National Fuel Scheme

Questions (43)

Thomas P. Broughan

Question:

43. Deputy Thomas P. Broughan asked the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources the progress since he took office in tackling the problem of fuel poverty. [34718/13]

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Written answers (Question to Communications)

There are forty-eight actions identified in the Affordable Energy Strategy, aimed at making energy more affordable for low-income households. This includes the following five priority measures: a commitment to review the National Fuel Scheme in the context of examining the feasibility of aligning income supports with the energy efficiency and income of the home, the phased introduction of minimal thermal efficiency standards for rental accommodation, ensuring greater access to energy efficiency measures, the introduction of an area based approach and reforming the eligibility criteria for energy efficiency schemes.

Work is being progressed by a range of Departments and Agencies on the implementation of the actions contained in the strategy. The Better Energy Warmer Homes programme is a pivotal element to the implementation of the Affordable Energy Strategy. Exchequer funding has enabled the delivery of energy efficiency measures in 99,471 homes since 2000. Despite the current economic challenges, the Government is committed to continuing to deliver energy efficiency measures to vulnerable households. The Better Energy Warmer Homes scheme has been allocated Exchequer funding of €21 million for 2013, which is expected to result in upgrades in nearly 12,000 homes.

Reform of the eligibility criteria for the Warmer Homes Scheme to address households in extreme energy poverty, defined as those who spend over 20% of their disposable income on energy services, was undertaken in 2012. Prior to this, applicants were considered eligible for the Scheme if they met defined criteria such as eligibility for the National Fuel Scheme. International research demonstrates that the elderly and pre-school children are most at risk. Taking this on board the criteria were revised to include; Fuel Allowance recipients; Job Seeker Allowance recipients (for over six months and with children under 7 years of age) and; recipients of Family Income Support.

The Fuel Allowance is funded by the Department of Social Protection and is a matter in the first instance for the Minister for Social Protection.

An area-based approach to the mitigation of energy poverty was introduced in 2012 and Exchequer funding of over €4.1 million was disbursed via this new model. The project uptake was so successful that it was extended into 2013.

The Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI) is currently undertaking a pilot programme of delivering energy efficiency upgrades to local authority owned homes, where the tenants are experiencing energy poverty. This is an innovative pilot allowing local authority tenants participate in the Better Energy Warmer Homes Scheme, for the first time. The expected number of homes to be addressed under the pilot is approximately 50 over the coming months, in the Longford and South Dublin County Council areas.

Broadband Services Speeds

Questions (44)

Gerry Adams

Question:

44. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources the way he will ensure that every home has access to 30Mbps broadband access; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [35029/13]

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Written answers (Question to Communications)

The Government's National Broadband Plan, which I published in August last, aims to radically change the broadband landscape in Ireland by ensuring that high speed services of 30Mbps are available to all of our citizens and businesses, in advance of the EU's target date of 2020, and that significantly higher speeds are available to as many homes and businesses as possible.

The Plan aims to deliver high speed broadband to all parts of Ireland through two principal means:

- by providing a policy and regulatory framework that assists in accelerating and incentivising commercial investment, and

- by providing a State-led investment for areas where it is not commercial for the market to invest.

Since the publication of the Plan, investments by the commercial sector are underway in both fixed line and wireless high speed broadband services, particularly in urban and semi-urban areas. ComReg has put in place a new regulatory regime for fixed line Next Generation Access and for service bundles, both of which are designed to incentivise the rollout of services by service providers. ComReg's multiband spectrum auction, completed in 2012, is also enabling the rollout of advanced mobile broadband services.

There is evidence that industry is investing beyond the targets to which they committed in the Plan with investments of up to €1bn underway. Some of the key developments in the short and medium term are as follows:

- Eircom launched its next generation broadband services on 16th May last, with speeds of up to 70Mbps, immediately available to over 300,000 premises. By the end of this year, Eircom aims to reach more than 600,000 homes and businesses. It has a target to pass 1.2m premises by June 2015.

- UPC is continuing with its investment in the cable network, which should see 750,000 homes able to access services at data speeds of up to 150 Mbps by 2015.

- Other fixed operators also continue to invest in Local Loop Unbundling (LLU). BT Ireland now supplies broadband access to both Vodafone and Sky Ireland, and along with other operators, is also investing in fixed infrastructure.

- Mobile wireless operators are making plans for the rollout of 4G services later this year. The operators are obliged, under the terms of the licences, to cover 70% of the population.

- ESB is currently considering the prospect of utilising its distribution network to roll out fibre broadband services.

In tandem with these commercial developments, intensive work is underway in my Department to progress a State-led investment to secure the countrywide introduction of next generation broadband access. The National Broadband Plan commits the Government to investing with the private sector to deliver high speed services to areas that are not commercially viable and where such services will not be provided by the market alone.

In order to progress the State-led investment, a full procurement process must be designed and EU State Aids approval must be obtained. My officials have commenced a comprehensive mapping exercise of the current and anticipated investment by the commercial sector to identify where the market is expected to succeed and fail in the delivery of high speed broadband services over the coming years.

The results of this mapping exercise will inform the level of Government intervention that may be required and the areas that need to be targeted in the State-led investment as envisaged in the National Broadband Plan.

Intensive technical, financial and legal preparations including stakeholder engagement will be ongoing throughout 2013 with a view to the launch of a procurement process in 2014.

Through the implementation of the National Broadband Plan, I am committed to increasing the availability of next generation speeds significantly, with a view to ensuring that all citizens and businesses can participate fully in a digitally enabled society.

Bioenergy Strategy Publication

Questions (45)

Maureen O'Sullivan

Question:

45. Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan asked the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources regarding the progress of the national bioenergy strategy, the way his Department is integrating its efforts in preparing this strategy with the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade; if he will describe the level of consultations between the Departments and the issues being discussed; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [27976/13]

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Written answers (Question to Communications)

My Department, along with the a number of other Departments and the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI), is currently finalising a Bioenergy Strategy, which will be published in the next few months. This will set out in detail the actions required to optimise the bioenergy sector’s contribution to the 2020 renewable energy targets.

Policy options are being assessed by a cross departmental working group made up of officials from my Department, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and SEAI to assess the most appropriate and cost effective means of meeting our challenging targets in the renewable energy sectors and positioning Ireland to meet post 2020 challenges.

Public Service Broadcasting Household Charge

Questions (46)

Dessie Ellis

Question:

46. Deputy Dessie Ellis asked the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources the collection system he will introduce for the new broadcasting charge; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [35027/13]

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Written answers (Question to Communications)

As the Deputy may be aware, my Department recently carried out a Value for Money Review on the proposal to introduce a Public Service Broadcasting (PSB) Household Charge. The independently chaired Review Group considered a range of issues in relation to the proposal, including the various options for the collection of the charge. The Group submitted its final report to me recently and I am now examining the results of its detailed deliberations.

I am sure that the Deputy will appreciate that with the development of any such new system, there is a depth of complexities to be be worked through in regard to how such a system could potentially be implemented and operated. For that reason, I am giving the detailed report and its recommendations my due consideration before making any final decisions in regard to the mechanics behind the introduction of this PSB Charge. I also intend to carry out a consultation process on the proposed charge, which would, inter alia, include consultation on the collection mechanism.

Trade Missions Issues

Questions (47)

Maureen O'Sullivan

Question:

47. Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade further to Parliamentary Question No. 67 on what basis he mentioned a figure of 50,000 being employed by Irish companies in Africa at the recent AWEPA conference in The Royal Hospital Kilmainham which then became 13,000 in South Africa, over 15,000 in West Africa and if he will detail which companies are active in which African countries. [35583/13]

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Written answers (Question to Foreign)

The promotion of stronger bilateral trade and investment remains one of the objectives of the Africa Strategy. This recognises the demand in Africa for goods and services in many of the fastest growing economies in the world. Irish companies engaged in telecommunications and financial services are helping connect people and business as well as improving transparency and accountability.

New technologies are making a major impact on governance in many markets. Electronic systems eliminate the need for cash payments and related opportunities for rent seeking. In addition to the provision of services, Irish companies that invest in African markets can provide much needed employment. The creation of decent jobs for men and women is one of the most important ways to redistribute wealth and reduce poverty in a rapidly growing economy.

In terms of employment, I have used the figures of 13,000 jobs in South Africa and 15,000 in West Africa. These are the best estimates available based on the trade visits to both markets in 2012. As my Department does not retain information on Irish companies or the markets in which they work, these figures are most likely underestimates.

During 2013, my Department will host a number of events to further enhance economic relations with Africa. In November, I will lead an Enterprise Ireland Trade Mission to both South Africa and Nigeria with a view to further stimulating bilateral trade and investment.

Overseas Development Aid Oversight

Questions (48)

Seán Crowe

Question:

48. Deputy Seán Crowe asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade if he will explain the way the Government's commitment to the International Aid Transparency Initiative processes on the work of his Department; if his Department has entered into any commitments under this process; what this process entails for his Department; and what, if any, timeframes are involved. [35642/13]

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Written answers (Question to Foreign)

At the High Level Forum of Aid Effectiveness, which was held in Accra, Ghana in 2008, international donors, including Ireland, agreed to increase the availability of information that is made publicly available about programmes supported through Official Development Assistance. The intention was to improve the transparency and predictability of funds committed by international donors as a means of improving its quality. In order for aid to be transparent donors must provide information about the aid they give in a manner that is publicly available and in a way that people can easily understand. The International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) was established to oversee the delivery of commitments made at the Accra meeting. It brings together donors, developing countries and civil society organizations with the aim of agreeing how to make aid information more accessible and comparable. Ireland has been a member of the International Aid Transparency Initiative since its inception in 2008.

During the High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness held in Busan, South Korea, in 2011, Ireland reaffirmed its commitment to aid transparency. In December 2012, a detailed implementation schedule for the publication of aid data was published on the Irish Aid website. This schedule commits Ireland to publishing aid information in line with the International Aid Transparency Initiative guidelines by the end of 2015. Implementation of this commitment is currently underway.

Human Rights Issues

Questions (49)

Brendan Smith

Question:

49. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade if he is satisfied that academic and medical freedom exists in Bahrain; the communications he has had with his counterpart in the Government of the Kingdom of Bahrain; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [35650/13]

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Written answers (Question to Foreign)

The overall human rights environment in Bahrain continues to be of serious concern. I have repeatedly called on the Bahraini Government to demonstrate its commitment to upholding human rights and to implement in full the recommendations of the Bahraini International Commission of Inquiry. The Commission has made specific recommendations which set out the way forward for Bahrain in terms of commitments in the areas of political dialogue, rule of law, human rights, and refraining from excessive violence. Full implementation of the recommendations in relation to human rights will contribute greatly to ensuring that medical and academic professionals can operate in an environment free of restriction, harassment or the threat of censure. I have ensured that Ireland’s concerns on human rights issues in Bahrain have been conveyed regularly to the Bahraini authorities and I will continue to do so.

In June, the Secretary General of my Department had the opportunity for a brief meeting with the Bahrain Minister for Foreign Affairs while heading the Irish delegation attending the annual EU-GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) ministerial meeting in Manama. The Secretary General also met with senior officials in the Bahraini Ministry of Human Rights, during which he pointed to the damage caused to the image of Bahrain by recent troubles and made clear that the release of certain prisoners, including the Irish-trained medical professionals, would have a positive impact on international opinion. Drawing on Ireland’s experience, the Secretary General urged the need for dialogue and reconciliation as well as full respect for human rights in efforts to address current political tensions within Bahrain. Officials in my Department also make clear our concerns to the Bahraini Ambassador in London as required; and Ireland’s Ambassador in Riyadh, who is accredited to Bahrain, has raised human rights issues directly with the authorities there on every appropriate occasion, including most recently with the Foreign Minister while the Ambassador was in Bahrain over the St. Patrick’s Day period.

US Surveillance in EU Institutions

Questions (50)

Brendan Smith

Question:

50. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade if the EU's External Action Service has reported to the EU Foreign Affairs Council on the clarification sought from the United States concerning their use of surveillance in European Union institutions and member states; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [35664/13]

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Written answers (Question to Foreign)

The allegations that have been made of United States surveillance in European Union institutions and member States are, if true, of obvious concern to all EU member States, including Ireland. The European Union, through its External Action Service, has sought clarification on these allegations in both Washington and Brussels. These issues were also discussed at a meeting of the EU-US working group on data protection and privacy rights which took place in Brussels on 8 July. The EU was represented at the meeting by the Commission, the Presidency of the Council and the External Action Service. A further meeting of this group is scheduled in the coming weeks. The Commission is expected to report on the findings of the group to the European Parliament and to the Council in due course.

While Ireland is not one of the member States identified in the media reports to date, the Government’s concerns have been conveyed bilaterally in contacts with the US Embassy in Dublin. We look forward to clarification being provided in response to the EU’s request.

Finally, I would like to emphasise that this country values greatly its relationship with the United States, both bilaterally and in the context of the European Union, and that we look forward to the continuation of this close and cooperative relationship in the period ahead.

Northern Ireland Issues

Questions (51, 63)

Brendan Smith

Question:

51. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade if he will outline the most recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and with members of the Northern Ireland Executive on the implementation of outstanding provisions in the Good Friday Agreement; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [35665/13]

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Niall Collins

Question:

63. Deputy Niall Collins asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the work he has done since taking up office in 2011 to advance the adoption of an Irish Language Act in Northern Ireland; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [35910/13]

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Written answers (Question to Foreign)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 51 and 63 together.

The main outstanding elements of the Good Friday Agreement are the Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland and the Irish Language Act.

In ongoing contacts with the British government, I continue to stress the importance of implementation of all aspects of the Agreements.

I will also continue to urge all the parties in the Assembly to engage in constructive discussion with a view to reaching agreement on the substance of a Bill of Rights. A Bill of Rights drawn up by agreement between the main parties of the Assembly could set out precisely and formally the rights upon which a shared society for Northern Ireland can be based.

I am firmly of the view that an Irish Language Act should be introduced in Northern Ireland. All parties to the Good Friday Agreement recognised the importance of respect, understanding and tolerance in relation to linguistic diversity in Northern Ireland. In the St Andrews Agreement, the British government committed to introducing an Irish Language Act and to working with the Northern Ireland Executive to enhance and protect the development of the Irish Language. The question of an Irish Language Act for Northern Ireland is a devolved matter and is the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Executive. Last year the Northern Ireland Minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure Ms. Carál Ní Chuilín MLA launched a public consultation process on strategies for the Irish language and Ulster Scots. A summary of the responses to the consultation process were published on 3 July 2013.

Officials in my Department maintain regular and ongoing contact with the Irish language community in Northern Ireland including those involved in cross community Irish language activity. I will continue to press in my discussions with the Northern Ireland Executive the urgent need to address this issue and to legislate for an Irish Language Act. Officials in my Department will continue to monitor this matter in their ongoing contacts with the Northern Ireland Office.

Northern Ireland Issues

Questions (52)

Brendan Smith

Question:

52. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the discussions he has had with members of the Northern Ireland Executive on the initiative launched in mid-May entitled Together Building a United Community; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [35666/13]

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Written answers (Question to Foreign)

I have previously welcomed the publication on 23 May 2013 by the NI Executive of a new strategy ‘Together: Building A United Community’. The publication of the strategy is an important acknowledgement of the ongoing blight of sectarianism across communities in Northern Ireland and recognition that building a shared society will require a comprehensive response across political, economic, civic and social life.

I welcome in particular the proposal to establish an All-Party Group, with an independent Chair from outside of the political parties, to consider and make recommendations on difficult matters including parades and protests; flags, symbols, emblems and related matters; and the past. The recent agreement by former US Special Envoy Richard Haass to Chair these all-party talks on contentious issues is an important development.

The Government will continue to support all efforts by the NI Executive and political leaders in Northern Ireland to promote reconciliation. The priority now, in my discussions with members of the Northern Ireland Executive, is to encourage and support them in implementing the Strategy and the work of the All-Party Group to its fullest extent, both in terms of promoting an ethos of respect and reconciliation and in implementing fully the individual practical proposals as set out in the Strategy.

I have discussed the Northern Ireland Executive initiative in my ongoing contacts with the Secretary of State, with the leader of the Alliance Party David Ford MLA and with the First and deputy First Minister and other Ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive.

In my discussions with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, with the First and Deputy First Minister, and with other members of the Northern Ireland Executive including the newly formed NI21 party, I will continue to encourage all parties to seize the opportunity provided by the new Together Building a United Community Strategy and by the All-Party talks to accelerate the realisation of a cohesive and united community based on tolerance and respect in Northern Ireland.