Cement (Repeal of Enactments) Bill, 1999 [ Seanad ] : Second Stage (Resumed).

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

I made the most important points in my contribution last night. I welcome the repeal of the legislation. Everybody is agreed that it had passed its sell-by date. It will remove the protection provided to Cement Roadstone. We all accept that such protection is no longer necessary for what is now a very successful company.

What measures will be taken by the Government to facilitate other companies entering the cement manufacturing market? There have been many claims that the CRH monopoly has been abused and that it kept some smaller companies out of the business. While the Bill will remove the protection given to CRH, all of us must ask if it will still be in such a strong position that it will be difficult for potential investors to enter the market. The Government must examine what can be done to help other companies enter the market and compete with CRH. We all know of some prospective entrants and I wonder what measures will be taken if we find they cannot enter the market because of the dominant position of CRH. A company which already has 80% of the market share should not be allowed increase that share. The Minister should ensure those who wish to enter the market are able to do so.

Last night I asked the Minister to carefully examine the submission made by the Quarry and Concrete Family Alliance which has raised very interesting and serious questions in its submission. It is up to the Minister to examine some of the points made and to investigate their truth or otherwise. At the end of the day we do not want a situation where the repeal of the Cement Acts changes nothing. If that happened, it would be pointless repealing the Acts. Now that the Acts are being repealed we want to ensure others have an opportunity to enter the market and that those who take the risk and are prepared to invest in cement manufacturing have equal opportunity and the help and support they need. At the end of the day we should have a better, more competitive and fairer cement manufacturing industry.

I commend the Minister on repealing the Acts, but want her to realise that the process does not end with repeal. If things are to change other measures may have to be taken and I trust the Minister will take no board the points made by Members.

(Dublin West): On its own, repealing the Cement Acts, 1933-1962 – simply removing the requirement to have a licence to manufacture cement – does not amount to much. The necessity to have a licence was not, particularly in recent decades, what shaped the cement and quarrying industries. Rather it was shaped by how the licence regime was applied at an earlier time and how the effects of that were allowed accumulate. However, repeal of the Acts allows an important opportunity to debate the extremely important quarrying and concrete manufacturing and supply industry as it operated for almost 70 years, to see what lessons should be learned and what policies should be implemented.

The granting of a licence to Cement Limited in the 1930s created a private monopoly in the production of cement. When that company was merged with Roadstone in 1969 it created a massive private monopoly which had huge power in cement, quarrying, concrete, black top, explosive and related industries. Since then we have had nothing short of a ruthless policy by the CRH monopoly of bullying of small competitors, sharp practice and unfair trading, driving small operators out of the market. It bought its competitors, usually by pressurising them so they had no option but to sell.

The exposé broadcast by RTE in 1988, which is still in its files, exposed the ruthless measures in which this major capitalist firm indulged in order to maintain a monopoly and to rake in profits. When spokespersons for CRH appeared on television and admitted that they had gone to Spain to nobble suppliers of cement for small competitors of CRH we saw what had come to pass in regard to the industry in Ireland. Why did one operator have such power? Why was it allowed to get away with its position of power and abuse it relentlessly for such a long time? CRH was like an octopus within the Irish capitalist economy. Its directors were also directors of the biggest banks, Allied Irish Banks and Bank of Ireland, and there was an intermeshing of directors with many other companies, industries and powerful institutions. What has emerged from investigations and tribunals over the past few years sheds much light on the cement industry and how it operated. We know now that Mr. Traynor was a chairman—

The Deputy should not make charges or name people in the House under privilege. It is out of order to do so.

(Dublin West): I guarantee you, a Cheann Comhairle, that anything I say—

The Deputy should not use the privilege of the House to name people.

(Dublin West): I am not abusing the privilege of the House because anything that has been said in the media or in tribunals may be subject to the courts but what I am referring to is on the public record and is proven fact.

Again, I ask the Deputy not to name names or make references to people who can be identified.

(Dublin West): We know that an illegal bank was run from CRH headquarters, a major multinational company, and that the majority of its directors held illegal Ansbacher accounts. That is an incontrovertible fact and it sheds light on the enormous monopoly power that this company was allowed to wield over the economy. Important captains of industry who were also captains of many other powerful financial and industrial concerns led the company and they acted to protect the privilege, power and effect of this monopoly.

The other question that arises, which has not been teased out properly in the debate, is the extent of the political patronage which this company enjoyed. Why was it allowed to get away with adopting methods which were quite scandalous and which were publicised on television in 1988? CRH admitted to using such methods. Why was nothing done to curb this monster as it drove small operators, family firms, etc., out of the market or gobbled them up using ruthless methods? Later we will debate a Bill which provides for the banning of financial contributions by corporations to political parties. I would like all the establishment political parties in the House to spell out during that debate—

The Deputy is going far beyond the scope of the Bill. The Bill contains a narrow set of proposals and the Deputy should address his remarks to the terms of the Bill before the House.

(Dublin West): A Cheann Comhairle, in fairness, I have not gone further than any other speaker in this House or in the Seanad. Other Members have wandered much further than I on various Bills and motions and have not been called to account.

We are debating the repeal of the Cement Acts and what should, therefore, replace them. It is time to reflect on why the industry developed the way it did and where it goes from here. That is quite legitimate. It would be appropriate for all political parties to outline publicly the financial contributions, if any, they received from CRH. The company has stated that it gave money to political parties. There has been an outbreak of saintliness among the establishment parties in the past few days about corporate funding. They should declare their interests.

CRH's position within the cement industry and, perhaps, political patronage explain the scandal whereby it was allowed to acquire Glen Ding quarry in 1991 for £1.25 million, which was a tiny fraction of the value of the quarry and its products. Many observers pointed out that it contained approximately £70 million worth of sand and gravel reserves but it was sold to CRH for £1.25 million without tender or public competition. The Government stubbornly resisted and voted against amendments which I moved in regard to the setting up of tribunals. That scandal involved the misuse of a public property but the Government refused point blank to refer it to the tribunals to get to the bottom of it.

Another scandal was that the price of cement was grossly inflated over much of the period that CRH was in control. The company was not brought to book on it and its position was protected. Answers are also needed in this regard because the effect was that all others sectors of society, for which cement and concrete are such important components in terms of investment and building, paid the price. Ordinary working people pay mortgages over 20 or 30 years and some even have 40 year mortgages because of the unrestrained speculation in the housing market. Part of the cost of the mortgage hanging around their necks results from the excessive price of cement that a private monopoly was allowed to charge, unchallenged by the political establishment. The upshot was that in that time CRH was allowed to build itself into a major multinational company operating in 18 countries, with 37,000 employees at no fewer than 1,100 locations, and become a hugely profitable enterprise. Last year it earned a profit of £563.9 million.

Given that this position was allowed to exist for decades with the connivance of the political establishment, a number of principles should be adopted. Small operators and family firms in this industry must not continue to be crushed by this giant multinational and repealing the Acts will not change anything unless some other important changes are made. The inability of the Competition Authority to examine this industry is scandalous. I would like the Minister to outline what steps will be taken and resources provided to the authority so that an independent assessment can be carried out in regard to the monopoly in the cement industry. The findings of the assessment should be published. It is believed that the head of the Competition Authority resigned because insufficient resources were provided to examine the industry. We want the Minister to tell the House what will happen in that regard.

Small firms that pay their workers trade union rates of pay, allow for trade union rights where they are sought, and have proper health and safety conditions, must not be crushed by this monster. I want to hear what the Minister has to say about this matter. Such a massive private monopoly should never have been allowed to operate. Just as the electricity and transport companies were developed as public enterprises, the concrete and quarrying industry should have been developed as a publicly owned enterprise. This major component of the economy should be publicly owned and steered in an entirely different direction with input from the firm's thousands of workers. The board should also include representatives of consumers, those purchasing homes, construction industry workers and the Government. In that way the company would be able to provide a service rather than being a grab-all entity for the benefit of a few major shareholders and directors. Such a move is needed particularly at this time when we are experiencing a housing crisis. Young people on average incomes cannot even contemplate obtaining a mortgage because of the outrageous speculation and profiteering in building land and in the construction industry.

The Government has failed to take on vested interests – the people who have financed the Fianna Fáil Party for decades – and challenge the profiteering that has occurred. This morning we heard that inflation is running at 5%, thus wiping out at a stroke the minuscule gains for social welfare recipients in the budget and also wiping out the entire gains contained in the national wage agreement. In the circumstances, we need more from the Government than repetitive statements that sometime in the coming year it will all turn around and everything will be all right. Answers are being sought but the Government is not providing them.

It is outrageous that a small cabal of land developers and builders is being allowed to get away with exactly the same thing that the major quarrying and concrete manufacturer was allowed to get away with for decades. Despite all the pious platitudes of the last few weeks about cleaning up Irish politics, what has changed? In fact, with no illegalities involved, the political establishment refuses to raise a finger and is still totally beholden to the massive private interests in construction and land speculation. If such a powerful company was in public ownership and directed to social concerns, people could have the homes they require at a reasonable cost. We could house all our people as there would be provision for everybody on the housing list. In conjunction with action to stop illegal speculation and control the price of building land, the local authority housing list could be cleared in one or two years. This would also remove the despicable and disgraceful situation where a few opportunist politicians attempt to use the plight of the poor and homeless as a battering ram against a few thousand poor people seeking asylum.

I wish to mention the Government's future policy direction in this area. Unfortunately, we will not see action that will allow social concerns to dominate the construction and quarrying industries because the Government is comprised of two extreme right wing parties. However, the possibility that other cement manufacturers might seek permission to enter the market raises serious questions for the future, particularly with regard to the environment. The Minister should comment on the fact that the removal of the licence will make it easier for others to apply for permission. We do not want to see any weakening of the stringent conditions to protect the environment, including the eco-system, as a result of new cement manufacturing capacity. The Government should state clearly that the most stringent conditions will attach to any new applications so that environmental integrity will be a key factor in determining whether permission is granted.

There has been a broad welcome for the provisions of the Bill which will repeal the Cement Acts, 1933-1962. I commend you, a Cheann Comhairle, for allowing this important debate which allows Members to set out their concerns arising from the effects of those Acts over the years. It is timely to assess their impact. The original Cement Act achieved for the cement industry, and for the country, much of what was intended back in the 1930s. There is a considerable body of evidence, however, that subsequently the effect of the various Acts was quite negative and that much damage was done. A great deal of disturbing information, both within and outside the public domain, needs to be examined. It would be remiss of us not to air these concerns on the occasion of the repeal of these enactments, and most speakers have done so. Has the information that is in the public domain been acted upon? We are aware that on one occasion the EU took action, but no action of any consequence was taken here on foot of that major investigation, or to investigate further rumours and allegations. The principal reason was that it was not the practice at that time to examine any such concerns in the way that has become fashionable more recently. There is also a suggestion that people did not want such an investigation because they were afraid of the findings. An assessment needs to be undertaken of the extent to which that was a factor in the investigations not taking place.

As various speakers have mentioned, we currently have tribunals investigating payments to politicians, planning matters and hepatitis C. Shocking stories are emerging from all of them. The seriousness of some of the allegations in the public domain concerning the cement industry warrant thorough examination and action. CRH has a particular corporate culture which clearly did not and could not have existed at the time of the enactment of the first Cement Act in 1933. Its strategic vision as set out more recently is "to be an international leader in building products and materials and deliver sustained and superior returns to all our stakeholders". In fairness, it does not say "shareholders", although some people may judge that that is what is meant. It has become the fourth largest building materials group in the world and is listed on the Dublin and London stock exchanges. Its marketable capitalisation exceeds £4 billion and it is the second largest company in Ireland, after Elan.

I have to quote figures from 1997 because they are the ones most readily available to me. As Members of the House will be aware, individual Members simply do not have the resources to obtain the information we need to make the points that need to be made. In 1997, the pre-tax profits were £253 million and of that the Irish market accounted for 11% of the sales revenue but a massive 25% of the trading profit. That is a level of disproportion that sets off alarm bells in my mind. I understand that figures for the years immediately before that, some of which relate to an era when the healthy national economy and the buoyancy in the property market did not exist, are fairly similar, as are more recent ones.

(Dublin West): £560 million.

What factors allowed CRH to take such a disproportionate profit from the Irish market and what effect did it have on the housing market and State investment in infrastructure and roads where materials are clearly an important cost?

Lest I give the impression that I have nothing good to say about CRH, my experience of the company as an employer suggests the opposite. A number of my constituents work in the cement plant in Limerick and they have no complaints about their terms of employment. Several others work for CRH provinces and consider it a good employer.

In environmental terms, the Bunratty quarry, which is in an extremely sensitive area, immediately adjoining the folk park, several hotels and shops for the tourism industry, recently won an award for the environmental control that is imposed on that property. It is fair to acknowledge the record of the company in this respect, which is not just a recent reaction to public concerns about the environment, and to acknowledge particularly that even in bad times CRH was a good employer. Unlike many others, I have never heard a complaint about the company as an employer.

We must examine the effect of the monopoly on cement prices and other building material prices. More importantly, in the context of this debate, we must examine whether the simple repeal of enactments, which is the procedure under way here, has any effect on that. Will we continue to have a substantial proportion of house costs and costs of infrastructural projects under the national plan diverted to enhance the profits of this company? Do we even know where these costs arise and the extent to which this artificially created monopoly is facilitated in achieving this result? It is fair to say also that some or all of these effects may have arisen quite legally. If they continue legally there are serious defects in the law as it stands. Merely repealing this enactment, which refers solely to cement, does not adequately address the problems.

On the other hand, if the monopoly continues in operation and contravenes existing laws, why are measures not taken to dismantle it? Is it a lack of resources or a lack of will? Do we require action in relation to this matter similar to the US authorities' initiative against Mr. Bill Gates and Microsoft? Do we need to examine more closely what is happening? Besides taking cheap shots at political parties which happen to be in power for a long time, do we need to examine the cross-over of directors between various banks and CRH? Do we need, as many people suggest, to examine themodus operandi which led to the take-over of family quarries and which appears to have been closely connected to the banks' stranglehold on them and on their finances?

Do we need a Competition Authority?

I will come to that, Deputy. Is it a coincidence that various directors of CRH also happen to be directors of the relevant banks dealing with these companies? We will not contend that the banks have covered themselves in glory in recent times on several fronts.

While CRH was the monopoly, there is some evidence that these kind of activities extended a good deal further than this group. We had the story recently where the Kinnegad residents had a considerable payment made to them by the Quinn group.

An anonymous source.

That may have been because of altruistic concern about the environment but is it not a lot more likely that it was for an entirely different reason?

It is not just likely; the reason is certain.

An industry widemodus operandi exists which needs to be examined closely.

Some people will say, perhaps with some justification, that the Cement Acts of 1933 and 1962 were not necessary and that the industry would have developed without the kind of protectionism which was built into them, but to contend that would be to misunderstand and underestimate the difficulties which were faced by the State in the 1930s. Any fair assessment would find that there was need for the legislation at that time and perhaps a need for the 1962 legislation which followed it. After that era, perhaps from the 1970s onwards, there may well have been a case for the action which is now taking place.

It is difficult to argue that the cement certification scheme of the 1980s was warranted by the needs of the industry or the country at that time. Questions arise about that, just as many Deputies have said that there are questions about the transfer or sale of Glen Ding. If the State were to examine all these details, either through one of the existing tribunals or by another means, and if it were established that inappropriate influence caused this action and its effects and that the effects were inimical to the interests of the State, what action could be taken in that regard? What remedies are available? Are there remedies currently available which are not being taken or are remedies required which are not covered in the existing legislation?

In addition, we have the establishment of the fact that an illegal bank was operated from the head office of CRH. That hardly enhances the image of the company and does not imbue great confidence in those of us who would be generally disposed to defending and protecting the interests of Irish companies in the interest of the country and its citizens.

On the occasion of the repeal of these enactments we need to examine what other obstacles to competition have existed over the past 20 years, and may still exist, and the extent to which they need to be addressed. Could CRH, for example, have blocked competition most effectively without these legislative measures by having its tentacles in several areas and having a range of influence which allowed it to monopolise without this legislation? In relation to one of the questions which comes up frequently, namely, the take-over of Greencore quarries, were there joint directors? Did those directors have any role? If politicians of any party had been duly involved, they would not be able to withstand the questions being raised about this issue. Directors who happened to be in both companies should not be allowed to avoid investigation of their involvement.

A serious question arises as to the reason a huge company which happened to be in a position to take over various other quarries, mostly family quarries throughout the country, would have chosen for many years, until it was outed, to hide its involvement in these quarries and to effectively deny such involvement. I suggest it is a little unusual for people to hide involvement when the involvement is entirely innocent.

I mentioned the European action which was taken and the Cembureau agreement which was a strategy against imports and the future of the cement industry in 1983. In that agreement, which involved a huge number of cement manufacturers across Europe, a number of dissuasive measures, as they called it, were proposed. Among them was the placing of administrative obstacles, the imposition of quality standards, the destabilising of the market and dealing with shippers. Ireland is credited with having started these discussions and we need to address the question of why, having had that EU investigation and having had a massive fine imposed on the country, we did not follow up that aspect.

I come to the question that was posed earlier in relation to the resignation of the competition enforcer. It has been suggested that this happened because he was refused the staff needed to examine the operation of Irish industry, including the dominant position of CRH. If that is the case, it is within the power of the Government to address it and there is no excuse for not doing so. I have already referred to the cross-directorships between banks and CRH and the coincidental takeover of various quarries.

CRH and the Quinn Group are among five companies found guilty of operating a price-fixing agreement in Northern Ireland between 1985 and 1992. The British restrictive practices court took action against them and made a finding. This country needed to take similar action and it is not too late to do so now. It is clear that this industry operated a system of co-operation throughout Europe which restricted competition on an enormous scale and inflated prices in several areas. It would be remiss of this House to let this opportunity go without examining that and the other issues brought to our attention, for example, the manner in which a mining licence was granted to Dolomite and how charges due to Revenue and other Departments have been pursued, or not pursued, as may be the case. Why can people not obtain information? There is a wide range of issues involved which impact on the economy and the national interest.

Those who have complained have tended to be the small man. They are similar to those who were infected by blood products and treated carelessly in different areas of Irish life. These people did not have a strong enough voice to present their cases, so they were dismissed on various grounds, sometimes fairly but frequently, as the tribunals are discovering, extremely unfairly. These people may not have the resources but they have a right to have their cases heard. The onus is on this House to ensure that happens.

I welcome the Bill which repeals the Cement Acts of 1933 to 1962. There are many theories on why this legislation is being introduced at this time. However, what is important is that the Acts are being repealed. This will have an important impact on our building trade. It is interesting to look at the provisions of the first Act in 1933. The then Minister's private secretary sent a letter to Irish Cement Limited in 1936 informing it that it had been granted a licence and outlining its establishment and how it was to operate. It was set out that a licence would be awarded to only one company which could operate in two plants. Cement imports were banned to allow this company to expand. From the enactment of the 1933 Act it was almost another 30 years before there was a repeal of the ban in 1962. In that intervening 30 year period, Irish Cement Limited operated a monopoly on the supply of cement and controlled almost the entire market.

The letter from the Minister stated the company could expand if necessary although it was not to make enormous profits on the backs of the people. There were no criteria for these excessive profits or to establish if the price of the product was too high. No such measures were included in the legislation, regulations or subsequent correspondence with the Minister. This company was allowed establish in good faith and on trust. The company grew slowly at first but then gained momentum. It is now a huge private monopoly, known as CRH. Even at this stage, almost 70 years later, Irish Cement produces 80% of the cement used in this country, with a further 15%, approximately, coming from the Quinn Group in Fermanagh while about 5% is imported. This is a remarkable achievement for a company with humble beginnings. This demonstrates how the State gave this company the capacity to become a huge private monopoly in cement, sand and gravel, aggregates, blacktops, etc. It dominated the market until a small amount of competition emerged.

I recall, when I was relatively young, trying to build a house in the late 1960s. I remember the cement strikes in the 1970s when cement was unavailable. This arose because there was only one licence to provide cement. It was a mistake to grant a licence in such a manner. Deputy Joe Higgins asked an interesting question. At a time when the ESB, CIE and Bord na Móna were established under State control, why did the cement industry not become a State company? It would be an interesting subject for a thesis, to review the literature and debates of the time to discover why a State cement company was not established. How did the cement industry operate in other countries? I do not think the same monopoly applied. One can say Ireland is a relatively small country. However, it was a strange decision to take and it gave control of a vital industry to a small number of people.

It is interesting that Irish Cement received the licence in 1936 and the Constitution was passed in 1937. Article 45.2.ii states: "That the ownership and control of the material resources of the community may be so distributed amongst private individuals and the various classes as best to subserve the common good". Did anyone imagine we would look back at how the cement industry monopoly corresponds with our Constitution? Article 45.2.iii states: "That, especially, the operation of free competition shall not be allowed so to develop as to result in the concentration of commodities in a few individuals to the common detriment". This seems to contradict what was established a short time earlier. Why did no one point out that we were not operating within the boundaries of our Constitution and the position should be reviewed?

We must examine the operation of CRH, its monopoly and its controversial dealings. The purchase of Glen Ding from the State is an example. Many questions arose about how CRH was able to purchase it for £1 million when others were interested in it. It was handed over to one huge company for a small sum without going through a process of competition.

This company was very powerful. The members of its board were involved in every other sector of commerce. There were members who were also on the boards of the two major banks and directors of other companies; they had their fingers in many pies. This enhanced the situation for them and gave them a greater say in what was happening.

The Ansbacher bank was operating from within CRH's own company headquarters and it seems that many of the directors of the company were using the Ansbacher accounts illegally. It is no surprise that the published figures for CRH do not indicate the remuneration of the directors. There is a global figure for what they are paid but there is no detail of what each individual is paid. It is time that huge bodies, such as CRH, should be required to set out in detail what they pay their directors. In the Seanad debate, the Tánaiste said that she wanted to move down that road. I hope she will.

We must also look at how CRH spread its operations throughout the State. Many small fam ily businesses were gobbled up by the monopoly that grew around it, with many of the smaller quarries becoming part of this enormous group. That CRH had taken them over was, in many cases, concealed. That is a disgrace. The company was allowed to control the market, keeping prices for cement and various aggregates artificially high, and thus improved its profit potential. As Deputy Killeen pointed out, in 1997, even though only 11% of that company's trade took place in Ireland, 25% of its profits emanated from here. That fact raises questions.

The Competition Authority has not been able to investigate what went on because it did not have the resources. Why did the competition regulator resign? Was it because he did not have the resources to investigate CRH? I hope the answers to these questions will emerge in time.

The questions relating to cement, aggregates and quarries are contentious. There is much discussion about opening new quarries and granting planning permission. It should be noted, however, that there is a new generation of people coming into that industry. I recently visited a cement works and quarry in my own area. Having been a regular visitor there years ago, I was amazed to find the measures which had been taken at this plant to ensure environmental protection. A remarkable job had been done to make it aesthetically pleasing – difficult to do in a cement works. The way in which dust was controlled was extraordinary. There were plants around the quarry and pleasant lakes had been created. A new generation which cares for the environment is now producing these resources. The company involved is run by Shay Murtagh and his family in Raharney, County Westmeath. In the teeth of huge competition from the CRHs of this world, they managed to develop their own plant in the ready mix and aggregate business. They did that by sheer hard work and determination and now they are reaping the rewards. Fair play to them. Many other companies are developing along similar lines and the fact that these people are supplying the materials while looking after the environment and producing materials at reasonable prices will enhance the countryside.

That is not always the case and not all companies have a clean bill of health. Speakers have referred to the application made by Lagan Cement to open a cement works two miles from Kinnegad on the County Meath border. The company applied for planning permission to open a cement works. There was understandable concern on the part of some of the local people and a local action group was established. Its members were worried about pollution, particularly of the water supply, because many of them used their own wells and, if the plant drilled deeply into the ground, there was a strong possibility that they could lose their water supply. Planning permission, with stringent conditions, was granted by Meath County Council and Westmeath County Council. Those decisions were appealed to An Bord Pleanála and it recently granted permission for this plant to go ahead. Lagan Cement must secure an EPA licence and I hope that when the plant opens, it will be run in an environmentally sensitive manner while providing much needed employment. This is an area with many jobs for women in the catering industry, but very few jobs for men. The 200 jobs this plant will create will be a tremendous boost to the area. I hope the concerns of the action group will be met.

There was a major blot on the copybook, however. The objecting group was suddenly in a position to take extravagant court cases and to fight Lagan Cement tooth and nail. The case made it to the High Court. It subsequently emerged that a rival company, the Quinn Group, had provided at least £30,000 to this group, funding its campaign and feeding it with money through hidden accounts to keep Lagan Cement out of that area. That is disgraceful. Through the repeal of the Cement Act, the Minister should be able to build in a proviso that in such situations, companies like the Quinn Group could not have behaved in this manner.

The Quinn Group attempted by way of a High Court injunction to prevent An Bord Pleanála making a decision about the cement factory. Mr. Justice Quirke found that the Quinn Group had engaged in doubtful practices and conduct in relation to an open and lawful application by Lagan Cement for planning permission. A rival company operated that way to keep it out of the market. It is disgraceful that a rival company should behave like that. The judge also said that the Quinn Group made covert payments by way of surreptitious financial contributions to the group to fund its campaign. He noted that some of those payments had been made in assumed names. It is outrageous that a company should behave in that way and be allowed get away with it.

That company's behaviour delayed the setting up of a company in Kinnegad and its employment of 200 people and it prevented those people getting a weekly wage for a considerable number of months. It prevented that company coming into direct competition with the Quinn Group for the supply of cement. That was the only reason it was in that market and in the business of supplying money, which is outrageous.

I thank the Acting Chairman for the opportunity to speak on this debate. I welcome the repeal of the Cement Acts. The Minister of State in his capacity in the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment should examine what we can do to prevent those types of spurious objections that are blatantly made on the basis of competition.

This Bill is a curious construction. One must question the necessity to repeal the Cement Acts at this juncture. In so far as it gives us an opportunity to debate global issues pertaining to our cement industry, it is particularly welcome. In light of what has been said by previous speakers and documented evidence on the failure of the Competition Authority in particular to carry out its mandate and it being denied the capacity to do so because of a lack of funding and inadequate staffing levels, I have to conclude that the Bill is merely a fig-leaf to cover up the inactivity of the Minister and the Minister of State in this area.

Cement is critical to the construction industry. One of the major problems facing our economy is that of home ownership and people not being able to afford to buy their own homes. That problem is tied up with the cement industry. Allegations have been substantiated in the courts about price fixing between the major players in the cement industry here who have been convicted in Northern Ireland, yet the Competition Authority has been unable to carry out its remit. Concern has been expressed about how the industry is currently operating.

The explanatory memorandum is revealing. It states that the repeal of the Cement Acts, 1933 to 1962, is proposed on the grounds that the industry is operating successfully and that the need for regulation has become redundant with the passage of time. Nothing could be further from the truth. The need for regulation in the industry is more necessary than it ever was. Previous speakers referred to incidents where those who have a dominant share in the market are currently flexing their muscles in every possible way to deny the consumer access to fairly priced concrete products. That has serious consequences for the construction industry generally, in the building of office blocks and houses in particular, if the price of concrete products and cement is artificially inflated because of the stranglehold the main players have in the market. What happened in the Kinnegad scenario with the entry of a new company to the cement industry is evident, if evidence was ever needed, of the cosy comfort that exists in the industry. That begs the question why the Cement Acts are being repealed when a company could enter the market.

There was an incident some years ago where an application for planning permission in County Mayo was unsuccessful. Although people entered the market, every effort was made to stymie their entry, not legally but through covert funding by one of the main players of local groups who were opposed to the establishment of that plant. That proves, if it was ever doubted, that very comfortable margins are being made by the industry and that the consumer pays a significant price over and above what he or she should pay.

Reference has been made to CRH and rightly so. It makes a mockery of the consumer's quest to get the best possible price when the extent to which that company owns and controls various seemingly independent operators of concrete products around the country is not known. I and, I am sure, most Members received documentation from the Quarry and Concrete Family Alliance. It suggests that over the years CRH, by way of an acquisitions policy or an eviction strategy, has impacted on numerous operators in the industry. I have a list of those operators, and they include Mount Nugent Quarry, Cavan; Barley Hill Quarry; Milverton Quarries, Skerries; Cal laghan Concrete, Trim; Tallaght Block, Dublin; Galmac Wicklow; National Concrete, Dublin; Byrne Concrete, Galway; Harton Concrete, Meath; C&H Quarries, Galway; Tipperary Limestone, Irish Aggregates, Dublin; Tarstone, Wicklow; Charlie Lee, Longford, Wicklow Concrete; Kilkenny Block; Ardfert Quarries, Kerry, Danaghers (Creeves Quarry), Limerick; Joseph Hogan, Limerick; Greencore Quarries; Ryan's of Ennis; Buckley Quarries; Castlemore Quarries; William Ellis; John A. Wood; Maye and Sons, Meath; Galway Readymix; etc. The list is as long as my arm. Consumers are unaware that behind the scenes the financial gurus of CRH pull the strings in those listed companies and fix the price while consumers try to get the most competitive quote for cement and concrete products.

Under company law the maze of company construction must be laid bare to enable people to identify the beneficial owners or controllers of all industries, not only in the cement industry. Given that many of these companies operate internationally, it is equally important that information should be shared between various competition authorities, particularly within the EU. The OECD, in a recommendation in 1998, made the point that most competition authorities are not currently authorised to share this information. Given that many of these companies operate internationally and, as a previous speaker said, CRH is the third or fourth largest construction company in the world, this information should be shared so that we get a picture across national boundaries as to where the beneficial ownership of companies lie. That would enable more effective policing of the industry and ensure that the consumer gets the best possible price.

Another interesting aspect is the stranglehold that that company has on the industrial explosives which are critical to industry. This is another area which an efficient and effective Competition Authority could look at to see what effect that stranglehold is having on all other operators who attempt to maintain their independence and provide the service at a competitive cost to their consumers but who have to go cap in hand, and are price takers in terms of industrial explosives, to CRH. At face value it would appear that should not be allowed to continue and that the company should be forced to divest a percentage of its shareholding in industrial explosives. CRH, in its various guises, and the Quinn Group—

The instructions are that Members do not mention names of companies that are outside this House. Members are advised to refrain from mentioning names or companies.

Names of companies?

Acting Chairman

Specifically names of companies or attacks on individuals.

I am not mentioning any individual. The company is the Quinn Group. I have been speaking for the past ten minutes about the CRH group—

Acting Chairman

I wanted to alert the Deputy—

I have not named any individual and I do not intend to. There is scope for serious concern that there is a stranglehold on the industry between those two groups of companies. This Bill is nothing more than a fig leaf to cover up inaction in areas where serious action is needed. I am talking about a properly staffed and resourced Competition Authority which will be able to investigate that industry. It is interesting to note that the director of competition enforcement, Mr. Patrick Massey, in his letter of resignation to the Tánaiste, said his experience over the past three and a half years had convinced him that price fixing cartels represent a serious problem and are costing consumers millions of pounds. The Bill will not do anything to alleviate that problem.

While I welcome the opportunity to raise the issue under the guise of this Bill we would be better off discussing whether the necessary powers are available to the Competition Authority as constituted and what additional powers it should be given. It is open to the Minister, without amending the Competition Authority legislation, to provide the authority with the necessary financial resources. To expect to run a Competition Authority on approximately £1 million per year is ludicrous. Tribunals in Dublin Castle and elsewhere over the past number of years are costing close on £100 million. At a later stage we could well have to investigate these industries by way of tribunals if the Competition Authority is not given the necessary resources to enable it intervene on behalf of the ordinary citizen who seeks the best possible price when buying these materials.

I question the purpose of the Bill and I think it is nothing more than a fig leaf for the Minister.

I am pleased to have the opportunity to contribute to the Bill which the Labour Party welcomes. It is long overdue. I assume there are few in the House who would be closer to Cement Limited than myself. My grandfather was involved in building the first plant in Drogheda along the River Boyne. Most of my uncles and relatives worked there in one form or another since the company opened in the early 1930s. Credit must be given to the late Frank Aiken who was the prime mover in having that industry set up in Drogheda. At that stage the Department was young and inexperienced. Given that we did not have the expertise in the manufacture of cement and cement products the Government of the day had to encourage foreigners from countries such as Sweden to assist us. Effectively they were very much involved in setting up and financing the company in the early stages.

It is easy to understand the reason it was able to secure a monopoly position under written contract and by law under the Cement Act, 1933. It was in a position to set a hard bargain in order to set up the industry in Ireland, in Drogheda and subsequently in Limerick, for which the Government of the day had to pay a substantial price. No other industry was given that monopoly.

In the Seán Lemass era all Irish industry was protected very substantially. The main industries in Ireland at that time were the textile, clothing, footwear and leather goods industries, all of which were substantially protected by law. Under the terms of the Anglo-Irish Trade Agreement these trade barriers were lifted gradually over a period of ten to 15 years. I handled those industries at national level for many years before coming into the House. I know how hard we fought to retain or slow down the level of protection to those industries. I forecast many times that they would be eliminated. Unfortunately that forecast came to pass and there is now little of the clothing, textile and footwear industries left in the country. That is the reason we often quoted the monopoly position of Cement Limited. There were ten clothing factories in Drogheda, five textile mills and four or five footwear companies employing thousands of workers, one of which employed 1,500. They were let go to the wall but mysteriously Cement Limited was able to maintain a monopoly until well into the 1960s when its position was secure and it had amalgamated with Roadstone and strengthened its financial position. Since then it has monopolised the building industry.

It would be interesting for historians to look at the company and see how that monopoly came about. In my opinion it came about simply because CRH had such political strength nationally that it was able to convince successive Governments to use its influence to maintain what other industries could not maintain, namely, a total monopoly of the market.

As a small schoolboy I brought a bowl of stew or whatever to my grandfather in the factory – there was no canteen – and I stayed on the side of the road. Showers of cement blew down on top of us from the chimneys while he ate his lunch. How he lived to be 80, in the conditions under which he had to work in the old plant, I will never know. People working in that industry suffered many illnesses from inhaling dust and poor working conditions. The pay was not good. Due to the strength of the trade unions – many of my family were involved in the cement industry – they were able to win concessions, get better working conditions and set up a health and safety system to examine conditions under which they had to work. Many aspects of the original plant were little better than a concentration camp. Many workers, predominantly men, died prematurely from chest problems such as asthma and other lung diseases. Cases are only beginning to emerge now as a result of deaths which took place in the early years of cement production and in cement related industries.

However, equally, Irish Cement Limited played a major part in the economy of my town and also the country. The employment provided in Drogheda not only by Irish Cement Limited, but its subsidiary, Premier Periclase, is substantial. The wages and conditions there improved substantially when the new plant opened in Platin on the south side of Drogheda because environmental and health laws had been updated. I have experience of both plants over 50 years and the improvement is obvious. However, it did not happen without a terrible price being paid and a dreadful struggle by the workforce, which was led by trade unions. The cement sector is probably the most difficult from an industrial relations point of view. Nevertheless, we stuck with it and, ultimately, it was worth the struggle. Perhaps the Minister could shed some light on how it was possible for that privileged position to be maintained for such a long period.

This matter may not be the Minister's responsibility but that of the local authority or the Department of the Environment and Local Government. It is important that the highest standards of environmental protection are applied to this industry. I am aware from first hand experience – I used to shoot rabbits in the quarry when I was young – of the damage that it can cause to the environment. There are three huge quarries on the north side of Drogheda which could probably take all the refuse from Dublin city for the next 100 years without it being seen. I am not sure if people are aware of the depth and width of those quarries. Drogheda Corporation has used a small portion of them as a dump for the past 25 or 30 years, but one cannot notice the refuse given the overall size of the quarries. The industry leaves its mark on the environment and this aspect must be considered.

It also creates major problems for communities and towns such as Drogheda where the roads were not designed for the type of transport which enters and leaves a cement factory. If one looks at the Ashbourne road travelling in the direction of Dublin, one will notice that the carriageway on the left side is always in a worse condition than the right side of the road. The is because of the huge number of bulk tankers which leave the Platin cement works full and come back empty. I have been driving to and from Dublin for over 30 years and the damage caused to one side of the road is evident, particularly in the winter when there is wet weather. The tankers destroy the roads.

Such industries should have to pay not only the tax on their vehicles, but also a form of premium towards the upkeep of the roads to the local authorities in whose areas they operate, in this case Louth County Council, Meath County Council and Drogheda Corporation. It has been necessary to spend huge amounts of money in Drogheda on repairing roads from the old works along the River Boyne because all the traffic had to come through the middle of the town. This and the Premier Periclase operation caused traffic congestion. They should have to make a special payment towards the upkeep of the roads because of the damage caused. I do not suggest they are responsible for all the damage to the roads, but they play a major role.

Another important matter is the health and safety aspects of industries which pollute the atmosphere. No matter how much Drogheda Corporation or Louth County Council tried to convince the company to reduce the level of emissions of dust from the plants over many years, it was almost impossible to nullify. The technology to achieve that has not yet been invented. Many people have had to live under the shadow of the company. When the wind blew from the east, one could be sure that one's car would be white the next morning. All the windows in the house had to be closed or one would be in serious trouble in terms of household contents, doors and other items.

This is the price one must pay to live in an industrial environment. My town and county is an industrial area and we have much for which we are thankful in that regard. We are grateful because many other industries and services built up around the cement companies and they depend on those companies for their livelihoods. I do not underestimate the importance of that aspect.

I do not understand how it is possible to justify the operation of the monopoly. I often thought it was because it was paying a price to political parties, as Deputy Higgins said earlier. However, I and my colleagues from other parties and independents in my area are aware that Irish Cement Limited in Drogheda has a strict policy of not making any contributions to any party or individual. I am not aware of what it does, or did, nationally – I am not privileged with that information. However, that is and has been the position since Irish Cement Limited in Drogheda was founded, although it was founded and supported extensively by the then Fianna Fáil Administration. We have much for which we should be grateful.

We welcome the Bill but it must be considered in a wider context. CRH obviously is not worried about it because I did not receive any correspondence from its workers or the company itself stating that they disagreed with the legislation. They consider it harmless legislation which will remove a historical provision, but which will not change the monopoly position of Cement Roadstone in our lifetime. I welcome the Bill but I am interested in the Minister's reply. Perhaps he could explain how thousands of jobs in the textile, clothing and footwear industries were lost when hundreds of companies closed down because trade restrictions were lifted in agreement with Britain or the EU, yet that monopoly was allowed to continue. If the Minister could answer that question, he would play a major role in estab lishing more of the history of Drogheda than has already been written.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate and the principle of what the Government is doing. There is a need to address the licensing aspect of cement production in Ireland. I was reared in a builders' providers business. My family has been involved in that business since the early 1920s and I have seen the increase in production in the building industry in recent years.

When I heard the Bill was to be introduced, I was reminded that, when I was in secondary school, the only company from which one could buy cement was Cement Roadstone. We are located close to Northern Ireland where there was a cement manufacturing industry called Blue Circle Cement from which one could buy cement. I do not remember what price it charged but it was cheaper for us to import the cement from Northern Ireland and sell it. That created a difficulty because, at the time, the Department of the Environment, as it was then, gave a great deal of grant aid towards house building, but not if one did not use Irish cement. The monopoly of Cement Roadstone on the building industry was phenomenal. I agree with part of what Deputy Bell said. I understand the motivation behind the monopoly and why it was allowed to develop, which was that we needed to be able to manufacture cement in Ireland. Nonetheless, I do not understand how it was allowed to continue for so long under many Governments.

Cement Roadstone still controls a huge aspect of the building industry, especially if one takes into account quarries and industrial explosives. Its tentacles reach into many businesses throughout the country and it is still in an extremely strong position. I know it has moved on internationally and is one of our flagship companies. However, we as legislators must bear in mind that competition is good. In the context of the discussion, I cannot help but digress to point to another difficulty with below-cost selling and RGDATA. We all support the latter's position of trying to keep small family-run businesses. In the cement industry, we oppose monopolies. As legislators, we have difficult decisions to make and sometimes, while there is a logic, there is not a consistency to what we seek.

As regards the cement industry, I live close to the Quinn Group which erected a cement manufacturing facility in County Fermanagh less than a mile from the Border. It decided it would challenge Cement Roadstone's monopoly, something it did successfully. However, it could only do so from Northern Ireland because our legislation meant it could not build a plant in the South to take on Cement Roadstone. Fortunately that has changed and a modern plant is now being built by the Quinn Group in the South which should mean it can provide a greater amount of cement. I was glad to see planning permission being given by An Bord Pleanála for the erection of another cement plant in Enfield.

The way the building industry is going, the more competition there is, the better. As a practitioner in that industry in the sense that my family business is in this area, I have found it amazing that, since competition arrived with the Quinn Group ten years ago, the price of a bag of cement has stayed relatively static. I asked my brother about this and it appears that we have been selling a bag of cement at £4.60 for the past six years. The increase in prices of any other material in the business has been phenomenal. I have no doubt that this relatively static price is because of competition.

The Bill is very important and, in principle, I support what the Government proposes. However, I agree with my colleague, Deputy Creed, that we must also examine other aspects of the industry. Merely removing the licence will not resolve the problem. The Competition Authority will have a significant role to play. For example, as regards industrial explosives and quarrying, one cannot continue in business if one is not allowed to use industrial explosives, and Cement Roadstone controls that sector. There are many small quarries throughout the country which are in competition with the quarries of Cement Roadstone, and I presume they encounter difficulties when it comes to obtaining industrial explosives.

I listened to what Deputy Bell had to say about bulk tankers leaving the cement factory in Drogheda and the damage they caused to roads. We had a situation in County Leitrim last week where a quarry, which had been closed for 30 years, was bought by an individual originally from the area who emigrated to England, was successful in the quarrying business and decided to re-open the quarry in Kesh, County Leitrim. His only access was through a county road. He employed 15 people and was up and running for about six months. While he had received planning permission, one of the aspects of the permission was that he had to pay £350,000 up front for work to be carried out on the county road and £25,000 a year thereafter. He decided that that could not be sustained economically and closed the quarry. There are difficulties and they are more the responsibility of the Department of the Environment and Local Government than the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment. From what I can ascertain from other people in the quarrying industry, many local authorities require quarrying companies to pay a certain amount to compensate for damage to roads. There must be a happy medium. The 15 job losses in Kesh were a huge blow to the area and they were caused by the amount of money sought by the local authority. The quarry operator has appealed the decision to An Bord Pleanála, so it will be an interesting test case.

If competition is to be sustained in the building industry, and it will be necessary over the next few years, we should examine the number of busi nesses in this sector of the industry in which Cement Roadstone is involved. I do not suggest it is the big bad wolf. It has done a great deal of good for the development of the industry. However, now that we are an open market economy which is fully up and running, its monopoly in all sectors should be examined, and we should also examine whether the price charged to consumers is necessary and whether both price and service are the most competitive available to consumers.

I welcome the Bill. The principle of it is correct. I agree with my colleague, Deputy Creed, about the competition aspect, and perhaps the Minister of State will examine it. The Competition Authority should be given more personnel so that it can investigate areas such as the one we are discussing. There have been many complaints about this industry. A number of people contacted me in recent years, even when my party was in Government, regarding unfair practices in the cement and quarrying industries because of the monopoly. That is a major issue and, while the Bill will certainly not resolve it, it may be the first step towards a resolution.

I welcome the Minister's decision to repeal the 1933 and 1962 legislation which was never intended to create the monopoly that has developed. The intention was to create an indigenous industry which was important at a time when the newly created State was beginning to develop. Raw materials which were available throughout the country were a necessary part and parcel of that development. Alas, when one looks at what has happened in the cement industry since the granting of the first licence and, in more recent years, the buy over by CRH in various places – Cavan, Skerries, Duleek, Trim, Meath, Wicklow, Dublin, Galway, Kerry, Limerick, Ennis – one will see the industry is in the control of one group. That is unsatisfactory.

The Competition Authority recently expressed its concern. Ireland's competition enforcement chief resigned because he was refused the resources necessary to combat the secret price fixing in the construction industry in particular. That is a terrible indictment. That person had a particular job to do but was stifled through lack of resources.

He stated in a letter:

My experience over the past three and a half years has convinced me that price fixing cartels represent a serious widespread problem in this country and are potentially costing Irish consumers and taxpayers tens, if not hundreds, of millions of pounds.

The building industry was highlighted as the area in which this cartel was operating to the greatest extent.

I am sure the Minister is aware of the activity in Galway where, according to the national development plan, there will be huge investment in infrastructure. The necessity for roadbuilding materials has led to a rash of planning applications for new quarries and building materials all over County Galway. That has created a major problem for the local planning authority.

As regards the planning Bill and the position with regard to pre-1963, many of those involved in the quarrying industry, with few exceptions, are not complying with the conditions attached to the planning permissions. We have visual evidence of this. As for those post-1963, they have run rampant and are out of control. They have no regard or respect, and I do not say this lightly, for residents in an area or any activity adjacent to or near their operations. Is it right that they ignore all the conditions imposed on them by the planning permissions? They blast without warning those living nearby. They operate, and by its nature quarrying is a noisy industry, from the very early hours until late at night particularly during the summer. They will not take the smallest remedial measures to control the amount of dust generated. Deputy Bell referred to this problem earlier. They will not cover the material they break out. It blows off the trucks which are overloaded. There is no way in which any local authority can use enforcement measures to get them to change their ways. Local authorities are highly dependent on most of these companies to supply material and they will not tell them to clean up their act. If people suggest something should be done they are asked if they would like to see an increase in the price to the consumer. They have people over a barrel and utilise that stick to beat them at every opportunity.

I do not blame county councils for not taking enforcement proceedings against them. They do not have sufficient resources. Many Deputies have said time and again that local authorities are overburdened and have requested the Department to sanction the appointment of additional planners and other staff in an effort to alleviate the delays in planning. People want to get on with their developments and that is good. We do not have sufficient enforcement officers to ensure the planning conditions laid down by the professionals are properly implemented. This is a serious problem.

As regards the supply of gravel and roadmaking materials, there is indiscriminate destruction of the landscape. We are now at a stage where some developers or those involved in that aspect of the building trade who see an esker offer the landowner a price he or she cannot refuse. The morale of the farming community is at a very low ebb and when such an offer is made they will be conscious that it may not happen again and so they sell the land. The sand is removed indiscriminately.

When speaking on the wildlife Bill I highlighted what is happening in many areas. The old chestnut of importing sand and what that would do to house prices was raised. The average construction price of a house is £30 per square foot, with small variations in price from one place to another. If that is the case, the average house, at 2,000 square feet, would cost £60,000. How does the end product cost between £100,000 and £150,000? Where is the discrepancy and who is creaming it off? The answer is plain – the developers and those in the supply area have taken substantial and unjustified profits. They have put houses beyond the reach of many young people.

Local authorities cannot control truck weights. Could any local authority bring an overloaded truck to a functioning weighbridge? It would take half a day to mobilise the requirements in order to prove to these people that they are breaking the law. A huge operation would be involved because of the inadequate operation of weighbridges in most local authorities – I speak as a member of Galway County Council. There is a weighbridge in Carnmore and I do not know the last time a truck was weighed there. From my observation, the facility looks overgrown and semi-derelict. These trucks can carry 25 or 30 tons of material. Before these trucks leave quarries they are supposed to be washed down and cleaned, but one can tell where a sand or concrete quarry is from three or four miles away because of the dust on the vegetation and the roads around it.

Regarding the monopoly, small family-owned quarries in Galway have been bought out in the past 12 months and changed into big operations because of proposed by-passes in the west, the new N6 and other major roadworks. We are not complaining about that, but smaller operations which supplied local needs are being wiped out, as happened in the hoovering exercise that has brought the industry under the control of a monopoly over the years. I welcome the legislation in so far as it will free up competition and allow control of pricing to pass out of the hands of the monopoly. It may reactivate interest among local authorities and enforcement officers in looking into this area, as when one mentions dirty industry in Ireland one is not talking about heavy industries in the ports, one is talking about the quarries – the gravel and cement industries. They are what I call dirty industries. This is an indigenous industry and I hope we can hold onto it, but it is regrettable that it is a monopoly that is flouting the law with price fixing and cartels. Much of that has occurred during our greatest period of development, but it is now opportune that this Bill regulates the area so that does not continue.

I emphasise that this Bill is a short repeal measure consisting of two sections. Deputies have ranged widely in their comments from the economic circumstances which prompted the original Cement Acts, the recent history of the industry, environmental concerns, the current difficulties in the housing market, the operation of Cement Roadstone Holdings and its relationship with other players.

Deputies Perry, Gormley, Rabbitte, Ahearn, Higgins, McGrath, Creed, Bell, Killeen, Reynolds and Ulick Burke raised different issues and I thank them for their contributions. Those issues concern the activities of CRH as the sole licensee, among others, and while breaches of company law are not relevant to the content of the Bill, I assure the House that the Tánaiste has undertaken to look into certain allegations made in the Seanad debate on this measure and inquiries are still being pursued in that regard.

Deputies commented on the possibility of the abuse of a dominant position arising out of the fact that only one company held the licence under the Cement Acts. I am aware that certain allegations of anti-competitive behaviour referred to by several Deputies have been the subject of a detailed submission by the Quarry and Concrete Family Alliance. That submission has been brought to the attention of the Competition Authority. I do not intend to deal with the range of issues in that submission other than to say that the association involved has welcomed this legislation. Some of those issues are the subject of an action brought by one of the alliance's members in the High Court. Deputies may agree that examples of practices in this industry which fall short of the norms of good business practice do not appear to be confined to any single player.

In response to the queries raised by some Deputies, I understand that the licence applications from possible entrants to the market were rejected on at least two occasions in the past. The reasons were that the production capacity of Irish Cement, the then licensee, already exceeded domestic demand. The licence application by a separate company, Roadstone, was under consideration in the late 1960s. In the event, Roadstone and Cement Limited subsequently merged. Deputy Rabbitte queried the reasons I referred at the outset to the legislation having been unused over the past 20 years. Deputy Owen even queried the origin and justification for this repeal measure and Deputy Gormley wrongly assumed that the repeal was at the insistence of the European Union.

The existing legislation can be described as unused because it is over 20 years since an application for a licence was made to the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment or its predecessor, the Department of Industry and Commerce. While there have been inquiries from time to time about obtaining a manufacturing licence, none ever reached the stage where a licence was to be either granted or refused. I understand the repeal of this legislation has been under consideration since the early 1970s, although the matter was not pursued by any previous Government. It would appear that Deputies Rabbitte and Owen want to identify themselves with Saint Augustine on this issue; they are all for the virtues of regulatory reform, but not just yet. They query the necessity to pursue this measure at this time. The industry thinks otherwise and so do those interested in promoting greater competitiveness in the national economy. They see no reason for deferring change or leaving matters on the long finger, as Deputies Rabbitte and Owen seem to want. In this context—

On a point of order, I did not object to this Bill, nor did Deputy Rabbitte.

The Deputy is misinterpreting what I said. The Deputy wants regulatory reform, but she asked what is the purpose of the Bill now.

I just wanted to know. The Minister should not say I am against the Bill.

The Deputy said there was a dubious or invisible reason the Bill has been unearthed at this time. The doubt was created by a couple of comments, including those by the Deputy, and I am responding. There is no difficulty whatever about the Bill. We have decided to proceed with the Bill which has been welcomed by large and small producers in the building materials industry, including the quarry and cement alliance, in the context of the Government's programme of regulatory reform.

The competitions and mergers review group which recently reported to the Tánaiste with recommendations on the effectiveness of competition legislation welcomed the more positive attitude adopted by the Government to the relaxation of controls, restrictions, licences and other limitations which served to control entry to particular economic sectors. The group made a specific reference to the Government's intention to repeal the Cement Acts as a welcome step in this direction. As Deputies mentioned, the construction sector is currently booming on an unprecedented scale.

Steps to avoid overheating through measures to expand capacity on the supply side and to meet the demands of infrastructural requirements and house building targets in the national development plan are evident in the development of increased manufacturing capacity, not only by CRH but in the entry to the market of other private investors such as the Quinn Group development in Ballyconnell, County Cavan, and the Lagan Group plans for Clonard, County Meath. The arrival of these new entrants to the market illustrates the extent to which market conditions have changed from those prevailing in our economy throughout the last century or longer.

A number of Deputies repeated assertions made elsewhere which are erroneous and damaging. In particular I take issue with assertions made by Deputies Perry and Gormley to the effect that the cement certification scheme introduced in the 1980s is in breach of the Treaty of Rome. The certification scheme was introduced in the 1980s based on an earlier standard of the Institute of Industrial Research. It is open to all applicants who meet the standard and only one application has been refused, that refusal being on a purely technical basis. The list of companies which has been certified under the scheme includes companies from Spain and the UK. This is an example of where we have set standards ahead of our European counterparts and we should not diminish the significance of that achievement. The certification and technical standards operated in Ireland are world class and are being modelled not only in Europe but in the United States.

I share Deputy Perry's view that greater transparency regarding the material and other costs in the housing industry is desirable. I understand that the KPMG study, referred to by Deputy Owen, is expected to confirm that cement is not rising in price as fast as inflation and that cement prices have remained relatively stable compared to other factors contributing to the high cost of housing. I am not aware, however, that a regular benchmarking procedure is used to track comparable cost factors in the industry and I will take up the concerns raised by Deputies Perry, Rabbitte, Owen and Killeen in this regard with the Minister for the Environment and Local Government.

Deputies raised a number of specific issues to which I would like to refer individually in so far as I can recollect them. A number of Deputies spoke about the effective control of industrial explosives by CRH. The control of explosives is a matter for the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and it is subject to the law and regulations laid down by that Department. CRH does not manufacture explosives but has an interest in the current sole manufacturer. New entrants to this market will reduce dependence on a single supplier. Of course our economy always welcomes new entrants to all areas of commercial activity which create competition and consumer choice and which ensure the economy can grow and develop. This is the hallmark of the modern economy.

Reference was made to Glen Ding by a number of speakers. This matter is being aired before the Moriarty tribunal and we must await its conclusions.

Queries were raised about the dominance of CRH in the supply of dolomite. Dolomite is classified as a scheduled mineral and a licence is required from the Minister for the Marine and Natural Resources for its extraction. Currently there is only one licence holder, namely, Roadstone Provinces Limited, while other companies are in negotiation with the Department of the Marine and Natural Resources. It is categorically wrong to say that these operators have been faced with massive royalty demands.

Reference was also made to CRH's agreement with the ESB regarding the purchase of pulverised fuel ash, the takeover of the sugar company quarries and its dominant role in the fertiliser industry. Each of these issues was covered in a submission by the quarry and concrete alliance and we have referred the submission to the Competition Authority.

Will the Government give it the resources to examine it?

Resources have been given.

To The Competition Authority? The man has resigned because of lack of resources.

I will deal with that issue when I come to it.

Reference was also made to secret acquisitions by CRH. These and related issues are currently being examined by the company law section of our Department. We are very proud of our company law division, one of the primary agents of State service which has done outstanding work in the company law area over the past number of years, particularly with the investment which has been made in information technology. Deputies can be certain that when the investigation has concluded the necessary action will be recommended by them.

A number of other questions were raised. Deputy McGrath talked about the rationale of establishing a licensing system in the 1930s which safeguarded just one company. We did not have a cement industry in the 1930s and the Fianna Fáil Government of the time decided it was necessary to stimulate economic activity. I pay special tribute to Deputy Bell's very positive contribution to the debate which put the issue in context. Nobody had the resources or technical ability to deliver this product which was vital in terms of providing a base for economic activity. Fianna Fáil, the party in Government at the time, decided something had to be done. With international support the original Cement Act was passed allowing a company to set up. It included a caveat that no cement could be imported so that the investment in the project would be viable and sustainable. The objective was to ensure the taxpayer did not have to unpin the enterprise, given that the country had virtually zero growth at that time and huge levels of emigration and economic depravity. Perhaps it is our fault, or that of our predecessors, that we did not examine this and see whether it should have been modernised. However, we are now modernising the industry and for some reason we are being blamed for so doing.

Does the Minister mean economic deprivation or depravity?

I meant economic deprivation. The legislation did not establish a monopoly – that was never the intention – although it probably facilitated the concentration of activity in this area. As the economy evolved, competition grew, companies amalgamated and a dominant player emerged. As a public representative with a business and agricultural background I must say it is a serious situation if a company can quietly buy control in local indigenous operations unknown to the public and the State. We must examine company and competition law to ensure there are no cartels and that consumers get value for money. Against that background, the cement and cement products industry has made a huge contribution to the development of the country. Without it we would not have the type of country we now have. It is very hard to judge future progress while it is easy to judge in hindsight, and the Cement Acts were essential to ensure we had a native production base.

Is the Minister not confident that the national development plan, which provides for spending of £40 billion, will be delivered upon?

I am absolutely confident we will deliver.

Then the Minister should not be worried.

I am not worried; I am only responding to the debate. I am very confident that we have the capacity, products, resources, technical expertise and, above all, the political leadership to deliver the plan.

Deputy Creed said it is wrong to say the Cement Acts regulations are redundant and that regulation was more necessary than ever. He said the Bill was a curious construction. There is nothing curious about it. Competition is central to the evolution of any economy and the planning Acts, the Environmental Protection Agency Act, 1992, and the Competition Act, 1991, must be taken into account. They were all enacted after the Cement Acts. Deputy Higgins lambasted the Governments and politicians who did nothing but he must understand that the Competition Bill was not enacted until 1991. Competition evolved in its own way and has found its own level. We are very much working within the framework of the Competition Act, 1991.

(Dublin West): Parties were paid off by them as well, through political contributions.

I am not aware of that. I have not ever been a beneficiary.

(Dublin West): I did not say the Minister of State was.

If the Deputy has evidence, he should introduce it in the appropriate forum.

(Dublin West): How much did Fianna Fáil receive from them?

From whom?

(Dublin West): How much did Fianna Fáil receive from CRH in legal political contributions?

I do not know how much the Deputy has received privately.

Acting Chairman

We are anxious to finish this legislation.

I know how much the Deputy receives publicly and it is much more than I receive. I am not aware of the figures to which he refers. If he has information, he should give it to us.

(Dublin West): The Minister of State is the Fianna Fáil representative in the House.

Acting Chairman

The Minister, without interruption. Deputy Higgins, we are anxious to complete the passage of the legislation.

I am proud to be a member of Fianna Fáil and hope to be for a long time. Deputy McGrath provided a detailed analysis of developments along the Westmeath/Meath border. As politicians, we want competition and projects. The public wants competition and consumer choice but when planning applications are made, people do not want projects located near them. A balance must be struck. As politicians, we must be strong enough to do what is in the common good and make serious decisions. That is why we are elected and sometimes one pays a serious price.

Deputy Creed referred to the link between the price of cement and the problem of home ownership. That link is a contributory factor but it is not an impediment to home ownership. The cost of the site, services, construction and materials, such as cement, must be taken into account. The average cost of cement and concrete products in the construction of new homes is less then £10,000. If that is compared to the cost of houses, nobody can say that cement products are an impediment to home ownership. It must be recognised that such products make a huge contribution. They are needed to construct the right type of housing and the quality of housing in Ireland is on a par with that anywhere else in the world.

Deputies Bell and Burke referred to the cost of maintaining roads damaged by constant use of construction vehicles. Local authorities impose large service charges on construction companies but that also has a negative effect. Deputy Reynolds referred to a company which closed in his constituency. I am aware of another project which was sanctioned but the company involved said it was not viable to proceed given the charges imposed. There needs to be a consensus between the industry, the Department of the Environment and Local Government and local authorities whereby an annual contribution could be paid by construction companies to take account of the movement of goods and services rapidly throughout the country, which damages the roads structure. That could be examined. The Irish Concrete Federation states that the value of products used in a house worth £200,000 is between £5,000 and £10,000. We can be happy that such products make a huge contribution to Ireland's development.

The Government and the social partners are jointly committed under the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness to ensuring an efficient and competitive construction sector in order to ensure the cost effective delivery of the infrastructural requirements set out in the national development plan. Deputy Owen expressed concern about how the manpower and training needs of the construction industry are being addressed. All these issues, including the option of the recruitment of additional workers, access for adults to craft occupation and the timely provision of apprenticeship training are being addressed in a strategic manner under the PPF in full consultation with industry and trade union interests.

Are education and training places available for apprentices? That is the problem.

Training places are available in co-operation with FÁS and the industry itself.

Industry cannot do it.

Arrangements are being accelerated in this area.

I reassure Deputies Ahern and Gormley about the wide range of planning and protective measures which have come into being since the Cement Bills were enacted. All planning applications for new or expanded cement production facilities require planning permission and environmental impact assessments before development can proceed and an integrated pollution control licence must be obtained before production can begin. These provisions apply to all cement production facilities regardless of size or proposed location.

I appreciate Deputy Gormley's concerns about the cumulative effect of new manufacturing facilities on emissions of COf8>2. Other Members also referred to this in the context of the total greenhouse gas emissions limit negotiated by the Government as part of the European Union's plans to implement the Kyoto Protocol. A national greenhouse gas abatement strategy is being prepared by the Minister for the Environment and Local Government to enable Ireland to implement its international obligations and it will apply equitably across all sectors.

In response to questions raised by Deputy Owen, the Government is committed to ensuring that the Competition Authority has adequate resources to do its job. Within a month the authority will have five full-time member directors supported by at least 15 staff. Deputy Burke stated that Mr. Massey retired because he did not have resources to investigate whether there is a cartel in the construction industry but that is not true. Mr. Massey resigned from one position. He is still a member of the authority but he resigned his position as director of enforcement because he said he did not have resources to investigate cartels. He did not specify in which industry but it has been inferred by a number of Members that he retired because he did not have the resources to investigate the construction industry It is important that the House is clear on that.

In addition, steps are being taken by the Civil Service Commission to fill vacancies for professional staff. The Competition Authority has in anticipation of the recruitment of professional staff already employed a legal adviser on a temporary basis. The Tánaiste has arranged for a detailed examination to establish the appropriate resources for the authority. At the end of the day the Government will provide whatever resources are required for the effective operation of the authority. I endorse the view of the National Competitiveness Council that we need to be more pro-active in identifying areas where regulatory reform is needed rather than responding to external pressures at EU level. Our competitiveness, as an economy, depends on the operation of open, transparent and effective markets which encourage efficiency in both price and service innovation.

Cement prices in Ireland are reckoned to be the fifth highest in Europe, notwithstanding limited competition from imports. Prices are usually higher than they otherwise might be in markets which are not entirely open and where operators have been sheltered. The repeal of the Cement Acts will mark an achievement in Ireland's competitiveness standing and will help it to maintain its high ranking for measures in international competitiveness. It is a sensible step in terms of regulatory reform. That it proves difficult to find time within the legislative process to address the need to repeal or simplify existing measures, highlights the necessity to examine more carefully the prospects for incorporating some set clauses specifying an abolition date within any new licensing arrangements or regulations in future. All Members could give due consideration to that when legislation is debated.

The removal of the regulatory barriers which these Acts represent is long overdue. Unfortunately, laws and regulations tend to have a long life, even when the scenario for which they were conceived has long since changed. I thank all Members for their contributions.

Question put and agreed to.

Acting Chairman

When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?

Acting Chairman

Is that agreed?

That was not listed, was it?

Acting Chairman

It was not listed? It is a matter of getting agreement here.

It is not on the Order Paper and nobody gave me any warning. I see that Deputy Rabbitte, who is the Labour Party spokesman, is not here. Yesterday when the Minister of State. Deputy Cullen, decided he was going to take a Bill all the way through that was not listed, the spokespersons were consulted.

Acting Chairman

I should mention that there are no amendments to the Bill on Committee Stage.

I know that.

Acting Chairman

It is agreed that we are proceeding with Committee Stage.

In order to explain to my colleague, at what time is it proposed to take Committee Stage?

Acting Chairman

Now.

Now. That is the problem.

Acting Chairman

Is that agreed?

Surely the spokespersons should have been advised of that. They may want to table amendments on Committee Stage, although I do not know if they do. I cannot speak on behalf of my colleague and I have no way of contacting him.

All the people who contributed have accepted the Bill. On First Stage it was agreed that if we could take all Stages we would. This is our third day on the Bill, and I have no problem.

I am sorry, I do not remember that.

The Deputy was not here the first day.

Yes, I know, but I would have been told by my colleague who was taking the Bill on Second Stage. I am not objecting, but we should be careful of such practice because it could occur on a day when somebody does not want to take it. It is a short Bill but Deputy Joe Higgins and Deputy Rabbitte have left the Chamber. As my party's spokesperson, I personally have no objection to taking Committee Stage, but the Minister should at least have told us that he intended to take all Stages.

I have no problem whatever. I am very sorry.

It should have been ordered.

Acting Chairman

We accept that. It is a matter of reaching agreement today. If Members agree to take Committee Stage now we will proceed, but if they do not, we will not proceed.

Is there any reason this Bill was not listed for all Stages and agreed at the Whips' meeting?

Acting Chairman

I, obviously, would not have access to that information. No amendments have been tabled for Committee Stage, so—

They could not be submitted at this stage anyway.

Everybody spoke in favour of the Bill. It is an innocuous two-paragraph Bill.

The Minister should not get cross with us. We are just making a practical point that we were not told that Committee Stage would be taken now, and Deputy Rabbitte is not here. I am happy to go ahead with it now if someone from the Labour benches will agree.

Acting Chairman

Do we have agreement to proceed with Committee Stage?

It is very difficult for us to agree when our spokesperson was not aware that this was going to happen, and we have not been able to speak to him.

The Bill can either be referred to the Select Committee on Enterprise and Small Business, which still has to happen as far as I understand, and God knows when it will be heard again—

Acting Chairman

If it is decided to take Committee Stage the referral will not arise, of course.

I will help out by calling a quorum to enable the Labour Party to find Deputy Rabbitte, or we can talk among ourselves. It is just a matter of fairness and politeness.

Notice taken that 20 Members were not present; House counted and 20 Members being present,

Acting Chairman

Can we reach some agreement on this matter?

On behalf of Fine Gael, I have no problem with taking Committee Stage, even though I have just been told about it.

Committee Stage of the Bill was not on the Order of Business as announced in the House this morning. Only Second Stage was to be taken. There was no order for Committee and Remaining Stages and there has been no agreement with the Whips on that matter either.

Acting Chairman

May I conclude that the Deputy is not in agreement with the proposal?

I am not in agreement.

Everybody spoke in favour of the Bill. Listening to the debate as it evolved, I thought there was no problem in taking this small Bill through Committee Stage.

That is not the problem.

The difficulty we have is that this is the third Bill from my Department waiting in a queue to go through the committee. In all fairness to the House, that is not a great way to do business. I would ask for the co-operation of the House to get this simple measure through the House and on to the Seanad, if possible.

I am sure there will not be a difficulty in arranging time to have this done later.

We adopted the Order of Business this morning and there is no agreement to proceed beyond Second Stage.

Here is Deputy Rabbitte.

Acting Chairman

Perhaps we can short-circuit the debate. We have to decide either to proceed with Committee, Report and Final Stages or, alternatively, refer the Bill to the committee.

I suggest we give Deputy Rabbitte a chance to contribute.

The first I heard about the proposal to take all Stages was on the monitor at a meeting of the parliamentary Labour Party a couple of minutes ago. I have no fundamental or substantial objection, but it is a bad precedent that the Minister should proceed without request or notice. If the Minister had made contact in advance with Deputy Owen and myself, we may well have facilitated him, but it is bad practice. The Bill should go into committee in the normal way. We will not hold it up there, we will facilitate its early conclusion.

The Minister should not make this sound as if we are the baddies. It could just as easily have been Deputy Higgins sitting here when the announcement was made. Yesterday something similar happened with the Bill taken by the Minister of State, Deputy Cullen, but on that occasion both spokespersons were asked if they would agree and they did. I was in the Whips' office when that matter arose. The first I heard of the proposal to take Committee Stage of this Bill today, however, was when the Minister of State, Deputy Treacy, said he would take it now. It is a pity because the matter could have been sorted out.

Acting Chairman

We are really having a debate about the debate.

I am sorry because this is serious legislation.

Acting Chairman

Do we have the agreement of the House to proceed with Committee Stage? We do not have that agreement. I ask the Minster of State to formally propose referral of the Bill to the select committee.