Seanad debates

Thursday, 27 October 2022

Development (Emergency Electricity Generation) Bill 2022: Second Stage


Question proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

10:00 am

Photo of Ossian SmythOssian Smyth (Dún Laoghaire, Green Party)
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I thank the Senators for the opportunity to present this Bill. Having regard to the unprecedented pressures on the energy sector, I am pleased to have the opportunity to commend the Development (Emergency Electricity Generation) Bill 2022 to the House.

I shall open the debate by setting the context for the action to be taken on foot of this Bill, which will provide for emergency measures for temporary electricity generation development to ameliorate and protect the security of electricity supply in the State because of the exceptional circumstances that have arisen in the market for that supply. Although many Members will be familiar with these issues, it is important to take this opportunity to set out the complex situation in which we find ourselves with regard to the security of electricity supply and wider pressures on the energy sector. I will also describe the sections of the Bill in detail and why it is needed. It is critical that this legislation is passed in as short a time as possible to provide for a critical step in the process of providing for temporary electricity generation. I, therefore, seek Senators' support to achieve that.

On the factors affecting security of electricity supply, Senators will appreciate that we, in Ireland, face additional pressures due to our geographical location, low levels of interconnection with other countries, fossil fuel dependency and the smaller scale of the Irish market compared with many other European countries. However, the most immediate factor that will affect the security of electricity supply in Ireland over the coming years is the potential generation capacity shortfall that was identified in EirGrid's all-island generation capacity statement, GCS, published in September 2021. This potential capacity shortfall arises in periods of peak demand coinciding with low renewable and interconnector availability and it arises largely due to the non-delivery of previously contracted capacity, increasing electricity demand and the increasing unreliability of existing plants. This is a critical point. The State needs to react to an unprecedented situation that it has been presented with and has been unfolding over the course of the past year. This is an electricity emergency and emergency powers have already been used to address it.

On 7 June 2022, the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, CRU, directed EirGrid to procure, using the most expeditious means available, approximately 450 MW of additional generation capacity from winter 2023-24 to winter 2025-26 to ensure a secure electricity supply. This procurement process was provided for in other extraordinary legislation passed through these Houses in the summer in the form of the EirGrid, Electricity and Turf (Amendment) Act 2022. EirGrid commenced the procurement process on foot of this legislation. Until such time as the proposed equipment manufacturer and the selected sites were known, it was not possible to know what time was available to secure the relevant consents in line with existing legislation. Now, as a result of the requirement for early site preparation works and the long lead-in time for the commissioning of the equipment, it is apparent that extraordinary emergency measures are required to ensure that works can commence to provide for emergency generation by winter 2023-24.

The legislation before the House will ensure the next tranche of two emergency generation projects, which will provide 450 MW of additional generation capacity, can be delivered by winter 2023-24. It is the next step in the process. It is important to note that this will not impede any of our plans for renewables, interconnection, batteries, demand-side response or energy efficiency. This emergency generation does not replace our long-term ambitions for renewable energy, which will continue at pace. In order to ensure the security of our electricity supply over the coming years, it is vital that this legislation be passed as expeditiously as possible. This will ensure the next tranche of two emergency generation projects can be brought forward within a timeframe that would enable preparatory site works to commence as soon as possible. This capacity will remain available until the necessary replacement capacity has been secured. Further to the EirGrid, Electricity and Turf (Amendment) Act 2022, the project will cease operation in 2027, with an option of a further year if required but only if such a resolution is passed by both Houses. The temporary generation will be used only when needed and will be used as a back-up in addition to existing generation capacity in the electricity market.

All potential existing options under conventional and emergency planning processes have been considered. They have been ruled out on the basis that none could enable delivery of the emergency capacity within the timeframe needed. The Bill is, therefore, required urgently in order to ensure that an application can be made and site clearance works commenced as soon as possible, probably this year. This is an ambitious timeline but we need to do everything in our power to facilitate the development of this emergency generation. The State will not be the barrier to progress here. We are using extraordinary measures in an unprecedented situation.

I will devote my remaining remarks to the Bill's subject matter. The Bill seeks to disapply the Planning and Development Act 2000 and defines that the designated development is exempt from the provisions of the environmental impact assessment, EIA, directive. It also provides for a new alternative application, assessment and ministerial approval process for the temporary emergency generation projects to deliver power by 2023-24.

I would like to clarify that by passing this legislation, the Oireachtas is not approving any development. Rather, it is providing for a predetermination that an exceptional case exists for the purposes of Article 2(4) of the EIA directive and providing for streamlined and accelerated consenting procedures. Many of the provisions set out in this legislation are already on the Statute Book. For example, a Minister of the Government may disapply the provisions of the Planning and Development Act by order in accordance with section 181(2)(a) of same. I have done so for another emergency generation project at North Wall. The Planning and Development Act also provides that an application can be made to An Bord Pleanála to exempt a development from the requirements of the EIA directive, as set out in section 181(21) of the Act. These procedures are in and of themselves not streamlined enough for the extraordinary situation that we find ourselves in and alternative processes must be provided for.

For clarity, I will provide a section-by-section summary of the Bill. There are 12 sections. Section 1 is a standard provision which provides for definitions.Senators will note the reference to An Bord Pleanála. I am providing for an independent assessment of the proposals.

Section 2 provides that a specific electricity generation project of up to 450 MW of temporary emergency generation and ancillary works, intended to be located on two separate sites at Shannonbridge and Tarbert generation stations, is a designated development for the purposes of the Bill and is required for the purpose of ensuring security of electricity supply. This section also sets out that the designated development may take place on a phased basis and is not likely to have significant transboundary effects.

Section 3 provides for the disapplication of the Planning and Development Act 2000.

Section 4 provides that EirGrid or any other person may apply to the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications for approval to carry out a designated development.

Section 5 sets out that the designated development shall be exempt from the provisions of the EIA directive on the basis that the designated development is an exceptional case allowable under the directive. It also provides that the Minister shall arrange for an alternative assessment to be carried out and that this assessment is carried out by An Bord Pleanála.

Section 6 provides that an assessment of the designated development shall be carried out by An Bord Pleanála for the purposes of the habitats directive in accordance with the relevant regulations.

Section 7 provides that, having considered an application and associated assessments, including any mitigation measures, the Minister may approve, approve in part, or refuse to approve the designated development. The section also provides for processes relating to Article 16 of the habitats directive and the obligation to notify the European Commission that the designated development is exempt from the EIA directive. This last part ensures full compliance with the directive.

Section 8 sets out that the designated development shall be carried out in compliance with an approval given by the Minister under section 7. This ensures only works that are subject to an approval are carried out.

Section 9 sets out the Minister's power to make regulations to prescribe matters of procedure and administration and ensures every regulation made by the Minister under the Act will be laid before each House of the Oireachtas.

Section 10 sets out the means by which, in performing their functions under the Bill, the Minister and the board shall, insofar as is practicable, take into account the exceptional circumstance and compelling urgent necessity of the designated development, in a manner consistent with the requirements of section 15(1) of the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act 2015.

Section 11 provides that any expense incurred by the Minister in the administration of the provisions of the Bill, to such extent as may be sanctioned by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, be paid out of moneys provided by the Oireachtas.

Section 12 contains standard provisions concerning the Short Title and commencement of the Act.

I have outlined the main provisions of this emergency measures Bill and provided additional detail on the sections. I hope that this will be of assistance to Senators. I look forward to an informed and meaningful debate and to working constructively with Senators on all sides of the House.

Photo of Gerry HorkanGerry Horkan (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister of State for his comprehensive opening statement, in which he outlined the reasons for this important emergency legislation.

It is important to realise, as he said, that the provisions of the Bill relate to two sites, Shannonbridge and Tarbert. These provisions will ensure we have enough electricity capacity not so much for this winter but for next winter. There was a time everybody’s house did not have electricity years ago, but we now depend on it for everything, such as charging our phones, working from home, broadband connections and so on. Not having enough electricity and outages are concepts that people fear. It is important that the legislation is being brought forward and that these measures will be introduced.

As the Minister of State said, it is because of the non-delivery of previously contracted supply capacity that the Government is now asking for the power to make sure we have enough electricity. I am more than happy, on my own behalf and on behalf of my party, Fianna Fáil, to support the Bill, as I hope all Senators will. I do not need to delay this process. I welcome the Minister of State and thank him for being here. The sooner we get this Bill over the line, the sooner we can have security of supply for next winter.

Photo of Tim LombardTim Lombard (Fine Gael)
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The Minister of State is welcome to the House. I compliment him on his informative contribution and for providing great clarity on the Bill, which is very much required. We are in unprecedented times, without a shadow of a doubt. This legislation is what we require, not for this winter but for the next, to make sure we have security of generation capacity, which is very welcome. Such security is required in the market place now.

The potential we have over the next 12 months in microgeneration is also important. We need to be promoting this as best we can. I refer to the proposal on solar panels. There was a briefing in west Cork yesterday about the potential most agricultural sheds have to tie into that project. Over the next 12 months, an important part of the work is that we make sure the capacity of these units can be used so that we can limit the drawing of power from the grid. If we were to do that, hopefully it would generate some needed capacity and reduce the shortfall nationwide.

I refer to the all-Ireland dynamic we have with the industry. Are there any proposals from the Northern Ireland regarding capacity? We are in a unique scenario in that we have all-Ireland capacity for energy generation. Will the Minister of State provide an update on what is proposed in the northern part of the island regarding capacity issues?

Photo of Lynn BoylanLynn Boylan (Sinn Fein)
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It is deeply regrettable that emergency legislation is being rushed through the House again. We made that clear to the Minister when he proposed that the committee wave pre-legislative scrutiny. The Government’s attempt to get a handle on supply and demand is a fiasco at this stage, as is the fact that more emergency legislation is having to be passed by the Houses.

We all know our planning laws are fundamental to the protection of citizens and the environment against poor development, and we know what happens when shortcuts are taken. It is quite something. We must all acknowledge that we are now being asked to set aside significant parts of the planning process to secure 450 MW of generation capacity. That is a huge responsibility and we should all be aware of what we are being asked to do.

The Opposition has been caught in a bind because we do not have any option but to accept this legislation, even though we know the risks it entails. Given what has been going on with An Bord Pleanála in respect of planning does not give us much comfort either. We do not have any other option but to support the Bill because we have been walked to the cliff edge when it comes to energy generation, electricity supply, and the risk of blackouts. There has been a lot of deliberate conflation not by the Minister of State, but in certain quarters. Even in the audiovisual room yesterday, an attempt was made to conflate energy supply with energy generation, which was deeply unfortunate. People should be mindful that they are very different things.

What is needed to be asked and what was absent from the contributions of Senators Horkan and Lombard is the question of how we got here. We got here because of failed policy under the previous Government, particularly from Fine Gael, which has been in government for ten years. The demand for electrify, which has been facilitated by that party having no strategy or planning whatsoever, has led us to this point. The writing has been on the wall for years. It is all in EirGrid’s generation capacity statement. We are left with no alternative because the Government’s sheer incompetence has left us with none.

The terms “data centres” and “large energy users” do not appear in the Bill. My amendments were ruled out of order because they were not relevant to the Bill. However, they are absolutely relevant to the Bill. Large energy users are critical to why we are in this situation. It is interesting to see that Ukraine is referred to in the Bill’s Long Title, when we know this is not about gas supply issues; it is about electricity generation capacity. It is interesting that Ukraine was mentioned in the title. I wonder if this was done to get the legislation past the EU Commission, as we are seeking an exception from the EIA directive.

My amendments that were ruled out of order were on excessive demand from data centres. It is important to put on record the level of scrutiny that has been given to the Bill. Some 15 minutes before the commencement of a meeting of the Joint Committee on Environment and Climate Action, members were sent a letter by the Minister asking that we waive pre-legislative scrutiny, followed by a private briefing by officials. I welcome that we were given three hours to debate the Bill in the Seanad, but the speed at which it was passed by the Lower House was remarkable. We know the Minister of State will not accept amendments, no matter the arguments. The fact that he did not even have the opportunity to finish his opening remarks in the Dáil is particularly damning. The costs of these provisions are astronomical. A sum of €350 million was allocated in a Supplementary Estimate, which was scrutinised by the select committee before the summer, with funds that were collected through carbon tax being redirected from retrofitting to pay for emergency generation. Ireland is failing in its obligations to set out its plans to keep global warming to 1.5°C, yet we are building more fossil fuel infrastructure to facilitate the excess demand large energy users, particularly data centres, are putting on our electricity grid and now on our gas supply as well.

We will deal on Committee Stage with our amendment to delete the provision regarding alternative appropriate sites. The legislation, as currently drafted, is too vague. It is not specific enough to meet the requirement of EU law. We raised this with the officials when they presented to the joint committee. Will the Minister of State outlines how he see this being passed? The Acting Chairman is indicating my time is up but we have three hours for the debate and there is only a handful of amendments.

Photo of Gerry HorkanGerry Horkan (Fianna Fail)
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The order of the House is that Members have five minutes each on Second Stage.

Photo of Lynn BoylanLynn Boylan (Sinn Fein)
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The officials had not met the European Commission prior to drafting the legislation. We have serious concerns about whether it is compliant with the EU directive.

Photo of Pauline O'ReillyPauline O'Reilly (Green Party)
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The question of how we got here is a good one to ask. We all recognise this is an emergency. There were 126 votes in favour of the Bill in the Lower House and eight against it. More or less across the board, and certainly in this House, there is support for it. We agreed to waive pre-legislative scrutiny for this and for a previous Bill because of the demands that are now on the system. We have got here because of an increasing demand for electricity generally across the State and because of a failure with regard to the process. In 2019, there was a failure to deliver from an auction and, more recently, we have seen the problems arising from having older infrastructure than we would like to have. In June, the CRU allowed for 450 MW of emergency generation and now it has to be delivered, which is what this Bill is about.

It is important, as the Minister of State said, that even though we require this emergency generation, it is not the case that everything else is standing still. We are among the top four countries in the world for generating energy from renewables. Some days, when it is very windy here, we are the top country. We are driving on. There is a revolution across rooftops, with more and more people putting on solar panels. They all want to be part of the transition. From next year, solar panels will be rolled out across all schools for free. That will allow people to get on board even more with solar energy.

A total of 40% of electricity in Ireland, or the energy to drive it, comes from renewables. We want to double that to 80% by the end of the decade. Even then, however, there will be 20% to be made up, as everybody, I hope, recognises. I would like to see us investing more in hydrogen facilities. There is a pilot programme in Galway and talk of another one at Mount Lucas in the midlands. If we can support and fund these projects, it will demonstrate what can be done with hydrogen. Green hydrogen will not be useful for everything but there is potential in it. On a recent trip to Aberdeen, I saw how it is being used for some services there. We have an opportunity in places like Galway and the midlands to roll it out and see how it would work more generally.

We have already contracted 3 GW of renewable energy. It is a significant amount but everything that needs to be done cannot be done overnight. We need something for next winter. I hope everybody supports the Bill. Like other speakers, I do not like to see the pre-legislative scrutiny process being ridden roughshod over and I agree it is an important part of the process. Today, however, we have to get on with passing this legislation in order that everyone can feel more comfortable in their homes and not have a sense of anxiety hanging over them.

Photo of Victor BoyhanVictor Boyhan (Independent)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I fully understand the importance of this legislation but the point needs to be made, particularly from the Opposition side, that we live in a parliamentary democracy and how the legislation is being put through is not good practice. I recall that when the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, was a member of a previous Government, one of his constant themes was the frustration he had felt in opposition, with only two Green Party Deputies, at the way legislation was handled. He is now doing the same thing. This is nothing personal and I have a lot of time for the Minister of State, whom I have known a long time. He is a man of integrity who supports engagement with the political process.

However, I am conscious the Houses are going into recess today for a week. We learned earlier that the Government was not in a position to accept any amendments to the legislation we debated before coming to this Bill. I would say it will be the same in this case. We need to be honest with people. Let us not waste people's time, including that of the Minister of State, talking about engagement when the decision has been taken that no amendments will be accepted. This is an important point and it is part of a bigger issue of reform. The reality is we have a vast coalition Government that does not even need to have its full complement of Senators in the Chamber to pass every Bill it brings forward. That is the reality and it is the same in the Dáil. I do not say that as a negative but as something we need to acknowledge and something that can be frustrating. However, nothing lasts forever and we are nearly halfway through the Government's term. At the very best, it can last for another two and a half years and it may come to an abrupt end earlier than that. The tides will always reverse but that is not a reason to accept the way things are being done.

Nevertheless, I will support this legislation because it is important. I have put down an amendment, which I will speak to on the next Stage. The real concern I have relates to planning and development, something in which the Minister of State has been involved in the past in his political career. The Bill "seeks to disapply the Planning and Development Act 2000 and defines that the designated development is exempt from the provisions of [an EIA] directive". These are the Minister of State's words, not mine. The Green Party in government is agreeing to do that. It does not sit comfortably with me and I do not think it would sit comfortably with a lot of the supporters of the Minister of State's party. However, it is what is happening, as outlined in his speech. It is on the record of the House. I thank the colleagues who put down amendments and I look forward to engaging in debate on them.

Photo of Rebecca MoynihanRebecca Moynihan (Labour)
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I thank the Minister of State for coming to the Chamber for this debate. This Bill follows on from the EirGrid legislation last summer. It is the second Bill on energy that indicates we are failing to take long-term energy policy seriously. Instead, we are legislating as we go in response to events. On Tuesday night, "Prime Time" had a report on the Derrybrien wind farm, which is not operational at the moment. When we try to get around or ignore EU environmental legislation, we often end up taking one step forward while taking two steps back.

It is worrying that we are in a situation in which we have to legislate on an emergency basis to protect our energy security for next winter. That is no way to operate and it is not the way to address our long-term energy security needs in the midst of a climate crisis. As my party leader said in the Dáil last night, this situation is the result of our flawed and failed electricity supply market. When markets fail, it is incumbent on the State to step in. We have put forward a number of amendments to the Bill. We are not laying the blame at the Minister of State's door. He is simply responding to events as they happen. We are concerned, however, about ministerial oversight in respect of the potential extension in the Bill of certain powers. It is important that there be Oireachtas oversight in this regard. My party and some of the other Opposition parties have put down a number of amendments proposing that some of those powers be brought back to the Oireachtas. Even if the Minister of State does not accept the amendments, we hope he will consider a process, perhaps by way of going to the climate change committee, rather than simply having these issues left within the remit of ministerial power and responsibility.

Photo of Pauline O'ReillyPauline O'Reilly (Green Party)
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As there are no other Senators offering, I call on the Minister of State to conclude the debate.

Photo of Ossian SmythOssian Smyth (Dún Laoghaire, Green Party)
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I thank Senators for their engagement in respect of this Bill. I welcome the broad range of contributions. I will keep my comments focused on the content and purpose of the Bill. If I have time, however, I will address each of the statements that were made.

The most immediate factor affecting security of electricity supply in Ireland in the coming years is the potential generation capacity shortfall, as identified in the generation capacity statement. To be clear, there are three reasons why we have a shortfall of capacity, namely, the non-delivery of previously contracted supply, the increase in electricity demand and the increasing unreliability of existing plants. The State needs to react to the situation that it has been presented with and that has been unfolding over the course of the past year. This is an electricity emergency and that is why emergency powers have been used to address it.

The projects involved are critical. They are also time-sensitive. Sites need to be cleared, equipment needs to be ordered and resources need to be directed towards the construction and installation of the generators. Delivering the proposed legislation will ensure that the preparatory site works can commence in good time for that. What is being proposed is not new, but it will involve a significantly shorter timeframe and it is required. There will be a significant prospect of interruptions in electricity supply next winter if this legislation is not passed and if development is not commenced on the selected sites as soon as possible.

Since the publication of the generation capacity statement in 2021, there has been further deterioration in the availability and performance of a number of existing generators . The latter will exacerbate the scale of the emergency from the coming winter onward. This means that customer supply not being met has now become a serious risk. In May, the CRU made a formal request for the use of emergency planning powers under section 181(2)(a) of the Planning and Development Act 2000, along with evidence provided by EirGrid to substantiate same. Based on the evidence presented, I agreed that the use of emergency powers under the Act was required in order to deliver the project as soon as possible and to address the emerging energy emergency. This development was approved in September and is currently under construction. EirGrid further updated its capacity assessment in the first quarter of 2022 and recommended that an enlarged tranche of temporary generation would be required. In June, the CRU, having considered all the information, directed EirGrid to procure using the most expeditious means available the delivery of approximately 450 MW of additional temporary emergency generation capacity. Further legislation was brought before this House in July to facilitate same. Experience with the delivery of the first chance of emergency generation in addition to new procurement process launched this summer has resulted in a requirement to devise a new path to consenting the required development so that the additional capacity is in place for the winter of 2023-24.

It is worthwhile to restate the purpose of the Bill. The Bill is seeking to disapply the Planning and Development Act 2000 and it clearly states that the designated development, namely, the provision of up to 450 MW of emergency generation, is considered to be an exceptional case for the purposes of exempting it from the provisions of the EIA directive. It also provides for a new alternative application assessment and ministerial approval process for the temporary emergency generation projects to deliver power by winter 2023-24.

By passing this legislation, the Oireachtas is not approving any development. Rather, it is providing for a predetermination that an exceptional case exists for the purposes of article 2(4) of the EIA directive and providing for streamlined and accelerated consenting procedures. As already stated, many of the provisions set out in this legislation are already on the Statute Book. In addition, this is a faster process.

I understand Senators are concerned that the proposal may appear to be open-ended and, as such, that it might be used to approve other projects. The individual component developments themselves are subject to a current procedure run by EirGrid on foot of the passing of the Eirgrid, Electricity and Turf (Amendment) Act 2022, will be the subject of a further assessment by An Bord Pleanála and then of approval by me. This is a targeted set of measures that is aimed at ensuring security of supply for winter 2023-24. It is limited in scale by reference to the 450 MW limit and it is limited in location because there are only a limited number of sites that can technically accommodate the proposals. It is a matter for the relevant competent authority to review the information presented to it and to provide me with a reasoned opinion in advance of approving the proposed development. I will also notify the commission at that point in compliance with the requirements of EIA directive.

These emergency generation units will only be used occasionally during times of peak demand that coincide with low wind and interconnector availability. Therefore, they are not expected to have a significant impact on our carbon emissions, but this will be assessed. It is a relevant consideration and something that I know that Senators are interested in.

I will now address some of the contributions and I will start with Senator Horkan, who emphasises the necessity of electricity for our modern life and he is absolutely right. It is critical that we have electricity, not just for heating our homes and for lighting, but also for our communications. Senator Lombard points out the value that comes from having solar panels on sheds and Senator Pauline O’Reilly referred to the progress that has been made in that regard. I would specifically point out the exemptions in planning that have been provided so that one can put any number of solar panels on his or her shed or house without planning permission in most cases.

Senators have also asked about the potential of Northern Ireland to provide for some of this generation capacity, which is absolutely right because we have a single electricity market, where EirGrid owns the Northern electricity grid. What I would say is that we are hampered by the lack of a North-South interconnector and that will be critical so that we can balance our electricity generation, North and South. At the times, when there is excess power available on the grid in Northern Ireland, it is not always possible to redistribute it to the South, or vice versa.

On Senator Boylan's points, I want to thank the Opposition for supporting this Bill. She asks very reasonably we got here and I gave those three reasons, namely, due to the non-delivery of contracted supply, due to increasing electricity demand and due to the increasing unreliability of existing plants. Senator Boyhan - rather than Senator Boylan and I never make that mistake - who is not a member of the Government feels frustrated, feels that amendments may not be accepted and so on. For a start, I am not saying that I will not accept any of the amendments. It depends. We are having a debate, we are going to listen to them all and I will see how it goes. More to the point, we are in this Chamber to debate and I listen to everything that the Senators say. I genuinely do. I am always willing to meet with any Senator and I always take on board the suggestions that are made. There are many ways that debate contributes to development policy. The civil servants are in the room as well and we all hear what is being said. It is all put on the record, so it is all a valuable part of the development of our laws. Senator Moynihan was seeking further engagement in the same way, and I will agree with that.

Question put and agreed to.

Photo of Pauline O'ReillyPauline O'Reilly (Green Party)
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When is proposed to take Committee Stage?

Photo of Pauline O'ReillyPauline O'Reilly (Green Party)
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Is that agreed? Agreed.