting contribution to the debate. However, it is important that we avoid comparing apples and oranges. It is entirely incorrect to claim we are at the bottom of the league in terms of return. A person known to all Members has written several comparisons between Ireland and Norway in this regard. The reality is that there are no comparisons between us and Norway when it comes to oil and gas. It is its uniquely advantageous geological structure, which gives one a prospect of finding oil in one strike in four, that confers on Norway its position. In this country, by contrast, the strike rate has been one in 40. We have had only 156 drillings in 40 years.

The issue is the tax return we get from those drillings. It is the taxation regime, over which we have full control, which puts us at the bottom of the league.

The Minister should be allowed to continue without interruption.

A Government source provided the figures in this report.

I am trying to communicate the point that it does not matter whether the tax rate is 25% or 65% if the yield is zero. That is the problem.

We do not have a zero yield.

The question the Senator must answer is that if the tax take for the last 30 years at 25% has been too low, why have exploration companies not queued up around the coast and why are the gushers not coming onshore all over the country? My predecessor, Mr. Eamon Ryan, increased the tax rate on a sliding-scale basis from 25% to 40%. Now the Senator wants me to increase it further while securing a greater level of exploration activity. If companies were not attracted by a 25% rate, how will they be attracted by a higher rate? I have great difficulty in understanding the Senator's position.

Does that mean the Minister disagrees with the SIPTU report?

In terms of the arguments the Senator raised regarding security of supply——

They are not my arguments, they are SIPTU's arguments.

The Senator should allow the Minister to speak.

——we must increase the rate of exploration activity off our coast. Senator Crown makes a fair point in pointing to peak oil and to the folly of relying on hydrocarbons and so on. However, I am sure he will agree on reflection that it is not an argument, while we are moving to increase our renewable capacity, not to avail of resources if they are available. There are some who claim that such resources would wipe out the national debt with a stroke and that we would be pumping oil and gas into Dalkey in no time at all if it were not for the recalcitrance of the Minister and the Government.

Will the Minister review the Corrib field licences, as his party promised?

I have asked the Senator to allow the Minister to speak without interruption.

He is avoiding the questions.

What I am trying to do in the Corrib field is to get the gas ashore. In Norway, of which the Senator is so fond, it takes four years on average to bring gas ashore. It has taken 17 years to attempt to do so at Corrib. That is not exactly a great signal for this country to send.

There are reasons for that delay, as the Minister knows well.

Yes, there are reasons and some of them are fairly daft.

We are talking about people's rights and planning issues.

The Minister must be allowed to respond without interruption. Several Members have indicated a wish to ask questions and the debate is scheduled to conclude at 5 p.m.

What the Minister just said is scandalous.

Senator Ó Clochartaigh got ten minutes to speak, while others have not had an opportunity to contribute.

It is a scandalous remark.

It is not a scandalous remark. When the dispute began, the issue was local jobs. It then became an issue of safety, as if it is safer to carry out the process in turbulent waters than on land. Extraordinary measures have been taken to ensure the safety of the process, the most recent being An Bord Pleanála's decision to build a tunnel under Sruwaddacon Bay, an absolutely extraordinary decision whatever way one looks at it. People who were previously all about Shell to Sea have become converts to Shell out of Ireland. There is no point in pretending otherwise — let us call a spade a spade. In a warmer summer there would have been more people seeking to delay construction.

The Minister's former party colleague, Mr. Michael D. Higgins, has a different stance on the issue.

I apologise for interrupting the Minister. On a point of order, this is a question and answer debate but Senator Ó Clochartaigh has repeatedly intervened during the Minister's response. There are other Members waiting to ask questions or to hear the Minister's response to their questions. It is most unfair.

There is less than one minute left.

I have raised issues which will affect people on Monday.

With the Minister's agreement, I propose to assign an additional ten minutes to accommodate the five Members who have indicated their wish to speak.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I will look at the matter raised by Senator Kelly regarding the warmer homes schemes. I do not know what the answer is. The demand for the scheme is ramping up all the time and we are seeking to manage the budget in terms of prioritising spend and so on to cover as many homes as possible. However, if there are specific home owners in the Senator's constituency to whom an undertaking was given that the job would be finished, I cannot imagine why the work has become bogged down.

The SEAI operates this scheme punctiliously. I have had many representations from colleagues in both Houses. On all occasions when the customer is right it puts its hands up and does the business. When a customer misses a deadline, misunderstands something or starts work before approval it does not bend the rules. If Senator Kelly is aware of a group of people in that situation I will be happy to deal with it.

I only learned the word "fracking" a few months ago and I am amazed how informed everybody is about it. It would appear that general knowledge has been raised by a horror movie that has been hawked around town halls about the dangers of hydraulic fracking. We have to learn more about it. If people are concerned we have to take their concerns on board. It is wrong to say, as has been said in some parts of the country, that there is fracking in the Lough Allen Basin. There is not. Some desktop surveys are being carried out and, as far as I can find out, they are not a threat to anyone.

In terms of the stages the process would have to go through if it ever reached the stage of a company seeking an exploration licence, it would involve a rigorous process, including environmental impact studies and so on. It is true that in some parts of some countries the process has been banned. One presumes — I do not know — there must be a good reason for that. If there are concerns about infection or contagion of the water table we have to take them very seriously. For that reason I have asked the EPA to conduct a study for us. When I was last before the committee I advised it that an independent source of expertise and knowledge on this issue is necessary because there are charges and countercharges. We need an independent respected authority to comment on it and the EPA is anxious and willing to do that. It is preparing terms of reference and so on for such a study. I hope that will allay fears. Some fears are being stoked, but there may well be a serious issue and if there is it has to be addressed professionally.

Senator Barrett referred to the McCarthy report. I have commented on the asset disposal aspect. On the question of wind power, the author has views similar to those adduced by Senator Barrett. The problem is that if one seeks to address Senator's Crown's argument one does not have any choice but to build renewable capacity in this country. There is no alternative. I do not know how much can be contributed by biomass. I am involved in discussions with the European Commission on the biomass refit. It is clear that wind power will be a significant factor and it is true that we are uniquely endowed with a propitious wind resource.

Colm McCarthy's report is dismissive of this aspect because he concluded there will be a reliable gas supply. Given the developments with shale gas in the United States, he may be right. However, since he wrote the report gas prices have increased by 39%. In that kind of situation we cannot be at the mercy of the volatile importation of hydrocarbons. When Senator Barrett tracks the prices, he is making a fair point when he says that we should not just be average Europeans in terms of the cost to consumers of energy, rather we should aim to be the lowest. That is an admirable objective but the problem is we are price takers and we import at world market prices the gas that fuels our electricity and gas systems.

I am sure I have forgotten quite a number of things.

What about Vodafone?

Senator O'Brien is correct. I share his concern about the manner in which this issue is being addressed. However, Vodafone's position is that it is dealing with a competitive situation. For example, O2 moved to e-billing without asking permission. Vodafone finds itself disadvantaged as a result. We have talked to ComReg about this issue. It is issuing a consultation paper on it. We suggested to it that it is important that the status quo is observed until that happens.

In terms of public policy and the discussion we had earlier about broadband and the knowledge society, we have to strike a balance between customer rights and stimulating demand. I hope ComReg will be able to resolve that problem because people who cannot access the Internet are at a serious disadvantage. Preference has to be acknowledged.

Customers will be charged for that disadvantage by Vodafone.

That is true. I will try to address matters I have forgotten by way of questions.

There are two minutes left. Senator MacSharry was the first to indicate. I ask him to be brief.

I will be as brief as I can. The Minister touched on the issue of fracking but I cannot overestimate the level of public concern about it. The Minister will be aware of it from his parliamentary colleagues living in the area. The Minister has been a good communicator in all aspects of his political life heretofore——

The Senator should ask the question.

For the people of the north west a public information and consultation process needs to be announced immediately and engaged with. The people in the relevant counties want to realise the benefits of the bounty of the earth if it can be accessed safely. I am afraid that despite the polish of the corporate machine which, as the Minister said, some people may be stirring, there is a lot of genuine concern.

I ask the Minister, along with the EPA or another independent entity he said is necessary, to lead the independent information service on this issue and assure the people of Sligo, Leitrim, Cavan, Fermanagh and so on that their concerns will be addressed and no processes will be permitted to proceed if they threaten the environment and, above all, the quality of the water table, which as the Minister pointed out is the new oil.

Does the Minister wants to respond? There are about 30 seconds left in the debate.

I accept what the Senator said. There is concern in certain areas. However, I feel it is being stoked in some quarters. I have to take very seriously what the fears have given rise to. The first is the independent assessment by the EPA to which I referred. I accept what Senator MacSharry said, that there are people who are very fearful about the implications of this. The process that must be gone through is very rigorous. I repeat that I did not know about this issue until four or five months ago.

I am aware there is a conference in Warsaw in November, for example, which will be devoted to this issue. There is not a great deal of authoritative literature on it in Europe. The relevant parliamentary committee of the House of Commons has done a report on it and there is also the forthcoming conference I mentioned.

We have exceeded our allotted time. I am loath to interrupt the Minister but other Ministers are waiting. Unfortunately, not all of those who had asked questions got answers but I have no choice. We extended the time and as we have Ministers waiting, we will proceed to deal with Adjournment matters. When is it proposed to sit again?

Ar 10.30 maidin amárach.