Tuesday, 24 July 1962
Dáil Eireann Debate
Mr. Sweetman: Can the Minister tell me in relation to Sections 2 and 3 why there is a most peculiar quirk between the two? Section 2 deals with the amendment of the 1958 Act by the substitution of “thirty-seven million” for “thirty-two million” in a perfectly normal straightforward way. Section 3, however, instead of being of the same straightforward drafting, says “shall not exceed one hundred and thirty-five million pounds” and “shall be construed as if that sum were substituted for the sum mentioned there in.” Why could not the two sections have been drawn in exactly the same way? The existing maximum provision which is being substituted by Section 3 is £120,000,000. Why could not Section 3 be drafted in exactly the same simple manner as Section 2?
Mr. Childers: It is only a drafting point. It may be due to the fact that there is a further adumbration of Section 2 in Section 5 whereas Section 3 is self-contained. That may be the reason but I think these amendments are based on precedent in other Acts. There is certainly no sinister significance in it.
Mr. Sweetman: The draftsman must have some reason for the complicated method adopted in relation to Section 3. Perhaps the Minister will ascertain the fact that lies behind the sections between now and the Report Stage tomorrow?
Mr. M.P. Murphy: Section 4 deals with the provision of moneys for electricity distribution systems in non-electrified rural areas. Could the Minister say how many such areas there are at present? I am rather surprised that this section and the following section contain no amendment of the nature we had hoped for which would provide for the abolition of special charges. I am sure the Minister has had a number of representations relative to the special charges. Everybody knows that electricity supply was a national scheme commenced some 38 years ago to provide electrification for every household in the country. Unfortunately, down through the years residents in remote or isolated areas are penalised to the extent that service is not provided for them unless they are willing to pay a special charge, which in my opinion is contrary, and even repugnant, to our Constitution.
One would think that so much headway having been made in rural electrification we would now have reached the point where the section of the community living in remote areas would be dealt with. It is most unfair and most unjust that a person living in an isolated or remote place or in an area where his neighbours are not willing or anxious to avail of the service should be penalised by the  imposition of a special charge. There is a big number of such cases in Cork south west and I am sure in other areas also.
The unfortunate thing is that most of the people affected are usually of the low income group, farmers living in mountainy places or people removed from large centres of population. I should like if the Minister could give us any idea whether the moneys proposed to be expended under Section 4 will go towards the relief of such people, whether the Board has had any discussion with the Department of late in regard to representations made for the abolition of the special charge. Before going further I should like to hear the Minister's comments on the special charge.
Mr. Childers: The Deputy evidently did not bother to read the Second Reading speech and probably does not know anything about the Bill. I have noticed that in connection with a lot of what he has been saying today.
Mr. M.P. Murphy: The Minister tried that game before. The Minister endeavoured to side-track issues. This is about his third lecture today. I do not want any lecture from him at all. Most of his speeches are not worth reading. In any case, tell us all about this.
Mr. Childers: Even if the Deputy does not think it worth reading I am afraid he will have to read it if he wants to get the facts. Section 4 provides a special backbone grant of £90,000 which, in addition to the subsidy, will enable the ESB to complete the development of 17 areas in the country which are at present regarded as uneconomic because of the high proportion of households which will have to pay special charges. Of those areas there are three in county Cork—Doonpeter, Glendine and Dunbeacon. That will result in about half the houses in these areas, which are mostly areas where the houses are widely separated, being able to obtain connection without a special service charge. Another group of householders will be able to get connection by paying something extra. Then there will be some who will be very remote  and who will be able to get a subsidy of £10 for bottled gas as already indicated on the Second Stage of the Bill.
This Bill enables the ESB to go into these 17 difficult areas for the first time through the provision of the special grant of £90,000 to provide the main line carrying the current into the area so as to reduce the total cost of installation to the point where the householders would be able to have a connection at the ordinary charges.
Mr. M.P. Murphy: Would the Minister answer a plain “yes” or “no” to this question: Is it the Minister's intention or the intention of the Board to abolish special charges? Does the Board intend to abolish special charges?
Mr. M.P. Murphy: There is some little relief in this measure but everyone expected that the next electricity Bill that would come before the House would deal completely with this section of the community who are paying special charges. Would the Minister say whether it is lawful or justifiable to ask these people to pay special charges? Was the supplying of electricity not a national service initiated by the Government some 38 years ago from which every citizen was to benefit? These people have had to wait, and possibly rightly so, until the more populous areas were dealt with. Quite a number of people connected in my own constituency in County Cork have had to pay the special charge, otherwise they would not get the service.
Does the Minister propose to do anything about the special charge these people are paying? There are some areas connected in Cork quite recently and they have all had to pay the special charge in order to get service. I am making the claim on behalf of these people that that special charge is unlawful and unjustifiable. The Constitution clearly lays down that all sections of the community must be dealt with equitably. Everyone should be entitled on an equal basis to a  national services such as the ESB. Unfortunately, a section of our people scattered throughout the country, mainly in the more remote parts, are penalised and must sign on the dotted line to pay a special charge to be supplied with current.
I would make a special plea to the Minister to do justice to these people and to give them what they are lawfully entitled to. I mentioned before that if the special charges were abolished someone would have to foot the bill, that the Minister would have to find the money from some source. If the special charges were levied on the general body of consumers throughout the country it would be an insignificant additional charge on them. I suggest there would be nothing wrong in asking the community as a whole to foot the bill and I see no reason why the special charge should be in existence at all.
Donnchadh Ó Briain: Deputy Murphy is very vocal about these special charges. They have always been an irritation to all of us and I have had as much experience of them in certain areas of County Limerick as Deputy Murphy has had in West Cork. However, when Deputy Murphy had the ball at his feet he did not kick it. He did not get Deputy Norton to abolish these charges when he was Minister for Industry and Commerce.
Donnchadh Ó Briain: The Minister for Industry and Commerce did something else which made it much more complicated and costly on the consumer. The Minister is going a good distance in the matter of special charges. They have been a source of irritation to many of us who could not understand why these charges were made at all and why even people in remote areas could not get the same service from the ESB at the same charge as people in the most populous areas. In any case, the ESB told us again and again they could not do it. The Minister is now coming to the rescue through the taxpayer in order  to relieve the people who are paying special charges of a substantial portion of the burden. We must wait to see how it works.
Mr. Sweetman: Regardless of a ball being at anybody's feet, the fact, of course, is that the Taoiseach, then Deputy Lemass when he was sitting on these benches, gave a solemn undertaking that when Fianna Fáil went into Government in 1957 they would abolish the special charges forthwith. He has found, as the Minister has found——
Mr. Sweetman: ——that that is not a practical proposition in the present phase of the situation. If Deputy Ó Briain wants to look up the reference where the Taoiseach said that in the most categorical terms I shall willingly give it to him. Be that as it may, I should like to get some other information from the Minister. Up to the 31st of March last in a total of 754 areas that have been completed for rural electrification, 264,783 consumers have been connected. Could the Minister tell me has the board got an estimate, apart from new areas, of how many potential consumers there were in those areas who have not, for one reason or another, taken supply?
It was unfortunate that, when the scheme for rural electrification started, the areas were started in circles rather than in grid squares. If the country had been divided in grid squares, then there would not have been the difficulty in relation to pockets that has arisen in every constituency, even in the constituency where the percentage of connection has been extremely high.
The method of starting by means of grouping the areas in an approximately circular distribution was one that, perhaps, made it easier at the time of doing it, but it certainly is the main cause of the difficulty and the annoyances that have arisen in developed areas of the country. When the Minister was speaking originally, he referred to the position arising in  respect of 6,000 dwellings. I am not clear from his Second Reading speech whether that figure applies to existing areas already developed or whether it is outside, covering what I might call the pockets in developed counties, apart from areas.
Mr. Childers: The figure of 6,000 householders refers to the 17 undeveloped areas. I understand that about 286,000 out of 388,000 householders have taken current in the areas that have been developed up to now.
Mr. Childers: The general position is as I indicated on Second Reading, namely, that when all the 275 areas have been developed and completed— leaving only 17 areas that have not been touched because, with the subsidy available, the charges were too high—there will then be 112,000 households for connection. Of these, 77,000 should be able to secure supply without special service charge, and 23,000 should be able to secure supply with a service charge of up to 50 per cent. above normal but, in the case of a great many, not a very great amount of extra charge.
The effect of the 75 per cent. subsidy is that there are virtually no householders left who will be paying between 50 per cent. and 100 per cent. extra service charge. There are left, then, 12,000 who will be paying 100 per cent. or over; who live in remote areas and for whom the bottled gas subsidy is being provided.
Mr. Sweetman: I think the Minister has misunderstood the figures. The figure of 288,000 is the figure not of those houses that have been connected but the figure of the houses that have been connected, plus the ones it is anticipated will be connected under this Bill.
Mr. Sweetman: At the time of the Second Reading, the Board's accounts were not in our possession. There is a very definite contradiction between the speech of the Minister as reported at columns 1926 and 1927 and the Board's account in Appendix 12. It is that difference that I want to get clear. Appendix 12 says that we have 264,783 consumers already connected up to 31st March last. The Minister has just said that 288,000 consumers have already been connected. I do not think that is so. I think the indication is that the effect of this Bill is to connect up another 19,000 consummers approximately and that, with these consumers, we shall have a total of 283,000. I am dropping the odd figures. That will mean, out of our total dwellings in the State, about 112,000 unconnected premises.
Mr. M.P. Murphy: It is a bad mistake. The Minister was endeavouring this afternoon to point out other people's alleged mistakes. I should like to hear the Minister on this special charge. It is not proposed to wipe it out now but could the Minister say if he has had discussions with the Board on this matter, or if there is any likelihood of its being wiped out this year or next year—or what is his outlook and that of the Board?
Mr. Childers: This was dealt with  at great length at the time of the Estimates. The urban consumer is already heavily subsidising the rural consumer. On current account, the loss to the ESB for the rural area has been running at the rate of about £700,000 a year. That is met by the profit from the urban areas. It would be impossible to ask the urban area dwellers to do more than they are doing. The basis of this Bill is to do the utmost the State can do without involving itself in too heavy a capital commitment.
As I have said, it will result in 77,000 householders, out of a total of 112,000, being able to get current at normal service charge and another 23,000 being able to get current for a very modest supplementary charge. That should not have any really severe effect on the economics of the household concerned. Therefore, we are doing our utmost.
The capital contribution of the State towards this whole project is very considerable. The total amount of capital required over the next 15 years to finance the adoption of all these proposals is about £10,800,000. Of this, the State will be finding in subsidies of one kind or another, some £7,200,000 and the ESB will be finding the remainder by obtaining advances from the Exchequer or by issuing its own prospectuses asking the public to subscribe towards this development.
I do not think it is possible to do more than that at the moment. I think this increase of subsidy is a generous gesture. I would remind the Deputy that, in 1955, the then Minister for Industry and Commerce abolished the capital grant towards rural electrification. It was only renewed again in 1958. That left a certain burden of permanent payment to the ESB. By the terms of this Bill, we are doing the best we can and I do not think that what has been offered is unreasonable.
Mr. M.P. Murphy: I wonder if the Minister or the board have ever had a look at the Department of Agriculture scheme for subsidising the  distribution of lime, which could be related to the provision of electric current. Take a scattered area like West Cork. A man living at the end of the Berehaven Peninsula, almost 100 miles away from a lime quarry, gets his lime delivered at the same price as the man who is living only ten miles away from the quarry because the Department of Agriculture felt it was a national scheme and that everyone should benefit equally, irrespective of distance from the lime kiln. Would it not be reasonable to assert that the ESB should do something similar? Why should a man living in a remote area be penalised? The Department of Agriculture had to address themselves to that question. I am sure some of the people availing of this scheme in areas remote from lime quarries are heavily subsidised and there does not seem to be any complaint in this House, by urban or rural members, about the subsidy because it was felt a man should not be penalised because of his remoteness from a quarry.
Could the Electricity Supply Board not act in a similar fashion and not penalise the man who is in a remote area? It is a national scheme and the reason I am mentioning this for the third time is because it is seldom that we have an opportunity to discuss the activities of the ESB in this House. If questions are put down the Minister can shelter under the regulation that he has no function in their day to day activities. Deputy Ó Briain, of County Limerick, which is a very compact county compared with County Cork, mentioned that he has had representations about the special charges. It is a most aggravating charge for which there is no justification. Surely it is within the competence of the Minister or the ESB to devise a system whereby that charge would be abolished? I know that charges cannot be abolished without getting the money from some other source. I maintain it would not be unfair to balance that account from the general body of consumers. I am not in possession of the actual figure derived annually from this charge but  if it was abolished I am offering the Minister a suggestion. As we want to make our State companies pay their way then if the charge is abolished the ESB must make their money from some other source, which I submit should be the general body of consumers. They should treat all those rural people alike.
Mr. Sweetman: Would the Minister mind answering a question which I asked some time ago and which was lost in the welter of discussion? How many consumers are there unconnected in the geographical boundaries of the 754 areas which the Board in their report say they completed? Another way of putting it is what proportion of the 112,000 is in that part?
Mr. Childers: Yes. I do not think I have the figure the Deputy requires because I have given the main figures upon which the whole Bill is based. There are still some areas uncompleted where work is going on later than it was thought would be necessary because of the storm damage of last year.
Mr. Sweetman: I am interested in a particular figure for a purpose. In Kildare an area has been developed and at the time the area was developed certain houses were not in that area at all. The Land Commission then came in and made a settlement in the area and there are some new houses  there which were not there when the area was developed. Those new houses up to this have been treated in a special way and penalised in a most unfair way by the ESB. The reason I wanted the other figure was to ensure that I could see the actual extent of that problem, even though I know a great many individual instances of it.
It does seem to me to be grossly unfair that where the State, in pursuance of State policy, put a house in an area which, fortuitously, may already have been developed, the occupant of that house, now there for the first time, should have to pay more than he would have had to pay if he had been there when the area was being developed in the initial instance. That is happening in virtually every case in Kildare where new Land Commission houses are erected. It is a grossly unfair system. I can quite understand that there would be a case that where a man was there and refused to accept supply at the time the area in question was being developed, and changed his mind at a later stage, he might have to pay more than he would have had to pay in the first instance.
Mr. Sweetman: Yes, or his successor. But where the house was there, or where it is a new house built since the date of development, and where in particular it is a new house built by another Government Department, by the Land Commission, or a person who is migrated or transferred to that house by the Land Commission, it seems all wrong that he should be asked to pay other than the sum he would have been asked to pay if he had been there at the time the area was developed in the initial instance.
Mr. Childers: In so far as I know these people will have their service charges examined in connection with that part of the scheme whereby the  ESB will adjust the charges of rural consumers who will remain paying special service charges and whose position will be less satisfactory than those who are now going to join the system under the 75 per cent. Subsidy arrangement. I understand there are about 15,000 rural consumers at present paying a special service charge which, incidentally, is not an enormous one. Some 3,000 will have the charges eliminated altogether and in the case of the remaining 12,000 the charges will be reduced by about half. That group, I think I can say without asking further questions, will include these Land Commission houses.
Mr. Childers: I think it is an anomaly. The Deputy knows that the direct subsidy repayable in the form of an annuity to the Land Commission is very considerable. It was £87 per statute acre when I was Minister for Lands. That has to be allowed for in the calculation.
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