ESB (Electronic Communications Networks) Bill 2013: Committee and Remaining Stages

I welcome the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Pat Rabbitte.

Section 1 agreed to.

I move amendment No. 1:

In page 4, between lines 27 and 28, to insert the following:

(2) “That this fibre optic cable shall not be privatised.”.

Ba mhaith liom fáilte a chur roimh an Aire arís. Cuireann Sinn Féin fáilte go ginearálta roimh an mBille agus síleann muid gur céim mhaith chun cinn í go bhfuil muid ag úsáid an ghréasáin leictreachais le cúrsaí leathanbhanda a thabhairt chun cinn. Cloisim ó mo chomhghleacaí, Deputy Michael Colreavy, a bhfuil ról aige mar urlabhraí cumarsáide, gurb é ceann de na príomh smaointe a bhí aige ná go ndéanfaí rud cosúil le seo agus go bhfuil sé an-bhuíoch gur thóg an tAire ar bord na moltaí a rinne sé i leith seo. The Bill is very positive. It should ensure considerable improvements in the access of many people to broadband and should enhance the quality of life because of the issues that have arisen with the last mile of broadband from some of the companies that have been rolling out services to date. However, we still have reservations which is the reason we put forward this simple amendment which calls for the fibre optic cable not to be privatised.

I appreciate that the Minister has said it is not the intention of the Government to privatise the system, but in order to copperfasten the position we should include the provision in the legislation to ensure that no Government can in future make such a change without going back to the Houses of the Oireachtas. One of the main reasons we have such a poor broadband infrastructure compared to our European neighbours is due to the fact that Telecom Éireann was privatised in the 1990s. Ireland is a small country and a national State provider such as Telecom Éireann was needed to provide the necessary infrastructure to extend the broadband network. That is partly the reason this solution has been sought. I am pleased the ESB is now coming on board to assist in the roll-out of broadband services as it has a relationship with every home in the country. I take the Minister at his word that it is not his intention personally at this stage that the system would be privatised but the position should be copperfastened in the legislation because we have seen what can happen when Ministers or an Administration change. I hope he will take the amendment on board which has been put forward in good faith.

The Minister, Deputy Pat Rabbitte, is very welcome to the House for this Committee Stage debate. It would be so wrong to tie the hands of a future Government if the correct thing to do is to privatise the fibre optic cable. We could say so many other things as well but it is not the policy of the Government to privatise, which I understand, but at some future stage there could well be a need to privatise the network and it would be incorrect at this stage for us to tie the hands of a future Government so as to restrict it from taking such a step.

Ar an gcéad dul síos I welcome Senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh’s general support for the Bill and the general support of the House for it. As regards the amendment before the House, the purpose of the Bill is to provide an explicit legal basis to enable the ESB to engage, now or in the future, in the installation and operation of an electronic communications network attached to the existing electricity network and to provide for consequential matters.

The current legislative proposal does not exempt the ESB from any current legislative requirements or regulatory rules. The ESB is required by the Electricity (Supply)(Amendment) Act of 1988 to secure the consent of my Department and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to dispose of shares or interests in the assets of any such company. This requirement will apply to any electronic communications assets the ESB may develop directly or through any subsidiary.

If the ESB enters the fully liberalised electronic communications market in the future, in the manner it has proposed in outline form, or in any other form, it must do so on a commercial basis. It is essential therefore that it has the vires to negotiate on commercial terms with potential partners to co-fund the capital required to develop electronic communications networks. The authority to negotiate such funding would be significantly compromised if ownership of the asset is restricted to the State by primary legislation. For those reasons, I regret that I cannot accept the amendment advanced by the Senators.

I thank the Minister for his reply. I am quite concerned by it, but I am also concerned by the comments of Senator Feargal Quinn, for whom I have great respect. I fear there is an agenda to potentially privatise the fibre optic network in the future, something to which we would be totally opposed. I would have thought a Labour Party Minister in particular would have the same view.

I thought the measure could be included in the legislation. There is no reason a future Administration could not bring the legislation back to the Houses if it felt there was no option but to privatise the network or to sell parts of it off. That is the proper mechanism to allow for something of that nature as it would allow for a full debate in the Houses. What we are doing is signing off on a situation where a Minister could potentially privatise the network. I do not say that is the intention of the Minister, but we are leaving the door open to a future Minister or Administration. It is the wrong move. I hope the Minister will reconsider.

The Minister can clarify the position if he wishes to add something. Otherwise, I will ask Senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh if he is pressing the amendment.

All Members of the House have supported the motivation behind the Bill. The idea is to use the existing infrastructure of the ESB to roll out future-proofed fibre optic cable to parts of Ireland that would not have a realistic prospect of that happening. It is a very innovative use of infrastructure in the ownership of a commercial State company. It proposes to do it by way of a joint venture with a leading telecommunications company. If I took on board Senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh’s amendment it would tie the hands of the ESB in terms of the commercial negotiations with a telecommunications company on the funding of the roll-out. I have not yet seen the detail although I have been concerned with and supportive of the proposal for quite a long time. It is one of the most exciting projects that has come on the scene in terms of providing connectivity to parts of Ireland that otherwise could not remotely expect to have fibre optic cable. I presume the partner will come up with a great deal of the funding in order to allow that to happen. Apart from anything else I would be constraining that possibility if I were to accept the amendment.

If we have survived the hurricane of the past five years without privatising the ESB, the Senator can be reasonably relaxed that we are likely to be able to defend the citadel into the foreseeable future. It is very difficult sometimes to get any credit for things that one does in this business but it is exceptionally difficult to get any credit for things that one stopped happening. I am personally very pleased - like Senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh I have great respect for Senator Feargal Quinn – and proud that the ESB is still in State ownership. Senator Feargal Quinn did not say any different from this. What he said is that we ought not in primary legislation tie the hands of a future Administration in terms of the joint vehicle we are rolling out.

There are very good reasons the flexibility to allow the ESB to do business as it thinks proper, in order to provide this service and to secure as much funding as possible with whomever it is it will partner, is a very good outcome in the public interest. The Internet has transformed the way we live and educate ourselves, but it is also a curse because one cannot go to a public meeting these days without encountering some hob lawyer who has been on the Internet or some phony scientist who has accessed some crank in California who suggests the sky will fall on Grafton Street if one does X, Y and Z.

It is almost impossible to compete with it. I forget where I was going with that point.

I was worried about the sky falling on Grafton Street because I was admiring the renewal of the paving there this morning. That might refocus the Minister.

When I started the sentence, I was very proud that I was going somewhere but I have now forgotten. Several colleagues in the Lower House had all kinds of figures on where we rank on broadband provision and connectivity today. Most of it was wrong. I know we could never level such a charge against a Member of this House, but in the Lower House Members are poorly informed on some matters and this is one of them. The point about the initiative we are taking is that it will greatly enhance prospects of high quality connectivity for parts of Ireland that otherwise would not get it.

I am sure the Senator is very pleased with that response.

I am not pleased and it raises more issues than anything else. I reiterate that we are in favour of the general thrust of the Bill. Who will own the network if there is a PPP scenario where investment is coming from outside into this development? That is the real issue. The Minister indicated that ownership of the network might be shared between State and private enterprise in the new venture. We are calling for the State network to remain within the ownership of the ESB.

The Minister talks about weathering the storm for five years. People are concerned that the Uisce Éireann scenario means the water network could be privatised in future. We have seen parts of Bord Gáis for sale on the public market. People know about the Telecom Éireann debacle, which happened under a previous Administration and led us to the current debacle in respect of broadband. That is why there are genuine fears. If the Minister is saying I should not be concerned because the ESB will remain in State ownership, but that there is private investment in the project, is it possible that the network is not fully in State ownership and we will not own it fully any more? If so, I would be concerned.

This changes nothing as regards the supply system. The supply system is owned by the ESB. The ESB will come forward with this shareholder agreement, which I have not yet seen, in respect of the creation of the joint venture. The ESB is free to make what arrangements it thinks appropriate. That will come to me in due course in respect of the shareholder agreement but in terms of the vesting of ownership of the supply system, it remains in the control of the ESB.

Amendment put and declared lost.
Question, "That section 2 stand part of the Bill," put and declared carried.

Amendments Nos. 2 and 3 are related and will be discussed together.

Government amendment No. 2:
In page 4, line 31, after “networks” to insert “and electronic communications services”.

These amendments have been drafted following consultation with the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel and are required to improve the legal certainty of the Bill. They do not represent a change in policy in respect of the sections affected. These are drafting amendments.

Amendment agreed to.
Section 3, as amended, agreed to.
Government amendment No. 3:
In page 5, line 6, after “section 2” to insert “or by a company which has been provided access or services referred to in section 3”.
Amendment agreed to.
Section 4, as amended, agreed to.
Sections 5 to 9, inclusive, agreed to.
Title agreed to.
Bill reported with amendments, received for final consideration and passed.

When is it proposed to sit again?

Next Tuesday at 2.30 p.m.