In a few months the people will be asked to make a judgement on the performance of the parties in Government as we face into a general election. I have no doubt, for a number of reasons which I will outline, that the parties in Government will be rejected on such issues as crime. On a nightly basis we have the spectacle of hundreds of residents marching to force suspected drug pushers out of their homes and their areas while the Garda stand by and do traffic duty and the Minister for Justice does nothing. The position so far as law and order and the drugs problem are concerned, where contract killings are a weekly occurrence, shows a lack of Government action on the crime issues and it will be judged accordingly.
At a time when the economy is booming, despite the efforts of this Government, unemployment continues to rise. This Government and the Ministers are more intent on PR exercises and announcing new jobs than trying to maintain existing jobs as we saw with Semperit and in South Tipperary last week where 1,000 jobs were lost. We see the failure of this Government in relation to Northern Ireland where there was an opportunity to build on the peace process and ensure that talks started at the end of last year. We see its failure in relation to the BSE crisis, the plight of the farmers and the contempt with which their plight is being treated by the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Forestry, Deputy Yates, who apologised here last night to the rest of the world for Ireland producing beef. The Leader of the Labour Party, the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs, also treats them with contempt. Yesterday I tabled the following question:
To ask the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs the specific action, if any, he has taken to help alleviate the problems being faced by the farmers in this country due to the BSE crisis.
In this era of openness, transparency and accountability he did what he always does — he transferred it to the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Forestry.
The Government will also be judged on the national debt. Despite a booming economy our national debt is £1.5 billion higher with 11 per cent growth in public expenditure. We also have residential property tax and water charges. For all these reasons the Government will be rejected. Instead of the crime problem, the farming crisis and the Northern situation being handled properly, these office holders — they are not really a Government — hold on and sit there but do not make any decisions. If for no reason other than the sale of 20 per cent of Telecom by means of this legislation, the damage being done to the telecommunications industry and the jobs potential of the industry, it should be kicked out of office as I believe it will when the taxpayer realises the full extent of what is going on.
We are being asked to agree to sell 20 per cent of Telecom Éireann for £183 million, a derisory sum. We are also being asked to allow the Minister to sell up to 49 per cent of the shares in this company without requiring him to come back to the House. What is this all about? Telecom Éireann needs a strategic, global alliance to ensure that it has the best technology available to it and access to world markets in the years ahead but we are getting a consortium of moderate sized Dutch and Swedish regional players in a global market and nothing else. They bring to the table none of the technological advances we require, yet they are being given a share in Telecom Éireann for a knockdown price by this three headed Government.
I wish to refer to the profits and turnover of Telecom and relate them to the price at which the Government is giving this company away. In 1994 Telecom had a turnover of £871 million with a profit of £80 million. In 1985 that turnover had been increased to £979 million while in 1996 it had increased to £1,094 million with a profit of £200 million. At the same time the company reduced its debt from £1,027 million to £718 million. Yet the Government is prepared to give away a 20 per cent stake in this company, which is worth at least £2 billion, for a derisory £183 million, with no technological advances and no improvements. On top of that, it is doing so at the expense of the worker directors in the company by reducing their representation by half.
This is being done by a Government which comprises not only Fine Gael — a party that never had a feel for the semi-State sector — but our socialist brethren of various hues. During the last general election the Tánaiste, Deputy Spring, referred to the plight of the semi-State sector and shed copious tears at Dublin Airport while outlining what he and his party would do to save the semi-State sector. What does this proposal amount to? It is national sabotage of a company of which we should all, rightly, be proud. It is a profitable company at the cutting edge of technology not only in the telecommunications area but in Cablelink and the mobile telephone system. The Tánaiste, Deputy Spring, and his Labour Party colleagues have agreed to halve the number of worker directors in Telecom and to give away 20 per cent of a £2 billion company for £183 million. The figure should be at least £500 million. They are the wrong partners at the wrong time and this proposal does not meet a national need.
As for Democratic Left, I am glad we are graced by the presence of the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte. When I sat in the seat in which Deputy Rabbitte is now sitting, every day I listened to him pour scorn on anyone who even thought of touching a semi-State company. If I had the time to look through the Official Report I am sure I would find numerous quotations by him on the rights of worker directors, the need for them and how any Government which even suggested touching a semi-State company should resign on the spot. However, both he and his party leader have become comfortable and are part of the Establishment. They no longer care about the issues of concern to the people who voted for them, they only care about staying in office. They are not concerned about what the people want or what is good for the country, all they are concerned about is what will keep them in their soft seats. If the Labour Party had one inch of backbone between all its members it would demand the withdrawal of this Bill. Instead, Labour Deputies will vote in favour of this Bill. They are being driven by their Democratic Left colleagues in Government who have sold out on whatever principles they had in whatever guise.
As regards the companies which we are told will be the saviours of the telecommunications industry, the 9 July edition of the Financial Times stated that Telia was awaiting EU deregulation and that Swedish Telecom groups were looking abroad as competition mounted at home. It went on to state that Telia had long been touted as a candidate for privatisation and that management saw flotation as the best answer to its capital needs, a view unanimously shared by industry observers. It also stated that Telia had demanded a cash injection from the Government of up to 10 billion kroner which is equivalent to $1.49 billion over the next five or six years as it could no longer fund internally its entire capital requirements of around 12 billion kroner a year. On the question of its loss of business, the report went on to state that it sought to compensate by doubling prices for local calls since 1993 but this has been more than offset by a 50 per cent fall in tariffs for long distance calls. This is the company which is supposed to be the saviour of Telecom and our future.
The fire sale of Telecom by this three headed Government shows very little confidence in Irish workers, funding and ability. Why is the company being sold in this way when pension funds of £15 billion are available? Some £6 billion of this is invested abroad and £240 million is invested in British Telecom and other communications companies. Even if Telia is floated on the stock exchange Irish pension funds cannot buy into it here, rather they will have to wait until it is floated on the Swedish stock exchange and buy into Telecom Éireann indirectly through that stock exchange. The Labour and Democratic Left parties should be ashamed of themselves for suggesting this option.
In its reports Forfás deals with the hopes of the telecommunications industry and states that effective use of advance communications could provide 40,000 jobs by the year 2010. Many thousands of jobs are already directly linked to telecommunications, for example, those in the financial services area and many other areas within the economy, and these would not be there only for the work of Telecom. Yet this company is being given away by the Government.
I received a letter from a worker director of a semi-State company who stated that recognition of the role of the worker shareholder in Irish State industry through representation on the boards of State enterprises had made a unique contribution to the necessary changes achieved in recent years. The letter continues that, in the light of such positive achievements, it is disturbing that a new Bill is being hastily rushed through the Dáil which will effectively deny worker shareholders in Telecom Éireann 50 per cent of their representation on the board of the company. In terms of the role of worker directors, if nothing else, this should be enough for the Labour Party and Democratic Left to pull out of Government. The Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, laughs about the role of worker directors being reduced. It is sad to see such principles being washed down the drain.