Other Questions

Television Licence Fee

Billy Timmins

Ceist:

50 Deputy Billy Timmins asked the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources if he will allow other television and radio companies to bid for a share of the proceeds of television licence fee for public service programmes they provide; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [37860/10]

Part 7 of the Broadcasting Act 2009 provides for public service broadcasting in Ireland and the provisions relating to the public service broadcasting corporations, RTE and TG4, including their principal objectives. These provide the companies' statutory mandates and encapsulate the national policy on public service broadcasting. They include the specific objective of providing national, free-to-air public service broadcasting services, as well as the provision of a broad range of other additional services seen as fundamental to the role of the public service broadcaster.

In their pursuit of these objects, the Act's provisions subject the public service broadcasting corporations to a range of additional requirements. These statutory objects and requirements clearly set the State-owned public service broadcasters apart from their commercial counterparts which, while bringing choice and competition to the market, are privately owned and funded companies that have entered the market on the basis of a commercial proposition.

The rationale for providing State funding for public service broadcasting is to provide an independent and reliable income flow that allows these corporations to attain their public service objectives while ensuring they can maintain a high level of editorial independence. This is especially important in the context of news and current affairs.

RTE receives 93% of net television licence fee receipts to allow it to meet its public service broadcasting remit while the remaining 7% is allocated to the broadcasting funding scheme. The scheme is open to applications from both private and public broadcasters with the aim of encouraging the production of new television and sound broadcast programmes of a particular character as set out in section 154 of the Broadcasting Act 2009.

Commercial broadcasters also benefit from the provision of broadcasting spectrum which is charged at a set rate that is considerably lower to what it would otherwise cost in an open market. I am satisfied these arrangements are appropriate and, as such, have no intention of providing for the changes suggested.

The Minister did a fair bit of bluffing on the Oxford study on broadband roll-out, only mentioning the bits he liked. If he had read it thoroughly, he would have noted it stated that Ireland, although coming from a bad position to a better one, is still not a leader and would not be able to deliver television on-line and other such service access. Honesty from the Minister would not go astray when it comes to these issues of national importance.

I have an open mind on the allocation of the television licence fee. Will the Minister acknowledge that RTE is not the only organisation that provides public service broadcasting? "Tonight with Vincent Browne" is every bit as much a public service as "The Frontline", probably even more so. TV3 also provides news while radio stations such as Newstalk and other independent stations provide programmes equal to "Drivetime". The same applies to Matt Cooper's and Scott Williams's programmes. Newspapers, through webcasts on their websites, also contribute public service information on the same basis as RTE. On very many occasions, it is even better.

Will the Minister consider allowing other companies which provide public service broadcasting to bid for the television licence? I understand he wishes to protect the vested interests in this country, particularly in semi-State bodies. However, I do not understand why he would have such a closed mind to this proposal.

Yes, I agree we need to do more with broadband roll-out. We cannot be complacent even though an international report states we are 13th in the leadership table. As we roll out our cable and fixed line network and improve our mobile networks, Ireland will, I believe, be in the top ten.

One has to invest to achieve that goal.

The report showed a dramatic improvement in the past three years in Irish telecommunications service provision compared with international performances.

Real public service is provided by the likes of Matt Cooper, Vincent Browne and a whole range of different journalists. The news and current affairs content, particularly in the independent radio companies and TV3, is important and beneficial to the State's democracy. A competitive broadcasting market with a strong independent sector is very important. When introducing the Broadcasting Act 2009, Deputies McManus and Coveney and I agreed to the idea of a broadcasting fund and allowing other companies to pitch for a business share of the licence fee revenue. Each of us agreed the setaside should be 7%. I accept there may be an argument it is too small a figure but that was the Fine Gael position at the time. The fund recognises that other networks and broadcasters are important to public service broadcasting.

RTE has a different remit with a legislative basis which allows for revenues to be raised from the licence fee and advertising. I do not believe there should be a fundamental change to that existing structure.

The Minister will have to invest in broadband roll-out or else it will not happen, particularly in rural areas.

Local independent radio stations provide a superb service for rural areas. They have as much a public service obligation remit as any other broadcaster. However, regarding the 7% setaside from the licence fee for a broadcasting fund, it irks the independent media sector that RTE can pitch for it too. Bearing in mind the reversal in advertising revenues for independent broadcasters and the power of RTE, will the Minister agree to consider making the broadcasting fund available only to the independent sector?

The fund rather than being broadcaster-led is independent producer-led. There is nothing to prevent an independent producer going to the fund with a proposal. TG4, if I recall, has received a large percentage of the allocation, as have community broadcasters. It has been expanded to include independent radio producers.

The Minister had an open mind on the Opposition's proposals for the Broadcasting Act 2009. The legislation is better for that.

The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, the regulatory body established by the legislation, is now in breach of the law, however, by not producing a budgetary plan for the next three years. What action is the Minister taking on this statutory breach?

I read the exchange at the Oireachtas communications committee when the authority's chief executive officer acknowledged the delay in producing a budgetary plan and set out the reasons for this. He informed Deputy McManus that it would be presented at the end of October 2010. The sooner the better. While I have had no direct involvement in this process, I am looking forward to receiving the authority's budgetary statement.

Electricity Transmission Network

Tom Sheahan

Ceist:

51 Deputy Tom Sheahan asked the Minister for Communications; Energy and Natural Resources if he has received a copy of the Frontier Report on the transfer of ownership of the distribution network to Eirgrid; the recommendations contained therein; when he will publish same; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [37849/10]

The independent analysis of the electricity transmission assets by Frontier Economics Limited is being finalised and will be submitted to me shortly. The unbundling of the transmission assets involves the resolution of complex technical, financial and operational issues, as well as the possible development of legislation. The independent analysis includes an assessment of costs, benefits and regulatory impact, EU developments and the all-island single electricity market. The process has involved input from the direct key stakeholders and others.

The direct stakeholders comprise management and unions of the ESB, EirGrid and the ESB employee share ownership trust, ESOT. All direct stakeholders have pivotal roles to play in the process of engagement and analysis. Their co-operation is vital in achieving outcomes that are in the best interests of the economy and energy consumers, as well as the two State entities.

Both EirGrid and the ESB have vital roles to play in delivering our national targets for renewable energy and energy efficiency, as well as security of supply and energy competitiveness. The unbundling of the national transmission assets will be progressed in a way that ensures viable futures for both EirGrid and the ESB, as well as delivering on EU legal obligations on transmission unbundling in the interests of the energy sector and energy consumers.

I have two questions. The Minister said the report is being finalised. Will he confirm whether he has already seen the draft report? A draft report was submitted to him about three weeks ago. Has he seen it and will he comment on it? Second, would the Minister not agree that it does not make sense for a small country such as Ireland to have two network companies, one owning the distribution network and one owning and managing the transmission network? Would it not make sense to merge ESB Networks Ltd. and EirGrid into a single entity, similar to what has been done in Portugal, for example? Is that an option that has been considered in the report? It can be done under the EU directive. It has been done in Portugal and it is probably a model followed in other countries. Did he receive the draft report some weeks ago and does the report consider the possibility of merging EirGrid and ESB Networks Ltd.?

I have not seen the report but I understand it has arrived in the Department. It goes through the process of being seen by the Assistant Secretary General and the Secretary General before coming to me for consideration. That process has not yet been completed, so I have not seen a copy of the report yet.

I believe it is appropriate to have a separation of the ownership of the EirGrid transmission assets. We created EirGrid as an independent company and it is operating independently. I cannot see how that is enhanced by having assets in its ownership in a separate location. That is my personal view. I accept this is complex and that it is right for us to take a high level view of it in terms of the economic costs and the mechanisms for making that happen, but I believe it is the right thing to do. I do not understand the Deputy's proposal with regard to the creation of a single utility or single network company. Is he saying he would prefer to sell the generation and supply company and create a separate single network utility where distribution and transmission would be together? If not, and if he is seeking to maintain the distribution company and the generation and supply company as a single unit and bring EirGrid back into it, it would be a significant reversal of policy.

I have set out my personal view and the Deputy can hold a different position. I look forward to seeing the report. It is right to check the Deputy's view and to get genuinely independent consultants——

Is the report considering that option?

My recollection of the terms of reference is that the report was to consider implementation of the Government policy, as set out in the White Paper in 2007 and in the programme for Government in 2007, which was a separation of the ownership to EirGrid. It was looking at that option. I have not seen the final report to see what other options it might have examined. However, I am interested to know which of the two options the Deputy is considering, a separation of the network distribution company from the generation and supply business and an integration with the transmission or simply returning to the ESB as it was.

I presume the Minister has read our policy which is to reintegrate EirGrid back into ESB Networks Ltd. and sell the generation and supply. It is no secret that it has been our policy for two years. However, that is not the question I asked, which is whether the Frontier Economics report has been allowed to consider other options, such as the options put forward by my party, or if it is only allowed to consider the issue of who owns the distribution network?

Commissioning this report was part of the process the Department went through in which it set up Fergus Cahill as an independent chairman to bring in the parties to examine how to implement Government policy, which was to bring the network assets into the ownership of EirGrid. That was its primary task. As a side element to its work the report might have examined various different options but I have not seen the final document. However, its primary task was to examine the analysis of the Government proposal as set out in the programme for Government three years ago.

I imagine the terms of reference are in the Minister's briefing note. I would be surprised if they were not. With regard to the deliberations in the report, has the issue of compensation been assessed? What assessment has been made in the Department of possible compensation that would have to be paid in the context of such a transfer?

The terms of reference allow consideration of all such matters, including costs, compensation and other mechanisms. It was for that purpose we considered it right to get an independent consultant of international repute to examine what all the costs are. There are different views and assessments of those costs from both companies and other parties that have an interest, such as the ESOP. To get clarity on that and to assist us in answering some of those questions were among the reasons for commissioning the report. Frontier Economics was also asked to look at all options available to us to ensure compliance with the EU third energy package. There is an EU dimension to this in terms of a requirement for us to have proper separation. Frontier Economics was examining this within the European Union context as well as within the context of the programme for Government.

Will the Minister put on record the fact that there has never been a complaint that stood up with regard to access to the networks? That is important.

Second, this decision has been around for quite some time and long before the report was commissioned. What estimates of costs were made by the Department regarding possible compensation?

My understanding is that in 2006, if I recall correctly, the instigator for the separation of the ownership was set out in a Deloitte report. That initial report was considered by the Government at the time. It was quite a complex report but one of its elements was towards the separation. The initial costings and economic analysis were set within that. This report is for the purpose of getting firm economic costings. The Department was obviously working on how to do this on a statutory basis. From a policy viewpoint, my strategic sense is that this makes sense but we were always going to have to go through the process of carrying out the detailed cost-benefit analysis and examining the transactional costs involved in the separation. That is the reason the Frontier Economics report was commissioned and this process has been undertaken.

Energy Conservation

Michael Noonan

Ceist:

52 Deputy Michael Noonan asked the Minister for Communications; Energy and Natural Resources the progress made in the target to increase energy efficiency in the public sector by 33%; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [37891/10]

The national energy efficiency action plan, NEEAP, sets out 90 actions which are already under way, or will be taken in the period to 2020, to achieve the national energy efficiency target. The Government has set a target of 20% across the economy and 33% in the public sector. The savings identified in the action plan represent approximately €1.6 billion in avoided energy costs for the economy in 2020.

My Department and the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, are setting up a comprehensive monitoring and reporting system whereby all energy usage in the public sector will be accounted for and progress will be systematically recorded. This system will be fully in place next year, which will enable tracking of progress on an annual basis. In the public sector, the most significant cost cutting and energy saving potential lies in improving the energy performance of new and existing buildings and facilities. This will be a key focus of the new national retrofit programme. The public sector programme of SEAI is the main delivery mechanism for energy efficiency actions by public sector bodies. This comprehensive programme includes a public sector support programme, which provides assessments and training to all public sector bodies and a grant programme to support energy efficiency measures.

I announced last month financial support for 20 projects under the public sector and industry energy efficiency fund, which are all scheduled to conclude this year. These projects are anticipated to deliver €4.5 million savings over the lifetime of the measures. In addition, the SEAI is working closely with public sector bodies, including An Garda Síochána and the HSE, to accelerate development of their energy efficiency strategies. Public sector bodies are also actively working with SEAI to deliver energy savings in water services, public lighting and information and communications technology, ICT. Participants have made savings of up to 20%, and have identified future saving opportunities of up to 40% to 50%. The work already under way has highlighted the very significant energy savings achievable across the public sector with commensurate reduction in energy costs for all public bodies.

I had hoped to receive an answer in percentage terms. If the target is to reduce energy use by 33%, how much has been achieved so far? Is it 3%, 4% or 10% of the 33%? I am not so much interested in the figure; I just want to know that when the Government sets a target such as this, it knows what the target means. When the Minister sets a target of 33%, I assume he knows what 1% or 100% is and, therefore, he must know how much of the target remains to be achieved in percentage terms.

For my own Department——

Here we go again with a long waffly speech.

No, the Deputy asked for figures and facts.

The energy bill for my Department over the past three years has reduced by 42% and last year our energy use decreased by 12.7%. That is an example. We looked through our buildings. I attended a series of meetings with departmental officials to discuss the work the SEAI is doing. The Deputy can make hand signals but he asked——

The Minister should answer the question. How much of the 33% target has been achieved?

I am answering. In my Department, the figures are specific.

The Minister is not answering. He is waffling aimlessly as usual.

Those are real figures and reductions for which I am accountable in my Department.

The Minister does not know how much of the target he has achieved. This is a joke.

We have to transfer that progress across the rest of the public service. The work of SEAI, which I listed, will achieve that.

When the national retrofit scheme launches next year, it will be a crucial element because it will be aimed at public buildings as well as households and commercial buildings. I have seen in my area that is possible to achieve savings of 33%. It is a good economic opportunity and the scheme will be one of the key elements. The Deputy may laugh at the savings but they are real.

I am laughing at the target of 33%, not the savings. The Minister does not know what is his target.

Expenditure has reduced from approximately €600,000 to €350,000.

The Minister set a laudable target of 33% but he does not even know what the target means. He could waffle away for days on end if people could stay awake listening to him but he still does not know what percentage of that target he has achieved. How can we have a Government that sets such targets and does not even know what the they mean? It baffles me.

Will the Minister accept it is not good enough to set targets and then have no mechanism to deliver on them? It is clear nobody is in charge and this raises a serious question over commitments made in the Government programme in an area such as this, which is crucial both in the context of energy efficiency and in meeting climate change targets that are required of us. Since this is part of the programme for Government, why is it taking so long for the SEAI to set up a monitoring unit, which will not be established until next year? The national retrofit programme was promised in last year's budget and, clearly, it will not happen until after this year's budget.

The Minister will run away from my final question because he will say it is not his area of responsibility. When it comes to energy efficiency and all the plans his Department produces, he must take an interest in the fact that local authorities have been grant aided for home adaptation. The take-up by them has been pathetic, even though the need is considerable. What is the Minister's view on that failure if he is to meet targets set by him, his party and Fianna Fáil?

In discussions with officials of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, the budgets will be allocated and spent this year. There is a time-lag. They have to obtain a BER certificate to sign off on the spending.

That is because they have transferred to other local authorities. We have all done that. We know how the system works.

I pursued this and I have been informed money is being allocated.

We are at the start of a process and the SEAI is the key driver through its public sector partnership scheme. The authority has working groups relating to water services, public lighting and ICT energy use and they are seeing savings of up to 20% in the organisations with which they have worked as a result of the additional resources we have provided.

It has taken longer than I would like but the staff embargo was one of the reasons for that. We have overcome that and we are looking at providing further staff to the SEAI to allow it to get on with it. I would have liked to have done that sooner but the Department of Finance officials and others had to make sure we had the staff and resources available. However, we are making resources available at a time budgets are being severely cut and it is difficult to recruit staff. I am prioritising investment in the SEAI and energy efficiency because it saves money from the State's viewpoint. I stand over the savings in this regard in my Department as practical and real examples of helping the taxpayer cuts his bill.

Written Answers follow Adjournment Debate.