Seanad debates

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Broadband, Post Office Network and Energy White Paper: Statements

 

6:10 pm

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I welcome the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy White, to the House for statements on the national broadband plan, An Post business development group and energy White Paper. I call on the Minister to speak.

Photo of Alex WhiteAlex White (Dublin South, Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I am pleased to accept this opportunity to address the House on aspects of my brief as Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources.

It is a very broad brief and I have been asked to focus on three specific issues: the development of energy policy; the future of the post office network and the roll-out of our plan to bring high-speed broadband to every home, school and business in the country. These issues have important implications for our society, environment, strengthening economy and particularly for jobs. I will, of course, be happy to respond to questions, comments and insights on these and my other areas of responsibility in the Department.

I intend to publish a new energy policy for Ireland in September. This will follow extensive engagement and consultation with a very wide range of stakeholders, who often have very different views of the correct way forward. This consultation has been under way since the energy Green Paper was published by my predecessor, Deputy Rabbitte, last May. Having listened carefully to all views, I am working with colleagues in the Department to refine an approach to the separate but very much related components of an energy policy that will serve Ireland for a generation or more.

The Green Paper considered the long-term policy, regulatory and societal interventions that we need to make the transition to a low-carbon future and to ensure that we have a secure supply of affordable energy. It identified six pillars of policy: empowering citizens; markets and regulation; infrastructure; creating a balanced and secure energy mix; sustainability; and ensuring that we gain the economic and most of all, the employment opportunities that arise from energy policy decisions.

There are some inevitable tensions between these interrelated and complex policy objectives.

Resolving them will require Government, local authorities, industry, system operators, consumers and citizens to make informed and evidence-based choices. In this regard, very many ideas emerged in the 1,200 written submissions in the consultation on the Green Paper, and from the ten stakeholder seminars I have held over the past few months. These included three regional seminars that facilitated direct citizen engagement.
Investment in wind energy and the construction of new grid capacity have been among the most contentious issues in the debate. We have witnessed a significant increase in public demand for a genuine say in energy-related matters. Real concerns have been voiced and while the debate must be properly informed, I believe Government, local authorities and industry also have a responsibility to develop much better ways of involving and listening to the communities that are affected by infrastructure development. This, and the recent consultation, underlines the value of ongoing citizen engagement, which will be a central component of the forthcoming White Paper.
The urgent need to address climate change - and our increasing international commitments in this area - will underpin our policy choices. The 800 scientists who produced the last year's UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC, report made it clear that the world must replace gas and coal with renewable electricity generation within 35 years. Ireland and every other country - large and small - must play its part.
The move to renewables and better energy efficiency is contributing to our economic recovery - and to sustainable job creation. A reliable and safe supply of electricity, gas and oil will continue to be critical to Ireland's ability to attract foreign and domestic investment, including in rural Ireland.
Reducing our heavy dependence on imported fossil fuels is also creating jobs through innovation in grid and energy efficient technologies. The development of renewables can see this country - which is blessed with huge potential in wind, biomass and even solar - replace expensive fossil fuel imports with jobs at home.
I shall now deal with the post office network. Colleagues will be aware that a number of local communities have recently expressed concerns over the future of the post office network. There are 1,140 post offices in the network and 52 of them are owned by An Post. The remainder are operated by independent postmasters under contract from An Post. My Department has no direct say in the number or location of post offices. The loss of a local post office can be a significant event for local people but it is important to point out that the number of closures has been quite small over the last four years. Just five post offices closed in 2014. There were 197 net post office closures between 2006 and 2010 but there were just 24 between 2010 and 2014.
It is Government policy that An Post should remain a strong and viable company, in a position to provide a high quality postal service, and to maintain a nationwide customer-focused network of post offices in the community. There have been pressures on the network because of the following factors: the downturn in mail volumes with the rise of electronic communications; the trend towards electronic payment methods instead of cash transactions; and the economic difficulties of the past few years.
An Post has been successful in its efforts to seek out new commercial opportunities for the network. In an effort to improve the viability of these businesses, I have established a post office network business development group to further explore potential commercial opportunities that post offices could pursue. The group was established after a review under the auspices of the Cabinet Committee on Social Policy. It will include representatives from three relevant Government departments, An Post and the Irish Postmasters' Union.
I am very pleased that Mr. Bobby Kerr, a successful businessman with vast experience in retail, has agreed to chair the group. He brings a depth of knowledge and experience in identifying and developing business opportunities. I expect the group to report to Government later this year and it is scheduled to meet for the first time tomorrow.
I shall now discuss the Government's national broadband plan. The plan will ensure that high speed broadband is available to all citizens and businesses in Ireland through a combination of commercial investment and State intervention. We have created the conditions in which the commercial sector is now investing €2.5 billion. This accelerated pace of investment is hugely encouraging and it is delivering high speed broadband to homes and businesses where low speeds would have been the norm just two years ago.
Eircom now offers speeds of up to 100 Mbps. It has accelerated and increased its investment and will reach 1.6 million homes by the middle of next year. Last year the company announced its intention to deliver fibre to the home in 66 communities. When the national broadband plan was launched in 2012, UPC had committed to give 700,000 homes broadband speeds of between 25 and 100 Mbps by 2015. Two years on it offers 730,000 homes between 120 and 240 Mbps, while businesses can access speeds of 500 Mbps.
The ESB and Vodafone also announced their joint venture last year. It will invest €450 million to bring fibre to the building to half a million premises in 50 towns, with speeds of between 200 and 1,000 Mbps. As well as these fixed-line measures, ComReg's 2012 spectrum auction released new spectrum which delivers advanced mobile high speed broadband. Mobile operators are now rolling out 4G services and enhanced 3G coverage nationwide. Fixed wireless operators are also investing significantly in services across Ireland.
Such investment is a huge vote of confidence in our recovering economy. Despite substantial progress, the Government is very much aware that large geographical areas of the country - rural areas with widely dispersed populations - will not get reliable high speed broadband from the private sector. Therefore, the Government has made a commitment to ensure that every home, school and business will have access to high speed services regardless of where they are located. The national broadband plan will see a State-led intervention provide that access in areas where the commercial sector will not do so.
The stimulation of increased commercial investment means the State intervention will now cover 700,000 premises, compared with the 1.3 million projected in 2012. The initiative will bring substantial savings to the taxpayer. Last November, I initiated a public consultation on a national high speed coverage map, which was produced in line with EU requirements. At the same time an information pack was sent to every Senator, together with an invitation to a presentation by my Department's NBP team, which took place in the AV room here.The map provides detailed information on over 50,000 townlands in every county and is available at broadband.gov.ie. It shows blue areas, where commercial operators will supply access to high speed broadband, of at least 30 Mbps, by the end of 2016. It shows amber areas which will subsequently get high speed broadband through State intervention. This will also be at least 30 Mbps, although the network will be able to meet increased demand in future.
The publication of the maps was an important milestone. We are now engaged in substantial work on the technical, financial and regulatory aspects of the next stage of the project. This will culminate in the next visible milestone which will be the publication of a detailed intervention plan in mid-2015. This, in turn, will then be the subject of further public consultation, as required under EU State aid rules, before we move to the formal procurement process for the infrastructure to provide high speed broadband in the State intervention areas.
The national broadband plan reflects the Government's recognition that broadband is a critical national infrastructure.

While it will deal conclusively with Ireland's connectivity challenges, it is a complex intervention which requires us to make a full evaluation of many policy and regulatory issues. This will take time and, as such, it is my intention to publish a monthly progress report to Seanad Members and others as we work to implement this commitment.

I have given a broad outline of progress on the three issues of energy, the post office network and broadband. As I said at the outset, I am very happy to engage with Senators to hear and respond to their views on these and other aspects of policy in communications, energy and natural resources.

6:25 pm

Photo of Ned O'SullivanNed O'Sullivan (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I welcome the Minister back to the House. We have certainly bitten off a lot in the space of a 90-minute debate as any of the three elements would be worthy of a full afternoon of statements. I will therefore have to cut to the chase and stick very much to my script. I find I will have to leave out all the nice bits. The key message from Fianna Fáil is that the Government's policies in the areas of energy and broadband are leading to higher costs in services for the Irish people. The Government has failed to outline a plan to secure the future of the post office network and the record speaks for itself. Ireland has the fourth most expensive electricity in the EU with prices up by 15% since 2011. The broadband market is now the third most expensive in Europe and Government infrastructure projects are ignoring community involvement. The post office network is under threat as social protection moves towards electronic payments.

I will begin with broadband. In government, Fianna Fáil invested heavily in the provision of broadband infrastructure as technology was developing. We committed over €450 million to the provision of broadband services during the period 1999 to 2011. While many areas will benefit from recent announcements by Eircom, UPC and so on, there will still remain around 900,000 homes and businesses in the State for which commercial operators will not invest in broadband provision, as the areas concerned are considered to be unviable commercially. The Government has stated that it wants to ensure that all citizens have access to high-speed broadband no matter where they live or work. It has failed to keep that commitment to provide quality broadband to rural areas and has allowed a two-tier recovery between urban and rural. That is becoming more and more obvious in every walk of life. This is just another example.

The Government is presiding over a broadband market that is the third most expensive in Europe. The poor quality broadband in many areas and the high cost of this service compared to other European countries is doing serious damage to our competitiveness and holding back the economic recovery in many parts of Ireland. Despite Government claims in its recently published national broadband plan that €512 million will be spent to provide broadband to all households in the country, no money has actually been spent on providing broadband to those households. The Government proposals have yet to receive EU state aid approval, which is critical. There is also a lack of clarity surrounding where the Government will source the revenue needed to finance this plan. The Government has been talking about the national broadband plan since it was elected in 2011. There are a further five stages of consultation and strategy development envisaged on the national broadband plan. Given that this latest plan was announced in April 2014, one month before the local and European elections, it is understandable that many people are cynical about the reality of the Government's plan.

The Government has also failed to address the false advertising of broadband speeds by those providing broadband services in Ireland. Independent tests have revealed that broadband speeds do not reach those advertised by broadband providers and that some speeds only hit 10% of the promised speed capacity. It is a matter the Minister should take on board and inquire into.

Fianna Fáil in government made proposals to consolidate the post office network and increase commercial activity in every post office unit. We are committed to guaranteeing the network as it currently exists, to expanding An Post's financial services, allowing post offices to become centres for all state payments and charges, creating shared community services and multi-purpose spaces in rural post offices, and providing Internet and printing facilities at rural post offices where appropriate. The Irish Postmasters Union, or IPU, and postal workers believe that key State contracts from the Department of Social Protection and the National Treasury Management Agency, or NTMA, may be awarded to an entity other than An Post or that these payments will be made electronically in future. Evidence of this change was recently seen when the Minister for Social Protection proposed changing social welfare law to allow service providers other than An Post to distribute social welfare payments in the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2014. The Minister must clarify the position in this regard.

The IPU claims that up to 600 post offices could close if the Government continues to move to electronic payments. It has also raised concerns about a new "post and pay" system being developed with Tesco. Almost 60% of An Post's revenue is generated from contracts awarded to it from the Department of Social Protection or the National Treasury Management Agency. The economic environment has become increasingly difficult for the postal network in recent times. An Post has experienced a decline in revenue from €876 million in 2007 to €807 million in 2012. Falling revenues have resulted in An Post having a group operating loss of €17.5 million in 2012, down from a profit of €2.2 million in 2011.

There is a need now for An Post to utilise its post office network to its highest potential. The Minister said that only five post offices had closed but while I am prepared to accept his word on that, there is another issue which is becoming very important in rural Ireland, whether the Minister knows about it. It is not so much about closing post offices, but about moving them. Post offices are moving from traditional town centre locations out to megastores which are outside the traditional retail areas of smaller towns. That hits streets that are already full of shops with "To Let" or "For Sale" notices up. My own town of Listowel is a typical example. A traditional post office location which greatly benefitted one section of the town is moving to the largest supermarket with a resulting huge loss to local shopkeepers and publicans who depend on the bit of income available, especially on pension day when people come to town. This removal of post offices from towns is very unwelcome to the public as shown by the number of huge demonstrations in Listowel in only the last couple of weeks. What hope can the Minister give to the small shopkeeper or retailer who sees something as important to the infrastructure of his or her small town as the post office moving out to fresh fields?

I turn to the White Paper on energy, but will have to cut my remarks short given the time available. Fianna Fáil considers that Ireland's current energy policy is driving prices up, making our economy uncompetitive and failing to tap into the opportunities presented by community energy projects. It is vital that renewable energy projects are developed in a sensitive manner to the environment around them and that they benefit the local economy. It is also important to stand back and have a whole new look at the wind energy business. Fianna Fáil considers that there should be a phasing out of the wind energy subsidy as this is now a mature and well developed element of the energy sector. When it comes to energy policy in general, Fianna Fáil asks the Government to be proactive in creating jobs in any way it can through the creation of energy. Without being parochial, I do not have to go too far from where I live to the Shannon Estuary, where one of the biggest projects, the LNG project, has been on the books for a long time.

I was mayor of Kerry when planning permission was granted for that project, back in 2004. The project was supposed to be fast-tracked, bringing in liquid gas and degasifying it and creating jobs. The Minister's predecessor, Deputy Rabbitte, took a particular interest in that project, but came up against the CER. I implore the Minister to take a fresh look at the project. The future of an area depends on these kinds of jobs. Apart from the jobs this project would create in Kerry and Clare, this project would guarantee energy security.

On a matter of interest, in the United Kingdom, the energy regulator there wrote in June 2014 to the largest power suppliers seeking an explanation for consumers as to why a decline in wholesale gas and electricity prices had not led to lower fuel bills. Is the Minister asking this question here? If not, why not? Why is the Energy Regulator not more proactive on this glaring anomaly?

I will conclude on that note. While I have a script, I tend not to read scripts as I prefer to be more spontaneous in what I say. There has been too much ground to cover on the agenda for this debate. More time on another day should be provided.

6:35 pm

Photo of Tony MulcahyTony Mulcahy (Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I agree with Senator O'Sullivan that there is too much on this agenda to cover in one day. I welcome the Minister to the House and will begin on the issue of energy.

During my years as Seanad spokesperson on communications, energy and natural resources, I have on a number of occasions met with Department officials, the CER, NewEra and the previous Minister. What I have come to understand is that there is a huge gap between the policy makers and what is required to deliver real investment in renewables outside of State agencies. The direction the Department has taken is very much in line with that of its advisors as per its website - Bord Gáis, ESB, Bord Na Móna, Eirgrid, and SEAI - and the draft renewable heat incentive, RHI, fits well with Coillte. However, the market is meant to be open and energy is supposed to be made more affordable for our citizens.

How does the draft bio-energy plan help us achieve our green energy targets? Our overall renewable energy target is 16% of the energy we consume, of which 40% is for electricity, 12% for heat and 10% for transport, which is a binding target. The Department's own data for REFIT 3 assumes that the majority of energy projects are going ahead, in particular the biomass CHP proposals. This could be a grave assumption. Having assisted with three of the projects, I feel it is fair to say that they have encountered many blockages and hurdles. Even if they all go ahead, we still come up short on our overall energy targets by 2% cent, thereby exposing the taxpayer to a possible cost of in excess €300 million by having to purchase carbon credits.

If all of these projects do not go ahead, there is the possibility - according to the Department's figures - that we will come up with a 10% shortfall in our energy targets. That shortfall is equivalent to a €1.5 billion cost to the taxpayer, as we would be forced to purchase carbon credits from countries that have exceeded their targets. The only other way of avoiding these costs is to put up wind turbines to produce another 1,000 MW of energy, in addition to the 1,750 MW still to come on board from REFIT 2. This would equate to from 1,400 to 1,500 extra wind turbines up and down the country. We know the grief that will cause.

The Minister can address this issue. The EC directives support realising private investment to achieve our overall targets of 16%. As Seanad spokesperson on energy and having assessed a number of biomass projects and proposals that have been stuck in the Department for the past four years, I believe the core reasons these plants have not proceeded to date are that the energy efficiency thresholds set at 75% to 80 % by the Department are way above the requirements set in other European countries, which are as low as 45%. Furthermore, the Department refuses to recognise the primary energy savings, PES, method of approving these types of plants, which would benefit the roll-out of district heating networks. These networks would displace vast amounts of fossil fuels - coal, oil, gas etc. - in many regional towns and gateways. There has been a lack of action and understanding by the Department in regard to providing clear, bankable terms and conditions with respect to REFIT. These are the main reasons there has been no progress. On the issue of jobs, in supporting biomass at local level the Department of Energy in the United Kingdom has established that every megawatt of biomass energy equates to 14.5 jobs, as against the wind energy equivalent of 1.5 jobs per megawatt.

It is important to outline and put on the record that the Department will currently support with a full refit tariff of a biomass plant that will just dry its wood-biomass and effectively blow its heat up a chimney into the atmosphere. It would burn twice the amount of fuel to generate 50 MW of electricity, but with no thermal district heating and no fossil fuel displacement. Despite this, the Department will not support 2 similarly sized plants that will use half the fuel to generate the same amount of electricity and roll out a district heat network, thereby displacing 20 million tonnes of fossil fuels. These projects will deliver many thousands of sustainable jobs in farming, forestry and industry.

I ask the Minister to review the timelines to allow these projects to come together. I note from today's comments that the Minister intends to issue a new policy in September. However, the problem is that by September 2016, any of these large-scale projects commenced would have to be three quarters of the way built by then. The 2030 target to draw down the refit cannot be extended as it is fixed. Therefore, the timeline for companies to invest and realise their investment is getting shorter all the time. I also urge the Minister to look at what has been done in Sweden and Denmark to realise their targets. We must maximise our natural resources and reduce all reliance on oil and gas.

I welcome the honest presentation made by the Minister here, which I had not read in advance. I will work with him in any way I can, as will people I know, in this area and believe Department officials will try to deliver as best they can on this. The Minister has said that our use of biomass is critical for the future. In the past, I have pointed out to the Minister that there is no way we should be burning biomass to generate electricity only. We must maximise the burning of biomass to generate heat also.

I welcome the broadband plan. I believe we will deliver on it and support the Minister in that regard. We need broadband throughout the country. I welcome the appointment of Bobby Kerr as independent chair of the post office network. I have met many of those who work in our post offices and with representatives of the Irish Postmasters Union. We need to widen their operations as best we can. I understand AIB banking works with them, as do car tax authorities, but the social welfare contract will be difficult to deliver. No stand-alone post office will survive in the future. I attend meetings where people say they want to retain their local post office and I ask them when they last bought a stamp or posted a letter. Nowadays, people use their mobile phone or e-mail to contact others, but yet they want to keep their local post offices open. I wish the Minister well on that difficult issue.

My main focus today has been on energy and I appreciate the Minister's statement on that. As I mentioned earlier, I did not have the benefit of seeing or reading it before coming to the House.

Photo of Feargal QuinnFeargal Quinn (Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I welcome the Minister back to the Seanad. When he was a Member of the House, he took significant interest in all topics. He will have to do the same in his new job, particularly tonight, when we are dealing with broadband, the White Paper on energy and An Post and trying to squeeze all of that into this debate. The Minister must wear all those hats tonight.

I welcome the opportunity to discuss these three issues, but I will concentrate on An Post. I, like previous speakers, was delighted to hear Bobby Kerr has taken over as independent chair of the group. He will bring business acumen and new ideas to the position that will help develop the huge potential of An Post. It is sometimes forgotten that post offices are the largest network in the country, with 1,140 offices and employing approximately 3,700 people. When I was in An Post - I took over as chairman in January 1984 - I decided I would spend half a day each month delivering mail, behind a post office counter or in the sorting office so as to learn as much as I could about the system. This gave me a much better chance to experience the every day working of the business and to see the development of An Post from other perspectives.

The business development group Bobby Kerr will now chair will look at ways to broaden the service to the public.

I think he will query whether that could include banking and making public payments to local authorities, just to give some examples of the challenges. There has been some concern about the statement from the Government that there were no plans to allow the post office to offer motor tax renewal services. That could have been a straightforward additional service. The Irish Postmasters Union states it could have saved the taxpayer €63 million over five years. It would be interesting to hear from the Minister how the Government came to that position and if there is any possibility that it could change its position. I think this could be a massive benefit to post offices and customers in general.

I remember the discussion on the legislation to establish An Post. A major element to protect jobs was to include in legislation that a delivery to every house in the country would be part of the tradition. I do not think at this point that this makes sense in the future. I do not know how we will handle that issue. I do not know how the Minister will handle it. A concrete proposal of what An Post could do, is that every citizen in Ireland could have an official State e-mail address, so that everybody would have his or her own official State e-mail address. That may seem counter-intuitive as there would be less mail, but businesses like An Post have to evolve with the time and it could be a leader in communication technology. The Government should seize the opportunity to give An Post this mandate. That would mean that communication from the hospital, tax office, court, post office and so on, would not be by a physical letter but one would get an e-mail. I know that might threaten jobs and certainly the post office unions would not be happy, but it would mean that masses of paper and printing costs could be saved, especially by State bodies. This would of course save money and time as well as paper.

There could be an opt-out for people unfamiliar with technology, people living on their own and the elderly. It would encourage more people in businesses to go online. It would show that Ireland is an advanced place to do business. In France, for instance, the post office managed to convince the local authorities in a number of local states to allow the postman to act as the link with elderly people living on their own. It is only a small gesture and I do not know how much has been taken, but it seems that we will wear a different hat than we wore in 1984, when we said we would try to protect the jobs of those people working in the post office. There may be different ways of being able to do that. Look at Denmark, where legislation was introduced to ensure that businesses have digital post offices, that is registered mail addresses so that they can receive secure communication from the state or the state authorities. It is starting to replace physical mail with a digital postal service. It is now compulsory for members of the public to register their change of address, emigration, their marriage application or even a bicycle theft on the Internet. The aim is to move 80% of communication with public authorities in Denmark from paper to the web by the end of this year. Denmark estimates that it will save nearly €300 million.

In this day and age why are State institutions, such as hospitals, still sending out letters for appointments? Denmark has recognised that this is a thing of the past and states that it will save paper, money and make things more secure. Could An Post be the organisation responsible for digital postal boxes here? We could save millions of euro and really improve the level of customer service by going down this route. An Post could be a leading force if we decide to take that route. Will the Minister state if the Government is willing to consider giving An Post this opportunity? Of course, high quality broadband is essential for such a system to be successful but I have confidence in the Minister's assurance that high quality broadband will happen.

There are many ideas that An Post should consider. Many of them have been piloted by private businesses but could translate well into An Post. One of the problems in the background in this country is that of the dispersal of people in rural areas which results in increased costs in postal, energy and transportation services. In some towns in France, the post is no longer delivered to one's door but post boxes are located at the front of estates. This would save time and money and is an idea with a great deal of potential. Obviously, it would not be enthusiastically received by unions who are insisting that the post is delivered to every house. It seems to me as a person wearing both hats that we must take steps.

Another interesting idea is that private companies are charging shoppers a fee to retrieve a package from one of the locations around the country. The thinking is that delivery firms can save a lot of money by sending a batch of parcels to a single place where delivery is guaranteed. I know the real problem we have is that every time one takes a step in that direction one is threatening the jobs in An Post. We will have to reach that position at some time or other, but it seems to me that we could save jobs by giving An Post extra responsibility, perhaps in that area.

In Estonia there are self-service post offices, where customers open a locker via a text message with a code. The concept means that the collection points are located mostly in supermarkets.

The Minister does not have an easy job. I wish him well and I have every confidence that, together with Mr. Bobby Kerr and his team, he will be able to come up with welcome initiatives.

6:45 pm

Photo of John WhelanJohn Whelan (Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I welcome the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy White, to the House. I wish to make the best use of this time and use the opportunity to air topics of concern. Perhaps the Minister will take questions on the broad remit and extensive range of issues in his ministerial portfolio.

At the outset I commend the Minister for what is an inspired choice of securing the co-operation of Mr. Bobby Kerr to head up the post office network business development group. I met Mr. Kerr at the launch of the Mountmellick Development Association and later in the year at the National Ploughing Championships. He is an enthusiastic champion for the small business sector and for rural Ireland. I look forward to the proposals that will emanate from that group. I think that is the kind of openness we need to have. There are some interesting suggestions already coming from the floor of this Chamber.

I commend the Minister for his enthusiasm and commitment to the roll-out of high-speed broadband services across the regions. I may be excused for being cynical and sceptical about this because of the similar announcements by other Governments over many years. There have been so many false dawns in respect of rural and regional broadband services. It is no wonder that people are sceptical that it will ever happen.

It is curious at this stage that the State has to step up and intervene to ensure broadband services in communities in rural areas such as Ballyroan, where I am from, or Timahoe where the broadband service is appalling. Broadband is not being provided. Broadband service providers have not been in a position to provide the service and I look forward to the time when we can say that broadband for rural Ireland has been put to bed. I hope we will be able to say that has been achieved on the Minister's watch. I know there has been significant progress in the delivery of high-speed broadband services in second level schools. That has been a significant success. I have seen that in action. However, the speed of broadband in the homes and businesses is a bugbear, which puts rural areas at a distinct disadvantage in so many areas.

The network of post offices is a challenge. There has been a great deal of scaremongering on this issue in the past year, not least during the time of the local elections. Certain elements use the issue and try to suggest there will be wholesale closures of post offices. The post office is a linchpin in small towns and villages and is seen as a vital and integral service that holds the business in towns together.

In the past few years the village in which I live, Timahoe, County Laois, lost its post office. It was not due to any action on the part of the Government or An Post; the family that was providing the service and had done so well for decades - it was providing a tremendous service for the local community - was retiring and no one else was willing to take on the responsibility, workload and commitment required. It is more complex than just achieving the Government's policies.

I would like to devote the bulk of my time, like Senator Tony Mulcahy, to discussing energy policy, the most immediate and most vexed element of the Minister's portfolio. The first issue that jumps off the page at me is that of energy costs and prices, particularly for oil and gas. I echo Senator Ned O'Sullivan's sentiments and ask the Minister whether he has intervened to knock heads together on why the dramatic and drastic reductions in wholesale energy prices for oil and gas have not been passed on to consumers, businesses, farms and families. That is unacceptable. In the past, the minute oil prices went up, the increase was passed on at the pumps and when people were purchasing a refill of home heating oil. We challenge the conventional wisdom because it is not that long ago when energy economists were predicting that oil prices would be heading upwards towards $200 a barrel. No one would have believed us if we had said last year that oil prices would fall below $50 a barrell for Brent crude oil. That reduction has not been passed on in the cost of electricity and home heating oil or in the cost of fuel at petrol pumps. I am not sure what the point is in having an energy regulator that only observes and has no role in pricing. That marks a return to the regulation we witnessed in the banking and charity sectors. What is the point in having a regulator that is impotent and has no function or role other than in looking on and saying, "I cannot intervene; I can only look at the issue and ask." Either we have a regulator or we do not. If the regulator cannot regulate price, what is the point in having one? If the Minister must supplement the role and functions of the regulator in this regard, I ask him to do so because the consumer is entitled to benefit from the drastic reduction in energy prices, which we were told would not happen.

I must move on and in the final part of my contribution address a vexed and difficult issue, as we must grasp the nettle. Everyone wants to do something about climate change. Everyone is concerned about the polar bear, but it seems no one wants to help it when asked to make a commitment and an effort to change his or her lifestyle and practices. The answer is not to construct thousands of giant wind turbines and place them at every crossroads in the country and within 500 m of people's homes. I feel strongly about this issue, as this will not work; it cannot work and will never be acceptable. I, therefore, urge the Minister to use his influence at the Cabinet table to come forward with new planning guidelines and setback proposals, which he must bring forward jointly with his colleague, the Minister for Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Alan Kelly, and the rest of the Cabinet. We have had the discussion and all the consultation time we need. The consultation period concluded last February and we are now almost one year on, yet there is still no sign of the new guidelines.

Has the Minister put the nuclear option back on the table? It was mentioned in the media during the Christmas-new year period. I do not know if that was because things were too quiet. When I mentioned the matter to the Minister before, he laughed me out of court, but there are 60 nuclear power stations in France, meeting 75% of its energy needs. I would rather live close to a new generation nuclear plant than to one of these giant wind farms.

6:55 pm

Photo of John WhelanJohn Whelan (Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I ask the Minister to address this issue also.

Photo of Tom ShehanTom Shehan (Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I agree with my colleague, Senator Ned O'Sullivan, as well as Senator John Whelan. Last week in a commencement debate I asked the Minister to make contact with the energy regulator on the decrease in fuel costs. Approximately 40% of our energy is being generated by gas, the price of which has dropped by 27% or 28%. As Senator Ned O'Sullivan said, in Britain the Minister has asked the energy regulator what it is doing to bring down the price and whether it has spoken to energy providers. We are now being told that Bord Gáis will bring down prices in March after the worst of the weather has passed and when old people will not need to heat their house 24 hours a day. That is nasty and horrible work on the part of Bord Gáis. We have not yet heard if Electric Ireland is dropping its prices. Some 40% of electricity is generated by gas, the price of which has dropped by 27%, yet there has been no cut in the price of electricity. That is wrong.

As has been said by Senator John Whelan, if need be, we should get rid of the energy regulator. My understanding of a regulator is that it is something like a balancing act, but all I have ever seen the regulator do is grant a price increase. For example, if Electric Ireland looks for a 21% hike in prices, the regulator will grant it an increase of 14%: "Haven't I done a good job? I didn't give it 21% but 14%." On other occasions, when an increase of 15% or 16% is looked for, the regulator grants an increase of 9%. That is not regulation. Regulation must be a two-way process. The role of the regulator regarding the tariff imposed on Shannon LNG for the use of a facility it was never going to use - the interconnector - was wrong. If I travel to Dublin by bus, I do not have to pay tolls or road tax. I was a member of the council when Senator Ned O'Sullivan was mayor and the issue came up at the time, 2004, with the development to be fast-tracked. Nothing has happened since. An anaerobic digester - a great invention, although perhaps not unique - is being put in place in Causeway and will meet the electricity needs of the whole community, including the secondary school which has about 600 students. The operators had to go to Switzerland to obtain finance, as not one of the banks here would finance it. It is a no-brainer. I know what the banks were doing regarding the assessment of risk, which did not come into it. Now no risk is taken. There is no risk in this instance, yet the banks did not see fit to finance the project and the operators had to go to Switzerland to obtain finance.

On broadband provision, looking at a map of Ireland makes me sick. The commercial operators are based in Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Galway. The west coast extends from County Donegal along counties Mayo, Sligo, Clare and Kerry to south-west Cork. Of course, they are entering the densely populated areas because it is commercially viable to do so. I was in Dingle recently. I was the sole Oireachtas Member invited to attend the signing of a memorandum of understanding between Sacred Heart University in the United States, UCC, Institute of Technology, Tralee and CIT, as part of which Sacred Heart University would set up a faculty for marine science, for which it has taken over the Christian Brothers school.

Photo of Terry BrennanTerry Brennan (Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Nóiméad amháin fágtha.

Photo of Tom ShehanTom Shehan (Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I am only halfway there.

For this project, the university asked Eircom how much it would cost to provide a 100 Mbps broadband connection in Dingle and was informed it would cost €36,000 upfront and €16,000 per year. The Government will have to do a lot more to help designated yellow areas in terms of broadband coverage. If one is lucky enough to live in a blue area then, by the end of 2016, one will have access to next generation broadband which will be provided by a commercial operator. One may even have a choice of operators. For amber areas the Department's website states:


We plan to start the process of selecting one or more companies to build the network in 2015. In 2016, we hope to be in a position to publish a full list of the areas that the network will cover and when.
That is only next year.
The University of Notre Dame in the United States has 18 Irish speaking lecturers. They want to bring their students to Dingle to do Celtic studies but cannot do so due to a lack of broadband.
Philip King, creator of the "Other Voices" programme, has a music studio and does a lot of work on films, etc. Unfortunately his work is hampered due to a lack of broadband in Dingle. No technology companies will set up in the Corca Dhuibhne Gaeltacht because there is no broadband. A technology company called Fitzgeralds was in the area but it moved to Ballyvourney where broadband was available.
The State has invested €3.4 million in a college for teacher training in Ballyferriter. Talk about putting the cart before the horse. Investment was made in the college but there is no broadband.
I know that the Minister is passionate about broadband. If he looks at the NBP map he will see that the west coast is getting hammered in terms of broadband.

7:05 pm

Photo of David CullinaneDavid Cullinane (Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I welcome the Minister to the House. We are having a debate on an interesting set of statements which is welcome. Some interesting proposals have been made already such as to abolish the regulator and build nuclear power stations. Therefore, the Minister has a lot to ponder even before I make my contribution.

I share many of the concerns about broadband services expressed by Senator Sheahan. It comes as no surprise to me that the private or commercial sector would concentrate their business activities in areas of critical mass and there is a population base. That is exactly why I opposed privatisation of, for example, post offices which has happened in the UK, Bus Éireann which has had some its bus routes privatised in different parts of the country and Aer Lingus which is a different debate.

I opposed those issues because certain services should be run by the State. If one allows them to be run solely by private operators then rural areas especially, and less densely populated areas, including the west coast, will suffer. It is the neo-liberal right-wing economics of the Senator's party, and the Fianna Fáil Party, which has landed the west coast and other rural areas in the bad situation in which they have found themselves.

Compared with other European countries, this State has lagged behind in terms of broadband speeds. Lack of access to quality telecommunications infrastructure is one of the deficits that inhibits the growth of businesses in areas located outside of Dublin. It also discourages other businesses from locating in a region.

Such lack of access was one of the issues highlighted in a report by the South-East Economic Development Strategy. Broadband provision or lack of, next generation broadband and dark fibre broadband were the requirements sought by the business community. When we engaged with a lot of multinationals, and asked them what they needed in terms of infrastructure, I was surprised at how many of them talked about next generation broadband and so on. That shows we need to continually look at where the next generation of technology and improvements are coming from and ensure we keep pace with changing technology.

I welcome the launch of the mapping programme for broadband coverage. I hope the initiative will clear up many of the areas that lack adequate broadband coverage. Blackspot areas need to be prioritised in order to allow us to develop a sustainable economy and, especially in rural areas, access to high speed broadband is needed.

I also welcome State intervention in the roll-out of broadband to areas where commercial operators will not reach. I hope this continues.

The privatisation of Telecom Éireann in the late 1990s was a major blow to the roll-out of broadband. The Government must not make the same mistake. It must ensure that broadband infrastructure is built by the State and is kept in public ownership for all the reasons that have been outlined by Senators. I welcome the fact that the Minister will take submissions on the broadband map and I encourage interested parties to look at the map.

The next item is post offices. We have discussed this matter in the Seanad last year. Motions were tabled by the Opposition due to concerns and fears about the future of post offices in many rural areas. Between 2004 and 2008 as many as 344 post offices were closed and many more were downgraded. Closures have continued with a further 32 since the beginning of 2011 but some of them have subsequently reopened.

This State has the third highest ratio of post offices to population in Europe with 3.5 post offices for every 10,000 people. That is an indication of the centrality and importance of post offices in many communities. In my county of Waterford some post offices have closed. The closure of post offices in Kill and Bunmahon, located in the middle of the county, had an impact on the region. It is not just a post office that closes because, in many cases, it also means the closure of a local shop. The post office, as we know, provides an essential service. In rural communities the post office is a focal point for social interaction and closures are regarded as increasing the levels of isolation.

The Irish Postmasters Union and the Communication Workers Union have both stressed that An Post ought to be protected against attempts to downgrade or privatise. They pointed to the opportunities that exist for the postal service and post offices to expand their range of activities.

Finally, I wish to address the White Paper on Energy. Sinn Féin's submission to the Green Paper on Energy aimed to put the people of Ireland at the heart of the submission. The aim of Sinn Féin's submission was to highlight a refocusing of policy to cater for the needs of the Irish people. The first step the Government can take, in this refocusing, is to rectify the current situation regarding the erection of wind turbines. Sinn Féin's Wind Turbine Regulation Bill 2014 should be brought to Committee Stage. Some other Senators have raised this important issue as well.

I thank the Minister for listening to my comments and look forward to his response.

Photo of John KellyJohn Kelly (Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I welcome the Minister back to the House.

I would welcome anything that would strengthen the viability of the postal network. As Senator Cullinane has said, the post office is an important part of rural Ireland and rural life so should be protected. My grandfather was a postmaster and he passed on his post office to my uncle who, in turn, passed it on to my sister. Therefore, I understand the importance and necessity to have post offices but in most cases they are unviable and need to attract extra business. I welcome the appointment of Bobby Kerr to chair the business development group and I hope something good will result for the post office network.

Recently I learned that the Department of Social Protection sent a letter to somebody advising that if he or she wanted to avail of a household benefits package to give bank details only. He or she was not given the opportunity to avail of the postal service. Perhaps the Minister will follow the matter up with the Minister for Social Protection.

For the past couple of years there has been much scaremongering about the closure of rural post offices. This Government has not closed any post offices. In the past four years 24 post offices have closed down but they were not forced closures. In many cases, as Senator Whelan rightly pointed out, there was nobody willing to take on the running of them for the reasons I have mentioned.

I welcome the roll-out of broadband, albeit it has been ongoing for several years. The lack of broadband has always been used as excuse for why we do not have investment in rural Ireland. The sooner it is rolled out there, the better.

There is discontent across the country about the development of wind farms. When we refer to renewable energy, we tend to concentrate too much on wind power, without looking at the alternatives. I have sought proper setback distances for wind turbines in my Private Members’ Bill, Wind Turbines Bill 2012. I am also conscious of the fact that all of the experts - economists and Engineers Ireland - have said wind energy generation is a folly, as it is losing money, rather than making it. However, we have not listened to them. Nor did we listen to them in the past when they told us about the possibility of the bubble of the Celtic tiger bursting and that we would end up with ghost housing estates. We will probably end up with ghost wind farms unless someone starts to take the issue seriously.

On top of this, local authorities are hell-bent on promoting wind energy projects as they get rates from wind farm developers. I know of a case in Wexford of a wind farm project not complying with planning conditions regarding noise levels. It has more or less stated it will not comply with them, but the local authority has stated its hands are tied and that there is nothing it can do. Local authorities are not prepared to invoke section 140 of the Planning and Development Act to shut down non-compliant wind farms because they are on the same side. That is why people believe they have no voice. All we hear are the spin merchants talking about community engagement and all that kind of stuff. Community engagement means nothing. It just means a consultancy firm is brought in to tell the community what the wind farm company is proposing to do. It then takes on board, supposedly, the concerns of the community, which it does not. Consequently, the process is a farce. Then there was community acceptance which the former Minister, Deputy Pat Rabbitte, said should be part of these developments. However, if a community does not want a wind farm to be built, it still does not have a choice.

While oil prices have come down, this is still not reflected in petrol or diesel prices. Last week, when I left Leinster House, I noted that diesel was €1.14 a litre in Dublin and the same price when I reached Ballina, County Mayo. However, in the towns in between I noted that the price was €1.22 and €1.23, nine cent dearer. There seems to be a degree of cartelism in every town as there is not a difference of one cent in prices at the pumps. If one puts €50 of the more expensive diesel into one's car, the difference comes to €4.50. That is a lot of money that should be passed on to the customer.

7:15 pm

Photo of Hildegarde NaughtonHildegarde Naughton (Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I welcome the Minister, Deputy Alex White. Up to 67% of all households had access to broadband connections last year, a figure that has not changed much in four years. The Minister correctly identified in his broadband launch late last year that rural areas needed State intervention for this to be rectified. I welcome that development.

The Minister will note that the latest IDA Ireland figures indicate that it is missing its own targets for delivering investments outside Dublin and Cork. In other words, rural Ireland is missing out. While I accept that there is an issue in persuading young highly qualified Google employees that rural living is for them, without proper infrastructure in these areas, that job is made even more difficult. Even forgetting the Googles of this world, people trying to start or maintain a small local business are at a distinct disadvantage. By infrastructure I mean constant reliable power, clean water and high-speed broadband. While the first two of these matters are in hand, access to high-speed broadband is a problem for over 30% of the population. The broadband penetration rate is lower here than in any highly developed economy and elsewhere in Europe. It lags behind that for countries such as Latvia, Hungary and Poland, while in Iceland there is a 95% penetration rate.

The Government task force's report in 2012 identified these problems and also indicated the flow of benefits if the situation was rectified, including economic growth and job creation, as well as providing a significant boost for small and medium-sized enterprises. Someone with a small business whose connection fails every time the wind changes direction is not only at risk of being seen as unprofessional by his or her customers but his or her business is unlikely to succeed. In addition, there is the issue of education. Schools and universities are tending more towards the use of the Internet as a means of communication and a learning tool. What hope has someone in a poorly covered area of upskilling with, for instance, the Open University if his or her Internet connection depends on the vagaries of the weather?

Another issue is rural isolation. A large number of online tools are available to combat it, with many websites offering advice and advertising meetings, chat rooms, etc, but these are only accessible with great difficulty for a large percentage of the population. In a recent article a businessperson was interviewed in an area in which there was only satellite Internet access. A farm animal had interfered with the dish and subsequently there was no access for week. As was said, one would not see it on "Father Ted". That is the reality for a large segment of the population.

We talk about being a high-tech society, but this is only a myth for one third of the population. While I welcome the Minister’s intervention, I want to see a concrete plan in place, with timeframes and budgets, a tangible plan about which I could tell the people living rural Galway and south Mayo.

I welcome the appointment of Mr. Bobby Kerr to chair the important review to be conducted by the An Post business development group. Post offices provide the largest retail network in the country, with 1,150 offices, employing 3,700 people. Up to 1,100 of these offices are operated by postmasters who operate locally based SMEs, providing employment, facilitating economic activity and providing for community engagement. A world class information technology system is in place in all post offices, with even the smallest of rural post office been technically capable of providing the same services as the GPO in Dublin.

It is vital now more than ever that the post office network be supported. Up to 30% of all post office business is derived from delivering social welfare cash payments. The State is moving towards electronic payment, while utilities are moving towards electronic billing and bill payment. Stamp sales are falling, as more and more business is transacted electronically. As a result, the network is under significant pressure. It needs to be reiterated that a rural post office is not just a commercial office but somewhat of a social service. People meet and greet in it and it offers a service to communities where it might be the only bricks and mortar service for miles. We have recently seen the closure of the only bank in a midlands town. The banks are retrenching their branch networks and An Post could be facing a similar situation. The Government needs to commit to enacting whatever practical suggestions come from the review as a matter of urgency. The banks want to close branches. Why not let An Post act as an agent for them, for instance? We need competition among the banks. Has the board of An Post considered seeking a banking licence to allow it to carry out more current account-type transactions? Other services the post office network could handle include motor tax renewals, driver licence renewals, rates payments, rent and other local authority payments, lodgements and withdrawal services for credit unions, hospital charges, electronic form generation, insurance quotations and pension savings. These are all services that could breathe life into a troubled network.

The Government is right to review both of these areas. These are issues that significantly affect those living in rural Ireland. We have a roadmap to rectify the deficiencies in broadband coverage and a review which is shortly to be completed of how the network of post offices could be supported. What we need are concrete plans for broadband provision and a total commitment from the Government to implement the recommendations from the review of An Post.

Photo of Denis LandyDenis Landy (Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I welcome the Minister, Deputy Alex White, and the opportunity to address a broad range of items within his remit. I commend the work he has done on energy policy.

I am concerned, however, that we have been awaiting guidelines on setback in respect of wind energy for almost two years now but we have not yet had sight of them. Communities throughout the country have been exercised. People within communities who normally put their time into positive activities have spent time organising campaigns against the proposals for the expansion of the grid and against wind farms. They believe the proposals and developments are being foisted on them. They have used the opportunity provided by the Minister's consultation process to voice their opinions. Thousands have written to the Minister on the matter through the consultation process. The question is whether we are going to see any action.

Will the Minister explain the delay in publishing the guidelines? Senators Kelly, Whelan and I have been told in the House and elsewhere for months that they are ready, that they are supposed to be published, that they are coming, that they are imminent and every other promise conceivable, but we have not seen them. In a nutshell, the communities we represent do not believe a word we tell them any more because what we are telling them in one answer after another is not resulting in any action. What is the current position? When will the guidelines be published? These are fairly simple questions and I am keen for a direct response.

I welcome the work the Minister has done to set up a new committee, under Bobby Kerr, to address issues relating to the post office network. I have been active in this area in recent years. I have met representatives of the Irish Postmasters Union on several occasions and I have organised meetings for them in the Houses. There was much scaremongering last year. In fairness to the Irish Postmasters Union, it produced the Grant Thornton report in 2012 which set out what needs to be done.

Since then, much political shenanigans has gone on. In fact, as the Minister and others have said, this Government has closed down few post offices in comparison to the last Government. Nonetheless there are concerns within communities.

The previous Minister set up an interdepartmental group on the matter and sought proposals and suggestions from every Department. I never saw the list of proposals. I reckon there are opportunities but individual Departments must let go of some of the functions they have for the post offices of this country to function and survive. The Minister should convince them to do that through this group. The press statements released since the Minister's announcement have outlined some of the areas that could be devolved to or carried out as functions of post offices. These include basic banking, as has already been outlined, motor taxation renewals, driver licence renewals, local authority payments, lodgements and withdrawals through the credit union movement, hospital charges, electronic form generation, insurance quotations and pension savings. All of these could become functions of post offices. However, unless we can get the will and co-operation of those who hold these functions at the moment we will not see a future for post offices. They simply cannot survive by continuing in the main to pay out social welfare payments alone. It is not feasible. Anyway, I am happy to place some faith behind Bobby Kerr, who has proven in his line of business that a network can be set up successfully.

The matter of petrol prices has already been well vented, but I wish to add my voice to the comments made.

Broadband is another area where I welcome the work the Minister has put in. I know the Minister is constrained by EU regulations in respect of how he can move in this area. I call on the Minister to leave his mark in this area during his time as Minister in the coming 12 or 15 months. If a person lives in Dublin or a large urban area, what we are discussing is meaningless. However, if a person lives in a small town or village or on the fringes, it means everything. We simply cannot function. On Saturday morning I listened to a person from Senator Kelly's constituency. He received a philanthropist of the year award and runs the museum in Strokestown. Not alone can he not use broadband or the Internet to carry out his business, he cannot even get a telephone signal in his office. He explained how his secretary had to bring work from her office to her home 20 miles away to ensure that his core business, which is in trucking, would survive. That is unsustainable in rural Ireland. I wish the Minister well with the work he has ahead and I look forward to his response.

7:25 pm

Photo of Terry BrennanTerry Brennan (Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

The national broadband plan aims to ensure that every citizen and business, regardless of location, has access to a high-quality high-speed broadband service. This will be achieved through a combination of commercial investment and State-led intervention in areas where commercial services will not be provided. The commercial telecommunications sector is currently investing approximately €2.5 billion in network upgrades. A total of 1.6 million of the 2.3 million premises in Ireland are expected to have access to commercial high-speed broadband services in the coming two years. This is an ambitious programme. Perhaps the Minister might confirm whether it is attainable in this timeframe.

On 24 November last, a public consultation on the national high-speed coverage map 2016 was launched. The consultation will close on 12 February next, in three weeks' time. The areas on the map marked blue will have access to high-speed broadband services of at least 30 MB from the commercial sector by the end of next year. The areas marked amber will require the intervention of the State. The map allows all members of the public, whether business or residential, to see whether their premises or home will have access to commercial high-speed broadband services by the end of next year or whether they will be included in the Government's proposed intervention.

It is anticipated that speeds of at least 30 MB will be also delivered through the Government's intervention. The network will be designed to cater for future increased demand from consumers and businesses alike. I understand, in tandem with the mapping consultation, intensive design and planning work is under way in the Department to produce a detailed intervention strategy. The strategy will address a range of issues in respect of the intervention, including the optimum procurement model, the ownership model for the infrastructure, intervention costs and likely market impact.

External advisers have been engaged to provide legal, economic, technical and financial advice on the various aspects of the plan over the coming two years. Following the public consultation and towards the end of this year a detailed procurement process will be undertaken to select a preferred bidder or bidders. The Department will design a tender in a way that maximises efficiencies and keeps the cost of the network build as low as possible. It is expected that the physical build of this network will commence early next year. This is a complex and ambitious project indeed. It is a key priority for Government and aims to address conclusively current connectivity challenges in Ireland.

In April last year it was proposed to the Cabinet committee on social policy that a cross-departmental process should be put in place to consider where Government may have a role in respect of new business potential for the post office network and other key concerns of the Irish Postmasters Union. Reports were provided to the Cabinet committee on social policy in July and September of last year confirming that progress had been made and identifying the further work that needed to be undertaken, including follow-up with relevant Departments. Subsequently, the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources undertook follow-up discussions with a number of Departments to explore further the potential for possible new services. At the same time, the Minister met representatives of the Irish Postmasters Union. Together with his colleague, the Minister of State with special responsibility for rural economic development, Deputy Ann Phelan, the Minister held discussions with An Post.

Last October, approval was given for the establishment of a business development group, which was mentioned by other Senators, to examine the potential opportunities for new Government and commercial business which could be transacted through the post office network. This group will be chaired by the independent chairperson, Mr. Bobby Kerr, and will comprise representation from An Post, the Irish Postmasters Union, the Minister's Department and from the rural economic development area of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. The Minister said the first meeting of the group will be held tomorrow. The group will have the opportunity to call on representatives from other Departments and from public and private sector organisations as required. The group intends to provide an interim report by the end of next March and to conclude a final report by the end of June.

Potential new business opportunities for existing post offices are many and varied. There are a number of generic areas in which the post office network has potential in respect of new business, for example, over-the-counter transaction services for new products, similar to the services currently being performed by An Post through BillPay on behalf of various organisations; tax payment services for the local property tax on behalf of the Revenue Commissioners; new services for Government Departments which could include, for example, client identity and so forth and similar issues as mentioned by Senator Naughton; back office and outsourcing services such as those currently performed by An Post for the Revenue Commissioners; and banking and other financial services such as those currently performed by An Post on behalf of AIB. I am aware that a range of business and other practical implementation issues, including procurement, industrial relations issues, infrastructure and investment, would have to be addressed before any new lines of business could be introduced for the post office network.

7:35 pm

Photo of Mark DalyMark Daly (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I welcome the Minister. I love this map, but the problem with it is that it lacks ambition. When one looks at the areas it is proposed to cover one notes that if one lives west of the Shannon or west of Cork city, one will not receive high speed broadband any time soon.

In today's terms broadband is equivalent to what electricity was 50 years ago, in that nobody but the State could provide electricity. Imagine what our economic development would be today if the electricity provision had been at the same level as the ambition of the Government for broadband provision now. High speed and fibre optic broadband is as essential today as electricity was for the development of Ireland 50 years ago. We would not have Google or the other companies that came to this country if we did not invest in our infrastructure. In addition, the Minister is aware of the statistics regarding online purchases and how many Irish people buy online, which is over 60%. However, only approximately 40% of Irish businesses have an online presence.

As my colleague from County Clare is aware, one can work from anywhere in the world if high speed broadband is available. One can trade online as a stock trader or work as an architect, but only if one has high speed broadband. One can live in west Clare or west Kerry if one has it, but it is not available. Theoretically, it is available. There are plenty of offers from upc and other providers who tell us we can get 3G, 4G and high speed broadband up to a certain speed, but that is only under certain conditions - the famous terms and conditions apply.

In addition to the lack of ambition, there is the issue of European clearance and the five stages in the process. That will take too long for people who wish to live in, and work from, rural areas. They simply cannot do so. It is the equivalent of trying to run a factory in rural Ireland without electricity. Not having high speed fibre optic broadband is killing the rural economy and ensuring it does not have the jobs it should or is not retaining jobs. We do not have the infrastructure. It is equivalent to the provision of roads 100 years ago, electricity 50 years ago and the investment in telecommunications by Albert Reynolds and others. Only the State can do it in a real and meaningful way for the places that are not economically viable.

There is no problem with providing broadband in Dublin, because it pays the provider. However, 900,000 homes will not be reached because it is not economically to provide them will high speed broadband. They will get some level of coverage but if one wishes to download a file or run an office from home in a rural area, the infrastructure is not in place. Rural Ireland is suffering enough with Garda stations, schools and shops closing and post offices under massive pressure. Not to have broadband, the modern equivalent of roads and electricity, is costing jobs and preventing us from retaining jobs.

The map demonstrates the lack of ambition. One of the big costs with fibre optic broadband is the installation of the ducting. That was also the huge cost with the electricity infrastructure. There are plenty of schemes in this country. We installed water networks where the State failed to do so. This was done by communities putting in the pipes. The pipes for fibre optic can be installed by communities much more efficiently and better than the Government would do it. Once the ducting is installed, which is 80% of the cost, the Government could then proceed. A scheme similar to the group water schemes could be carried out efficiently. I guarantee that there is such demand for high speed broadband that the communities would ensure it would be done a great deal faster than the EU or anybody else would do it.

Photo of Rónán MullenRónán Mullen (Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I welcome the Minister. I wish to address some points relating to An Post. It is two years since the Grant Thornton report commissioned by the Irish Postmasters Union set out a strategy to revitalise the post office network. One of the key issues addressed in that report was the importance of Government contracts and support for the post office network.

The post office network is a key national resource. It is important that it is viewed as more than a group of commercial entities. I note the Minister's comments that most post offices are not under the control of his Department, but we must bear in mind that the post offices serve a valuable social purpose and play a unique and important role in communities across the country. I am happy that the Government has established the post office network business development group to examine the issues, but what about the many suggestions in the Grant Thornton report? I hope the group will consider that report as part of its work. I welcome the appointment of Mr. Bobby Kerr, who has an impressive CV, to face the challenge.

The terms of reference for the group are to explore the potential opportunities for attracting business for the post office network. It is welcome that the Irish Postmasters Union is included in the group, but I am disappointed that the National Post Office Users' Association has not been included. I was present when it was launched in Gullane's Hotel, Ballinasloe, in July last year. It is a mistake to exclude the users of post services from the group. They would provide useful input and perspectives to assist the group in its work. They might also be able to highlight the social importance of post offices to rural Ireland and to show that we must not fall for mere commercial arguments about competition when there are more important local needs that must be protected. I pay tribute to former councillor, Michael John Kilgannon, Ms Angela McGuinness and others who convened the National Post Office Users Association.

Rural Ireland has been under sustained attack under this Government. Decisions made in Dublin, be it about the provision of maternity services, mental health services or post offices, often appear to be left in the hands of bean counters and bureaucrats who might have an eye to the economic bottom line but who do not appear to understand the need, particularly in rural areas, to have decent levels of service provided to people.

In many ways, debates about the sustainability of services in rural post offices are a little unreal when one considers that more than 270 managers in An Post received a bonus of €3,000 to reward performance last year, despite a hike in stamp prices being introduced to cover major losses in the An Post group. The Government is also happy to introduce a broadcasting tax to look after its friends in RTE, whereas little thought is given to looking after the vital rural An Post network.

One issue that shone through the Grant Thornton report and one which arises at every meeting with An Post users and postmasters is the importance of Government contracts. I was disappointed with the recent statement by the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Alan Kelly, that there are no plans to facilitate the payment of motor tax renewals at post offices. This is a remarkable position given that postmasters have repeatedly stated such a facility would be the easiest and most obvious additional service that could be delivered by post offices. Its introduction, according to postmasters, could save taxpayers €63 million over five years.

While we are seeking new ways to attract business to An Post, Ministers are turning their backs on the company. An Post provides wide-ranging services, including €9 billion in payments to welfare customers. It is important that we do not buy into a slavish interpretation of European directives. Other countries such as France are good at finding derogations to mitigate the effect of EU regulations. A certain proportion of songs played on radio in France must be in the French language, for example. We, in Ireland, seem to be unable to make the argument that strong local services are needed. We must use every means at our disposal to ensure we continue to have a strong post office network, especially for the sake of people in rural areas.

7:45 pm

Photo of Alex WhiteAlex White (Dublin South, Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I thank Senators for their very interesting contributions, most of which I will not have an opportunity to respond to in the time available. However, my officials and I have taken careful note of everything that has been said and I hope to continue our engagement on these important issues.
This Government's commitment to rural Ireland is manifest in a number of ways, notably in the national broadband plan. The notion that we have turned our backs on rural areas is without foundation, given the action we are taking and the policies we are pursuing to address the digital divide, about which many Senators spoke. There is no question that this divide places rural areas at a disadvantage and Senators have given an account of how this occurs in respect of businesses, families, children, schools and across the board in terms of cultural life. The Government is addressing this issue.
The impact of the economic collapse on the revenue of the State has been clear, as have been its consequences for public expenditure. However, the adverse impact of the collapse on investment in infrastructure is not often discussed. This issue needs to be addressed and the Government is beginning to do so, as is evident in the area of housing. We must also consider the broader area of making the necessary investment in energy infrastructure and meeting future broadband requirements. The Government is making good a substantial deficit that was caused in no small part by the economic collapse the country experienced.
Senator Brennan asked whether our policy on broadband is ambitious. It is both ambitious and achievable, provided we take a realistic approach and are honest and clear with people as to our intentions. We intend to ensure every home and business has equal access to quality broadband, irrespective of location. Speakers referred to business, social and cultural needs but this is also a question of equity. President Obama has effectively placed access to broadband on the level of a human right. Even two years ago, no one would have spoken about access to broadband as a right or human right but in many ways, the issue has migrated into becoming a human right.
The broadband programme is ambitious. In that regard, I respectfully disagree with Senator Daly's view that the broadband map lacks ambition. The map provides a measure of the requirements and challenges facing us. That such large parts of the country, especially in the west, are shown in amber demonstrates that rural towns and villages are areas to which the private sector is simply not prepared to go because delivering the broadband people in rural areas need and people in the cities enjoy is not profitable. That is the measure of the challenge. The plan does not lack ambition. On the contrary, as a number of speakers pointed out, the Government's role is to ensure State intervention takes place to fill the gap left by the inability or unwillingness of the private sector to deliver broadband in areas where it would not make a substantial profit. There is no lack of ambition in that regard.
To respond to Senator Naughten's request, we will provide regular reports on timelines and what has been achieved. I have undertaken to make available a monthly progress report. Rather than reporting back every three or four months, we will indicate at the end of each month what has been achieved what will be done in the following month. I hope we will go to tender for contractors to build out a network that will serve approximately 30% of the homes and premises in the country by the end of 2015. While the blue areas on the map appear to be relatively small in terms of territory because they are clustered around cities and towns, they are equivalent to 70% of all premises nationwide. The remaining 30% will be addressed by way of State intervention.
Highly demanding and exacting rules apply to state aid. States cannot decide of their own volition to provide a service that the private sector is prepared to provide. While some of us may find that strange or objectionable, it is the legal position in the world in which we live and we must abide by the rules. We will take people through each stage, month by month, in the course of the year and the broadband programme will be delivered.
I thank all speakers for their contributions on post offices. I will not single out any of the many ideas that Senators had on types of services post offices could provide in future. The Government has provided a realistic yet committed and ambitious response in establishing a post office business development group headed by Mr. Bobby Kerr to examine any and all ideas that Members, business people and others may have on what services post offices could provide. Let us place these ideas in the mix and have them addressed by the group.
Senator Quinn reminded us that he was the chairman of An Post in the mid-1980s. The Senator made a very interesting contribution which highlighted a certain issue - I would not describe it as a conflict - that needs to be addressed. All of us are in favour of many of the ideas and developments that arise in areas such as broadband, for example, the proposal to have a State e-mail. Arguably, however, at least according to one view, many of these ideas pull against the survival of the post office network. This requires us to be all the more innovative in terms of the types of activities we want post offices to carry out. The role of the post offices as a social resource in the community is a critical aspect of what we need to address.
I agree with many of the comments on the importance of energy policy, the first issue I addressed in my earlier contribution. It is critical important that all of us are involved in determining what should be the basis of future energy policy. Senator Landy suggested that people view energy infrastructure as something that is imposed on the community.

I want us to get away from that. We cannot get full 100% agreement from everybody on everything. One of the challenges of public life and making public policy is that we should have a negotiated set of policies and way to deliver important public policy projects. It is no good if people feel like victims of a policy in an area as critical as energy. As communities and a broader society, we will all need energy in the future. We will need a sufficient supply of energy, especially from renewable sources in accordance with the very exacting targets we have for 2020 and the emerging targets for 2030. We will have to ensure that the policy positions we put in place and the mix of energy sources we use comply with those targets. We must do it in a way that allows people to feel that they have had a contribution. We are living with the legacy of a failure fully and properly to consult with and engage with communities. Senator Kelly said that it was all very well and I understood him to mean that while consultation is all very well, when people do not want these structures no amount of consultation will address that. That would be a pity because we cannot introduce any change in our energy policy without that kind of engagement.

I was asked about nuclear and other forms of energy. Senator Mulcahy and I have discussed some of the issues he raised. I do not have time to go back into it, but I appreciate greatly his commitment and knowledge in this context and hope to talk to him again about the matters he raised. Regarding the questions about nuclear power, I note that what happened over Christmas was that I did an interview as Ministers often do with a newspaper in relation to the White Paper and what the energy mix for the future ought to be. It was on exactly the issues we are talking about now. We spoke about biomass, solar, onshore and offshore wind, and nuclear. We went through a long list of all the sources and the journalist asked me if that included nuclear. I make no criticism of him or the newspaper on this occasion. I said that to have any comprehensive assessment of energy and of energy needs for the future of any country at the moment, one cannot start by taking one of those sources off the table. In that regard, it does include that. A comprehensive assessment of our energy needs for the future in the context of the White Paper, which I hope everybody in the room will join me in discussing as it emerges between now and the summer, must include all of those sources. Of course, it is an understatement to say that there has been a concern about safety in respect of nuclear. It is manifestly the case that there have been catastrophic events even in recent history that give one cause not just for concern but for very serious concern on safety matters. The fact about nuclear is that it is capable of being safe as we have seen on the evidence from a number of countries. Let us have an adult and mature debate on all of these questions.

I must note that I do not have a role in setting energy prices or in intervening in relation to them. As a Minister and a citizen, however, I share the interest of Members of the House and citizens generally of ensuring that where there is a reduction in the cost of the inputs into the production of energy, there should be some reduction in the price to the consumer. People have that reasonable expectation. I do not have a role in directing that. We have a liberalised market. It is a regime we have had in place for quite a number of years and in fact the regulator does not set prices anymore; in gas since early in 2014, or in electricity since 2011. I have had the opportunity to meet with all of the suppliers in the last week and I welcome the reductions. Perhaps, some might say they are modest, but reductions have been in put in place in recent days in residential energy prices. I would like to see more of that as would everybody in the Chamber.

The Seanad adjourned at 8.05 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 28 January 2015.