We will send for the dictionary shortly. All this has been the collective achievement of the Irish people and of the social partners, which includes successive Governments since 1987. I am proud of the distinct and very positive contribution made by the present Government but I am also proud to have been there with my colleagues at the foundations, working with Mr. Charles Haughey, Mr. Ray MacSharry and Deputy Albert Reynolds, and with other parties at different times, to create social partnership, to negotiate massive levels of EU funding and to put the public finances and the whole economy on a sustainable path, that has subsequently enabled us to create hundreds of thousands of net new jobs and a prosperity without parallel in our history.
For the first time since independence, we are approaching full employment, with every prospect of pushing unemployment below 5 per cent within less than two years. We have substantially more people employed than at any time in our history, with close to a 50 per cent increase over the past ten years. Even since taking office in mid-1997, employment has grown by well over 100,000. We are continuing to generate substantial net new industrial jobs, and to attract a substantial proportion of high quality US investment in the European Union. Emigration has been reversed. We have had growth since 1994 averaging 7.5 per cent. Our national debt will soon be below 50 per cent of GNP and we are running a substantial budget surplus that should be more than sufficient to fund our social and infrastructural priority needs without recourse to net borrowing.
We have successfully navigated our entry into the single currency and, while Britain still continues to waver, we are for the present the only English-speaking point of the Union to be a member of that currency. That has advantages as well as disadvantages. Economically, we have been getting the best of a number of worlds. We are integrated into the huge European market. We are very competitive vis-à-vis our nearest market in the UK. In terms of investment and tourism, some of the dynamism of the US economy has been transmitted to Ireland.
Most of us can remember all too vividly the difficulties and handicaps and the demoralisation, when we started out twelve years ago . We know that our economy will only continue to be strong if we keep to the successful formula that has brought us this far. We now must adapt social partnership to the new circumstances. We cannot afford to abandon discipline on either pay or public spending. Sceptical observers will be watching closely to see how much longer we can continue to defy the known laws of economics, or if we begin to show signs of coming off the rails.
The potential and sweeping gains that we need to make, if we are to catch up with the main body of our European partners, depend on continuing our present steady course. While we now lead the countries of the periphery, we still only rank 12th out of 15 EU member states in terms of living standards by head. It is foolish to talk of having overtaken Britain, using unreal GDP figures. Our real income per head is now about 90 per cent of the EU average but we still have substantial leeway to make up.
The critical factor in sustaining momentum will be maintaining confidence. That must involve a clear determination to keep down costs, expenditure and inflation. It also involves continuing the transition to a competitively taxed economy. If we are to maintain the size of workforce that we will need, we have to lower the undue and discouraging burden of personal taxation on individuals and families at all levels of income, but especially at or below the level of the average industrial wage. We also must urgently address the child care issue from both a social equality and an employment aspect, which I see as a main priority of the next Budget. We are expecting a report of the interdepartmental committee by the end of the month.
The two main infrastructural constraints are housing and transport. We are building record numbers of houses, completing nearly 42,000 in 1998. The main answer to the housing problem is to increase supply, especially the supply of affordable housing for young people. I do not believe that the heavy-handed controls or taxes advocated in the past are the answers to the problem; they may even exacerbate it. It is the Government's firm plan to spread development around so that it is not just concentrated in and around Dublin city, perhaps to a radius of 50 miles, but that other main towns and cities around the country and their hinterland will benefit. The regionalisation of the country will help create a level playing field so that the counties of the west, the midlands and the Border can also get their fair share of development.
One of the areas in which we lag badly behind our more prosperous partners is the relative lack of an established modern infrastructure, which is still incomplete. While we are making a great deal of important progress, much remains to be done to create a satisfactory transport system by different modes that will convey people rapidly, both within and between cities, and which will bring environmental services up to the highest standards.
This Government has approved huge investment not only in roads but in public transport improvements – increasing our bus fleet, building the Luas, upgrading rail safety and extending rail commuter services. Over the summer, we will be working to finalise the national development plan, in which the European Structural and Cohesion Fund requirements will no longer be the dominating factor to the same degree. We will be concentrating on accelerating development and trying to telescope the extended delays that bedevil most long-term public projects. The new planning legislation will have a role in this, as will public-private partnerships which we now want to get off the ground.
We are transforming many of our public enterprises so that they can confidently face a new competitive environment. Given their strategic importance to the Irish economy, our objective is to enable them to thrive, whether in their existing form, in strategic alliances or turning themselves into successful commercial corporations in private ownership.
We need to remember that most public enterprises were established originally because of the absence or unwillingness of the private sector to invest in them. I am glad we will be able to give their employees, as well as members of the general public, a stake in them when their ownership is opened up.
The Government has made much progress in this area, building on what a previous Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats coalition started in the early 1990s. Virtually all European Governments, whether of the left or the right, have embarked on this process. The attitudes of my party to this matter have never been driven by ideology.
Achieving social inclusion, side by side with a strong economic performance, is one of the Government's highest priorities. Our success in creating employment is probably the single most important instrument of social inclusion. Between 1987 and 1994, we succeeded in reducing the depth of poverty.
Having completed the programme set out by the Commission on Social Welfare, the Government has given particular priority to raising the incomes of pensioners, a comparatively neglected group in recent years, towards our target of £100 per week.
We are tackling the drugs scourge head on and have succeeded in reducing crime levels by approximately 15 per cent, with the prospect of a cumulative 25 per cent reduction by the end of our third year. The drug barons can no longer operate with impunity and are now subject to a minimum ten years prison sentence. The pushers will also be rounded up. We are giving towards law and order the resources long denied them to provide extra gardaí to bring them up to a full complement of 12,000, to provide extra prison places and to make the criminal law and the prosecution of crime more effective. A new fraud Act will make a major contribution to tackling white collar crime.
A full range of adequately funded social and community services is something to which we can now reasonably aspire. Since 1990 there have been large real increases in the funding of the health services. Numbers employed in the health sector have increased from around 56,000 to 68,000 in the period. In the past two years, for instance, funding for persons with a mental handicap has been doubled. Since coming to office we have secured an increase of 28 per cent in revenue funding and 43 per cent in capital funding in 1999 over the 1997 provision. We are committed to making further necessary improvements in both hospital and community care. Apart from the physically and mentally handicapped, we need to develop further our services for older people and to ensure that people with serious illnesses or who are in considerable pain receive treatment promptly.
Cardiac surgery facilities are being developed through a nationwide strategy which will see £16 million additional funding spent by the end of this year. New facilities are being provided at St James's Hospital and University College Hospital, Galway, with children's services being further developed at Our Lady's Hospital for Sick Children, Crumlin. With these developments, capacity for adult cardiac surgery will increase by over 50 per cent and paediatric surgery will increase by up to 40 per cent. Preparations are also under way regarding the establishment of a heart and lung transplant facility in this country, to be based at the Mater Hospital.
Since coming to office approximately £19.5 million has been made available to implement the provision of the national cancer strategy. This funding is helping to address the issue of regional imbalances in the availability of cancer treatment services outside Dublin.
The importance of children's issues to this Government is highlighted by the fact that a major national child care investment strategy, costing £28 million, was announced last December. The establishment of the social services inspectorate on an administrative basis is also an important development.
A dedicated counselling and related service is being set up to support the work of the commission we set up to inquire into childhood abuse. Improving services for older people is an important objective for the Government and this year alone a sum of £14 million is being allocated to develop capital projects in this area. Residential care units, rehabilitation, respite care and day care facilities across the country will be significantly enhanced as a result of this funding. Income guidelines for medical cards for persons over 70 were substantially improved in March of this year and the next two budgets will see a doubling of these guidelines.
Those public patients currently on waiting lists are seeing improvements brought about as a result of the significant increases in funding provided by the Government under the waiting list initiative. Last year we increased this funding by 50 per cent over the previous Government's allocation and this year we have further increased this amount to £20 million. The underlying causes of waiting lists will also be helped through the further allocation this year of £9 million to services for older people and £2 million to the continued improvement of accident and emergency services. I am pleased that March 1999 saw the first decrease in waiting lists since December 1996 when the figure dropped to 34,996, a decrease of 1,887 over the previous quarter.
More people than ever before are being treated by our hospitals. Between 1996 and 1998 there has been an overall increase of almost 38,000 in the number of in-patients and day cases treated by hospitals. In addition, in 1998 almost 1.25 million attendances were treated in out-patient departments. The OECD has commented favourably on the high productivity in Irish hospitals, and it is this Government's firm intention to ensure that hospitals continue to show the same efficiency in the years to come.
We are proud of our record in education. Resources are being particularly concentrated in areas of disadvantage, but we are making general improvements on a broad front. Access to a full secondary education and third level is being improved. It is more and more understood that continuous education is the key to a happy and fulfilled life and to the advancement of our society. With the help of private contributions, we are giving a new and more ambitious cutting edge to our scientific efforts through the science and technology development fund.
Social cohesion and social justice are essential to our concept of a successful country. Backward and impoverished societies are generally characterised by vast disparities of wealth. We did not become independent to escape from that, but the ability to spread wealth and achieve real improvements for all sections of the population depends on generating steady economic growth. The art of modern government is to foster that growth and extend its benefits to all sections of the population.
We have successfully completed the Agenda 2000 negotiations which provide a satisfactory foundation for sustaining our economic advance. The outcome was of particular benefit to our agricultural sector, which could have fared much worse. The overall reform represented an estimated gain over seven years of £395 million, with a saving to consumers of £271 million. The take-up of the farm assist scheme is gradually improving and farmers know the Government will do everything reasonable within its power to tackle exceptional difficulties and maintain the viability of family farming.
The same active approach is being shown towards our fishermen. For instance, the Minister recently negotiated a much better deal for them in Cologne on the blue whiting catch.
Ireland intends to play a fuller and more active international role, in keeping with our responsibilities as a more prosperous country. We are one of the few countries increasing rather than reducing our development aid programme and we expect it to reach at least 0. 33 per cent of GDP in 1999.
Joining Partnership for Peace as well as our agreement at Cologne to the further development of the Common Security and Foreign Policy means that we will in future be actively involved in European multinational peacekeeping operations that are based on international law.
Good Government is not just about successful policy implementation and good administration. It is also about maintaining standards and integrity in public life. All members of the Government are fully committed to that. We have instituted and co-operated fully with inquiries and tribunals. We are operating in conditions of openness, transparency and accountability that did not exist previously. There are now more rules in place than ever before to prevent the abuse of power, improper influence or the concealment of potential conflicts of interest.
We intend to publish a standards in public office Bill later this year, having canvassed Oireachtas committees for their views. Preven tion of corruption legislation will be published later this year to implement EU and OECD conventions. Local government reform will provide for annual disclosures of interests and related matters by local authority members and staff. We have also agreed to provide legislative protection for "whistle-blowers" who report serious misconduct by their members out of a sense of public duty. The position of former public servants in areas related to their work will also be properly regulated.
While eternal vigilance plays an important role in any democracy, we in this House should be wary of manufacturing scandals for political ends, based on minor faults or mistakes, or even mere allegations, in a way that has a disproportionately devastating effect on individuals who have otherwise given exemplary service to the State. I think I am not alone in the House in finding the instant ruin of individual careers and reputations arising from the ruthless pursuit of political advantage or media overkill distasteful.