National Broadband Plan

Questions (46, 47)

Oral answers (21 contributions) (Question to Communications)

The first question is in the name of Deputy Dooley, who has 30 seconds to introduce it.

Was it wrong to have grouped the answers to Deputy Dooley's and Deputy Stanley's questions together?

Priority questions can be linked.

I am sure Deputy Stanley will not object.

I have no objection to what the Minister is saying.

The first Member who tables a question gets the 30 seconds to introduce it. Deputy Stanley is deprived of that under Standing Orders.

That is okay. I will forfeit the 30 seconds.

Deputy Stanley and I are good friends so we will not fall out over stuff like that.

Timmy Dooley

Question:

46. Deputy Timmy Dooley asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment the process by which the decision to proceed or not with the national broadband plan will be taken; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14175/19]

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Brian Stanley

Question:

47. Deputy Brian Stanley asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment the progress with regard to completion of the tender for the national broadband plan; and if it is decided not to progress with the tender, the alternative course of action being considered. [14277/19]

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This question concerns recent comments made by the Taoiseach on the national broadband plan. We understand from those comments that a recommendation will be brought to Cabinet before Easter. Thereafter, the Oireachtas will be consulted on whether the national broadband plan as it is currently constituted will go ahead. Can the Minister confirm this, and perhaps enlighten us as to what is the overall thinking of the Government and the Taoiseach in this regard?

I propose to take Questions Nos. 46 and 47 together.

First I will put the Deputies in the picture. They are well aware of the position of the national broadband plan. Since its inception it has driven very significant private sector investment, as it was intended to do. When we entered Government in 2016, 50% of premises had access to high-speed broadband. Over the past five years commercial development has led to investment of €2.75 billion in upgrading, expanding and modernising the networks. We are now in a position where 74% of premises have high-speed broadband. Despite that substantial progress, more than 1 million people and 100,000 enterprises, mostly in rural areas, are unlikely to receive this vital service from the private sector. These are mostly located in the more remote, dispersed and harder to reach areas in rural Ireland, which encompass 96% of our landmass. The challenges involved in providing high-speed broadband network in Ireland are significant due to the dispersed nature of the rural population.

As for the present plan, I note we have received a final bid from the tenderer. That is undergoing due diligence in my own Department with the involvement of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. I intend to bring a recommendation, as the Deputy said, to Cabinet before Easter. What happens after that will obviously depend on the Government's decision, but if a decision is being made one way or the other, we will obviously consult with the Opposition and the House at large. How that will be done will be decided as part of the decision.

While I accept the Minister's response, the second part of it is somewhat problematic because of the information available to the Oireachtas. We have had no role in this tender process to date, notwithstanding my best efforts and those of many others to elicit information along the way. We understand that the bidders' initial requirement was a clear position that the State would invest €500 million. SIRO and Eir cited their failure to develop a business case on that basis and as such did not proceed with a tender. We now understand from utterances of the Taoiseach that the cost will run to many multiples of that, possibly as high as €3 billion. That raises serious questions about how the Government can proceed with a project with an entity that went ahead and bid €3 billion when others were told that moneys like that were not available and pulled out of the race. There are issues around competency and whether this is the appropriate way to proceed. There are also issues regarding the role of Eir in providing broadband to another 80,000 premises, and perhaps that of Imagine, which has announced plans to cover 400,000 premises. The Minister expects the Dáil to make determinations on a lot of questions but we have been provided with no information along the way.

It is somewhat disingenuous of the Taoiseach to suggest he will let the Dáil be the final arbiter on a tender process into which we have had no input whatsoever.

The Taoiseach has been clear that the Government fully accepts responsibility for making a decision, but he has also signalled that a decision of this nature would bind future Governments. There would obviously be a significant period between the appointment of a preferred bidder and the signing of contracts and the Taoiseach has indicated that he would provide the opportunity for the Oireachtas to be consulted on it. I intend, depending on what decision is taken, to make full and extensive information available to Deputies for them to evaluate. As the Deputy knows, we have had debates here during which I have been at pains to point out that the issues being raised by Deputies such as the robustness of the technology, the adequacy of the governance arrangements, the way in which this issue is being scrutinised in view of the fact that there was only one tender left standing have been the subject of immense due diligence and detailed work by the Department. When I am in a position to bring forward a recommendation, one way or the other, it will be after the completion of the work the Oireachtas is very keen should be done. We intend to make information available to the House at that point, but I recognise that it is my responsibility to bring a recommendation to the Government having completed the scrutiny. I am very aware of the concerns the Deputies have raised.

My question relates to the completion of the tender process and the options if the State decides not to go ahead with the current tender process. In 2012 Sinn Féin brought forward a proposal that we use the State and semi-State infrastructure already in place, in particular the ESB and metropolitan area network, MAN, systems. A strange thing happened over the weekend. The Taoiseach and leader of the Minister's party said on Sunday that we could not use the ESB pole infrastructure for this purpose. In fact, he said we could not use poles at all, that it all had to be underground, even in rural areas. If that is the case, the ducting will have to be run underground as far the Black Valley in County Kerry, but it is not the case. I do not know who is briefing the Taoiseach. Is he not aware that Eir is already using poles? Is he not aware that the ESB is already using poles to hang SIRO broadband fibre cables? Let us try to put that notion to bed. It raised significant concerns for me when I heard the Taoiseach talking about it at the weekend. There are question marks over whether the Government and the Taoiseach fully understand the entire process. There have been four Ministers involved in this process and it looks farcical from the outside. We have one bidder and costs that have gone from €500 million to €3 billion. The Government has no bargaining power. Does the Minister honestly believe this is still a competitive tender process? Is the real story not that the whole project is in serious trouble?

The project was opened for a competitive dialogue at the end of 2015. Contrary to what the Deputy said, there was not a financial framework imposed by the State. There was no indication as to what the framework would be. It was a competitive dialogue because it had been designed to ensure we would have the best technology-----

The best technology available at the time.

-----to meet the 100% target set by the Government. State enterprises such as the ESB did enter the competition, but, as we now know, it withdrew. The process had been very competitive until the point at which it was decided that the remaining competitors would withdraw. At that point, an additional approach of scrutiny was put in place by the Government to ensure that, even though there were no longer separate bids, the issue of value for money could be properly evaluated. It has been put in place and outside consultants have looked at a range of costs and tested the various assumptions, projections and submissions made by the tenderer. When I come to make a recommendation, albeit there is only one tender standing, it will be on the basis of a tender which has been scrutinised, with all proper due diligence. It has been a robust process. As the Deputy has indicated, the issue is that this is not cheap. We will have to make a decision on whether we want to go ahead with it.

The Minister indicated that, because the lifetime of the project would potentially traverse a number of Administrations, he would seek the views of the House. Most big infrastructural projects have the capacity to be a burden on the State which runs beyond one or two Administrations and it is not always necessarily the case that the Government comes back to the House.

The Minister also indicated that there will be an interregnum between the appointment of the contractor as a preferred bidder and the signing of the contract. Will he give some indication as to the timeframe he sees between identifying a preferred bidder and the signing of the contract?

The Minister said it had started out as a competitive process. I was here for all of that time and followed it day by day. That is correct. However, it is not now a competitive process and it does not matter what scrutiny process the Minister's Department puts in place, or what consultant comes in to undertake it, the Government is still at the mercy of that one bidder. That fact seems to be completely lost on it. It will be tied to this one, privatised model and one particular company. The cost has escalated many times over, if the Taoiseach is telling the truth. Britain has found that over one third of its public private partnerships are renegotiated within a five-year period. Will there be a further escalation of cost in the course of the contract if there are renegotiations?

The Minister has referred to the number of places, houses and businesses now connected as opposed to the number three years ago. That is in spite of, not because of, the broadband plan. The Department and the broadband plan had nothing to do with it. Eir cherry-picked the households which were easiest to reach throughout the county.

Deputy Stanley is simply wrong. The previous Government decided that 750,000 premises would be included in the intervention area but Eir decided that it did not want to let it go. Therefore, it committed to making an investment that would deliver a service to 300,000 homes. That was its right under the state aid procedure.

It is now €40,000 more expensive.

The Deputy needs to understand it is an obligation of the State that a commercial bid from a private company has to be granted. That stimulated Eir to come in with a commercial proposition.

To answer Deputy Dooley's question, the period between a preferred bidder being identified and the finalisation of the contract will be several weeks. This is a 25-year contract to build and operate a broadband network. There will always be one operation doing it and part of the contract is to look at a number of costs that will have to be incurred over a 25-year period and the take-up during that 25-year period which will have an impact on the revenue received by the operator. This will always involve the due diligence and scrutiny we have undertaken because an individual company will have to be selected to deliver the process and effective governance will be needed having undertaken due diligence ahead of the process.

Online Safety

Questions (48)

Timmy Dooley

Question:

48. Deputy Timmy Dooley asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment the timeline for the establishment of the office of digital safety commissioner; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14176/19]

View answer

Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Communications)

On 27 September 2016 the Law Reform Commission published its report on harmful communications and digital safety. The report noted that the revolution in telecoms and digital media had some negative aspects. Examples include the intentional victim shaming of individuals, sometimes referred to as "revenge porn". Other negative developments include intimidating and threatening online messages directed at private persons and public figures. To combat this, the Law Reform Commission proposed the creation of an online regulator. Until recently this recommendation had been opposed by the Government. There has been a welcome, though long overdue, change in that position. When does the Minister propose to bring a Bill to this House to establish such a commission?

On 4 March, I announced my intention to bring forward a new online safety Bill, which will set out how we can ensure children are safe online. There is broad consensus within the House that this is necessary. Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin and Independents have indicated that they are keen for such a Bill to be progressed. The online safety Bill I am proposing would place new requirements on operators to operate an online safety code that would set out the steps they take to keep their users safe online and to include within that code a number of issues such as, at a minimum, a prohibition on harmful content, addressing serious cyberbullying and providing a complaints procedure whereby people can request material be taken down, with timelines for addressing complaints.

A regulator in the form of an online safety commissioner with appropriate powers would oversee the new system. The online safety commissioner would have a number of powers, which may include certifying that each online safety code is fit for purpose or requiring changes to it; requiring regular reports from the industry; reviewing the measures which a service has in place, including its content moderation systems; and requiring the removal from an online platform of content deemed harmful.

The new law will seek to protect Irish residents using online platforms based in Ireland with appropriate provisions and to implement EU law in regard to video-sharing platform services, on-demand audiovisual media services and traditional television on an EU-wide basis.

Although it is impossible to remove every danger from the Internet or from the adaptation of new technology, we need to ensure that parents and children are better equipped, that online platforms take responsibility and that the State can provide regulation and enforcement. I am determined to make progress as quickly as possible and look forward to working with Deputies across the House in that regard. A consultation is currently under way and will close on 15 April. I urge all interested stakeholders to provide their views in order that they can be considered.

The Deputy will be aware that the Taoiseach indicated that he would like to see the Bill enacted by the end of this year and that is the schedule to which I will be working.

I welcome that indicative timeline because the concept and issues surrounding a digital safety commissioner have been well ventilated through various Private Members' Bills and motions in this House. There is a high level of understanding within the Oireachtas of the issues at play and the hurdles to implementing such a measure. Fianna Fáil is committed to completing the process of the introduction of such a commissioner as quickly as possible.

It is important to move away from the self-regulation regime, which has fallen well below expectations. It is obvious that it has not been successful in protecting the vulnerable in the sector. As I made clear in a Bill worked on by Fianna Fáil, it is vital that the regulation has the appropriate teeth and that that is apparent. In that context, I know the Minister previously referred to considering the imposition of fines on companies for any breach of the law. I ask him to set out what he has in mind at this early stage in terms of penalties and deterrents for organisations that fail to meet their requirements under the proposed law.

I accept the points made by the Deputy in terms of the need for an effective regulator and that the time for self-regulation in this area has passed. Obviously, regulated companies are subject to criminal law. Where they breach criminal law, that is a matter for the Minister for Justice and Equality and the Garda. However, the type of offences envisaged under the proposed Bill would involve a company failing to act in accordance with directives from the online safety commissioner. The approach normally taken in law and which I expect will be reflected in the Bill is that there would be an issuing of a notice in the first instance and that a failure to comply with the notice would lead to an offence. We have not yet decided what the precise fines will be, but they will be regulated in accordance with the seriousness of the offence. This is an issue on which consultation is now under way. If the Deputy wishes to put forward ideas regarding the penalty regime, we would be happy to receive them.

Fianna Fáil certainly will do so because, as the Minister is aware, the technology platforms in respect of which most of the concerns arise have turnovers of billions rather than millions of euro. We have recognised that some harmful content is used by certain digital platforms to attract eyeballs, whether for gratification or in disgust. Regardless of the reason for viewing such content, it retains people on the platforms and provides a mechanism to sell advertising and capture the dollars attached thereto. Whatever code is put in place and whatever laws flow from it to run alongside the digital safety commissioner, it is imperative that the deterrents are commensurate with the size and profits of these companies rather solely being linked to the offence as described because we have seen the capacity of these companies to fail to even meet their own standards. They recognise the value of keeping people online. Fianna Fáil will be happy to contribute to the development of appropriate sanctions in that regard.

It is very important that we have effective penalties. In addition, the industry must recognise that as well as being a legal obligation, it is at the heart of its business to ensure that its users are safe online. Interestingly, in Australia, which is far ahead of Ireland in this area, there are strong penalties but it has not been necessary to use them. It is interesting that there is a growing consensus even within the industry that it needs regulation and that, from its own point of view, the period of self regulation has not been good enough. It is to be hoped that we will get very considerable co-operation from the industry. Notwithstanding that, I agree with the Deputy that where there are abuses, the penalties must be meaningful from the point of view of these very large companies.

Post Office Network

Questions No. 50 replied to with Written Answers.

Questions (49)

Brian Stanley

Question:

49. Deputy Brian Stanley asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment the position regarding the future of An Post retail and mail delivery and sorting businesses in the context of the retention of the universal social obligation. [14278/19]

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Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Communications)

I refer to the retail and mail delivery services of An Post. A significant amount of work was done to reform An Post. This House passed legislation in that regard and there was cross-party support for ensuring that the company was put in a more secure position. However, there is still uncertainty in regard to the survival of the post office network and, in particular, the mail distribution network and mail centres. What options for the survival of the mail centres has the Minister considered in his discussions with An Post? When will we know their future?

An Post is a commercial State company with a mandate to deliver a postal delivery service and a viable post office network. It is also designated as the sole universal service provider under the Communications Regulation (Postal Services) Act 2011 which requires it to, among other matters, fulfil the universal service obligation of a five-day-per-week delivery service.

Operational matters and the role of developing and implementing commercial strategies for An Post mails and retail businesses are matters for its board and management. An Post has developed a strategic plan which includes measures such as investing €50 million in growing and modernising the post office network; splitting the company into two distinct business units, namely, An Post Mails and Parcels and An Post Retail; relaunching its parcel business following a breakthrough labour agreement; and diversifying and growing its financial service products. It has recently reported strong growth in its parcel business and a much improved financial performance. It is continuing to make good progress in implementing its strategic plan which will see a range of developments across the mails and retail businesses. A refreshed and modernised An Post brand has been launched in recent weeks, alongside a new financial services proposition, An Post Money, and a new business-to-business brand, An Post Commerce.

A €30 million loan was provided by the Government to An Post to support the required transformation programme. This helped ensure the continued delivery of the universal service obligation to deliver post to every address every working day - which is a European Union requirement - and to support a nationwide post office network.

The Deputy raised the issue of the sorting business. In 2017, as part of a Labour Court recommendation the payment of a pay increase was conditional on necessary cost savings being achieved. One of the requirements was the closure of one of the four An Post mail centres. No decision has been made by the company on which centre shall close.

Although it is a matter for the board and management of An Post, it is also a matter for the shareholder, on behalf of the public, which owns it. The Minister is the representative of the shareholders in this matter. There has been reform in this area. The McKinsey report has been completed.

The results of the report were that one mail centre would close. Has the Minister of State discussed this with management of An Post? Has he given any direction to An Post in that regard? What is the Government's preference? What will happen to mail centres such as the one in Portlaoise where 200 people are employed full time and there are hundreds more temporary staff? An additional new facility has been built beside the mail centre and taken over by An Post. It is also available for local distribution. In about two or three months the front door will be on the N80 because of the completion of the orbital route around Portlaoise. It is only 1 km from the N7 and N8 junction and only a couple of hundred metres from a rail connection on the main Dublin-Limerick-Cork railway line. Therefore, it is in a very strategic position. Workers in the company and that centre need certainty.

In September 2017 the Labour Court issued a recommendation on a 2% pay increase from July 2017 in An Post. The payment was conditional on the achievement of necessary cost savings. As I said, one of the requirements was the closure of a mail centre. There are four mail centres. There is one each in Athlone, Cork, Dublin and Portlaoise. No decision has been made on which centre will close. Consideration in that regard is ongoing. I re-emphasise that the final decision will be made by the board and management of the company. The Minister, Deputy Bruton, had general discussions with An Post but no specific discussions on what it should do and no direction will be issued to the company. This is an operational issue. Any job losses will continue to be managed in accordance with the industrial relations framework within An Post.

I am aware of the 2% pay increase and on what it was conditional, but there is a new situation in that the parcel business has grown hugely and An Post is short of warehouse space because of it. The growth has given a new lease of life to the four mail centres in terms of the utilisation of space and the demand for facilities. We should not, therefore, be taking an axe to the centre when there is a viable business. I am informed that the parcel business increased by nearly 40% last year. The centre's closure would have huge economic consequences for the whole community and the midlands. County Laois has not exactly been top of the list when it comes to IDA Ireland investments, although there have been a couple of very recent welcome announcements. We have had the Kerr and McKinsey reports. There is a long way to go to reach the strategic position where the centre will be located in all transport hubs, including rail and road and everything else to which I have pointed. There are a couple of hundred workers who have mortgages and families and are trying to get their children through the education system. In many cases, the sole income earner in the family is the worker in the mail centre. It is time to remove the uncertainty.

I re-emphasise that this is an operational issue. What the Deputy has said about the increase in the parcel business is good news. With our strategic plan, An Post has turned itself into a company that is moving forward and developing new business. It has been and will be strategic in its approach and the decisions it will make on the mail centre. It will do so in its best interests to ensure it will remain viable and also in the best interests of the workers within it to ensure the business can develop and that any decision it makes will help it to develop. It is good news that An Post is looking for new business and creating new models. It is very good news for rural Ireland. However, any decision An Post makes will be in its interests and those of the workers and the general public.

Questions No. 50 replied to with Written Answers.