Thursday, 25 November 2004
Dáil Eireann Debate
The Estimates are an important instrument of Government economic and social policy. They set out, on a pre-budget basis, planned spending of €43.5 billion in key social areas such as health and education and in key economic areas such as infrastructure and enterprise promotion. The budget, which I will present next week, will detail the full picture of the Government’s economic strategy for 2005 and will contain important provisions in the areas of taxation and spending.
Nonetheless the vast bulk of 2005 spending is already provided for in the Estimates before the House today. As such, they are a statement of the public expenditure priorities of the Government. I will elaborate on these priorities and resultant allocations later in my address.
I am acutely conscious that what we are talking about today is the expenditure of €43.5 billion of taxpayers’ money. The individuals and businesses that pay the taxes to make this level of expenditure possible require that the Government takes account of their priorities in deciding on how the resources are allocated.
People look to the Government to invest in areas of real concern to themselves and their families — health, education, social welfare payments and infrastructure are particularly important. It is through the implementation of the correct economic policies and the creation of an efficient and enterprise friendly taxation system that we can provide the funds that help advance these priorities.
Taxpayers also rightly expect that they will get value for money for the expenditure of their taxes. As I will outline later, there has been impressive improvement in public services in recent years and the 2005 Estimates will build on this development. I am, however, determined that Departments and offices will intensify their efforts to ensure the best possible value for money from the very significant funds being provided in the Estimates.
The Estimates must also contribute to our general economic and social development. It is the objective of the Government by making the correct decisions in the Estimates to promote sustainable economic growth. In this context we must keep expenditure increases at sustainable levels. Put simply, there must be a close correlation between the growth in revenue and expenditure if we are to avoid excessive borrowing.
As a result of the international downturn that began in 2001, the Government had to keep a tight rein on public spending in recent years. We have reduced the gap between revenue and public spending growth and managed to consolidate our fiscal position. Managing public spending growth in line with the growth in resources and in a manner sustainable in the medium term remains essential. The Government intends continuing with this general approach so as not to undermine the hard work of recent years, which ensured that we are now better placed than most to take advantage of the current international economic upturn.
An expenditure spree in buoyant economic circumstances would simply overheat the economy, lead to inflationary pressures and excessive wage demands and cause serious damage to our international competitiveness. Throwing money at problems will not resolve problems either in the short term or on a sustainable basis. Targeted resources and reform in service delivery with everyone working for shared objectives and placing a quality service to our citizens at the centre of our concerns is the best guarantee of an improvement for all.
While the world economic outlook is now improving and we are experiencing an economic upturn, our economy will not return to the very high growth rates we saw in the period up to 2001. The consensus among most commentators is that economic growth in 2004 will be about 5%. This is a continuation of last year’s positive trend. There are, however. a number of risks to our economic performance next year. These include oil prices, the dollar and a possible weakening of the US economy. A combination of these events could lead to a slowdown in domestic economic activity. However, despite these risks I would say that the economic prospects for 2005 and beyond facing into my first budget as Minister for Finance are fairly positive.
The Government’s successful management of the public finances and the economy has resulted in a major reduction in the debt burden, with the general Government debt falling from a level close to 100% of GDP in the early 1990s to its current level around 31% of GDP. Similarly the cost of servicing debt has reduced very significantly in terms of the resources available to us. The cost of servicing the national debt in 1990 took up 29% of tax revenue; it is expected to take up in the region of 7% of tax revenue this year. Reducing debt has turned what were debt interest payments into money which is available on an ongoing annual basis for funding real improvements in public service provision.
While making significant progress in managing the public finances and reducing the national debt the Government has more than doubled total spending on public services to more than €41 billion between 1997 and 2004. We have managed to do this without recourse to large-scale borrowing and increased taxes.
Large surpluses enjoyed until 2000 are now replaced with a position much closer to balance. When the downturn came, the general Government surplus of €4.5 billion for 2000 turned into a deficit of €300 million in 2002. This indicates how important it is to prudently manage public services at the top of an economic cycle so that services are not totally disrupted and set back when the downturn sees tax revenues ebb away.
In 2004, because of higher than expected economic growth and consequent higher tax revenue buoyancy, the budget position is turning out about €2 billion better than had been targeted. However, a significant element —€670 million — of this improvement is due to Revenue special investigation receipts which are once-off in nature.
This year, public expenditure is expected to grow by 7.5%. This compares with a projected economic growth rate of 5% and an annual inflation rate of 2.2%. Overall, there is a forecast saving of €150 million on gross spending for 2004. Higher receipts of €100 million across a few Departments will result in a net total forecast saving of €250 million between current and capital. This equates to about 0.4% of the total gross provision in the 2004 Revised Estimates Volume. Of the €150 million saving on gross spending, a saving of €70 million is forecast on current spending.
The Exchequer provision for capital expenditure in 2004 was €5.6 billion. When account is taken of €248 million capital carry-over from 2004 to 2005 under the multi-annual capital envelopes announced in budget 2004, there is a small saving on capital of €80 million, €46 million of which will be used to fund current spending on justice and transport. I will return to the subject of capital carry-over later when I deal with investment for 2005.
We are providing for an increase of €2.5 billion in gross spending on public services in 2005, bringing the total 2005 provision to €43.6 billion. This represents a 6% increase on a pre-budget basis. The Government’s approach to formulating the 2005 Estimates has been to allocate resources to priority needs while being consistent with an overall public finance position that promotes sustainable economic and employment growth.
We have allocated particular priority to spending on health and education in the pre-budget Estimates. Accordingly we have provided nearly €11 billion for health, an increase of £915 million or 9%, and €7.1 billion for education, an increase of €530 million or 8% on day-to-day spending.
The Estimates provide an additional €915 million for health. These additional resources will fund improvements in services in all areas, notably 230,000 more people will now have access to free GP services, with new medical cards and a new doctor visit medical card — in total, 1.38 million people will now have access to free GP care; ten wide-ranging actions to improve accident and emergency services, including fully staffed acute medical units in major hospitals; new services for people with disabilities delivered by more than 1,000 new front line professionals to begin implementation of the Disability Bill; all new units in hospitals will be opened with current funding of €50 million; waiting times for patients will be reduced further by €20 million additional funding for the national treatment purchase fund and; and cancer services will continue to be expanded.
These significant service improvements in 2005 and later years build on the significant improvements already recorded since 1997. The cumulative increase in gross expenditure on health over the period 1997 to 2005 will amount to 205%, representing an extra €7.4 billion. Staffing levels have increased by almost 50% from a base of 66,000 in 1997 to almost 98,000 this year. This has included a significant increase in front line service staff. There is an additional 6,500 nurses, representing 21% of the increase in staff numbers, with further additional staffing increases in the provisions of therapists, dentistry and orthodontic services, medical professionals and social care professionals.
There has been a concomitant improvement in service delivery with an increase of 30% since 1997 in the number of patients treated in hospitals as inpatient and day care patients. There has also been a reduction in waiting lists with 80% of patients now waiting less than one year, which we will improve upon further, and an increase in the elective surgery rate in public hospitals of 85% between 1995 and 2002.
The gross education and science allocation will increase by €530 million or 8% to €7.1 billion in 2005. This additional spend will be targeted in particular at the following priorities: promoting the inclusion, participation and achievement in education of people from socio-economically disadvantaged areas and those with special needs; supporting our schools and teachers to ensure that we provide the best learning environment for all children and; building the knowledge society by maximising the social and economic potential of our higher education sector.
More specifically, an additional €47.6 million is being provided for measures to alleviate educational disadvantage, bringing to €462 million the total amount being spent on such measures in 2005. This increase in expenditure will facilitate measures to tackle educational disadvantage at all life stages from pre-school through the school system to access to third level education and participation in adult education and adult literacy initiatives. The area of literacy receives a particular focus, with a 40% increase in provision for early literacy programmes and a 35% increase in funding for the schools library service.
There is an increase of €67 million in the level of provision for those with special needs and disabilities. This brings the 2005 allocation for special needs to €628 million, an increase of 12% over this year. These increased amounts will fund the provision for teachers and special needs assistants, special grants and the funding of dedicated units.
The Estimates also make provision for increases in the school capitation grants at primary and secondary levels. The teachers’ pay provision will fund the full year cost of the 700 additional teachers and 700 additional special needs assistants who have been assigned to primary and post-primary schools.
In addition to the promotion of the knowledge society the Estimates provide significant additional funding for research at third level. In this context, the roll-out of broadband ICT facilities in our schools is also a key component of the Government’s strategy. A total of €145 million, current and capital funding, has been invested in the schools ICT programme since 1998. Next year will see an increase of 28% in current funding for this programme.
Again, the 2005 allocation builds on service expansion in education in recent years. Since 1997 there has been a very significant increase in the numbers of teachers employed in our primary and secondary schools. The provision of educational services for our children with special educational needs has been transformed since 1997. From a base of 400 in 1999 we now have more than 4,000 resource and learning support teachers. In addition, there are almost 6,000 special needs assistants employed in our schools as against a base of fewer than 300 in 1998.
The gross allocation for social and family affairs is €11.4 billion on a pre-budget basis. On budget day I will announce the provision for increases in social welfare payment rates next year. Evidence of the Government’s commitment to the needy in society is that we have doubled spending on social welfare since 1997 even though, over the same period, the unemployment rate has fallen from over 10% to less than 5%.
The provision of child benefit expenditure, which has been identified as a key mechanism for reducing consistent poverty in Ireland has been supported hugely by the Government. Expenditure on child benefit has increased from under €500 million in 1996 to a pre-budget allocation of €1.8 billion this year.
A particular priority for the Government is services for people with disabilities. The 2005 Estimates provide over €2.8 billion for disability specific services. This represents an increase of €290 million or 11% on the 2004 provision, nearly twice the general overall increase in expenditure, on a pre-budget basis, of 6%. Over the period 1997 to 2004, €230 million in additional funding has been provided for the maintenance and development of services to people with physical and sensory disabilities. Furthermore, an additional 1,700 residential places for people with an intellectual disability and almost 3,000 new day places have been provided since 1997.
When the Disability Bill was published, the Government committed itself to the introduction of a multi-annual investment programme for high priority disability support services which would involve both capital and current spending. In budget 2005, I will announce details of the additional current expenditure which the Government will provide in 2006-09 for high priority disability support services and I will include an additional capital allocation for disability services as part of a revised multi-annual capital envelope for 2005-09.
Overseas development aid has been accorded a very high priority by the Government. We are providing an additional €60 million, a 15% increase on the current year’s allocation, for ODA. This will bring our contribution to €535 million next year. That represents an increase of 240% since 1997 and is a remarkable achievement when one considers that the equivalent provision in 1997, when we came into office, was only €158 million.
The gross provision for Exchequer-funded public service pay and pensions is €15.3 billion, an increase of €1 billion or 7% on 2004. The increase makes full provision for the carryover of the first phase of Sustaining Progress, the payment of the final tranche of benchmarking and the increases due in 2005 under the mid-term review of Sustaining Progress.
In budget 2003, in order to control public service numbers, the Government decided to cap numbers at the existing authorised level and to reduce numbers by 5,000 by the end of 2005. As part of our commitment to address priority areas of service we subsequently agreed some adjustments to the figures for health, education and the Garda Síochána in respect of front-line staff. Outside the health and education sectors, the numbers serving in 2004 indicate that the 2004 targets for a reduction in public service numbers will be met.
The Government remains committed to the control of public service numbers given the size of the public service pay and pensions bill as a component of overall Government expenditure. The Government is determined that the full effect of the reduction in numbers will materialise in 2005 and 2006.
In budget 2004, my predecessor announced the introduction of five-year rolling, multi-annual capital envelopes designed to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the planning, management and implementation of capital programmes and projects by providing a relatively secure medium-term financial framework. As part of this initiative, Departments were permitted to carry forward to the next year capital savings up to a maximum of 10% of voted capital. This is a highly important innovation because under the old annualised system Departments were faced with a “lose it or use it” situation towards year end. If they took the former option, funds were surrendered to the Exchequer and lost to the investment programme. The latter option had the potential to encourage non-priority investment. The carryover facility will enable much better management of capital programmes and projects.
The total amount of capital carryover from 2004 to 2005 is estimated at close to €250 million or 4.5% of the 2004 voted capital allocation. The 2005 pre-budget Exchequer capital allocation in the Abridged Estimates volume is €5.7 billion. When account is taken of the carryover of €250 million, Departments will have on a pre-budget basis some €730 million additional cash for capital spend in 2005, which is 14% higher than this year.
The 2004 budget five-year envelope provided for total capital investment in 2005 of €6.3 billion, comprising €5.715 billion Exchequer and €585 million PPP funded by annual Exchequer payments. The Exchequer figure included an unallocated reserve of €120 million. On budget day I will announce a revised multi-annual capital envelope for the period 2005-09 and in the process will allocate the €120 million reserve in 2005.
It is now clear that there will be a major shortfall on the 2005 PPP component of the existing envelope. The new five-year envelope for 2005-09 will take into account the cash already available to Departments in 2005, the PPP situation and the overall budgetary situation. It will also include a multi-annual provision for high-priority disability services.
The 2005 Estimates provide an extra €2.5 billion bringing total planned expenditure on services to over €43.5 billion. They allocate significant provision for the key areas of health, education and infrastructure provision while retaining a prudent approach to overall expenditure policy. In conjunction with the measures I will be announcing on budget day, the Estimates focus on areas of concern to the people and will promote economic and social development.
Mr. R. Bruton: I congratulate the Minster, Deputy Cowen, on his first presentation of Estimates at the start of a budgetary cycle. While the Minister brings a great deal of political skill to his portfolio, he is continuing to operate failed approaches to the formation of Estimates and budgets. This year’s Estimates follow the same pattern that we have become used to, namely a long list of numbers presented without any indicator of the targets that extra spending is supposed to achieve. It has resulted in a crude approach whereby Ministers are judged by the amount of money they succeed in screwing out of the Minister for Finance.
It is an annual horse-trading exercise that is well past its sell-by date. The focus in the Estimates and the charade of budget day that follows is on incremental change rather than root and branch reform. Yet we need such reform if we want seriously to transform society.
We constantly hear Ministers referring to how much more they are spending on X, Y or Z, but we never hear about what they are achieving. That is the major shortfall that must be tackled by the Minister if he wants to transform the way we address public spending through budgetary planning. This year’s Estimates follow the very same pattern — they are big on talk but low on delivery. The budget will be another disappointment.
I cannot let this debate pass without commenting on last year’s big budgetary initiative, namely the decentralisation programme. It was nothing more than a crude smash and grab raid on the public service. It was introduced under the budget’s veil of secrecy, which meant that no Government memorandum was required, no consultation took place with the bodies or Departments affected, there was no strategic plan to underpin it and no attempt to present a business case for the proposed changes. Not surprisingly, the plan has totally unravelled. Yesterday, we saw that 29 of the 53 locations earmarked for decentralisation have been relegated or, as all the political commentators are saying, effectively abandoned. The Government has backed off, realising that the decentralisation programme was ineffective and not politically popular. The knock-on damage will survive, however, and we will have continuous difficulties in the public service, even in managing the change that is occurring. This is particularly the case with the ceiling on recruitment and promotions. In all previous decentralisation programmes, 50% of staff posts in the new locations were filled either by fresh recruitment or promotion. If that is not done in this case we will see, as was indicated yesterday, unfilled vacancies in Dublin caused by people having left their posts. We will also see shadow workers in Dublin when the organisation to which they are attached has moved, yet they may wish to continue working in the capital. It is a voluntary scheme so they must continue to have the option of remaining in Dublin.
Decentralisation has been a bitter disappointment. Fewer than half the staff who were supposed to move in the first phase will be relocating from Dublin. In addition, even those who are living in Dublin will predominantly be commuting to Drogheda, Trim and other towns within commuting distance from the capital. The plan has been totally disappointing and, not to put a tooth in it, the decision to introduce a programme in that way, without proper scrutiny or forethought, amounts to an abuse of power.
The Minister is proud that the Government has doubled public spending over the past seven years. I accept that progress has been made in some areas and there is no doubt about that, but the public has a right to expect much more. Take the example of the health sector, where public spending has been trebled. Looking at what any ordinary person would regard as the critical performance indicators of success, we find that fewer people now have access to free primary care. That is not just because some people are wealthier. We are talking about a single person on half the minimum wage who does not qualify for a medical card. That is the threshold that has been set, yet these are not wealthy people who are being denied primary medical care.
Fewer people are attending accident and emergency services than was the case seven years ago but they are doing so amid increasing chaos. If the Minister visits the Mater or Beaumont hospitals any night of the week he will see the situation for himself. Only a tiny increase in hospital capacity was secured. Having trebled the budget, hospital capacity only increased by approximately 6%. While the Minister adverts to the total number of patients in hospitals, he should consider inpatients. The number of inpatients has only increased by 6%. I accept day-care has been a success; it is low cost and has a rapid turnover. However, within the core programme covering the accident and emergency load, people with chronic conditions and people who need inpatient care and long-term care, the performance has been very poor.
It is a measure of how low people’s expectations have sunk regarding the massive health spending that an announcement by the Tánaiste that she will give access to a GP for free to a married couple surviving on the minimum wage attracts so much attention. Its cost is less than €30 million out of a budget of €10,500 million. This cost will be paid for by additional charges to the users of other health services. This has become the focus of attention in the Estimates and we are supposed to regard this as a wonderful breakthrough. While I agree it is a good idea, it is a very modest improvement.
Why are we content to see such a tiny impact on the front line from massive health budgets? The Minister boasted about 32,000 extra staff, including 6,500 additional nurses. While he is correct, we should consider what the Comptroller and Auditor General pointed out. He discovered that while the front-line staffing increased by 20%, the administrative staffing increased by 90%, which is lopsided by any measure. Three new health boards were created in the eastern region, which make it more difficult to get service. New layers of management have been introduced, which are not delivering to people at the front end. This is not made up by an Opposition green with envy because we are not in Government; this is the truth. The sooner Ministers face up to this truth, the better our chances of effecting changes.
I was amazed at the truculent response from the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. He has little to boast about. Despite the impression given that the main political priority was for additional gardaí on the streets, garda numbers increased by just 8% whereas the numbers in other sections of the justice system increased by 36%, four times the growth in garda numbers. Since the promise of 2,000 additional gardaí, which was a key plank in the 2002 general election campaign, only 81 new gardaí per year have made it on to the streets. Today the Minister has confirmed that no derogation has been given to the Garda in public service numbers and based on the Minister’s figures we will see only 92 additional gardaí in 2005.
Despite considerably more being spent on the criminal justice system, the detection rate for serious crime has dropped from 44% to 39%; the volume of drugs seizures — one of the SMI priorities — dropped by 43% in real terms; and we have seen an alarming explosion in violent assault and public disorder. While a successful Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform focusing on front end objectives should look to improvements in these matters, instead they are deteriorating.
The Minister chose to characterise attempts in our document to focus on results and efficiency, and put systems in place to deliver, as a thicket of meddlesome proposals. I remind him of a person of whom I am sure he thinks highly and of whom I also think highly, namely, Professor Niamh Brennan. She described the commitments we should have in respect of accountability for public money. She said:
One public servant very close to her, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, does not understand or accept the implications of that statement. This is a bitter disappointment from a Minister who should know considerably better and who over the years has showered advice on everyone else as to how they should better do their jobs.
I agree with the Minister in stating that the national infrastructure plan is a crucial element of his budgetary strategy. The National Development Plan 2003-2006 was supposed to mark the start of a sustained and effective assault on our infrastructural deficit. Once again a lack of effective management of this process has resulted in bitter disappointment.
Again the report of the Comptroller and Auditor General is a good source of information. The roads programme was the central spine of this plan. However, three years into the programme, when the Comptroller and Auditor General assessed its implementation, he discovered that the projected cost was not €7 billion, but had risen by €8.8 billion. It had more than doubled to €15.8 billion and at the last count had gone up to €16.4 billion, which represents a huge overrun against its original estimate. He discovered that only half of the projects would be delivered on time. Even with an additional two years, 30% of the projects would not be delivered on time.
He considered flagship projects like the Dublin Port tunnel and the south-eastern route, which were likely to come in at more than three times the original estimates. These overruns were not accounted for by inflation, but by serious underestimation of basic cost elements in the programme, which were totally wrong. When the former Minister for Transport, Deputy Brennan, was asked about this matter, he said this was the way it was done and regarded it as acceptable to make an estimate and get approval at which time the Government is committed and it does not matter afterwards. That is not good enough for a small open economy depending on such infrastructure. We cannot afford that sort of cavalier attitude to the spending of public money.
It is clear the delivery of the programme is not being managed in a coherent way around the national spatial strategy, which was to be the core framework to ensure it was a coherent PCP. The Department of Finance has abrogated its responsibility to the overall delivery of a coherent public capital programme that meets the needs of the economy and society. It has failed to ensure that proper and accurate assessments of the costs were carried out at the time of the selection of projects. It has been willing to entirely delegate responsibility to the Departments. While this might be right, we need someone to ride shotgun on the quality of those assessments and the Department of Finance has decided not to do so.
The Government’s own advisory council on competitiveness has put the matter more effectively than I could. While I do not have time to quote it, in essence it stated that the quality of analysis is often seriously defective and it is not the practice to even publish many of the project analyses. Even where analysis is done, it is not clear that the ultimate selection of projects is based on this analysis.
An unacceptable political “divvying out” of the PCP has evolved and it looks as if that will get worse this year, with big budget day announcements in the area of the public capital programme. This approach results in crass consequences, as we saw with the former Minister for Health and Children, who had more than €450 million worth of health assets lying idle because he had not anticipated the need to have staff to run these facilities, which is not good enough. Before the Department of Finance allows such projects to be approved, it must get a Minister to sign a compliance statement outlining that he or she has made provision that staff will be available to operate such facilities when they become available. This is not a high standard of accountability to demand of Ministers promoting such projects. The Government promised it would maintain its investment in the infrastructural programme at 5% of GNP. Even this element has not been honoured and the target has not been reached since 2002. Last year it fell far short at only 4.4% of GNP, a 20% fall from the figure of 5.4% in 2002. On the basis of the Estimates for capital spending published so far, the shortfall in 2005 in this target will be €750 million, although there will be an envelop to top that up.
A further element of the infrastructural investment plan, which is in free fall is the public private partnership programme. In 2004 it was to contribute €300 million, rising to €885 million in 2005, with €585 million on ordinary projects and €300 million based on tolls. The Government has admitted this will not be delivered. It stated that private sector participation is crucial but in a way that yields good value for the taxpayer. I support those objectives but it is not happening, something has gone seriously wrong. There was a high level meeting on this subject recently and I hope it was worthwhile.
The Government has also failed to deliver on its promised strategic national infrastructure Bill, which was to make the planning and delivery process more effective and efficient. Perhaps the same Minister who derides accountability is also holding this up. It now appears that the taxpayer will have to fill in the PPP gap. The public capital programme is springing leaks in many different areas in terms of quality, quantity, project selection and the ability of private capital to come in. It is not good enough to ask the taxpayer to shore them up. There is clearly a need for an urgent review of the quantity, quality and project selection role of private capital. This review must not last for months, like the review of the remaining 29 decentralisation locations, which we will not see this side of an election and may never see.
Let us not underestimate the importance of this challenge. Ireland is a small open economy dependent on foreign investment and international trade. A recent assessment of our public capital infrastructure ranked us second last of 12 countries studied. In critical areas vital to competitiveness we lag behind. We are 15th of 15 in respect of ports; 11th of 12 in respect of motorways; eighth of eight in respect of speed of delivery in the capital city; 14th of 15 in respect of broadband access; 15th of 16 in respect of energy infrastructure and 11th of 15 in respect of investment in telecommunications. We expect that we will continue to attract strong foreign direct investment and build a strong indigenous sector but such infrastructure cannot support that.
We must get the finger out. There has been far too much latitude with capital spending. If the Minister wants to make his mark and do something worthwhile he should take the ESRI studies seriously. His predecessor regarded the ESRI as eggheads who should not be listened to and thought there was no need for economists in the Department of Finance. The Minister should dust down some of the work the ESRI has done and look at what it has to offer. If he does that for the next year, by the time of next year’s Estimates, he will have a proper handle on a public capital programme that is accountable to this House for its delivery and that makes people responsible for delivery on time and within budget, where questions are asked if they fail and there is not just a shrug of the shoulders. If the Minister does that, he will do a good job.
The past eight years were unique. No Government has ever had the flexibility, depth of resources and opportunity to deliver real change in our society. If we look at the people we ought to serve, however, we can see the number of children leaving school early is up, with more not even getting beyond primary school than was the case seven years ago. The numbers on the housing waiting lists are up. People on the average industrial wage now find it impossible to buy a house but they are deemed too wealthy to take part in the shared ownership scheme. Elderly patients looking for long-term care when they can no longer cope at home have to sell their homes to finance that care at the end of their lives, having contributed to the State’s success for decades. It is not good enough and we must re-establish a commitment to reform.
Benchmarking was an opportunity to use the €1.3 billion for public service reform so that performance, reward and accountability were locked in at the heart of the public service but that opportunity was let trickle away. No union was pushed beyond any established position, no package of reform was put on the table but the money was paid. That is not acceptable when we look at public service delivery.
I congratulate the Minister on his appointment. He has much to deliver. Sadly, however, this year’s Estimates are a disappointment because they are a repeat of what we have seen every other year, with no commitment to the root and branch reform needed.
When this Government took office first in 1997 the Book of Estimates provided for a total spend of €20 billion. This year the public budget Estimate is for more than twice that amount. Whatever else it does, this Government knows how to spend. It knows how to tax too, since for the first time in the history of the State, it has obliged a majority of ordinary wage earners to pay tax at the higher rate. This Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats Government taxes unfairly and spends unwisely. The Minister is well aware of the happy situation for some millionaires who do not have to pay any tax.
Rarely in history has so much been spent with so shabby a record of delivery to show for it. What a sad and pathetic sight it is to see the Minister for Education and Science go to the plinth and admit that she will not be able to meet an election promise to reduce class sizes in primary schools. At a time when 584 pupils are sitting in the classes of more than 40 pupils, this represents a shameful and shocking broken promise. In 2004, the Government had a special windfall of close to an extra €1 billion from the Revenue crackdown on offshore accounts but the Minister could not get her act together to use these resources to reduce class sizes.
The Minister for Health and Children is no less pathetic. There is an unexpected €1 billion in the coffers but she turns her back on families who were cut off from medical card eligibility in recent years and can only offer them a half way house, a yellow pack medical card with no right to assistance in the cost of prescribed medicine or outpatient services in hospital.
No amount of spin can hide the fact that the programme, as promised, is now reduced by two thirds and long-fingered into the distant future. Perhaps because it failed to deliver votes in the local and European elections, it is now discarded as another broken promise. I feel sorry for communities in towns such as Nenagh, Mitchelstown, Waterford, Cavan and Monaghan who have been spurned by the Government’s failure to have a real programme of regional development and genuine decentralisation.
Deputy Cowen, the Minister for Finance, enters the pre-budget week with a Book of Estimates that cannot even set out a proper public capital programme for scrutiny in the House. The Minister acknowledged this in his analysis of the capital situation. Last year we had all the fanfare asserting that the capital programme would be better planned with multi-annual budgets allowing longer-term preparation. In reality, the so-called capital envelopes, as used by this Government have become no more than a petty camouflage to hide the sheer incompetence of different Ministers who could not get their act together to fully use the capital allocated to them in both 2003 and 2004. The composite result of these past two years, as the Minister can see, is a level of capital spend that in real terms is no less than 16% below the 2002 outturn. That is a shocking indictment of this Government.
The Minister cannot pretend there is a lesser demand for the investment. The opposite is quite obviously the case from even a cursory analysis of our infrastructure gap and the rising costs of congestion. The inevitable result will be further loss of competitiveness. I am sure the Minister has read the recent World Economic Forum report, which downgrades Ireland’s rating for growth competitiveness to 30th place. That is a catastrophic decline in only two years, from the higher place we held in this international league. The stated reasons are all to do with the slow pace of investment under so many headings, all directly due to ministerial incompetence and blunders. This complacency in the management of the capital programme is shortsighted in the extreme. It undermines future capacity to attract inward investment and retain the involvement of companies already located here. It destroys confidence by resuming the wretched approach of “stop and go, boom and bust”.
International investors now looking to Ireland will get these two negative signals. They see a country that has prospered, but whose Government appears incapable of formulating plans to lay down sustainable future prosperity. They see a National Pensions Reserve Fund with close to €11 billion in its coffers, including cash reserves at 30 September of €1. 4 billion, but they do not see plans to invest any of these funds in projects at home, delivering the rate of return a pension programme requires.
Another year has passed, nearly the fourth since the fund was established, and a further billion or more will be allocated to it, yet the Minister for Finance is still unable to offer the trustees a route to have some of this money invested here in roads and communications networks that can secure a return and cash flow as good as anything that Philip Morris or any other international share can offer. We as a country, have invested from Hong Kong to New York, from Haliburton to Philip Morris, but we cannot invest in public transport in Ireland, such as the inter-connector from Heuston to Connolly stations, and do what every other capital city does, serve the central business districts either by metro or fast train.
One would be forgiven for believing that the capital needs of the country had diminished. Ministers showed such indifference to meeting their targets and projects which they had set out with such mock heroic flourish when the national development plan was launched, not so long ago. All through 2003 and 2004 the monthly Exchequer returns have shown mounting evidence of problems in the delivery of these projects through the declared under spend in the capital budget column. Month after month Ministers strenuously denied this and insisted that by the year end all would be different and the full allocation used.
I recall being on a radio debate with the then Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Dermot Ahern, a self-confident person, in the late summer, when he offered categorical assurance that every cent of the capital budget would be spent. I have some knowledge of this area. The PPP process is in tatters. Like the tribunals this complex process is a goldmine for lawyers and accountants, but it slows down delivery to unacceptable levels. I do not know whether the Minister has been shown the diagram on the PPP by his Department since he assumed his present portfolio. Instead of a PPP it looks more like the type of diagram of a WMD that Colin Powell presented to the UN. Ministers are simply not sufficiently competent to be able to get around that.
Just a few weeks are left before the end of the financial year. This Minister, standing like the ancient mariner, in terror of the albatross, can survey the wreck of the national development programme, a grand disarray in the PPP framework and a domestic capital spending programme that is woefully underspent. Money, money everywhere, but not a cent to spend. That is the dilemma the Minister faces next Wednesday. It is a sadder but, hopefully, wiser Minister who must now take stock and see what he may recover from the wreckage by this time next week.
This is a dark blot on the record of a Government after seven years in office. However, this record is showing an unconscionable number of dark blots as excuses run out. The Book of Estimates is littered with these dark blots, and it is incomplete and shortsighted. This is a further betrayal of the Fianna Fáil-PD election promises. Obviously, no breach of faith with the electorate is too brazen to contemplate in a Book of Estimates that incorporates the formal abandonment of so many targets from class sizes to medical card eligibility, to ODA funding. It is a further assault on the least well off in our society and in the wider world. It provides for further unfair taxation by stealth on the Irish people through increased cost of health insurance, local charges, higher thresholds for drug refunds and every other heading through which the Minister can covertly dictate charges.
All in all it is a recipe for stagnation in the supply of basic public services. Everyone will pay the price of this Book of Estimates. Once again, the Minister has adopted the covert route and chosen taxation by stealth. He has added, yet again, to the long list of charges and fees this Government has ruthlessly increased at every turn. Perhaps Deputy Cowen does not know about Duncan and Mary, who were so beloved of his predecessor as Minister for Finance, Mr. McCreevy, in his many budgets. They featured in the McCreevy era as a typical couple with two children who would benefit from budgetary policies. I hope in this year’s budget the Minister will find time to catalogue the other charges he has added to their family budget.
The cost of inpatient accommodation in hospitals, for example, is up by €10 again to €55. That represents a 35% increase in the two years since the general election. The cost of a visit to an accident and emergency department is up again by €10 to €55. This represents a massive 42% increase since 2002. The drugs payment scheme threshold is up for a fourth time since the Government came to office in 2002. Individuals now have to pay €85 per month for prescription drugs. It means the cost of drugs for those on low incomes is €384 more per year than in 2002. For a person who has a weekly income of €400 after tax and has to pay the drug refund of 5%, that is a good deal of money.
Ms Burton: VHI and BUPA bills will inevitably increase following the decision of the Government to increase the cost of private beds by 25%. VHI bills have already risen by 100% since 1997, increases which have received the approval of the Government. The sick and the vulnerable are being made to pay for the increase in the budget for health. Rather than reduce the financial burden on working low income families who are just above the income threshold for the medical card, the Government piles on the increased charges and stealth taxes in the health service.
The list goes on with bus and rail fares, gas and ESB bills and TV licences. The myth of a low tax economy is shattered by these massive increases in utility bills. ESB first-time connection charges increased by €200 to €1,128, ESB bills increased by 14% in 2002, 8% in 2003, 6% in 2004 and will rise by a further 9% in the new year. Eircom line rental charges have increased by 6.3%, VAT on fuel increased by 1% in 2003, TV licences have increased by €45 since 2002 to €152, and gas bills are up 9.1% since February 2003 and will rise again by 11%. The point is that these indirect taxes and charges are regressive and take no account of a person’s income and how much is required to be paid, instead some are targeted at working families on low incomes and reflect the underlying philosophy of the Government that taxes are only for the little people.
The announcement by the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs, Deputy Conor Lenihan, that the Government has binned the Taoiseach’s 2000 promise on overseas development aid at the UN has come as a genuine shock to the Irish people who are rightly renowned for their charity towards the Third World. It must have been evident to everyone in Iveagh House at that time that the rate of growth of the economy would mean that the funds allocated for ODA would be very large when the time came for the Taoiseach’s promise to be implemented. Iveagh House has had ten years’ experience of dealing with the problem of the expanding gross national product so that it knows how to calculate the figures. There has been adequate time to prepare for the careful spending of the money and to make sensible judgments on some large projects in target countries to spend the funds well with an eye to long-term social and economic development.
We know the target set for 2015 to guarantee primary education to every child on the planet. In the 20 years since I worked in east Africa, the numbers of children, particularly girls, completing education has fallen in many countries. There are gaps where large-scale investment could be made in teacher training, primary school construction, training for nurses and midwives, primary health care, treatment and eradication of malaria, water supply, road construction, food security and good governance. Therefore, the argument being made in the spin by Iveagh House and by the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs, Deputy Conor Lenihan, that we cannot spend the money is wrong. God knows the list is endless where we could make a difference both through our own programmes and those we could fund with non-governmental organisations and other countries. I am not surprised Deputy O’Donnell is furious at the decision. She was Minister of State when the promise was made and she put much effort into establishing a framework to use the new funds effectively when they became available. I hope the Minister and Taoiseach will recognise the anger this decision has caused. It undermines the strength of a very good aid programme that commands significant resources but which must endure a serious dent in its credibility both at home and in the countries where we sought support in the UN on false pretences.
The Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs, Deputy Conor Lenihan, attacks Trócaire and other aid agencies for advocacy. I am proud that Trócaire advocated for an end to apartheid. I am proud that the aid agencies advocated for an end to landmines. That was supported by me and continued by the Minister’s predecessor, Deputy David Andrews. I am proud the aid agencies advocate for an end to child labour and I salute them for their advocacy for human rights throughout the world and for seeking to educate three generations of Irish people on global solidarity. They, and other agencies, such as Concern and Oxfam, represent much of the best about modern Ireland. It is cheap of the Minister of State, Deputy Conor Lenihan, to seek to undermine the work they have done.
It is a shocking indictment of the present and former Ministers for Education and Science that the budget allocated to repair school buildings could not be fully used this year. It is just one of many targets that will not be reached in education. I am not surprised that the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Hanafin, has had to admit failure in the target to reduce class sizes in primary schools. The preparation work had not been done to achieve this, not just in the numbers of qualified teachers that would be needed but also the additional classrooms that would be required in all parts of the country. Throughout the education sector, target dates are slipping or are being quietly abandoned. We had been moving slowly but surely to the goal of more than 90% of children completing the senior cycle in post-primary schools. This has fallen way behind.
On the one hand the Government remains committed to free third-level education and insists the issue is off the agenda for now. Through a steady diet of under-resourcing there is a hidden agenda at work to prepare public opinion for a return to fees through a steady drip feed of university heads seeking this source of income to make up for the shortfall imposed by Government policy.
Ms Burton: I accept that and I thank the Minister for remaining so long. Before I leave the education Estimate, I note that €170 million has been set aside for payment to victims of abuse in residential institutions. It is a very large sum and a heading we are likely to see at this magnitude or more for many years to come, thus confirming the fundamental flaws in the rotten deal negotiated in 2002. The total committed spend in this area is now heading for €828 million. This transfer of liability to the State education budget must mean that services for our current generation of schoolgoers will suffer. This sum would go a long way to get an Early Start initiative back on the road, to offer pre-school opportunities and to fund a meals in school service for disadvantaged areas. It was a shabby deal from the word go and this second instalment of the bill leaves a sour taste that does not diminish with time.
In regard to the Estimates for the Garda and policing, there will be no significant extra Garda numbers next year and it will probably be fewer than 100 extra gardaí. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy McDowell, is wrong in refusing to acknowledge this and provide for community and neighbourhood policing to communities under siege from gangsters, drug traffickers and anti-social behaviour. It devalues us as a people to accept casually the death of criminals in gun feuds. Many of the young men now killing each other were children which a proper community policing system would have dealt with or put behind bars years ago. If the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy McDowell, thinks that this is the dying sting of the wasp, I have news for him. His predecessor, the then Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy O’Donoghue, boasted that zero tolerance would close down the gangs. That became another broken promise.
Ireland is a rich country and fortunately its debt burden is low enough to allow us to borrow to meet the shortfall in the investment budget. It is beyond belief that the Government is unable to direct the resources of the national pensions reserve fund, particularly the €1.4 billion in cash and near cash assets, to enable the trustees to fulfil their mandate and include investments in this country.
There is plenty of scope to raise more revenue through a fairer tax system and effective tax collection. The Minister for Finance and his colleagues made the wrong call in choosing tax cuts for the well-off and tax shelters for the really well-off over investment in infrastructure.
The great surprise on budget day last year was decentralisation. One does not have to be a genius to realise that the most important part of the Minister for Finance’s speech is his acknowledgement of the €1 billion underspend in capital investment, over €0.5 billion of which is attributable to the failure of the PPP process to get off the ground. I do not have to be working in Paddy Power’s to know that it is a safe bet that the big story next Wednesday will be the unveiling of a super-capital budget, just as decentralisation was the highlight of last year’s budget. Decentralisation fell apart because it bypassed the normal Cabinet process on foot of its being part of the budget process. I hope the Minster commits to significant capital spending next Wednesday, which is very important for everyone, but I hope he will not use the freedom afforded by the budget to bypass the normal Cabinet process to announce with a fanfare capital programmes that have not been costed properly and that will ultimately fall apart like decentralisation.
I note the Minister for Foreign Affairs has entered the Chamber. He will remember our sharing a studio with Rodney Rice on “Saturday View” at the end of the summer, at which time the Minister, with his normal confidence, promised that every cent of the capital budget would be spent. The Minister for Finance’s script includes an apology for the tatters in the capital budget. The only thing that is saving his blushes is the capacity for the 10% roll-over.
These Estimates cannot be understood without considering their political background. They come in the wake of the Taoiseach’s statement that he is a true republican and a true socialist. It may come as a surprise to many people that I have always regarded Fianna Fáil as a Marxist party, but the Marx it follows is not Karl but Groucho, because it was Groucho Marx who once said: “Those are my principles, if you don’t like them, I have others.” One could not find a better description of Fianna Fáil’s populism. It has clearly won the admiration of many in Ireland and overseas for its ability to retain political power and electoral support by being all things to all people. Its eye is constantly on the main chance, it always has to know what way the wind is blowing and, like the politician during the French Revolution, it is always likely to declare, “There go my people. I must find out where they are going so I can lead them.”
After the EU and local elections, we had the carefully choreographed parade to the plinth by the backbenchers to lament Fianna Fáil’s worst electoral performance for decades and, of course, to blame the Progressive Democrats. One Fianna Fáil Deputy said the Progressive Democrats would be better called the “Oppressive Democrats”. Another said that what was needed was less PD policy. The Minister of State, Deputy Conor Lenihan, said the Government was perceived as right wing.
That was the first phase in Fianna Fáil’s massive public relations exercise to try to regain support. Then we had the long drawn-out Cabinet reshuffle, in which some of those same backbenchers were promoted. The next phase was when the Taoiseach changed his anorak from light blue to light red. The latest phase is the Book of Estimates which the Minister is asking us to approve today. Taken in tandem with the populist statements by the Taoiseach, these Estimates signal the early start of the Fianna Fáil general election campaign.
I have stated on several occasions since last June that if the electoral success of Sinn Féin and its increased mandate at local government and EU Parliament levels prompted the Government to adopt some progressive measures, that is well and good, and is all the more reason for the people to support Sinn Féin in even greater numbers in the future.
I have welcomed the long-overdue widening of medical card qualification to a further 30,000 people. However, that is still 170,000 short of what was promised before the general election. There are more than 100,000 fewer people with medical cards than when this Government took office in 1997.
It is very interesting to study the mindset behind the decision to create a GP-only card and to extend it to 200,000 people. That figure was not based on an assessment of needs but was picked for one reason only, so that the Government could approach the next general election claiming it had delivered on its promise to extend the medical card to 200,000 people. This Government loves rhyming off figures. The numbers trip off the Ministers’ tongues. The priority was to reach the magic number in the hope that the people would forget that these are devalued medical cards. However, the people are not fools, they know that a medical card that does not cover the cost of medicines is debased coinage. The Government is raising the monthly limit beyond which people can claim back for medicines under the drugs payment scheme. One may get free GP visits but one will pay more for one’s medicine.
It is very significant that the greatest increase in the health Estimate is the 43% rise in spending on the national treatment purchase fund. While this fund has yielded some short-term improvements in waiting times, it is pouring millions of public funds into the already bloated private health business. This will receive an additional €20 million next year. In the meantime, the public system is struggling to cope due to a shortage of nurses and other staff.
The Government has re-enforced the two-tier nature of the health system and there is nothing in these Estimates or in the Health Bill 2004 to indicate any change in direction. The opposite is the case. Sinn Féin will continue to campaign for an end to health apartheid and for a public system with equal access for all based on need alone. I am also concerned that the allocation for carer’s allowance has increased by just 2% and child benefit by 3%. These increases barely keep pace with inflation and offer little hope of the necessary improvements materialising in the budget package on 1 December.
I commend the amendment in the name of the Sinn Féin Deputies. It states that these Estimates “fail to properly address the persistent inequalities in Irish society brought about directly by the policies of the Government”. They fail to address the vital need for a comprehensive system of child care. They contain totally inadequate provision for local authority housing and for local government funding in general and they renege on the commitment of the Taoiseach to the Irish people and to the international community to reach the target of 0.7% of GNP for overseas development aid by 2007.
In other words, the poor and those with special needs will always be with us but we can spend a bit of money on them when times are good. I totally refute that attitude and that approach. The object of the Government’s economic management should be to ensure that no one is marginalised, that no one is so less well-off than his fellow citizens that he is below the poverty line. The object of Government policy should be to ensure that the elderly, the young and the disabled are equal citizens and are fully integrated in our society and our economy. That should not be a by-product of economic growth, it should be the purpose and the measure of economic growth and development.
Mr. Gregory: While there may be some superficial improvement in the Estimates, they must be viewed in the context of the past seven budgets of this coalition of Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats. The past seven budgets left this country a deeply divided society, with inequality greater than in any other country in the developed world, next only to the United States. All seven budgets were driven by right-wing policies that favoured the rich and gave most benefits to the already affluent, while giving least to those most in need. That is not just my analysis of the Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats budgetary strategy, it is the analysis of the Conference of Religious in Ireland, which after each budget produced a detailed critique of the budgetary measures and their impact on the people.
As they are creating greater inequality than anywhere else in the European Union, having been rejected by the majority of people in the local and European elections, and facing disaster in the forthcoming general election in the summer of 2007, there has been a panic move to reposition the Fianna Fáil wing of the Government to create the illusion of a dramatic transformation in Government social policy. It is just an illusion and a devious and cynical ploy to give the perception of a caring Government in a last ditch effort to stave off almost certain disaster at the next general election.
That is the context within which we must view the Estimates for 2005. Having squandered the wealth of the Celtic tiger years and created a super rich class, many of whom do not pay tax, having perpetuated a two-tier health service with instant health care for those who can afford it and trolleys in corridors for those who cannot, having ignored the educational needs at pre-school and primary level of the most needy of our children and having demoralised and ignored people with disabilities and their families, the plan now is to give the impression that this new caring Government is prepared to undo the wrongs and injustices of our society. It is an effort to divert attention from the reality of the Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats alliance, led by the Taoiseach, who were the architects of these wrongs in the first instance.
In the context of the years of neglect and surpluses of billions of euro, what is being dished out in these Estimates represent a few extra crumbs from the table. This will not reverse the inequality produced by Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats, nor will it change our status from being the most unequal society in the European Union. Certainly it will do nothing to justify the assertion of the main individual, who during all that time presided over this inequality, as he farcically describes himself as a socialist. There is no evidence in the Estimates of any strategy, or even intention, to redistribute wealth and create a fairer and more equal society. There is no evidence of a genuine attempt to tackle the huge inequities of the two-tier health and education systems, or the concentrated urban alienation and deprivation that allows crime and drug problems to fester, causing so much public concern and misery. There is nothing here that will bring Ireland’s standard of social provision in education and health care even close to average European levels.
Even the additional €205 million for services for people with disabilities, while no doubt welcome, will only scratch at the surface of the needs that have been built up over the years of humiliation and neglect. I do not think I ever experienced a greater sense of shame for any Government than when I walked with the protesting families on the Navan Road in Dublin, week after week, who, through hurt and frustration, brought their profoundly disabled children out in public protest at the appalling lack of services available to them.
The latest gimmick in the Estimates to divert attention from Fianna Fáil, which reneged on so many election promises, is what has quickly been described as the yellow pack medical cards. This is a type of badge for the two-tier health service, further entrenching that two-tier system. There is no evidence of an attempt in the Estimates to produce real change. What is evident is a very crude effort to initiate a re-election strategy. In that context, the poor of the Third World and the Irish emigrant poor in Britain have no chance. Apparently they do not count in electoral terms, therefore, the solemn promise of the Taoiseach given at the United Nations is reneged on. The most that will be given by 2007 is 0.5% of GNP, while out of more than €40 billion in the Estimates, only €8 million will be provided for funding for overseas emigrants instead of the €34 million recommended by the Government’s task force. However, we can be certain that, as one commentator said, money will be squandered on the stud farms, horse racing and greyhound fraternity once again while tax breaks available to the super rich are costing the Exchequer more than €8 billion a year. The Government continues to act only in the best interests of the rich.
Mr. Boyle: The exercise on which we are embarking today is verging on futility in the sense that no real assessment of a Book of Estimates that spends close to €50 billion a year can be done in the time allocated to us. Nevertheless, we must point out that the Government is engaging in acts of cynicism in reaction to its electoral difficulties. There is no doubt that the elections in June of this year made many in Government consider the type of society they helped to create since 1997. While the Government has a responsibility to correct the damage many of its policies caused in bringing about the most unequal society outside the United States, there is not a genuine and sincere attempt, apart from the usual knowing nods and winks, to point expenditure in the right direction.
Lessons have been learned not just from the election results, but from ongoing opinion polls as to the extent of extra funding and the areas which should receive the extra funding. In trying to meet the many levels of demand on public expenditure, the Government continues to fall short. When it reneges on the sincere promises of a relatively wealthy nation to make a commitment to meet our target on overseas development aid, the excuse given is that we are somehow too rich to meet this target and there are other priorities. We heard the Tánaiste say, shamefully, in this House that to make this solemn promise and commitment would somehow affect money that would otherwise go to the disabled. When a Government resorts to that type of cynical argument it must be confronted. The reality is that we are failing to meet such commitments and promises because of other choices such as that the horse and greyhound industries are to receive €69 million this year. Given the degree of support not just in terms of expenditure, but in terms of the Government’s priorities, there is a sense that the Government is losing its way despite this attempt at spin economics.
The most dishonest element of the Book of Estimates is the treatment of capital expenditure. The Government has decided to withhold until budget day certain capital funding commitments. It has done so by using capital expenditure to bring about real cuts in important areas of expenditure. There will be less capital expenditure on health and education. There is a treatment of environmental protectionism that verges on environmental vandalism. I note the presence of my colleague, the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. If he examines the funding available for environmental protection, he can take no solace from the Book of Estimates or the Government’s priorities.
The Office of Public Works, which has a role in maintaining and providing much of the important social infrastructure in the country, an area in which the Government continues to fail dismally, is seeing its capital allocation cut substantially. Some of the cuts are inexplicable. The budget for flood relief is frozen. Minuscule though it is, the budget for flood remedial works is cut and this was done a couple of weeks after parts of the country experienced historically high levels of flooding, itself the outcome of environmental consequences. These are the priorities of the Government and the direction in which it seems to be leading us.
The Government can take it as read that when the Minister for Finance makes a number of announcements regarding additional capital expenditure on budget day, we will be adding the figures up. The allocations that have been cut, as announced in the Book of Estimates, are very unlikely to be returned to their 2004 levels or to be increased significantly above them. This is the type of confidence trick the Government has been perpetrating throughout its seven years in office, despite a Book of Estimates that in some areas seeks to ameliorate the effects, in terms of social inequality, of disastrous policies.
This is a Government that continues to play catch-up. If the catching up the Government is doing in this Book of Estimates represents the type and timescale within which it is willing to repair the damage it has caused since 1997, it would need to be in office until 2017. We on this side of the House are not prepared to accept more damaging Government policies in that timeframe.
This is a disappointing and, in many regards, modest Book of Estimates to which we should, if this Chamber behaved more democratically and more representative of the people who elected it, give proper and detailed consideration. This is a budgetary policy that, more than usually, does not represent even half the story. We are unlikely on budget day to obtain answers to many outstanding questions. I agree with Deputy Richard Bruton that the theatrics that accompany the publication of the Book of Estimates are farcical and that budget day is increasingly irrelevant at a time when we need more responsive and more all-embracing ways of accounting for this nation’s expenditure, how it is done and how it can be done in a more socially equitable way. I have no confidence that this Government will bring that about.
Mr. D. Ahern: My silence in the face of some of the comments I have heard since I came into the House should not be interpreted as acquiescence. When the financial policies of Sinn Féin are examined one can see how off the wall they are in trying to spread resources around. I will take no lectures from Deputies Gregory and Boyle, given their economic policies, particularly those of the Green Party.
This is the first Estimates debate I have participated in as Minister for Foreign Affairs. I had three key objectives for 2005. These were to achieve a very significant increase in the allocation to overseas development aid, to double the resources to our emigrants abroad and to continue to develop a state of the art passport service and to provide a visa service both of which would reach the highest international standards. I am happy that all three objectives are reflected in the 2005 Estimates.
The 2005 Estimate for the Department of Foreign Affairs consists of two Votes. The Minister of State at the Department, Deputy Conor Lenihan, who will speak later, will focus on the Vote for overseas development assistance. I do not want to anticipate what he will say. Nonetheless, I will say that the allocation in the Estimates is hugely significant. We have allocated €60 million extra this year in addition to €475 million spent last year. Our total ODA commitment in 2005 will reach €535 million when the contributions of other Departments are factored in. This is the highest amount ever allocated in the history of the aid programme and well above the EU average.
We are committed to increasing Ireland’s ODA contribution by an additional €65 million in 2006 and by another €65 million again in 2007. By any standards this is a massive amount. We have gone from a budget of €96 million to ODA in 1997 to €475 million this year and an estimated €665 million by 2007. We will be spending €1.8 billion in total over the next three years.
Furthermore, and this has been absent from the debate in recent times, Ireland can be very proud of its development aid record. We have a top class programme whose excellence is internationally recognised. We do not link aid to trade, as most of the other countries do. We have been increasing our assistance every year. Our programmes are focused on the poorest and most vulnerable. They are having a positive impact on countless individual lives, in Africa in particular. We will continue these efforts now and into the future, working closely with the NGO community and embracing new groups which are doing great work and deserve our support.
Regarding Vote 28, Deputies will note that the €166 million allocation for 2005 is down slightly on the 2004 allocation. This is due to a special once-off allocation in 2004 for the European Union Presidency. This special allocation is not required in 2005. I take this opportunity, nonetheless, to note that the resources allocated to my Department were well spent. The success of our Presidency has been recognised across the political spectrum in Ireland and we have received huge praise abroad for our achievements. Value for money is, and must remain, the main criterion for evaluating how the taxpayer’s money is spent. It is well recognised that, in particular during the Presidency, very great value for money was achieved.
Looking at the allocations for 2005, I am delighted that we will more than double our funding for emigrant services. I cannot agree with any of the sentiments expressed by Deputy Gregory in this respect. We are increasing the allocation in 2005 by more than 100%. As a result of a decision made by the last Government when I was Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs, what was called the pre-1953 pension was introduced. The current spend on that is €65 million, and approximately 65% of this goes to old age pensioners resident in the UK to top up their British pensions. That is often forgotten when discussing the assistance this Government provides to emigrants resident not only in the UK but across the world.
The increase for specific emigrant programmes in 2005 is €8.2 million. In addition, my Department has already this year provided an extra €1 million from savings found elsewhere in the budget for these programmes. These substantial and increased allocations, which have been warmly welcomed by those providing emigrant services, reflect in the clearest possible way the strength of the Government’s commitment to our emigrant communities. This commitment is both immediate and long term. The figures will be built on progressively over the coming years.
Overall, funding to emigrant services has grown by 850% since 1997 when this Government came into office. This very substantial increase has been warmly welcomed by both the director of the Irish Episcopal Commission for Emigrants, and the director of the Federation of Irish Societies in Britain. The latter described the increased figure as “an incredible boost for the Irish community in Britain.” He went on to state how much of an impact this will make on those organisations working with and on behalf of Irish people living in Britain. I am delighted our increased support has been recognised in such a positive way by the key people on the front line.
We remain committed to addressing the needs of the Irish abroad, particularly those who are marginalised or at greatest risk of exclusion. The bulk of the money will be allocated to organisations helping vulnerable and marginalised emigrants in Britain. I intend to significantly increase the funding available in the United States and the rest of the world. A dedicated Irish abroad unit was established this year in the Department of Foreign Affairs to co-ordinate the provision of assistance to emigrants.
My third objective in 2005 will be to ensure the continued development of our passport and visa services. Before the end of this year we will produce a new machine-readable passport capable of incorporating biometric information. The allocation for next year —€19 million — is aimed at completing the project. The new passport will be produced using the latest technologies. It will be one of the most secure passports in the world and will enable us to meet the highest international standard for travel documentation and make travel easier for our citizens. I have also secured an additional €4 million to develop our visa system to the highest international standards. Underpinning the development of the new passport and visa systems will be the continued upgrading of our telecommunications links. We will continue to invest in new technology to ensure a state-of-the-art passport and visa service across the globe.
In addition to these three key priorities, there are a number of other priorities. The first is to ensure sufficient information is available on the European constitution. In this regard, a budget of €150,000 has been allocated for information material on the European constitution. While no decision has been made on when a referendum will be held, we expect to publish a White Paper and possibly other information materials in 2005.
We have also focused additional allocations for ongoing administrative costs, which reflect the cost of maintaining 66 offices abroad. These offices co-ordinate our bilateral relations with other states and our relations with multilateral organisations such as the European Union and the United Nations. Due to the significant increase in the numbers of Irish people travelling abroad, the work of our missions has assumed increased importance. I hope to be in a position to announce a number of new missions in the coming months and I will go to Government in the near future in this respect.
My Department will continue its work in critical areas, including implementation of the Good Friday Agreement; promoting and protecting Ireland’s interests in the European Union and in the United Nations; promoting Ireland’s trade, investment and culture; contributing to lasting poverty reduction in the developing world; and protecting the interests of Irish citizens abroad. I am glad to state that the Estimates allocation for my Department for the coming year will enhance the achievement of all these objectives.
Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government (Mr. B. O’Keeffe): I congratulate the Minister for Finance, Deputy Cowen, on the publication of the pre-budget Estimates, which provide €2.5 billion of additional funding for public services, bringing gross public expenditure to almost €43.6 billion in 2005.
As Minister of State at the Department of the Environment Heritage and Local Government, I was pleased with the record net estimate of almost €2.5 billion for my Department. It represents an increase of 6% over the provision for 2004 and is two and a half times the level of expenditure in 1994. It is the largest investment in the history of the State in local government services. Of this, €1.7 billion will be invested in capital funding alone. This capital investment will be focused on improving the quality of life of the nation, namely, the quality of the air we breathe, the purity of the water we drink, the cleanliness of the beaches we swim in, the standards of the houses we live in, the design of the built environment around us and the quality of the roads we drive on as well as our built and natural heritage.
Bringing our waste management costs into line with our European competitors requires that we develop modern integrated waste management systems to deal with our waste. Initiatives to support prevention recycling and the marketing of recyclable products are all supported by the environment fund.
After a slow start, the fund, which is financed by the levies on plastic bags and the landfilling of waste, is now being fully spent. Besides generating finance of approximately €42 million per annum for environmental projects the levies have had a direct benefit. This win-win situation has resulted in the following: the slowdown in the generation of municipal waste, which grew by less than 1% in 2002; a 4.5% decrease in 2002 in the amount of waste going to landfill; the acceleration of recycling of municipal waste to almost 21% from 13% in 2001; a 94% decrease in litter arising from plastic bags; the provision of modern recycling centres by local authorities; the funding of the Office of Environmental Enforcement and the provision of local authority enforcement officers, a measure which has real impact on the ground; and the funding of the Race Against Waste campaign, which is about to embark on its next phase. We expect the income from these levies to remain steady in 2005. This will allow us to continue our commitment to assisting local authorities in the roll-out of recycling infrastructure and in developing more effective enforcement, litter initiatives and other worthwhile environmental initiatives.
The provision of €434 million for water and wastewater infrastructure will enable us to continue to meet EU and national requirements in regard to the wastewater discharges and water quality standards. Rural drinking water quality is now our key focus of attention, given the recent completion of many larger urban projects within the water services programme — the Cork main drainage scheme in my part of the world is one project I can instance.
The Department’s action plan targets 500 private group schemes for major upgrading by 2006 and we are making good progress towards that target. Some 245 schemes, representing 85% of the target population, are being progressed within bundled design, build and operate projects. Most of the remaining schemes are being connected directly to local authority networks. Finance is fully available for this ambitious programme, which we aim to complete in 2005.
The Department will continue its strong emphasis on the provision of housing. As a result of the policies of the Government and the response of the construction industry, housing is being supplied at an astounding rate. To put the scale of activity in perspective, almost one third of the country’s homes will have been built in the period 1997-2004. Despite this, we will always need a well resourced and diverse social housing programme to assist low-income groups. The total Exchequer provision of €1.2 billion in 2005 for social and affordable housing represents an increase of 6% on the record 2004 provision. This will ensure that we will continue to deliver accommodation under the social and affordable housing schemes to in excess of 13,000 households next year.
For the first time, a new programme subhead of current expenditure has been introduced to help meet the Department’s obligations under the Disability Bill. This subhead will kick-start a multi-annual programme by the Department and local authorities on staff provision and training and the adaptation of information and equipment for special needs. A sum of €5 million has been provided for these purposes in 2005 and this is just one element of total planned Government expenditure of €2.7 billion on providing services for people with disabilities for 2005.
I am pleased the Exchequer contribution to the local government fund has been increased from €453 million this year to €488.585 million in 2005. This funding, which is an increase of almost 8% over last year, together with income from motor tax, will enable realistic increases in general purpose grants to local authorities for next year. Local authorities will be notified shortly of these allocations. The reform of local government structures must now begin to show real improvements. I will expect such improvements in delivery, customer service and efficiency.
I know that county managers and council members are committed to delivering better service. They were the key to the development of the newly introduced service indicators. Delivery on these indicators and on all major programme areas will now be put to the test. The indicators will be a public indication of who is doing well and who is doing badly.
In co-operation with our EU colleagues, Ireland is also pressing ahead in implementing the Kyoto Protocol. The protocol has been given a new lease of life recently by Russia’s decision to ratify it. Two new subheads are being established to facilitate our obligations. A sum of €1 million is being provided for the costs of Kyoto credits purchased on behalf of the Irish Government. A second new subhead will provide for the costs of Ireland’s contribution to the climate change funding mechanism for developing countries. Ireland’s total share will amount to €3.25 million.
The Department has continued to designate lands for nature conservation in accordance with our obligations under EU directives and the UN convention on biological diversity. Such designations can be contentious, but I am happy that the Department and the farming organisations recently reached agreement on a number of key issues. We have a new scheme for purchase of raised bog plots for which additional funds are being earmarked. There is to be a reduction in the area of farmland designated along rivers, and information to local authorities and elected representatives will explain that designation is not seen as an inflexible constraint on any development.
I am satisfied that the published Estimates will allow my Department to address quality of life issues throughout the country, especially in those areas which are disadvantaged or suffer from deficiencies in infrastructure. The Estimates reflect the Government’s commitment to use the wealth generated by a strong economy for the benefit of all the community. I am pleased to commend the Estimates to the House.
Ms Enright: The Estimates for public expenditure for 2005 reconfirm that this Government cannot manage many of the building projects it sets out to complete, whether they be road schemes, school buildings or other projects. For 2005, children will continue to be taught in dilapidated and unsuitable classrooms, and there is nothing in these Estimates to change this situation.
We all know of schools in dreadfully poor condition. There are many instances of damp and dilapidated classrooms, ill-equipped toilets and absent physical education facilities. Schools like this exist in every county, but the Government is failing abjectly to replace these buildings with ones that are modern and safe and which meet the educational needs of children. Yet with all these schools, and with all the examples of poor school buildings that can be shown, the Minister for Education and Science did not spend the moneys allocated to her Department for capital purposes last year. Following on the massive underspend on capital projects in 2003, these Estimates show that once again a huge amount was unspent in 2004.
In 2003, the Minister for Education and Science underspent on school buildings by over €60 million and this year the capital underspend to date is estimated at around €98 million, bearing in mind that some further money may be spent in November and December. In any event, €50 million has been allocated to be carried over into next year, representing a tenth of the capital budget for this year, and that is the maximum that may be carried over. The underspend is at least €50 million and is anticipated to reach a much higher figure.
Coupled with this huge underspend, cuts are indicated in all divisions of the school building programme. I am aware that a budget announcement is expected with regard to school buildings but, bearing in mind the envelope that seems to be available for capital projects, I do not hold out any hope of hearing great announcements. I hope I will be proved wrong on this matter. I presume that these school buildings cuts in the Estimates are there because the Minister for Finance has lost confidence that the Minister for Education and Science can deliver proper school buildings, even if she has the resources to do so.
At this stage, the Estimates indicate that for 2005 second level schools building grants are down 3%, institutes of technology and vocational education committees are also down 3% while building, equipment and furnishing of national schools and centres for young offenders are down 2%. If these cuts go ahead, they will further stall the schools building programme. The Minister has indicated that an adjustment to capital envelopes on budget day will throw further light on her allocation for 2005, but what are these Estimates for if not to give a reasonable estimate of expenditure for next year?
I acknowledge that there is an overall increase for the Department of Education and Science, and the spending increases are welcome, in particular in the provision of assistants for children with special educational needs and in the increased allocation to the National Educational Welfare Board. However, the NEWB has estimated that it needs €6.1 million extra for 2005 so that it can realistically reduce absenteeism, provide a nationwide service and recruit a greater number of educational welfare officers.
The NEWB needed a radical improvement in its resources to meet the current level of demand. Currently there is one education welfare officer for every 12,000 students entitled to receive a service from the board, but the international norm is one to three thousand. At the end of June, the board had 10,572 cases on hand, representing an impractical caseload of 167 per officer. Some 84,000 primary and post-primary students under 16 years of age missed 20 days or more during the previous school year. Nine counties do not have an educational welfare officer. I understand an announcement is expected on that matter later today and that the Government backbenchers are preparing their press statements. I do not know what the fuss is about because up to now there have been nine counties without an educational welfare officer, and those who think that a county getting what every other county already has is something to be celebrated should realise it is a basic necessity.
I am also disappointed at the poor allocation to the national educational psychological service. The small increase indicated will not lead to a significant improvement in the NEPS. Such a significant improvement is badly needed. Research I undertook earlier this year showed that the average waiting time for a NEPS assessment is six and a half months, with a quarter of children waiting for more than nine months. NEPS is a vital service as an individual assessment can be critical. This small increase will not radically improve the waiting time. Access to psychological assessment is an integral part of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act. If children cannot get a NEPS assessment, how will they access assistance that is their right under the Act? It is all based on getting an assessment.
There are significant difficulties in education today. The number of children failing to make the transition from primary to secondary schooling is growing at an alarming rate, as is those dropping out at second level. No real system is in place to quantify whether the schemes in operation meet the needs of the disadvantaged and it is clear that the appalling rates of literacy difficulties in our schools are not being tackled. The Minister will have to set real targets to ensure that funding allocated in 2005 reaches those who need it most and delivers tangible results. Anyone can spend money but what matters is what one gets from the spend. Increases in spending are welcome, but the resources must be targeted to help the children who need them most as quickly as possible.
In September of this year the OECD review of third level education policy was launched with considerable fanfare but has been ignored in these Estimates. We know that our third level institutions face stiffer competition from abroad than ever before. Coupled with this, a lack of resources hampers the continued development and achievement of our higher education institutions. The Higher Education Authority has confirmed that universities are underfunded and have insufficient reserves. The results of the sharp cuts in funding to third level institutions in 2003 and 2004 cannot be reversed with the paltry increases this year. Core funding to universities in the past two years dropped by almost 15% and an increase of 6% for general current grants to universities and colleges will not reverse the earlier cuts.
These Estimates show that the bad deal brokered by the Government with the religious orders is costing the taxpayer dearly. Following the increase of €115 million in funding to the Residential Institutions Redress Board for this year, 2005 sees a further of €50 million under this sub-heading. This is a tenth of the overall increase in the Department’s budget for 2005 and is a huge sum of money that will not be directed towards any educational purpose.
Mr. Timmins: When one reads the Estimates in isolation, one would be inclined to say that this was not a bad document. However, one cannot read it without looking also at the excellent document, Who Cares, brought forward by Deputy Richard Bruton. It shows that this Government and the previous one have spent public money over many years like an exuberant Waterford hurling fan after a Munster final in Thurles. In many cases money has been wasted.
Spending has increased by €21 billion since 1997, an increase of 125%. Many Government spokespersons consistently hark back to 1997. This was a different country then and a different time. We are now seven years on. One need only have listened to the report on radio this morning about the disposal of the site in Stillorgan to know how prices and charges have increased over the years. To keep reflecting back to 1997 is totally irrelevant as is putting forward the concept that more money has been spent, so things must have improved, which they clearly have not.
There is a tremendous amount of waste. When the Comptroller and Auditor General examined the roads programme three years into its implementation, he discovered that the projected cost of completing the projects had risen by an astonishing €8.8 billion, an increase of 126% within three years. The Government is simply coming into the House, throwing out figures and saying it has spent so much and that it is wonderful. The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Dermot Ahern, gave himself a pat on the back for the pre-1953 pension. Given the difference between the estimate the Government put on the cost of that at the time and the final cost, it is not something about which I would crow because it showed serious incompetence on the part of the Government. To a certain degree, its incompetence has been disguised behind the amount of funding available to it.
Deputy Enright referred to capital funding for education. If memory serves me correctly, €98 million has been underspent and €50 million can be carried forward. The Minister spoke about the concept of use or lose it and that it is great to be able to roll over funding rather than spend it at the last minute on wasted projects. However, based on the above figure, we have reached a stage where many Departments are inefficient or there is a certain laziness and the money has not been spent. There is a gaelscoil in Wicklow town, one in Arklow and a secondary school in Rathdrum, the front of which has been damaged for the past number of years, which could do with this money. Will the Minister for Education and Science consider extending the scheme under which money is given directly to schools which was recommended by my colleague, Deputy English, a couple of years ago? The then Minister initiated a pilot scheme to consider whether to expand the scheme rather than have schools go through this Neolithic process which adds considerably to costs.
In regard to decentralisation, I am sorry the agency which was to relocate to Arklow has not materialised. County Wicklow got the crumbs off the table with the relocation of approximately 140 jobs which was not a professional way to approach decentralisation. There are a couple of thousand civil servants living in north-east Wicklow, in particular. If the decentralisation of one of the agencies or Departments had been to Greystones or Wicklow town, it would have meant people would not have had to move house. Instead, Departments and agencies will move to Knock Airport and to Deputy Deenihan’s constituency, the far end of County Kerry, which is meritorious in its own right. However, I hope moving the headquarters of Departments will never happen because it would give rise to total inefficiency and it is a crazy plan.
The Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform received an allocation of €73 million for child care. This Vote was put through a few years ago to assist people to get back into the workforce. A difficulty I have encountered is the planning process. Some people, who have applied for grants and have received provisional approval, have not obtained planning permission because the facility is not in a town and might be in a rural area. People would not look to set up child care facilities in rural areas if there was no demand for them. There should be greater cohesion between the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, the local authorities and the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform to facilitate schemes so that this money can be spent.
The Minister of State, Deputy Batt O’Keeffe, from Cork spoke about certain aspects of the environment, housing grants and subsidies and I note there has been a reduction from €74 million to €52 million. I understand this is on account of the reduction in the first-time buyer’s grant. I assume this funding is aimed at affordable housing. In principle, the concept of affordable housing is fine but in reality, the person paying for his or her house is picking up the shortfall. To my knowledge, none of these houses, which people have acquired through the affordable housing scheme, has been sold. The house buyer buys the house at a reduced rate. In addition, he or she gets a subsidy from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. There is, however, a clawback system in place. Where does this money eventually go? Does it go back to the local authority? For example, somebody could get a grant of €30,000. In addition, there will be the built-in factor whereby he or she will have bought the house at a cheaper rate than those who purchased houses beside it. Who will be the beneficiary of this money? Will it be the local authority? I do not believe it should be because, in effect, the other householders in the estate have subsidised that house to some degree.
In the area for which I am responsible, the full budget is less than the increase in health. I would like more to be spent on defence, particularly on aid to the civil power and on our emergency unit. To some degree, we are under threat from terrorists and we should have mechanisms in place to deal with it. Since 11 September 2001, we have done nothing radical and have not provided anywhere near the required funding.
Mr. Deenihan: I wish to reflect on the Estimate for arts, sport and tourism, my area of responsibility. I welcome the increase of 19% in grant-in-aid to the Arts Council for 2005. It was called for by the committee and by a number of other sectors. To put it in perspective, various organisations and individuals have applied for grants of over €100 million from the Arts Council which will still have a major difficulty satisfying all those people. This year overall grant aid will be approximately €61 million. A number of arts groups are still reeling from the €5 million reduction in funding in 2003 and have still not recovered from it, so it is really on catch-up time. The Arts Council sought €68 million so, to some extent, it will be disappointed with the funding because it will only help it to meet existing demands and it will be difficult for it to engage in any further creative and developmental work.
The growth in the arts in this country has been phenomenal. The latent potential for development in Gaeltacht areas, in many rural areas and in several urban areas, especially disadvantaged ones, is not being realised because of a lack of funding. As a result of the CDIS, the ACCESS and the current tourism product development programmes, three major programmes, there has been a proliferation of centres around the country. Unfortunately, many of these centres will close because there is no funding to keep them going from a management and a programme point of view. There is not enough funding available to support these programmes, for example, funding for touring groups which travel around the country with productions, and to keep the centres going. Local people deserve them because they do not have the same opportunities for cultural experiences as those living in Dublin, Cork, Limerick or Galway. There are major issues in the arts area.
I refer to tourism promotion. The tourism marketing fund grant has been increased by 14% this year, which is welcome. An area of concern is marketing in the United Kingdom, an issue which perhaps may be taken up by the officials. A worrying trend is developing in that there is a significant drop in the number of tourists coming from the United Kingdom. This is not unique to Ireland. France, Germany and other northern European countries are experiencing the same trend. British tourists are attracted to the new EU member states and countries further east. They are also taking the long-haul option. One can travel from Heathrow Airport to many parts of the world for €100. This is a significant concern for our tourism industry.
Competitiveness is an issue. Whether we like it or not, Ireland is an expensive country to visit. This is an issue which the Government must tackle in next week’s budget. It may be too late at this stage but it should be brought to the attention of the officials. Ireland has the highest tax on wine among all the euro zone countries and the second highest tax on beer. We have the second highest VAT rate on hotel accommodation charges, after Germany. The Government is the godfather of what has been called “rip-off Ireland”. There are some operators and service providers who overcharge but a significant number of those in the tourism industry are just hanging in there. Many are providing discount prices and will not survive if this trend continues. The Government has an opportunity in the budget to at least reduce the 13.5% VAT rate on hotel accommodation to 12%. There was an expectation two years ago that the rate would be reduced to 10% but that did not happen.
Although it is not outlined in the Estimates, I understand a special allowance will be made to promote women in sport. I welcome this. It obviously comes on the back of the report I produced for the committee on the participation of women in sport.
Minister for Education and Science (Ms Hanafin): Mar Aire Oideachais agus Eolaíochta, tá an-áthas orm fáilte a chur roimh an airgead breise atá muid tar éis a fháil ar son oideachais agus pháistí na tíre sa bhliain atá romhainn. I propose to share time with my colleague, the Minister for State, Deputy Conor Lenihan.
Ms Hanafin: The extra €0.5 billion my Department will receive, as indicated in the Estimates, is to be welcomed. It will allow me to make significant advances in many key areas. The aim of my Ministry over the next few years is to focus on the child and ensure that all children can reach their potential. This involves targeting all children, supporting them in their needs, supporting teachers and schools, and involving parents and all other partners in education. The expenditure allocated to my Department for next year amounts to more than €7 billion. This allocation indicates the Government’s commitment to education and to the children of this country.
The extra money will be targeted in four areas. The main area, educational disadvantage, is one which is of concern to everybody. I will allocate an additional €47.6 million to alleviate disadvantage among our children and to ensure children from disadvantaged areas get better opportunities than they may have had before, from pre-school, through primary level, second level, second-chance education, and on to adult literacy and third level. Some €462 million will be spent on such schemes over the coming year. These will involve targeting literacy to ensure that children get the basic education they require, their first chance in the education system.
Provision of educational services for children with special needs is an issue which concerns everybody in this House. This is an issue which was neglected for many years. In the past, children with special needs were not given the benefit of proper, targeted resources in schools. It is a wonderful development that these children are now recognised and will get their opportunity. Next year alone, my Department will spend €628 million in this area.
One of the most significant developments is that children with special educational needs are now incorporated into mainstream schools, a policy welcomed by many parents. Such an approach requires extra resources and facilities in schools so that children can reach their potential, teachers can do their jobs professionally and with care and other children can continue to benefit from their experience in the classroom. The Department’s special education provision will provide a range of measures to meet those objectives, including extra teachers, extra special needs assistants, special school transport and an expanded provision for the National Council for Special Education.
Members are aware of the number of special needs assistants employed in our schools. While there were only 300 such seven years ago, there are now 6,000. Special needs assistants work with children with special needs who require a carer with them during the day. This is another indication of the Government’s level of commitment in this area. Some 6% of children availing of school transport have special needs and 30% of the budget for this service is used to take those children to their educational facilities. The needs of those with disabilities and children with special educational needs are a priority for the Government and will continue to be. Members of the National Council for Special Education are already working with schools and local communities and liaising with the Department of Education and Science and the Department of Health and Children. This service will be expanded next year and the council will be established on a statutory basis.
Schools and teachers, who are of top quality, depend on our support. When the Estimates were published, there was some criticism that more than 50% of my Department’s allocation will be used for teachers’ pay. If good teachers are not attracted into and retained in the profession, we cannot provide the high-quality education we want for our children. The money we spend on the people who work in the system is money well spent. Equally, teachers require ongoing professional development. Some €22.8 million, a record amount which constitutes an increase of 15%, has been allocated for next year to ensure that teachers receive the in-service training they require to cope with the demands made of them and the changes with which they must cope. The Teaching Council is another way to give recognition to teachers. Voting is ongoing for the council and I encourage all teachers to participate in this process. The budget allocation for the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment is increased by 38% for next year to ensure that the curriculum reflects the needs of society and children.
I recognise the demands faced by schools in terms of heating, insurance and maintenance costs. It is for this reason the Government has increased the capitation grant for all schools. This grant will increase by 10% for primary schools next year, constituting a €12 increase for each child. In post-primary schools, the grant will be increased to €16 per pupil for all schools. There has traditionally been a gap between the voluntary secondary schools and the other second level schools in the sector. It is important to attempt to narrow this gap. That is why this year, on top of the €16 provision which I am giving to all second level schools, I am giving an extra €10 provision for the voluntary secondary schools to recognise and narrow the gap that has existed there. This has been particularly welcomed by the voluntary second level. It is no secret that I come from that sector but that had nothing to do with my allocation of the funding. It was simply to recognise an inequity in the system. What this means in practical terms is that a primary school of 200 pupils will get €27,000 in capitation funding for next year. That will help such schools to meet their day-to-day running costs. On top of that allocation are the various grants that exist. An increase has also been given in the clerical assistance and caretaking grant. Real progress has been made in helping our schools not only with building work but, more importantly, with the people involved in the sector.
The fourth area targeted in my Estimate is promoting the knowledge society and economy. The allocation to the higher education and research sector will be increased by 8%. We have recognised in recent years the importance of research in the context of the economy to ensure we retain and attract researchers into this country, that we link in with industry and that we establish the best of research institutes here. The allocation for third level research for next year will be increased by 35% to €38.5 million. I recognise those universities which are striving to achieve in this area. I recognise in particular those universities which are reforming and changing to ensure they can meet the needs of society, the Government agenda, international education standards and the demands of the economy. The grants to the universities next year will €670 million. They will get an allocation of an extra €40 million. The institutes of technology grants will be increased to €478 million. On top of that, there is the youth work area, with which my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy de Valera, deals and to which she will refer.
In tackling educational disadvantage, special education provision, in supporting our teachers and schools and in promoting a knowledge society and economy, as a Government, and as Aire Oideachais agus Eolaíochta, we are targeting the needs of all children in all sectors. I look forward after the budget to being able to add to our current expenditure with significant investment in buildings.
Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs (Mr. C. Lenihan): I welcome the opportunity to speak on the annual Estimates debate. In particular, I welcome the strong emphasis the Minister for Finance, Deputy Cowen, has put on spending in health and education, the two areas of major concern that emerged during the election and when canvassing voters in my constituency. These Estimates signal the first tangible sign of a recovery in the fortunes of the Government parties. That is mirrored in the public opinion polls with the Fianna Fáil rating increasing in line with increasing buoyancy in the economy.
Mr. C. Lenihan: It is noteworthy that this is the first time since the terrible events of 11 September 2001 that we have seen signs of recovery and serious increases can be made in public spending. It is noteworthy from the Minister for Finance’s contribution, which I was fortunate to witness, that the overall rise in spending was of the order of 7.5%, which is well ahead of the 5% rate of economic growth most forecasters predicted for the economy. It is also ahead of the forecasted inflation figure of 2.2%. It is remarkable to be able to declare in this House that we are increasing spending and focusing such increases in spending on the two areas people have raised publicly in the local and European elections and for a long period before that, namely, health and education. The deficiencies in those services will be addressed in a serious and meaningful way.
As pointed out by Minister for Finance in his contribution, a €4.5 billion surplus in 2000 turned into a €300 million deficit by 2002. That shows the sheer enormity of the downturn in Exchequer finances. I make that point advisedly because that had a direct impact on spending across Departments, not least in my area of responsibility for overseas aid. The downturn in the Exchequer finances meant that, in effect, we had lost two years of the necessary contributions we would have had to have made were we to have achieved the fabled target of 0.7% of gross national product, GNP. Two years were lost in that process because of the downturn in the Exchequer finances. The good news from the Estimates is that we are now back on track to achieve the target of 0.7% of GNP——
There are a few key points about our overseas aid programme that need to be made that have been forgotten by some of the Members opposite and perhaps also by some of the commentators outside this House. Ireland now has the largest allocation to overseas aid in the history of State. This Estimates allocation, covering a three-year timeframe, is the largest single allocation to overseas aid in the history of the State. That is a remarkable achievement and, while I do not boast on my own behalf because I have to negotiate with the Minister, I must pay credit to the Minister for Finance, the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste, Deputy Harney, my Progressive Democrats coalition colleague, who also fought hard to achieve these significant increases that help our overseas aid programme and maintain its international reputation. We should be clear about Ireland’s international reputation on overseas aid. Despite the dire warnings and the nonsense spoken by Members across the floor of the House, our reputation in this area is positive and strong. Only five of the 22 richest countries in the world have achieved the target of 0.7% of GNP. We are positioned as the seventh largest donor in the world when calculated on a per capita basis.
I acknowledge the presence of Deputy Burton who in her own way as a former Minister of State contributed to this change of attitude in Ireland towards overseas aid. She has worked in the field and has a superb knowledge of this area. We need to acknowledge that this change has occurred and the working through of that has now been given concrete focus through this allocation which is the largest in the history of the State. We will maintain our position as the seventh largest donor. I look forward to the day within my period in politics and certainly within the lifetime of the next Government if not this one of achieving the 0.7% target. I want to make that point clearly.
Mr. C. Lenihan: I did not make any attack on Trócaire and I do not believe the Deputy read my comments carefully, given that she has made a statement of nature. I made no such attack on Trócaire. I will clarify that in a moment when I finish this clear point I am making. We are making a major contribution to this area. A €1.8 billion package of funding will be allocated over the next three years, which will play out as an increase in allocation of €60 million this year, €65 million next year and €65 million the following year, making a total net increase of €190 million in the resources being allocated to overseas aid.
The key priority identified to me by all players in the sector, including some Opposition voices was the idea of restoring the multi-annual package. Deputy O’Donnell is not present but she has made huge play of the idea of having a multi-annual commitment over three years ring-fenced. That has now been restored in which I take particular pride. That gives certainty to everybody involved in this area including the non-governmental organisations and Trócaire, to which Deputy Burton referred, to plan the programmes they develop.
Mr. C. Lenihan: What I said on “Morning Ireland” was the usual normal injunction or warning that anyone would give to any person contemplating giving to charity. It is not unlike the warning that is given in a commercial sense and epitomised by the phrase caveat emptor. When one makes a donation to a charity or an organisation, one should take care to note and carefully examine how much of its resources such a charity allocates to advocacy, administration or communications. That is an important issue about which members of the public are rightly concerned and raise with me on an almost daily basis about all charities, not to mention those involved in the worthy work of Third World relief. That is all I said.
Mr. C. Lenihan: I was more surprised by the reaction to what I said. It was quite remarkable and shows a certain defensiveness on this point, which I find interesting. The public has a legitimate right to ask the amount being spent on advocacy and administration.
Ms Burton: The campaigns against apartheid and child labour were advocacy. Is the Minister of State uncomfortable with aid agencies such as Trócaire taking part in such campaigns? This is a reasonable question.
Mr. C. Lenihan: Deputy Burton consistently misrepresents my position. I am not uncomfortable with advocacy but I will not be treated to a McCarthy style interrogation by Deputy Burton. I am not uncomfortable with any of the advocacy I have seen to date. I am well able to handle myself when confronted with advocacy.
In the context of Development Co-operation Ireland, there is an information and knowledge deficit. There is an astounding lack of public knowledge of the sheer volume of money the Government commits to the Third World. Since my appointment I have been surprised at the number of people who are amazed when I tell them we are the seventh largest donor in the world. This generally evokes a huge reaction of surprise. People are not aware of it. We need to raise the profile of the programme and the very valuable work it does.
Mr. C. Lenihan: No. We must allow the public to buy into what we are doing and widen the base of stakeholders. That is why, as part of the White Paper process, I hope to widen the base of stakeholders and interested people who are acutely aware of what we are doing in the programme. I will initiate the White Paper process early next year. It will bring about the widespread involvement of the public in what we are doing.
Mr. C. Lenihan: ——the non-governmental organisations are valued partners of my Department and of Development Co-operation Ireland. We value their work so much that they received €100 million this year and are likely to get more than €100 from my Department in 2005. Some NGOs may wish to acknowledge that when they do radio interviews. My Department directly funds some of the biggest development NGOs in the country. We are in an active partnership with them, both on long-term development issues and with regard to the horrible situation of which we read in Darfur, where Concern and Goal are doing sterling work in channelling the assistance my Department gives them in emergency situations. I am proud of my Department’s relationship with NGOs.
Mr. C. Lenihan: UNICEF has given a huge welcome to these increases and I regard its response as laudable and responsible. It states, “This ever growing commitment by the Irish Government reflects the growing need for a greater response internationally to escalating humanitarian issues”. The response says the commitment reflects Ireland’s prosperity as a nation and our “unstinting commitment to supporting developing countries in greatest need”. That is what UNICEF says about the allocations. The organisation is not moaning and is not disappointed. It welcomes the allocations.
I hope everyone will welcome the increases. There is a natural disappointment among people who have become fixated on the 0.7% target and the timeframe. The target remains. The timeframe may have to change but we will get there. This is the first tangible sign of that. We should achieve 0.48% or 0.5% of GDP in 2007. We can increase on that and I am lobbying the Minister for Finance very closely to increase the budget allocation.
Mr. Hogan: I hope the target he has set can be met. Judging by the Government’s record of hitting targets, I will not hold my breath. I am reminded of the decentralisation announcement in the last budget. That was a three card trick by the Minister to cloak over the fact that he did not index link bands and allowances for working people in the run-up to the local and European elections. The trick did not work then and no amount of three card trickery with figures will work now.
There has been a lack of delivery on timescales which have been set and we have become immune to overruns in budget expenditure. There was an overrun of €8 billion in the infrastructural budget in the national development plan. The Government’s manner of doing business is totally incompetent. I applaud the fact that all projects over €20 million must be scrutinised by the National Treasury Management Agency. However, projects are assessed by public benchmarking. What is this woolly notion and what does it mean? That appears to be a matter of opinion. Even though there is a great deal of money in the country we are a long way from getting proper value for the money at our disposal.
The Minister for Education and Science referred to several issues dealt with in the Estimate for her Department for 2005. The special needs students in the School of the Holy Spirit were disappointed to learn, during her recent visit to Kilkenny, that the project which it was indicated would commence in 2005 will have to wait for another year. The Minister appeared not to be fully briefed on the band in which the project was. She agreed to put it in a band in which it was already. I hope she will look at that project again in the context of the multi-annual budget for 2005.
The Government should look again at the back to education and back to work allowances. Resource teachers are telling public representatives there is danger of pupils aged 14, 15 and 16 dropping out of school. We must target resources at those people. The school completion and home school liaison programmes have worked very well but have not received sufficient support.
I welcome the small schools devolved programme announced in last year’s Estimates. However, departmental grants for school extensions meet only 50% of the total cost of projects. Schools must fundraise to generate the other 50% from the local community. Clinstown national school, in my constituency has received a grant for a small extension costing approximately €100,000. The school must raise 50% of that amount from the small rural community. This is not how we should do business. It is another stealth tax on a community who must fund essential educational facilities for the children of the area.
The cost of living and our competitiveness is a huge issue. Everyone acknowledges that the 27 stealth taxes imposed on business and consumers in the past two years were a mistake. The National Competitiveness Council has acknowledged that in the past four years there has been a 22% increase in costs in this country compared with our European partners. Unfortunately, rip-off Ireland has emanated from the huge increase in business and consumer costs that are putting pressure on small businesses. The Minister for Finance must ensure in the budget that there is a freeze on charges, fees and indirect taxes. He must avoid increases in VAT, motor tax and a range of other taxes that have fed into the consumer household budget in recent years.
Health care, cancer treatment in particular, is crucially important and we need to see much more being done in this area. The cancer strategy, which was parked for a number of years, is slowly beginning to be rolled out. We seek a radiotherapy service for people in the south-east region which was promised by the Taoiseach before the previous general election, yet there is no evidence of it being delivered. Early diagnosis of cancer is fundamental to successful treatment and recovery. If we could have a national screening service for male and female patients over a certain age, it would be a great day’s work in identifying the problem and rectifying it early. It is a health prevention measure rather than anything else.
The country’s worst national primary road network is in County Kilkenny, and I know the Leas-Cheann Comhairle is aware of that. There have been recurring delays in expenditure on national primary and secondary routes and, arising from these Estimates, we do not seem to be advancing any further. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and the Minister for Transport should co-operate to ensure the proposals that have been in gestation for over ten years will come to pass. Compared with other parts of the country, the economic and social development of County Kilkenny will become run down if we do not get proper roads there.
The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform is trying to give us the impression that something will be done about crime by deploying extra gardaí on the streets and in the traffic corps, but it will not happen until 2007 or 2008. That is not the way to police urban areas in particular. People who had no axe to grind about criminality are now becoming concerned about the problem. Resources should be re-deployed to put more gardaí on the beat in every community. Rural Garda stations should be reactivated in addition to urban ones to provide a deterrent so that citizens will be safe.
Mr. Ring: I listened to the Minister of State, Deputy Conor Lenihan, discussing overseas aid but I am not surprised to see that the Government has reneged on another promise by cutting back on funding for those agencies. It is no wonder when one considers what the Government did to the poor. Last year, we had the savage 16 cutbacks that affected so many households. We are now told that a review is under way and one of the cuts concerning the widow’s payment has been reversed. On budget day, next Wednesday, I hope the other 15 savage cutbacks will also be reversed.
Now that we have a real socialist Taoiseach, I expect to see great things happening next week for the less well-off in society. In recent years, more millionaires have been created in this country than anywhere else in Europe. We have certainly looked after the rich. In fairness to the Progressive Democrats, it does not have many seats but I compliment its members on the way they have delivered in Government. Along with Fianna Fáil, the Progressive Democrats has looked after the builders and the super rich, making them increasingly rich. On top of that, the Government has even been able to organise matters so that the very rich do not have to pay a penny in tax to the State. I compliment the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste on that.
Now that the Taoiseach has realised he wants to be a socialist, however, I hope the less well-off will be looked after in the budget. We can all talk about how wonderfully the economy is going but the Government will be judged on how people are treated. There are three categories of people in the country: the super rich who are getting richer; the middle class who are being squeezed by stealth taxes, are under pressure to pay their way and for whom the Government has done nothing; and the poor who have been let down by the Government.
The Minister for Finance should pay attention to special educational needs. Recently, I attended a meeting in Castlebar where I listened to the concerns of 70 or 80 parents about autism. I saw their frustration, anger, annoyance and hurt because nothing was being done for them. There is no support or help for them. The Government will be judged next week by those who have disabilities. The new Minister for Education and Science said she will deal with the issue of assistance for special needs, but I am fed up with spin. The Government is not much good when it comes to medical doctoring but it certainly is good at spin doctoring.
Next week’s budget presents an opportunity to reintroduce some balance in society. Earlier this week I spoke to a representative of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in my town of Westport. This year I have seen many people coming to my constituency office complaining that they cannot survive on low incomes and have fallen into debt. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul has never had so many people seeking its assistance. Is this the sort of society we want? It is worse than some Third World countries. We are forgetting about our own, including the poor who have been let down by the Government.
During last year’s Budget Statement, I saw Fianna Fáil and Progressive Democrats backbenchers applauding the announcement on decentralisation. Some of the Independent Members also applauded, although they are not really independent and are worse than Fianna Fáil. They vote for Fianna Fáil on every occasion because they think they will shortly get the call to Government when Fianna Fáil gets rid of the Progressive Democrats. The people will make a serious judgment on them in a short time when they are asked to vote for the next Government.
We saw what occurred with decentralisation. It was like what happened when Manchester United won the FA Cup final. Government Deputies were clapping for ten or 15 minutes when the former Minister for Finance, Mr. McCreevy, misled the people. Yesterday we saw a new decentralisation list on the Government’s website. My county of Mayo was promised decentralisation, with the Office of Public Works relocating to Claremorris and the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs to Knock, but nothing has happened. We have now gone into the second league and are in difficulties.
I can predict what will happen in about a year’s time, just before the general election. Ministers will arrive to be photographed for the local newspapers and will stand on a site which they will claim is being examined for decentralisation purposes. The spin doctors, photographers and press people will be on the road again before the general election with Ministers saying they will deliver. People have had enough of spin, however, and will not take it any longer.
The Minister of State, Deputy de Valera, has responsibility for education. Scoil Raifteirí in Castlebar was built six or seven years ago but, after four years, the Department of Education and Science had to replace the roof, even though it had already cost the taxpayer €1 million. Neither the Minister of State nor her officials have done anything about it. Somebody should have to answer for that and explain why a new school needed a new roof after only four years. The architects cannot take the blame, the Department will not take the blame and neither will the builders. There is something wrong when somebody can invest €1 million in a new school, yet after four years it needs a new roof. It is time for a change in the Department and a change of Government so that people have an opportunity to see some fairness in society.
Mr. English: While I am delighted to have the chance to make a few points on the Estimates, we could do with considerably more time to debate this matter. The Minister of State, Deputy Conor Lenihan, said these Estimates were favourable because of the recovery in the Government’s fortunes. These good fortunes and the extra money in the hands of the Government have come off the backs of the people, through stealth taxes and increasing costs of living in recent years. While this is not all the Government’s fault it has happened and is a fact of life. While the Government claims to be giving back €2.6 billion this year, we saved €2 billion last year against what we had planned to spend. We are not doing anything great and are just balancing the books. People who were hurt last year might get a little bit extra this year, although I am not convinced they will.
While the Estimates show a 6% increase overall, most areas such as salaries etc. are increasing by at least 5% and in some cases 8%, 13% or even 19%. The 6% increase will be swallowed up fairly quickly when increased salaries are factored in. Many young people are saying to me that it is a bit like “I’m a Celebrity, Get me Out of Here”. While they may not be celebrities they want to get out of here and go to another country, to Australia or America where they believe they can get a better quality of life for considerably less money. We are letting them down. We must give people the chance to live here and have a quality of life.
Some Deputies suggested we have done very well in providing housing. While we are providing housing, houses cost an absolute fortune. People are now getting 40-year mortgages, never mind 20-year mortgages, which will be a noose around their necks for the rest of their lives. We are not making great progress and need to make improvements in many areas. These Estimates attempt to make improvements in some important areas.
The Chairman of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women’s Rights, Deputy Ardagh, might be able to help me with the next matter. An additional €55 million was announced to provide for the recruitment of new gardaí. From what I can make out this €55 million has been spread across the entire Garda budget and not just for new gardaí. While we may be wrong, the Fine Gael figures suggest we would be lucky to get an extra 100 gardaí this year. Allowing for pay increases of approximately 5%, we reckon we will see fewer than 100 additional gardaí. I do not like the spin that refers to 1,000 gardaí, which is not true.
The Garda has been given a 2% increase in funding for equipment, which is a shame. Gardaí are chasing criminals and so-called joyriders in family cars such as the Toyota Avensis. With the potential of being rammed, these cars do not represent the appropriate equipment for the Garda. Gardaí in my area have to beg and queue up to get protective gear, which is not good enough. The walkie-talkie equipment is 25 years out of date, yet we are spending €37 million on prisons. I would like to see more money spent on the prevention of crime, which could reduce what we spend on criminals. The linkage programme dealing with ex-offenders does great work. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform recently presented the programme’s annual report and I hope that programme will be given additional funding.
I compliment the Government on increasing the allocation of money to address the problem of drugs. I hope this will be spent wisely and the regional task forces are given the money they need. A very good plan has been prepared in the north-eastern area and I hope it is funded. While I welcome the increases in funding to youth services, we cannot be overjoyed. We have missed out for a few years and are coming from behind. I hope the money will be well spent on youth services, youth workers and youth facilities. We need to provide not just sports facilities like swimming pools, gyms etc. but also clubs, dance halls and non-alcoholic bars. We need either to fund such facilities or at least encourage their building on behalf of young people. We have considerable work to do in this area.
The new yellow-pack medical cards are a bit like a bath tub without a plug, which simply will not function. A person will not be cured by simply going to a doctor who diagnoses what is wrong. It represents a start but does not go the whole way. It is a shame we cannot go the rest of the way as was promised when the Government committed to giving an additional 200,000 medical cards. Since that promise almost 100,000 people have lost medical cards so there will be 270,000 fewer medical cards, which is a great shame.
Mr. P. Power: I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Estimates at a time when a renewed debate is taking place on the most appropriate economic fiscal and budgetary strategy for the future of the country. I compliment the Minister on his first Abridged Estimates, in which he has shown a commendable balance and focus. I will start by talking about the context in which the Estimates have been produced. By any objective analysis or EU comparison, the increase in public spending in these Estimates is very significant, coming as it does on top of a very high level of existing expenditure. The challenge now is clearly to ensure the large increases translate into real and tangible results and improvements for people on the ground. The question in this debate is how best to do that. The best way to do this is to focus the additional financial resources in any given year into targeted and focused areas. For this reason I commend the way in which the Minister has given his attention, and diverted his resources, energy and money into the key areas of health and education with special emphasis on people with disabilities.
These Estimates are predicated on a strong, vibrant and growing economy, something that has not yet been acknowledged in this debate. The first aim in framing the Estimates is to make sure they do not contain anything that would adversely affect growth in the economy. Too much spending simply stores up problems in the future by creating inflationary pressures in the economy affecting competitiveness. Too little spending results in not diverting funds to those in need. Getting the balance right is the job of the Minister for Finance, and I believe the Minister has struck the right balance on this occasion.
No matter how well the finances are managed and regardless of how well the economic downturn has been handled in recent years, a number of factors are outside our control. I echo what I said in the debate this time last year. The biggest threat to our economic growth and prosperity in coming years are the twin US deficits, which are burgeoning out of control. Recent US economic history has been fairly predictable in that it has seen huge growth on the current and capital side, usually to finance some foreign adventure, followed by a short and sharp correction, which has permeated throughout the world causing a serious economic downturn in subsequent years. We cannot ignore this threat of which the Minister is conscious.
The health, education and disability sectors are the big beneficiaries in these Estimates. Nobody should be left in doubt that the Minister has concentrated hugely on these areas as he did when he was Minister for Health and Children some years ago. Those working in the disability sector, the service providers, professionals, clients, parents and friends should be left in no doubt that in the Department of Finance they have a true supporter in office. If anything the significant additional resources in the disability sector illustrate that it is not possible to consider the Disability Bill in a vacuum as many critics have done. It can only be appreciated in the context of the huge additional resources in these Estimates.
Having the most liberal, far-reaching, catch-all and free-for-all disability legislation in the world would mean nothing without having the significant additional resources to match it. For that reason I welcome the additional €290 given to this sector in the Estimates, which will provide 270 additional residential places, 90 respite places, 400 new day places — the disability campaigners in Limerick will very much welcome the funding in that area — 60 new places for significant disabilities and 200,000 additional hours of home support and personal assistance. All this will provide real improvements for people.
From the recent presentations made to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women’s Rights, Deputy Ardagh will be aware of criticisms of the Disability Bill, in particular section 7(5). Those who have criticised the Bill should reflect on the error of their position in the context of these Estimates. In an era of hugely increased resources in the disability sector in the context of these Estimates, section 7 of the Disability Bill, and the Bill as a whole, provides the most effective way to deliver services to people and no one should doubt the Minister’s resolve in this area.
The increase in Government spending to almost €43.5 billion in 2005 is welcome. That this can be achieved with the historically low levels of taxation in place is a tribute to the policies of this Government. There are more people in work, very low levels of unemployment and a booming economy, all of which contributes to the record amounts of money available for the Estimates this year. There is no doubt that the State is thriving. Report after report shows that we are fast becoming one of the richest countries in the developed world.
It is obvious that there are some people in Ireland who have not benefited to the same extent as others. Certain aspects of service delivery on behalf of the State must be improved. Health care is an area that springs to mind. Despite record levels of investment in health in the past seven years, there are still problems. I warmly welcome the announcement that an extra €1 billion will be spent on the health services this year, bringing the total spend on health close to €11 billion, a quarter of the amount that the State will spend in 2005, a clear indication of the priorities of this Government.
The follow up announcement by the Tánaiste that she will increase the number of medical cards is welcome. An extra 230,000 new cards will be issued during 2005, with 200,000 of these being doctor only cards. Every Deputy has received representations in the past year from people looking for a medical card. In many cases, they were just over the financial limit and in some cases had to postpone bringing their children to see a doctor because of the cost involved. Many of these people are on a tight domestic budget. The idea that anyone in this State would be unable to seek medical help while ill because of financial constraints is wrong. I congratulate the Minister for her recognition of the plight of such people and these extra 200,000 medical cards will be most welcome.
Some Members have referred to these cards in a most derogatory fashion. That is an insult to the members of the public who will get them and who will warmly welcome them. No longer will parents with young children have to worry about cost if a child becomes ill.
There are also record increases in spending in education. There will be €500 million extra for the Department of Education and Science next year. The Minister for Education and Science has clearly indicated that this money will be spent on all sectors, primary, secondary and tertiary. She will target deprivation and disability as areas that need special attention, a welcome move.
The mark of any country is how it treats those on the margins of society, the less well off, the sick, the old and other vulnerable groups who need special attention. The increases in the health and education budgets in 2005, show this Government is committed to looking after these groups. The label attached to this programme, be it left of centre or socialism, is immaterial, the fact that this is being done is the important thing. The Minister for Finance has managed the finances of the State in a prudent way. He has indicated that this Government will look after all citizens equally. That is the real story of these Estimates and I commend them to the House.
Mr. Ardagh: That is the reality. I am delighted Deputy Hogan recognises the major health care improvements that will be put in place as a result of these Estimates, particularly in cancer care services.
Deputy Ring suggested that this Government looks after the rich. There are 1.8 million people employed in the State, 400,000 more than were in employment when the Government entered office in 1997. The prosperity bell curve has moved along the positive axis in such a way that the GNP per capita is now in excess of €29,000 per head, among the top in Europe. For a single person, the average industrial wage is €29,000.
Mr. Ardagh: As far as taxation is concerned, a single person on the average industrial wage, whose income has increased by €10,000 from €19,000 to €29,000 since 1997, has seen his tax reduced by €260.
Mr. Ardagh: Everyone has benefited from the way this Government has run the State. The prosperity curve has moved in a positive direction. There has been some flattening of the base of the curve and my colleagues Deputy Peter Power and Deputy Devins have already alluded to the money in the Estimates that will be spent on the health and disability sectors and on the disadvantaged.
Mr. Ardagh: These Estimates are targeted at improving people’s lives and helping the disadvantaged. The focus on these areas will have major implications for those sectors of society that have not benefited to the same extent as everyone else.
There are three main pillars affecting the improvement and direction of social and economic activity in this State. The first laid the foundation for what we are doing now, the programme for Government. In August of this year, the Government reported on what has been achieved to date and what will be achieved by 2007.
We recently heard questions about IPOs. One of the major factors any investor in an IPO would look at is the quality of management. As far as Governments are concerned, general elections are the equivalent of IPOs and people will vote for those who can best manage an economy and produce the best results for the shareholders in that economy. I have no doubt the results of the next general election, as a result of the programme for Government and targeting of the Estimates, along with the adjustments that will be made in the budget, will be the re-election of a Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats Government in 2007.
Mr. Ardagh: The sound economic base we have enjoyed and the growth brought about as a result of the principles adopted by this Government have resulted in increases in GNP, income and services. That is constantly being improved and in these particular Estimates it is no exception. The area of disadvantage in education is one where this Government has excelled. We now have 4,000 special resource teachers and 6,000 special needs assistants employed in our schools. How many did we have when the rainbow Government was in power up to 1997? We have 10,000 now and there were 300 then. That is progress.
The question of funding for disability into the future has been dealt with in the Disability Bill, as was mentioned by Deputy Power. That lie has been put to rest in these particular Estimates in the speech by the Minister for Finance.
Mr. Ardagh: There will be significant developments on the disability front over the next few years. I have just been looking at some figures. In 2004, 1,000 extra people per week took up employment. The population of the country is increasing by 1,200 people per week. Not only have we an increase in population in terms of the birth rate versus the death rate, there is a large migration of people inwards who acknowledge that this country is the place to come to within Europe.
Mr. Ardagh: The other matter is taxation. Somebody said that people are being overtaxed. However, the number of people who do not pay tax is significant. I have already mentioned that 1.8 million are at work. Some 600,000 of them do not pay any tax, and I am sure that after the budget next Wednesday, the figure of 600,000 will have increased further, as was promised by the Government when it said that all people on the minimum wage would be exempted as quickly as possible from paying tax.
Mr. Ardagh: ——Deputy Devins referred to medical cards and made the point well about how beneficial they are. That is an innovative way of ensuring that as many people as possible have the benefit of free medical care at their general practitioners.
Mr. Ardagh: I want to refer to the acute medical admission units that are to be put in place in the major hospitals. This is a matter of profound significance for people who have a specific illness. Rather than going to an accident and emergency unit where people with cuts and bruises who have been in accidents are being attended to, patients who are actually ill will be admitted to hospital through the acute medical admission unit where they will be triaged and then allocated a place in the particular area their needs may be best served. That is something I welcome and it will be of benefit to a great number of people.
Mr. Ardagh: I am also delighted to see that all the new units in hospitals will be opened with the current funding of the €50 million. Having been a board member of St. James’s Hospital, Dublin, for a long time, I am proud of the new wing that has been opened there. The number of day care oncology cases that can be attended to will increase by at least 50%. There will also be a number of new beds.
What we have in these Estimates is a model of economic rectitude in which we take advantage of the opportunities on offer. We have in Deputy Cowen a Minister for Finance who will push forward over the next two years and improve conditions for those who are disadvantaged or socially disabled in particular, as well as for the remainder of the four million people in Ireland. We will have a better Ireland, the type of country that the economists have said we have, but it will have been improved.
Ms Lynch: I am sharing my time with Deputy O’Shea. Today is 25 November. In exactly four weeks, according to the calendar date, it will be Christmas Day. That accounts in no small measure for what we have just heard. I have been at five different book launches in recent weeks. I suggest that Deputy Ardagh puts a new cover on An Agreed Programme for Government and relaunches it for Christmas because people now see it for what it is, namely, a work of fiction.
Ms Lynch: It would probably be more entertaining than anything Pat Shortt or the D’Unbelievables could put out for Christmas and it is definitely more entertaining than Father Ted. It would be hilarious to have passages delivered from it on Christmas night when people have nothing to do but entertain themselves.
Ms Lynch: I must say to Deputy Power that I was not alone in getting phone calls after the committee meeting on disability. People from the disability sector were deeply hurt and insulted by the insinuation that they had not done their homework and were, in fact, exaggerating the position as regards the Disability Bill. Out of the money being provided in the Estimates for disability, €80 million will be spent on delivery of service. The rest will go on benchmarking and other areas which the Government did not allow for. It will not provide for physiotherapists, speech therapists and all the service providers to be furnished under this particular legislation.
Ms Lynch: It amazes me that the Disability Bill was not postponed until we could see what was to be provided in the Estimates. Clearly it is not enough and that is what the disability sector was concerned about. One may have all the day places one likes, but if the other services are not in place to cater for people’s needs in terms of the various types of therapies necessary, then one is going nowhere. Multi-annual funding is fine, but if it is not rights based, it can be withdrawn or stopped at any stage depending on the whim of the incumbent Minister or on how the Government views it. It is a joke to maintain that multi-annual funding is what it is about. That is not what it is about. Neither do I believe there is anyone on the Government side of the House who is convinced that is how it should be. I know the Government side does not believe it, but its Members must tell the House that this is how it is because that is what they have been told to do.
Ms Lynch: For Government speakers to refer to primary education as if the Estimates on this occasion were going to solve the problems in that area, is not just deceiving the House, it is downright dishonest. There will be a cut of 6% this year in the ancillary services grant at a time when 584 children are in classrooms of more than 40.
Let us think about this. Most of us who have children know what it is like to deal with two, three or four children at one time but let us imagine trying to adequately educate a classroom of 40 eight year olds, all with different ranges of intelligence.
Ms Lynch: This Estimate will not do anything to resolve that difficulty. There are schools in my constituency which hold classes in corridors. They have had temporary accommodation for the past 25 years. If anyone mentions temporary accommodation to any primary school, he or she will be told “no way” because he or she knows temporary can soon become permanent.
Deputy Ardagh speaks about those at work. Let me tell the House something about the majority of people at work, not the 11 millionaires who did not pay any tax last year because of the loopholes created by the Government——
Ms Lynch: ——and the other 40 being investigated. Let me say something about those in employment who are trying desperately hard. Recently I organised a social welfare appeal for a young woman who is on her own and has one son who is not a baby. She is one of those who decided the State should not provide for her all the time, that she should go out to work, which she did with great difficulty. If one is on one’s own with a child, there is little support and less sympathy. Because her income exceeded €293 per week — I have seen people spend this amount on a night out — she lost her lone parent allowance of €35 per week. She mistook the limit for net instead of gross income. She kept her income below the net amount but it was the gross figure in which the Department was interested. She now owes in the region of €18,000 which she is expected to pay back out of a sum of €310 per week. She must keep a roof over her head and that of her son. Santa Claus will be coming at Christmas but only at great cost. That is the type of person at work about whom the Deputy is talking. There is no prosperity circle.
Ms Lynch: The majority who are working are running from pillar to post and desperately trying not only to keep their little grouping together but to participate in the community, for example, in schools, hospitals and the Church. They do so because they are trying hard to pass on a philosophy and a work ethos to their children. They are not doing it for reward because there is none.
Ms Lynch: I shall refer to the medical card limit. If one is a single person under 66 years of age and earning more than €153 per week, according to the new guidelines, one is not entitled to a medical card. If a married couple under the age of 66 years have more than €222 per week, they will not be eligible for a medical card——
Ms Lynch: ——or even one of the cards that entitles one to speak to a doctor. That is all one can do because if he or she gives one a prescription, one will not be able to afford it. There is no need to come here and say this is the greatest Government since Genghis Khan. It is not.
Ms Lynch: BreastCheck is due to open an unit in Cork in 2007, the year in which the SSIAs will come on stream but I do not believe the people will be fooled again. I am, however, concerned at what Fianna Fáil will put on the agenda for the next general election. It is no longer what the people consider is the issue but what the advisers in Fianna Fáil implant in the agenda. For example, during the local elections the issue was citizenship. I wonder if it will be gay marriage.
Ms Lynch: It is about creating an agenda to enable the Government remain in office and continue to do do what it is doing, which is very little, except for the 11 millionaires who paid no tax last year and the 40 being investigated. It did nothing for the lady to whom I referred who because her income exceeded €293 lost a paltry €35.
Mr. O’Shea: There was devastating news yesterday for the Waterford constituency. Some 300 civil servants were to be decentralised from the Department of Finance — Ordnance Survey Ireland — to Dungarvan but that will not happen now. We know this following the statement by the Minister for Finance. While Dungarvan continues to develop, the 300 civil servants would have made a major contribution to the status and prosperity of the town. The Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats Government has betrayed and misled the people of Dungarvan. While the effect on their morale will be huge, we in Waterford must continue to fight in order that this betrayal will not have a lasting effect. It will take more than the bad faith of the Government to break the spirit of the people of Dungarvan.
The effect on the city of Waterford will be equally damaging. The decentralisation of 200 civil servants from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government would have gone some way towards providing the city with its just share of decentralised civil servants. The correct decision would have been to decentralise what was left of the Land Registry to Waterford where the Land Registry already has an office. There were indications from Fianna Fáil that what was left of the Land Registry would be decentralised to Waterford and that part of the Office of Public Works would be decentralised to Dungarvan before the McCreevy package was announced.
Today the constituency of Waterford is empty handed following the two thirds reduction in the number of civil servants to be decentralised under the McCreevy programme. The reality is that the Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats Government, with its false promises, has betrayed and misled the people but Waterford is not the only location that has suffered this devastating blow. Other towns such as Cavan, Mitchelstown, Monaghan and Nenagh have suffered in a similar fashion. The Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats Government has once again bitten off more than it can chew. Those it has betrayed are the victims of the cynical and bungling actions of a truly discredited Government but the fight goes on. Where is the national spatial strategy and the concept of balanced regional development in regard to decentralisation?
I will address the Estimate pertaining to my brief — community, rural and Gaeltacht affairs — and particularly the issue of the Irish language and the Gaeltacht. This is the year in which the Official Languages Act 2003 began its journey towards full implementation. The office of the Official Languages Commissioner is to receive an additional €200,000 in 2005. While this represents a 40% increase over the €500,000 provided this year, I can find no additional provision in the Vote for the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs or that for any other Department. I find this baffling and it must be considered in the context of the Minister’s failure to produce an estimate of the full cost of implementing the Act.
The Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Ó Cuív, attended a covert meeting with the Irish language organisations in Spiddal, County Galway, last year. Neither the Irish language nor English language press were allowed to attend. The Minister who is a member of this Government of openness, accountability and transparency made comments at that meeting that were certainly of dubious commitment to the democratic process. He is reported as having told Irish language organisations that they were lucky nobody had shown interest in the Official Languages Act outside the Irish language media. He stated that the organisations were better off that the English speakers of Ireland had not heard about the Bill. Furthermore, he stated that, had they known about it, there would have been a good chance that it would not have passed through the Houses successfully. If these comments which I have translated from Irish accurately reflect his views on the democratic and legislative process, they seriously call into question his suitability to hold ministerial office. During my Second Stage speech on the Official Languages Bill, I expressed specific concerns that only a small minority knew about or were really interested in the Bill. I stated that unless and until the community at large took ownership of the Irish language, in a manner free of elitism and fanaticism, the prospect of halting the decline in the use of the language was scant.
I have serious concerns regarding the cost of putting the provisions of the Official Languages Act 2003 into effect. The Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs recently indicated that fewer than ten jobs would be created as a result of its implementation although he stated in July 2003 that a dividend of almost 2,000 posts for the Irish language community would be one of the main results of its implementation.
The Book of Estimates gives us little or no indication of what it will cost in 2005 to implement the Official Languages Act 2003. I have tabled a series of parliamentary questions, for answer today, seeking this information. We do not have sufficient information to conclude whether the implications of the provisions of the Act represent value for money for the taxpayer or whether the money being spent on its implementation represents the best way to spend money on the Irish language. I call on the Minister for Finance to clarify his position and state whether he intends to make further announcements in this regard in his Budget Statement next week.
A certain clause that the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs added to the Irish Languages Bill during its consideration will have very significant implications for the cost of its implementation. The Bill originally provided that, if a person was not satisfied with a decision of the Official Languages Commissioner, that person could not go to court to contest that decision. However, the Minister buckled under pressure and included a clause that allows those who are not satisfied with a decision of the commissioner to contest that decision in court. This is at variance with the position regarding decisions of the Ombudsman. In many ways, the Official Languages Commissioner will be an ombudsman for the Irish language. I stated when considering the Bill that I recognised the danger of its becoming a crank’s charter. I am still afraid this might happen and that money might be wasted.
The Minister has been so unclear about the Act and the estimated cost of its implementation that I really worry about what is to happen. His failure to provide the necessary information and his being covert in his actions will only do damage to the Irish language.
Miss de Valera: I will concentrate on the two areas for which I have responsibility, namely, further and adult education and the youth sector. I am very glad to take part in this debate on the Estimates because the expenditure on further and adult education will rise to approximately €138 million in 2005, representing an increase of €10 million, or nearly 8%, over the provision for 2004. It will provide for an expansion of existing services in the sector in the coming year. An additional sum of more than €50 million will be paid on staff salaries and FETAC, Youthreach and senior Traveller training centres.
The increases provided in the 2005 Estimates include an additional €2.5 million for adult literacy. This will allow increased funding for the VECs in 2005 to support the development of adult literacy services. In addition to ensuring literacy services for up to 30,000 adults, I will provide funding for the VECs to implement a framework to assist learners and tutors in summarising and recording learners’ progress regarding their literacy and numeracy skills in different areas.
The framework, developed by the National Adult Literacy Agency and piloted in a number of VEC literacy schemes, aims to allow participants to measure their improvement and give feedback on course content and enables the tutors to be flexible in adapting course content to the individual learners’ needs. The framework provides for individual learning plans to be developed based on the requirements of the participants.
During 2005, I will continue to place emphasis on new and innovative ways to promote literacy and numeracy. It is important that the adult literacy provision continues to be developed in a structured and consistent way. My Department continues to act on the recommendations of the White Paper regarding staffing structures and training and stresses the desirability of appropriate qualifications for paid literacy practitioners while providing enhanced training for the 5,000 volunteers whose contribution to adult literacy continues to be absolutely essential.
While we are correct to highlight the additional numbers of clients that can access adult literacy provision, we need to develop mechanisms to show how these clients benefit from their participation. Methods of assessment that are productive and do not intimidate clients need to be developed. Clients want awards with the currency of FETAC qualifications and we must work towards this goal.
There will be an increase of 7.2% in the funding for the expansion of the part-time options under the BTEI in 2005. Everyone in this House will greet this in a very positive way because it will give so many people an opportunity to avail of second-chance education. The number of BTEI part-time training places will increase by approximately 1,000 to 7,000, catering for access of 10,000 participants. Increases in this regard have been made since 1997. The initiative has been particularly successful in attracting a variety of adult participants and offering a great selection of FETAC courses.
In 2005 an extra €2 million will be provided for services for trainees with special needs in Youthreach and senior Traveller training programmes. These services will enhance the existing guidance and counselling measures that have been in place since 1998. Provision will be made for extra tutor resources, educational assessments and plans and adaptive technology, depending on the particular needs involved. It is important to give this new provision to special needs, Youthreach and the senior Traveller training programmes. I am pleased to announce that new and extra provision. The provision for pooling resources to ensure shared access to professional, counselling and psychological services for each centre is important and practical.
I am pleased to announce the allocation of an extra €800,000 for the roll-out of phase 4 of the adult education guidance initiative. Perhaps I will be forgiven for having a particular interest in guidance counselling, given that I trained as a guidance counsellor and recognise the importance of guidance and the need to let clients know of the likely progression they can follow. Some 24 projects are up and running successfully and, as a result of the 2005 Estimates, a further ten areas, currently without such a service, will be included.
Expenditure for child care services, Youthreach, travel and VTOS programmes will increase by 7.3% in 2005. Overall, it is estimated that 2,250 children participating in these programmes will be catered for in 2005. I have responsibility for the youth sector and I am pleased to announce that there has been an 18% increase in the allocation for youth services in 2005, bringing funding for the youth sector to almost €34 million. The commitment to an 18% increase indicates that the Government is putting emphasis on helping young people, particularly the disadvantaged. I look forward to a further roll-out of the provisions of the youth work grants in 2001, the expansion of special projects for the disadvantaged youth scheme, a review, upgrading and expansion of youth information centre networks, a funding review of youth work, an expansion of the national child protection training programme for those involved in the youth sector and increased grants for the major national and regional youth work organisations, funded under the youth service grant scheme and other schemes.
I could continue at length but suffice to say I wish to thank all those youth organisations who put on record their thanks and welcome for the 18% increase in funding for the youth sector. I thank all those who passed on congratulations to the Government through the Department of Education and Science for its commitment to youth, adult and further education.
Minister of State at the Department of Transport (Mr. Callely): I am pleased to have an opportunity to contribute to the Estimates debate, particularly as Minister of State at the Department of Transport.
There are many good things happening in our communities and Fianna Fáil is delivering on its promises, particularly in regard to infrastructural investment. The Government’s commitment to transport cannot be denied. I am pleased to inform the House that I am determined to continue to develop services and that we cannot be complacent about this.
In the restricted time available, I will concentrate on a few issues. I am working on and making progress with traffic management in Dublin, Cork, Galway, Limerick and Waterford. The promotion of public transport is central to easing congestion. A key element of this is the delivery of quality bus corridors and additional buses. It is vital that our nation’s capital, Dublin, a city I am proud to represent, has in place an efficient public transport system that allows industry to prosper, tourism to develop and people to commute in the shortest possible time.
The Estimates published recently allocated €40 million for traffic management grant schemes in 2005. This funding will be used mainly to improve the traffic position in the greater Dublin area. A considerable amount of work is already taking place in the area of traffic management. The main focus of the scheme is on bus priority measures, as well as enhanced park and ride measures and improved interchange facilities between bus and rail. Funding is also provided for cycle routes, pedestrian routes, environmental traffic cells, facilities for people with disabilities, computerised traffic signal control systems and travel, and parking information, integrated land use and transport framework plans and regional transport projects and studies.
The QBCs are making a significant contribution in terms of greater patronage and increased speeds. For example, bus patronage increased by more than 60% and bus speeds by 14% during peak hours. In short, QBCs have proved very successful in the past seven years, with fewer cars on roads, more buses and bus passengers on the QBC routes. A key element for easing congestion in the greater Dublin area is the delivery of quality bus corridors, further QBC roll-out and the development of super QBCs as a priority. The smart card is due for further roll-out and will prove highly beneficial. Park and ride policy measures will also be advanced with improved interchange facilities between bus and rail.
There are those who suggest that Dublin’s transport problems could be solved by a congestion charge such as those introduced in London. It is my view that such charges should only be considered when commuters have a choice of public transport systems and road networks that meet their demands and-or use of their private vehicles. We still have a long road to travel before we can have such an evaluation. In short, a congestion charge is not on at present. My aim is to provide commuters with choice which should include a Dublin metro system.
I also hold strong views on accessibility to public transport. I am engaged with service providers and representative groups on the wider issue of accessibility on all public service vehicles. I intend to make real and tangible progress in this area. I want to see transport for all. Equally, I am seeking investment of €3 billion over the next ten years for DART and rail development and an integrated network in order to expand capacity and increase frequency of service. I will require similar developments in the Dublin Bus network. As well as QBCs, new buses need to be ordered, not just to improve quality and reliability of the fleet but, more important, for increased services.
On Operation Freeflow, I am pleased to inform the House that I will launch the scheme on 29 November. I am committed to ensuring a successful operation for Christmas 2004. This year’s initiative is being planned under the auspices of the Garda Síochána and the Dublin Transportation Office in close co-operation with local authorities and transportation service providers. I will monitor closely the success of Operation Freeflow. Given the announcement of a dedicated Garda traffic corp, we should witness a 24-7, 365 day, improvement in traffic management and freeflow.
Developments are also taking place in other cities and regions in terms of bus prioritisation and other traffic management measures. Cork is engaged in the development of a comprehensive programme of green routes, equivalent to a quality bus corridor, and also park and ride sites. Approximately €12 million has been invested in these projects. A number of bus lanes are being installed in Galway, with technology being introduced at a number of key city junctions. In Limerick, there is similar installation of technology to give buses priority at junctions as well as the development of an urban traffic control system. Similar work is taking place in Waterford, including the introduction of bus priority schemes.
My plan is for further roll-out of QBCs in the capital and all cities for which I am responsible, and beyond. We can improve transport systems through effective co-ordination and collaboration between all the stakeholders, as well as the appropriate and effective use of intelligent traffic management systems.
Mr. O’Connor: I thank my two party colleagues for giving of their time and congratulate them on their efforts. I am pleased to praise Deputy Callely and wish him well with his brief. I am sure he will not be embarrassed if I do so once more. I have a particular interest in what the Minister of State, Deputy de Valera, does because she was a Deputy for Tallaght when times were rough.
She currently holds a brief very dear to my heart given my background — before I became a Dáil Deputy I worked for the National Youth Federation — and my contact with the various youth groups in the Tallaght area, which has a huge youth population of 30,000 young people still at school. The Tallaght Youth Service does tremendous work in that regard. Echoing what the Minister of State said, there is great joy in the Tallaght Youth Service at the Minister’s announcement. It is very positive.
I am glad the Minister listened to the youth service lobby. A number of my colleagues and I recently attended a briefing session by the National Youth Council of Ireland and I am glad the Minister has been able to deliver in that regard. It is good that we should look after our young people. I therefore welcome the Minister’s announcement.
Mr. O’Connor: I am always happy to do so. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Roche, is a former resident of my town. Every time I come in here I am glad he and the Minister of State, Deputy de Valera, went on to greater things and left a gap for me to become a Dáil Deputy.
I have a particular interest in the Estimates for other Departments, including the Department of Social and Family Affairs because it is very important. I will not make a party-political point on a Thursday afternoon except to say that as I listened to the lectures given by the Labour Party speakers earlier I wondered whether, if the Labour Party got into Government in the future, Proinsias De Rossa would be back as Minister with responsibility for social welfare. That is what the Labour Party speakers seem to be saying.
I have great hope that the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Séamus Brennan, will listen to what has been said. The Fianna Fáil backbenchers have been very vocal in the area of social and family affairs, and I hope and am confident that what is required in that area will be delivered.
I strongly support dealing with the problems in the health service. I have often stated that there must be something wrong with the system if despite billions of euros being poured into it, elderly people and others cannot get a bed in acute hospitals. That must be dealt with.
I welcome the Estimate for the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs. Last Thursday night I was delighted to accompany the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ó Cuív, who was brave enough to return to duty only a couple of days after his mishap in Kerry, when he came to Tallaght where he was warmly welcomed. I make the point to him and to the Minister in the House that it is important that we keep our eye on the ball regarding drug services and the delivery of the RAPID programme.
I listened carefully to the contributions of the Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs, Deputy Conor Lenihan. I strongly support what is being done in the Third World. I had the opportunity a year ago this week to go to Lesotho, and I support what we as a nation are doing in the area of development aid. It is something we would all support.
The Minister spoke today about the Irish abroad. That issue does not get the same amount of attention as the subject of development aid. However, it is important to realise there is problem in that regard. I come from a background where my grandfather was forced to emigrate, my father was forced to emigrate, and I was forced to emigrate for a while, but I am glad I came back and that I am here. It is important to take every opportunity to support what is being done for the Irish abroad and to continue to demand that more and more resources should be allocated to them. I do not want to compare emigrant services with Third World aid. However, perhaps more organisation is needed in terms of emigrant services to ensure programmes are resourced. I am delighted by the Minister’s announcement. The setting up a special unit by the Department of Foreign Affairs is to be welcomed. Anybody who has been abroad — I lived in London for a while — will understand that there will always be difficulties. I went to Brent a while ago because South Dublin County Council, which is based in Tallaght, is twinned with Brent County Council. In that area one meets homeless people from Dublin, from Tallaght and other places. One also meets people with drug problems. It is therefore essential to continue to support them. It strikes me that despite all the progress made — there was a report two years ago and its recommendations are being implemented — we need to focus on policy. I hope the Minister will consider producing a White Paper in the new year so that we will know precisely what our national policy is regarding emigrants.
I look forward to the budget next Wednesday. It is one of the highlights of the political year. I am sorry Fine Gael wants to abolish budget day but I look forward to it. The Sinn Féin leader said last week there would be three more budgets. I am glad it realises that. I look forward to all of them.
Mr. Ferris: Twenty minutes were allocated to the Technical Group. Owing to the non-intervention of the Chair in previous debates, the Technical Group’s time has been cut by 16 minutes. In the interests of fairness, therefore, I ask that the debate be extended by 16 minutes in order that the Technical Group will get its entitlement in this House.
An Ceann Comhairle: The Deputy should not blame the Chair for the fact that the debate did not run to time. In a long debate where there is a number of speakers, they occasionally exceed their allocated time by some seconds, and it all adds up.
An Ceann Comhairle: There should be no reflection on the Chair. The Chair does its best. It calls people when their time is up and it is a matter for Members to conclude and co-operate with the Chair.
Regarding the request to extend the debate, the House agreed unanimously on the allocation of time for this debate. I am obliged to call the Minister at 3.20 p.m. and to put the motion to the House at 3.30 p.m.
From an agricultural perspective, the most striking thing about the Estimates is the ongoing failure to adequately fund Teagasc. The cuts implemented last year have already had serious consequences for a number of research centres which have been closed down, and we can only assume there are more on the way.
Last week we witnessed another consequence of this with the moving of employees from the Teagasc dairy farm at Ballinamore to Ballyhaise. Ballinamore farm was fulfilling an important unique role in research into farming conditions in the north west. Its closure says much not only about this Government’s penny pinching in an important area of agricultural research, but about its attitude to the future of farming in disadvantaged areas.
The closure and downgrading of other centres will have a similarly detrimental effect on the ability of Irish farmers to adapt themselves to the future. It is vital in the new scenario created by the single farm payment that Irish agriculture is resourced with the most up-to-date research to take advantage of the opportunities they are told exist.
One of those is biofuels and other renewable energy sources. There is currently a small grant available for farmers who grow energy crops and I would ask the Minister for Finance, Deputy Cowen to examine the overall taxation and incentive packages that might be implemented in order to encourage this, as we will need to do if we are to meet EU targets.
There appear to be significant opportunities in the biofuels area but I note that experts in that area here are critical of the Government’s slowness in making the necessary fiscal and other policy decisions to ensure this country can take advantage of what will become a massive area of growth over the next 20 years. Not the least of our advantages is that we have the means to grow energy crops here. From the point of view of farmers, there is the opportunity to produce energy crops with the cushion of the single farm payment and the end of the need to produce other crops or animals for which there is not the same demand. I specifically refer to the smaller farmer who will have the cushion over the next ten years of having an income from the single farm payment but would be able to diversify and improve his or her income, if allowed to do so. However, to do this we need input from the Minister to direct, encourage and provide incentives to farmers to move into that sphere.
Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government (Mr. Roche): I thank all Members who made contributions in what was a good debate. The Government’s focus in framing the 2005 Estimates and the budget that will follow is to continue to support economic growth and employment while generating the resources that this nation needs to achieve social and economic progress.
As a result of the Government’s successful management of the public economy to date, we have fared well. We have lowered central Government debt from close to 100% of GDP in the early 1990s to the current level of 31%, which is remarkably good news for taxpayers. We have the most healthy public finances in the European Union. The Exchequer outturn for 2004 is predicted to be €2 billion better than the Exchequer deficit of €2.8 billion which was forecast at the outset of 2004. We have reached practical full employment with the unemployment rate at less than 5%. Long-term unemployment, which has been a feature of grinding poverty for so long in this nation, has at long last been addressed. However, my party does not claim sole credit as social partnership played a major role in this regard. The forecast inflation rate for this year is approximately 2.25%. We have provided resources to double public spending on vital public services. We prioritised spending in recent years on health, education, welfare and infrastructure. In 2005 we will provide an increase in spending of €1.4 billion on health and education, which are pre-budget figures. In the last four years, we invested an average of 5% of GNP, approximately twice the EU average, on addressing our infrastructure deficit.
It is worth recalling what we have achieved, namely, a standard of infrastructure which will support future growth. Some 47 major road projects will be completed between 2000 and 2004. The total length of the national roads development will be over 291 kilometres by mid-2004. The M1 motorway to Dundalk is the longest stretch of motorway in the country and when issues on the M50 are resolved, we will effectively have dual carriageway from outside Arklow to Dundalk. The Luas system is in operation, the DART system has been dramatically restructured, the port tunnel will be completed in the fourth quarter of 2005 and more money than ever in the history of the State has been spent by the Government on the rail and bus systems.
Deputy Burton and others were critical of the public capital programme but I cannot understand why this is so. While there is much selective economic amnesia at present, we should remind ourselves that since 1997 the capital programme has increased by 185% on a pre-budget basis, a significant increase by an objective standard. There have been massive increases from a very low level in 1997 in areas such as transport, housing, health, education and child care. The Government has moved to a multi-annual capital system which makes more sense than the way we previously handled capital budgets. The new envelopes for 2005-09 will be announced on budget day and will maintain the momentum of investment in infrastructure. Some of the critical points made by Deputy Richard Bruton on the issue of the structural nature of our budgetary system are being addressed.
In the case of education, an area vital to the well-being of the nation, the gross allocation for the Department of Education and Science will be increased by €530 million, or 8%, to €7.1 billion in 2005. I spent much of my professional career in education and never thought I would see the day when it would achieve such extraordinary levels of investment.
The figures on health have been well rehearsed but are worth restating. The Estimate provides an additional €915 million and these additional resources will fund improvements in services, notably, 230,000 more people will have access to free general practitioner services through the new doctor only medical card system, which is a good system and will make sense to many people. Ten wide-ranging actions will improve accident and emergency services, including fully staffed acute medical units in major hospitals. We all know of the major problems with inappropriate visits to accident and emergency over the years and, if we are truthful, we know that extraordinary problems in accident and emergency arise in some cases because of people inappropriately turning up, particularly at weekends.
New services for people with disabilities will be delivered by over 1,000 new front-line professionals who will begin implementation of the Disability Bill. All new units in hospitals will be opened with the current funding of €50 million. Waiting times for patients will be reduced further due to funding of €20 million which will be invested in the national treatment purchase fund. Members will state that this is not enough and it is not — it is never enough. However, while there is no reason to be complacent, it is infinitely better than anything achieved before.
In my area of local government, the Exchequer allocation for the local government fund will be €488 million this year, an increase of €38 million or 8%. By any standards, this is sufficient to allow local authorities to get on with the job we elect them to do. I have €1.206 billion to invest in local authority housing on a pre-budget basis and I intend, with the assistance of every Member of this House and every member of every local authority, to squeeze value out of that funding.
Deputy English referred to the Garda Síochána. In that regard, the figure of 5% is somewhat misleading. The Garda Commissioner intends to recruit 1,096 members during 2005 and additional members during 2006 and 2007. These members will undertake a 62 week training course before being attested into the force and formally joining the Garda payroll. I make this point simply to correct the record.
A number of references were made to disability, some of which were, to say the least, disingenuous. The funding provided to the disability sector is phenomenal, which is as it should be because we started from a position where, historically, the State did not invest sufficiently in these services. I remind the House that under the disability headline some €532 million will come from the education budget, an increase of 16% on last year. The Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government will experience an increase of the order of €56 million while the increase at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment will be €63 million. The increase on health is €2.143 billion, on justice, €8 million, and on finance, €45 million. The total increase is €2.847 billion. I provide these figures not to be in any way complacent or to suggest that sufficient has been done. However, much has been done even though there is more to do.
Mr. Roche: One line only comes from Deputy Burton. I am glad she has taken the time and trouble to return to the House because I wish to remind her of several matters. Persons on the average industrial wage pay less income tax than they did in 1997 when Deputy Burton’s party was in charge of the coffers. Although the real wage has increased by some €10,000 per year in the meantime, an average person will pay €268 less in tax, PRSI and levies in 2004, on an increased wage, in comparison with workers on much lower wages in 1997.
It is also the case that since 1997 the average tax rates for all individuals in all income levels has dropped by an unprecedented amount. Whether Deputy Burton likes to admit this, it is a fact. For example, for a married family with one income on €50,000, the average tax rate has fallen from 33.5% in 1997 to just under 21% in 2004. For a married couple with two incomes in the same period, the average rate has gone from 33% in 1997 to 14% in 2004. The best thing the State can do for income earners is not to steal their money but let them spend it themselves.
Mr. Roche: In addition to being a party of high taxes and very inefficient spend, Deputy Burton’s party has also entered the extraordinary lists of those parties who want to give away tax sovereignty for this nation to Europe, a bizarre notion.
Mr. Roche: The Government’s approach to spending is not just about providing. The Green Party is always confused on the tax issue. As a result of the Government’s pre-budget plans, gross expenditure on public services will be more than €43.5 billion in 2005. This is an extra €2.5 billion on the 2004 spend and represents a real increase by the public sector in public services. We have prioritised spending on health, education and welfare. Budget day will produce further benefits for those people who count in this country. The Minister for Finance should be congratulated and complimented on what he has done. We look forward to what he will achieve this day week.
|Andrews, Barry.||Ardagh, Seán.|
|Brennan, Seamus.||Browne, John.|
|Callanan, Joe.||Callely, Ivor.|
|Carey, Pat.||Cassidy, Donie.|
|Cowen, Brian.||Cregan, John.|
|Cullen, Martin.||Curran, John.|
|Davern, Noel.||de Valera, Síle.|
|Dempsey, Noel.||Dempsey, Tony.|
|Dennehy, John.||Devins, Jimmy.|
|Ellis, John.||Fahey, Frank.|
|Finneran, Michael.||Glennon, Jim.|
|Grealish, Noel.||Hanafin, Mary.|
|Harney, Mary.||Haughey, Seán.|
|Hoctor, Máire.||Jacob, Joe.|
|Keaveney, Cecilia.||Kelleher, Billy.|
|Kelly, Peter.||Killeen, Tony.|
|Kirk, Seamus.||Kitt, Tom.|
|Lenihan, Brian.||Lenihan, Conor.|
|McDowell, Michael.||McGuinness, John.|
|Moloney, John.||Moynihan, Donal.|
|Moynihan, Michael.||Mulcahy, Michael.|
|Nolan, M.J..||Ó Cuív, Éamon.|
|Ó Fearghail, Seán.||O’Connor, Charlie.|
|O’Donnell, Liz.||O’Keeffe, Batt.|
|O’Malley, Fiona.||Power, Peter.|
|Roche, Dick.||Sexton, Mae.|
|Smith, Brendan.||Smith, Michael.|
|Treacy, Noel.||Wallace, Dan.|
|Wallace, Mary.||Walsh, Joe.|
|Wilkinson, Ollie.||Woods, Michael.|
|Wright, G. V.|
|Boyle, Dan.||Breen, Pat.|
|Broughan, Thomas P.||Bruton, Richard.|
|Burton, Joan.||Coveney, Simon.|
|Cuffe, Ciarán.||Deasy, John.|
|Deenihan, Jimmy.||Durkan, Bernard J.|
|English, Damien.||Enright, Olwyn.|
|Ferris, Martin.||Gogarty, Paul.|
|Gormley, John.||Gregory, Tony.|
|Hayes, Tom.||Healy, Seamus.|
|Higgins, Michael D.||Hogan, Phil.|
|Howlin, Brendan.||Kehoe, Paul.|
|Lynch, Kathleen.||McCormack, Padraic.|
|McGrath, Finian.||McGrath, Paul.|
|McManus, Liz.||Mitchell, Gay.|
|Morgan, Arthur.||Moynihan-Cronin, Breeda.|
|Noonan, Michael.||Ó Caoláin, Caoimhghín.|
|Ó Snodaigh, Aengus.||O’Shea, Brian.|
|Pattison, Seamus.||Penrose, Willie.|
|Quinn, Ruairi.||Rabbitte, Pat.|
|Ring, Michael.||Ryan, Eamon.|
|Ryan, Seán.||Sargent, Trevor.|
|Shortall, Róisín.||Timmins, Billy.|
|Upton, Mary.||Wall, Jack.|
|Andrews, Barry.||Ardagh, Seán.|
|Brennan, Seamus.||Browne, John.|
|Callanan, Joe.||Callely, Ivor.|
|Carey, Pat.||Cassidy, Donie.|
|Cowen, Brian.||Cregan, John.|
|Cullen, Martin.||Curran, John.|
|Davern, Noel.||de Valera, Síle.|
|Dempsey, Noel.||Dempsey, Tony.|
|Dennehy, John.||Devins, Jimmy.|
|Ellis, John.||Fahey, Frank.|
|Finneran, Michael.||Glennon, Jim.|
|Grealish, Noel.||Hanafin, Mary.|
|Harney, Mary.||Haughey, Seán.|
|Hoctor, Máire.||Jacob, Joe.|
|Keaveney, Cecilia.||Kelleher, Billy.|
|Kelly, Peter.||Killeen, Tony.|
|Kirk, Seamus.||Kitt, Tom.|
|Lenihan, Brian.||Lenihan, Conor.|
|McDowell, Michael.||McGuinness, John.|
|Moloney, John.||Moynihan, Donal.|
|Moynihan, Michael.||Mulcahy, Michael.|
|Nolan, M. J.||Ó Cuív, Éamon.|
|Ó Fearghail, Seán.||O’Connor, Charlie.|
|O’Donnell, Liz.||O’Keeffe, Batt.|
|O’Malley, Fiona.||Power, Peter.|
|Roche, Dick.||Sexton, Mae.|
|Smith, Brendan.||Smith, Michael.|
|Treacy, Noel.||Wallace, Dan.|
|Wallace, Mary.||Walsh, Joe.|
|Wilkinson, Ollie.||Woods, Michael.|
|Wright, G. V.|
|Boyle, Dan.||Breen, Pat.|
|Broughan, Thomas P.||Bruton, Richard.|
|Burton, Joan.||Coveney, Simon.|
|Cuffe, Ciarán.||Deasy, John.|
|Deenihan, Jimmy.||Durkan, Bernard J.|
|English, Damien.||Enright, Olwyn.|
|Ferris, Martin.||Gogarty, Paul.|
|Gormley, John.||Gregory, Tony.|
|Hayes, Tom.||Healy, Seamus.|
|Higgins, Michael D.||Hogan, Phil.|
|Howlin, Brendan.||Kehoe, Paul.|
|Lynch, Kathleen.||McCormack, Padraic.|
|McGrath, Finian.||McGrath, Paul.|
|McManus, Liz.||Mitchell, Gay.|
|Morgan, Arthur.||Moynihan-Cronin, Breeda.|
|Noonan, Michael.||Ó Caoláin, Caoimhghín.|
|Ó Snodaigh, Aengus.||O’Shea, Brian.|
|Pattison, Seamus.||Penrose, Willie.|
|Quinn, Ruairí.||Rabbitte, Pat.|
|Ring, Michael.||Ryan, Eamon.|
|Ryan, Seán.||Sargent, Trevor.|
|Shortall, Róisín.||Timmins, Billy.|
|Upton, Mary.||Wall, Jack.|
|Last Updated: 04/11/2010 09:23:45||Page of 217|