Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

The first question is from Deputy Jack Chambers. As is usual with me, I am very strict on the time limits for questions. The Deputy has 30 seconds to introduce his question and the Minister has two minutes to respond. The Deputy has then one minute to ask a supplementary, with the Minister having one minute to reply. The Deputy has one minute for a final supplementary, with the Minister having one minute to respond. I ask all Deputies and the Minister to strictly adhere to those time limits.

National Broadband Plan

Jack Chambers

Ceist:

1. Deputy Jack Chambers asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment the circumstances by which a company (details supplied) came to be an investor in the national broadband plan; the level of the investment; the level of investment by another company in the final contract; if another company will be contractually liable in the event that a company requires additional funding which a company cannot provide; and the details of this liability. [49579/19]

This question relates to the sudden official appearance of a new investor in the national broadband plan on the day the contract was signed. While media reports mentioned Oak Hill on a few occasions regarding other matters, it has not been part of the general debate on the national broadband plan. The first time it will appear in the Official Report will be in this debate. What is Oak Hill's involvement in the national broadband plan? What is its responsibilities? When did it become involved, and why was its name not mentioned in previous parliamentary question responses related to those involved in the national broadband plan?

The Government is committed to delivering high-speed broadband to every home, farm, business and school in Ireland. It is vital that we ensure the people of rural Ireland have the same opportunities as the people in our towns and cities.

The fundamental building blocks of the project, which is designed to bring fibre to the home to over 1.1 million people in the intervention area, have not changed since the procurement process commenced. The project is led by Granahan McCourt, supported by key subcontractors Enet and the Kelly Group, with Nokia as the provider of electronic equipment.

After appointment as the preferred bidder, the sponsors are required to finalise a number of steps before a contract can be signed. The Department is also required to carry out the necessary due diligence.

These steps included closing out contracts with infrastructure access providers, civil engineering companies and so on; concluding the contractual provision in the 3,000 page contract; and the finalisation of the committed equity documents with the shareholders of the new company, National Broadband Ireland.

As is standard in large projects, including public private partnerships, PPPs, the final mix of shareholders to the project is concluded when all contractual documents have been finalised. The national broadband plan, NBP, process has been no different in this regard.

The bidder proposed for contract award that McCourt Global LLC be replaced by Oak Hill. The procurement process for the national broadband plan contract includes a mechanism for the Department to assess and approve, or reject, changes to the membership of bidders. This assessment is carried out by ring-fenced teams with similar make-up to the teams that carried out the evaluation of the final tender, and overseen by a review panel and the procurement board. The Minister has no role. This due diligence was carried out against the conditions set out in the assessment process and was approved.

As the Deputy knows, the project information memorandum sets out the procurement process and the documents are published.

As part of the assessment of a change, the relevant bidder is required to demonstrate that it continued to meet the economic and financial standing, together with technical and professional capacity, set out in the original pre-qualification criteria. The Department could not approve a change in bidder composition unless the relevant bidder met those criteria.

The funding commitments of National Broadband Ireland, including the equity investment commitments, have been contractualised as part of the contract award.

With respect, the Minister has not answered any of the questions I asked. The Granahan McCourt consortium has changed so many times it has been difficult to keep up. First, it was widely known as the Enet-SSE consortium and contained a number of other companies. John Laing, SSE and Enet then dropped out, leaving only Granahan McCourt. We then heard that Granahan McCourt is being backed by McCourt Global and Tetrad. We then heard only Tetrad was involved but that McCourt Global had helped Granahan McCourt to pass the relevant tests. We now find out that it is made up of Granahan McCourt, Tetrad and Oak Hill. Can the Minister clarify the level of investment provided separately by Tetrad, Oak Hill and Granahan McCourt? Is Tetrad providing €175 million? Is Granahan McCourt still providing €45 million? If so, how much is being provided by Oak Hill and to what end? We know that the scale of Granahan McCourt's investment is limited and that there may be issues with that but what we need to know is what the Minister has not answered. When did it become involved? Was McCourt Global simply used as a front to facilitate it through the process, following which it denied even wanting to be involved in May of this year?

What is Oak Hill's involvement? When did it get involved?

Will the Minister answer those questions?

The Deputy has to be aware that the make-up of a consortium changes over the course of a bid, particularly a PPP bid of this length. As he is aware, this has gone on since 2015. That was always recognised in the contract documents. The contract documents also set out very strict criteria to ensure that whenever a change occurred it did not in any way undermine the basic strength of the proposal. That process of pre-qualification approval was done entirely independent of either me, as Minister, or the Secretary General, by an independent team of experts with a panel, including the National Development Finance Agency, NDFA. This was an independent process.

What has happened here is that the finalisation of the investment includes Oak Hill, which will have a substantial minority shareholding, but Granahan McCourt will continue to be the controlling interest. It was always envisaged, and other PPP projects are the same, that the equity commitments of the different partners will only be decided at the concluding stage. That is what happened in this case. There is nothing unusual about it. I believe it can be said that Oak Hill has a very substantial financial strength that even a review online will reveal.

We need more than a review online. Is Oak Hill the same Oak Hill that was previously involved with Enet and Mr. McCourt in the past? The Minister might clarify that. The issue is extremely serious because it deals who will be responsible if National Broadband Ireland requires additional funding. For example, concerns about take-up in the intervention area have arisen. We hope that never arises but it is at the core of our concerns. The issue is that it is unclear why McCourt Global was required in this process at all, unless issues arose in the consortium. If it was the case that Granahan McCourt could not pass the financial bar and relied on McCourt Global, that is of public concern. If it was the case that Granahan McCourt could pass the test alone, the question to be asked is why McCourt Global was involved in the first place. There have been a small number of media reports about Oak Hill and the national broadband plan, although very few before last Tuesday, but they were not mentioned as part of the final tender by the Government. Why has Oak Hill only been associated with the tender by Government at this point? If it has been flipped and changed so often in the bidding process, is this what we are facing now-----

-----that the Minister has signed this contract? To whom will Oak Hill sell its equity investment? To whom will Granahan McCourt sell its equity investment? Will the taxpayer be on the hook for more liability because the Minister has facilitated this being flipped between vulture capitalists on a continuous basis? What are the protections for the Irish State? When did-----

-----Oak Hill become involved? What is its investment? We have no clarity-----

-----on the questions asked.

-----it is not fair to do that.

The Deputy will have to appreciate that what has happened here is that contractual commitments to an investment of both equity and working capital of more than €220 million have been made by the investors. The controlling interest in this is Granahan McCourt. However, one of the investors with less than 50% is Oak Hill and that provides a strong financial basis for the roll-out. As I indicated, the process of approving any change in the make-up of the consortium is undertaken by the very same review group, with the same expertise, advice and review panels, as has taken place throughout this process. That independent process has approved that not only have these investors committed the equity and working capital but they also meet all of the criteria set out from the outset in this process.

I ask Members to watch the clock. I do not want to give out to anybody as these are important issues. I do not stop anybody who goes ten seconds over their time but I ask Members not to go too far.

Just Transition Commissioner

David Cullinane

Ceist:

2. Deputy David Cullinane asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment the role the just transition commissioner will have in matters pertaining to workers; the statutory powers the commissioner will have; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [49218/19]

The Acting Chairman always gives out to me. My question is on the powers and the role of the just transition commissioner. The Minister might be aware there was a lot of discussion on this at the Joint Committee on Climate Action yesterday. Concerns have been raised both at the Joint Committee on Communications, Climate Action and Environment, which is the Minister's line Oireachtas committee and at the Joint Committee on Climate Action by Government Members and Opposition Members on the just transition roll-out and policy and the view from the trade union movement is that it is not working. One of the issues raised was the role and the powers of the just transition commissioner, especially in industrial relations matters. The Minister might outline those for us.

The Government has appointed Mr. Kieran Mulvey as the just transition commissioner on a non-statutory basis to facilitate discussions and work with stakeholders to develop, mobilise and deliver opportunities for the midlands. I published the terms of reference for the work of the just transition commissioner on 19 November. The commissioner will engage with the relevant stakeholders, including local community organisations; Bord na Móna; the ESB; the midlands transition team; local authorities and public representatives; and relevant trade unions and workers' representatives. The commissioner will also review experiences and best practices in other projects and areas, nationally and internationally, and will review relevant existing State plans and programmes. The commissioner will then recommend the essential elements of a just transition. The commissioner will report to Government through the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment.

I have asked the commissioner to specifically consider the following matters in developing his recommendations: delivery of the just transition measures provided for in budget 2020, in particular the just transition fund; optimal structures or processes to support co-ordinated and effective delivery of a just transition in the midlands, including developing liaison channels between institutions in the region and central Government; implementation of other actions under way, or planned, by Government Departments, agencies and companies, including the four competitive funds under Project Ireland 2040, which could contribute to the transition; and any additional actions or measures he considers appropriate for Government consideration. The commissioner has also been invited to take account of relevant existing plans and programmes, such as Bord na Móna's brown to green strategy, the regional enterprise development plan for the midlands, as well as the provisions made in budget 2020, which include the €20 million retrofitting initiative; the €5 million for peatland rehabilitation - outside of Bord na Móna bogs; and the €6 million for a dedicated just transition fund, where the ESB has contributed an additional €5 million. The commissioner will not have a direct role in industrial relations matters in Bord na Móna, which will continue to work with the joint industrial relations council established under the Workplace Relations Commission and with the Workplace Relations Commission itself as necessary.

The problem is the trade unions, including the head of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, are saying there is a real problem here. Whatever about the role of the just transition commissioner, Bord na Móna is not engaging with the trade unions and the workforce. The problem for all of us in here is we want to see a just transition policy, framework and architecture in place that work but if that allows for Bord na Móna to opt out or if that gives Bord na Móna a veto so it does not have to engage, then we have a problem. The just transition policy may as well be torn up. That is what the trade unions and workers' representatives are saying. Bord na Móna is not engaging with the Workplace Relations Commission.

We are saying that we can have a just transition policy but if Bord na Móna or the ESB refuse to engage with the industrial relations machinery then that is just tough luck for those workers. That means we do not have any just transition policy. This is not related to all the measures the Minister spoke about that were in the budget and that Kieran Mulvey will have responsibility for such as the retrofit programme and the rest of it. It is the issues around those workers transitioning into jobs and the protection of their jobs that is the real concern for them. I hope the Minister understands there is a problem and a difficulty here that needs to be dealt with.

I am conscious there are issues that will have to be resolved here. However, I would point out to the Deputy that the joint industrial relations council was established due to a proposition made by the Workplace Relations Commission. This is an independent body that is chaired by the Workplace Relations Commission itself with an independent chairperson. The provision in these joint industrial relations councils as I understand them is that where issues cannot be resolved, they will move forward to the Workplace Relations Commission, which will play a role in resolving those issues. I have some experience of the Workplace Relations Commission and it has advisory services, conciliation services and mediation services. Those services are available to assist both the trade unions and Bord na Móna in resolving issues that arise. Those measures are tried and tested. I am conscious that Bord na Móna itself is an independent commercial company and it must make its arrangements but I also expect it to follow the tried and tested ways of dealing with genuine disputes that have to be resolved. I see a significant role for the Workplace Relations Commission in this work.

The problem is the Minister is not genuinely listening to what the trade unions are saying. He should read the transcripts from when they were before the Joint Committee on Communications, Climate Action and Environment and the Joint Committee on Climate Action. They said the joint industrial relations council is not the way to deal with this. They do not have a difficulty with dealing with the Workplace Relations Commission. The Workplace Relations Commission is open to a just transition element in its work because it is slightly different from what would normally be the cut and thrust of industrial relations issues that would arise. The trade unions do not have a difficulty with either Kieran Mulvey as just transition commissioner having a role in industrial relations or compellability with the Workplace Relations Commission but what is there at the moment is not working. If the Minister's position is that it is entirely up to Bord na Móna to engage, and Bord na Móna is an independent body, and if it does not engage, there is nothing he can do about it and our just transition strategy lies in tatters. What is the point if it can simply opt out? That is what the trade unions are saying. We have a responsibility to put a framework in place that compels companies to engage and to ensure there is proper engagement with the trade unions and workers. That simply is not happening and it is not there.

The position is Kieran Mulvey has come in. He was a former director general of the Workplace Relations Commission but he has not come to take on the role of the Workplace Relations Commission. Kieran Mulvey is a man of considerable experience who has taken on the task I set out in my earlier reply, namely, to liaise with community interests across the region. He will also look at things such as the just transition fund, which specifically makes provision for the retraining of workers, and he will make sure that redeployment and those opportunities to reach new jobs are available to Bord na Móna workers. He is not there to replicate the service of the Workplace Relations Commission. As I understand it, the way the joint industrial relations council works is that it is chaired by an independent person who is from the Workplace Relations Commission itself and issues that cannot be resolved there can be escalated to the Workplace Relations Commission in the normal way. I would expect Bord na Móna to co-operate with that process, just as I would expect trade unions to do.

What if it does not?

Air Quality

Jack Chambers

Ceist:

3. Deputy Jack Chambers asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment the steps being taken to ensure safe air quality levels and to introduce a nationwide ban on smoky coal in response to stated legal advice from the Attorney General; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [49580/19]

This question is on the ongoing failure by Government to introduce a nationwide ban on smoky coal and ensure rural towns and villages are protected from air pollution. New analysis by the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, has found air pollution is reaching dangerous levels, beyond World Health Organization, WHO, air quality guidelines and we have serious issues with premature deaths, asthma related illnesses and cardiac related illnesses as a result. Given this disturbing state of affairs, on Monday of this week the EPA called for an urgent nationwide ban on smoky coal. Will the Minister outline what immediate actions, legislative or otherwise, he is taking to improve air quality and ensure a nationwide ban is put in place?

Transitioning away from fossil fuels to more renewable, sustainable energy sources is at the heart of the climate action plan. Some 40% of our homes use coal and peat for heating, many in combination with other fossil fuel heating systems. By 2030, we will upgrade a third of all homes to at least a B2 energy standard, installing approximately 400,000 heat pumps. Over 99% of our vehicle fleet is powered by fossil fuels. By 2030, nearly 1 million electric vehicles will be on our roads. These measures will significantly improve air quality by reducing emissions of harmful pollutants. Extending the ban on the use of smoky coal would also have a positive impact on air quality, particularly in built up areas. The ban on the marketing, sale and distribution of bituminous coal, or the smoky coal ban as it is commonly known, was first introduced in Dublin in 1990, and subsequently extended to 26 major urban areas. My two predecessors proposed a national extension of the smoky coal ban, but a number of coal firms have indicated they would challenge the proposal of two former Ministers to extend the smoky coal ban.

This is disappointing. The basis of their challenge is that a nationwide smoky coal ban cannot be introduced without a nationwide ban on the burning of peat, turf and wet wood because such products produce similar levels of pollution. The legal threat is not only to take down any new nationwide ban, but to remove the ban currently in place in cities and many towns throughout the country.

In that context, it is especially important to ensure that the measures put forward will not be vulnerable to legal challenge, and I am continuing to work to finalise a legally robust way forward that will improve air quality by reducing air pollution, without jeopardising the existing ban.

That was a nonsense of a response. People are dying as a result of smoky coal but the Minister stated that because of the vulnerability to a legal challenge, there will be more inaction from his Department on such a serious matter. There have been no suggestions about how the Government may improve or address the current, partial law and no proposal on how to shift subsidies and incentives away from fossil fuel burning. It is concerning that the Minister is more obsessed with legal challenges than in saving lives, which is what it comes down to in light of the EPA data.

The State's response to a real, immediate and worsening public health matter cannot be dictated by potential legal threats and big business. Experts at many universities have stated there are serious public health implications, and the national ban on selling and burning smoky coal is a logical first step towards improving air quality. Air pollution is closely linked to the climate crisis, yet the burning of smoky coal is entirely absent from the Government's new climate action plan. The same threats were made by big tobacco many years ago. The Government is taking the approach that because there is a potential for legal challenges, there will be no legislative action. That is not good enough. People are dying, as the data show.

The Deputy is wrong to suggest there are no subsidies to encourage people to move away from fossil fuels. There are substantial subsidies for the move to electric vehicles, insulation, the upgrading of homes, the fitting of heat pumps and other measures that would substantially reduce reliance on fossil fuel. The subsidies are in place and have been substantially expanded in the budget.

The issue for any Minister is that when one gets legal advice that a proposition made by one's predecessors, as is the case, could bring down the ban on smoky coal that prevails in 26 major urban areas, including Dublin, one has to tread carefully. It would serve no one's interest for the existing ban in Dublin and the other 25 areas to fall under a legal challenge. I have to proceed, therefore, in a way that I can be confident I can enforce the change and not undermine the existing law.

In the context of the previous question, the issue is that the ban in place does not extend to peat and wet wood. They, too, are substantial causes of pollution.

The matter is a case of political leadership. As we saw on "RTÉ Investigates" last night, there are illegal quarries throughout the country, and there are threats and legal challenges. It seems business reigns above politics in this case. Who runs the country? In October, the Minister stated he was working with the Attorney General to address an issue. The Government has repeatedly chosen to deflect and deny, while the evidence shows increasing levels of respiratory illnesses and hospital admissions due to poor air quality. Air pollution causes 1,000 premature deaths per year in Ireland but legal challenges mean more than those lives. Why are the lives and health of people living in Enniscorthy less important to the Government than those of people living in cities? The Government is treating people in rural areas as second-class citizens. It is unacceptable that the Government is willing to dismiss relevant human rights obligations in this area, not least in respect of ensuring the right to health and the rights of a child. On the air quality issues relating to the quarries mentioned last night, there has been no enforcement from local authorities or action from the Government to address the issue. Instead, judicial reviews and legal quagmires have been allowed to undermine the rights of people to health and proper air quality.

It goes back to the fundamental question of whether the Government shows political leadership. It should ban it and deal with the consequences.

If I sponsored a statutory instrument that fell in the courts at its first challenge, the Deputy, along with other Deputies who also represent areas protected by the smoky coal ban, would be the first to state in the Chamber that I had failed in my duty and undermined the protections available to the major cities and towns. I have to take seriously the legal frailties of any proposal made. That is my job. I have to ensure I protect people, but I am also examining how I can move forward on the matter. I recognise the concern the Deputy expressed and many of my party colleagues are similarly concerned. Nevertheless, I have to ensure that anything I do in the area will be robust and able to withstand the test.

Natural Gas Imports

Bríd Smith

Ceist:

4. Deputy Bríd Smith asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment if support for liquefied natural gas, LNG, projects that are destined to bring fracked gas imports from North America here will be reconsidered in view of the recent European Investment Bank, EIB, statement regarding the funding of fossil fuel infrastructure and projects; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [49380/19]

I again ask the Minister, as I have done many times in the Chamber, whether he supports the LNG projects that are destined to bring fracked gas from North America to this country, via the hubs at Shannon and in Cork. If so, will he reconsider that in view of the recent European Investment Bank statement on fossil fuel industry projects and the funding of same? Will he make a statement on the matter?

As the Deputy will be aware and as I have stated clearly, I will not support any funding for the proposed LNG terminals unless and until I am satisfied they pass the sustainability and security review I am putting in place. She has to be aware that the LNG projects, including that at Shannon, have been proposed by commercial developers. They are private sector projects and final investment decisions for them, including the sources of their funding and their compliance with legal and regulatory requirements for consents or permits, are the responsibility of the project promoters. In that context, I have no plans to intervene in individual commercial projects. I recognise that the revised EIB policy will no longer consider new financing for unabated fossil fuel energy projects from the end of 2021. The EIB recognises, however, the necessary role that gas will continue to play in the transition to decarbonisation. Within the gas sector, the bank will focus its support on projects aligned to the transition.

Shannon LNG has been on the list of projects of common interest since 2013, and while Ireland supported its inclusion on the fourth list, I have made it clear the Government will not consider any application for the EU Connecting Europe Facility unless and until it passes the tests I have set for it. In addition, I have instructed my officials to request that the European Commission review the implications of importing LNG, both conventionally and unconventionally extracted, into the EU, in terms of a sustainable, secure and competitive European energy policy.

The climate action plan I launched in June sets out an ambitious course of action over the coming years to address the climate challenge and to transition to a carbon-neutral economy. In the context of the transition, a comprehensive independent energy security and sustainability review will be carried out. It will examine the fuel mix necessary, including the role of gas in electricity generation, how and from where it is sourced, as well as the role of other technologies such as interconnection and battery storage as backup for renewables to ensure security of supply.

Only a few weeks ago, the Chamber was full of school students who were invited in to explore what could be done about climate change. One of the ten recommendations that came out of that experiment was not to allow the importation of fracked gas and to oppose the Shannon and Cork LNG projects. Tomorrow, the same students will take another day of strike action, and at approximately 12 noon they will be on Merrion Square. I intend to join them and I wonder whether the Minister can tell them with a straight face what he just stated to me, or support their demand to end the importation of North American fracked gas.

I listened to the Minister's response, in which he paid no attention to the two reports published this week that suggest we may have crossed the tipping points and thresholds that will lock us into catastrophic climate change because emissions are soaring all the time. Without allowing the climate emergency measures Bill to go forward or banning LNG projects, we will be certain to have done nothing. Although the Minister denies we have anything to do with LNG facilities and that they are private, we facilitated the fast-track planning and building of the projects in Cork and at Shannon, and have allowed for their inclusion on the list of European projects of common interest. It is not as though his hands are clean and he has nothing to do it.

I am undertaking an evaluation of the role that gas should have, in particular LNG. In the interim, I have signalled very clearly that the Government will not support such a project in any way.

However, being able to stop a private sector project going through the planning process is not a power available to the Government, nor is the power to block its importation. I understand that is a matter for the European Commission because it would be a trade issue. I have undertaken the evaluation that is necessary so we can have a proper examination of the science to determine whether this has any role to play and how we should treat it. In the interim, I will not support any such project.

I do not know if the Minister realises how helpless and useless he sounds when he says that the Government has no role in any of this because it is a private sector project. This is fracked gas from an area of North America that is suffering severely in terms of health and the environment. We have banned it in this country for those reasons, yet we are willing to facilitate its importation into this country. I repeat that we are facilitating it through our planning structure and the fact that the Government is allowing it to remain on a list of projects of common interest in Europe.

Gas and fracked gas is driving the spike in methane emissions. One third of this is coming from the industry in North America, from where fracked gas will arrive in Shannon. Businesses are looking for a market. If they succeed in building LNG here and across Europe, we can kiss goodbye to the Paris targets and any hope of limiting temperature rises to under 2°C. The science is there. Robert Howarth of Cornell University gave evidence at climate change committee meetings that if we could reduce methane emissions we could buy ourselves more time to try to deal with the climate catastrophe we are facing. Methane leaks at a significant level from fracked gas and traps heat at a much more intense level. Will the Minister listen to school students and do something about LNG?

Deputy Smith is very flaithiúlacht when she throws out accusations that I am useless. The truth is that I was the first Minister to put in place a climate action plan which will see us move from a figure of 30% of renewables and is putting State money into building interconnectors, facilitating additional wind farms and solar capacity to make our power clean, helping homeowners to improve their homes and helping people to switch to cleaner and better forms of transport. We are putting substantial resources in place and making regulatory changes to bring about a much cleaner environment. That is in contrast to many of the proposals the Deputy advocates, which would not have any impact on our carbon emissions.

Island Communities

Catherine Connolly

Ceist:

5. Deputy Catherine Connolly asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment his policies in regard to the islands as requested by the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht with regard to the interdepartmental committee for island development; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [49601/19]

Is maith liom an focal “flaithiúlacht” agus tá súil agam go mbeidh flaithiúlacht i gceist maidir le freagra an Aire ó thaobh na n-oileán de. I welcome the Minister's use of the word "flaithiúlacht". I look forward to seeing it in action in his answer to my question on the islands. Can he clarify, following communication from the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, his policy and that of his Department on the islands?

I thank Deputy Connolly for raising the issue. The interdepartmental committee on island development is the first cross-Government policy developed for the islands in 23 years and will set a roadmap for the long-term sustainability and development of our offshore communities. Our coastal islands are an integral part of our cultural heritage. Island communities need to continue to be sustainable and to realise their potential, and the voices and views of islanders will be central to the process.

At a special event in November on Sherkin Island, the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Coveney, in conjunction with the Government Chief Whip and Minister of State, Deputy Seán Kyne, launched a consultation process aimed at formulating a new national policy for the future development of the islands. My Department has supported this initiative by outlining the breadth of policies relevant to the islands, including communications, energy, climate action and fisheries.

One major project is the national broadband plan, which aims to deliver access to high speed broadband to every premises in Ireland, regardless of location, including offshore islands. Provision of advanced communications services and innovation in smart agriculture, e-health, education, tourism and improved supports for emergency services all offer potential island applications. The deployment plan will be finalised shortly and all counties will see premises passed in the first two years.

Approximately 300 broadband connection points in community centres such as schools, library hubs and local sports halls in every county in Ireland, including some on the islands such as, among others, Tory Island, Inishbofin, Inis Oirr, Valentia and Achill, will be connected. There are many opportunities for the islands to become pioneers in initiatives designed to deliver our climate action plan and sustainable development goals.

My Department has active programmes for community participation in areas such as the sustainable energy communities network operated by the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, waste reduction and recycling and Sound & Vision Ireland, operated by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, BAI. I am sure the Deputy is aware that the Aran Islands were recently recognised for their outstanding achievements in moving to a low waste and clean power approach to island communities.

I am certainly aware of how magnificent the Aran Islands are in every way, from the point of view of geography and people. A policy on the islands has been drafted and each Department has been specifically asked about its actions. When was the Minister's Department contacted by the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht? What actions has it taken in regard to the islands? I ask this in the context of a motion that was passed in September which asked for a policy on the islands because of the vacuum that exists.

Scotland has legislation and a policy in respect of its islands and its island population has increased. We value our islands and there is wonderful language in our national planning framework and other documents. Our islands and coastal areas contain some of our most vibrant and culturally distinctive communities. What are we doing to support sustainable life on the islands?

The Minister listed a range of events. I realise that there are many opportunities. What is the Minister's Department setting out in respect of the islands? In contrast to Scotland, the population on our islands is declining.

I can only respond in respect of my remit. I outlined two significant contributions my Department has made, including rolling out high-speed broadband to every home on the islands. In the interim we are installing broadband connection points which will be hubs located on specific islands.

We are also proposing to increase the number of sustainable energy communities from 300 to 1,500. We will of course make available the resources of the SEAI to work with communities on the islands to develop such programmes. It has the facility to draw down money to put together an energy plan to improve energy efficiency in buildings in those communities. That is a very worthwhile project which can offer employment opportunities in terms of rolling out the programme and, more importantly, make communities sustainable in terms of energy use and more self-sufficient in their approach to power.

I have no difficulty with the tone of the Minister's comments and what he is saying. I ask for a more specific plan, which is what the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht asked for because of the vacuum and challenges facing the islands and the drop the population. This is urgent and all Departments must play a role.

I welcome the broadband plan, but not the price of broadband. I would like more specific timescales for broadband on the islands. Aside from broadband, there are many other issues, as the Minister said, including energy. The island and communities are coming forward to outline the challenges and solutions and to ask for help. The Department is weak in terms of interface from that point of view. When will the Minister's Department have a report ready in response to the request from the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht as an input into policy?

I will ask my Department to furnish a report to the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. I understand there is a consultation process which I am sure will shed light on the expectations from each Department.

The Deputy seems to be belittling the fact that Tory Island, Inishbofin and so on will have broadband connection points before the end of next year. They will be furnished with important hotspots which will give people access to broadband. If a sustainable energy community is formed, a grant of up to €25,000 to help it develop a plan is available. Communities will not be left alone to develop plans.

They need to identify the participants locally, however, before the plan can take shape. We are happy to provide resources and to work with communities to see the emergence of a sustainable energy community. In any other area where we feel we can be of assistance, we are certainly open to doing so.