Wednesday, 14 July 2004
Seanad Eireann Debate
An Cathaoirleach: I welcome the Minister for Transport, Deputy Seamus Brennan. Before we commence, I remind the House that Senators may speak only once on Report Stage, except for the proposer of an amendment who may reply to the discussion on it. Each amendment must be seconded on Report Stage.
I re-entered amendment No. 1 from this morning to allow the Minister to clarify the point we discussed on Report Stage regarding employees who were effectively taken on by the interim boards in the period which are now the appointed days.
Minister for Transport (Mr. S. Brennan): I promised the Senator I would check that matter and I will furnish the House the information before me. First, everyone who is a member of staff of Aer Rianta, before the Dublin appointed day, and continues as a member of staff of the Dublin Airport authority, is covered by section 12(12). Second, everyone who is working mainly in connection with Cork and Shannon Airports and who transfers on the Cork and Shannon appointed days, are covered by section 12(9). These people would include personnel in shared services under subsection (5) and anyone designated under subsection (6). Finally, personnel recruited directly by Dublin, Cork or Shannon authorities, who do not fall into the abovecategories, are not covered by sections 12(9) or 12(12).
This amendment deals with the section that sets out the various issues which the regulator may take into account in setting the landing charges at Dublin Airport. It is regrettable we did not have a greater opportunity to discuss this section on Committee Stage because it has serious implications for the way in which the regulator is obliged to go about his or her business in the future. The essence of the business so far, in the first two or three years of the regulation system, has been for the regulator simply to look at the assets of the company and decide what sort of return on these is reasonable in the circumstances. The Minister would be aware that under section 22 a whole range of additional features may now be considered in setting charges, including, for example, Government policy. The inevitable result of this will be that landing charges will possibly increase by a substantial amount and probably relatively soon.
The amendment deals with paragraph (e) on page 24 of the Bill, which deals with the level of service to be provided at Dublin Airport and which the regulator is to take into account when setting the charges the airport may make. It is important that, rather than providing that services are merely “offered”, the provision specifies that the services at Dublin, the country’s primary airport, should be maintained to the best international standards, that the regulator should take that into account and allow charges, as appropriate, to ensure services are maintained accordingly.
Mr. S. Brennan: As the Senator knows, the regulator must take a whole range of issues into account. I see what he is trying to add here, but it is not necessary in the sense that, as a matter of course, the commission and the regulator would take appropriate international standards into account. I am satisfied the section is widely drafted and encompasses the consideration of appropriate international standards. It would be wrong not to do so. I am also satisfied the commission would take international standards into account in reaching any determination.
Mr. McDowell: We are constrained by the process we have to go through here, but what we are seeking to do does not necessarily flow from what the Minister has said because I believe the aviation regulator has taken a view recently that the investment intended by Aer Rianta at Dublin Airport was excessive and that it should not be entitled to take into account the full cost of its intended investment when setting landing charges. It is not inconceivable that the regulator could decide that the service was adequate at a certain level, whereas the airport might aspire to provide a better standard of service to customers. It is necessarily a given, but I do not intend to press the amendment.
I move this amendment in response to representations made to my colleague, Deputy Shortall. It is in regard to installation charges more generally, not just landing charges at the airport. As a result of recent court decisions, a range of charges, including ground baggage handling charges, may now be imposed by Aer Rianta under EU regulations. The Minister’s consent appears to be required for some of these charges but not for others. Will the Minister clarify this? One or other procedure should operate. The consent of the Minister should be required for all such charges, or it should not be required for any charge. This amendment seeks that the Minister’s consent should not be required, but it is desirable that there should be clarity as to which charges require the Minister’s consent.
Mr. S. Brennan: The European Commission has been working on an amending directive which will be submitted to the Council of Ministers of Transport in the near future. The new directive will amend the existing Council Directive 96/67/EC on which the 1998 regulations are based. When the amending directive is adopted by the Council, further regulation will be needed to transpose its provisions into Irish law. At that stage I will be prepared to consider sympathetically the Senator’s suggestion for removing the need for prior approval by the aviation regulator as suggested in this amendment. That would be the appropriate time to deal with it.
Mr. Daly: Given that we did not have an opportunity to debate the Schedule, I wish to raise the issue of the borrowing limits set down under section 6 thereof. The limit set down for Shannon Airport authority is €20 million. This has caused concern that it might constrain the board in what it can do. It is also provided in the Schedule that the Dublin Airport authority will appoint authorised officers to Shannon and Cork. Will they remain in office when the new authorities take over at Shannon and Cork or will Shannon and Cork appoint their own officers? People appointed by the Dublin authority might not be acceptable to Shannon and Cork.
Minister for Transport (Mr. Brennan): Regarding the borrowing level, the figure of €20 million was deemed appropriate by the Minister for Finance, myself and the Government in our discussions on the draft legislation. I confirm that it can be amended by order under section 36 of the 1998 Act. That figure can, therefore, be changed with the consent of the Minister and the authority could, if appropriate, request that it wants the ceiling raised. Borrowing limits are always the preserve of the Minister for Finance and this should not be seen as anything other than a technical arrangement in terms of Shannon.
Mr. Dooley: I thank the Minister and his officials for facilitating the House in debating at length and in considerable detail the provisions of the Bill. The Bill was seen as somewhat controversial, and it is very technical and complex in many ways. By being here throughout all Stages, including the full extent of Second Stage yesterday, the Minister has shown his commitment to this House. He has allayed the fears of many in this House, including myself, and has answered the questions that were raised. I thank him and his officials for making themselves available to Senators over the past weeks to discuss in considerable detail the many issues this legislation raised. Notwithstanding my concerns regarding the Bill, I believe it creates tremendous opportunities for Shannon and Cork Airports to take on the challenges that exist. They are by no means simple challenges, but the airports will now have the capacity to move forward in a way that will build on the business and tourism links in their area and ensure that the regions can continue to grow and develop along the lines set out in various Government strategies.
I thank the Senators on the other side of the House who have facilitated the debate on this Bill in every possible way. I again thank the Minister for clarifying the issues, and his staff for their assistance.
Mr. Browne: I thank everyone involved in the debate on the Bill. I thank the Leader for arranging the extra sittings this week. They were of benefit to everyone concerned. It would have been inappropriate to have had late sittings last week to rush this legislation through the House. We have discussed many aspects of the Bill in great detail. While we did not amend it, we managed to obtain clarification on many issues and, in the process, draw attention to a few other problems. We are all wiser now.
I thank the Minister for his courtesy and patience. It is remarkable that he stayed here yesterday for the full five or six hours. Some of his colleagues would not spend a fraction of that time in the House. It shows great respect to the House and its Members. Perhaps we are so interesting that he enjoyed staying here. I also thank the officials for their courtesy during the debate on the Bill.
Fine Gael was never opposed to giving autonomy to the airports at Cork and Shannon. However, we had grave concerns about some aspects of the Bill and we outlined them today. I suspect we will be proved right about some aspects. All we can do is wait and see and hope the new boards will formulate proper business plans that will allow the airports to develop and grow.
I might not be back here in the autumn as spokesperson on transport as a reshuffle is due. Perhaps the Minister will not be here either as Minister for Transport. Nor might a few more people be here in their current guise, given the round of applause last night.
Mr. McDowell: I join my colleagues in thanking the Minister for the courtesy he has extended to the House. I also thank the Leader for the sterling leadership she has given to the Opposition over the past few days. There were times when we felt entirely redundant, when the Government seemed more than capable of providing its own opposition.
The Bill is important. The Labour Party’s opposition to it is largely based on our view of it as the thin end of the wedge, as a portent of things to come of which we are likely to be a good deal less supportive. There are obvious concerns, particularly for Shannon. It will be necessary to set up the company in a way that ensures it will be viable into the future. I do not believe we have all the pieces of the jigsaw in place yet. There is certainly much work to be done between now and the so-called appointed days. I wish the Minister well. It is important from everyone’s point view, particularly the point of view of the mid-western region generally, that he gets it right. I hope he does so without doing irreparable damage to the company as a whole. We must respect what is left, the still important business of maintaining and running Dublin Airport. It is important that the new companies are set up in a way that does not do violence to its capacity to do that. We are also conscious of the implications for Aer Rianta International, the Great Southern Hotels and so on. We are taking a leap into the dark and it is in everybody’s interest that it works out.
Mr. Morrissey: I thank the Minister on behalf of the Progressive Democrats for bringing this Bill before the Seanad. This legislation is about bringing competition to the regions and to monopolies which have not had such competition heretofore. We are not defeatist about the Bill. We thank the Minister for his courage in taking it on and wish him well in his further reforms of the transport sector in particular.
Mr. S. Brennan: I thank Seanad for taking the Bill this week. As I said last night, I was wrong to suggest last week that we should deal with it then. Given the number of contributions made, it would have been wrong to rush it through last week. It was a good idea to take the extra time this week to deal with it. I am glad wiser people decided the Seanad should meet to debate the Bill properly. I have learned a great deal from the debate and appreciate Senators’ remarks.
I thank the officials from the Department of Transport and other Departments who have put an enormous amount of work into this legislation. The level of detail and advice, financial and legal, has been enormous. I thank the Cathaoirleach and his staff for their patience and courtesy. I thank in particular the spokesperson who carried the debate. I also wish to say, and this is not just a platitude, that I listened to what has been said and in so far as I can as the process moves forward I will seek to instil in the boards going forward Senators’ and Deputies wishes as expressed in both Houses.
I thank the staff of Aer Rianta for their many years of work. There is a great deal more to do albeit within different structures. Nonetheless it is work for Irish airports. I thank the staff on behalf of the Government and myself for their work in this regard. I thank the Leader of the House for her contributions. Since entering politics at the age of 25 or 26 years, I have always tried to ensure my differences with others are on policy matters. Those who know me know I fight for policies in which I believe. I do not have personal differences with anybody, particularly colleagues in my own party. I have nothing but admiration for the Leader of the House. My differences are policy ones. I have always fought hard and as long as people support me, I will continue to fight hard for the policies in which I believe. However, that does not mean I am fighting those who disagree with me on policies. I have always made that distinction and always will.
This is only the beginning. There is much more to be done. It is a fresh start about which I am optimistic. However, I am deeply conscious that we must all work for the cause of bettering the country. That is what we do in framing legislation and asking the Houses to endorse it. I thank Members for the consideration they have given this legislation and for the courtesy shown to me during its passage.
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