Is the House in a position to proceed? Questions have finished a little prematurely. Deputy Michael D. Higgins.
Finance Bill, 1988: Second Stage (Resumed).
I understood that Deputy Higgins had completed his contribution.
When we conclude one item a little prematurely, even by two or two-and-a-half minutes, the Chair is concerned that any Deputy might be disadvantaged by our commencing the next business that bit earlier. I hesitate to ask for a sos having regard to the short time involved. I should like to have confirmation that the Deputy in possession does not wish to avail of his right to continue.
I understand that Deputy Michael D. Higgins had moved the adjournment.
That, to me, is an indication that he wishes to resume, unless people have information to the contrary.
I do not want in any way to appear to be a spokesman for Deputy Higgins but I understood from the Whip a moment ago that Deputy Higgins regarded himself as having finished. Our Whip is certainly under that impression.
I was a witness to the conversation between Deputy Kelly and Deputy O'Brien, the Fine Gael Whip, who said that Deputy Michael D. Higgins had concluded and that Deputy Roche would resume the debate.
The Chair is happier now because it is time for the resumption of the debate — 3.45 p.m. The Deputy is not in the Chamber and therefore, I am calling Deputy Dick Roche.
Unfortunately, Deputy Higgins is not with us. He spoke during his contribution of more money for State enterprises and of unfettered expenditure in the public services. He indicated that he would seek to replace economic progress with rhetoric, would seek to replace economic reality, even economic theory, with a form of demented leprechaun economics where ultimately the pooka of reality is banished from the land and a band of benevolent, munificent tooth fairies come to take the stage with endless half crowns for our girls and boys. I do not think one needs to be an escapee from a third level institution to recognise that reality is all the more harsh. The fairy godmother, the tooth fairy and spend-thrift leprechauns are all delusions of childhood and more particularly of the state of Deputy Higgins's mind. So, too, are the economic pleasantries which have tripped so tantalisingly and so readily from the honey tongue of Deputy Higgins. Whether Ireland is yet fully ready for economic orthodoxy may be a matter for academic debate. That it is not ready for the Roald Dahl school of economics to which Deputy Higgins evidently now subscribes is beyond any shadow of doubt.
I intend to focus on the Bill before us and, in doing so, to focus on a number of specific areas. I would like to deal with what I consider to be the most important parts of the Bill, the tax changes and self-assessment and the potentially controversial parts of the Bill — the question of attachment, the ATM charges and the withholding tax on consultants. What I see as the most welcome change is the reappearance of section 23, particularly in an expanded form. The most misunderstood and most recently misrepresented aspect is the proposal regarding disabled drivers.
The increases in the allowances on the PAYE side have already been dealt with in a number of contributions in this House but they bear repetition. The proposed changes are, first, that personal allowances are being increased both for single and married couples; secondly, that the PAYE allowance is being increased to £800; thirdly, that the standard rate tax band of 35 per cent is being widened from £9,400 to £11,400 for a married couple and fourthly, that the 48 per cent rate tax band is being increased and that the general tax exemption limit is being increased. As a result of these measures, 93,000 taxpayers who would otherwise be liable for the 48 per cent rate of tax will pay tax at the standard rate in the current tax year. These are very real achievements. It is a pity that the Finance Bill has attracted a good deal of detailed attention on relatively minor issues when the real achievements, the fundamental breakthrough which is being made in tax equity, have tended to be ignored.
It is worth emphasising that the increases in PAYE allowances are the same this year as was achieved in the entire period between 1981-82 and 1986-87. That is a very considerable achievement. As is the fact that the proposals for the PAYE sector deliver in one year on the 1990-91 objective of theProgramme for National Recovery.
The combined proposals made in the Bill are a major breakthrough. They will put £90 million of tax relief into the PAYE workers' pockets over the three years of the programme. That is a very real achievement. The combination of those achievements is radical. They are more far-reaching than we have seen in any Finance Bill in recent years and, I would suggest, they are more welcome.
The increase in the 35 per cent tax band is the biggest since the band became the bottom rate in the system in 1984-85. That again is an achievement. The increase in the band is greater than the cumulative increase made in the tax years 1984-85 and 1987-88. The increase in the 35 per cent band achieves in one year more than the increase envisaged in the three years of theProgramme for National Recovery. That again is a very real achievement.
The increase reduces the percentage of taxpayers in the higher tax rates to significantly less than was the case in 1983-84. Because of this change over the period of the forthcoming tax year, the Government will have moved more than two-thirds of the way in one year to putting in excess of two-thirds of taxpayers back on the standard rate. The next objective obviously must be to claw the standard rate back. Finally, the increase in the 35 per cent band reduces the marginal rate of tax for about 170,000 taxpayers.
No Minister for Finance has come into this House in recent years with such an extraordinary set of achievements in a Finance Bill. While it may be to Deputies' taste from time to time to indulge in colourful rhetoric, those are very real and welcome achievements and if every Deputy were to deal with this Bill honestly, and strip away rhetoric, those achievements would be recognised and welcomed for what they are.
The increase in the PAYE allowance in the 35 per cent band was not achieved at the expense of other taxpayers. That is important, since the personal tax allowances were indexed and the age allowances and exemption thresholds have also been increased. In effect, all taxpayers benefit from the package of proposals in this Bill. The package is more than three times better than would have been achieved by index-linked movement in the taxation bands. The Bill has achieved a great deal, and long overdue equity is introduced here.
On the self-assessment side the important point is that the talking has finally stopped. We have an unfortunate inclination to talking in this country. We are marvellous at producing reports. We are great at establishing committees. We perhaps establish task forces with greater alacrity than any other nation on God's earth. The reality is we are great at talking about reform but we very seldom achieve it. As one writer suggested, implementation is the Achilles heel of reform, and to date with regard to the whole issue of tax and self-assessment, that has been the case here. There has been a lot of talk but no action. In the Finance Bill the talking has stopped and changes are being made, and we must all welcome that.
The changes will get rid of the inflated estimates and the huge number of appeals that have dogged the system over the years. We all know our tax system has become an extraordinary affair with inflated estimates of tax that bear no relationship to reality. Two recent cases brought to my attention at one of my clinics illustrates this point. A man and his sister attended my office in Bray and brought in a tax bill for £11,800. After a civilised hour's discussion with the inspector of taxes, it turned out they were due to pay less than £100 tax. A small businessman in my constituency availing of the incentive scheme to create jobs for young people, took on his first employee, a young girl who had previously been unemployed, and he was landed with a PAYE bill of £14,500 after employing her for four months. That is more than the girl would have earned in several years, and this was the amount of PAYE estimated to be outstanding.
It is a fact that estimates have been inflated and bear little relationship to reality. The movement to self-assessment cuts through all the nonsense in this area. The changes are to some of the elements of a full self-assessment system, and further elements are promised in the Bill and by the Minister, in the light of experience operating the changes being introduced in this Bill. The self-employed and the corporate taxpayers will have the option of computing their own tax liability. All this is very welcome and long overdue.
There has been some controversy about the proposals in the Bill in relation to attachment, to tax clearance and to incentives. An essential ingredient of a successful tax collection system is a speedy and cost effective response to default. That is what is provided in this Bill on attachment. Attachment and self-assessment go together. At present Revenue rely mainly on the interest charges applying to late payment of bills. This has proved to be a less than effective deterrent where the taxpayer has little intention of ever paying on time.
The Minister and the Government in their decision to take into the system the power of attachment have taken a very welcome step in tax reform. I do not accept the suggestion that has been made by one or two Deputies opposite that these measures are draconian or are in any way novel. The concept of assessment is not new. The changes will get rid of the inflated estimates and will return the tax system to something approaching reality. A further point worth putting on the record and bearing in mind when we talk about attachment is that attachment is not an issue which should affect the ordinary taxpayer. It need only concern the defaulting taxpayer.
A further point with which I would like to deal is tax clearance for grant applications. Again there have been, to my mind, some grossly inflated arguments that this is in some way draconian or novel. The Minister announced last year that arrangements were going ahead for the introduction of a requirement for tax clearance for grant applications, and he has underscored that this year. It strikes me that, like assessment, this is a very important step forward. The introduction of attachment, the tax clearance for tax applications, combined with the work of the special task force on taxation with surcharges for late returns, have reached the point that it is becoming unprofitable to be a tax dodger. We must all welcome that because the ultimate cost of tax dodging falls on the shoulders of the complying taxpayer.
The incentive being introduced to bring tax affairs up to date is very valuable. To encourage taxpayers to bring their affairs up to date, the Minister has decided to offer them, on a once-off basis, the opportunity to settle outstanding tax liabilities without the payment of certain interest or penalties. That too is very welcome.
There are, the Minister will be aware, some technical difficulties with this in some tax areas. People had difficulties resolving final figures with the tax administration and hopefully the Minister will be using his good offices to encourage a more open-handed approach among the tax people.
A further element of the Bill which to my mind has attracted an extraordinary degree of ill-informed and sometimes malicious comment was the modest proposal in regard to the ATM charge. The proposed £10 charge on cash cards has not been popular and I am sure all Members were lobbied on the issue. A lot of the written material that came to us in the form of lobbying had a striking degree of similarity suggesting that there was a common source of the lobby. Of course, the common source was the banking institutions. The banks have been major opponents of the ATM charges. That is interesting because the charges being introduced on the teller cards is not something new. It is not the first time that the holders of such cards have been hit. The banks were the first to introduce a charge on the use of those cards. As I understand it, AIB charge 12p per unit transaction and the Bank of Ireland, depending on the circumstances, have a charge which varies from 14p to 16p.
The objections to the charge from the banks are that they cannot easily pass them on to their customers without adversely affecting ATM services. I wonder if it would be a revolutionary thought for the banks not to pass on that charge to their customerts? After all, the major banking groups have lobbied us all on the basis that the charge will bear onerously on students. The point has also been made that the charge will bear onerously on firms who want to change to paying by non-cash means. The banks deliver a great deal of incentives, particularly to students. They hand out a degree of unsolicited tat which, no doubt, in one year comes to more than £10. They could fruitfully substitute for this the payment of the new charge. The other opposition on the issue of the charge suggests that bank services generally are being overtaxed but that objection hardly bears examination. If one is talking of taxation of services one is talking of the charge on cheque cards and the cheque duty and they hardly constitute an overtaxation.
Another area of controversy has been the issue of the withholding tax on consultants. That scheme is a fairly straight-forward one. Certainly, the hysteria it first generated seems to have been artificially raised. The administration will be handled mainly by the health insurer, the consultants and the Revenue. The consultants can hardly oject to paying tax due or raise their charges on the basis that they will have to pay tax on their income. The system which is being introduced in the Bill does not impose additional tax. It collects part of the tax that is due earlier.
I mentioned that one of the more welcome aspects of the Bill was the reappearance of section 23 incentives. Reading through the provisions of the Bill, one will note that the Minister has decided to expand the scheme beyond the suggestions he made in his budget speech. That expansion, like the reintroduction of the section 23 incentives, is very welcome.
As the Minister for Labour pointed out, anticipating some of the points made by Deputy Michael D. Higgins, the prospects for 1988 are encouraging. The performance in 1987 was impressive. The fact that the prospects for our economy are encouraging is a tribute to the political courage of the minority Government who have in the past 12 months achieved the first real cut in public expenditure and have started in a real way to put the country on the road to economic recovery. They have started work which ultimately will bear fruit from which we will all benefit.
It is worth reading into the record of the House the achievements of the last year because listening to Deputy Michael D. Higgins one would think that we have had nothing except gloom, cuts and no achievements. The achievements are there for us all to recognise and I am surprised that Deputies have not had more generosity to recognise them. The achievements are not ones for which the Government can claim all the credit. The population as a whole deserve a great deal of credit for them. There has been a very welcome reduction in interest rates. They are down close on 6 percentage points over a 12-month period and all Members must welcome that. There has been real progress towards the stabilisation of the debt-GNP ratio and all Members who care about the future of the nation must welcome that. Our inflation rate is now down to 3 per cent, or less, and we all welcome that. For a long time it was economic orthodoxy here to suggest that we could not achieve inflation rates below those of our nearest neighbour. On that issue we must question that economic orthodoxy. Budget targets, the extraordinary targets, set by the Government at the outset of their term of office have been achieved.
In 1987 we witnessed the first significant reduction in Government expenditure in 30 years and those who care to put money back into the pockets of the people and who care to say that the State has gone that bit too far must welcome that. Borrowing, which was regarded by all right-thinking people as a millstone around the neck not just of this generation of Irish people but as a millstone around the neck of the next generation, and the generation after that, was reduced by a figure well in excess of £300 million in 1987. In fact, further reductions are expected this year. The balance of payments deficit has, in effect, been eliminated and we have had a series of positive balances of trade for the past few months.
Deputies from all sides should have the generosity to recognise those achievements. The fruits of Government economic policies will be enjoyed by all our people. Last year was a year of action and 1988 promises to be a year of further action. One of the most important things, however, is that while the Government have concentreated on the economy and getting it back into working order they have not been unconscious of their responsibilities to the weaker sections of the community. The Social Welfare Bill, which runs parallel with the Finance Bill, brought forward real benefits in social welfare payments. The payments, in terms of the financial year, have been brought forward to an earlier date than was the case under the last Administration and the Government will be paying a general increase well in excess of the rate of inflation. In the Social Welfare Bill they provided for an increase of 11 per cent in payments for those at the lowest level. Those moves are welcome and are an indication that the Government are not concentrating exclusively or in a blind way on economics but that they are collectively conscious of the plight of our less well off people.
I mentioned what to my mind has been the most misunderstood portion of the Bill. Those were the changes proposed with regard to disabled drivers. I have had contacts over the years with the Disabled Drivers' Association, their members and with the Irish Wheelchair Association. I must record that I have the utmost respect for both associations and the very valuable work they do.
We all accept that there are extraordinary anomalies in the present system. The provisions of this Finance Bill recognise those anomalies and constitute an effort to redress or remove them. One of the most anomalous aspects of the present position is that the Revenue Commissioners are responsible for what, after all, should be a social policy. Recognising those anomalies the Minister for Health has established a committee consisting of a representative of the Disabled Drivers' Association, of the Irish Wheelchair Association, a former official of the Rehabilitation Centre, a member of the National Rehabilitation Board or its staff, two representatives of the community care section of different health boards and one representative of the Department of Health. I was astonished to hear Deputies contend that that committee was biased in favour of the Government. On my calculations there is a 5:1 majority on that committee — if one wishes to work it out in those terms — against the Minister for Health who certainly has not overloaded representation on that committee in his favour. The committee is far from being biased in the Minister's favour. Rather is it an attempt to bring the broadest group to bear on this problem.
Sadly, that committee did not come up with agreed changes. Sadly also there has been a degree of controversy about the proposals for disabled drivers contained in this Bill. It is my belief that the provisions of the Bill in this area have been grossly misrepresented inside and outside this House. That misrepresentation is due in part to a misunderstanding. If this issue continues to raise the degree of passion and misrepresentation it has to date I wonder whether the Minister should consider dropping the provisions altogether. It is clear that the Minister's proposals, contained in the provisions of this Bill, constitute an attempt to improve the position. It is equally clear, from much of the comment, that the Minister's attempts to improve the position have not been recognised for what they are and have been misrepresented.
When speaking earlier Deputy M. Higgins sought to disparage Government sectoral policies. He urged, as he has done so often in the past in this House, that sectoral policies have been discredited, that we should move to some form of intense centralised planning. Even Gorbachev's Russia recognises the reality that centralised planning while in theory seems fine, in reality achieves very little.
I would suggest that the views put forward by Deputy M. Higgins, to say the least, are myopic, clouded with his rock solid, ideological view of reality. The sectoral policies the Government are putting in place have already proved their worth. In the past year in the food industry sector there have been cumulative investment of the order of £600 million. That is progress. For many years we have preached that Ireland has been a producer of raw materials, of commodities, rather than end product in the food industry. Surely Deputy M. Higgins and people like him who criticise these policies must recognise the value of the progress being made here? In the last year — of particular importance to the constituency of Wicklow — there has been an unprecedented expansion in forestry. I am one of those who optimistically awaits the arrival of the new forest enterprise board. I should like to put on the record again that I enthusiastically anticipate their arrival in County Wicklow, the only logical place for them to locate their headquarters.
There has been massive growth in shipping investment here since the arrival of the Minister for the Marine on the scene and the earmarking of this sector for expansion. Speaking to some shipowners in Arklow only yesterday I discovered that the anticipation is that the new shipping register just created for the port of Arklow will contain 26 ships by the end of next year, that cumulative employment there will be of the order of 350 with an additional 20 shore jobs. If one considers the position of the Irish fleet only two short years ago, one realises that this constitutes very real, welcome, progress. It has arisen because of the Shipping Investment Act and the expansion of the business enterprise scheme to shipping investment, another welcome aspect of this legislation.
There is visible already an unprecedented pick-up in tourism investment. Earlier this morning I was in Blainroe with Swiss Air who had invited the Minister for Tourism to lay the foundation stone of a multi-million pound investment, the first of its kind, specialising in golfing holidays to bring people to the Garden of Ireland. One can note, as one moves about the country — since the provisions of the business enterprise scheme has been expanded in that direction — a very real pick-up in enthusiasm for investment in tourism-related activities, which is very welcome. To disparage the concept of those sectoral policies, as has been done, to suggest they are worthless or could be replaced by some sort of centralised plan, a model which has failed already not just here but everywhere else, strikes me as nothing more or less than a flight from reality.
Politics, like economics, ultimately is about choice. The real world is not like that which exists in the romantic twilight of Deputy Higgins' imagination. Resources are scarce. That is the real world of Ireland in 1988. In a world in which resources are scarce, inevitably choices must be made. To make those choices one must have political leaders, not political sheep who bleat with every passing breeze. This nation now has reason to be grateful that it is governed by leaders. This House has reason to be thankful also. It has reason to be thankful to the Minister for Finance who has introduced, by way of the provisions of this Bill, one of the most significant and radical pieces of legislation in decades. This Bill has a great deal to recommend it. For that reason, it is my pleasure to support it.
I hope I will not be thought by Deputy Roche to be failing in my duty of generosity if I begin by making a few niggling criticisms of the Minister's Bill and the political intention behind it; they will be few and relatively marginal.
As I said in the course of the budget debate, the Government's financial plans ought not to be relying on moves which are essentially once-only moves, such as, for example, the acceleration of tax collection by means of an amnesty. I do not disagree with that — I may benefit from it myself marginally — but that is something which can be done once only. Once it has been done, it is done and no move of that kind will be open to the Minister in the future.
I must admit I would not make quite so light, as have other Deputies on the Government side of the House, of the arguments advanced, even though only by lobbyists, in regard to the proposed charge for bank cash cards. There is much substance in the points made by them. I have had independent lobbying and I have not had the impression that it has all been inspired by a single source. I would be as quick to spot that as anybody. I have also had a long and detailed representation from a senior official in the bank I patronise myself, whose points make a great deal of sense. I should have liked the Minister — since presumably he also must have had far more voluminous and detailed representation — to have said something about the objections which have been voiced about this proposal, perhaps more numerously and reasonably, than about any other provisions in this Bill.
The move in section 43 to abolish the benefit in regard to VAT and excise for vehicles for disabled drivers strikes me as very petty. Although I may have misunderstood the scale of the problem, it does not seem to me that the loss which the existing scheme can represent to the Exchequer could be substantial enough to warrant imposing an extra burden on people whom life has already sufficiently victimised. I hope the Minister will again look at that proposal to see if he can bring himself to drop it.
The Minister spoke early on in his speech — and this is a fault I have had to find not only with Ministers of his persuasion but also of those of my own — about diagnosing some of our problems. He mentioned the structural weaknesses in the economy. Not very long ago that word had a much more limited meaning than nowadays because it now means what we used to call "chronic" weaknesses in the economy, things which will not go away in response to a simple, budgetary measure but which might go away in response to a long series of budgetary or other legislative measures.
The Minister did not identify the difficulties of a structural or chronic kind but I can identify a couple and I am sure he will not have any difficulty in agreeing with me. I have to say — as I have also said in referring to budgets introduced by Deputy Bruton, Deputy Dukes, former Deputy Richie Ryan and as far back as I have been in this House — that his Bill, his strategy, as Ministers like to call it, goes no distance towards eradicating the problems which are structural and many of which are of a psychological kind. I know I will be looked on somewhat pityingly for bringing psychology into a Finance Bill but the Minister knows — or ought to know — that there is such a thing as a national frame of mind or a frame of mind which is acceptable in a country, to which people tend to grow up conforming.
In this country, that frame of mind is, in many respects, hostile to excellence of all kinds. The Irish are all descendants of kings, we tell ourselves, and we do not like subordination, taking directions or recognising that somebody else is entitled to claim a higher rank or status than us. We object to wearing uniforms, to modes and manners of life which, metaphorically speaking, amount to wearing a uniform with a rank badge, whether high or low. We are too proud to do all these things but other people with whom we compete are not too proud to do so.
Our psychological problems — of which the instance I have given is only one — are ones which no Government have yet devoted concentrated and prolonged continuous effort to solving. I am sorry that yet another Minister — a Minister with whom I have no political quarrel as far as his performance over the past year is concerned — is still talking in terms of having chronic difficulties and weaknesses in terms which do not seem to show that he has really grasped the dimensions of those problems or has any plan up his sleeve for dealing with them.
It is a truism that this country lives from exports. We trade, inwards and outwards, a far larger proportion of our products than any other country in the EC and indeed in most countries in the world. We depend for our lives and for every amenity in our lives on export performance. Our export performance, however much the figures may appear to contradict me, is lamentably bad. I know that is not the received wisdom. The received wisdom is that it is booming and rocketing. It is, but in a very limited area, essentially only in the English speaking cultural area, the larger part of which we do not have privileged access to. We have privileged access to the British market but not elsewhere, in countries where the talk is not of increased protectionism in which we are dealing with currencies with which we have no structural, institutional connection. We should be seizing the opportunity many times over to multiply our trade performance with the continental EC.
The other day, as though reminding me not to let this debate go by without saying this yet again — I said it often enough in this House — I got, through the post, the magazine of the Management Institute calledManagement in which there is yet another article from an unprejudiced, independent source about the Irish isolation of mind and person. It spoke about their cultural isolation, their concentration on the English speaking world and their virtual utter ignorance and neglect of the rest of the world, in particular, the most culpable neglect of the lot, the world of the continental EC on our doorstep with 200 million people.
We think that we do a lot of business with the Germans — and we do — but our exports to Germany, impressive though they are compared to what they were 20 years ago, are well under 1 per cent of what the Germans import per head, which is about £64 or £65 of Irish goods per year. That will not make anyone rich.
Our proportion of the German imports is about 0.8 of a percentage point. It is just under that in France and it is only half of that in Italy. In other words, our trade with the other continental countries is not worth talking about. I suppose it is important in a way but these are the three biggest, most powerful markets with populations comparable in size and wealth. Even Italy has now overtaken the United Kingdom in terms of its wealth per inhabitant and has almost overtaken it in terms of its disposable income per inhabitant. These countries are comparable with the United Kingdom but we do not do business with them in remotely the same volume as we do with the United Kingdom.
That is a structural — if the Minister wishes I will call it a chronic — weakness and it is a weakness which is centred partly on psychology and partly on something that is the product of our psychology, our history and educational system. I have been saying that for 15 years and I know that Ministers of different persuasion have agreed with me. I see nothing — to use the Minister's word again — structural being done about it. I see no sense of urgency about this and about orienting Irish people towards continental Europe which we helped to civilise and in the building of which we made a substantial contribution.
Until Governments here take an interest we will be a vulnerable exporting country. We will be vulnerable to protectionism in the United States and to currency movements in Britain. We have a golden opportunity, particularly in the German Federal Republic, the most powerful of all these economies, where the Irish, probably uniquely, and for some reason which perhaps we do not deserve, are popular. Perhaps a gang of Irish people behaving as they do at home at certain junctures or seasons might not be popular in a quiet German suburb but, on the whole, the Irish are liked. There is an open mindedness and a sympathy for them, perhaps for the wrong reasons. When I was a student it was for the wrong reasons, namely, that we had been neutral in the Second World War. Whether the reasons are good or bad they are there and an asset which business people should exploit. The degree to which there is an Irish presence in Germany is next to invisible.
When I go to Germany, as I do a good deal, I see Kerrygold butter in supermarkets and when I was there last month I was very pleased to see a very prominent display of Irish beef in two supermarkets. It was very well advertised but that is not good enough for a country which should be producing a huge diversity of food-stuffs and which has an automatic entry to the German market. That is related by the Management Institute in their excellent cover story in part to the weakness of Irish people in languages. We know that fewer Irish people claim proficiency — and of course you can claim proficiency without being proficient — in a language other than the one they were taught by their mothers than in any other European country in the EC, fewer even than in Portugal, which I would have thought was the most isolated country in Europe except for Iceland and ourselves.
The Minister for Finance may think it odd that he or his colleague in the Department of Industry and Commerce should be expected to take an interest in this problem but they will have to do so. You cannot go to a country tongue-tied and dumb and expect an interpreter, whose livelihood does not depend on you, to sell your goods for you. You have got to know the people, know their culture as well as their language, and know what they are about as this article makes clear. It is not simply a linguistic matter. You have got to have a population who are at home on the Continent, who go easily and familiarly around it, who know how the continental mind works, who absorbs continental standards of punctuality, cleanliness, hygiene, service and even politeness. I am sorry to say that that last quality, which is vitally important in many dimensions of our economy — notable in tourism — has gone down hill in this country at a terrible rate in the past 20 years. Anyone can tell that by comparing the level of service in the average Dublin shop, which, of course, is the same as that dealt out to a tourist when he or she comes, with what is normal and expected in the average shop in continental Europe.
Until these things are tackled and until a deliberate effort is made by the State at the Department of Education level to forcefeed or encourage by methods perhaps not formerly tried — I do not mean by compulsion — but certainly by incentives and perhaps even in a mild way by penalties at the examination level to oblige people to do what the economy and the people themselves unreservedly need. I would go further than continental Europe and I would say that the same is true and will be more true as time goes on of markets much further afield.
Let us look at China. There are over 1,200 million people in the Chinese Peoples Republic whose individual purchasing power by the end of this century will be three times what it is now. Let us think of that for a market. Is the Irish economy in the grip of China fever? I have not noticed it. I believe the Confederation of Irish Industry and Córas Tráchtála have sent missions there and I applaud them for doing so but I do not see any sign of what I might call the structural level of interest in capturing the potential markets which the Far East represent for us. I know it is eccentric to be talking like that in Ireland; we will get through until the next day and please God the next week will be the same. The Japanese, Germans and Italians do not think it is eccentric. They are in there pitching for all they are worth trying to get their share of this staggeringly large cake. We should be in there too but we cannot be unless there is a deliberate programme for linguistic training and for familiarisation and for getting people to go on subsidised study tours not in ones and twos and in small groups but in thousands.
We are isolated and we suffer from this isolation. The Minister may not think he suffers from it but he does and so do I and so does every other man and woman in the House. We all suffer from it and we must do something to overcome it. It can only be done at this level. Needless to say, I am not in favour of the centralised planning which Deputy Higgins referred to. He seems to be a political Rip Van Winkle like the rest of his party. He fell asleep around the year 1930, and is only just about yawning and stretching himself and is now telling us about all his marvels. The world has passed the Labour Party and The Workers' Party by but that will not stop them boring the ears off us for the next ten of 15 years until, perhaps, they get into Government and they discover that they cannot run an economy along the lines they recommend.
I would have liked a great deal longer to speak but I know the Minister is getting in in a few minutes. I want to close, again at the risk that I will offend the canon of generosity which Deputy Roche upheld to me. I do not think I have offended in that regard. So far I have been very generous in praising what this Government have done. I have practically said that a great deal of what they have done is what I would have wished to see my party do when they were in Government and when I was a member of that Government in 1981-82.
Inwardly, I used to weep with exasperation at the niggling measures of economy which were proposed, many of them exasperating to small and innocent groups of people while the main problems — the overstaffing of the State and the runaway public service bill — were not tackled at all or barely. I am glad to see some Government, even though it is not mine, getting to grips but if it is not offending——
The Deputy will remember the co-operation we got for our niggling.
Indeed I do. It was most culpable of us to have failed considering the wholehearted co-operation we got from the far side of the House. That is the point on which I want to end, although I am not accusing the Minister of being particularly——
Deputy Cooney should be thanked for his generosity.
The Minister belongs to a party who has a very high level of proficiency in pinning medals on themselves. The late Field Marshal Goering could learn nothing from them. They are burdened down to the knees with medals, orders and decorations pinned on themselves by their colleagues; if they cannot get a colleague to do it they do it for themselves. Yesterday the Minister congratulated himself — I admit in modest terms — on achievements which I accept he has to his credit in regard to lowering inflation, although that was going down very fast even before he took office, and in regard to curbing expenditure with the consequent beneficial effect on interest rates.
I wish the Minister had had the generosity on his side to acknowledge the role which the atmosphere of this House, largely dictated by this party, played in those achievements. If his party are enjoying a high level of support in the opinion polls, despite all the agony it has caused, I feel I have to grin and bear that. It is very galling for me to do so. The level of satisfaction I can promise the Minister — and as a politician he knows it — would be much lower if he was dealing with an Opposition which behaved as his party behaved when they were on this side of the House.
I would like to know what would have been said, had Fine Gael been in charge, on such a humble matter as the state of the roads, not to mind the roads in Dublin city? What would have been said about hospital cuts and closures and about the dangerous condition which hospital services in many respects are approaching? I take it for granted that the Minister is aware of that. He gets messages from his own constituency and no Member of the House watches his constituency more carefully. I am perfectly certain he is not ignorant about the conditions which prevail in the hospitals. What would he have said had it been a Fine Gael Minister who was presiding over that shambles? What would he have said about the closing down of the transport authority? What would his colleagues have said about the closing down of the film board? We might have had a Minister like Deputy Cooney whom it might be easier to call a Philistine, he would not know one end of a film from another. We would have had patrons of the arts like the Taoiseach going around sneering at Deputy Cooney's ruthless hatcheting of the film board. We would have had the same from a different Minister, and in a different context, about the closing of An Foras Forbartha. We would have had the same about the closing down of the scheme for home repairs. What would have been said if we had closed that down? Think of all the thousands of people on the dole who would have paraded in here whose jobs were taken from them by the Fine Gael Party — this is the language they used: "We are only talking about £80 million, what is that in a budget of £7,000 million"?
What would have been said about the redundancies which are for the first time being caused by the State? What would have been said about the encouragement of emigration, and it is hard for me to interpret otherwise the performance of the Taoiseach in the United States — where he is either gone or going — in regard to lobbying to get the Americans to take our people off our hands. That, unquestionably, as I have said is an unfair way of putting it. Is it any more unfair than what would have been said from Deputy MacSharry's side had we produced a Taoiseach who went through those motions? Is it a bit more unfair than what would have reverberated from over there? What would have been said about the £10 hospitals charge inStubbs Gazette? Stubbs Gazette would have been the Coalition's epitaph. Martin Turner and all the other caricaturists would have drawn tombstones and a picture of Mr. Stubbs, Mr. Dun and Mr. Bradstreet with crepe around their hats standing at the graveside of the Coalition.
How easily would the Coalition have got away with a £10 charge on hospital admissions? I agree that that is only a single health Vote but these petty distinctions would have been lost on the people and they would have been far too pedantic for the Fianna Fáil Party to take note of. That would have been the fault of Mr. Liam Cosgrave, Deputy Cooney or whoever was in charge.
I ask the Minister therefore to have the grace — I do not mean to point the finger especially at him — to understand that what he is getting away with — and what he is achieving — is in no small part due to the sacrificial attitude taken up here by people who are not really in the business of supporting but opposing. This party — let me say it bluntly — as was predictable, are showing and will increasingly show the signs of restiveness among their members at the co-operation which we, for national reasons, are having to deliver across the floor.
That is a fragile consensus. It is a break in the clouds, it is a weather window, and it may not be there forever. The Minister and his party should not take it for granted that it will be there forever. They should not take it for granted that it will not make any difference if it disappears because they will be back in Government anyway. They should not take it for granted that the country will recover after two years of the Minister's treatment and it will not matter if we are back to the old politics again. It will matter. The Minister and his party now have a chance not only to remedy the structural or chronic weaknesses in the economy but to remedy also the structural and chronic weaknesses in the political system, the chronic weakness whereby two parties who essentially agree at least on economic matters have spent the past 60 years throttling one another.
The Minister should reflect that now is the time to mend his fences. Now is the time to mend the fences which those two parties have built up between themselves over the past 60 years and not to wait for that consensus to disappear. He should be seeking to solidify and to institutionalise it by some means, which I do not have time here to spell out. If that chance is missed he may live to bitterly regret it, he and all his colleagues. Ní hé lá na gaoithe lá na scolb, the day of the big wind is not the time to try to mend your thatch. The Minister and his colleagues have a chance which may never come again. Whether we be long or short in the Dáil, we may never see this moment again. Even now there are clouds the size of a man's hand on the horizon so far as this party is concerned, as the Deputy perfectly well knows, and I do not need to be mealy-mouthed about it. He and his colleagues have a chance, not just for his own party but for the country's sake, to build into our system something which will put an end to the chronic insecurity and chronic childishness which has plagued us, and to deliver a political system which will give the people the kind of government which they thought their fathers and grandfathers had fought for.
First, I thank Deputy Kelly for his generosity and for his kind remarks on the achievements we have had. They did not come easily from our point of view, apart from the contribution which he and his party are making. It has to be said, and on numerous occasions here and outside this House over the past 13 or 14 months I have acknowledged the contribution being made by the consensus in this House for the action that is necessary to overcome the difficulties which we are responsible for getting ourselves into over the past 13 or 14 years. The political consensus he referred to is a bigger and wider political question and is something that I have no personal responsibility for other than to make an individual contribution. It is a much wider question and involves people who are not here today. I will leave them to deal with that.
I thank all the Deputies who have contributed to the debate and I will respond as best I can in the time available to the major issues which were raised. Some of the points relating to individual sections of the Bill can be discussed and will be extensively discussed in greater detail on Committee Stage.
Deputy Noonan was critical of what he termed the Government's one item agenda, by which he implied that the Government were concerned only with reducing the burden of the national debt and were not worried about economic growth, employment and emigration. Deputy Mac Giolla also spoke in this vein. Nothing could be further from the truth. Everything the Government are doing, including the measures in the public finances is, in fact, aimed at building up the economy. Our strong emphasis on tackling the budgetary and debt problems was no accident. We cannot permit ourselves the luxury of short memories in this regard.
The crisis in the public finances which this Government faced on taking office had to be resolved if confidence was to be restored and the economy put right. That crisis had clearly been at the root of much of what went wrong. It had caused massive outflows of funds, pushed up taxes, resulted in horrendous levels of interest rates, pre-empted huge resources to meet debt servicing costs and ultimately undermined the investment and the confidence on which economic growth and jobs are based. There was a bleak future for growth and employment against that background. Jobs come from investment which, in turn, depends crucially on confidence, lower interest rates and competitiveness.
To stress the correction of the public finances problem is in no way to suggest, therefore, that this is all that needs to be done to put the economy right. Our overall strategy was clearly laid out in theProgramme for National Recovery. What we are doing on various fronts is to create the conditions in which growth can occur. As a result of the turn-around achieved since the Government took office, many of the elements required for achieving higher growth, such as lower and stable prices, sharply reduced interest rates, better cost competitiveness, improved exports and balance of payments are now beginning to come right. Investment in the economy is increasing as a result. The comprehensive programme of development measures which we are implementing to build up various sectors of the economy is also beginning to have a positive impact. It is only by proceeding in this way that we will be able to make any impression on the dreadful problem of unemployment and correct the under-performing economy, to which Deputy Noonan rightly referred.
I want to stress again there is no room to relax on the budgetary front. A major gap remains to be bridged to reduce Exchequer borrowing and debt to sustainable levels. While I do not wish to be any more specific at this early stage of the year, it is obvious that a sizeable budgetary adjustment, probably of the same order of magnitude as in 1988, will again be needed in 1989. I would stress, however, that despite the mischievous speculation engaged in by Deputy Desmond, the most vulnerable sections of our community can rest assured that their interests will continue to be fully protected by this Government.
I thank the House for the general welcome accorded to the provisions of the Bill aimed at the phased introduction of self-assessment for self-employed and corporate taxpayers. I appreciate, in particular, Deputy McDowell's complimentary comments on this point. I must, however, take issue with the view of a number of Deputies that what we are doing on tax reform is very modest and represents a missed opportunity. Quite the opposite is the case. Despite the budgetary constraints which seriously reduce the room for manoeuvre, the Government have been able to bring forward a package of measures which represent a significant start on the reform and restructuring of the system. The major income tax band and personal allowance changes which were made cost £152 million. The revamping of the corporate tax code, the radical overhaul of the assessment and collection system and the extension of the social insurance system to include the self-employed can hardly be considered as a modest package. It is, in fact, the biggest single reform package that has come before the House for many years.
The problems in the Irish tax system have built up over a long number of years and cannot be solved overnight. I accept, of course, that much more needs to be done and that many of the points made by Deputies are valid. If our taxes are too much out of line with taxes in alternative locations, key Irish workers and enterprises may be lost to foreign markets. However, we cannot divorce the question of tax reform from the budgetary problems, as Deputy Noonan remarked. There are no massive unused resources available for tax reductions. We will have to work to create room for manoeuvre in this area. In this regard Deputies will recall that at the start of the debate I said I would welcome discussion as to how the tax base could be widened. There was a distinct lack of specific response to this point. It is easy to advocate tax reductions but rather more difficult to say who would meet the cost of financing them. I fully agree, nevertheless, with Deputies who said that action on tax reform will have an important influence on the growth prospects for the economy. The Government intend to press on with reform and I look forward to further discussions in this House as to how best to proceed.
A number of Deputies referred to the proposals for the harmonisation of indirect taxes in the European Community. We have not said we will have nothing to do with these proposals. On the contrary, I made it clear in my budget speech that the Government support the movement towards harmonisation. We can do no less if we want to remain part of Europe and stay abreast of developments in the internal market. We do not want to opt out. It has, of course, been necessary for us to count the cost to the Irish Exchequer of the proposals as they stand, and it is necessary to be realistic in terms of what this would amount to. The figures I have quoted on various occasions, £470 million in the first year and £350 million annually thereafter are realistic and take full account of extra tax buoyancy, as well as extra spending power in the economy which would result from lower indirect taxes. However desirable lower taxes might be in principle, the loss of revenue on this scale would add to our very serious budgetary problems and cannot be ignored.
There is not just the revenue loss to consider. Important economic and social consequences are also involved in the major structural changes which would accompany the new rates of indirect taxation. All these aspects will be considered by us as positively as possible in the context of our discussions with other member states and the European Commission about the harmonisation proposals.
A number of Deputies have referred to the proposed new disabled drivers scheme. I would like to repeat the point I made at the outset, that the proposed conversion of the tax based reliefs for disabled drivers to a grants scheme is not an economy measure. Matching funds have been provided to the Department of Health to operate a new expenditure based scheme with no expectation on my part or on the part of the Minister for Health that the new scheme is to yield savings to the Exchequer in this year or in any other. The criterion of disability specified in section 43 of the Finance Act, 1968, which is being repealed by section 54, that an individual must be wholly or almost wholly without the use of each of his legs has become increasingly difficult for the tax authorities to administer. It has led to ambiguities and misunderstandings. I have received representations from many Deputies of all parties and from members of the general public on this point because so many people are deprived under that section of the 1968 Act. We have listened to the views of the disabled drivers' representatives and the views put forward in the course of this debate, and the Minister for Health will now pursue his efforts to reach agreement on the terms of a new scheme with the associations of the disabled. Agreement is what we want. If agreement is not reached by the time this aspect comes to be considered on Committee Stage I will consider with-drawing section 54 and allowing the existing arrangements to continue.
(Limerick East): Hear, hear.
I would be prepared to take this step to avoid any appearance of pressure being put on the persons concerned. Given the approved administration and increased access to benefits hoped for under the new scheme I hope, however, that agreement can be reached in time to allow the proposed amendment to proceed. I and the Government are trying to help in this difficult area. That is all we are aiming at in this. There is no extra revenue and no loss of revenue whatsoever involved in this.
In relation to the system of deduction of tax on professional fees, contrary to what Deputy Noonan has said, the evidence is that the scheme is working well and I am aware of no backlog of refunds being due, neither do I recall any commitment made in the course of the budget debate last year which ruled out future legislative changes in the scope of the system. In fact, in the Seanad I indicated that I would be considering this very possibility. However, Deputies Desmond and Noonan raised the question of whether disclosure of payments by the VHI would meet the objective of this legislation. It would not. A withholding tax arrangement and disclosure are two completely different operations. The deduction system introduced last year and now being extended to consultants ensures that deductions are made on time in an administratively manageable way. Disclosure, on the other hand, at best provides potentially useful information leaving collection of tax on the basis of it as a completely different matter. Essentially this scheme puts consultants in broadly the same position as medical practitioners under the GMS. I cannot see how there can be much dispute about that. Other points were raised which I am sure we will cover on Committee Stage under that heading.
I acknowledged in my opening statement that in the period since the budget there has been opposition from various groups to the proposed charge on ATM cards. I have also listened to the objections raised in this debate and suggestions for raising the projected yield from other sources and I am still not convinced of the merits of the case made. Before Deputies settle their final attitude I would like to give the House further information on the charges that apply to various banking transactions. An impression is created in this House and throughout the country that none of the administrative or technological advances by the financial institutions carry any company charges or any Government duties. The opposite is the case. Let me give a few examples.
In relation to credit cards there is no company charge but there is a £10 annual duty. In relation to charge cards there is an enrolment fee by the company of £10 or £15 and an annual fee of £27.50 plus a Government duty of £10. So far as the main banks are concerned, on current accounts there are fees ranging fron zero to £2 per quarter. On each cheque you write, company charges of 15p to 22p per item plus a 7p per item Government duty apply. On the terrible ATMs there is a company charge of 12p to 15p per item plus the £10 annual charge now being proposed. On all paper transactions in the financial institutions the company charges range from 15p per item to 22p per item. It is true that in certain circumstances the above charges do not apply; however, there are strings attached to exemptions from banking charges. Indeed, an obligation to maintain a minimum credit balance in a noninterest bearing account could hardly be said to constitute free banking. A few concrete examples will serve to illustrate the position further.
Someone who writes 100 cheques per year and has a cheque guarantee card will pay a bank up to £24.50 for this service in addition perhaps to a fee of £8 for the maintenance of the account on which the cheques are issued. If a customer uses his ATM card twice a week or 100 times per year, he could pay banking charges of £15 per year in respect of those transactions. Those people who have been running around canvassing all of our support, giving media interviews etc. from the banking circles in recent weeks are now shown to be charging more themselves for the use of ATM cards on an annual basis than is being proposed in this Finance Bill. I would like Deputies to consider that aspect very carefully before coming to any conclusions on Committee Stage.
It will be clear from the foregoing, contrary to the impression that certain financial institutions have tried to give, that the banks themselves charge for the ATMs. Therefore, there is nothing sacrosanct about a charge for use of this type of technology. The other point that emerges from the information I have given is that in general banking transactions are not heavily taxed when we consider other charges in relation to piped television etc.
Deputy Noonan talked about attachment. Many points were raised and I will not have time to cover them all but I will try to run through a few points of substance raised particularly about section 69. The power of attachment would indeed be draconian if some of the concerns expressed by Deputy Noonan had a foundation. In fact, the proposal is far from draconian. It is a limited, carefully balanced provision which applies only in a clearly defined set of circumstances. As I have said, the concept is well established in other countries, was advocated by the Commission on Taxation and is an essential element in the move towards full self-assessment. As my predecessor pointed out in the January 1987 booklet on self-assessment: "A satisfactory range of enforceable measures must also be available and fully implemented. This is of paramount importance. These measures could include a power of attachment to allow for seizure of financial assets". The range of powers mentioned in the booklet went a good deal further than attachment. The essential point to bear in mind is that the taxpayer himself by not meeting and continuing not to meet his legal obligation leaves himself open to the use of these provisions. We will cover that in greater detail as we come to it, but I think it is an essential part of the overall measures we have made particularly in relation to the incentives to clear arrears and other matters that have been debated by us.
Quite an amount of discussion by Deputy Desmond in relation to the international financial services centre occurred during his contribution. All I can say is that he has been totally misinformed about this and he would be well advised to read exactly what is going on there at present. I have been astonished by Deputy Desmond's consistent opposition to this project in this House and elsewhere in recent months. The Custom House Dock development and the financial services centre have attracted widespread goodwill and support within Ireland and from abroad. Deputy Desmond failed to recognise that a major opportunity exists for Ireland to attract international financial service companies to this country. There is huge, worldwide activity in this area and we would be foolish not to try to share it to create jobs in Ireland, but we must have the right environment for this purpose. The jobs commitment of 700 which I mentioned yesterday, and in which apparently Deputy Desmond is not interested, is a commitment, not a pious hope, and there will be many more jobs. The 22 companies approved to date have agreed to accept job commitments totalling 700 as a condition of the certificates being issued to them. Under the legislation for the centre which I introduced in the Finance Act last year I have the power to withdraw any certificate if the conditions attaching to it, including the conditions as regards employment, are not met. I will not hesitate to do so if it is appropriate.
Deputy Desmond again raised the question of the concession which I am alleged to have given to the development consortium for the Custom House Docks area before the signing of the master project agreement last January. Let me reiterate that there was no concession. The consortium sought an assurance that no restriction would be placed administratively or otherwise upon the capacity of owners of the buildings to be provided in the area to claim capital allowances on the buildings in question under section 42 of the Finance Act, 1986. This section is legislation which the previous Government introduced. I gave the assurance that to change the rules in mid course would not be appropriate. This is reflected in the special arrangements made to exclude section 42 allowances from the changes in capital allowances generally and group relief proposed in the Bill. The effect of these special arrangements is, however, merely to preserve the position which was put in place by a Government of which Deputy Desmond was a member.
But not for that purpose.
I will conclude by saying that many other important points were raised by Deputies. I have covered the essential ones in the few minutes I have had and I am sure we will have the opportunity in the weeks ahead to discuss a number of those points on Committee Stage.
As it is now 5 o'clock I am required to put the following question in accordance with the order of the Dáil of 19 April last:
1. In respect of the motion for the Second Reading of the Finance Bill 1988, "that the words proposed to be deleted stand part".
2. That the motions for Financial Resolutions moved by the Minister for Finance on 31 March 1987 and 27 January 1988 and not disposed of are hereby agreed to.
- Abbott, Henry.
- Ahern, Bertie.
- Ahern, Michael.
- Andrews, David.
- Aylward, Liam.
- Briscoe, Ben.
- Browne, John.
- Burke, Ray.
- Byrne, Hugh.
- Collins, Gerard.
- Conaghan, Hugh.
- Connolly, Ger.
- Coughlan, Mary T.
- Cowen, Brian.
- Daly, Brendan.
- Davern, Noel.
- Dempsey, Noel.
- Dennehy, John.
- de Valera, Síle.
- Doherty, Seán.
- Ellis, John.
- Fahey, Frank.
- Fahey, Jackie.
- Fitzgerald, Liam.
- Fitzpatrick, Dermot.
- Flood, Chris.
- Flynn, Pádraig.
- Foley, Denis.
- Gallagher, Denis.
- Gallagher, Pat the Cope.
- Geoghegan-Quinn, Máire.
- Hyland, Liam.
- Jacob, Joe.
- Kirk, Séamus.
- Kitt, Michael P.
- Kitt, Tom.
- Lawlor, Liam.
- Barrett, Michael.
- Brady, Gerard.
- Brady, Vincent.
- Brennan, Matthew.
- Brennan, Séamus.
- Leonard, Jimmy.
- Lynch, Michael.
- Lyons, Denis.
- McCarthy, Seán.
- McCreevy, Charlie.
- MacSharry, Ray.
- Mooney, Mary.
- Morley, P.J.
- Moynihan, Donal.
- Nolan, M.J.
- Noonan, Michael J.
- (Limerick West).
- O'Dea, William Gerard.
- O'Donoghue, John.
- O'Hanlon, Rory.
- O'Keeffe, Ned.
- O'Kennedy, Michael.
- O'Leary, John.
- O'Rourke, Mary.
- Power, Paddy.
- Roche, Dick.
- Smith, Michael.
- Stafford, John.
- Swift, Brian.
- Treacy, Noel.
- Tunney, Jim.
- Wallace, Dan.
- Walsh, Joe.
- Walsh, Seán.
- Wilson, John P.
- Woods, Michael.
- Wright, G. V.
- Bell, Michael.
- De Rossa, Proinsias.
- Desmond, Barry.
- Higgins, Michael D.
- Howlin, Brendan.
- Kemmy, Jim.
- McCartan, Pat.
- Mac Giolla, Tomás.
- O'Sullivan Toddy.
- Pattison, Séamus.
- Quinn, Ruairí.
- Sherlock, Joe.
- Spring, Dick.
- Taylor, Mervyn.
Pursuant to Standing Order 93 (2) I hereby declare the Bill to be read a Second Time. When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?
It is proposed to take Committee Stage on Tuesday, 3 May 1988, subject to agreement between the Whips.
Is that agreed? Agreed.