Dáil debates

Tuesday, 27 March 2007

Communications Regulation (Amendment) Bill 2007 [Seanad]: Report Stage

 

6:00 am

Joe Sherlock (Cork East, Labour)
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Amendments Nos. 1, 139 and 141 are related and will be discussed together.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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I move amendment No. 1:

In page 7, line 29, after "2002" to insert "or as amended herein".

I thank the Minister for taking on board some of the amendments tabled on Committee Stage. The time allocated for the Bill is not adequate. I am sure the Minister would have much preferred more time to discuss the legislation, as it has far-reaching and wide implications for the telecommunications sector. That said, we must work with the material and within the time available to us.

Amendment No. 1 proposes the insertion of the words "or as amended herein". It is a standard provision that has been included in other legislation. I merely tabled the amendment to enhance the safety of the legislation.

Amendments Nos. 139 and 141 which propose the insertion of the words "or as otherwise amended" are similar to amendment No. 1. I await the Minister's response.

Photo of Noel DempseyNoel Dempsey (Minister, Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources; Meath, Fianna Fail)
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The principal Act is defined in section 2 of the Bill for ease of reference. It is clear from the Long Title and Short Title of the Bill that the legislation is being amended by this Bill. Therefore, the Deputy's amendment is not necessary. Under the Interpretation Act, references to an Act include any amendments to it. The point the Deputy has made is, therefore, covered under the Interpretation Act and the amendment is not necessary. Therefore, I will not accept the amendments proposed.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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I move amendment No. 2:

In page 8, line 15, to delete "20" and substitute "10".

I await the Minister's response.

Photo of Noel DempseyNoel Dempsey (Minister, Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources; Meath, Fianna Fail)
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The Deputy tabled this amendment following the Committee Stage debate last Wednesday. It was agreed on Committee Stage that we would recheck the point with the Attorney General and the Parliamentary Counsel. On their strong advice, I must leave the figure of 20% stand. The reason for doing so, as explained to me, is that, based on precedents and similar definitions in financial legislation, 20% of the allotted share capital or voting rights is regarded as an appropriate amount for the purpose of the definition of an associate of an undertaking. According to the advice I have received, a figure of 10% would be regarded as too low. In addition, the definition of an associate of an undertaking is comprehensive enough to cover a number of other business relationships. This was a concern expressed by the Deputy on Committee Stage. The definition is wide enough to incorporate other business relationships such as a holding company of the undertaking, a subsidiary of the company of the undertaking and a partnership or a joint venture in which the undertaking has a financial interest. The point the Deputy seeks to cover is covered in the legislation as it stands.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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I accept the Minister's explanation. I merely tabled the amendment to generate discussion on this matter in order to be certain that we would not question in six months' or a year's time the reason we did not discuss the matter further. In the world in which we live where takeovers, mergers and peculiar developments happen rapidly, it is always better to be safe than sorry.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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I move amendment No. 3:

In page 8, line 28, after "undertaking" to insert "unless specifically referred".

This amendment is similar to amendment No. 2. It provides for the inclusion of the words "unless specifically referred". We discussed this matter on Committee Stage. I do not believe its inclusion is necessary, unless, on further examination, the Minister has found otherwise.

Photo of Noel DempseyNoel Dempsey (Minister, Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources; Meath, Fianna Fail)
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We examined this matter following the Committee Stage discussion. The amendment is not necessary. It would not add anything to the definition.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Joe Sherlock (Cork East, Labour)
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Amendment No. 59 is related to amendment No. 4. They may be discussed together.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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I move amendment No. 4:

In page 8, line 32, after "person" to insert "or group".

We discussed this matter on Committee Stage. I merely tabled the amendment to provide for the possibility that the definition would cover a group as well as a person. The explanation given on Committee Stage seemed satisfactory. However, we resubmitted a number of amendments, including this one, in accordance with the agreement reached on Committee Stage. Unless, on further examination, the Minister has found something further in this respect, I will withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Joe Sherlock (Cork East, Labour)
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Amendments Nos. 6 to 8, inclusive, 49 to 51, inclusive, and 60 are related to amendment No. 5. They may all be discussed together.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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I move amendment No. 5:

In page 9, line 8, after "Minister" to insert "and approved by the Oireachtas".

The amendment deals with a theme that is a favourite hobby horse of mine. It has governed my life since I was elected to the House. I have great pleasure, therefore, in speaking to the amendment. Unfortunately, we tend to presume there will be Oireachtas approval, on the basis of various developments that take place from time to time and European legislation, and to observe everything except the primacy of the Oireachtas. In a number of other parliaments throughout Europe and elsewhere there are circumstances where it is in order to have such procedures but in the case of a sovereign parliament it is always advisable to observe its primacy and provide that parliamentary approval is to be sought or given. Legislation passed through the House recently in respect of which there was a presumption that the House would agree related measures. However, in too many instances there is a presumption in the case of legislation and the application of the law. This creates a dangerous precedent.

Photo of Noel DempseyNoel Dempsey (Minister, Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources; Meath, Fianna Fail)
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I acknowledge that while this may not be the Deputy's favourite topic, it is the one he raises most often. In this instance I do not propose to accept the amendments. Amendments Nos. 5 to 8, inclusive, deal with the definition of related enactment. A related enactment, for the purposes of the Bill, includes any Act or statutory instrument under which ComReg has a function. The other amendments relate to regulations to be made under section 46A of the principal Act, as inserted by section 14 of the Bill. As the Bill states, any regulation made by me is required under section 3 of the principal Act to be laid before each House of the Oireachtas and may within 21 sitting days be subject to an annulling resolution passed by either House. In deference to the Deputy's efforts to include such a provision in legislation on other occasions, I advise him that this requirement is also being extended to regulations made under the European Communities Act 1972, under proposals contained in the European Communities (Amendment) Bill currently passing through the Houses of the Oireachtas. In this case the Deputy's favourite topic is being met within the Bill. Therefore, the amendments are not necessary.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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This goes to show that if one beats one's head off the wall often enough, eventually one will bore a hole in the wall. I thank the Minister for acknowledging this requirement. It is hugely important that we recognise the role of the Oireachtas, a sovereign parliament as opposed to, for instance, an assembly. We can all recognise that at least there is some role for the Houses of Parliament to play in such circumstances. I thank the Minister for his comments.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendments Nos. 6 to 8, inclusive, not moved.

Joe Sherlock (Cork East, Labour)
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Amendment No. 9 arises out of Committee Stage proceedings and amendments Nos. 9 to 16, inclusive, may be discussed together.

Photo of Tommy BroughanTommy Broughan (Dublin North East, Labour)
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I move amendment No. 9:

In page 10, between lines 22 and 23, to insert the following:

"(d) by inserting the following after subsection (1)(e):

"(f) to invigilate the volumes and revenues of international and national mobile telecom services including all termination rates,";".

These amendments are to amend section 10 of the 2002 Act as the Minister should have further expanded the powers of the commission. One of the difficulties the Opposition encountered in its invigilation of the Bill is the ten Acts and 15 statutory instruments which are being amended by this Bill. I refer to three Acts which formerly were important pieces of legislation including the Communications Regulation Act 2002, the Competition Act and the Electronic Commerce Act. The extension of ComReg's powers into co-competition and the power to prosecute anti-competitive moves in the communications market needed strengthening. The functions of ComReg are outlined in section 10 of the Communications Regulation Act 2002. Under this Act the former regulatory body, the Office of Director of Telecommunications Regulation, was subsumed into ComReg. These amendments are old chestnuts which have been discussed many times during Question Time. If the questions on broadband had been dealt with during Question Time this afternoon I would have been able to bring to the Minister's attention the latest ComReg findings but he has probably already issued a statement trumpeting that 517,000 lines have been installed.

The Joint Committee on Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, has been informed of the widespread belief that mobile phone users are still being ripped off despite the invigilation by the Minister's Department in the past three years. I refer to the recent European Consumers' Organisation, BEUC, report which showed the Department was not aware of the revenues being earned by the major mobile phone companies from roaming charges. I chaired a joint committee meeting on this subject. The information from both ComReg and the Department was gravely deficient. This amendment seeks to give ComReg a role in the assessment of this kind of information. ComReg quotes statistics but international indices show that Ireland shows extremely high revenues per user which are higher than in many other jurisdictions. My amendments propose new subsections in the Bill.

Amendment No. 10 relates to the Minister's reaction to Smart Telecom's collapse six months ago. He stated he would introduce emergency legislation to ensure that would never happen again, that no telecommunications company could cite reasons such as cash-flow problems for the withdrawal of service. As a result of the collapse of Smart Telecom a number of businesses were left without communications on the days in question, including a number of medical practices. The collapse of the Smart Telecom service, even for a few days, was a serious event. My amendment No. 10 proposes an addition to the functions of ComReg to ensure that undertakings provide at least 30 days' prior notice for the withdrawal of any electronic communications service or product to end-users. The Minister promised to do so but 30 weeks later nothing has been done except the publication of this Bill which has been a long time coming. The Minister has not introduced any methodology for ensuring that a similar situation does not arise again. It seems that neither ComReg nor the Department have the requisite information in this regard.

Amendment No. 11 proposes a new function for ComReg to regulate the content, promotion and pricing information for all premium rate telecoms' services. The premium rate telecom service industry is self-regulated by Regtel. This amendment proposes that the functions of Regtel be absorbed into ComReg to make it responsible for the promotion and pricing of premium rate telephone calls. The issues of content and the suitability of content, the vulnerability of children and other vulnerable users also arise and the Department and the statutory regulator should have a role in this regard. It would be possible to establish Regtel as a statutory body under another Bill but in my view this is well suited to ComReg's functions.

Amendment No. 12 proposes a Labour Party policy which has been in our policy document for the past two years and in which we believe. It proposes to regulate a universal service obligation for all broadband undertakings.

The Minister has been promising the House for the past year that he will take action to ensure Ireland becomes completely broadband-enabled. We seem to be very near a general election, the date of which only the Taoiseach knows. The Minister has not taken any action. The industry is telling the Opposition that some major announcement is imminent. I was expecting the Taoiseach to include it in his famous rant last Saturday night when he made so many promises he might as well have promised to broadband the country and to give a universal service obligation.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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He did, actually.

7:00 am

Photo of Tommy BroughanTommy Broughan (Dublin North East, Labour)
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It would have been a great speech from the Leader of the Opposition. It is possible Deputy Bertie Ahern will be given the opportunity to find out, although knowing the Fianna Fáil Party he will not be left as Leader of the Opposition for too long. I assume people like the Minister and various other ambitious Fianna Fáil people when they are on these benches, as I expect them to be in eight or nine weeks, will be looking for a new figure to lead the party so Deputy Bertie Ahern will probably not have the chance to be Leader of the Opposition once more. He might as well have promised a universal service obligation. I refer to the ComReg report which states that broadband lines total 517,000 which means 50% of users of the Internet are using broadband which is to be welcomed.

Debate adjourned.