Wednesday, 29 September 2004
Dáil Eireann Debate
The Taoiseach: I wish to announce, for the information of the House, that the President, acting on my advice, has accepted the resignations of Deputies McCreevy, Walsh and Michael Smith as members of the Government. I pay tribute to the contribution made to the work of the Government and the country by the former Ministers for Finance, Agriculture and Food and Defence, Deputies McCreevy, Walsh and Smith. In the case of the former Minister, Deputy McCreevy, he will also step down from Dáil Éireann upon taking up his new duties as European Commissioner for the Internal Market.
Deputies Walsh, McCreevy and I first entered this House in 1977. Deputy McCreevy has spent ten years at the Cabinet table, most notably as Minister for Finance but he previously served as Minister for Tourism and Trade and Minister for Social Welfare. There is no one better qualified to fill the role of Irish member of the European Commission. His remarkable talents and record of achievement are reflected in the important and prestigious portfolio which the President designate of the European Commission has decided to assign to him. I am sure the House will join me in wishing him well in his new and onerous responsibilities, while congratulating and thanking Commissioner David Byrne on his very successful term, during which he has contributed so positively to the welfare of the people of Europe.
While the past couple of years have been difficult economically, the determined and decisive action taken by this Government in 2002 ensured that Ireland has come through the international economic downturn as well as any other country and better than most. The policies that Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats have implemented since 1997 have supported the creation of 420,000 extra jobs and won strategic new international investments for Ireland. During that period the Government managed the economy prudently and successfully and we will continue to do so. We have established a position of strength from which we can now confidently go forward to grow the economy over the next three years and beyond.
Apart from his role in managing the economy, Deputy McCreevy instituted a number of key reforms, including the restructuring of the income tax code, the establishment of the national pension reserve fund, the commitment to record rates of investment in infrastructure, underpinned by a new multi-annual capital envelope framework, and a package of reforming measures for the public service covering both legislation and pensions.
I have known of Deputy Walsh’s decision to retire from the Cabinet since last Christmas. His tenure as a Minister in one Department, the Department of Agriculture and Food, is unique in modern Irish politics. Having first served nearly five years in that Department as a Minister of State from 1987 to 1992, he has gone on to sit at the Cabinet table as Minister for Agriculture and Food for ten years in total.
Deputy Walsh has made an immense contribution to agriculture and rural Ireland. His skilled negotiation of the most radical reform of the Common Agricultural Policy since its inception led to the decision on the full decoupling of direct farm payments from production. Ireland was the first EU member state to have made that momentous and courageous decision that will encourage the sustainable development of the sector, while guaranteeing a high level of income stability. However, it will be for his management of the foot and mouth crisis that Deputy Walsh will be most widely remembered. His calm and effective handling of a disease crisis which had the potential to cause major damage to the whole economy rightly earned him the plaudits of Deputies on all sides of this House.
Deputy Michael Smith was first elected to the Dáil in 1969. He previously held the energy, environment, education, and science and technology portfolios, but since October 1997 has served as Minister for Defence. For the past seven years, he has successfully revamped our Defence Forces with a policy of continuous recruitment and a programme of investment in new equipment and infrastructure. In 2000 he put in place the first ever White Paper on Defence, which sets out a blueprint for the development of the Defence Forces over the period to 2010.
I also pay tribute to Deputy Michael Smith’s excellent work in reducing the overall level of costs to the State arising from the Army deafness issue. Thanks to a robust strategy, the total cost is expected to be approximately €300 million, far short of the €1 billion originally feared.
In addition, I wish to advise the House that I intend to make the following proposed reassignments. I propose to assign responsibility for the Department of Health and Children to the Tánaiste, Deputy Harney, the Department of Finance to Deputy Cowen, the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources to Deputy Noel Dempsey, the Department of Foreign Affairs to Deputy Dermot Ahern, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment to Deputy Martin, the Department of Social and Family Affairs to Deputy Brennan, the Department of Transport to Deputy Cullen, the Department of Agriculture and Food to Deputy Coughlan, the Department of Education and Science to Deputy Hanafin, the Department of Defence to Deputy O’Dea——
I propose to nominate to the Government Deputies Seán Power, Batt O’Keeffe, Killeen, Brendan Smith and Conor Lenihan to be Ministers of State. I will propose to the Government the Departments to which they will be nominated and some other changes in the allocation of responsibilities to existing Ministers of State, including the appointment of Deputy Kitt as Chief Whip. It will also include the assignment of a Minister of State to the Department of Agriculture and Food in succession to Deputy Aylward, who ceased to be a Minister of State upon election to the European Parliament in June.
I would also like to inform the House that I have accepted the resignation of Deputy McDaid as Minister of State. I thank him for the contribution he has made to the Department of Transport over the past two years.
In the period ahead the key objectives of Government policy will continue to be those set out in our programme for Government. These are to manage the economy and the public finances; to maximise sustainable growth and employment; to maintain and deepen our competitiveness, especially by addressing infrastructure deficits; to maintain and enhance social cohesion; and to continue the development of our caring services, building on the major investment over recent years.
The Government is firmly focused on the achievement of these objectives. That requires energetic and professional leadership, the kind that results from the right combination of experience and innovation. That has been my aim in shaping my team for the next phase of this Government’s term. In bringing in new members to the Cabinet and nominating new Ministers of State, I am renewing the ministerial team with energetic and ambitious colleagues, who are also experienced and professional politicians. By reassigning departmental responsibilities, I am taking the opportunity to bring a fresh perspective and renewed commitment to achieving our objectives across much of the machinery of Government.
Public office is demanding. The people whom we are privileged to serve expect and deserve much from those they elect to high office. This requires hard work, but also the capacity to deal effectively with problems and to deliver results that make a difference. My colleagues know that their nomination by me is based on my expectation that they will meet that test. The Tánaiste and I are satisfied that our two parties in government can and will deliver on what we have promised to achieve.
Achieving our economic goals will require a continuation of sound fiscal policies. Confidence and stability are vital ingredients in our strong performance. We will continue to pursue tax policies that promote enterprise, support jobs, ease the burden of taxation on those on modest and especially low incomes and underpin the productive capacity of our economy. We know, and the people know, that the tax policies that maximise revenue for spending on important public and social services are those we have been pursuing since 1997, and they are the policies that we will continue to pursue.
On the spending side, we will use the additional resources available to secure real increases in all of those services that make for a decent quality of life, especially for those most in need of our support. Capital spending will continue to grow in line with the growth of the economy. Our commitment to a modern infrastructure is reflected in the multi-annual framework which has brought confidence and better value through better project management to our rapidly developing public infrastructure. We will take a number of key strategic decisions over the coming months about the next generation of projects, especially in the area of public transport. We will build not only to meet the needs of citizens today, but we will lay the foundations for economic and social success for the decades ahead.
With regard to current spending, our well-established record of continuing, real increases in social services will be maintained. We will secure better value through reform and restructuring, wherever that is necessary. The economic challenges for the period ahead will be to consolidate our development over recent years, to maintain our attraction for overseas investment, to improve the performance of new and developing Irish enterprises, to increase skill levels right across the economy and to identify and exploit opportunities presented by EU enlargement and the advent of new industrial powers, especially China. We are well placed to do this, not least through the policies implemented by the Tánaiste over the past seven years. Recent major announcements of inward investment projects in leading global sectors are proof of our success.
I will say a little about some of the priorities within the framework of the programme for Government, which we will pursue over the period ahead, building on the very real and substantial achievements of this administration to date.
We have worked to address Ireland’s lack of infrastructure in a coherent and determined way. Capital investment envelopes totalling €33.6 billion in spending commitments for the period 2004-08 were introduced in the last budget. These include a commitment to keep the level of Exchequer-funded capital investment at 5% of GNP over the period. This allows for an even flow of investment projects, facilitating better value for money and allowing us to plan to meet our development objectives. We make no apology for leading the largest ever public sector investment programme in transport in Irish history. Investment in our national roads is at an all time high, equivalent to €100 million every month. More than €8 billion is committed to national roads between now and 2008.
Under the national development plan we are investing almost €3 billion in public transport. New carriages are in service on the DART and suburban rail, while new commuter services have been introduced between Mallow and Cork, and between Ennis and Limerick. Bus Átha Cliath and Bus Éireann were given substantial numbers of new buses last year. As Deputies will be aware, the second Luas line from Tallaght to Connolly Station joined the very successful Luas from Sandyford to St. Stephen’s Green and further proposals are being prepared for extensions. It will play an integral part in keeping transport in the city of Dublin moving in a fast, efficient and clean fashion far into the future.
To put the scale of housing activity during our time in government in perspective, almost one third of the country’s homes will have been built in the period 1997-2004. Increasing supply was our goal and this year, we will build more than 80,000 homes, which is three times the average rate per head of population in the EU and five times the rate in the UK. On social and affordable housing, our range of initiatives, supported by €1.8 billion in funding, is meeting the needs of some 13,000 households every year. Through the social partnership agreement, Sustaining Progress, 59 projects on State and local authority lands are planned, a demonstration of the Government’s commitment to ambitious and early delivery in this area.
A key priority for this Government is the health service. In the national health strategy, Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats set out the blueprint for the most fundamental restructuring ever of our health system and we intend to complete it. In the past year the Minister, Deputy Martin, announced significant initiatives regarding a new health services executive, which will include a national hospital office, a primary and continuing care directorate and a shared services centre.
Taken together, these structural reforms represent the biggest single national reorganisation of the health system since 1970. They will build on the foundation of the 162% spending increase, shorter waiting lists and increased staffing and treatment levels achieved in recent years. It is our policy to continue to match investment with reform, so more and more patients will benefit through this Government’s progressive development of a world-class health system. We will push forward the physical-renewal and development of services in all parts of the country, including an ambitious programme of bringing new acute specialities to the regions. Services for the elderly and people with disabilities will continue to be prioritised.
Our record on old age pensions and on child benefit is one of which we are very proud. From the outset, we said those who are most vulnerable in our society are the young and the elderly. It is at the beginning and at the end of our lives that we need help the most. In Government, we have delivered record increases in the old age pension. In 1997 it was €99, today it is €167 and we will focus on increasing the pension again and again, so that we reach our target of €200. In the same period, we have more than trebled the rate of child benefit to €131.60 per month for the first and second child and to €165.30 per month for the third child and subsequent children.
Education will remain a priority for this Government. A high quality education system with equality of opportunity is vital to a modern republic as it offers all our citizens the chance to participate fully in the social and economic life of our country. That is why since 1997 we have increased overall investment in education by 124% to €6.5 billion this year. We are determined to reach the highest international standards on class sizes and the foundations are now there to achieve our goal. Since I became Taoiseach, there are 4,000 additional teachers at primary level and an additional 2,337 teachers at post-primary level. To ensure further progress, we also increased primary teacher training places by almost 300%.
As a Government, we promised to cut crime by getting tough on criminals. We have done just that. Serious crime dropped 18% last year and has already dropped a further 19% in the first half of this year compared to the first six months of 2003. This is not a cause for complacency; we need more gardaí and more prison places in an effort to further target street violence and drugs. Our policy is clear; more gardaí to protect the innocent and more prison places to punish the guilty. We have built more than 1,200 new prison places with more on the way to make sure the revolving door for violent criminals remains firmly closed. We have put more gardaí on to the streets than ever before.
The Taoiseach: There are 1,400 more than in 1997, and we are determined to bring the level of the force to 14,000. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform will shortly bring proposals to Government, which will ensure that 2,000 recruitment places at the Garda college in Templemore will be phased in over the next three years.
The Taoiseach: I now turn to our work on the peace process. When this Government was formed, I said peace in Northern Ireland was the issue to which I would give priority above all others. Irish people everywhere take tremendous pride in the role we played in negotiating the Good Friday Agreement, which provides the political framework for building peace based on a just settlement.
Working closely with our British counterparts, we have sought to bring about the conditions for full implementation of the Agreement. After the recent talks at Leeds Castle, both Governments believe that what is on offer now is reasonable in its substance and historic in its meaning. In the period ahead, we will do everything in our power to ensure we maintain the momentum in the process in order to allow for the return of devolved government as soon as possible.
This Government has the proven capacity to meet the key opportunities and challenges facing this country. Our people understand that we must first ensure our economic success in order to ensure that we succeed in implementing our social objectives.
In the period ahead, the Government will build on this record to address a number of critical social needs. We will work with the social partners to continue the balanced and consensus-based approach to managing change and protecting jobs, living standards and the quality of life of our communities. We intend to continue to provide incomes so that the elderly and others can live life with dignity. Through additional targeted spending and improved management, we will continue the development of the health services, especially the provision for accident and emergency and long-stay patients. We will also address the needs of those with disabilities, both through a new legal and service framework and through agreed targeted investments.
Mr. Kenny: The House knows now. The Taoiseach has laboured for three months to produce this political mouse. I congratulate the new office holders. This is a big day for them. It is a great privilege to serve one’s country as a Cabinet Minister. It is also a big day for the families of the new office holders and I know that they are proud of them and of the honour the Taoiseach has bestowed upon them. I remind each of the new office holders that with honour and privilege comes responsibility. That onus must inform every aspect of the work they do for and on behalf of their country and ours, and our people.
I commiserate with those who have been dropped from the Cabinet or redeployed or forced to leave. It is never easy when this happens, especially when one’s redeployment may be down to nothing more than naked political expediency or the sudden desperate requirement for lambs. Sacrifice is part of national politics. Our desire to serve makes sacrifice something we do to ourselves in terms of our families and personal lives. However, when it is done to us, when we are the sacrificed, it becomes something else entirely, as the former Minister, Commissioner McCreevy, has plenty of time to contemplate from the splendid remove of the Berlaymont building in Brussels.
My comments on the so-called new Cabinet are directed generally because they apply generally. Old and new are all guilty and all to blame because they are all the same. For the sake of democracy and the sanity of the electorate, I wish to nail the lie that this is a new Government. If the answer to the so-called new Government is to be the face of Corporal O’Dea, then it must have been some hell of a question.
Mr. Kenny: This is not a new Government because every new Minister appointed or re-appointed today accepted and supported the decisions, actions and inaction of their predecessors over the past seven years. They stood over how they deceived the public, bought their votes, dismantled their society and broke their trust. They stood over the obscene and bull-headed wastage of €50 million on electronic voting while at the same time a man in Tallaght told the newspapers that given the state of the accident and emergency department, he would rather not have a pulse the next time he is there.
Mr. Kenny: They sanctioned the funding of pet political projects while the savage 16 cuts were waged relentlessly against the country’s poorest and weakest by the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs. Two years ago, all of them went to the country with a raft of promises they knew they could never keep: 2,000 extra gardaí, 200,000 extra medical cards and an end to waiting lists in two years. Those were the promises, the contract and the commitments made by the Government which have all been dishonoured. Two years later, the Taoiseach is back with a new improved version — new blue Daz washes whiter than white. He is trying to pull the same old confidence trick again.
Let us be clear on collective responsibility and collective guilt. The new Ministers are every bit as guilty as the old. If the electorate wants to know who is to blame for the successive waves of stealth taxes, the higher charges and poorer delivery in almost every public sector and service, the increase in personal taxes because of the failure to widen allowances and credits in line with inflation, the way Ireland is tumbling down the international competitiveness league which threatens our jobs, our future and our children’s future, the answer is sitting on the benches opposite — the Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats Government, old and new.
It is clear that Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats knew well before the summer elections that they had got it wrong. However, getting it wrong was not the problem, rather it was being found out. That meant being punished and hence the new leaf, the new look and the new veneer. The reason was naked political fear, a Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats phobia of losing power. Despite the pomp and circumstance which the House has just witnessed, any change is just cosmetic, a cheap veneer. The Taoiseach is reshuffling his deck in the hope he can play a better hand at the next election. In the case of this Government, one thing is clear — it is probably the only thing that is clear about this Government and of which we can be sure — in its pursuit of power, the more things change, the more they remain the same. It is plus ça change, a case of new faces and old motivation. It is a case of making politics work for their parties and not for the people.
Today the Taoiseach and his new Ministers are busy selling the idea that “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” The writer, F. Scott Fitzgerald, stated that the test of a first-class mind is the ability to hold two opposing ideas simultaneously and not be paralysed by them. That statement should be given some thought today. On the one hand the Taoiseach is shouting “All change” to a new Government that listens and learns and shows its caring face, while on the other the Tánaiste is threatening to walk if any change is made to An Agreed Programme for Government or if it is not implemented. The Taoiseach says it is all change and the Tánaiste says it is the old way or no way. What are the Government’s values? What does it believe? How is it to govern? Which one of them is telling the truth? Who or what are we to believe? The answer is neither of them and nothing. The people have learned one salutary lesson, that the Taoiseach will attempt to do whatever it takes to have his Government, in whatever incarnation, returned for a third term in office. For that reason, the people cannot be expected to believe daylight from the Taoiseach.
In congratulating the Tánaiste on her appointment as Minister for Health and Children, I am not sure what the future of the Hanly report and the reform programmes will be. The former Minister, Deputy Michael Smith, referred to a sacrifice on the altar of Hanly. It may be that disappointment could prove to be the Tánaiste’s exit strategy from Government, although I believe the Department of Health and Children and the health services are crying out for and willing to adopt a measure of common-sense reform.
The good news is that we will not need to believe daylight from this Government because the people already know that a better alternative is emerging comprising democratic parties on this side of the House which are committed to making the tough decisions and doing what they say they will do.
Mr. Kenny: The Government’s deceit and arrogance caused it to underestimate and insult the electorate, but it did not learn its lesson. It is doing the same with this reshuffle and rearrangement. The Taoiseach persists in the belief that the people share his low standards, but they do not.
The election results showed what I have believed for a long time now, that Ireland knows at a deeper level that it can no longer afford a Government that reduces its people to economic units, assigning them to their proper place in columns of profit and loss. I believe in a different kind of Government, one that respects the full humanity of all our people, that recognises, regardless of that damaging piece of PD cant that inequality is good for you, that we are all in this together, an interdependent people living interdependent lives. Politicians may lead, Taoiseach, some actually do, but it is the people who rule. They showed their power in the recent elections and I am convinced that when it comes to choosing the next Government they will be waiting again in the long grass and will do so again. When they vote in that election, now 100 weeks hence or less, they will not choose between candidates, parties or leaders but will choose the kind of Ireland they want to live in — an Ireland run for the short-term good of the parties under Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats, or an Ireland run for the long-term good of the people led by Fine Gael and like-minded parties.
Instead of the charade we are witnessing today, we will give the people a real change by providing an honest Government, a Government that believes in the possibilities of a shared life, a society and collective opportunity, one that believes not what the Government can do for them, or they for the Government, but in what we can achieve when we work together toward a common end, the Government and the citizen, side by side.
If anyone was to say to me, “look, this is way too ambitious, it can’t be done”, I would say to that person “for society’s sake, for our children’s sake we cannot do any less.” Everyone knows the battleground of the next election will be the vital areas of economic and fiscal policy, health, education and other sections of Irish life and it will also be about something more. Specifically, how in this country today we need a Government of trust, one the people can trust and one that will keep its contract with the people, a new kind of Government, that is brave and forward-thinking enough to take account of the massive change we have undergone as a country and as a people in the past 20 years.
That is a huge challenge and opportunity and it demands huge courage — courage to say to people that Government on its own cannot and should not do everything. The Government on its own cannot give us safer streets and communities or greater knowledge and better learning. This happens only when the person, the community and the State work together, support each other, are committed to each other, understand, respect and depend on each other and when we, as citizens, assert our rights and live up to our responsibilities.
That kind of Government is not easy. It will challenge people, but it is possible when the people can have faith in their Government and trust it to keep its word. The people cannot expect the Government to do everything, but they can expect it to do what it said it would do. In this, the Taoiseach and the old and new Government are all collectively responsible and collectively guilty.
This country needs a Government that is capable, efficient and honest, one that lives up to its promises and keeps its word, but that in itself is no longer enough. What we need now is a Government that has the courage and confidence to be innovative, intuitive, insightful and compassionate because then and only then will people see their Government as a true reflection of themselves.
That is the kind of Government I believe in. It is true to say our economy has done very well and is strong, but we must make our economy work smarter for us so that it will work for all our people in all the crucial areas of their lives. The smart economy will be the means to an end, not the end in itself.
I am optimistic for this country. Good as they are, I believe things should be better. The Taoiseach is of the view, and he has repeated it on many occasions, that he single-handedly dragged us up off our knees and rescued us——
Mr. Kenny: ——from the indignity of being, as he says, a third rate country that nobody cared about. We gave the Deputies opposite the basis upon which the Celtic tiger was built, as the Minister for Foreign Affairs knows.
Mr. Kenny: We handed the Deputy’s party a surplus of more than £11 million that it proceeded to mis-spend. Just because the Deputy has been cosseted and favoured by the experts in the Department of Foreign Affairs——
Mr. Kenny: The people deserve a Government that will lead and give Ireland a better chance to enjoy its wealth by putting it to greater and better use, specifically, tackling the recession in health, education and law and order that is hurting our people and damaging our communities. That Government will have the capacity and the courage to tackle the inevitable problems of our new-found and most welcome affluence — obesity, lack of fitness, our new generation of latch-key kids, the range of psychological disorders, from being plain fed up to being severely depressed, even hopeless, the hours of commuting and the lack of a sense of community or belonging to one. We can tackle all of this and more when we line up our rights with our responsibilities, when we each fulfil our duty to each other.
On 6 June 2002, the Taoiseach told this House that his Cabinet of that day — the old one — was “a team with an unparalleled range of experience and wealth of abilities.” On 11 June last, the people gave their verdict on that unparalleled range of experience and wealth of abilities, as delivered by the Ministers since June 2002. I look at those on the backbenches — a backbench of all the talents — Deputies Power and Devins, even Deputy Carty from my own constituency and Deputy Martin Brady, who all have reason to be aggrieved today. They did not get the call. They had new suits hanging in their closets, waiting for the call to office, but the call never came.
In 12 weeks’ time this Government will have faded into the pages again. It will be no different from the last one; it has the same philosophy but different faces in some places. I say good luck to them because I tell the Taoiseach that on his side of the House, they will need it. The Taoiseach can and no doubt will try to plan for his election survival, but on this side of the House we will plan for something better, the country’s future. To us, winning the next election is not the end in itself, it is just the beginning — the beginning of real change, real opportunity, real government.
Mr. Rabbitte: I start by wishing the Taoiseach well in terms of the matters he set out in the paragraph in his speech on Northern Ireland. I hope he has success in restoring devolution and in restoring the institutions in Northern Ireland.
I also offer my sincere congratulations to the new Ministers. I wish them well in the interests of the country. Deputy Roche’s happiness with his lot is so infectious that I feel overwhelmed for him too. After all the months of talk about a reshuffle, radical departures and a new direction, it is amazing that 13 of the 16 faces who met around the Cabinet table last week will meet in the Áras tonight.
Looking across from where I am sitting, I see no change. I cannot see where the new direction will come from. I suppose the Ministers of State were announced to take the bare look off the lack of change. I congratulate Deputy Seán Power, the Minister of State, Deputy Kitt, on his elevation to Cabinet and Deputy Batt O’Keeffe. My heartiest congratulations to Deputy Brendan Smith. I always felt Deputy Killeen deserved promotion but was victimised because of a stand he took on Shannon. I am pleased to see him there because, given the way things are going outside the gate in regard to Aer Lingus, we will need him again. I offer him my congratulations. I save my best wishes for my constituency colleague.
Mr. Rabbitte: The question which Deputy Conor Lenihan’s elevation raises is what is good for Tallaght could be bad for the nation. I wonder what will happen to the nation and where will the shares be put. I am pleased for Deputy Lenihan. I have some regrets, in the interests of a capable Cabinet discharging the responsibilities of Government, that the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Lenihan, is not in the Government. It is a very minimalist old wine, and rancid old wine, in the Cabinet. I find it remarkable that the Taoiseach is arguing for a new direction and new policies when the people he has promoted, including the Ministers of State, Deputies Roche, O’Dea and Hanafin, were the most loquacious advocates of the old policies. How does that mark out a change of direction? No one defended the citadel in the way these three Deputies did. I see no change of policy there, nor do I see any explanation for shuffling virtually every Minister in the Cabinet.
The Taoiseach said that whoever would be elected to the new Cabinet would not be in a comfort zone and they would not be time servers. It scarcely appears to be a vote of confidence that virtually all Government members have been transferred from what they were doing. This has been done in a circumstance where we have been, since 11 June, in a state of paralysis. Ministers could not do anything — not that they did a great deal before 11 June — because they did not know whether they would be there. Now what does he do? He transfers virtually all of them to different Departments. This means that between now and Christmas nothing will be done either. The only one left in his previous position is the Minister, Deputy McDowell, who has never been impeded by Cabinet boundaries and who has spoken for everyone when it suited him, and he is still Minister for equality. This is the man who said that a good dollop of inequality is necessary for economic progress, and he is the Minister for equality.
When I look at the old, tired, failed faces, the only thing for which I am grateful is that Deputy Woods was not brought back. Other than that it is more or less “as you were”. I have concerns about the elevation of the Minister of State, Deputy O’Dea. For a start, it will leave a hell of a hole in the Sunday Independent. I suppose one can see an invitation to my colleague, Deputy Michael D. Higgins, to fill that with more quality than was the situation before now. We can be thankful that the Minister of State, Deputy O’Dea, was not appointed Minister for Transport. That would make a dramatic shift in the policy on taxis, judging from the fact that he is so well on the record in terms of opposing what he called “a PD measure on taxis”.
The existing Minister for Transport has been well and truly shafted. The man who wanted to put Luas on stilts and raise the height of the Dublin Port tunnel has now been given the task of dealing with social welfare. Given his disposition — it is a perfectly legitimate one of being more PD than the PDs themselves — and the policies pursued, surprisingly, by the Minister, Deputy Coughlan, which were so harsh on people dependent on social welfare, I have great concern that a Taoiseach who expects there will be a change of direction à la Fr. Seán Healy and Inchydoney has chosen the Minister, Deputy Brennan, to implement social welfare policy. If we were to take any comfort from that in terms of the situation at Dublin Airport, preparing Aer Rianta for privatisation and setting up the national airline for sale, I do not think, when one looks at the man who is taking over from the Minister, who is a real PD as distinct from a pretend PD, the workers outside the gate can take any comfort from that.
The Minister, Deputy Cullen, has a lot of bottle to heckle on this point. This is a man who, according to the Comptroller and Auditor General, wasted €52 of taxpayers’ money. This is the man who boasts about the private sector. If he was in the private sector, he would not be put in charge of a sweet shop if he lost €52 million on introducing an IT programme or something like that.
Mr. Rabbitte: Now he is Minister for Transport. I do not know how many Fianna Fáil backbenchers spoke to the Aer Lingus workers outside the gate. They are genuinely and understandably alarmed at the future direction of the national airline. We appear to be hurtling down the road towards the creation of a second Ryanair. We had one Ryanair, which has done a tremendous job for consumers, and why we need to convert the national airline into a second Ryanair is beyond me. In terms of the interests of this country as an island, the economic interests of the country and the statements made by some of the leading companies in the country, why do we want to jettison the cargo out at Dublin Airport? I hope when I see the Minister, Deputy Cullen, shaking his head it means this will not happen and that he agrees with me, because it would be a tragedy for this country.
Everyone on that side of the House boasted about the tremendous success of the privatisation of Telecom Éireann. Has it brought more tariffs or more competition? Has it been in the interests of rolling out broadband faster? It was a debacle. Whatever about the argument in the communications area, the argument for leaving us bereft of a national airline, with no say in it by this House or the Minister responsible, is wrong and I hope the Minister, Deputy Cullen, will not go down that road.
I offer the Tánaiste, Deputy Harney, my sincere congratulations. It is brave to take on the Department of Health and Children, given seven and a half years of failed reform. Frankly I do not know how to read it. I think all the Fianna Fáil backbenchers will join with this side of the House and say: “It is the PDs, sure we would have a great health service only the PDs are in charge.” They will row in behind this side of the House in raising the kind of issue that is on the front page of the Medical Times today. The article states that 150 Tallaght beds are held up over funding. This would deal with the accident and emergency crisis in at least one hospital and with some of the waiting list problems on which we have had so many commitments I cannot count them. According to the article the hospital is being paralysed. It is not long ago that the Tánaiste represented the constituency which I am proud to represent and I hope she will turn her mind to that as a first step.
What is happening is alarming. I am trying to match all this with the Fr. Seán Healy conversion at Inchydoney. I cannot understand a Taoiseach who says “We want to convey a new caring, sharing image, we want to put our past behind us, we are striking out in a new direction.” As the Minister, Deputy Dermot Ahern, said, there was always a social democratic dimension to Fíanna Fáil. However, a Progressive Democrats member has been appointed Minister for Health and Children and a Deputy who might have been a member of the Progressive Democrats has been appointed Minister for Social and Family Affairs. It is difficult to understand how this constitutes a new direction for the Government. The only reason the poor unfortunate Fr. Seán Healy was brought to Inchydoney was for image purposes, to convey the image that the Government parties learned their lesson at the local and European elections and that there would be a change of direction. A new, more compassionate Fíanna Fáil was always lurking under the hard exterior best promoted by the man now reading the Racing Post in the Berlaymont.
The former Minister, Deputy McCreevy, was to get all the blame, he was responsible for everything that went wrong. The appointment of Deputy McCreevy to the European Commission was the only tough decision the Taoiseach confronted. He has exiled the friend of business to the Berlaymont. That is the only tough decision he made. The rest are all the same. What is the point in changing Cabinet posts? If the Minister, Deputy Martin, has the same success with jobs in the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment as he had with medical cards when he was Minister for Health and Children, there will be an unemployment crisis. He promised 200,000 additional medical cards and what happened? There are now 100,000 fewer medical cards in the system. People constantly come up against the threshold. A similar performance with regard to the accident and emergency services will cause a serious difficulty.
I do not see what hope there is for people who would like to believe that this is about more than image making? There is a significant category of people, including those with disabilities, those who are unemployed or cannot work, those who are caught in the low pay trap, those whose children drop out of school early, those who are caught in large urban unemployment blackspots or isolated in rural poverty, who take today’s events seriously. They would like to think it is about more than image change and that different policies which affect the quality of their lives will emerge under the aegis of different Ministers. From what we have heard today, it seems unlikely that will happen. These are people who over a decade of unprecedented economic growth have found the quality of their lives worsened, or certainly not relatively improved.
Three or four reports in the past couple of days bear out the figures to which I am referring. The ESRI report on relative income poverty shows the position has deteriorated in Ireland from 1997 to 2003, that relative income poverty has increased from 19% in 1997 to 21% in 2003.
Mr. Rabbitte: Professor Brian Nolan makes the point that “relative income poverty is now a key indicator at EU level” and a person in that position is defined as one who is living on less than 60% of the median income.
Mr. Rabbitte: Our position has worsened. The corresponding figure in Denmark is 10% and in France it is 15%. Britain is the only country in which the gap did not widen between 1997 and 2003. It has narrowed by two points.
Mr. Rabbitte: In Ireland the gap has increased by two points. The Minister, Deputy McDowell, wants to intervene on this issue. If one reads today’s article by the Europe editor of The Economist intelligence unit, the writer of which is not possessed of any left wing disposition, he challenges the entire conventional wisdom about the departing Minister, Deputy McCreevy. He says, among other things: “As a proportion of national income, the tax burden did fall between 1997 and 2003, but only slightly, from 35.4% of GNP to 34.2%.” He deals in some detail with that economic record. That is the size of the fall. The optimum beneficiaries were the highest earners and the person on average industrial earnings is now being taxed at the same rate as the highest income earners in the land.
Mr. Rabbitte: The Minister, Deputy McDowell, never ceases to challenge the figures on this. The last ministerial budget speech stated that 1.21 million people in Ireland pay income tax. Of that number, 632,185, or approximately 52%, pay at the marginal or top rate.
Mr. Rabbitte: That has never happened in the history of the State. The Tánaiste agrees with me even if her immovable and unshakeable Minister does not. Those are the figures from the Minister, Deputy McCreevy. A person on the average industrial wage is liable for the same tax rate as the highest earners in the land.
There is a category in this society other than the category about which I have spoken, of those who are poor and disadvantaged. That category comprises people who made wealth beyond their wildest imagination in the past seven and a half years. These are people who have aggregated property beyond their wildest dreams, have enjoyed a halving of capital gains tax and so on. They will also be watching today’s events with great interest. They will want to know whether there was any reality behind Fr. Seán Healy’s visit to Inchydoney and whether the Taoiseach has traded his Minister for Finance for a meddlesome priest. They will come to the conclusion that it was all cosmetics and there is no cause for concern. They are happy to put up with presentational changes because that is all that is involved. Nothing more fundamental has changed.
In the interests of the country, I wish the new Cabinet well and extend my congratulations again to the new Ministers. I would like to think they will be in office long enough to avail of full ministerial pensions at senior level but I am afraid that will not be the case. I look forward to seeing the Minister, Deputy O’Dea, stepping through his first parade of the Defence Forces in due course.
Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: I propose to share time. I shall speak for six and a half minutes, a further six and a half minutes will be shared between Deputy Joe Higgins and Deputy McHugh and the final six and a half minutes will be assigned to Deputy Sargent.
What we have been presented with today is barely a change of faces. We are looking at the mere shuffling of a deck of cards. This is still the same Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats Government as has been here for the past seven years since 1997. There is no substantive change. That said, I wish all the appointees, without exception, well in their new responsibilities, particularly Deputy Dermot Ahern in his new role as Minister for Foreign Affairs at this critical time in the peace process. I wish him well in taking over the reins of that office. I also extend my congratulations to my constituency colleague, Deputy Brendan Smith, and wish him well in his new role as a Minister of State. Mo chomhghairdeas dóibh.
The Taoiseach said the other day that new people would give the vibrancy and activity base we need. I agree we definitely need new people. Based on the Taoiseach’s own advice, we need a new Government, new Ministers and, perhaps, a new Taoiseach. Above all, we need a new direction on the part of Government driven by a vision of equality. Therefore, I take this opportunity to urge the Taoiseach to facilitate and accommodate the most important change of all, namely, to take the decision to hold a general election that will allow the people to make the determination, choice and judgment as to who will best occupy these roles and positions. He will be delighted to know that we in Sinn Féin are ready for it any time. Why wait until 2007?
This has been the longest drawn-out reshuffle of Cabinet in history. It was a useful tool and provided the Taoiseach the opportunity over the long period of the summer to divert attention from the failed policies of his Administration and to have the media focus instead on the endless speculation about who would be in or out. The reality of the divided society created in this State since 1997 is plain to see. Yesterday’s Combat Poverty Agency report showed that one fifth of our population now lives in poverty and that the gap between the wealthy and less well-off in society has widened over the past seven years of the Taoiseach’s Administration.
This reshuffle is about a change of image. I do not believe it is about a change of substance, but hope I can be proved wrong and that the Government will deliver on some of its broken promises. I remind the Taoiseach that after the European and local elections in June he said: “We lost this election, there is no doubt about that. Sinn Féin won it.” If the Government delivers, as I hope it will, on some of its broken promises because it fears the rise of Sinn Féin, that is well and good and all the more reason the electorate should continue to support Sinn Féin in ever-growing numbers.
On the other hand, this reshuffle has undoubtedly increased the Progressive Democrats’ power in Cabinet. That party did not run a single candidate in the European elections and failed miserably in the recent local government elections, with its city and council numbers dropping from 25 to 19. However, in the words of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform who retains a clear hold on his portfolio, this is the party that believes inequality is a good thing for society. The Tánaiste and Progressive Democrats leader has taken over the health portfolio and will be in charge of what I can only describe as one of the most inequitable health systems in Europe. I predict the purpose and intent of that is that we will yet come to recognise and realise that the names Hanly and Harney were inevitably going to become synonymous. That is a vista that must create real concern throughout the length and breadth of this jurisdiction.
The Progressive Democrats, without doubt, imposes its ideology on Fianna Fáil. The latter party’s backbenchers who paraded to the plinth in the aftermath of the June elections to complain of the Progressive Democrats influence are complicit in that. They cannot pretend innocence of surrender to the Progressive Democrats of whatever social conscience Fianna Fáil had. It had a conscience and many good people in the organisation wish it was in evidence now.
This reshuffle will do nothing to reassure or assuage the fears of many ordinary Fianna Fáil supporters who, in contrast to many cynical backbenchers in this House, are disillusioned by why and how this Government has become so identified with the perpetuation of and increase in inequality, despite a decade of unprecedented prosperity. Many genuinely believed that their party represented fair play and protection for the vulnerable. Many in my family did and I grew from that root. It is time for people who support Fianna Fáil to ask themselves a simple questions. Where is the spiritual home of Fianna Fáil today? Is it in Bodenstown or Punchestown?
The Minister comes into office with that Progressive Democrats promise already broken. Almost 100,000 fewer people have medical cards now than in 1997 and the income guidelines have been allowed to drag behind inflation. Families, especially children, are suffering as a result, and I have spoken in the House on this issue on many occasions. While I wish the Minister well in her new portfolio, I must point out that she will be judged carefully on all these matters in the future.
Mr. J. Higgins: I wish I had time to go through the Government appointments in detail and comment on them, but I do not. I sincerely hope the Army chiefs of staff have already locked up the tanks lest Corporal Willie makes a beeline for the Curragh to play with the new toys the Taoiseach has given him.
Mr. J. Higgins: I do not congratulate the Taoiseach, nor any member of the Government appointed today. No matter what face we put on this Cabinet, we still have a Government that is right wing in the extreme and which will continue to push reactionary neo-liberal policies across the board. We will get a Government that continues the policies of the past, the handing over of crucial public assets to private greed in the form of privatisation, placing an increasing number of burdens on working people while giving mass tax breaks to big business, thus allowing profiteers and speculators to continue to put a home out of the reach of ordinary working people. It will continue to bend a suppliant knee to the United States and British imperial powers and continue the unmitigated disaster this has given us in Iraq.
On one issue alone, any Government responsible for and standing over what is being done to our national airline, Aer Lingus, deserves a summary dismissal. It beggars belief that a management appointed to Aer Lingus to protect the interests of the taxpayer and the thousands of Aer Lingus workers who have made the national airline a dependable and vital service should be allowed to sit in its office and plot the destruction of 1,300 jobs and announce its wish to make this public asset its personal private property through privatisation.
The management team entrusted to look after the interests of the taxpayer sat down with financial speculators to discuss how section after section of the national airline could be outsourced and asset stripped so that they could take command and enrich themselves obscenely in the process.
The conflict of interest in Aer Lingus is so breathtaking that in any jurisdiction where even the slightest modicum of bourgeois ethics prevail, such a management team would long ago have been summarily dismissed. Far from doing so, the Government is conniving in this piracy and it is incredible that the media, which regard themselves as watchdogs, do not even raise an eyelid.
Working people cannot look to the Government with any comfort. Even the hospital trolleys must be rattling at the prospect of the Tánaiste, Deputy Harney, becoming Minister for Health and Children, let alone the old or the sick who will be dependent on further investment in that area. Communities, workers and trade unionists must mobilise their own power and strength to counterpoise these reactionary policies. They certainly cannot depend on this Government.
My wish is that the new Cabinet will take on board the results of the local elections, accept the message and act accordingly for the good of the country. As a west of Ireland Deputy, the good of the country matters and not the good of the east at the expense of the west, which has been the case over the past two years and under previous Governments. The review of the national development plan highlights an underspend in the BMW region. The challenge for the new Cabinet is to ensure there is equity in the way in which Government decisions are made so that people in the west are not treated as second class citizens consigned to an existence where they must battle on a daily basis with an outmoded, outdated infrastructure, elements of which would be an embarrassment to Third World countries.
Sewage is flowing along our streets, a number of national secondary roads will not facilitate the passage of two trucks and our railways, which in the past were vibrant, are disused, overgrown and deserted while our children, the future of the country, are piled into decrepit classrooms. That is the reality of life in the west. Six months into the life of the Government, the national spatial strategy, a vital blueprint for the future balanced development of the State, was published but the Government has done absolutely nothing to underpin it, except launch it and talk about it. Subsequent action on decentralisation illustrates the Government is not engaged in strategic thinking because there is no cohesion or synergy between the national spatial strategy and the decentralisation programme.
The people of the west were content to follow a particular political philosophy for years, irrespective of delivery to the region, but the results of recent elections indicate they are no longer prepared to accept lip service. They have demonstrated they want equal treatment and their fair share and they are no longer happy to exist on the crumbs that fall from the Cabinet table. They are fed up of unfulfilled promises. Tuam hospital in my constituency is an example. The Taoiseach, when in opposition and on his appointment to office, promised to provide the hospital, as did the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Martin, but they reneged on their promises. I call on the new Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, to deliver on these premises.
Mr. Sargent: I congratulate the new Ministers and commiserate with those who did not get preferment. However, the changes leave me quite cold. The message from the local and European elections was clear and there was an opportunity to make changes not only in personnel but also in regard to the Departments. For example, there is not a Department of consumer affairs and a number of Departments are in need of reform as well as a change in personnel.
Instead, a Politburo-type approach has been adopted whereby seniority is the determining factor in appointments. Nobody elected for the first time in 2002 has been promoted. The Taoiseach is going through the motions by creaming off those who have been in office for a while for retirement and bringing on another batch of Deputies in a mechanical and uninspiring manner. This is a missed opportunity and it is sad. The spin on the nominations is that they represent a fundamental change, which is incredible, and I hope that will not be taken at face value because a closer examination indicates there has not been a change. It does not give hope to those who were crying out for change.
Many of my constituents work for Aer Lingus and they will not be comforted nor will they find cause for hope in the appointment of Deputy Cullen as Minister for Transport. The people of Clare and surrounding counties will not take much comfort in the context of Ennis General Hospital from the appointment of the Tánaiste to the Department of Health and Children. Many people in the agricultural sector who are attending the ploughing championships in County Carlow will also not take much comfort from the appointment of Deputy Coughlan as Minister for Agriculture and Food. However, the Government faces a challenge and these changes will not quell the unrest.
Many people are unhappy and, prior to the summer recess, it was clear that issues needed to be addressed radically. I warned that the cost of fuel would increase over the summer. The price of oil is approximately $50 a barrel. However, there are people who are prepared to address this issue by producing biofuels but they are being thwarted at every hand’s turn. I ask the Government to examine a number of Green Party policies that provide solutions. However, there is a lack of joined up thinking at Government level to address what needs to be done.
Lack of access to broadband technology was brought to my attention when I attended the ploughing championships as was the lack of progress on renewable energy. The Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources attempted to be revolutionary in his speeches on these issues but action did not follow. The only action taken by the Government over the summer was to throw out proposals on a carbon tax like throwing a rattle out of a pram. That was a panic measure rather than an action measure.
Many bush fires broke out around the Government while it was in the bunker over the summer and a great deal more than what we have witnessed this afternoon will be required to address various issues. Deputy McDowell has retained his post as Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform and both he and the Taoiseach have been content to tell us that Garda strength has never been higher, yet they know because it has been pointed out to them repeatedly that there are fewer gardaí where I live than there were in 1988, even though it is one of the fastest growing areas in the State. The Taoiseach is determined to repeat the mantra that things have never been better. However, the reality on the ground is different. Unless he is out of touch entirely, it will be impossible for him to continue to say that. Garda numbers will be a test for the Government, with many other issues.
With Deputy O’Dea now scheduled to take over the Department of Defence, I urge the Government to take serious action to address the concerns of people around the country before the Minister is tempted to get the Army to operate as a quasi Garda Síochána. While people are demanding solutions, I do not want to see that being one of them.
Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment (Ms Harney): I pay tribute to those Ministers who are leaving the Government today. I welcome the fact that Deputy McCreevy will be the new Irish Commissioner in the next European Commission. As the Taoiseach said, he will have responsibility for the EU Internal Market. It is a huge area of responsibility in a Union where services account for at least 50% of GDP and up to 70% of jobs. It will be a major challenge for him to ensure the barriers to services in the European Union are removed as quickly as possible, just as we removed many trade barriers in 1992. We still do not have a perfect market but the Union has gained enormously from those reforms. I thank the outgoing Minister, Deputy McCreevy, for his service in Government, particularly over the last seven years when I worked closely with him. It is generally acknowledged by fair and independent commentators that he has been an outstanding Minister for Finance.
I also pay tribute to the outgoing Minister for Agriculture and Food, Deputy Walsh. He was elected to the House in 1977, the same year I was appointed to the Seanad. In those early years I had the privilege of sharing an office with Deputy Walsh and have known him well ever since. Over the past seven years in government we have worked well and closely together both on a personal and political basis.
I also wish to pay tribute to another outgoing Minister, Deputy Michael Smith, who has been a Member of the House since 1969. His has an incredible record of service in many Departments. As Minister for Defence, he has worked with me in Government since autumn 1997.
The outgoing Ministers now face a turn in their careers. It is an honour and a privilege to be elected to this House. We understand that most the first time we cross the plinth, while afterwards we perhaps take it for granted. Over the years, thousands of citizens have sought election to this House but have not been successful. Therefore, none of us should take lightly the privilege bestowed on us by our fellow citizens in this Republic.
It is an even greater privilege to serve in Government. It has certainly been a great privilege for me to serve with the Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern, over the last seven years. Notwithstanding the fact that we lead two different parties — in the case of Fianna Fáil a very large party and in my own case a smaller party — and that a coalition environment can present tensions, challenges and difficulties, we have been able to work well in the spirit of partnership to resolve those difficulties and keep them to a minimum, recognising that obviously we have different priorities and perspectives from time to time.
I also wish Deputy John Bruton the best of luck. He will be leaving the House shortly to become the new European Union ambassador to the United States. It is a great honour for him personally, as well as for Ireland. He is taking over as EU ambassador in the US at a critical time in the relationship between the United States and the European Union. That transatlantic relationship is so important for peace, security and stability, as well as for economic success in the global environment.
If I had been listening to the Opposition contributions to this debate as a visitor to the House, I would wonder if I was in the Ireland of the 1980s when we had mass emigration and unemployment. A sign of the success we have achieved is the comment made by Deputy Sargent that yesterday at the ploughing championships farmers asked him about broadband. We should think about what that represents. It indicates the kind of progress this country has made——
Ms Harney: Seven years ago, 11% of the workforce was unemployed; today, the figure is 4%. Seven years ago, we had about 1.4 million people at work; today, the figure is just over 1.8 million. We have 420,000 more people in employment. In the last two years over 70,000 extra people have joined the workforce. There is no doubt that we have transformed the economic fortunes of this country, although not single-handedly because there are many who went before to lay the foundations. Nobody can take away from the track record of this Government when it comes to the economy. In recent years, people have come from all over the world to visit Ireland to find out how we created the economic success that this small country has experienced.
Ms Harney: Our population has not reached the 4 million mark since Famine times. We are working at full capacity. Our country today is host to at least 120,000 foreigners who have the privilege of working in the economy. I am delighted this small country can provide those opportunities to people who need employment, just as many other countries provided such opportunities to us in the past when our economic fortunes were not what they are now.
Given what happened last weekend concerning two foreign workers, I want to extend my sympathy to them and to their families. This is an open, pluralist society. Those who come as guests to our country in search of employment are entitled to the respect and dignity that every citizen is entitled to by virtue of being a human being. Human rights are universal. Those who did the damage to the two individuals, one from Lithuania and the other from Latvia, did not do it in the name of this country, which is a confident, open and pluralist society.
Deputy Rabbitte wondered why I was going to the Department of Health and Children. I do not take my politics from any ideology; I am not an ideologue. My views come from my own personal experience. My background is no different from Deputy Rabbitte’s. I come from the same kind of background. He and I were fortunate to benefit from a good education, something my parents did not have. I value and appreciate that fact. The one thing I want for the country I love is to have a health service that is accessible to every citizen, regardless of their wealth.
Ms Harney: There are many in this society who have private health insurance or are wealthy and they will always get the medical attention they need. However, there are too many others in our society who do not have that opportunity. Working in Government as part of a team, I want to play my part in dealing with what the Taoiseach described as the Government’s number one priority. We have the analysis and the blueprint — a huge effort went into preparing that. The challenge now is to implement the reform. In reply to Deputy Kenny, I wish to confirm that it will be common sense reform, not driven by any ideology. It will be driven with only one motive in mind: the patients’ interests. Anybody who thinks there will be any other agenda, whether they are newspaper commentators or Members of this House, should wait and see.
A successful economy and economic reform is not incompatible with public service reform. They are not pulling in opposite directions, but must be integrated in one vision of a vibrant and sustainable economy. We cannot have one without the other. If we do not generate the resources, no matter what plans, ambitions or targets we have, we will not be able to achieve success. Government is about choice and priorities. Even in the days when we are doing well economically one always has to have choices and priorities. Clearly, for this Government the priority will be reform in health care, education and infrastructure, particularly in the area of transport. A big investment programme will be driving that reform as far as resources are concerned. Above all, we must ensure that with additional financial resources, we have the reform programme, otherwise the money will not deliver the kind of change we all want to see.
For all of us there is a challenge associated with change. We can all become complacent doing the same thing all the time. Very often it is easier to keep at what one has always been doing, but there is a challenge in change of any kind. We all know that from personal experience.
It is also difficult for our citizens when they are asked to play their part in delivering change. I believe genuinely that most fair-minded people recognise how much we have achieved. Most of them are very proud of what we have done, none more than those who had to leave Ireland in the 1950s and 1960s. When one meets them overseas or back here, one finds they are very proud of what this country has achieved in recent years. Equally, none of us can be happy notwithstanding our economic success with a society that is not delivering the quality of life our citizens expect.
The Constitution delivers to the Taoiseach and 14 other members of the Government the responsibility of running this country. It is a responsibility from which we cannot run or delegate to others, nor will we. Notwithstanding the criticisms, this new, reorganised and reinvigorated Government is determined during the two and a half years before the next election to deliver on the strong commitments we have made in the programme for Government. In the first instance, we have committed to maintain our economic success. I had the opportunity to read the speeches made in this House when the Government was re-elected in 2002. While I do not want to embarrass anybody by quoting them, Members spoke about the economy going under and the Taoiseach was asked if we would have a soft landing. Who is asking that question now? This country was steered through the most difficult global economic crisis in recent times so successfully that even many Members of this House were astounded. We sometimes take economic success for granted as if it came down from the sky. That success was delivered only as a result of difficult measures adopted by the Government. It is certain that if we had not maintained our economic success, we would not have 70,000 more people at work and we would not be talking about increased resources in health care, education and, in particular, for people with disabilities, 2,000 extra gardaí and the many other matters to which the Taoiseach referred in his speech.
I take this opportunity to welcome the new members to the Cabinet. I have known Deputy Hanafin the outgoing Chief Whip for quite a while and she will be an outstanding Minister for Education and Science. It is a terrific day for her and her family. I pay tribute to Deputy Roche. This country steered a very successful European Presidency that was skilfully handled by the Taoiseach and involved the negotiation of a successful outcome to the constitution by him, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Cowen, and Deputy Roche. Today’s promotion is an acknowledgement of the important role played by Deputy Roche on behalf of the country. In many places I have visited, he has been mentioned as having done an excellent job.
Ms Harney: However, we must acknowledge that in recent times we have seen unprecedented success. We have a healthy economy and we want to have a healthy people but without resources and reform, we will not achieve very much.
Equally, the priority must be on restoring institutions in Northern Ireland as the Taoiseach said. Our task is not only to manage the economy and reform public services, it is to deal with the peace process, which everybody wishes to see succeed. Significant efforts will continue to be assigned to the Government’s main priority as the Cabinet works as a team of people who care. We are a compassionate, caring and sensible Government. The challenge for the new members of the Government working with the outgoing members, of whom only two are remaining in the same jobs, is to apply a new vigour, energy and determination to the task at hand. When we do that, we will see a public response. Above all else, the public expects of its Government that we deliver in terms of results and on behalf of the country. The public is prepared to support us when we do that.
Deputy Hogan asked me two years ago if I could control insurance costs. Not only have they been controlled, they have been substantially reduced. New statistics will provide even more positive news than we have had in recent times. That goal was achieved on a cross-Government basis with a number of Ministers working together. Real joined-up Government resulted in the implementation of a number of targeted reforms. We did not bring everybody with us which meant an absence of consensus. While the legal profession in particular was not happy, we had to move ahead. The citizens see the results. Equally, there are other areas of Government in which we will identify a few targeted initiatives to ensure the success of which we are capable in the delivery of public services.
Deputy Rabbitte spoke about relative poverty, but not about consistent poverty. If one takes the consistent poverty measure, there has been a reduction of two thirds over the past seven years. Relative poverty is not a fair measure. If one person on an island earns €10 million and another €150,000, the latter is poor relative to the former, but neither is poor. We all know that consistent not relative poverty is the correct measure to use.
Mr. Hogan: I pay tribute to and congratulate the new Ministers, Deputies Hanafin, Roche and O’Dea on a great day for them personally and for their families. It is nice to see new faces in the Cabinet. A great deal has been said about a massive reshuffle. Over the summer months, the Taoiseach indicated that there would be a radical reshuffle. The move from the Minister of State ranks to Cabinet for the three people involved is richly deserved. They have served their apprenticeships and done a fine job in their previous roles. I wish them and their families well in the work that lies ahead.
I pay tribute to former Ministers, Deputies McCreevy, Walsh and Michael Smith. Crocodile tears are being shed for Deputy McCreevy who took the rap from the Taoiseach for the debacle of the European and local elections. According to spin after spin in the aftermath of 11 June, Deputy McCreevy was the one person who caused the performance of the Government parties in the elections. When one hears the economic statistics trotted out by the Tánaiste and the Taoiseach, one wonders what was so wrong with Deputy McCreevy that he had to be got rid of. While that question has not been answered, the word of the Taoiseach is not the best in these matters. I understand that when Deputy McCreevy asked the Taoiseach if he would hold on to his Department if he did not take the European Commission job, the Taoiseach is supposed to have answered in the affirmative. That Deputy McCreevy took the European Commission job does not say much for the Taoiseach’s word in these matters. I acknowledge that the Taoiseach must do a difficult job.
Mr. Hogan: Even though the Taoiseach has been telling people Deputy McCreevy craved the job, the people of Kildare have not yet got the message that his version of the story is correct. However, I wish Deputy McCreevy well in his new position.
The Taoiseach did not need to hear from 25 or 30 backbenchers about what he needed to do in that regard: he should not have used backbenchers to facilitate his getting rid of a man who did a very good job for the economy. While I may not have agreed with him at all times, I agreed with the general trend of what he was trying to achieve for the country, in particular our enterprise economy.
We were promised a radical reshuffle but what we got was a minimal reshuffle. Ministers have been shuffled rather than reshuffled with the addition of a few new faces to replace former Ministers, Deputies Smith, Walsh and McCreevy. Deputy Walsh served as Minister for Agriculture and Food for a long time and did a good job. He should have been shuffled a long time ago rather than reshuffled now. Had he been shuffled to another Department some time ago it would have helped his career. Deputy Michael Smith served with distinction for many years as Minister for Defence and I wish him and his family well in the future.
The ministerial appointments announced illustrate that the former Minister for Transport, Deputy Brennan, is unique. I am sure he survived efforts to have him removed from the Cabinet for trying to reform public transport services. I know he encountered many difficulties with some of the trade unions and semi-State companies on more than one occasion during the past two years. Perhaps the Taoiseach went behind his back on a number of occasions in an effort to tidy up matters with the trade unions. Nevertheless the principle of opening up air and bus transport services to competition is the way forward. Competition is always good for the consumer. The vote of no confidence in Deputy Brennan — albeit he remains a member of the Cabinet — is notable in the context of the decisions made today.
I congratulate the Tanáiste in her new role as Minister for Health and Children and thank her, as Opposition spokesperson on enterprise, trade and employment, for the kindness and courtesy she extended to me in the work we have undertaken together since my taking up this position two years ago. I wish her well in that Ministry. Luck is something she will need given the legacy left to her by her predecessor.
The Tanáiste triggered this reshuffle last Christmas by indicating she wished to move having spent seven years at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment. The gestation period to today’s announcement has been long and not good for the country. People, particularly Ministers, are often paralysed by thoughts relating to where they might end up in a reshuffle. The Taoiseach is responsible for the long period of procrastination.
Luck will also be in demand if the Tanáiste’s record at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment is anything to go by. She inherited a growing economy, a growing labour force and a business sector with growing confidence. While she can look back on a solid performance on the economic and enterprise fronts, unfortunately, she leaves the Department under the shadow of rip-off Ireland with a sorry lack of competition in a range of areas from the professions to the insurance sector. She has presided over a drastic reduction in our competitiveness in recent years.
The Tanáiste may be an ideal candidate for the job as Minister for Health and Children. I hope she will not follow in the footsteps of her predecessor who commissioned report after report and sought consultation after consultation resulting in empathy, sympathy and no action. The consumer council has metamorphosed into the consumer strategy group much to the delight of rip-off merchants around the country given the lack of action which followed. We are always one step away from making a decision that will mean something to consumers and from dealing with matters in a similar fashion to that of the Ombudsman which sets out how and where the consumer can be assisted and seek redress. I hope the new Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Martin, will take action in the interest of consumers, something the former Minister did not do.
I acknowledge the Tanáiste’s remarks about the Motor Insurance Advisory Board’s recommendations, 80% of which have been implemented. While motor insurance prices have stabilised, we have yet to see benefits in the area of employer’s and public liability insurance. I was delighted to provide cross-party support for the establishment of the Personal Injuries Assessment Board to deal with small claims and provide opportunities to reduce the cost of processing claims. I acknowledge that the board has yet to undertake the type of work which will provide us with the opportunity to establish whether there is a measurable reduction in insurance costs. However, I welcome the fact that we are heading in the right direction in that regard.
The Tanáiste has allowed the Government to become the godfather of rip-off Ireland. Responsibile for the entire CPI figure in recent years, the Government has implemented 30 stealth taxes since its election. While we might have reduced personal income taxes, we have paid for it by loading indirect stealth taxes on to the business sector and consumers. The forthcoming budget provides the new Minister for Finance, Deputy Cowen — whom I congratulate and wish well — with an opportunity to do something to ensure we will not continue along the slippery slope into a worse position than that of 30th in the World Economic Forum’s competitiveness rankings.
Taxpayers have contributed vast amounts of money for the provision of increased resources for the health service. It would be nice to think that all of this money was invested wisely and productively on behalf of the taxpayer and the users of the services to which the Tanáiste referred. If money could solve the problem, it would have been solved a long time ago. Sadly, this is not the case and responsibility for many of the ongoing problems in the health service can be laid fairly and squarely at the door of outgoing Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Martin. Just as we have highlighted the need to end the rip-off culture in the commercial world, we must also deal with the ineffectiveness and poor value for money achieved in respect of some of the expenditure in the health service.
The former Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Martin, has been making good news announcements to beat the band in the last two weeks. There has been a rehash of statements issued 18 months ago on breast cancer facilities, although such facilities in the southern and western regions have not yet opened. There has been the announcement of the provision of another €85 million for the opening of a string of new health faciilties worth up to €400 million that have been lying idle for a number of years. Sadly, his desperate attempt to give himself glowing references for his new job not only highlights two scandalous issues in the health service — access to cancer services depending on where one lives and the number of expensive health facilities lying vacant while thousands suffer on waiting lists — but reveals the consistent pattern of the Cabinet’s work style: promise it, announce it, provide some of it, announce it again and again raising false hopes and giving the impression one is making progress but rarely delivering the goods.
I remind the Tanáiste of the scale of the task awaiting her in trying to sort out the mess in the heatlh service she has now inherited. The national health strategy and primary care strategy published in 2001 before the last general election remain to be implemented. The three health reform reports, the Prospectus, Hanly and Brennan reports, all published in 2003 remain to be implemented with the only reform so far being an even more bureaucratic and less accountable structure worsened by the added threat of the closure of accident and emergency departments. The radiotherapy report completed in 2003 also remains to be published.
Worst of all, the Tanáiste inherits a string of broken promises and has responsibility for restoring trust in the Department after so many false hopes were dashed once the election was out of the way in 2002. The Government was re-elected on a platform which included promises to eliminate waiting lists by 2004; extend medical card eligibility to 200,000 extra people; take 26,000 patients off public hospital waiting lists within two years; provide 3,000 extra beds, a network of primary care centres, community facilities for the elderly and improve accident and emergency services with senior doctors available at all times. The reality and the vista before the Tanáiste is an indictment of the Government and her predecessor. Unless she does something drastic, it will be an indictiment of her also.
More than 46,000 medical cards were withdrawn in the past two years. Since the Government took office in 1997, 93,353 have been wiped off the medical card list. Waiting lists were not eliminated in May 2004. We have not been given figures since then as the Minister is trying to find out how many are on the list following consultation with the NTPF. As envelopes are heaped on desks in hospitals which have not been processed, we do not know the extent of such waiting lists. It is a deliberate attempt by the Department of Health and Children to conceal the true extent of the problem. Instead of providing new beds, some 192 beds in the Eastern Regional Health Authority area were closed in 2003.
We were promised 709 beds in acute hospitals before the end of 2002 but that deadline passed 21 months ago and only 589 are in place. The Government promised an investment of €1 billion over ten years but only €16 million has been spent on the primary care strategy. Three years after the publication of that strategy, the Department is still examining ten pilot projects. We were told recently that the much needed funding for primary care is now being withheld until 2007. Community services for the elderly are rationed, particularly home help facilities. Those who are forced into nursing homes owing to inadequate community services find it difficult to keep up payments and there is no adequate inspection of nursing homes to ensure their safety.
Our accident and emergency services are in crisis, with overcrowding and significant numbers on trolleys, even at traditionally quiet times of the year. Fianna Fáil’s plans for such services will leave small hospitals with no accident and emergency departments, forcing many to travel longer distances for medical attention.
On every difficult issue, on every occasion when chaos reigned, Deputy Martin, the former Minister for Health and Children, empathised and sympathised but produced no action or solution. Commitments were made on blood transfusion services. Despite the publication of the Finlay report on the former Blood Transfusion Service Board seven and a half years ago, important issues remain to be addressed without which the reform process will not be complete. There were inordinate and unacceptable delays in notifying more than 24 donors, including Donor L, of the date of discovery of their infection with hepatitis C. Information I received under the Freedom of Information Act showed that there was internal dissent and contradiction between professionals when the board’s decision to contact affected donors was attempted.
We also know that more than two years ago, the outgoing Minister agreed with Positive Action, Transfusion Positive and the Irish Blood Transfusion Service, IBTS, to put in place an independent investigation to discover why this delay occurred. The process has run into the sand and we wonder why. Perhaps the fact that the new Minister is not a native of Cork will assist her in cutting through the political knot that has been created and which led to the resignation of the chairperson and other board members of the former BTSB in 2001. It is a mess that must be sorted out sooner rather than later so that patients and donors can have confidence in the blood transfusion system.
There are many parents and family members who have had to face again their grief at the loss of a child when they discovered that their child’s organs had been retained or used without their knowledge or consent. The Dunne inquiry has not yet reported and there are many unanswered questions surrounding this issue which must be speedily and comprehensively addressed. Again, the former Minister made many promises but he did not deliver. Allowing this issue to fester only increases the pain for those people.
We received indications over the summer from the silence of the lambs on the Fianna Fáil backbenches that the Taoiseach would carry out a radical reshuffle. We have witnessed a minimal reshuffle with the normal cautious approach of the Taoiseach of treading slowly and carefully in these matters. There is a system of promotion in his mind that has stood the test of time today, with those who were expecting promotion being disappointed at both senior and junior level. This reshuffle was a political damp squib.
Mr. Curran: I congratulate all those who received an appointment today from the Taoiseach, particularly the Minister of State, Deputy Tom Kitt, whom I describe as a friend and who has a hard act to follow in the previous Chief Whip, Deputy Hanafin. I also congratulate my constituency colleague, the Tánaiste, Deputy Harney, who is going to the Department of Health and Children. It is a challenging position but I have no doubt that she will deal with it effectively. She is single-minded and focused and will bring a radical approach to the Department.
I assure those Opposition Members who wonder about the co-operation between Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats that we have a very good working relationship, none better than the Tánaiste and myself.
A key objective of the programme for Government is to sustain a strong economy and to keep Government finances close to balance or in surplus. This is a responsibility with which the new Minister for Finance, Deputy Cowen, has been charged in the period ahead. His record as a Minister points to someone who will not be found wanting in dealing with the major challenges over the next few years and beyond.
Like Deputy Hogan, I pay tribute to Deputy McCreevy whose management of a complex brief over the past seven years has been exceptional. As Minister for Finance he presided over the longest sustained period of economic growth in Irish history and wisely used that growth to ensure real social progress. Even during the recent global economic slowdown, the Irish economy remained remarkably resilient thanks in no small part to prudent management of the public finances.
It is worth pointing out that as Minister for Finance over seven successive budgets, Deputy McCreevy generated policies that have been responsible for the creation of 420,000 jobs, long-term unemployment falling by 80% since 1997, €5 billion in tax cuts being returned to workers, sustained investment in public services with €40 billion being spent this year, economic growth averaging 8% per annum since 1997 and Ireland having the second lowest debt level in the eurozone. Deputy McCreevy may have his detractors on the Opposition benches but these facts speak loud and clear.
Mr. Curran: No I was not. He has done more than the critics could have ever dreamed and no Minister for Finance can claim to have achieved more. Those critics who would have people believe that these are the worst of times would do well to pause and reflect on the fact that last year Ireland’s economy experienced real growth of nearly 4% of gross domestic product, GDP. That is compared with an estimated eurozone growth rate of less than 0.5%. The latest report from the ESRI indicates that our economy will grow by almost 5% this year with an even stronger performance expected next year. Ireland is set to benefit from the global economic recovery. This has happened not by chance but because of the prudent policies we pursued in the first phase of this Government. Our prudent approach during the downturn kept Ireland working.
The Government’s record in jobs speaks for itself. Since June 1997, when the Taoiseach was elected, unemployment has been halved from 10% to our current historically low level. We sustained employment even through the downturn, and the latest employment figures show that we are now creating 1,000 new jobs a week.
Our public finances continue to offer hope for the future. Our debt to GDP ratio, at just over 32%, is the second lowest in the eurozone. In 2004, little more than 7% of tax revenue and 7% of net current expenditure would be required to service our debt, which is a huge change. In 1997, the annual cost of servicing the debt peaked in absolute money terms at €3.5 billion. Next year it will only be €2.4 billion. Our financial indebtedness, which seven years ago was still near to the EU average under the rainbow coalition, has improved hugely and has freed up more resources to invest in people and communities.
A far-sighted measure taken by this Government is the investment of significant sums against the future demographic challenges of an ageing society through the national pensions reserve fund. In addition, we are investing twice the EU average in public infrastructure, another long-term investment in the future well-being of the Irish economy and the benefit of the Irish people.
The Government’s tax policy has been a key element in helping to generate unprecedented growth levels in the Irish economy. Our programme of lowering taxes has been key in growing employment and Government revenue. We are proud of having delivered record tax cuts which are benefiting all groups, with low paid workers in Ireland paying the lowest tax in Europe. We reject the proposals of some of those on the Opposition benches who want to raise taxes. The lesson of the past is clear. High taxes lead to high unemployment and low revenue for funding pensions and services.
It is a fact that 670,000 income earners have been removed from the tax net, compared with 380,000 in 1997. At present, PAYE workers do not pay tax on income which is below €246 per week. In 1997 that figure was €98. Business tax rates have been slashed, fostering new employment and growth while sustaining revenue. The point is often missed that while the tax rates are low, we are still sustaining revenue.
Much has been achieved, especially for low income earners, but Fianna Fáil’s clear republican philosophy means there can be no resting on our laurels — we must go further. I urge the Taoiseach to push ahead with targeting the 100% exclusion of the minimum wage from the tax net, which could perhaps be achieved in the next budget. In the past two years, the Government has done much to enhance the position of the more vulnerable in our society. Our record stands head and shoulders above the record of the Administration of which Deputies Kenny and Rabbitte were members. There is no getting away from the facts that since 1997 the annual expenditure on health has been just short of trebled to €10 billion, annual expenditure on education has been more than doubled to €6.6 billion and child benefit has been increased by more than 200%, while old age pensions have increased by two thirds.
Fianna Fáil has always understood that a healthy economy can do far more for the vulnerable in our society than an economy in difficulties. Put simply, without economic strength there will never be an Ireland in which everyone can prosper and fulfil his or her potential. I strongly urge the Government to continue to make progress on the social front as our economy grows and more resources become available.
The Government can be rightly proud of its record of managing the economy as well as building a more inclusive Ireland. I look forward to the Government getting on with the job in hand, dealing with the challenges ahead and continuing to deliver for our people. I wish the new Ministers well and look forward to working with them as Members on this side of the House work to build on the achievements of the past seven years to ensure that the Government continues to foster the conditions for sustaining employment, further social progress and greater economic growth for all of our people.
Mr. Dennehy: Ba mhaith liom comhghairdeas a dhéanamh le gach Aire agus gach Aire Stáit nua. I will be forgiven for reserving a particular word of congratulations for my constituency colleague, Deputy Batt O’Keeffe and wish him well. He will be joined in Cabinet by my other colleague, Deputy Martin, and I hope we will make a good team. Like Deputy Curran, I will look after the constituency for them.
I am particularly pleased to speak in support of nominations for members of the Government. One of the most important aspects of the Government’s work has been its commitment to the pensions issue. It deserves our support and great credit is due to the Government for the manner in which it has gone about delivering on its promise to prioritise the needs of pensioners. Since June 1997, I am proud that my party in Government has implemented the largest pension increase ever. The derisory increases given to pensioners by the parties opposite when they were last in office is one of the reasons they have been consigned to the Opposition benches for so long. In contrast to Fine Gael and the Labour Party, we believe in and deliver on pensions for today’s pensioners and make sure that others can be afforded their due pensions when they retire.
In the programme for Government, Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats gave a clear commitment to achieve a pension of at least €200 per week and to protect the national pensions reserve fund. Old age pensioners received a €10 increase in the 2004 budget, which was more than three and a half times the projected rate of inflation. Government is about deciding on what is really important and Fianna Fáil and its partners in Government, the Progressive Democrats, have put older people at the top of their agenda. The increases in pensions, which will continue to be made by the Government highlight this fact.
In monetary terms the statistics speak for themselves. The effect of the increases under Fianna Fáil is that the rate of the old age contributory pension now stands at €167.30 per week. This is a monumental increase on the £99 per week which was the payable rate on the day the self-styled champions of social justice, namely, Fine Gael and the Labour Party, left office. The increase in pensions in every one of the Government’s budgets have been real and well ahead of inflation. The critics on the Opposition benches should explain why, when they were last in office, old age pension increases were below the level of inflation. The rainbow Government implemented meagre pension rises.
The contributory pension in 1995 was increased by just £1.80 or €2.29. The average rise in the pension under the rainbow Government was €2.95 compared with €10 under this Government. The rainbow Government increased the pension by just 4% over inflation, while this Government has increased it by 43%. Deputy Rabbitte and others can juggle and spin all they like but these facts are on the record.
Most damning of all was that the rainbow Government made no provision for paying pensions into the future. I am proud to support a Government which has taken a far-sighted approach and has taken measures aimed at boosting Ireland’s ability to continue paying decent pensions, even when the population ages significantly, through the establishment of the national pensions reserve fund. The Government deserves great credit for the disciplined manner in which it has maintained that fund despite the international down-turn. The annual payment of 1% of GNP into the fund is a courageous approach which will pay dividends in the future, on which I complimented the Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy on many occasions. It makes far more sense than the proposal, made by Fine Gael in the lifetime of this Dáil, to raid the national pensions reserve fund. It is easy to spend money now but we need to plan for the future even if there is no immediate political recognition for doing so.
The national pensions reserve fund was established to assist in paying the increased cost of social welfare and Civil Service pensions as the population ages. The fund was set up to pay for pensions in the future, when there will be one pensioner for every two people of working age. Those of us who have been around for a while have probably heard every economist who spoke in the past 20 years refer to a pensions time bomb. However, the Government and the Minister for Finance were willing to work to deal with that time bomb and defuse it in good time.
I commend the Government for the role it has played in encouraging personal retirement savings account products. The PRSAs, introduced on 24 February 2003, will play a leading role in meeting Government targets in respect of private pension coverage and ensuring that people have an adequate income on retirement. Mandatory employer access to PRSAs was introduced in September 2003 for employees not covered under occupational pension schemes. Other measures taken by the Government include the establishment of a pensions ombudsman, in respect of which action has been taken with the ombudsman receiving and investigating complaints arising from the operation of pension schemes.
Other measures of which I am proud include the changes which have been initiated in the tax code on behalf of our senior citizens. There has been much talk about harsh budgets and right-wing economics but no Member of this House can, with any credibility, criticise the caring steps taken to reduce the burden of personal taxation which has exempted more than 81,000 persons aged 65 or over from the tax net as a result of the past seven budgets. The issue was of concern to many of us who knocked on doors over the past two years and I am glad action was taken in this regard.
There is no arguing with the fact that, since June 1997, more than 200,000 people have been lifted out of poverty. This is because jobs have been created and because of major increases in direct support for poorer families and communities. With other countries, Ireland is now poised to recover from the global economic down-turn because we adopted sensible policies and the Government is now well-placed to build on the unprecedented rises in social welfare and targeted social inclusion spending to end consistent poverty in Ireland once and for all. It is ironic to hear Members opposite refer to Thatcherite economics when the facts point to the inescapable conclusion that the Government parties have implemented the most generous social welfare improvements since the establishment of the welfare state.
Deputy Kenny did away with his alibi when he referred to former Deputy De Rossa and his colleagues proposing a £1.20 increase. He told them to hand it over because the money was not there to pay for it. While complimenting some members of the Government, Deputy Rabbitte side-tracked somewhat to suggest Deputy Michael D. Higgins start working for the Sunday Independent. I am sure Deputy Higgins will consider that a very poor consolation for not being allowed to run for the position of President. I commend the motion to the House.
Ms Shortall: Today marks the end of a Cabinet which has had a major influence on Irish life. It has dramatically changed us as a people and our hopes and ambitions. It has radically changed our collective value system to the point at which this could be accurately described as a valueless society in freefall. Gone is the sense of community, the role of Government in striving to create a sense of fairness and, for many people, especially the young, the sense of belonging. At a time of unprecedented economic growth to which all the major political parties contributed, the Government has presided over the dismantling of many of our public services and a fracturing of our society. It has created a free-for-all in which the rich have become vastly richer and the poor have been left behind.
This brave new world has been personified by the departing Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy. For most people it is a case of good riddance to him. During his seven years in office he devised every scheme and scam imaginable to incentivise wealth accumulation for the rich while at the same time he put the squeeze on those on middle incomes and completely screwed the poor. From the special savings incentive accounts, SSIAs, and individualisation to halving capital gains tax and the many tax shelters he has created, his aim has always been the same, namely, to create opportunities for the wealthy to make more money and avoid paying their share of taxes. If that was not enough, he consistently denied the existence of widescale tax evasion when all the evidence pointed to the contrary.
The former Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy, has not been alone. While he has been the most ideologically driven member of the Cabinet, his ministerial colleagues have been all too willing to participate in the exercise of shifting wealth to the rich at the expense of ordinary people while cutting back on universal services and entitlements. Rather than using the fruits of economic success to improve the country and modernise and upgrade our public services, they slavishly followed the American model which promotes the survival of the fittest.
For most ordinary people, the past seven years have proved a major disappointment and a lost opportunity. For the first time, the money to solve our problems has been available. We could have created a decent health service, upgraded all the dilapidated schools and provided a modern transport and telecommunications infrastructure. Instead, the Government squandered the opportunity and created a deeply divided, highly unequal and widely discontented society.
In June, the public rightly passed judgment on the performance of the Government. I wonder if it has received the message yet that people do not like what this country has become. We heard a great deal of spin over the summer, the Taoiseach having stifled any opposition within his ranks. Usually after a disastrous election performance, a move is made among backbench and Front Bench Deputies to remove the leader who has become a liability. In his usual cunning manner, however, the Taoiseach immediately announced a reshuffle would take place in the autumn, which silenced everybody. Looking around the deeply disappointed faces on the Government backbenches I could not help thinking it is surely only a matter of time before Government Deputies start to regroup in the realisation that the Taoiseach has become a serious liability to the Government. Watch this space because the mutterings and caucuses will start soon. How long will the Taoiseach survive as leader of the Fianna Fáil Party? If it wants to be in Government afterthe next general election, he is not the man to lead it.
Today’s much-hyped reshuffle has been a damp squib. So much for a fresh, new look and a change in direction. The Taoiseach has rearranged the deckchairs. With few exceptions, we have the same tired team, operating to the same old programme for Government. As for a new, caring approach, I will not hold my breath.
In the area of transport, while I welcome the change in Minister, I am not hopeful of any major change in direction. We have replaced one aspiring Progressive Democrats member with another former Progressive Democrats member, which does not augur well. I urge the new Minister for Transport, Deputy Cullen, to learn from the disasters the incumbent created and, first and foremost, to think matters through before making announcements and issuing press statements. Essentially, the Minister for Transport, Deputy Brennan, has done nothing other than issue press statements, shoot from the hip, cause endless trouble and bring the country to the brink of industrial crises in the transport companies on umpteen occasions. Only when the Taoiseach stepped in and rescued him was the situation brought under control.
I also ask the new Minister to drop the obsession with ownership of the commercial semi-State companies. He should develop them to their full potential and allow them to act in accordance with the purpose for which they were established. He should stop the political interference and allow them to operate commercially.
I hope the new Minister will concentrate on improving road safety, sort out the shambles of the penalty points system and ensure sufficient resources are made available to provide for the enforcement of our road traffic laws. The priority in the transport brief is undoubtedly to develop the capacity of public transport, on which little progress has been made. People must still contend daily with traffic gridlock which has a major impact on their quality of life.
Ms McManus: I extend my good wishes to the new Ministers, particularly the new Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Roche, whom I wish well. He has spoken many times about the deficiencies in housing, environmental safeguards and infrastructure in County Wicklow and I hope he will seize the opportunity to address them. If he forgets any of these issues, I will certainly remind him.
I also listened with great interest to the comments on the health area of the leader of the Progressive Democrats Party and new Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney. While I wish her well, I advise her not to confuse reform of the health service with the tortuous set of administrative changes commenced by the incumbent. Although she pinpointed the issue of inequality, we must have no more of the guff we have had for so long on this issue. We have repeatedly heard that the Government is committed to equality and fairness and we heard it again from the Tánaiste without any explanation of what she intends to do about it. Simply parroting her predecessor’s commitments on the issue of equality is not good enough. People have grown weary of it and she will find that it convinces no one. Let us hear something new with regard to the health service. It would be refreshing, for example, if the Tánaiste were to explain what she intends to do as Minister for Health and Children and answer some of the questions I will outline.
Two hundred thousand medical cards were promised and 200,000 poor unfortunate people, an increase of almost 100,000 since 1997, are still waiting. They desperately need the security and support of a medical card. When will they get one? Will the Tánaiste, as Minister for Health and Children, deal with the inequality at the heart of our health service? Will she now guarantee that the essential principle that the money follows the patient will apply to all patients, not just to those who have health insurance?
The Labour Party spelt out very clearly its set of proposals on inequality. We set out and explained our position on universal health insurance and Fianna Fáil attacked us over and over again on that vision. Let us hear what the Progressive Democrats have to say about inequality in our health service and, more importantly, how they intend to bring about equality. The fudge that we have had year in, year out, is simply not good enough.
The Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Martin, raided necessary funding that was earmarked for primary care and mental health services. Mental health is the Cinderella of the health service. The Minister transferred the funding from these necessary areas into the acute hospital service to fill the gaps that he had created. Will Deputy Harney deal with this issue when she is Minister for Health and Children? What about the mentally ill who thought they would receive decent community services? What about the elderly who thought they would get good quality primary care as a result of commitments made by the Government and who are now being short-changed?
Will Deputy Harney deal with an issue that is close to her own area, that of accident and emergency departments? Tallaght Hospital, to which my party leader referred, has an average of 20 people waiting in its accident and emergency department for admission. Thirty to 50 people are occupying beds in the hospital but should not be doing so because they should be in rehabilitation. However, they are stuck because the rehabilitation beds were never provided. Some 150 additional beds could be provided at the hospital but the Government is blocking their provision and will not provide the necessary money.
The Minister, Deputy Martin, and the Taoiseach promised 3,000 beds and an end to waiting lists within two years. These commitments were made to the people and were dishonoured by what happened subsequently. Will we see a difference or will it be more of the same under Deputy Harney? She needs to talk a little more about what she intends to do, not engage in the rhetoric at which she is very good. She is a great communicator but the problem is that, very often, the words do not add up to much and we do not receive the hard-headed information people need to hear. We have had enough reports on health, commissions and press launches that would dazzle one, regardless of whether they pertain to health strategies, primary care strategies or otherwise. We have been there and done that.
I pay tribute to Deputy Harney, who is about to take on a difficult brief. As Opposition spokesperson, I will not be found wanting if the Minister does the correct thing and can deliver on commitments that alter peoples’ lives and genuinely improve access to health care. However, the cynicism in regard to health care in particular and the Government is very extensive. We now need to hear more than empty promises and rhetoric.
This Government has been holed by an iceberg. The massive drop in support for the Government, as evidenced at the last elections, set alarm bells ringing, but somehow it is as if the Government is deaf. We do not see a change but people moving around into different seats. There is no change of heart or policy. The Progressive Democrats are talking about the same programme for Government that existed at the beginning of the life of the Government rather than about a real attempt to create something out of the message that the public gave the Government. I do not believe that the Government is capable of change. It is stuck, tired, worn out and past its sell by date, and the same faces in different seats will not change that one whit.
We have serious problems in our health service and sick and elderly people, who have a right to decent care, have waited too long. There are excellent people working in the health service who want to provide such care but very often they carry out their work under conditions that would not be acceptable in any other European country. At the heart of the system there is an inequality. Those who can afford to pay can gain access to health care and those who cannot go on a waiting list. That is the nature of the apartheid in our health service and this has been the case since the Government took office.
The commitments that were made were dishonoured. Somebody who cannot afford to go to a family doctor because his income is low but just above the limit should by now be very aware of who is to blame for the blocking of his access to health care.
Mr. Ellis: I pay tribute to the three Ministers who will leave office today. Deputy Walsh served Irish agriculture extremely well. When history is written, Deputy McCreevy will go down as the only Minister for Finance who kept the finances of this country under control at times when people wanted them to go out of control. The benefits of his work will be seen in the future. Deputy Michael Smith served the country extremely well and served the Government as Minister for Defence. I wish well those who have been promoted, especially Deputies O’Dea, Roche and Hanafin, and also my near neighbour Deputy Brendan Smith and Deputies Killeen, Batt O’Keeffe, Seán Power and Conor Lenihan.
We have heard from many people in recent times in regard to the health service. This Government’s commitment to health and personal social services is reflected in its very significant extra investment in this area over recent years. Today’s annual investment of over €10 billion represents a 188% increase in seven years and has allowed work to commence on 88% of the 121 actions set out in the health strategy action plan at this relatively early stage in its implementation.
This unprecedented level of investment has brought significant results, a whole range of additional services provided in all the major programmes of care and record levels of activity in the acute hospital system. In conjunction with the massive investment we have seen in our health services over the past seven years is the reforming zeal that Deputy Martin has brought to his portfolio, as evidenced in the far-seeing reforms he has brought about, which will pay dividends into the future.
The existing health service structures have been in place for more than 30 years. I remember when the late Erskine Childers, as Minister for Health, brought about the changes that set up the health boards. In the past thirty years, major improvements in services have been implemented. There is no comparison between the services that were available at the beginning of this period and those available to people today. During his term of office, Deputy Martin rightly identified that as we move forward in trying to further build the system, we must make sure that the structures are able to deal with the challenges of the 21st century. These challenges are enormous.
It is reassuring to hear that it will be a central priority of this Administration to continue to deliver the health service reform programme begun by Deputy Martin to modernise health structures so they can deal with the demands placed on the system now and over the coming years. Every Member in this House knows that central to this is the ability to deliver a high quality of service for people on a consistent national basis. People do not always recognise that sickness can come about very quickly. Nobody knows when a flu epidemic, for example, will lead to people having to use trolleys in hospitals.
Without doubt, the Government decision to reform the health services is both radical and challenging. It is a testimony to the determination that Deputy Martin has shown that the implementation of the health reform programme is broad-ranging and that tangible steps have already been taken towards progressing the necessary structural reform of the health system. The Hanly task force report is just one element in this process and despite the scare-mongering from the “can’t do anything, won’t do anything” brigade on the other side of House, the Government deserves to be commended for setting forth on implementing the most comprehensive reform programme in the recent history of Irish health care.
As Deputies are aware, it has been this Government which has announced decisions regarding a new health services executive which will include a national hospital office, a primary and continuing care directorate and a shared services centre. Taken together, these structural reforms represent the biggest single national reorganisation of the health system since Erskine Childers introduced the health boards. Work is well under way to make these changes a reality. The health boards and other health agencies are already working closely with the Department of Health and Children to put flesh on the organisational structures decided upon by the Government.
In terms of reform, our record of leading progressive change stands in stark comparison to the sorry comments made by the Labour Party spokesperson on health who, in a most damning indictment of that party’s credibility on health issues, two days before the general election conceded that her party’s health policy was “not workable for five years.” I have listened many times to Opposition Deputies in the past two years trying to distort the Government’s record and the achievements of those who work in the health service. The irony in all of this is that many of those who are predicting the worst and criticising us for bringing forward innovative reforms are the same people who trooped through the division lobbies in Leinster House in support of the shameful record of the rainbow coalition. There is no need for a reminder on the amount of money spent by the last coalition on health in its last year. No multi-annual funding was provided for capital projects. It is near impossible to plan and construct large projects on the basis of year-on-year funding. The decision to provide for multi-annual funding is one of the greatest taken by the Government. Through the mid-1990s the health system was crying out for development funding. Renovations and new buildings were required. However, the coalition of the callous refused the necessary funding. In 1997 it actually made cut-backs in this key area. In 1996 €152 million was spent on health capital projects. In its final budget in 1997 this was cut to €138 million, a cut of nearly 10%.
I know that the Deputies opposite will say they did not have the benefit of the boom that the policies of the Government have generated but I reject that argument as an excuse. While a shortage of funding can excuse early failings in terms of health system reform, by 1996 there was sufficient funding available to advance the agenda of reform. This simply was not done. What was absent was the political will. Starting from the low base left by the rainbow coalition, Fianna Fáil has since increased the health spend to over €10 billion, an increase of over 162%.
Since Deputy Bertie Ahern formed his first Administration, the last seven years have brought substantial additional spending on health care; capital projects, staff and the day-to-day running of a continually increasing level of services. More and more patients and clients have benefited from the extra resources we have put into the health system.
I want to say a few words about the national treatment purchase fund, for which there is a multidisciplinary team which has been working with individual hospitals to identify patients on waiting lists. This initiative has made considerable progress in tackling waiting lists. On 4 May 2004 the fund reported that waiting times had fallen significantly with 37% of patients now waiting between three and six months and 43% waiting between six and 12 months for surgery. The fund has the available capacity to treat additional numbers of patients and will continue to focus on reducing waiting times even further. If referrals can be maintained at the level of the fund’s full capacity, it expects waiting times for surgical operations should be reduced further to bring them into line with the health strategy targets of three to six months.
I congratulate Deputy Martin on his achievements on which I know the Tánaiste will follow up. I hope that Manorhamilton, where the North Western Health Board was located, will receive significant consideration when it comes to the allocation of new sections under the new health strategy. I wish the Tánaiste and the new Ministers well and know that when we go to the electorate in three years time, they will give us the same rousing endorsement that they gave us in 2002.
Mr. Glennon: I congratulate the new Ministers on their appointment today, as well as the outgoing Ministers who have served with such distinction. I was listening to the speeches in my room before I came to the House. The common thread running through them was the honour to serve not only as a Deputy in this House, but particularly to be asked to serve in Cabinet or a junior ministerial role. I know that the outgoing Ministers did so with distinction for many years. I have no doubt that their successors will continue to do so in the best traditions of their parties and this House.
I welcome the opportunity to address the House today and speak in this debate on the nomination of the new Ministers. Since Deputy Bertie Ahern was elected Taoiseach, Fianna Fáil and our partners, the Progressive Democrats, have given unprecedented priority to education. The House will be aware that this year the Government is investing over €6.5 billion in the education system. Our prioritisation of education is grounded in our conviction that it has a critical role in sustaining economic growth and building an inclusive society.
It is to the great credit of the Government that it has provided for an additional 5,000 primary teachers and more than 1,600 extra second level teachers. We have made significant improvements in direct funding to schools and reduced the pupil-teacher ratio. In contrast, is the record of the parties opposite that their Deputies in their last budget voted to freeze school funding and cut back teacher numbers. It was left to the Government to undo the catastrophe the rainbow coalition left behind in this sector.
Far too often in this House we hear rhetoric about what should be done but soundbites are no substitute for action. The record shows that the Government has substantially increased supports for children from disadvantaged backgrounds and those with special educational needs. We have also made dramatic improvements in the areas of adult and continuing education, expanded the numbers at third level and significantly boosted the student support system.
In An Agreed Programme for Government, there is a commitment to improve school buildings. I pay tribute to the outgoing Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Noel Dempsey, for the manner in which he has gone about delivering on this commitment. It was not an easy task, with rapidly expanding populations in urban areas, but he went about it in his own inimitable fashion and set up new systems that may not have been particularly popular at the time but which will prove themselves over time.
In the current year the Government is investing €387 million in the school building programme. The prophets of doom will always be with us but the facts show this is the largest school modernisation programme in the history of the State. This morning I visited the local community school in my home town of Skerries where a magnificent new building costing €8 million will house 1,000 students. The difference to an environment in which teachers can teach and students can learn is tangible as one walks in the door. It is a great tribute to County Dublin VEC which put the building in place. It puts previous efforts by our colleagues opposite into context.
While Ireland is fast becoming a knowledge society, I urge the Minister to continue to focus on the development of basic skills for employability and citizenship. We must keep in mind that while education is crucial to economic development, its primary purpose is to provide everyone with the opportunity to achieve his or her full potential, both as individuals and members of society. Creativity, tolerance, appreciation of diversity and social skills, also form an important part of education in the knowledge society. The move towards a knowledge-based society means that education and training systems gain even greater importance. An education system that delivers the goods in respect of economic development while also delivering on social justice must be put in place. An education system which is utilitarian in nature and focused solely on economic benefits should be classified as a failure. Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats in Government will never travel that road.
For Fianna Fáil, education has always been unquestionably the key route to escaping from the effects of inter-generational disadvantage and poverty. Building an inclusive society requires targeted additional interventions for those of our citizens who need particular help to access education, continue through the system and successfully complete their studies. Keeping all our young people in school at least to completion of upper secondary education must remain a key priority. I commend the Government for the significant progress to date.
The percentage of 85.6% of 22 year-olds in Ireland with upper secondary education is a full 10% above the EU average. In acknowledging that success, we must aim higher. I am confident that this Government, and in particular, Deputy Hanafin in her new brief, will act accordingly. I commend the motion to the House.
Aengus Ó Snodaigh: Ba mhaith liom comhghairdeas a ghabháil leis na Teachtaí Dermot Ahern agus Willie O’Dea as a nAireacht agus tá mé ag tnúth obair leo sna portfolios nua sin. Ba mhaith liom comhghairdeas a ghabháil leis an Aoire nua, an Teachta Tom Kitt, agus tá súil agam obair leis mar Aoire, go háirithe i leith leasaithe Dála atá ag teastáil go mór.
The most significant move in this so-called Cabinet reshuffle is the retention of the Progressive Democrats Deputy McDowell in the ministerial post with responsibility for justice, equality and human rights. On a purely politically selfish level, I thank the Taoiseach for doing Sinn Féin a great favour. I thank Deputy McDowell because he has been the single most helpful member of the Cabinet in securing Sinn Féin’s ongoing electoral successes. As the personification of the regressive right-wing political and social agenda in his unparalleled egotism, his class arrogance and his ridiculous penchant for adopting failed policies from other jurisdictions, he is great fun to campaign with. His actions result in a great response on the doorsteps for Sinn Féin. I look forward to his assistance in the run-up to the next general election, which is a selfish view.
However, in terms of social justice and the public good, the Taoiseach is making a huge mistake in confirming his ongoing ministerial position. The reappointment of Deputy McDowell sends a clear message from this Government to the people. It says the Government does not expect its Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, to tackle growing insecurity in working-class areas caused by the concentration of increased street crime and illegal drugs trading in those areas. Instead, the Government is content to indulge an anti-republican ideologue who would prefer to concentrate available resources on scapegoating more vulnerable people in society such as refugees, Travellers and children. The reappointment of Deputy McDowell says that this Government has no commitment to building a rights-based society and it reaffirms its view that social and economic inequality should persist.
The real significance in the reappointment of this Minister is that it confirms to the voters not that the Progressive Democrats dominate the coalition Government but rather that the Minister, Deputy McDowell, is nothing more than a handy tool to do the dirty work of the senior partner in Government, the work for which the senior partner is not willing to take responsibility. If one wishes to decode the real agenda of today’s reshuffle, one need look no further than the reappointment of this ministerial thug. Deputy McDowell is not just the medium, he is the message that this Government is giving out.
Mr. Healy: A short time ago the Tánaiste, Deputy Harney, informed the House that anyone with money can get where they want to go fast in terms of access to health services but anyone less well-off would have to wait. That is the situation which pertains and it is an indication of the two-tier society created by this, the most right-wing Government in the history of the State. Over the past seven years, a study of the parameters which define quality of life shows that for the less well-off, these parameters are negative. Health services have disimproved. Some 150,000 people are on local authority housing waiting lists. There has been a significant reduction in the number of medical cards issued. Crime and anti-social behaviour afflicts society. Poverty exists, with 21% of the population living in relative poverty and 8% living in consistent poverty. The number of children living in households classified as poor stands at 70,000. That is the legacy of this Government.
Today’s Cabinet reshuffle is a no-change situation and is more of the same even though the money is available with which to create a just and fair society. However, the political will to do so is not present. The current budget surplus stands at over €5 billion. If the political will was present, health, education and housing services could be made available for the less well-off.
I regret that the leader of Fine Gael and the Labour Party Members are not present in the House. The alternative to this Government is a Fine Gael and Labour coalition, with or without a green tinge. That is no alternative. In the past, coalitions of Labour, Fine Gael and rainbow groupings have been anything but helpful to ordinary people. The Labour Party, the Green Party, Sinn Féin and other Independent Deputies should come together to put forward a broad Left programme before the people in the next election.
Dr. Cowley: I was pleased to see Deputy Cowen shifted to the Department of Finance. As the Minister for Foreign Affairs he was proactive in the production of the report of the task force on emigrants which is a good report and a good blueprint for the future. Funding was only a tiny fraction of the emigrants’ remittances. The Minister struggled to acquire the financing. Now that he is the Minister for Finance, there is no excuse for not paying the moral debt that is owed in justice rather than in charity to our emigrants.
I hope that the new Minister for Transport, Deputy Cullen, will realise the importance of Knock Airport to the West. It is a catalyst which has always been regarded as a regional airport rather than as the international airport which it is.
I congratulate the Tánaiste on becoming Minister for Health and Children. I was very touched by her words. We all agree that there is terrible inequality in the system. I was disappointed that even though the Tánaiste stated she would make up her own mind, she then spoke of the reports such as the Hanly report which must be implemented. I attended a meeting between the Tánaiste and Cancer Care Alliance. I was very impressed with the Tánaiste. In my view, it is due to her that An Agreed Programme for Government contained a mention of units in the south-east and north-west. I ask the Tánaiste to meet Cancer Care Alliance to discuss the need for those units. Seriously ill people are being herded like cattle. These are people with a shorter lifespan, who undergo radical surgery and have a painful death. It is too far for them to travel and it is inhumane to expect them to travel that distance. I hope the Tánaiste will consider that area.
The new Health Service Executive is primarily accountable to the Minister for Health and Children but it is also accountable to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children. I am concerned that the Tánaiste will carry on like the previous Minister who treated that committee with total disdain. If that is to be the level of accountability, I call, as I have done previously, for the abolition——
Dr. Cowley: I regret that I do not have more time to speak on this. I would like to mention the lack of a helicopter emergency medical service. A report on this matter, which was two years in genesis, was completed last April. People are in wheelchairs and other people are dying because of the lack of that service.
Mr. Boyle: Is it agreeable for me to use two time slots, which would involve five minutes, given that previous speakers exceeded their time which has resulted in the loss of two or three minutes in our time slot?
Mr. Boyle: I thank the Taoiseach. In rearranging the deck chairs on the ship of State today, the Taoiseach should bear in mind the example of the other rearranging of deck chairs on another ship, the Titanic. It was an exercise in futility when deck chairs were rearranged for the benefit of the orchestra on the Titanic. The Taoiseach has merely given the musicians different musical instruments to play. Come the next general election the tune the Government will be playing will still be Nearer, My God, to Thee. Just as the Titanic hit an iceberg, in the local and European elections this year the Government also hit an iceberg. We should be aware that only one-eighth of an iceberg is visible above the water. The remaining term of this Government, even if it is for two and a half years to which the Taoiseach would aspire, will see the ship of State being further torn asunder and sinking further below the water line because the song remains the same.
I wish to point out some inconsistencies in the choices made today. Both parties in Government would like to take on a new caring and sharing image. However, there is nothing in the personnel appointed today or in the policies they are likely to adopt that would see such a change come about. I am particularly interested in the Tánaiste being appointed Minister for Health and Children. I would be interested to see whether innovative funding approaches, as suggested and implemented in transport and telecommunications, will be implemented in the health service. Will the service be broken into various components and sold off? Will there be a contract for the provision of services in the area of paediatrics, geriatrics and oncology? Might we see “Kids ‘r’ us” medical services taking care of the medical needs of our children in the future? That is the reality of the policies the Government has put in place and continues to put in place. The Government showed no sign of changing its policies today or for the remaining two and a half years of its term of office.
A similar appointment that causes amusement to members of the Green Party is that of Deputy Roche as Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. He represents the constituency of Wicklow, the home of illegal dumping, the area that now wants to take over from Dublin as the pre-eminent area for dodgy planning. It is fast becoming the region of scary decisions at local government level. That is the area for which this Minister is to take responsibility. He will be judged on his actions in that area. The Minister, Deputy Cullen, lost his position following the implementation of policies that have been the worst in terms of the protection of the environment in the history of this State. We will reserve credit for the work of the incoming Minister on the basis of how he manages his portfolio.
I congratulate my constituency colleague, the Minister, Deputy Martin, on being given a new economic portfolio, which will justify what Shakespeare said of Cassius in “Julius Caesar”, that he now has his lean and hungry look. This appointment will give him a rounded portfolio in terms of any future changes that might happen in the leadership of the Fianna Fáil Party.
I also welcome the appointment at junior Minister level of another constituency colleague, Deputy Batt O’Keeffe. We must wait and see what portfolio he will be given. I look forward, as a talisman, to when there is next a change in the composition of the Government. It will also be a change of Government and I hope those of us elected to Cork South Central will have a better chance for consideration.
Ultimately, the futility of what is being done here will not change anything in how the Government is perceived. One can quote as many statistics as one likes. I heard the argument about relative poverty that was debated earlier in the Chamber by speakers in a ping pong fashion. The reality is that not only have we relative poverty, we have persistent poverty. People are far removed from earning an average income and are further and deeper removed from the level of those earning the highest incomes here than at any time in the history of this State. The Government cannot walk away from that reality. It is fatuous to quote examples of one person earning €150,000 and another person earning €10 million. The reality is that people on the minimum wage are being taxed.
During the seven years in which the parties in Government have been in office those who have had least have borne the highest burden. We see little change in that on this side of the House. Changes are introduced in the budget which the new Minister for Finance, Deputy Cowen, will present in the House in a number of weeks. The Government will not be burdened with any revelations that it has done anything wrong and its approach will be that everything can be repaired in the future.
We still have a programme for Government that is being implemented in a fairly bull-headed way to the effect that damage, inconsistencies and inequalities will persist in this country. Nothing that can be put forward in terms of spin or gloss will change that reality. No amount of statistics will change the fact that the majority of people are not happy. They do not feel they are safe. They do not believe that their circumstances make them very wealthy. I hope that when we have a general election, which I accept will be in two to two and half years’ time, the nature of the debate at that time will present a clear choice that will not only be about policies but about the future and the soul of this country.
Minister for Foreign Affairs (Mr. Cowen): I join other Deputies, the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and others in the House who congratulated the incoming members of the Government who are joining it for the first time. I also congratulate the new Ministers of State. I commiserate with those who are no longer in Government and I thank them for the tremendous work they have done.
The Minister, Deputy McCreevy, does not have to defend his policies in this House; they have been well articulated in other fora. Since 1997 some 420,000 extra jobs have been created in this economy, there have been strategic new investments for Ireland, a restructured tax code, as the Taoiseach said, the establishment of the national pensions reserve fund, record rates of investment in infrastructure, multi-annual capital programmes, and reforms in the public service, in legislation and in pensions. It is a magnificent record and a strategic approach which we intend to continue in this Administration.
Mr. Cowen: The Minister, Deputy Walsh, has had 15 years in the Department of Agriculture and is certainly a giant in Irish agriculture in modern times. The many reforms of the Common Agricultural Policy, his deft handling of the foot and mouth disease crisis, which saved us from possible destruction in terms of the rural economy, and his support for the food processing industry and its development have been significant milestones in a distinguished political career.
The Minister, Deputy Smith, has been in five Departments of State and laterally as Minister for Defence. He has overseen the modernising of the Defence Forces and restored their morale. I know from people who were in Liberia recently that they were the best equipped, best trained and best prepared contingent ever to engage in work on behalf of the United Nations. In recent times, there was his work on the Army deafness issue, in respect of which it was estimated there would be a liability of €1 billion when he came to office, but which ended up being a liability of €300 million. For that alone he has done the State some service. He is one of the quintessential team players in Cabinet. I have had the great pleasure of working with him throughout my ministerial career and we have all learned a lot from his wise counsel and experience.
I welcome those who are joining us, the Ministers, Deputies O’Dea, Roche and Hanafin, who has moved up from the position of Chief Whip. They will be excellent members of the Government. As explained by the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste, we are a team committed to implementing our programme for Government. The alternatives we have is what is called the Mullingar accord. That is a commitment to talk. I look forward to people getting together and having a chat and trying to come up with some sort of a coherent set of policies which we can debate in this House.
We need an economically literate debate in this House. Whoever is in government must work within the macro-economic framework of the stability and growth pact to which every government must adhere. As a member of the European Union and the single currency, we must be prepared to ensure our critically adjusted budget balance is balanced or in surplus.
Mr. Cowen: We cannot have a situation where Members come into the House to debate economics by talking about providing more and more but not being prepared to say how all this fits into a balanced budgetary situation, a requirement of any government of whatever hue. I want a discussion whereby the Opposition which claims it is ready for government will bring forward responsible fiscal and economic arguments. Let us have such as debate. Let the people be informed in order that they can make an informed choice. I am confident, based on the achievements of this and the previous Administration, and the comparisons which can be made with any European Government in terms of present growth and employment creation rates, that all the indices that affect ordinary families here compared to those in Belgium, Germany, France or anywhere else compare very favourably. We are prepared to defend these policies.
The idiocy of what passes for economic debate in this House is the idea that those who want to tax more are more committed to public services than those who want to ensure we have taxation rates which are competitive and consistent with an enterprise economy and which have led to the creation of about 420,000 jobs since this so-called incompetent Government took office, an unprecedented record in modern history, but one cannot make that assumption. If that is the contention, the empirical facts are against it.
I want to quote a couple of basic facts. We often hear from the Opposition that we are not interested in taking a fair share from the corporate sector. In 1996 the rate of corporation tax under the rainbow Government ran at 38%, yet the total percentage tax take from corporation tax was 11.4%, or €1,810 million. The rate is now 16% but, more important, the reduction from 38% to 12.5% resulted in greater enterprise and more jobs being created. As a result, we received revenue amounting to €5,348 million from corporation tax in 2004, the budget target.
Mr. Cowen: I will deal with those issues but first I want to nail the lie in this debate. People must come up with better ideas. The idea that increasing the tax rates will result in more money from the corporation sector is denied by the facts. In terms of taxation on labour, in 1996 the percentage tax take under the rainbow coalition was 36.6%. The figures available to me at short notice indicate it stood at 30.9% in 2002. What does this confirm? It confirms that the economic model we should be discussing is whether we want to go back to a failed policy of high taxation rates, high corporation tax rates and fewer jobs or whether we accept the current taxation system.
Mr. Cowen: I find it amazing that each time I stand up in this House five or six Members try to shout me down, which I take as a compliment, although I do not think it reflects very well on everyone else. I listened silently for two hours to what others had to say and, as incoming Minister for Finance, subject to a vote of this House, I am entitled to comment on economic policy. I am simply making the point that when one sets a target, one must be prepared to implement the policies to achieve it.
Reference was made to the minimum wage. It was this Government which introduced it and it is the highest in the developed world. Prior to its introduction, people were taxed on everything. As the Taoiseach outlined and the Tánaiste confirmed, our budgetary policy on taxation will seek to ensure those on the minimum wage will be exempt from tax.
Mr. Cowen: Those who talk about looking after working families taxed people who earned over €98 a week. That figure has now been increased by 150% with the result that people do not fall into the tax bracket until they earn €240 or €250 a week. That is the reality and the reason we want to continue with the model.
As regards social and public services, the point I am making bears out the fact that the unprecedented increase in revenue and growth and the economic model we are pursuing have allowed us to bring about investment in public services. This includes the biggest modern hospital building programme and the biggest school building programme ever undertaken in the history of the state, an extra 3,500 special care assistants to look after the disadvantaged, support packages for 2,278 schools, an extra 19,000 people in third level education and an increase of 40% in the number of part-time students in third level education.
Mr. Cowen: We will present to the people the record of this Government over the next two and a half years. Members on the far side of the House think they will get into government on the basis of saying that nothing is happening and that they will increase the tax take and create more jobs but the facts are against them. The reason the Government will continue to succeed, like its predecessors, is that it is committed to a model which works, not just for Ireland, but is the best in the European Union.
Question put: “That Dáil Éireann approves the nomination by the Taoiseach of the following Deputies for appointment by the President to be members of the Government: Mary Hanafin,
Willie O’Dea and Dick Roche.”
|Ahern, Bertie.||Ahern, Dermot.|
|Ahern, Michael.||Ahern, Noel.|
|Ardagh, Seán.||Blaney, Niall.|
|Brady, Johnny.||Brady, Martin.|
|Brennan, Seamus.||Browne, John.|
|Callanan, Joe.||Callely, Ivor.|
|Carey, Pat.||Carty, John.|
|Cassidy, Donie.||Collins, Michael.|
|Cooper-Flynn, Beverley.||Coughlan, Mary.|
|Cowen, Brian.||Cregan, John.|
|Cullen, Martin.||Curran, John.|
|Davern, Noel.||de Valera, Síle.|
|Dempsey, Tony.||Dennehy, John.|
|Devins, Jimmy.||Ellis, John.|
|Fahey, Frank.||Finneran, Michael.|
|Fitzpatrick, Dermot.||Fleming, Seán.|
|Gallagher, Pat The Cope.||Glennon, Jim.|
|Hanafin, Mary.||Harney, Mary.|
|Haughey, Seán.||Jacob, Joe.|
|Keaveney, Cecilia.||Kelleher, Billy.|
|Kelly, Peter.||Killeen, Tony.|
|Kirk, Seamus.||Kitt, Tom.|
|Lenihan, Brian.||Lenihan, Conor.|
|Martin, Micheál.||McCreevy, Charlie.|
|McDowell, Michael.||McEllistrim, Thomas.|
|McGuinness, John.||Moloney, John.|
|Moynihan, Donal.||Moynihan, Michael.|
|Mulcahy, Michael.||Nolan, M. J.|
|Ó Cuív, Éamon.||Ó Fearghaíl, Seán.|
|O’Connor, Charlie.||O’Dea, Willie.|
|O’Donnell, Liz.||O’Donoghue, John.|
|O’Donovan, Denis.||O’Flynn, Noel.|
|O’Keeffe, Batt.||O’Keeffe, Ned.|
|O’Malley, Fiona.||O’Malley, Tim.|
|Parlon, Tom.||Power, Peter.|
|Power, Seán.||Roche, Dick.|
|Sexton, Mae.||Smith, Brendan.|
|Smith, Michael.||Treacy, Noel.|
|Wallace, Dan.||Wallace, Mary.|
|Walsh, Joe.||Wright, G. V.|
|Allen, Bernard.||Boyle, Dan.|
|Broughan, Thomas P.||Burton, Joan.|
|Connaughton, Paul.||Cowley, Jerry.|
|Crawford, Seymour.||Crowe, Seán.|
|Deenihan, Jimmy.||Durkan, Bernard J.|
|English, Damien.||Enright, Olwyn.|
|Gilmore, Eamon.||Gogarty, Paul.|
|Gregory, Tony.||Harkin, Marian.|
|Hayes, Tom.||Healy, Seamus.|
|Higgins, Joe.||Higgins, Michael D.|
|Hogan, Phil.||Howlin, Brendan.|
|Kehoe, Paul.||Kenny, Enda.|
|Lynch, Kathleen.||McCormack, Padraic.|
|McGinley, Dinny.||McGrath, Paul.|
|McManus, Liz.||Mitchell, Olivia.|
|Morgan, Arthur.||Moynihan-Cronin, Breeda.|
|Murphy, Gerard.||Naughten, Denis.|
|Noonan, Michael.||Ó Caoláin, Caoimhghín.|
|Ó Snodaigh, Aengus.||O’Dowd, Fergus.|
|O’Keeffe, Jim.||O’Shea, Brian.|
|O’Sullivan, Jan.||Pattison, Seamus.|
|Penrose, Willie.||Perry, John.|
|Rabbitte, Pat.||Ring, Michael.|
|Ryan, Eamon.||Sargent, Trevor.|
|Sherlock, Joe.||Shortall, Róisín.|
|Stagg, Emmet.||Stanton, David.|
|Timmins, Billy.||Upton, Mary.|
|Last Updated: 04/11/2010 11:10:23||Page of 827|