Gov would be reckless to proceed with National Broadband Plan

27 November 2018

Speaking in advance of the publication of a report from independent auditor Peter Smyth into the tender process for the State’s rural broadband scheme, Leader of the Labour Party, Brendan Howlin TD pointed out serious problems with the current direction of government policy and set out three tests for the Government’s broadband policy.

Deputy Howlin said: “A lot has been reported about a document that has not yet been published. Last week, ‘government sources’ were cited as briefing journalists that the rural broadband process could proceed. And today the Government is spinning a message in advance of publishing what is meant to be an independent review.

“No one has claimed that the normal protocols around government tendering have not been breached. Instead, this audit is trying to find a way of saying that whatever breach occurred is not material in this case because substantive matters were not discussed. Mr Smyth has been asked to formally certify that the procurement process followed the agreed procedures. How will he be able to do that?

“A major problem for the Government is that the Smyth review will be unable to guarantee that there is no risk of the State being sued if we proceed with the current broadband tendering process. Only the Courts can make judge whether or not the breach of protocols unfairly affected other bidders. Continuing with the current broadband process involves taking unacceptable risks that public money will be lost to legal challenges.

“In terms of future broadband policy, the first test for the Government will be to demonstrate that the meetings between former minister Naughten did not provide Granahan McCourt with sensitive information that would allow them to gain a higher level of funding from the State.

“The second test will be to demonstrate how the people can have value for money in a process that only has one bidder, bearing in mind that the last remaining consortium has changed considerably since it became the sole bidder. There is a major risk that we will end up over-compensating this consortium and getting poor value for money.

“The third test will be to demonstrate how the public’s investment in broadband will pay a long-term return. Under the current proposals, the public will subsidise the building of the network, which will remain in private ownership on a for-profit basis. How can we guarantee timely repairs and maintenance of the broadband network by a private operator? Would it not be better value for money for the State to own the network?

“Labour believes that it would be reckless for the current process to proceed. People in rural Ireland are anxious to have access to high-speed broadband, but no one wants to be ripped off. We cannot stand over an unsafe situation where ministerial protocols are being ignored with a real risk to the taxpayer of being sued.

“Labour would provide high-speed rural broadband by instructing our own State enterprises to deliver it. We would fund this through taking a lower dividend from those companies for a period of years.

“If necessary, a new tendering process, including State companies, could be run within months given all of the preparation that has already been done in this process. That is a small price to pay to avoid over-paying for a network that will be outside of public control and where there is a risk of the State being sued for allowing such a compromised process to continue.”

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