Wednesday, 7 July 2004
Dáil Eireann Debate
8. Mr. Kenny asked the Taoiseach the progress to date in respect of the implementation of the elements of the programme for Government for which his Department is responsible; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17233/04]
9. Mr. Rabbitte asked the Taoiseach if he will make a statement on the progress made to date in implementing those areas of the programme for Government for which his Department has responsibility. [18310/04]
Progress on the Government programme is kept constantly under review. Deputies will be aware that for every full year of the previous Government’s term of office, we published an annual progress report. Last summer, we published the first annual progress report of the current Administration and it is my intention to publish a further report later this year. I am pleased to have this opportunity to make a statement to the House on the implementation of An Agreed Programme for Government between Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats.
Our programme for Government is both clear in intent and specific in detail. It is the agreed agenda for this partnership Government over five full years. The starting point for the current programme was rooted in a recognition that, in an ever-changing world, the reform process is never over. As a Government, we are determined to keep driving forward. In implementing this programme for Government, we will not rest on past successes. Instead, we will build on the solid foundations we have put in place since 1997.
In setting out to implement our commitments, we will bring forward and progress the most ambitious legislative programme in the history of the State. Since the present Government took office on 6 June 2002 some 90 Bills have been published, 78 have already been enacted into law and 38 are before the Oireachtas. Given the scale of the Government’s legislative programme and the large number of specific commitments set out in the agreed programme, it would be impossible in the time allowed to detail fully the amount of progress already delivered. It would be more appropriate for individual Ministers to answer that.
The cornerstones of An Agreed Programme for Government are based on our desire to build a better Ireland for everyone and our promises to protect and expand prosperity for all, strengthen peace and reconciliation, guarantee improved pensions, reform and develop our health services and invest in better public services. Without economic strength, there will never be an Ireland where everyone can prosper and fulfil their potential. A key objective of our programme for Government is to sustain a strong economy and “keep the finances of general Government close to balance or in surplus”. Our prudent management of the economy has meant that Ireland has come through the worst world recession in 20 years stronger than most countries and as good as the best. This was shown again in recent weeks by figures which indicate we have maintained one of the lowest unemployment rates in Europe as well as the budgetary figures which show real strength.
Since 1997, when the Government was first formed by the current parties, there are more people working in Ireland than ever. The policies the Government has implemented have supported the creation of 420,000 extra jobs and positioned us among the top countries in terms of global competitiveness. We have also substantially increased real incomes and introduced major reform of the taxation system. The OECD recently highlighted that workers here now enjoy one of the lowest taxation regimes in the developed world.
Our overriding priority as set out in the programme for Government is to secure lasting peace in Northern Ireland and we have worked towards it. We will continue to apply our energies in support of the Good Friday Agreement, as it remains the template for political progress.
Our other key commitments are to run a proactive EU Presidency and I wish to acknowledge the efforts of the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Cowen, and the Minister of State, Deputy Roche. We are committed to addressing Ireland’s infrastructural deficit in a coherent way. Capital envelopes totalling €33.6 billion for the period from 2004 to 2008 were introduced in the last budget. The capital envelopes include a commitment to keep the level of Exchequer-funded capital investment at 5% of GNP during the period. The envelopes will allow for an even flow of investment projects, facilitate better value for money and provide greater certainty in tackling the infrastructure deficit. The total capital envelope for roads and public transport projects is €9.4 billion.
We are committed to implementing a multi-stranded approach to addressing housing needs right across the spectrum, with up-to-date figures showing the success of our policies in increasing housing supply. Now approximately 70,000 houses a year are being built, which is three times the level of ten years ago, three times the EU average and five times the UK average.
We are committed to encouraging a better spread of jobs throughout the country and people should not forget that the rate of unemployment is among the lowest in the European Union. The 2002 census showed that employment has grown strongly in every county since the last census in 1996. The Government is determined that strong national employment growth will continue to be felt throughout the regions. More than 53,000 new jobs were created last year. Ireland has recently secured major foreign direct investments.
We are committed also to bringing forward a programme of fundamental reform of the insurance industry. A comprehensive set of interrelated measures, designed to improve the functioning of the Irish insurance market have been brought forward by the Tánaiste. We are committed to rural development, in particular the widening of the CLÁR boundaries.
We are committed to the implementation of the penalty points system, which has had an impact on road safety. The penalty points system has been operating since October 2002 for the offence of breaching a speed limit; from 1 June 2003 for insurance offences; and from 25 August 2003 for seatbelt wearing offences. The system was recently extended to include the offence of careless driving with effect from 4 June 2004.
We are committed to putting in place open access broadband on a national basis. The 19 town metropolitan area network broadband programme is on time and on target. A radical €140 million broadband action plan was launched in December. This extends the current programme of local authority infrastructure to 19 regional towns with the aim of bringing low-cost broadband to every Irish town with a population of more than 1,500 people. The other schemes will be set out in the booklet of actions, which will be delivered shortly.
I looked at the programme for Government recently and the following are relevant extracts from it. The Government promised to keep down personal and business taxes, but 27 stealth taxes have been introduced since then. It promised to ensure that 80% of all earners would pay tax only at the standard rate, however, 52% now pay at the top rate as the tax bands have not been widened. It promised to support the positive role of the community employment schemes to meet the needs of both the long-term unemployed and communities, but 4,500 jobs have been cut in that area.
The programme also stated the Government will give a fresh impetus to the important role of small business in Ireland to ensure that their interests are taken into account in formulating and implementing policies that impact on the enterprise centre. ISME has warned that 35,000 jobs in small firms are in danger because owners perceive the Government as being a regulator rather than a facilitator of small businesses. The programme further states that it will seek to resolve potential issues, difficulties and conflicts in the spirit of social partnership, but now companies such as Aer Lingus, Aer Rianta, CIE and the ESB are facing strike action.
How can the physical renewal of third level campuses, which has been referred to in the programme for Government, take place when cuts of more than 40% have been made in the capital allocations to third level colleges and universities last year?
The programme for Government makes a commitment to progressively develop adult education services. Does the Taoiseach accept that the actions of the Government in capping places at colleges of further education and PLC courses and in cutting back on child care funding for those who want to do such courses, has undermined educational opportunities to the detriment of thousands of people?
Did the Taoiseach state that he would expect each Minister to produce a progress report on his or her Department or are we to have a revised copy of the programme for Government on what has been achieved and what will be achieved in the coming period?
The Taoiseach: In response to Deputy Kenny’s final question, the programme we publish every year is a review of actions against the programme. We normally publish it at this time, but as the staff were working on the EU Presidency, it will be published during the summer and I hope to have it out as quickly as possible.
On the question of the universities, during the past number of years the Government has been able to facilitate significant capital programmes. However, that was cut back in 2002 and 2003. We have to finish the drive whereby every third level institution had a major capital programme. The benefit of that programme has been an additional 25,000 places for students. The universities have now come forward with new plans and I am due to meet the presidents of the universities in the next few days, if not today, to discuss these issues.
The former Ministers for Education, Deputies Martin and Woods, and the Minister of State, Deputy de Valera, have been involved in the adult education programme and in building up NALA and other organisations and PLC courses. There has been some tightening of the finances in that area, as there was everywhere when revenues were not strong.
Infrastructure has been built up in adult education and I support that. I recently attended a seminar in the Gresham Hotel of all the national groups working in this area. Obviously the groups are concerned that the Government will continue to develop the programmes in the future, but there is a sense of satisfaction that we have built them up to this level and that we have provided some increases. We have to continue to do so.
I agree with the Deputy that PLC courses are very important to a certain section of society who were not able to access education because of disadvantage. That is why the then Minister for Education, Deputy Martin, put so much effort and resources into that service in 1997 and the Government will continue to do that.
Mr. Rabbitte: I could ask the Taoiseach a great many specific questions. We could go down through the waiting lists, which the Taoiseach promised to abolish in two years; the promise made to recruit an additional 2,000 gardaí; the 200,000 medical cards; the 10,000 affordable houses and so on. On the question of PLC courses, which Deputy Kenny raised, I visited a school during the local election campaign where five teachers are being let go because of cuts in the PLC allocation. I think the school is in Templemichael, County Longford. Tremendous work has been done in this school which has more students on PLC courses than in the traditional leaving certificate cohort. The five teachers are being let go because the figures are capped.
Is there any sign of a loosening of the purse strings for chronic and acute need on the social side? If taxes are in excess of €1 billion over what was guesstimated by the Minister and if the underspend so far is €609 million, it is surely possible to address some of the more chronic under-provisions in social services. One could go through them all but there is no need. The PLC one that Deputy Kenny mentioned accidentally or I accidentally pick up on is just an example. A health centre in Millbrook Lawns in my constituency was burned down five years ago. Nine rooms were destroyed by vandals five years ago and after all this time, even though the cost is €1 million, it has not been reconstructed. This centre served a large populous area with an entire range of social services, nursing, pre-natal and ante-natal care etc., yet it cannot be rebuilt. The Taoiseach must have heard this argument at his parliamentary party, and I am asking him to tell the House and the public whether we are likely to see some of these more chronic deficiencies addressed in the next six months or so.
The Taoiseach: I am not aware of the individual areas. However, I would like to make two points about the figures. Obviously, all the under-allocations can be spent. One sees this in the final quarter of every year where there tends to be underspending. The Minister for Finance, to his credit, is always urging people to have a more even spread of the profile of their figures. We all know how that system operates and now with monthly accounting it is far more effective than it used to be. There are many areas within individual Departments where programmes can be funded within the Estimates.
While the revenue position is better this year, of course it allows some leeway in the Estimates process and in the figures for this year. I mentioned this morning some of the areas in regard to health and education. The Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Martin, has been able to put in resources to assist with bed shortages, for example, in funding health boards across the country to alleviate the pressure on beds. In the Eastern Regional Health Authority area alone, there are about 300 extra beds. In the education area, the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Dempsey, has recently been able to appoint a net 350 extra resource teachers and there have been increases in other areas.
In the Estimates process for next year, obviously the baseline figure can improve. The Minister for Finance did not make cutbacks in the past few years. He reduced expenditure from the high levels that were possible — expenditure had increased by over 20%, which was strongly condemned in this House — to norms of 6% that were sustainable in a tighter economy. Now the economy is growing again and this allows for buoyancy and more money to be put into particular areas.
When somebody mentions, as Deputy Rabbitte has done, individual cases such as a health board building that was burnt down five years ago without being reconstructed, I am not in the business of defending that. I can never understand, given the allocations and the individual Estimates for some of these areas and where money is spent, why necessary facilities are not provided in deprived areas. I will not try to defend that. I witness similar occurrence at times in my constituency, and I will raise the case of the centre in Millbrook Lawns, as the Deputy has made the point.
Mr. Eamon Ryan: I have two specific questions on areas of infrastructural investment. Will the Taoiseach first clear up the confusion that occurred last week when he appeared to indicate that the whole metro project for Dublin was being scuppered? Perhaps he intended to say that parts other than the Dublin metro line would not go ahead. Will he confirm that this is the case? If it is the case, will he ask the Dublin Transportation Office to review the overall transport profile for Dublin, given that all the other metro lines are not to be proceeded with? Will he confirm when the Government will finally make a decision on this? We have heard over the past year that it would be made “within weeks”.
How does the Taoiseach answer criticism from certain people in the telecommunications sector about the State spending up to €170 million on the unnecessary laying of new fibre optic cables for broadband metropolitan area networks? While the investment is welcome, how does the Taoiseach answer the criticisms of people in the sector that duplicating existing fibre optic cables in the ground amounts to a massive waste of money and that some of the existing cables could be used in our metropolitan area networks rather than spending excessive funds laying a second fibre optic cable alongside existing installations?
The Taoiseach: I will take the second question first. The point has been made at the Cabinet sub-committee on infrastructure, which I chair, that we should be using the best services, whether on rail lines or whatever. We should be getting the best value for money rather than duplicating the system. The Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Dermot Ahern, has been endeavouring to get the telecommunications companies to co-ordinate their efforts with his Department and the agencies so that we are not getting into a competitive position involving unnecessary duplication. Both State and private sector companies should have a vested interest in providing the network to businesses and citizens throughout the country rather than duplicating effort in competition with each other. I do not disagree with what the Deputy has said, but I reassure him as regards what the Minister has been doing and his intervention has worked in some areas.
The Taoiseach: He has been trying to stop that so that we get best value for money. While I have mentioned the broadband lines, it is a costly system. We should not be in duplication, but should be using the best efforts of the State companies and those with licences in telecommunications companies to work together and co-operate.
On the first question, we have no plan to change the Dublin Transportation Office study. As regards the proposals for the metro, the Minister for Transport, Deputy Brennan, is in discussion with the Government and the Department of Finance on the plans. The point I made last week was that the overall plan of the metro, as it is envisaged for Dublin, even as amended, is enormously costly. Obviously the DART and airport lines must be linked up, and the plan was to link the line to Swords. I am not sure what the latest costs are, but even that project is enormously costly and the Minister is looking at how to deal with that. If the whole line is to be extended into the entire Dublin area one is talking about billions of euro, which would account for the entire capital programme of the country. While one hears about and reads fancy plans about how the private sector can do all these things and take over the contract, I assure the Deputy that it never works out.
The Taoiseach: They will defer the payments, whatever way one likes, but the taxpayer ends up paying them, and the more the deferral the more that will have to be paid. Having been through the Luas project, we must now see what can be done. If the Dublin Transportation Office study is correct, there will be another 600,000 people in the Dublin area within a 30 year period, but since it has been wrong on all its other surveys, it will probably be a 20 year period.
The Taoiseach: It will put pressure on a great many areas. I accept that and that is why it has to be looked at. A plan must be linked to financial reality. It is great to come up with plans and state, for instance, that a project will cost €15 billion in a short period of time. However, the money needed for the entire plan is not there. The Minister is looking at priority areas and this does not mean changing the existing Dublin Transportation Office study. I do not see any reason to change it, but we must try to implement the main part of it. The main part of it is obvious because there is no light rail, DART or Luas to the airport. That issue has to be addressed as the Dublin Transportation Office study has highlighted.
Mr. Ferris: The first paragraph of An Agreed Programme for Government states that the Government’s “overriding priority will be to secure lasting peace in Ireland through the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, the consolidation of its institutions, and the development of a spirit of friendship and cooperation between North and South”. Does the Taoiseach accept that the achievement of this priority has been obstructed by the continuing delays and the British Government’s suspension of the institutions? In the programme, the Government also pledges support for “full public enquiries into the murders of Pat Finucane, Robert Hamill and Rosemary Nelson”. Does the Taoiseach accept that the inquiries have been obstructed by the British Government’s delays? Is it not time for the Taoiseach to take a much more determined stand on these issues in his dealings with Tony Blair and the British Government?
Mr. Naughten: The Taoiseach spoke about the broadband network earlier in response to Deputy Eamon Ryan. Is the Government considering the establishment of a national broadband backbone by bringing together Iarnród Éireann, the ESB, Bord Gáis and the metropolitan area networks? Such a State-controlled broadband network would be accessible to new companies entering the market.
In light of the Taoiseach’s comments that there may be an extra 600,000 people in the greater Dublin area within 20 years, are there plans to pursue a co-ordinated approach to land use and transportation in the Dublin area in line with the Government’s commitment?
The Taoiseach: I will respond to Deputy Naughten’s questions first. The Minister, Deputy Dermot Ahern, has been trying to co-ordinate the broadband effort. He has had some success in that regard by trying to get the private telecommunications companies and the State agencies to co-operate.
No decision has been made in respect of the Garda traffic corps. The proposal, which has some merit, has not been agreed on by everybody. Many have argued about the practicalities of the matter. I still believe that such a service would be much more efficient and cheaper than having fully trained gardaí all the time. I quickly add that there is no wholehearted support for the proposal.
The report of the Department of the Environment. Heritage and Local Government’s Dublin transportation study has been published, as has the national spatial strategy. Studies of the configuration of how things will develop over the next 30 years are in place. The reports have been fully taken into account, from an infrastructural point of view, in the Government’s plan for the capital programme between 2004 and 2008. Obviously, that will have to be reflected in the areas we have just been discussing. The Minister, Deputy Cullen, has reminded the House that the regional planning guidelines are in place under the spatial strategy.
In response to Deputy Ferris, we are committed to trying to work to achieve lasting peace. We must make progress. We are committed to inquiries into the Finucane, Hamill and Wright cases. We will continue to hold the British Government to account on what was agreed at Weston Park. We are committed to that.
Regarding the other areas, while it is possible to get the institutions up and running, Deputy Ferris is aware that we need progress on all the areas if that is to be achieved. We need to restart the institutions and we must deal with the decommissioning of arms and the policing issue. We must be certain that if we establish the institutions, they will be sustained rather than being set up and brought down, which has been the case. All of these decisions must be taken collectively. The process is continuing. The Minister, Deputy Cowen, had meetings yesterday and I will have meetings today. We will continue to co-operate to see if we can make an effort in this regard in September. We need everybody to play a role in doing that.
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