Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Seanad Éireann díospóireacht -
Tuesday, 3 Feb 2015

Vol. 237 No. 7

Commencement Matters

Local Authority Funding

I thank the Cathaoirleach for selecting this matter and I welcome the Minister of State. I am sorry the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government is not present but I am conscious that he is meeting colleagues from Sligo County Council and its chief executive officer as I speak. Nevertheless, I would like to make it clear that it is important that central government does not take an attitude to smaller counties without the robust funding mechanisms of larger counties, which run a surplus, and mistreat them as a result.

Since November last year, central government through the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government has prescribed cuts, which have affected the people of Sligo, in particular to library and tax office services and 50 additional lay offs. This is unacceptable. More than 180 people have lost their jobs with the council over the past three years. To treat them in this way is to do little more to the people of Sligo than what many of us believe Brussels and Frankfurt have done to the people of Ireland. Sligo County Council and other small local authorities cannot be treated like independent republics somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean dependent of the goodwill and charity of other countries. The citizens of County Sligo and Sligo town are the same as those in Fingal County Council, which happens to have the good luck to have Dublin Airport contributing to its commercial rates base. That local authority has €100 million on deposit while, at the same time, the lack of a robust funding mechanism for councils such as Sligo County Council has led to significant debt which I will break down.

It is often reported in the media that the debt is in the region of €100 million. This includes €30 million spent on land acquisitions. The Department at the time insisted that the national spatial strategy be developed. Every party bought into the strategy, which was subject to public consultation throughout the country and which was overseen by the best spatial planners the Department could procure from Denmark. The strategy stated that Sligo should prepare for a population of 100,000 by 2020. However ridiculous or misguided that policy turned out to be, the Department told the council to think bigger, be more ambitious, prepare public private partnerships and not to be subservient to the developers of the future in the context of having sufficient land for social housing, community facilities and so on.

Another €30 million of debt relates to mortgages, which have been lent to people. As is normal, there is collateral associated with them. A further €15 million relates to the contribution locally to the €120 million spent on upgrading water and waste treatment plants in Sligo. The remaining €25 million is the current deficit,which relates to servicing the debts and covering the cost of running the water services infrastructure, which increased from €5 million to €10 million per annum between 2008 and 2013. Sligo County Council is a small local authority dependent on central government support but Exchequer funding reduced during this period from €18 million to €9 million. It was, therefore, halved.

In this scenario, we are being pushed out into the Atlantic Ocean and we are being told we can sing for the money because the Department is treating the local authority in isolation and blaming it for implementing Government and Department policy. I acknowledge there were issues relating to the collection of outstanding rates, arrears and so on but these have been addressed by the new chief executive officer and the council. Local authorities such as Sligo County Council, which do not have a Dublin Airport or hundreds of millions of euro on deposit, cannot be discriminated against for failing to have sufficient resources. Central government must come up with them. We expect that central government will provide additional resources for Sligo because the people of the county deserve no less.

They are as entitled to their libraries, tax office and community services as anybody in Dublin South or Fingal, which have the larger rates bases. I appeal to the Minister and his Oireachtas colleagues from the area. There are three Senators from Government parties and two TDs. They will be held exclusively responsible for failure in this regard, as will the Minister of State and the Minister, Deputy Kelly, by me and my colleagues if this is not done.

Gabhaim mo bhuíochas leis an Seanadóir as ucht an cheist tábhachtach seo atá á freagairt agam ar son an Aire, an Teachta Ó Ceallaigh.

As the Senator is aware, local authorities have three main sources of funding, namely, grants from central government, commercial rates and other locally raised charges. In recognition of the fact that certain local authorities have less opportunity to raise income locally, central government has provided much higher levels of funding to support the efforts of these authorities to provide an adequate level of public services.

In 2014, approximately 54% of Sligo's budgeted income was expected to be provided by central government, almost double the national average of 28%. This clearly shows that the Government is committed to supporting the smaller authorities, a fact further underpinned by the Government's decision to redistribute 20% of local property tax allocated nationally from 2015 to support authorities that have lower valued property bases.

The issue of cash flow in local authorities is important and certain local authorities, with very large annual expenditure, generally as a result of population levels, can hold seemingly large levels of cash at particular times. All local authorities are required to ensure they can meet the public sector payment deadline by paying agreed invoices within 15 days. For a local authority with €98 million in creditors at the end of 2013, such as Fingal County Council, having cash on hand is prudent and appropriate financial practice.

As the Senator will be aware, Sligo County Council has been incurring revenue deficits for the past number of years to the effect that the cumulative deficit now stands at over €24 million. Long-term debt is in excess of €120 million.

When this matter was raised in this House last November, Senator MacSharry suggested that Sligo County Council is in this situation in part because it has implemented Government policy, particularly in respect of water services and land purchases. The Minister wishes to be clear that the obligations placed on Sligo County Council in terms of implementing Government policy were no more onerous than in any other local authority in this respect.

As the Senator knows, the implementation of the social housing strategy is a key priority for Government and will provide an opportunity for all authorities to develop lands they purchase for housing, thus providing additional housing and alleviating associated debt.

In respect of water services, the Department's analysis shows that combined water and wastewater charges in Sligo increased by just 17% in the period 2008 to 2012 despite an increase in operating costs of 39%, suggesting that the water pricing methodology used was insufficient. The level of income collection in the water charges area was also unacceptably low at only 48% on average from 2008 to 2013. Both of these exacerbated Sligo County Council's financial and cash flow situation.

Other factors such as poor income collection and an inadequate bad debt provision policy have significantly contributed to the financial situation. The commercial rates collection level was just 59% in 2013. Collection levels for housing loans are also poor at 47%.

It is a matter for individual local authorities, including Sligo County Council, to manage their own day-to-day finances in a prudent and sustainable manner. The Department has not been prescriptive in respect of the steps Sligo County Council should take but is in regular consultation with the council in regard to its financial position.

The Minister set aside an allocation of €1 million in additional funding to 2014, and for 2015, for Sligo County Council to assist it to take the steps necessary to move to a more sustainable financial position. The payment of this funding remains fully conditional on a realistic and achievable financial plan which charts a path for long-term financial sustainability being agreed between the Department and the council. This process is ongoing.

The Minister, following a request from the council, is today meeting a delegation of elected members and senior officials regarding the council's historical and current financial position.

Why has the Minister been sent to the House to deliver such bad news? This is clearly an abdication of responsibility to the people. Are the people of Fingal more entitled to a library than the people of Ballymote? That is the question. It is no more onerous than for any local authority. Fingal has the airport in its area but the people of Sligo or in the Minister's native County Donegal will have to sing for it.

The attack on the people of Sligo has been relentless. It will come to bear specifically on the parties in the Government and it is wrong. It is apartheid by any definition to tell the people of Sligo that they are less entitled to a library or critical local services than the people of Fingal, and to dress it up in some way as independent recklessness. I have explained that the collection methodologies for commercial rates have been improved by the new executive and council. That is improving. However, to say, in a way, that central government and departmental policy had no part in driving an agenda which forced the council to buy additional lands and to spend in other areas is fundamentally wrong. It is an abdication of the Government's responsibility. Is it any wonder that the Germans walk all over us when we are prepared to do this to our own people in this country?

The Senator spoke about responsibility in his introductory remarks. Having a meeting as is happening-----

Obviously, the Minister is only going to say in the meeting what the Minister of State was sent here to say.

I was speaking to Deputy Tony McLoughlin downstairs-----

I was not invited, of course. Only Government Oireachtas Members are invited.

The Minister of State, without interruption.

What I wish to convey to the Senator is that there are probably two routes to getting things done. One is to let things continue. As the Senator knows, there have been massive changes at local authority level. There are fewer staff, as he pointed out. They did not lose their jobs. Nobody in the public service lost their job. They would have taken one of the different packages offered.

It is important to point out that with a complete sea change in the culture and the way of doing business, we must seek to do things differently. That is the reason the Minister and the Government are taking this issue very seriously, and right now the Deputies and Senators in the constituency are looking at potential solutions. If the Senator has not been invited to that meeting, I will convey that message. No doubt there will be an opportunity for the Senator to raise that in public.

It is important to make the point that there is a problem here and we can be proactive in dealing with it. The proactive way of doing it is to meet with the Minister and the officials from Sligo County Council-----

Close the libraries.

-----and look at ways of trying to move the matter forward in a constructive and positive way.

State Examinations

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. This matter relates to the current state of play with the entrenchment regarding the junior certificate and the fact that 350,000 children and 27,000 teachers have already had two days at home. It is a desperate situation. It is not just the students doing junior certificate this year who are suffering, but students in every year. The mock junior and leaving certificate examinations start in my local school next week and I understand another day of industrial action is threatened for March.

Will the Minister outline the appeals process and safeguards for students under the new proposed teacher assessment model for junior certificate in the event of a grade dispute? Parents and students have a genuine fear that if a child's teacher for a subject does not like the child, the child could get a poor grade.

What can be done to reassure parents and students in the event of a grade dispute?

I am conscious of the fact that this is a huge sea change for teachers culturally. All assessment for State exams has been done externally up until now, so this is a massive sea change. I recently spoke to a design and computer graphics, DCG, teacher about portfolio work accounting for 40% of that subject at leaving certificate level. With 50 students, it would take him 100 hours to correct those and to do them justice. There are genuine questions about where this time would come from. It would probably take about three working weeks at a minimum. Has the Minister considered a stipend towards that work? I believe it is such a good reform that it is worth introducing it and finding a middle ground on this, although many teachers disagree with me. Some parents are on the side of teachers while others would agree with what I am saying.

Will the Minister clarify a number of issues? Is it correct to say that the new model of assessment proposes 60% external assessment and 40% teacher assessment, with a State audit of 15% of the scripts assessed by the teachers? If correct, that represents considerable State oversight. It is just the tip of the iceberg for teacher assessment when compared with the 100% assessment carried out in other countries. I understand that there will also be a moderation process whereby teachers will be shown how to assess scripts so that objectivity is built in. Can the Minister verify that, please?

I understand that some parents, teachers and students are deeply concerned about the subjective element of the teacher-pupil relationship and how it might impact, positively or negatively, on the grade allocated by the teacher. I met a teacher with 15 to 20 years experience recently who told me that she sits in fear at parent-teacher meetings of parents challenging her about why their child did not get a higher grade or did not make it on to a team and so forth. That is a concern because teachers, as professionals, must be able to stand on their professionalism and point to assessment criteria - through which marking is done - that can stand up to scrutiny. In the event of a grade dispute, what appeals process will be in place?

I spoke to Pasi Sahlberg when he was in Ireland recently. In Finland there is 100% teacher assessment and the teachers there fought to have that. It is not unusual, however, as such a system also operates in many other countries. In the event of a grade dispute in Finland, a third party is brought in and if there is a difference of 2% between the initial grade and the second opinion, another opinion is sought. That type of assurance needs to be put out there but has not been spoken about here at all. I have read a good deal on this subject but have not heard anything about the concerns of people in this regard.

There was a conference in Galway recently on reforming learning. I was struck by the views expressed by students, educators, health practitioners, parents, entrepreneurs and policy-makers present on the need to reform learning to help students to become more independent learners. One of the prongs of that would be the maturity that would emerge from teachers and students having a conversation about work and grades. Students could ask what the teachers are looking for and what they have to do to achieve the teachers' objectives. It would be nice to see that level of maturity come into second level education. I corrected scripts from 17 to 20 year old students at Mary Immaculate College. Those students were not much older than second level students-----

The Senator is way over time. I must call the Minister.

What can the Minister do to reach out to teachers and assure parents and students that the process will be objective?

I thank Senator Healy Eames for raising this issue. She has a strong interest in this area and is strongly supportive of reform. In terms of an update, the talks are adjourned but are ongoing.

In November 2014 I announced compromise proposals for junior cycle reform, with 60% of the final exams in third year to be set and marked by the State Examination Commission and a State certificate to be issued to every student on completion of the junior cycle.

A total of 40% of junior cycle marks will be awarded for project or portfolio work during second and third year. This 40% will be assessed by classroom teachers. The State Examinations Commission, SEC, will check 10% to 15% of these marks to ensure consistency and fairness. The current appeals process will remain in place for the final examinations, which represent 60% of the marks. Under this process, at junior certificate, appeal applications must be made by the school authority on the candidate's behalf, as the school authority must confirm to the SEC that the grade achieved is at variance with the grade expected. Under appeal, an appeal examiner, who was not involved in marking the work initially, will completely re-mark the candidate's work, question by question, in accordance with the original marking scheme. Quality assurance measures are in place at each stage of the appeal process to ensure the marking scheme is applied fairly to the work of each candidate. If a candidate is still dissatisfied after the appeals marking has concluded, he or she has recourse to a review by the Ombudsman for Children.

School-based assessment for certification will normally be worth 40%, and teachers will initially grade their students' work. There will then be internal moderation in schools between teachers of the same subject. The assessment and moderation toolkit of the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, NCCA, will provide clear guidance in this respect. Following internal moderation, there will also be external moderation of all schools for all subjects by the SEC. Every school will have moderation in all subjects. This will entail rigorous checking by the SEC of a portion of the marks to ensure consistency and fairness. The internal moderation and external processes will be clearly set out in the NCCA's assessment and moderation toolkit, and in the continuing professional development, CPD, programme of Junior Cycle for Teachers, JCT. The internal and external moderation, along with resources in the assessment and moderation toolkit, will provide checks and balances for transparency and fairness.

For the school-based component, the appeals process has been and will continue to be part of discussions with the education partners, including teacher unions. The JCT will address this as part of its CPD programme. It is expected that the JCT will provide CPD on moderation, to include appeals on school-based assessment. It plans to begin with CPD on assessment, followed by a CPD programme on moderation, to include appeals. It is so important that teachers are able to attend their CPD as soon as possible. We have no plans to pay a stipend to teachers to carry out the assessment role. I am aware that the Senator also put forward a case for this.

I am pleased to hear the level at which moderation will take place. The Minister stated that following internal moderation there would also be external moderation of all schools for all subjects by the State Examinations Commission. Will the Minister explain how this will happen? How much of this detail is understood by the teachers and the unions? I mean this respectfully. I am very concerned about the teachers, because they are the professionals. Many of them have assured me that this is their single issue, and it is not about going into other areas. Where is the hope?

The Senator knows there have been long days of discussion between officials and teaching unions, chaired by Dr. Pauric Travers. Much of this detail was available beforehand. I have not attended the most recent part of the talks, but the information is available for clarification. Moderation will apply to all schools on all subjects. There will not be any one subject in any one school which does not have at least one paper, portfolio or project checked.

What about the audit of 12% to 15% of papers?

It will be part of the 15%. We will ensure it goes into all schools in all subjects. This is to assure people that it will not be a system under which five papers will be checked in one school and none in another in a particular subject. It is to ensure people know there will be moderation and checking to ensure processes are fair. Continuous professional development is a very important part of this because it is about giving teachers the knowledge, resources and tools to ensure they are being fair to their students.

Will Minister comment on hope?

The hope is that the talks are still ongoing. We hope they will be successful.

Institutes of Technology

I wish to share two minutes with Senator Craughwell, so the Cathaoirleach might let me know when my two minutes are up.

I welcome the Minister to the House. I have raised this issue with her previously. The last time we discussed it was a couple of months before the Christmas recess in the aftermath of Waterford Institute of Technology, WIT's withdrawal from the process of developing a technological university for the south east via the planned merger with Carlow Institute of Technology.

Waterford is the only major city across the island that does not have a university. The south east is the only region without a university. It is important for the people and economy of the region that this problem be solved once and for all. The Government gave a commitment to deliver on this issue, but the process is stalled and in trouble. The Department and the Minister do not understand the seriousness of the impasse following WIT's withdrawal. The institute seems stubborn in its analysis of the merger as not being realistic or workable. The Minister has appointed Mr. Michael Kelly to resolve the issue.

My question has three elements. I hope that Mr. Kelly considers all of the options, the first of which is to continue with the merger, the second of which is to consider a new configuration of the two institutes - new possibilities may have opened up in that regard - and the third is for WIT to go it alone. Is Mr. Kelly considering all of these options or is he simply sticking with the Government's plan, namely, the merger of Carlow IT and WIT? If this plan is not a runner for all of the players involved, what is plan B?

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. Before I discuss the technological university, I compliment the Minister and thank her for her ongoing engagement with the junior certificate issue. I am sure these are difficult times for everyone involved.

I have serious concerns about the way in which the Waterford-Carlow technological university project is being handled, for example, the lack of consultation with staff in both institutions and the uncertainty about the vision and mission of a south-eastern university. Like Senator Cullinane, I have a difficulty with forcing a merger between the two institutes before they can seek registration as a technological university. It is my understanding that, whereas WIT has long been preparing to establish itself as a university and, for all intents and purposes, is ready to go now or will be within a short time, Carlow IT is playing catch-up. Taking the latter on board could set the project back as much as five years, which would not be a good idea.

I have concerns about the financing required in such a merger. We have been told that the institutes must finance it from within their current budgets by seeking deeper efficiencies. The institutes of technology are struggling, having had their backs broken by serious budget cuts in recent years.

In the event of a merger, what guarantees are there that there will not be a rationalisation that will impact negatively on the programmes on offer in both regions, but particularly Carlow? Programmes may move to Waterford, thereby disadvantaging people in Carlow.

I have concerns but would like to see Senator Cullinane's third option of WIT going it alone, with Carlow to join later.

I thank the Senators for the opportunity to address this issue and I appreciate that Senator Cullinane has raised the matter before.

As Members will be aware, we are rolling out a higher education reform programme that will significantly enhance the quality of higher education for the country and its regions. A high priority is the consolidation of the technological sector, helping to create new multi-campus technological universities of significant scale and strength where merging groups of institutes reach a high performance bar before attaining this new status. Three consortiums have formally entered that process. Two of them in Dublin and Munster are significantly advanced and submitted detailed plans for merger to the Higher Education Authority earlier this summer. The independent expert panel appointed by the HEA to assess the plans has given the green light to the two consortiums to proceed towards merger and application for technological university status.

As Members will be aware, before Christmas Waterford IT announced it was suspending activities relating to a merger with IT Carlow, which could lead to the creation of a technological university in the south east. This Government is committed to the creation of a multi-campus technological university for the south east, as outlined in the programme for Government. The process and criteria to attain this new status were published in early 2012. One of the criteria was to merge, an aspect which was clearly understood at the time.

I announced before Christmas a new process to reinvigorate the technological university of the south east project. Senator Craughwell mentioned staff in his contribution and I can assure him that staff will be included in the consultation. I will check to ensure that has happened as intended. I appointed Mr. Michael Kelly to lead a process of consultation with the governing bodies, staff and students in Waterford Institute of Technology and Carlow Institute of Technology, as well as regional stakeholders, in order to develop a shared vision for a technological university in the south east and to serve the region. As former chairman of the Higher Education Authority, Mr. Kelly is well known within the sector. He has also played a leading role in chairing the consortium that has sought to establish a technological university in the Dublin region. Therefore, he has an in-depth knowledge of what is needed to create such an institution. He will be asked to report in the coming weeks on the outcome of the process in which he is currently engaged. We firmly believe that multi-campus technological universities will make a positive contribution to third level education in Ireland and to their regions.

I reiterate that the concept of a merger is one of the criteria that was set out and agreed back in 2012. When I met the representatives of the two institutions, Carlow and Waterford, they gave me to understand that they accepted that a merger was one of the criteria. Subsequently, the Waterford institute withdrew.

Mr. Kelly will report to me soon. I appreciate that the Senators have expressed to me concerns that have been brought to their attention. Both institutes know that merger is part of the criteria that were laid down from the very early stages. I hope that we will see progress in the near future.

I find it incredible that there is still to this date no independent validation of where both institutes are as a collective in regard to reaching the guidelines, targets and benchmarks which were set. Validation should have been done from day one.

It is part of the process.

Waterford IT has withdrawn from the process. We still have not been given a report. People have been told by people in Waterford and elsewhere that Carlow IT is way behind. Give us the facts. From day one there should have been an independent validation of the entire process. The problem is that was never done.

I specifically wrote to the Minister, as an Oireachtas Member, seeking a meeting to discuss this issue. I got a reply to say that, due to earlier commitments, she was unable to meet me. I cannot understand her reply because this is such an important issue. She was able to come in here today to take this Commencement matter. Why is she not in a position to meet an Oireachtas Member who lives in the south east, who is passionate about this issue, who wants to move it on, who wants to be supportive, and who wants to talk to her about my real concerns and those of the people who have come to me with these issues? I ask her to reconsider a meeting. It is important that she listens to all the voices in the region and to work constructively with the Opposition on this issue. Without independent validation on where the collective is at, we will stumble from one crisis to the next and will leave this issue unresolved. I ask the Minister to take my comments on board.

There is ongoing validation. There are very specific criteria on numbers of students, numbers of research students, the merger, etc. There is a whole series of criteria.

The criteria were published a long time ago.

The criteria have been but I am talking about the benchmark.

The Minister, please, without interruption.

The Higher Education Authority is the body concerned.

These issues are discussed by the HEA. Obviously, Mr. Kelly is working on dealing with the two institutions with regard to their meeting the criteria. There is no secrecy about what the criteria are; it is just that they have not yet been met.

I understand the criteria. I am asking about the position of the institutes in terms of meeting the criteria.

The position is that they have not reached the next stage yet.

At what stage are they?

The other two-----

They have not been given anything.

If the Senator stops interrupting, I might tell him. The other two consortiums - the one in Dublin and the one in Cork and Kerry - have reached the next stage. The proposal was brought to the board of the HEA, which has assessed it and decided on it. There is an outside body, separate from the HEA, that considers the proposals and makes a recommendation. The HEA examines that and approves it. It has approved the two consortiums for movement to the next stage. Unfortunately, Waterford and Carlow have not even got to the stage of making a proposal to go to the next stage. That is the current position, and we really need engagement.

I am sorry I have not met the Senator yet. I have a very busy diary. I appreciate that the Senator wants to meet me, but I have not been able to do so as yet. Generally, I try to meet public representatives in so far as I can. Mr. Kelly is due to report to us soon.

The Minister has not met Oireachtas Members either, which I find incredible.

I am not ignoring the Senator.

There is no provision for further contributions.

Am I correct in believing that if the merger goes ahead and is successful, there will still be no guarantee that technological university status will be awarded?

There is another stage to go through. The other two have not got to that yet.

Broadband Service Provision

I welcome the Minister for Communications Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy White, to the House.

I welcome the Minister to the House. I raise this matter to seek a date for the commencement of the provision of fibre-optic broadband infrastructure in County Kerry, specifically in Dingle. Public representatives have been heard complaining all the time that the IDA is not inviting potential foreign direct investors to Kerry or having site meetings there to attract foreign direct investment. The reason, which I can understand, is that we do not have the broadband services necessary for them to invest in an area such as County Kerry. There is no question about that. Over recent years, perhaps two or three visits have been organised by the IDA.

I was in Dingle recently and the case for broadband provision was made to me very passionately. Following the signing of the memorandum of understanding between Sacred Heart University in the United States, University College Cork, Cork Institute of Technology and the Institute of Technology Tralee on the setting up of a faculty of Sacred Heart University in Dingle, the latter has purchased the Christian Brothers school in the town and intends to develop it with a view to running semesters in marine biology or marine science. The authorities applied for broadband services. Private suppliers are wiping out all the urban areas, leaving the State to take up the slack and provide broadband to the remaining rural areas. In effect, it is similar to the approach to rural electrification 50 or 60 years ago. It is ironic that the Black Valley in County Kerry was the last place in Ireland to get electricity. I would hate to believe it would be the last to get broadband.

Let me return to my query on the provision of broadband to the university faculty that is to be run from Dingle.

It was asked by a private provider for €36,000 up front and €16,000 per annum rental after that. The provision of broadband is one matter, but provision of affordable broadband is important as well. While contracts may be signed with private providers, the more subscribers who buy into it and take up broadband, the cheaper it will be.

Following inquiries, I also understand that the Commission for Communications Regulation, ComReg, cannot determine the retail price of broadband. It can only decide the wholesale price of the provision of broadband. That is what I stated on local radio recently in trying to enthuse consumers and get them going - the more consumers sign up for this service, the cheaper it will be for them. For this institution to be set up with broadband, however, it would cost €36,000 up front and €16,000 per annum rental. That is not affordable.

There is another aspect that must be highlighted in this regard. There was a technological company in the Corca Dhuibhne Gaeltacht that could not get broadband and moved to Baile Bhúirne. That technology company - a type of company that is badly needed in such rural areas - moved to Baile Bhúirne, another Gaeltacht area, to set up, extend and develop its business because we did not have broadband.

The Government's national broadband plan, NBP, will ensure that high-speed broadband is available to all citizens and businesses in Ireland through a combination of commercial investment and State intervention.

We have created the conditions in which the commercial sector is now investing €2.5 billion. This accelerated pace of investment is hugely encouraging. It is delivering high-speed broadband to homes and businesses where low speeds would have been the norm only two years ago.

This investment is a huge vote of confidence in our recovering economy. However, despite this substantial progress, the Government is very much aware that large geographical areas of the country - rural areas with widely dispersed populations - will not get reliable high-speed broadband from the private sector. Therefore, the Government has made a commitment to ensure that every home, school and business will have access to high­speed services regardless of where it is located. The national broadband plan will see a State-led intervention provide that access in areas where the commercial sector will not.

In November last, I initiated a public consultation on a national high-speed coverage map, which was produced in line with EU requirements. At the same time, an information pack was sent to every Senator and TD, together with an invitation to a presentation by my Department's NBP team, which took place in the AV room.

The map, which provides detailed information on more than 50,000 townlands in every county, is available at www.broadband.gov.ie. It shows blue areas, where commercial operators will supply high-speed broadband, and amber areas, which will benefit from the State intervention.

The map shows that Dingle in County Kerry will have access to next-generation broadband through commercial investment. Given that the provision of high-speed broadband services to Dingle is to be delivered through private commercial investment, I am not in a position to comment on the precise timing of this programme. However, I understand from recent contacts with the company concerned that it hopes to deliver this during 2015.

I understand that this particular investment will also require significant improvement to the backhaul network between Dingle and Tralee. Given the diverse range of customers that this will benefit and the town's vibrant tourist sector, and all of the cultural pursuits and business requirements to which the Senator correctly referred, I am sure this investment will be very welcome to local residents and businesses.

I thank the Minister. He has really grasped this area of the provision of broadband.

It is great that we will have broadband in the first half of 2015, I believe, in Dingle. The Government's roll-out plan for the other rural areas will take anything up to two years. Can anything be done to expedite that? The rest of the country outside of urban areas will wait an additional two years for the provision of broadband.

I genuinely commend the Minister, but this broadband must be affordable.

I understand the Senator's views and agree with them very much. I also agree with his general points on what is often known as the digital divide. This is an equity issue as much as anything else; it is a matter relevant to business, education, families and the efficient administration of public services. In Dingle - as in other locations around the country - broadband is an important and valuable asset for cultural activity and pursuits linked to tourism.

I have notified Members of the House of the timelines and I will keep them updated. By the middle of this year we will have the full intervention strategy for the State scheme. We will apply for state aid approval in the European Union in the summer and I hope it will go to tender by December 2015 in order to get a bidder or bidders in place so contractor contracts can be offered next year. They will then have to build the infrastructure, which is equivalent to 100,000 km of road. We know how long it takes for roads and other big infrastructure projects to be completed. I am anxious that this be expedited and done as quickly as possible.

Sitting suspended at 3.25 p.m. and resumed at 3.30 p.m.