In discussing financial and economic matters the preceding debate was highly relevant to the future of the economy, particularly the rural economy. I hope the preventative measures being implemented by the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Rural Development, his departmental officials and other State agencies will be successful in keeping the country free of foot and mouth disease. Ireland exports £5 billion worth of food and drink products each year. This represents an enormous share of the economy. The agriculture sector is not just of crucial importance to the rural economy, it is the backbone of the national economy. Accordingly, the Minister and various Departments concerned are pursuing the proper course of action by ensuring the highest and most rigorous protective standards are speedily implemented and fully adhered to.
The Minister of State at the Department of Finance, Deputy Cullen, referred to the huge improvements which have been made to the taxation system. The provisions of the Bill will remove 133,000 taxpayers from the tax net, bringing the total number of income earners excluded to 668,000. This is a clear measure of the success of the economic and fiscal policies pursued by the Government since taking office in June 1997, under which the standard rate of income tax has been reduced by six percentage points.
The Minister for Finance has introduced welcome changes in stamp duty and measures to encourage the provision of housing. There are severe difficulties confronting house purchasers, particularly first-time buyers, in cities and large urban areas. Most private sector housing is over-priced and, in many instances, of low quality. In administering the grants scheme for new houses the Department of the Environment and Local Government insisted on a certificate of reasonable value endorsed by a departmental inspector prior to the approval of such grants. This requirement should be reintroduced and rigorously implemented. There is widespread concern about the severe over-pricing of housing by a speculative element in the building industry.
The rural renewal scheme, introduced by the Minister for Finance two or three years ago and applicable in parts of County Cavan and all of counties Leitrim, Longford, Sligo and Roscommon, has been beneficial in providing additional housing units. In particular, it has encouraged young people to provide their own housing.
I welcome the Minister's proposal to increase the floor area limit for qualifying houses which meet the relevant criteria. He should also consider increasing the floor area limit for existing houses in need of refurbishment. It is important to maintain and restore as much as possible of the older housing stock.
An issue often raised by county councillors is the need to introduce a grants scheme for house reconstruction. The Minister for the Environment and Local Government, Deputy Dempsey, and the Minister of State at that Department, Deputy Molloy, have dramatically improved the valuable grant schemes for essential repairs and disabled persons, both of which are contributing to an improvement in housing conditions for people with disabilities and elderly persons. They should, however, be streamlined.
The introduction of a house reconstruction grants scheme would assist those who need to provide additional bedroom accommodation or carry out necessary repairs to their homes, but find the cost of such works prohibitive. Such a scheme would provide a worthwhile incentive to refurbish and upgrade older houses and thereby contribute to the quantity and quality of the housing stock.
I welcome the improvements the Minister is introducing in relation to taxation, including tax relief for third level education fees. I hope this measure will be further improved. Many of those whose incomes are slightly above the qualifying threshold for higher education grants find it extremely expensive to put their children through college.
The Minister for the Environment and Local Government introduced a special infrastructural programme to provide for water and sewerage schemes in small towns and villages from which many villages in my county have benefited. The Minister should consider providing additional funding to enhance the programme. It would relieve pressure on housing in larger urban areas if infrastructure was put in place in smaller towns and villages to enable them to be regenerated, to provide additional housing and to ensure a better population spread. This would be particularly beneficial to County Cavan and the constituencies of Deputy Kenny and the Minister of State, Deputy Moffatt.