Ceisteanna–Questions. - Action Programme for the Millennium.

Michael Noonan

Question:

2 Mr. Noonan asked the Taoiseach if he will report on recent progress in the implementation of An Action Programme for the Millennium; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [18367/01]

Michael Noonan

Question:

3 Mr. Noonan asked the Taoiseach if he will make a statement on the implementation of the elements of An Action Programme for the Millennium for which his Department is responsible. [18368/01]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 2 and 3 together.

Progress on the Government programme is kept constantly under review. Deputy Noonan will be aware that we recently published the fourth annual progress report. The action programme and its mid-term review contains 535 specific commitments and today, over four years after the last general election, some three-quarters plus of the objectives and action points have been achieved, and significant progress has been achieved on others.

In implementing our commitments, we have brought forward and progressed one of the most ambitious legislative programmes in the history of the State. Since this Government took office on 26 June 1997, an unprecedented 179 Bills have been enacted. In addition, there are currently 45 Bills before the Oireachtas. Given the scale of the Government's legislative programme and the large number of specific commitments set out in the action programme, it would be impossible, in the time allotted, to fully detail the immense amount of progress we have made.

The cornerstones of our action programme are based on our desire to build a better Ireland for everyone, and our core promises at the last election to cut unemployment, taxes and crime, and to work to build a lasting peace on this island. We have delivered spectacularly on all of these.

We said we would cut unemployment and we have. No Government has done more in addressing one of the major sources of disadvantage in our country, that of joblessness. We have been responsible for the implementation of policies which have led to the creation of more than 310,000 jobs, a dramatic reduction in unemployment from 10.7% to 3.6% and of long-term unemployment from 4.6% to 1.2%. We have brought about the lowest rate of unemployment since records began. We have put an end to forced emigration. Going forward, we will continue to implement policies to make certain that every unemployed person is offered full opportunity and support to get back to work in their own locality.

We said we would cut crime and we have. Figures have fallen by an unprecedented 25% since the Government took office. Alongside the drop in crime, the detection rate for recorded crime has increased significantly over our period in office. Ireland now has a detection rate of 42% compared to 21% in the United States and 26% in the United Kingdom. This is quite simply because the Government as promised, had given the Garda Síochána the resources to police our streets, waterways and airspace as never before. The Garda Vote has increased by 48% since the Government took office and by 2002 we will have increased the number of gardaí by 1,200. Over 1,200 additional prison spaces have been provided in our prisons building programme. We have ended the revolving door syndrome in our prisons and invested unprecedented funding in crime prevention measures. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform has introduced 41 new Bills, more than any predecessor.

We promised to cut taxes and have done so. We introduced large tax cuts in each budget which have meant real increases in take home pay for all sections of the labour force. We have reduced the standard rate of tax from 26% to 20%, delivering on our pledge one year early. We have reduced the higher rate of tax from 48% to 42%. In total, we have cut tax rates by 12 points. The last Government merely cut the standard rate by only one point. We have provided over £3.2 billion in personal tax reductions – over £2 billion more than the last Government. A total of 38% of all income earners – 668,000 people – are now exempt from tax. We have also ensured that over 80% of the national minimum wage is now entirely free of tax. Today only 23% of taxpayers – 402,000 people – are paying tax at the higher rate. Our commitment is to ensure that 80% of taxpayers are paying at the standard rate and we are well on track to deliver on this objective.

We said we would restore peace and have done so. Within weeks of our return to power the IRA announced another ceasefire. The Good Friday Agreement and the subsequent referenda clearly demonstrated that the people of this island wanted their politicians to put in place and operate structures set out in the Agreement which were based on equality, tolerance, mutual respect and a desire to see a divided society, which for so long has been ravaged from within, reach its full potential. Most aspects of the Agreement have been implemented. On 2 December 1999 the institutions under the Agreement were established and the amendments to Articles 2 and 3 of the Constitution, enshrining, in particular, the principle of consent, took effect.

The Government is continuing to work closely with the British Government and all political parties in Northern Ireland to secure the implementation of outstanding aspects of the Agreement – an agreed new beginning on policing, demilitarisation, decommissioning and the inclusive operation of the institutions.

I am proud of the record of my Government in setting out an ambitious programme, earning the support of the electorate and implementing its promises in office. Over the course of the next nine months we will complete this work and be in a position to present to the people an unprecedented record of delivery and achievement.

Is the Taoiseach embarrassed that a Government in its fifth year in office, after a period of unprecedented prosperity, is presiding over shambolic public services? Is he embarrassed that the health service is in a chaotic state and that one in six children leave the education system functionally illiterate? Is he embarrassed that secondary school education is again threatened this autumn because of the incompetence of his Minister for Education and Science?

Is he further embarrassed that we have unprecedented public housing lists and that young couples can no longer afford to buy their own homes? Is he embarrassed that, after four years in office, traffic in Dublin can scarcely move, that quality of life has been diminished to an unprecedented degree and that he has failed to give leadership in those areas about which the public is most concerned? Is he embarrassed that, by and large, his Ministers are incompetent managers who cannot deliver in those areas which are strictly within the competence of Government?

As I said, the Government has a spectacular record and will continue to deal with the issues, including some of those raised by the Deputy. He will appreciate that some of these areas were left in an atrocious mess by him and others, but that we have continued to improve on them as we move forward.

We have continued to increase the number of houses being built and, where necessary, introduce new incentives to try to maintain confidence in the industry. I referred to crime. We have provided for record investment in education for which funding has increased by 70%. Direct funding for primary schools is up by two thirds. A total of 2,500 new teachers have been hired – a situation which we turned around from a cut in teacher numbers. We have invested £800 million in the modernisation of schools.

I referred to the issue of jobs. There are a large number of initiatives to deal with social inclusion. The national development plan provides £15 billion for the largest social inclusion package in the history of the State which will be spent across a range of areas.

There have been dramatic increases in child benefit which will provide up to £90 per week for each child after the three year period set out in the last budget. There has been significant investment in disadvantaged areas under programmes such as RAPID and CLÁR, as there has been in old age pensions and other areas.

Deputy Noonan mentioned transport where £1 billion was spent on railways, £200 million on Dublin bus services and £86 million on Bus Éireann. We have invested £2.2 billion in public transport.

All these programmes have commenced. There is much more to do and we will continue to do it. Health funding has doubled and soon there will be a national strategy on health. We continue to modernise and build on that service. I disagree with Deputy Noonan that any of my Ministers is incompetent. They are superb, hard working individuals who serve the country well.

If the Taoiseach disagrees that his Ministers are incompetent on a regular basis, how many have had bad days?

Does the Deputy expect me to answer that?

He said that the Minister of State, Deputy Jacob, had a bad day when he displayed incredible incompetence. Would he regard the Minister for Health and Children as being incompetent on the basis, as he stated, that while funding for health has doubled, the waiting list crisis has not yet been resolved? Is that the result of a bad day? Does he regard the implementation of the three Bacon reports on housing, which resulted in a crisis in local authority housing, private sector output and the private rented sector, as a bad day, bad month or bad four years?

I confirm that I did say that the Minister of State, Deputy Jacob, last week, had a bad interview.

Did he have a bad day?

He is a competent Minister of State. As we all know, things do not always go perfectly, and the Minister of State will continue to carry out his work to the best of his ability.

There are problems in the health service and I am sure that in 100 years time there will still be problems. The waiting list accounts for 3% of overall health service activity. There have been an extra 90,000 procedures. There is higher through-put, better services, more doctors, nurses, paramedics, theatres and hospital buildings. Of course, there are still problems. Anyone being on a waiting list for a long time is a problem, but we continue to tackle it. We are addressing problems in accident and emergency departments, some of which have been dealt with already. In the health strategy and the capital programme, we look forward and there are resources in the national development plan. Building is taking place at many hospitals and services are being improved. We must continue to deal with these problems. To the best of our ability, we seek a state-of-the-art health service. As the Tánaiste stated last week, patients, whether private or public, should receive equity of treatment. That is what we are trying to achieve. We are not there yet, but continue to work towards it by providing resources.

The Taoiseach outlined the moneys spent by his Ministers. I have no quarrel with him that his Ministers are well able to spend money. Public expenditure this year has risen by 24%. The issue is that, despite the expenditure, the State's public services are a disaster. They are worse than when he took office four years ago. He threw money at problems with no structural reform, and the people are not getting the services for which their taxes pay. That is a frightful indictment of this Government in its fifth year of office.

Hear, hear.

Now that we are on the cusp of a fiscal crisis because of the Minister for Finance's policy, when the surplus accrued during the years is under threat, and we are into a tight budgetary situation, is he not embarrassed or ashamed that he did not manage his Cabinet in order that when his Ministers had money they delivered services? Is he not embarrassed, in particular, on issues such as the care of the elderly and disabled, that our parents and grandparents, on whose shoulders and backs our current prosperity was built, have not been paid the debt that we owe them in terms of proper care? Is he not embarrassed that across the areas where the Cabinet is most responsible, the delivery of public services is worse than when he entered office five years ago, except that the budget has been quadrupled.

I do not accept that. I do not consider that several thousand extra staff working in the health service, 200 consultants and 600 doctors, about 1700 nurses—

And a worse service.

I do not accept that it is a worse service. I do not believe it is a worse service. I totally dispute that. If the Deputy follows that logic, he is saying these people are doing nothing and I do not accept that.

(Interruptions.)

Through the Chair, please.

I accept there is a waiting list. I accept there are still difficulties but I do not accept that the health service is as bad as it was four years ago. It has dramatically improved. There are still difficulties and I have highlighted the accident and emergency area, but there are now 90,000 more patients being treated than there was last year. Only 4% of the total activity of hospitals is linked to waiting lists. There are better facilities. The national cancer strategy has worked extremely well. The extension of cardiac surgery facilities to Galway and Cork has halved the numbers on the cardiac surgery waiting lists. What is being done for people with disabilities and what is being done in the area of mental health is far more than we have ever done before. That money is being well spent but the reality is that there is a great deal to be done. We are trying to catch up with decades and decades of underfunding and we must continue to do that.

With regard to the current financial position we still hope that the resources provided in the national development plan will continue to be used in priority areas.

When the Government was formed and its programme was published, the key priority itemised under health was that the Government would tackle the crisis in the hospital waiting lists. Will the Taoiseach accept that the most recent figures show that far from tackling the hospital waiting lists and despite the money that the Government has put into the system the Government is now responsible for an increase in the numbers of people on the hospital waiting lists?

Will the Taoiseach accept that these people are not simply statistics? They are real people in suffering and in pain who are entitled to get access to medical care and are being denied that access because of the perpetuation of a two-tier system? Will he accept that, were they private patients, they would be able to access the care they need and the essential services such as hip replacement operations, cardiac operations, eye cataract operations, grommets in children's ears and so on?

Will he accept that it is an indictment of this Government that having presided over the greatest economic prosperity – unprecedented economic prosperity – it has thrown away the opportunity to deal with the crisis in our hospital service and to provide a fair and excellent system to all our citizens? Has it reached the point where even his partners in Government have given up on him and are trying to come up with "Elastoplast" options to deal with what is a serious issue facing thousands upon thousands of sick and elderly people who deserve better at a time when this country is rich and could provide for them?

The contention of the Deputy is that waiting lists have lengthened but they have not.

They have.

I remind the Deputy that her colleagues cut the waiting lists initiative in their final year in Government, so I am glad that she has acknowledged that we have put resources into it. The reality is that the efforts of hospital staff and health boards are devoted to doing the utmost to improve the health service. They are succeeding in most respects but there are clearly some areas such as accident and emergency where there are still difficulties. There are other long-term issues. The Tánaiste's proposals last week and the provisions in the national health strategy consider how we will deal with those into the future. That is the right thing to be doing.

What has the Government been doing for the past four years?

Patients need people to look after them and buildings in which to be treated. Over the past four years we have been dealing with the provision of extra theatres and extra facilities. Patients have continued to receive those in recent years and I hope they will do so into the future.

Does the Taoiseach consider that is good?

If the Taoiseach wants to believe that, that is fine by us.

How can the Taoiseach explain his defence of the health service against the background of the Minister for Finance saying 12 months ago that he could not understand how the extra £1 billion or so voted for the health services was not resulting in any improvement in those services and as late as this week his effectively giving a red card to the Minister for Health and Children and saying "not a penny more until you reform the management and the structures?" If everything has been done as effectively as the Taoiseach claims, how can he explain the position taken by the Minister for Finance?

It is not a question of £1 billion, it is a question of £2.6 billion and a further £2 billion under the national development plan. The Minister for Finance wanted to ensure the tightening up of matters, that whatever additional resources were allocated to the Health budget were used as efficiently and effectively as possible to make a greater impact. That is the prudent thing to do. The Minister for Finance, in line with any Minister for Finance, wants to make sure that the resources put into the health services get to the areas where there are difficulties. The 4% of health activity linked to the waiting lists and accident and emergency services are the issues to which the Minister for Health and Children and the Minister for Finance continue to address their concerns. Those are the right areas to be considering.

Why has the Taoiseach been so selective in informing the House of the achievements of the Government? Why did he not tell us that in the four years he has been in office house prices, rents, the number of people on local authority waiting lists and the number of children homeless in our city have doubled? For people on the housing waiting list, tenants waiting for their rights and those who are homeless, is it not true that every single day the Government has been in office has been a bad one for them?

If the Deputy wants to pick some figures, with which I would argue—

The Taoiseach cannot argue with those figures.

I would argue with them. The Deputy will recall what house prices were in 1997 and 1998.

They were half what they are now.

Order, please, Deputy Gilmore.

We are dealing with a 40%—

They were half what they are now. House prices have doubled.

We cannot have such an exchange now.

House price inflation has dropped dramatically since 1998. I hope the Deputy is not quibbling with the fact that over this period we are trying to ensure we will get back to a position where there will be 5,000 house completions.

The Taoiseach's figures are a quarter down on last year's. He is spending too much time at football matches and not enough behind his desk.

The Deputy had better get his facts right.

I have got them right.

House price inflation was 40% in 1998, it is now down for the first time in four years to nearly single figures.

House prices are double what they were when the Taoiseach took office.

We cannot proceed with Question Time in this manner.

I am talking about house price inflation, the Deputy is talking about house prices. Last year we provided 50,000 houses, a record high in terms of the number of houses ever completed in one year. That is the reality. Local authority houses are back up—

They are not. They are down one quarter on the number completed last year.

Order, please.

The local authority house building programme for the three year period introduced by the Minister for Environment and Local Government is higher than it has been for the last number of years.

This is national recycling week. Under An Action Programme for the Millennium, the Government gave a commitment to reach a target of 9% in the recycling of waste. We have currently reached the level of 3%. Is the Taoiseach confident that by the end of the programme in nine months' time he will have reached the target of 9%?

I do not think we will reach the target of 9%. There is a major programme of recycling under way. It will take some time because of all the delays and difficulties, but I believe we will make major inroads into the recycling issues as we deal with the waste management initiatives of the past few years.

I am glad the Taoiseach hopes to make progress on recycling. However, the Minister for the Environment and Local Government is promoting a policy of incineration, every local authority in the country is in crisis in relation to waste management and various Government Ministers in their respective constituencies are opposing whatever local authority measures are being put in place. What is the Government's policy on waste management? Is it the waste management policy of the Minister for the Environment and Local Government which promotes incineration, the policy of the Minister for Health and Children which is anti everything in Cork city or is it the policy of the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment and Local Government, which is to say and do nothing? Is there a Government policy on waste management or are there 26 different policies throughout the State? Every local authority is now in crisis and there is no response from Government other than Ministers playing politics in their constituencies and playing church mouse in Leinster House.

The Minister for the Environment and Local Government gave his own views on that during the summer break but the policy is as set out in the Waste Management Act. It is landfill and recycling.

Has the Taoiseach spoken to the Ministers who have broken ranks?

It is trying to deal with the serious problem of having 15 million tonnes of waste. We have to deal with it in a more efficient way than we have in the past. The policy is as set out by the Minister as late as last week.

Do all the Ministers support that?

Do all the Ministers of State support it?

Last week in Dundalk the Minister for the Environment and Local Government again came down firmly in favour of incineration. Is that his policy or is it the Taoiseach's policy or are there a set of Government policies? Each local authority needs to know what Government policy is. Is it what the Taoiseach has just said or is it what the Minister said last week because they are at variance?

The Minister for the Environment and Local Government set out the range of policy options that is available to deal with these issues.

The local authorities are aware of them. They might have difficulties implementing them but they are well aware of them.

Children are now waiting two years for speech therapy and four and half years for dental work.

These are details which should be addressed to the relevant Minister.

This is relevant to the Taoiseach. Every economic report by national and international bodies has pointed out that inequalities have increased in society. Is the Taoiseach not embarrassed that the money which has been available to the Government has led to a more unequal society where schools are now deciding what children can be assessed because a basic psychological service is not available? Does the Taoiseach accept that there is evidence of increasing inequality in society?

There has been an enormous increase in efforts to deal with that issue. There are waiting lists and there always have been waiting lists. There was a time when one would be six or seven years on the waiting list for orthodontic treatment – the child would be almost out of the school system. There still are waiting lists even though a great amount of the work is being car ried out by private practitioners on a contract basis. That will have to continue too. However, there has been an enormous increase – I cannot recall the exact figures – in the resources allocated to deal with that problem.

Is it not a tragedy that in the Government's fifth year in office the public services are so bad after a period of unprecedented wealth? Now resources are running out and the Government is facing a tighter fiscal future so the resources simply will not be available to address them in the manner they should have been addressed. Is this not a frightful reflection on the Taoiseach's record and is it not a tragedy of unprecedented dimensions?

I agree with Deputy Noonan that we are in a tighter financial position because of a global slowdown of fairly staggering proportions. However, I hope we can successfully manage our services at the level to which we have built them. It is an unprecedented level of service which we have not had since the foundation of the State. Public services, in any area, are much better funded and staffed and are better resourced than ever before. That is the reality in whatever area the Deputies care to mention.

It is not the reality.

Can the Taoiseach comment on the following reality which was reported in the newspapers in recent days from various institutes dealing with the private rented housing sector? Does the Taoiseach agree that rents in the private residential sector have increased, as reported in the newspapers, and that one of the reasons for this is the shortage of supply? Does he accept that one of the realities, as published in the newspapers, which has brought about that shortage of supply is that private landlords have been driven out of the market and demand has collapsed in that sector of the housing market, which had nothing to do with first time buyers trying to buy houses? Does the Government propose to introduce a fourth Bacon report to correct the mistakes and distortions of the first three Bacon reports?

I will put things slightly differently? I agree with some of what Deputy Quinn says but not with his analysis. Investors were going into the housing market and making it absolutely impossible for first time buyers to buy houses.

That is not so.

That is why we have increased the share of houses being bought by first time buyers from 37% to 43%.

That is not so.

It is the case. In every new housing estate in the greater Dublin area, including Louth, Meath, Wicklow and Kildare, investors were depriving young couples of the opportunity to buy houses.

That is easily addressed.

The effect of making the market more difficult for investors, which was identified in the Bacon reports, made the rental market more difficult. I accept that point and the Government must now look at that question. However, I do not accept that was a mistake.

It was the wrong target.

I do not believe it was the wrong target. It is not the job of politicians to make life easy for people who own a second, third or fourth house while young married couples are reduced to renting their homes. That is not my philosophy.

The Taoiseach has priced them out of the market.

He has messed up the market.

My philosophy is to make sure that young couples get their first step on the housing ladder.

We all agree with that.

A distortion was created in the market because incentives for investors were too great. In some estates investors were able to buy almost the entire supply of houses. This happened in Deputy Quinn's constituency and in my own. People from various parts of the country bought houses as part of a tax package while those who lived in the local community could only look on.

There is now a difficulty in the rental sector. This must be dealt with in a way which does not distort the market for the first time buyer. I agree that a mechanism must be found for this but it must not be done at the expense of first time buyers.

In recent years the percentage of houses being bought by first time buyers was falling below

37%. We have succeeded in bringing that figure back to 43%. We must continue to do this. Otherwise housing estates and apartment blocks will be populated by transient tenants. This has a bad effect on communities and is the wrong thing to do.

(Dublin West): Has the Government not allowed speculators, particularly those who control building land, and developers to run riot and to charge any price they wanted while the Government has sat on its hands? Is it not a big problem that Deputies from the Taoiseach's party have been named in tribunals as facilitators of speculators? It is said that such Deputies are in the pay of speculators and that they facilitate land speculation.

I am also concerned about the provision of local authority housing. Between 40,000 and 50,000 families are on local authority housing waiting lists. Horrific overcrowding results in many cases which, in turn, leads to mental anguish and terrific deprivation. What kind of dent can the Government's programme make on such a huge number? What hope can be offered to the tens of thousands on the housing waiting list, who want to see light at the end of the tunnel and hope to own a home within a reasonable period of time? Does the Taoiseach agree that the Government's provision in the national development plan is totally insufficient in that regard?

The Deputy is correct to say that the figures in the national development plan, 5,000 houses over three years, will not solve all problems. The most important thing is that the houses are built as quickly as possible. Local authority housing areas had great difficulties last year in spending the resources they were allocated, but this year has been more successful in that regard.

I will allow Deputy Quinn to ask a brief question.

How many copies of the report were printed? What was the circulation of the report? What was the approximate cost of the printing of the Government's paean of praise to itself?

I do not think the figures are high. I do not have them in my brief.

The take-up was not big.

The report makes good reading, but there was not a big take-up of it.

It was beaten by Harry Potter.

That concludes Taoiseach's questions.