Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 21 September 2016
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Communications, Climate Change and Natural Resources
Estimates for Public Services 2016: Vote 29 - Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment
I have received apologies from Senator Terry Leyden.
I remind members to turn off their mobile phones or switch them to flight mode as they interfere with the sound system which makes it difficult for the parliamentary reporters to report the proceedings of the meeting. They also adversely affect the television coverage.
I advise the Minister and the Minister of State that any submission or opening statements they have made or submitted to the joint committee will be published on its website after the meeting.
I propose that we examine the Vote on a selected programme basis. Members will be called on to ask questions on the subheads under the relevant programme. Programmes A, B and C have been chosen for examination. They have been chosen as they contain information that will be useful in illustrating the link between expenditure and performance. Following the examination of the programmes, members may wish to address questions to the Minister on the administrative subheads and the appropriations-in-aid. Is that agreed? Agreed.
I welcome the Minister, Deputy Denis Naughten, and the Minister of State, Deputy Seán Kyne. I note the recent change in the Minister's title. We may also have to consider changing the title of the committee. I thank the Minister and his officials for providing the briefing material for the meeting. I invite the Minister to make his opening statement.
I welcome the opportunity to engage with the joint committee on the Estimate for my Department and consider the mid-year expenditure and programme indicator outturns where they are available. I am happy to outline my priority areas for expenditure in the three year period 2017 to 2019 and also interested in hearing the views of members on the areas and programmes they would seek to prioritise in that period. I am joined by the Minister of State, Deputy Seán Kyne, who has responsibility for the natural resources division in my Department; Mr. Mark Griffin, Secretary General, Mr. Martin Finucane, finance officer; Mr. Denis Maher, principal officer, inland fisheries division; and Mr. Jim Whelan, assistant principal officer, finance unit.
The total provision for my Department in 2016 is €111.2 million for capital investment and €318.6 million for current spending, of which €222.1 million represents a pass-through of television licence receipts. To the end of June, the Department had spent €30.6 million of its capital moneys out of profiled expenditure of €40.7 million, representing a figure of 75% of profiled capital expenditure. On current expenditure, the Department had spent €147.7 million out of profiled expenditure of €156.7 million, representing a figure of 94% of profiled current expenditure. Appropriations-in-aid were running at €105 million out of profiled expenditure of €112.5 million, representing a figure of 93% of profiled expenditure.
Funding this year is allowing the Department to progress projects in key areas such as the national broadband plan to ensure all citizens and businesses will have access to high speed broadband, no matter where they live or work; the trading online voucher scheme to support 1,000 more small companies to trade online to help them to grow and create jobs; the benefIT programme that will help approximately 30,000 citizens to access and use online resources and public services; domestic energy efficiency improvements to support increased employment in the construction and energy services sectors; energy efficiency in the business and public sectors; the electric vehicle grants scheme; the Tellus geo-environmental mapping project; and the continuation of rehabilitation works at the former Avoca mine site in County Wicklow.
As I signalled to members when we met on 29 June to discuss the Estimate for 2016, there will be a deferral of some expenditure on the broadband programmes this year. My Department has since received sanction from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to move capital of some €2.5 million from this subhead into the following areas: €500,000 for TG4 to complete the undertaking to carry out refurbishment works at its headquarters in Baile na hAbhann, County Galway; €500,000 for the Geological Survey of Ireland to fund an airborne LIDAR survey as part of the groundwater 3D mapping programme; €1.3 million for Inland Fisheries Ireland for investment in the recently completed national strategy for angling development to cover increased fisheries development activity, infrastructure improvements and new equipment; and €200,000 for additional work to be carried out this year at the old Avoca mines site.
Looking to the next three years, the investment priorities for my Department are expected to arise in the following areas: climate change and the linked areas of energy efficiency and renewable energy - the effort does not fall to my Department alone and expenditure and policy choices will have to be made in other Departments, in particular, the Departments of Transport, Tourism and Sport and Agriculture, Food and the Marine; the delivery of the national broadband plan, with expenditure on the programme to be ramped up significantly from 2018 onwards; continuing initiatives under the national digital strategy, including the expansion of the trading online voucher scheme and the benefit digital skills training programmes; funding of public service broadcasting, an issue which has been the subject of extensive media coverage in the past few weeks; building on the State’s cyber security capacity; and investing in a range of programmes in the area of natural resources, including inland fisheries and the remediation of mine sites.
There are many competing demands across Departments and only a finite amount of money can be allocated across these demands. We will continue to make our case for increased funding in the next few weeks as part of the Estimates process. I look forward to engaging with members of the committee on the areas where we could consider prioritising expenditure in the coming years.
I thank the Minister. I have one question on the national broadband plan. Some €7.5 million has been allocated in 2016 for next generation broadband services. By the end of June €2.547 million had been spent under subhead A3, out of a total Estimate allocation of €16.75 million. What proportion of this figure has been spent under the national broadband plan and why has there been an underspend in that regard? Will the Minister elaborate on whether the underspend has adversely affected the roll-out of the national broadband plan?
We raised this issue last June when we appeared before the committee. The subhead in the Estimate for the Department includes the allocation of €7.5 million for next generation broadband services. By the end of June €2.547 million had been spent under the subhead. The total Estimate allocation for the year is €16.7 million. Approximately €900,000 was spent directly on the national broadband plan. There has been no impact on the roll-out of the plan. There is a commitment in A Programme for a Partnership Government to make next generation broadband available to every home and business throughout the country by 2020. It has since transpired that 100% of addresses will not have access to high speed broadband until 2022, even though the overall target of the national broadband plan is to ensure 100% accessibility to next generation broadband by 2020. The Chairman asked if the underspend had had an impact on the roll-out of the plan. No, it has not. The expenditure profile will vary from year to year because we are engaged in the procurement process and most of the money allocated last year and this year was for buying in additional expertise, as and when required. At different stages of the procurement process we will require additional expertise to be bought in.
The fact that there is a differential with regard to the spending profile against the amount set out at the start of the year does not impact on the progression of this project. It depends on when we require the expertise at different phases during the project. As a result of the fact that there was an underspend in the first half of the year, we indicated early in the Estimates meeting on 29 June that we were reallocating some of that and we outlined how this was being done.
I welcome the Minister. I would like to concentrate on the future rather than the past because he is ahead of profile in terms of his spend. It almost seems to suggest that he will have very little to do, with up to 90% of his funds spent in certain areas and 75% in others. That was up to June, so by the look of things it will be a lean enough period until Christmas.
I will refer to a couple of issues. On climate change, I was surprised to hear the Minister say that the effort does not fall to his Department alone. We accept that with regard to energy efficiency and renewable energy. Notwithstanding that, his Department has been given a title that includes the phrase "climate action", which sends out a message that he will take a lead on that. I hope he will not fall into the trap whereby he will say it is not his responsibility and that others need to come to the table as well. We need a driver with regard to climate action and climate change, and that needs to happen very quickly. The Minister is well aware of the implications of agreements recently reached and other targets that will be set further out to 2030, so we need a co-ordinated policy from the Minister. I am sure the battle will be at the Cabinet table, and we expect him to win on that.
In terms of transport, the message that seems to be coming from the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport is that it requires more taxation in terms of the equalisation of the charges on diesel and petrol and that this would solve its responsibility, but it would not. We all know that the transport sector is way behind. In truth, if we are to make some changes in the transport sector, it is not about moving people from using diesel to using petrol. To that extent, has the Minister any plans to enhance the use of electric vehicles? I read some material during the summer about what the Norwegians have done. They expect to have moved away from the use of petrol and diesel for all domestic vehicles and some lighter commercial vehicles by 2025. That is an ambitious plan, but those are the types of ideas we would need to see coming from the Minister’s Department. It should set out the vision, let the other Departments follow, and have the battle lines drawn in that respect. The Minister will have to go big and bold in that regard if he is to achieve a shift away from fossil fuels. We would like to hear some comments on that.
The Minister spoke about the funding of public service broadcasting and the issue having been bounced around in the media. That is the case. Very early on in his tenure, he identified one source of funding-----
I will let the Deputy proceed, and the Minister might take a note of the question. I should have said at the outset that we are just dealing with programme A for now, which is communications. The Deputy can put the question.
On the broadband roll-out, is the Minister satisfied that the 2022 deadline is achievable? Does he envisage any other delays with regard to the appointment of the contractor? Some background negotiations had to take place in that regard. Can the Minister provide an update?
I join in the welcome to the Minister. I warmly congratulate him on his appointment and express my confidence that he will bring great skills to the role.
The provision of broadband is a priority issue for all of us. It must be a priority for people who represent areas where large sections are not covered because of topography or relative isolation. It is very important that we get broadband into every home in the country. Apart from the €2.5 million the Minister said is being reallocated to other areas, I am anxious to know that the rest of the moneys from this year's surplus would go into next year's programme as additional moneys, in other words, there would be no diminution of moneys. The Minister might confirm that broadband roll-out would not be affected.
I am anxious to know also how negotiations on procuring a contractor are going, and the timeframe the Minster has put on that. I reiterate our concern that we expressed at a previous meeting that the Minister would ensure that the contractual situation would be clear, that everything will happen on schedule, with no unnecessary delays, which is important, and that everything will be achieved within cost.
I had wanted to speak about online vouchers, but I understand that comes under another heading.
The Minister will appreciate that online sales have a great deal of potential in Border areas because of currency variations etc. There is a great opportunity for some Border traders to sell into the sterling area at certain times. That should be supported and encouraged. I am anxious to get the Minister's response to that. Does he believe there is an opportunity in Border region in particular to sell into the sterling areas - Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom generally? Does the Minister believe that online vouchers are working adequately? They do not seem to have captured the public imagination and there does not seem to be a high level of awareness of them. That may be my fault but I ask the Minister to elaborate on the online voucher scheme. I am interested to hear his response on that.
Will the Minister elaborate on the area of domestic energy efficiency improvements? How does he see-----
I welcome the Minister, the Minister of State and the officials. I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute.
In terms of broadband provision, programme A will be hugely important. In the past 15 years, I have attended more than enough briefings and announcements on that issue by different organisations and companies. Anybody who has attended the National Ploughing Championships, and even people who do not attend but who have their eyes and ears open, will know that we still have a huge problem with the roll-out of effective, high-speed broadband, not just in very rural areas but in many towns also. In County Laois and south Kildare, there are many areas without broadband. We want to see it rolled out to these areas in a speedy fashion.
My concern is about the amount of money available until the end of June. I take the Minister's point that the spend does not always reflect the activity. My party does not advocate throwing money at areas to try to get movement for the sake of it.
It obviously must be spent properly with proper procurement and everything else. However, the expenditure figure of €2.5 million for the first six months of the year to the end of June certainly jumped out at me as being very low. This might indicate this project is not being given the sense of urgency it deserves.
On the issue of broadband, the briefing acknowledges a point made to members previously to the effect that while it had been hoped that 100% of addresses would be reached, this will not be the case. The briefing states it has since transpired that 100% of addresses will not have access to next-generation broadband by 2022. This obviously is a concern on which the Minister might elaborate. While there are areas such as the Black Valley, County Kerry, which even the rural electrification scheme had difficulty in accessing, the flat ground in the midlands should not be a major problem. The Minister might elaborate on what will be the percentage with which there will be difficulties.
On the issue of the roll-out of this plan between now and 2022, it will be necessary for members to be able to measure progress on it. The plan will be handed over to one of the three bidding companies and I wish to ascertain the current status of that process. The preferred contractor was meant to have been selected this year but that will not now happen and has been deferred until 2017. What is the current position in this regard? What progress is being made and when in 2017 will the preferred bidder be identified? Will it take place closer to January or to December 2017 because that obviously is important? As this project must be cranked up rapidly, will the Department set targets on the roll-out? What is the current status of the bidding process, when will the contractor be selected and when will there be feet on the ground in this regard? Will there be annual targets to enable members to monitor the roll-out? My final question on this plan pertains to the 30 Mbps target. Does the expert advice received by the Minister indicate that by current international standards, 30 Mbps is sufficient for businesses trying to operate in rural areas in particular? People must download large documents and must send large documents online. On foot of the expert advice they have received, are the departmental officials and the Minister satisfied that 30 Mbps is adequate?
The Minister has heard me express concerns previously on the ownership of the infrastructure but I do not wish to labour the point today. One bidder certainly has a different opinion in this regard from that of the Department to the effect that the core infrastructure should be in public ownership. Sinn Féin shares that opinion and the example of the disaster which Telecom-Eircom-Eir turned out to be is there to be seen. A lot of taxpayers' money was invested in that company during the 1980s and the concern is this project might go the same way. Members will need to see the roll-out of this project but I note the briefing contained issues of concern.
In that case, I will be brief.
This is a point I might reiterate if I can come back in on later sections. Earlier, I attended a meeting of the Committee on Budgetary Oversight with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Donohoe. I made a point to him that also applies here, which is that the areas for which the Minister is responsible are of huge significance for the economic development of the State, as well as for social and other progress in areas such as the digital economy and the clean energy economy. Moreover, that is even before one considers rivers, engineering, geoscience and so on. If my recollection is correct regarding the core analytical staff available to the Minister to understand and manage the new digital economy and the clean economy, according to the Sunday newspapers, Ireland probably has more civil servants working out sick pay for those public servants who are sick than it has working in the area of digital and energy policy. I have made the point to the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, that this requires a quantum change. As I understand it, 5,000 civil servants in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine process payment forms for Europe or whatever. Why not get 2,000 of them and start them working on this issue? I have nothing against agriculture but I have a general sense about ambition for this area.
There must be 30,000 people in my constituency of Dublin Bay South who work in the digital industries and we are interested in what the Vice President for the Commission was talking about before this committee regarding privacy issues, copyright issues, spectrum management. Any one of the issues presented to members by the Vice President would require a team of ten civil servants to understand how Ireland should position itself. I refer to the copyright issue or, for example, the not insignificant issue of the Max Schrems judgment in the Facebook case. This is not of no consequence to our economic, social and other future as Ireland must be the best at understanding the ethical rules on the digital economy. I make the point that while I agree issues such as the national broadband scheme and so on undoubtedly are important, it actually is about the soft stuff, that is, the intellectual understanding of what is happening in the digital economy. I do not believe the Department has the requisite number of staff and while there is nothing wrong with the staff, the Department needs more resources. My sense is it requires a fivefold increase and I could make the same point in respect of clean energy. I am interested to learn how or whether the Minister thinks he might get such an increase.
As a final brief question, who should I contact if I want to know about cyber-security in the Irish State? If that is a security issue in its own right, the Minister can tell me privately. However, as one example, can he outline to me the number of people the State has working in the area of cyber-security and where are they based? What sort of secure interaction can the joint committee have on the issue of cyber-security?
I wish to make a few brief comments on the joint committee's favourite topic of broadband. In a political sense, the ploughing championships did some good, in that all members are more alert to and aware of the issues facing rural Ireland than may have been the case previously. In common with many members, I attended the championships yesterday but while speaking to various providers at different stands, one point that struck me about broadband in particular about which I had not been aware previously was on its transformative power. All members are aware of how high-speed Internet access transforms small businesses and education but a number of farmers were talking about broadband and why it is so important in rural areas in particular. In the case of a farmer who might be attempting to do another job, to make ends meet elsewhere or to look after a family or meet other commitments, a new technology might enable the deployment of cameras in the field to monitor animals and to keep an eye on what was happening around the farm. This would be in contrast to the days of old and of being obliged to drive around on a quad bike or to walk across fields and all the rest at 6 a.m. or at 10 p.m. It is a kind of transformative social experience that changes how people live their lives. As for the financial struggle seemingly affecting all farmers, the practicalities of trying to participate in the workplace elsewhere while being able to keep an eye on the farm offer a real practical problem that high-speed broadband availability can try to solve.
I refer to an issue of which I had been vaguely aware but of which, on foot of some conversations at the championships, I have become more aware. I understand the implementation of fibre to the cabinet technology is under way in some cases already and it will bring high-speed broadband to many areas, including many rural locations, some of which are fairly isolated. However, this introduces another divide concerning those who are not on the particular stretch of line through which the fibre to the cabinet technology is running. While it is bad enough not having it, it certainly is as bad, if not worse, if one's neighbour does have it. This will create a kind of digital divide between rural and rural, rather than between urban and rural. While I am sure everyone present is aware of this point, I wish to stress it. The introduction of fibre to home technology obviously gets to the next stage and begins to address this issue.
Given the dates under discussion, my understanding is that it is expected the tender will be awarded in April or May 2017. Without going into detail in this regard, I understand that procurement and tendering processes, etc., are in play. However, to state the obvious, I note that the sooner the tender is awarded, the sooner the job can be started and the sooner we can get on with it, although I believe it will take a couple of years beyond the target. I again stress this was another view, of which I had not been aware previously, regarding rural communities and how immediate benefits to quality and standard of life and to how people live their lives can be achieved, as well as the obvious and often-stated small business and educational needs and all the rest of it in rural Ireland.
I will deal with the broadband issue first because it was raised by a number of members.
At present, we are at stage 3, commencement of the detailed, technical and financial negotiations with the qualified bidders. There are three qualified bidders or consortia. The process started in July. We have a draft contract of approximately 2.2 million words - it is estimated that there will probably be 2.5 million words in it by the time it is finished - and we are in the process of dialogue with the three consortia on that. When the stage in question is completed, we will enter the formal tender process based on that contract. The objective is to have this completed by the middle of next year. I cannot be definitive on the timing because it is crucially important that the process be robust. It is important for me, as Minister, that we will have a contract at the end of this process that is as watertight as possible and that we will have been seen to go through this process fairly and transparently.
Others, including Senator O'Reilly, asked whether this money can be carried over. It is being carried over. Any money that is not spent is deferred rather than lost. However, money is not the issue here. It is about getting matters right, which is crucial. This is a 25-year contract so it does not just deal with current needs. This comes back to a point Deputy Stanley made. We are saying that the minimum service that must be provided is 30 Mbps download speed for 99.95% of the time. We believe that in order to ensure that this download speed will be achieved all of the time, the average speeds will have to be significantly higher.
The upload speed is 6 Mbps. We have stated from the outset that this speed is insufficient to meet the needs of businesses, particularly those with which I have been in contact. For the information of Deputy Stanley, it is not so much the download speed but that upload speed specification that is a problem for businesses because they also upload a great deal material and send and receive orders. As part of the dialogue phase of this process, we have asked each of the three consortia to come back with what they believe are the current needs based on their own expertise in dealing with businesses across the country. We accept that the requirement is significantly higher than those speeds and we also accept that this is a minimum standard.
As the committee will be aware, the commission made an announcement last week that it wants to see speeds go up to 100 Mbps and, over time, to 1 GB. We are satisfied that the contract we will sign will facilitate that as required over the 25-year period. As I stated previously in the House, this contract is designed in such a way that it is future-proofed so that if the need is for 100 Mbps in ten years' time, the contract will provide for that. Our difficulty up to now is that we have been catching up once we set the benchmark. When we started this process, 30 Mbps was seen as more than adequate. Indeed, I suppose it was considered generous. As the process goes on, the demands and needs of consumers change and that is why we are ensuring that this contract is future-proofed.
Deputy Lawless also mentioned the issue of fibre to the cabinet and the roll-out of the scheme. In the past four years, the telecommunications companies in this country have been spending, on average, €1.4 million every day on mobile broadband, wireless broadband and fixed-line broadband. That investment is ongoing but, to give an idea of the scale of the challenge in respect of mobile broadband, the recent ComReg report indicates that the data demand on the mobile phone network has increased by 60% in the past 12 months. The data demand on the mobile phone network across Europe is, on average, doubling every 18 months. The increase seems to be running probably slightly higher than that trajectory in recent years in Ireland. On the fixed-line network, it is doubling every 42 months across Europe. One can see that there is significant investment needed merely to keep going, never mind to jump ahead, in terms of investment.
Deputy Stanley made the point that the underspend means that this project is not a priority. That is not the case. It is the single biggest priority within our Department. We are determined to deliver on this project. As I said, funding is not an issue. In any approaches that we have made to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform in respect of this matter, we have not found it wanting.
The Deputy stated that there will not be 100% access by 2022. That is not the case. Every home and premises will gain access to high-speed broadband. That roll-out will happen in every county. I do not know what document the Deputy has in front of him, but he asked about the differential between the amber and blue areas. The amber area is the intervention area under the national broadband plan. The blue areas are those where the private companies have come in and told our Department they will roll out high-speed broadband to every premises by the end of 2016. As a result, we left them out of the intervention area and we designated that blue on the website broadband.gov.ie. However, we quickly discovered that there were households which we were being told had already been provided with high-speed broadband but which were not able to access it. In June, we announced that we estimate, based on the figures available to us, there are 170,000 premises within the blue area that will not have high-speed broadband - which is a minimum of 30 Mbps - by the end of the year. We are revising our map to include those households. That is why I called all of the Members of both the Dáil and Seanad into the AV room before the summer recess to explain the position in respect of this project. I asked Members to make contact with their communities - even via local media - to check whether they are within the blue area. If Members constituents are not getting access to high-speed broadband or have not received a commitment from a broadband provider that they will have it by the end of this year, then we need to know about it. I plead with those present to make people aware of what is required and to ask them to log-on to broadband.gov.ieto see whether their properties are located in the blue area and whether they have access to high-speed broadband, or will have by the end of the year. If they do not have access, they should to e-mail us at www.dccae.gov.ie/communications/en-ie/Broadband/with their names, addresses and Eircodes in order that we can amend the map to ensure they are included on it.
I was asked about the timeline for the roll-out of the broadband. My Department is working closely with the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs and her Department on the roll-out.
She is engaging with the local authorities to try to deal with potential bottlenecks. One of the most important things we need to do is appoint a sufficiently highly ranked individual in each authority to make things move, ensure there are no blockages and there is someone to engage with the successful contractor. The Minister for Regional Development, Rural Affairs, Arts and the Gaeltacht is also working with the local authorities and communities across the country, through local and regional task forces, to determine how the infrastructure might be physically rolled out in each county. Decisions must be made on whether village A, village B or community centres should benefit first within the restrictions imposed by the contractor. It is our intention, once we have everything nailed down in this regard, to publish on the website when every single premises in the country will have broadband. Thus, people will know that they will have it in the five-year roll-out period and the date on which they will have it. There may be a village in an isolated area such as the Black Valley that is not included in the first or second phase. In this regard, we must decide whether it is possible to enable a local community centre to give people access to a hot desk from which they can work or avail of services, pending full roll-out of the network?
I am as frustrated about this matter as everyone present. I come from the county that will require the greatest intervention under the national broadband plan. Sadly, my county has the worst broadband service in the country. I am sure Senator Michael McDowell can relate to this. I was as frustrated as everyone else when the Department announced earlier this year that there would be a delay. That is why I wrote into the programme for Government that we would establish a specific task force to examine the provision of mobile and wireless broadband as interim solutions and how best to help the businesses in question to deploy the technology far quicker. We committed in the programme for Government to establish the task force within the first 100 days. The Minister for Regional Development, Rural Affairs, Arts and the Gaeltacht and I established it within 82 days of the establishment of the Government. It has met on six occasions and will come forward with constructive, practical ideas to deal with the bottlenecks, one of which is in my constituency. In County Roscommon the development contribution for a mobile telephone antenna is zero. The contribution for a mobile telephone antenna across the River Suck in the other part of my constituency in County Galway is €20,000. This does not encourage companies to invest in mobile telecommunications infrastructure. There are, therefore, anomalies across the country in this regard.
Another problem is that Transport Infrastructure Ireland has a huge amount of ducting across the country along the national primary road networt but also along the motorway network. It is cheaper to dig up the road and lay new ducting than it is to gain access to the ducting already in the ground. There is something fundamentally wrong with the pricing structure in this regard. There is other public infrastructure that could and should be made available to facilitate the rolling out of existing technologies that would help to ease the pressure on communities in the short term. Tying in with this, last July we signed the broadband cost directive, which refers to access to infrastructure and sets clear deadlines as to when such a determination must be made on an application for a road opening licence and access to infrastructure. It must be made within a specified period after submission. The company eir, in particular, exerted a lot of pressure on me in this regard. It considered there was a significant bottleneck in rolling out its fibre network. I am sure it is the same for others.
Deputy Brian Stanley mentioned the mistakes made when we sold Telecom Éireann. There were mistakes made. The biggest problem at the time was that there was inadequate regulation to deal with the circumstances after the sale. If we were in the same circumstances again, I would not like to see the infrastructure sold. I have weighed up the pros and cons. My preference would have been to see the national broadband plan infrastructure remain in State ownership, but I had to make a call based on the information available to me and the competing demands, not only in my Department but across government, in meeting our climate change, energy efficiency, hospital waiting lists and housing programme targets. The only issue that will arise will not arise for the next 25 years. This is a problem we will have to examine in 26 years time. I agree that we need to get the regulation right in the interim, which is why we have already moved at European Council level to introduce a universal service obligation for broadband for people who do not yet have broadband such as those in an isolated premises and those who will not already have been provided with the service in 26 years.
It is important to remember that the universal service obligation in respect of fixed telephone lines does apply and has applied effectively to date. I have not received a great number of complaints about people not being able to avail of the service up to now. I do not know of any colleague who has received such complaints. I have not received correspondence within my Department about the matter either. The current regulation governing the fixed-line universal service obligation has worked to date. We will need a similar regulation in 26 years time for customers who will not have received a service before then.
Deputy James Lawless spoke about the National Ploughing Championships and the point he made is correct. The largest issue I came across at the championships was that of broadband. As I have always stated, there is massive potential in this regard. Last week we had a meeting with Science Foundation Ireland. Its director, Professor Mark Ferguson, was talking about e-farming and referred to a certain farmer who, when herding in the morning, sat down in front of a laptop. That is an operational note for Senator Tim Lombard. The farmer in question does everything on the laptop, including strip grazing and dealing with herd health issues. He does not dirty his shoes at all. There is considerable potential in that regard.
Senator Joe O'Reilly referred to the trading online voucher scheme. We need to do more to raise awareness. As the Senator knows, I contacted each member to encourage him or her to encourage local businesses and sole traders to participate in the trading online voucher scheme. We set ourselves a challenging target this year of trying to have 1,000 trading online vouchers taken up. It involves a 50:50 grant of up to a potential €5,000 for businesses with up to ten employees in order that they may set up a website and put in place a back-office payment system. They can then make purchases online. We carried out a survey of the businesses that had already signed up to the trading online scheme and noted that they had increased sales by 20%. They have increased the numbers in employment by one third and two thirds of the companies are now trading internationally. They include clothing shops, including men's outfitters on the main street in places such as Cashel, and also a bookshop in Abbey Street in Roscommon. Companies across the country are participting in the scheme and there is also an individual who, as a hobby, is making pottery and selling it as wedding presents internationally, mainly to the United States. There is considerable potential. I encourage people who are not now trading online to contact their local enterprise office. Grants and vouchers are available. I have also engaged in a series of information meetings. I am due to travel to the constituency of Deputy Hildegarde Naughton and the Minister of State at the Department of Regional Development, Rural Affairs, Arts and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Seán Kyne, on Friday. There is to be an initiative with Facebook on Monday week and we are involved with another for seven local enterprise offices in Roscommon. We are trying to encourage and promote the scheme as much as possible.
There is a certain amount I cannot say and a certain amount I can say. A national cyber security centre has been established. In the next few weeks, it is moving out to a purpose-built facility in UCD. It includes computer security emergency response functions and is also involved in implementing the EU directive on network and information security. That places a number of significant responsibilities on the State involving the establishment of binding security obligations on a wide range of critical infrastructure operators, including energy, health care, financial services, transport, water and digital service providers.
We are wrapping up staffing for that across the Department, mainly on a technical level. Sometimes we have had to second staff from other agencies to provide the necessary technical expertise, particularly for the national broadband plan. We have also seconded staff from An Garda Síochána and the Defence Forces for the national cyber security centre. We bring in expertise as and when we need it, both on a contractual basis and as employed staff. There has been a significant increase in staffing in the Department. We would like to have more staff, of course. We could always do with more staffing but we have been wrapping it up and will continue to do so.
I have some questions on broadcasting. Following his appointment, the Minister indicated that he was going to move away from the notion of a broadcasting charge, which was mentioned by a previous Minister, with a view to generating additional revenue for RTE to meet its commitments. The Minister has indicated a desire to sweat the assets, so to speak, in terms of getting a better return on the existing licence fee. Is he still of that mind? Does he still believe that more moneys can be drawn from the licence collection system and, if so, how much?
It has been reported in the media that the Minister has had discussions with RTE which has laid out its commitments in line with various requirements under the Broadcasting Acts. The Broadcast Authority of Ireland, BAI, has made clear that RTE would need more money if it is to continue in its role. Will the Minister share with us his thoughts, including the thoughts he shared with RTE's director general and the chairperson of the board, as to how they might meet their funding requirements in the coming months and years?
Some 46% of the overall estimated grant has been allocated to RTE in the first six months of this year. Will the Minister outline briefly where the remaining 54% goes?
The proposal for a broadcasting fee was referred to by the previous speaker. I am glad that has gone because there are a small number of addresses that do not yet have a television. I am aware of one. People may claim they do not have a television, but I am aware of one address in my area where there is no television and will not be for the generation of people living there. I would therefore not be in favour of a television licence fee. If the Minister has moved away from that idea, however, how does he intend to replace it? If no increase in the licence fee is envisaged, we are moving towards enforcing greater compliance. I think the non-compliance figure - that is, those without a television licence - is currently nearly 12%. Perhaps the Minister could give us the figure. Is it about 12%?
Down the country they are very compliant with the law. It is a better way to go because we do not want to see an increase in the fee. How does the Minister intend to act on that? An Post officials traditionally enforced compliance, so how does the Minister intend going about that? Does he have a target for increasing compliance this year?
I welcome the Minister and congratulate him on his appointment. I have not had an opportunity to do so in public so far. The Minister mentioned myself and Roscommon. It occurred to me that there are many apartment complexes along the Shannon which, generally speaking, are owned by people as second homes. A television licence costs €145.50 per dwelling, but people with two homes are not millionaires. I am not talking about myself, by the way, because I do not have a television in my own home down there. I just want to make that clear, and I am not a millionaire. I am talking about ordinary Joe and Josephine Soaps who may have one of these holiday apartments in the Minister's constituency. It would cost €291 to purchase two licence fees, but to gain that sum one would have to earn about €600. That is after-tax income at the marginal rate, which is a lot of money. It is all very well talking about further compliance with the law, but it is a huge imposition if the Minister is suggesting chasing people around who have already paid for one licence, yet may spend one month per year in another home which also requires a television licence. It requires them to earn €600 to pay for both licences.
The committee's policy document refers to alternatives to the licence fee. The Minister has indicated that he is not in favour of the cave tax, or whatever it was called before, but this is still a serious issue. If the Minister is going to crack the whip and start prosecuting people, he should remember that we are talking about ordinary people who will have to earn €600 for the privilege of watching television in two locations.
Yes. There are caravan sites in Wexford, Donabate and places like that. We are talking about real people who are not very wealthy. The system of increasing compliance is all very well, but if the Minister is going to squeeze them, he should remember that it is a huge imposition coming on top of the local property tax, bin charges and everything else.
The overarching question concerns grant aid for RTE. There was a shortfall in that grant aid in 2014 and 2015, and it looks like that may also be the case in 2016. Does the Department feel there could be an adverse effect on the provision of public service broadcasting? I would like to get the Minister's views on that.
I will deal with the last point first. Naturally enough, if there is a reduction in funding, it makes things more challenging.
It was a challenging year for RTE in any event with the Olympics, the European Championship and the 2016 commemorations. There has been a lot .
There was an election as well and, in fact, every single count was broadcast live on RTE, which was some achievement. No other broadcaster in the world has done that. We all appreciated the provision of that particular service by RTE. As such, there was a great deal of additional expense on RTE. There is a challenge and it is not just one for RTE. I have met not only with RTE, but with the independent broadcasters and community radio stations. I am meeting with all the broadcasters across the spectrum to hear their views and issues in this regard. All of them face huge challenges at the moment because of problems with advertising, which has fallen off. Some of them have indicated that it has fallen off even further since the Brexit referendum because many advertising budgets are managed from the UK. That has implications.
To come back to the questions, I might start with my own mobile constituent, Senator McDowell. My focus is on those who are not paying any television licence, of whom there are many. My question is very simple. Do I ask those who are compliant to pay more to subsidise those who pay no licence fee or do we try to ensure that the law that is there is enforced? It is the law of the land. I could go for the soft option, as Deputy Stanley said, of a broadcasting charge and apply it to every single home, but it will be the same people who are paying again and cross-subsidising those who want everything but are prepared to pay for nothing. We are all sick and tired of this happening. Deputy Stanley has given examples of people who do not have a television. Should they have to pay for the service if they do not have a television? The difficulty at the moment is that approximately 8% of homes in Ireland do not have a television or claim they do not. That is not tenable nor do I believe it is actually the case. The level of evasion in relation to the television licence here is 14%. Across the water in the UK, it is actually 7%. That is money that should be invested in public service broadcasting across the board. Without it, our broadcasters are facing very significant challenges.
We are looking at a number of areas in relation to this. It is not just the television licence and compliance with the existing law. There are opt-out channels in relation to broadcasters coming in from abroad. There may be an implication on foot of Brexit, which is something we are looking into at the moment. Back in the 1980s, the legislation allowed for the cable carriers to carry RTE and, subsequently, TG4 and TV3 free of charge. The idea behind that at the time was to encourage and support the roll-out of the cable network. Do we need that today in an era where we are bringing fibre to the doors of homes across the country? Those are the types of thing we are looking at that could bring additional income into the public service broadcasting area. The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland made the point in its report that the television licence fee should increase in line with inflation. As members know, inflation has been at 0% for the past few years, which is why we are not looking at an increase in the licence fee itself. Deputy Stanley asked me about the other 54% of the television licence fee. The reference to 46% of the fee was to the percentage of the total amount we project to come in for the year which had come in by the end of June. It is 46% out of 50% rather than 46% out of 100%. It is pretty much in line with profile.
I can understand what Senator McDowell is saying in terms of evasion. We all know that dealing with bills and all the different components of that is horrible. However, there is a fundamental need for us to have decent public service broadcasting. I commend what the Minister has said, considering the hundreds of millions of euro which go out of the country to Sky without any regulation, and it may be that the advent of Brexit brings that into a more regulated space without any real contribution from that organisation to Irish public service broadcasting. The hundreds of millions that probably go to Facebook, Google and other companies which are, in effect, broadcasting here might also have to be considered in the mix. Hopefully, the committee can look at this in our work programme. It may be one of those issues where, while there may not be Cabinet agreement on doing something, the Minister's Department needs to start work. We cannot just leave it hanging. Even if it is not done in the next year or two, the Department could at least prepare for it to be done in two or three years time. It must include online, satellite and, as the Minister has suggested, cable.
Technology is changing dramatically and has changed over the past number of years. The Deputy is correct in that regard and I am quite willing to hear the committee's views if it wants to come back with a proposal and we can explore it. It is important to remember that the fall in income from the television licence does not just affect RTE. It affects TG4 and the independent broadcasters through the sound and vision fund and that leads directly to job losses. People up and down the country are not being employed and there have been job losses over the past number of years because budgets have been tightened. There is an opportunity to stimulate the sector if there is compliance with the law.
I acknowledge that the point I made may be a difficult one for the Minister, Deputy Naughten, to deal with. However, if someone has a caravan in Wexford, it is unfair to say he or she must buy two licences. One does not say to somebody who goes to a hotel room and turns on the television that he or she must pay €150 for the privilege over the fortnight or month he or she is staying there. I know the hotel pays a licence fee, but it does not hit the individual in anything like the same way. I ask the Minister and perhaps the committee to consider whether a person who pays the licence fee should get the benefit of a reduced rate for a caravan or secondary home. It seems to me that the Minister is trying to get the people who are not paying at all. I am talking about the people who are paying and who are being asked to pay on the double when there are people who are not paying at all.
On the same issue, the biggest concern my party has is that people are moving away from television sets and on to mobile phones and iPads. While they are not following a particular schedule, they are consuming data that is created at a cost by the national broadcaster. It is about how, as we move to the future, we have a robust system that protects the idea of public sector broadcasting. We can jockey around about who pays what and where. I have no issue there, and I take it that there are people who would see the particular line the Minister is taking as unfair. Of course, there are systems to protect those, but the fundamental thing we need to protect is a national broadcaster and the idea of public sector broadcasting. While we are fooling around in this space, I have a concern that we are eroding confidence in our national broadcaster and, through the loss of key personnel and staff, its capacity to continue to develop a thriving public sector broadcasting system. That is happening in the face of the challenges of social media and content aggregated, provided and sourced well outside the State and from an entirely different culture. While that is good and appropriate, we need a robust system if we are to protect what we have and allow it to develop and compete adequately. How much does the Minister consider he can gain from within that 14% who are not paying at the minute and taking into account what Senator McDowell has said, which is that some of the properties involved are only inhabited for short periods? What is the Minister's target?
The question of compliance is important because if there is no compliance, one must increase fees for those who are paying. It is very important that there is compliance. Perhaps the system needs to be changed to deal with a household with a licence that may have a mobile home or an apartment. The current licence is tied to the address and we need to look carefully at how we manage that. It is very important that we do not have a fee increase for those people who are paying because a significant number of people are not paying. I recognise that it would be practically impossible to get 100% compliance for various reasons, particularly in gated developments, but we are talking about a different situation with a household that does not have a licence. Perhaps the Department would look at that and see whether there is a mechanism that can be put in place where people who have a mobile home or apartment and who might be using a television for a fortnight or three weeks every year do not have to buy a licence to cover that period. One way around it is to stipulate that if the household can show it has a valid licence tied to an address and that it is its permanent residence, it sorts the matter out. We need compliance. I do not want to get into an argument with Senator McDowell about this but it is important that those people who are paying are not carrying a significant percentage who are not paying. Bills have been already mentioned. In Portlaoise, where I live, people are paying €80 a month for cable so along with paying the fee, they are paying this as well - €80 multiplied by 12. Those people are caught because if they have cable, they must have a licence. Those people are paying for everything.
It concerns the related issue of cost, media ownership and protecting jobs in journalism. Does the Minister intend referring the purchase by Independent News & Media of Celtic Media Group to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland? What is the Minister's role in terms of applying the Competition and Consumer Protection Act to the issue of media ownership? Does he see that in his work programme in the coming weeks?
This debate has run around the licence fee itself. Has the Minister considered the asset space of RTE, what it owns, where it owns it and the most suitable location for a national broadcaster to be based? Has he taken the wage structure in RTE into consideration? The top ten broadcasters are probably earning twice the amount earned by the Taoiseach so there are issues about the body itself. We are talking about squeezing the assets, the wage structure and the licence fee. All these things need to be brought together because when the general public hears what major broadcasters are earning when it might be hit with another licence fee increase, which I am happy the Minister has ruled out, that is a significant issue that needs to be put to bed.
I am quite willing to hear the views of the committee. If the committee wants to come forward with a proposal to introduce a broadcasting charge or amend the current legislation, it should come forward with it and we will have a look at it. The Department will facilitate the committee any way it can in respect of that. My priority from a legislative point of view is to ensure that content that is currently being given free of charge to other operators who use it as a mechanism to attract business is paid for by those operators.
We are looking at what is happening in the UK regarding needing a television licence number to access content. Content is being generated by the public service broadcaster. Should people have free access to it if they are not prepared to pay for it? We are looking at all options in respect of this. I will bring a memorandum to Government about where I think I can make progress on this matter in the near future. If the committee wants to come forward with a newly designed charge, it should bring it forward and we will look at it. From listening to people, I can see that views across the committee are quite mixed. If the committee can come up with a consensus, I am quite happy to consider it.
In respect of Celtic Media Group, a number of mergers are being proposed at the moment. The proposed acquisition of Wireless Group by News Corps (UK & Ireland) is being processed by my Department. Unless clarification is sought by me, I must make a determination by 27 September and I will do so. The proposed acquisition of UTV Ireland by Liberty Global has been cleared by the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission as of 7 September 2016. The parties have ten days from the date on which the decision was made to notify me. To the best of my knowledge, that notification has not come in yet but I am open to clarification. The Competition and Consumer Protection Commission has received notification from the parties involved in the proposed acquisition by Independent News & Media of the publishing division of Celtic Media Group. Once the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission has completed its assessment of the transaction on competition grounds and has made a determination, the Department and I will then be notified and a phase one assessment will commence.
No problem, we will keep it very brief. The electric car grant scheme is very important. Taking into consideration Drive4Zero, a pilot initiative run in Cork several years ago and the issue arising from that pilot regarding free car parking spaces, banks coming on board, local authorities and joined-up thinking between everyone, has the Minister any plans to extend that pilot and initiate more pilot programmes because it would be very appropriate?
The other area is energy efficiency, particularly relating to local authorities as major drivers and spenders of energy. I might be overshooting but I think only one local authority in Ireland has been accredited for energy efficiency. What are we going to do to get the other local authorities as major drivers in the community to come on line? As leaders in the community, they need to be seen to be upfront. Cork County Council is ISO 50001-accredited. Other local authorities and large energy providers owned by the State need to come on line. What are we proposing to do to get them to do this?
Could the Minister elaborate on proposed domestic energy efficiency improvements? Has he new grants schemes in mind? How does he evaluate what we have currently? What is he thinking of doing here?
I support what Senator Lombard said about electric cars.
Is the Minister planning on doing a cost-benefit analysis of reducing VRT or removing motor tax as incentives and to capture the public imagination given the benefit in terms of emissions etc.? Is he having both ends of that evaluated?
Under subhead C4, the total allocation for the year is €65 million. I take it the bulk of that would be for SEAI. In general the SEAI grant scheme has been good and we can see the benefits of it in communities. There is one weakness with its roll-out. Many people with the greatest fuel poverty are living in the oldest houses which are the worst insulated and hardest to heat. I refer to mass concrete houses in particular, including local authority houses. I have raised this in the Dáil Chamber a number of times with the former Minister, Deputy Kelly, and various other Ministers, including Mr. Phil Hogan before he departed. The Minister, Deputy Naughten, now has responsibility for the environment. We were at sea for a while and had no Minister with responsibility for the environment.
Some houses built in 2005, which were originally fairly well insulated, have had their insulation improved and their energy rating upgraded. Some houses in my area that were already fairly well insulated were able to get the grant and in the case of local authority houses, the local authority did them. Whereas around the corner in another street, houses built in the 1930s or 1920s are far harder to heat. I am a realist and I know they are more expensive and difficult to do. However, there is new technology there.
Someone in the Department of Communications, Climate Change and Natural Resources needs to take a hands-on role in this. The other Department involved, the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, would be interested. That Department has a big job to do in getting the new ones in place. We have dodged the issue and it has not been dealt with. The local authorities have not been able to get to grips with it and we need to address it.
Regarding the €65 million for SEAI, in the recent past questions have been raised about governance at SEAI. I do not think there was any allegation of deliberate wrongdoing, anybody on the fiddle or anything like that. The problem arises with reporting and accountancy mechanisms between SEAI and the Department of Communications, Climate Change and Natural Resources. As we are dealing with the money and the money is the all-important bit, what has been done to rectify that in the past month or so?
I want to link something we already discussed to this section. When the Minister was effectively arguing to privatise the national broadband plan, he stated that he could not justify spending taxpayers' money on nationalising the broadband plan when there were more important things, such as climate change, to be dealt with. Given that we are discussing the Estimates, I ask the Minister to outline how much he is saving from not nationalising the broadband plan and how much he is putting into climate change. According to the briefing, which I read, there is an underspend in subhead C4 where only 33% has been spent on sustainable energy programmes. That does not look like a serious attempt by Government to deal with climate change.
Is the Minister concerned about the impact of a third runway in Dublin Airport on our CO2 emissions? Clearly aviation fuel is one of the more serious offenders in this area and the proposal of a third runway could have a major impact on it.
I ask the Chair a question while I have the floor because I have to leave. If one wants to ask a question on the work programme, should that happen after this section?
Deputy Dooley asked about climate change. Our Department is the lead Department on climate action. However, some aspects are directly within my competency as Minister - on the electricity side, on the energy side, and on buildings and energy efficiency. They come under my remit. Agriculture and transport do not come under my remit. We work quite closely and there is a Cabinet sub-committee that works on this. When Commissioner Arias Cañete was here in May, representatives from the Departments of Agriculture, Food and Marine, Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, and Transport, Tourism and Sport attended those meetings. We liaise very closely with those Departments, as we do with the Department of the Taoiseach on this. The Department of the Taoiseach has taken an overarching supervisory role in this for many years prior to my appointment as Minister with responsibility for climate action.
In November we will publish the draft climate mitigation plan. We will appear before this committee to get its view on it. That will cover the issues across the various areas, including agriculture, transport, the built environment and energy. It will explore the options available to us, costs and how we can monitor progress. We expect to finalise that by the middle of next year. We have engaged with the other Departments on this and further engagement will take place. This committee can play a great role feeding into that. I want the committee's input into all these things. It is important that that is reflected in the final document. It is very much a working document. We are here to hear the committee's views on it.
Coming back to Deputy Dooley's points about transport, it is not just about taxes, which on their own will not make a difference; it is important for people to have alternatives. Deputy Dooley and others mentioned electric vehicles. We expect to have a task force on electric vehicles established by the end of October. We had all expected electric vehicles to have had a far greater uptake at this stage than they have had. The difficulty is that while it has benefited our economy, it has not benefited our environment in that carbon-based products have come down in price in recent years. Therefore it has not driven the movement to electric vehicles. We need to look at this again.
It comes back to what Senator O'Reilly said. We cannot just look at electric vehicles, but need to move people along that road through the use of VRT, motor tax and so forth. I suspect that as part of the discussion on electric vehicles between our Department and the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport we will investigate other options. I intend to speak specifically about that issue at next week's OECD climate conference in Paris. I will outline some ideas we have and where we could get assistance across the OECD. The Deputy suggested looking at the Scandinavian examples. There is no point in us trying to reinvent the wheel here. I would like to explore allowing electric vehicles to use bus lanes.
It may be a way to incentivise and encourage people to transfer to electric vehicles. The other problem with them for everybody other than Deputy Smith is the distance they can travel.
No, but in our day-to-day business, we travel long distances and trying to find charge points for electric vehicles can be difficult. People in the Dublin region can charge them when they get to work and again when they get home. The challenge is slightly different but there have been developments with batteries. The European Commission is putting significant investment into this and there will be significant progress in the short term. I am trying to lead by example and that is why I have a hybrid vehicle. I have been surprised by how comfortable it is. If someone is thinking about changing their vehicle, I would encourage them to test drive the hybrid vehicles before they made a final decision on which vehicle to purchase. People who have travelled with me have been surprised by how comfortable and spacious the vehicle is and all I ask is that people try them out before they make a determination on which vehicle to purchase.
Under the biofuels obligation, an additional 2% will kick in from 1 January. I am in agreement with Deputy Smith regarding her criticisms in this regard. Electric vehicles are the way forward in respect of personal transport and we need to examine how we can make them more attractive. This also addresses Senator Lombard's question. He also asked a question about local authorities setting an example and he is correct about that. That is why we are working with not only local authorities but with all the public sector bodies to support energy efficiency measures and, under our 2020 targets, the public sector has a 33% energy efficiency target.
We are in discussions with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform about this and we are working closely with the local authorities, particularly in respect of public lighting because approximately 50% of their overall electricity bill relates to this. If we can make significant progress on public lighting usage, we can make significant progress on emissions and energy efficiency. It would also mean local authorities would have more money to spend on other initiatives in their own communities, be they energy efficiency or other programmes. A national steering group on public lighting is working with the 31 local authorities. There is a pricing issue because individual lights are not metered. That body of work is nearing completion and it should assist local authorities.
Deputy O'Reilly asked about domestic energy efficiency measures, which ties in with Deputy Stanley's question about deep retrofits that are required for older houses. We are involved in two pilot schemes at the moment, one of which is the warmth and well-being pilot. We have set aside €20 million over three years to do deep retrofits in Dublin 12 and Dublin 24. We reckon it will cost €20,000 on average per house to do the retrofit. We have selected people through the HSE public health nurses and GPs who suffer from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, COPD. These people frequently attend our health services, including the local hospital in Tallaght and St. James's Hospital. We are seeking to make their homes more comfortable by improving the air circulation, which is a major problem in many older homes. This will make the homes healthier, more comfortable and more energy efficient. Based on research carried out in New Zealand, we believe there will be a reduction in the number of people presenting to GPs, requiring medication and presenting in accident and emergency departments. Not only will their homes be more comfortable and energy efficient and their energy bills be reduced, the health service will save significant money and resources. It is our intention to roll out that scheme on a broader level on foot of this pilot.
The other pilot is a bike to work scheme for homes through the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI. The Department has been working with EPS, a company based in Mallow, County Cork, on this. It has carried out significant deep retrofits on the homes of its employees. They pay the company back for this through their wages over a period and that has been a huge success. We are working with Tipperary Energy and other energy co-operatives throughout the country on other initiatives to ascertain if they will work and, if so, to upscale them.
Coming back to Deputy Smith's question, I am looking for money for this area not just in this budget but in future budgets. We need to do this from a fuel poverty point of view and from an energy efficiency point of view. However, I also made a commitment in the election campaign to try to prevent people getting sick in the first place, and this is a simple step to make people more comfortable in their own homes and to prevent them from presenting in accident and emergency departments and in their GPs' surgeries. We are targeting a specific cohort of people who have poor quality health because we can improve their health outlook dramatically, but the intention is to roll this scheme out.
Deputy Stanley asked about governance issues in respect of the SEAI. There were relatively minor issues. The most significant governance issue was the lack of a service level agreement or, as it is now called, a performance delivery agreement, with the Department. This had been identified by the Department as a weakness some time ago. Officials had been working with the authority to put this in place. It is important to acknowledge that a team within the Department's internal team audit identified this and flagged it. Our internal process, therefore, is working well. Last week, I visited the team in Cavan to compliment them on the work they are doing. I spoke to some of my staff in my office earlier who had a grilling from the internal audit unit yesterday and they said the unit is doing its job and keeping us all on our toes, which it is supposed to do.
The third runway comes under the remit of the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport. We are working with the Department on emissions across the board and we will continue to engage actively with it in this regard. A process will be undertaken regarding the third runway and I will not get involved in that. Let us see what comes out of that process.
It says in one of the documents, which I do not have in front of me now, there is a report due from the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, on the question of fracking and natural gas. Will the Minister of State give me some idea when that report is due?
The board of Inland Fisheries Ireland made a decision in April to exit trout production. Two hatcheries in Roscrea and Cullion near Mullingar were affected. The board engaged in a period of public consultation that started on 5 July 2016 and subsequently ceased. The board has met and agreed to defer indefinitely its proposal to exit trout production. The board met a delegation from the main trout angling representative bodies in August to discuss the IFI's proposal. I have visited both facilities and I suggest if there is an issue and an interest in the committee, its members would visit both facilities in Roscrea and Cullion to see them. They are somewhat antiquated. They are doing the job they were designed to do but in a different era. The board has agreed to postpone the closure and exiting of production indefinitely but it recognises there are significant economic and environmental issues that need to be addressed in those facilities.
I congratulate the Minister of State on his appointment. I have a quick question and if we are wrong we will be happy to have it confirmed. Perhaps the Minister of State will reassure us. One hears anecdotally that there are people in the energy area sitting on potential valuable energy resources around the country which are not being realised. Is the Minister of State satisfied there is a good tracking system and inventory of the potential for gas and oil finds in the country and that it is being followed up? I am sure there is no basis to it but one hears anecdotally that there are consortia or business interests sitting on finds and holding off on realising them. It is probably pub talk but is the Minister of State keeping a handle on it?
From 2006 to 2009 there were rounds of oil and gas exploration which did not generate a lot of interest so a new approach was taken in the 2011 round. It involved making all unlicensed acreage within the Atlantic basins available in a single licensing round and also to make data available. The data were sold commercially to provide the greatest level of information about them to spark interest from interested parties. Some 43 applications for licensing options were received from 17 companies by the close of the round in September 2015. A process was gone through and there was an evaluation of applications. In February 2016, the 14 new licensing options were offered. A further 14 were offered in June 2016. There have been reports suggesting there are millions of euro worth of potential oil and gas available but it is only through active exploration that the potential of the Irish offshore can be discovered. There are costs associated with this. There has been private investment of €3 billion in recent years to try to strike oil and gas. Obviously the State does not have the resources and probably should not be involved in it. That is why there is licensing and private companies involved.
The data were made available commercially and there has been a huge increase in interest. Representatives of the Geological Survey of Ireland have attended conferences internationally, in Canada and other places, to promote Ireland and possible oil exploration.
One of the key issues over recent months and years is Whitegate and where we are going with it. I welcome the announcement made by the Minister in recent months that the Whitegate issue has been solved through guarding the oil refinery. Will this long-term contract or private sale ensure we will have a commercially working oil refinery on this island? Is the Minister happy that the body will keep the oil refinery going, which is a very important issue? Are we confident that Kinsale gas field on the southern side of Ireland will be kept going for the next few years or is the pending closure inevitable?
It is inevitable that all oil fields will cease production at some stage. The gasfield sites in Kinsale and Ballycotton are operated by PSE Kinsale Energy off the coast of Cork through annual lease rental fees and royalties payable to the State. The direct financial return to the State from the Seven Heads gasfield operated off the coast is through annual lease rental fees and corporation tax of 25%. This is coming to the end of its working life which is why there are options and licences looking at alternatives for exploration. We will continue to do that. Some 28 licences were issued this year which is the highest ever. I hope we will see oil or gas struck from those licences.
The Minister, Deputy Naughten, might comment on the Whitegate issue.
Our Department has been engaged with the new owners. I am going down for the official handover which is coming about in the next couple of weeks. It is a positive development. The new owners are committed to the site and its operation and we have engaged with them at departmental level. We will probably get the opportunity to talk directly to them when we go down and visit. It is important to remember that since 23 June 2016, everything has to be viewed in a very different light. We are in a very different world now, particularly from an energy and energy security perspective. We need to look again at issues such as Whitegate and potential liquefied natural gas, LNG, sites in the country in the context of the fact that much of our reserves up to now have been stored offshore and in the UK. The British exit from the European Union will have implications for us. We are actively engaged on all those issues and the full implications of Brexit. We still believe there will be very close co-operation with the UK on the energy portfolio. Last Saturday I was in Carrington, outside Manchester, where the ESB has made significant investment in a new power station that went live on Monday morning. It will power 1 million homes in the UK. There will continue to be close co-operation between both Governments and jurisdictions. We have to be conscious of the new era we are in. I look forward to meeting the new owners of Whitegate in the next couple of weeks.
All of these issues will have to be reconsidered in the context of Brexit and it would be foolish of me to rule anything in or out. A lot also depends on the agreement with the United Kingdom. For example, Ireland is subject to conditions within the European Union which oblige it to have capacity and storage facilities for oil and gas reserves. I refer to the obligation to have a 90-day supply. As some of the available capacity is offshore and some will be in the United Kingdom and outside the European Union, we must either seek a derogation or look at storing onshore some of the reserves. All of this will be very much dependent on the negotiations that will take place on the implications of Brexit. It would be wrong of me to rule anything out until we have a clearer idea of exactly what type of agreement will be in place. In reality, the United Kingdom is, in many cases, an importer of energy and gas supplies which transition through that country into Ireland. We have to look at the issue of interconnectivity in the supply of electricity and gas. The French President met the Taoiseach before the summer to discuss a high level agreement to develop the new Celtic interconnector which is back on the agenda because of Brexit which brings it very much to the fore.
As there are no questions about appropriations-in-aid and the administration subheads, I thank the Minister and the Minister of State and their officials for attending. I propose that the committee publish the opening statement and the briefing documents submitted for the meeting. Is that agreed? Agreed.