Leaders' Questions.

I wish to ask the Taoiseach a simple and straight question which affects every man, woman and child in the country. What do the Taoiseach and the Government intend to do in the event of the United States invading Iraq without United Nations' backing? Will he support it? Does he intend to break Ireland's long-standing position of supporting the primacy of the United Nations?

Last night in the House the Minister for Foreign Affairs said quite clearly that Resolution 1441 does not provide automatic authorisation for military action. He said that if we are to preserve the legitimacy of the United Nations, a second resolution is necessary, but this morning we read in the national newspapers that well placed Government sources are now preparing for a fundamental shift in Ireland's foreign policy and that the bottom line is that we will do what the Americans want. What is the position? It is a straight question and it deserves a straight answer.

The Taoiseach is the leader of the Government. We stand on the brink of war. Everyone in this country and around the world is now consumed with this crisis. It is time to know where the Government stands on this issue. There must be no more shilly-shallying and no more confusing speak. What is the Taoiseach's and the Government's position?

It is not much more than 12 hours since all those questions were answered in a long debate and in a question and answer session with the Minister for Foreign Affairs in the House. I will restate what he said. The Minister said that because of the importance and the primacy of the United Nations and of the Security Council, we would continue to work wholeheartedly with them. On 8 November when we were on the Security Council, we put our heart and soul into trying to get what we believed would lead to a peaceful resolution, that is, Resolution 1441 which received the unanimous agreement of the Security Council. As the Minister for Foreign Affairs stated last night, it is his view – he was speaking for the Government – that we require a second resolution. I hope that will happen but we must wait until work is completed at the end of this week. On Friday, Dr. Blix and Dr. El Baradei will report back to the Security Council on their weekend mission. We will then know with what the Security Council is faced. There is also a European Council meeting next week.

Ireland will continue, as it has traditionally done, to work with the Security Council and the United Nations to try to come to a satisfactory conclusion. We hope a peaceful resolution will be achieved. Perhaps people will say our efforts will be inconsiderable but we were on the Security Council and we have a good track record in humanitarian and peacekeeping missions. Our efforts, whether considerable or not, will be directed at trying to find a peaceful resolution. If that does not happen, it will not be this country's fault but it will be in the hands of others, mainly Saddam Hussein who could resolve this crisis very quickly.

The Taoiseach did not answer the question.

Fine Gael is opposed to a unilateral invasion of Iraq and believes only multilateral action supported by the United Nations should be considered. The Taoiseach has not answered my question and he has responded by giving us information we already know. If a second resolution is required and if that is what Ireland supports, is there any validity in the quoted claims of well placed Government sources this morning that the bottom line is that Ireland will do what the Americans want?

On Monday the Taoiseach will attend an EU meeting in Brussels at which Ireland's position will have to be clearly outlined. What is the Taoiseach's and the Government's position? Do he and the Government intend to support the United States in the event of a unilateral invasion of Iraq or do they intend only to support the United Nations and its primacy as this country has always done? Will the Taoiseach give a straight answer to that straight question?

I have no problem giving a straight answer to a straight question when it comes to dealing with that issue but first we must wait and see. I do not know what the content of the report of the inspectors will be.

What will happen in the event of it being negative?

I do not know what the report of Dr. Blix and Dr. El Baradei will be. We will have to wait to see that report. I do not know what will be the outcome of the meeting next Monday but that is not from where this country will take its lead. This country will take its lead, as it has traditionally done, from the United Nations.

What about the quoted claims of Cabinet?

A source somewhere spoke to some journalist in The Irish Times and unfortunately—

(Interruptions).

Does the Taoiseach have a view?

Deputy Kenny, allow the Taoiseach to speak without interruption.

Deputy Kenny will appreciate that I cannot control what goes on the front page and inside The Irish Times.

(Interruptions).

The report in The Irish Times on what the Minister for Foreign Affairs said last night, which is set out very well, is the Government's position. I am not responsible for anonymous sources. It could have been Deputy Kenny as far as I know.

What about Una?

As it has throughout this, the Government will work to try to find a peaceful resolution. We did so successfully as a member of the Security Council on 8 November when Resolution 1441 was adopted. It is a good resolution with three different mechanisms to try to bring this to a peaceful resolution. We will continue to try to do that.

Answer the question.

When the report of the inspectors is completed and when we move on to the final position, then this country and other countries will make a decision. No country has said what it will finally do and neither will we.

Will the Taoiseach confirm that according to the Department of Education and Science, 5,000 claims for compensation have been made under the redress scheme? Given that the Government assessed a likely expectation of 2,000 claims at a cost of €500 million, if there are now 5,000 claims, the cost will be in excess of at least €1 billion. Does the Taoiseach think it is proportionate that taxpayers should be responsible for €1 billion, or more, and the religious institutions for €27.4 million? Did the Attorney General give approval for land properties assets in trust for a particular purpose being transferred to the State for this purpose? Did the Taoiseach have an audit done of the properties and assets of the religious congregations? Will he confirm that the wider deed of indemnity, which was never advised to this House or debated on any record available of this House, was drafted in the office of Arthur Cox for CORI? Is he saying the office of the Attorney General was involved in the final negotiations and conclusion of the indemnity? If not, is he saying the Attorney General nonetheless approved the wider indemnity for sanction for Cabinet? Were the agreement and deed signed before or after the Government meeting that endorsed it? Will he publish and make available the 150 or so documents held by the Department of Education and Science relating to the deal, even at this late stage?

The Taoiseach has three minutes.

To answer 20 questions?

To answer one question.

(Interruptions).

I will do my best in three minutes. On the question relating to the basis for the figures, it is estimated that it could be in the region of 3,000 to 5,000 cases. We do not know exactly how many people will lodge claims. We anticipate that it will be in the region of 3,000 but it could increase to 5,000. People are talking about higher figures but we do not think that in monetary terms it will reach anything like €1 billion. We still think the original estimate will not be too far out, but it depends on the nature of the large claims. Some of these cases are very serious.

The indemnity was worked out in February. On 20 February the Minister made a statement. All those involved, including the Departments of Education and Science and Finance, and the Attorney General's office were aware of the terms of the indemnity. As far as Arthur Cox is concerned, the initial draft agreement was proposed by CORI in 2001. It was not accepted at the time. In January 2002, the Minister made the agreement in principle on the amount of the congregations' contribution towards the redress schemes. Officials of the Departments of Finance, Education and Science and the Attorney General's office set out to hammer out the details of the agreement. The Arthur Cox document was used as a starting point but was substantially revised to accommodate the requirements of the State.

I have replied to most of the other issues to which the Deputy referred, but he asked me about the money aspects. Agreement was reached that the congregations would contribute €128 million towards the redress scheme. As I said yesterday, there was no exact scientific formula for reaching a figure for the congregations' contribution. However, a number of agreements were made. One was that €41 million would be in cash, of which just over €34 million has been lodged to date. It was intended by CORI that €12.7 million would be placed in an educational trust, but this was not accepted by the Department and a minimum cash amount of €41 million was later agreed. There was €77 million in property transfers.

The State can refuse to accept any property offered and can seek alternative properties. The property issues are still under discussion with the representatives of CORI, and any shortfall in property must be made up by cash. CORI originally wanted to go back ten years, which the Minister did not accept. Following intensive negotiations, a date in May was agreed, and I apologised on behalf of the Government to those people affected over the years. A sum of €10 million was put forward for counselling. There was a commitment to continue this service for as long as required, even after the €10 million was spent.

The legal indemnity covers only those cases which could be heard by the redress board but where the victim has opted instead for a court hearing.

If the Taoiseach was answering 20 questions there, I would not like him to have been doing an examination. He is still engaged in obfuscation. Surely he knows at this stage how many claims are with the Department of Education and Science. Why is the Taoiseach still muttering that it could be between 2,000 and 5,000? Is it not a fact that if 2,000 cost €500 million, 4,000 are likely to cost €1 billion? What is the mystery about that? The Taoiseach obviously had no audit done of the properties or assets. It is obvious that the wider deed of indemnity was not debated in this House or advised to the House and was drafted by Arthur Cox. Is not that a fact? Is the Taoiseach saying to this House that his Ministers knew this wider indemnity covered cases where the claimants had resort to the courts as well as to the redress board? I believe they did not. I also believe the Attorney General was not involved. It is for him to say why he was not involved, because he should have been involved. Is it not the case that for the disgracefully abused victims, who deserve compensation, the Taoiseach did a recklessly negligent deal for the same reason he was recklessly negligent with the public finances because he wanted to win votes coming up to a general election? It was a disgraceful deal for taxpayers.

Deputy Rabbitte began a fortnight ago by saying this was some big hidden deal.

The indemnity was hidden.

The Taoiseach without interruption.

The issue was debated in this House approximately 14 times.

The indemnity was not debated.

The indemnity was agreed in February and the Minister made clear what the indemnity was.

The indemnity was not debated.

There cannot be a point of order on Leaders' Questions. Deputy Shortall must allow the Taoiseach to continue without interruption.

(Interruptions).

There cannot be a point of order on Leaders' Questions once we are within the Standing Order. The Taoiseach is entitled to reply.

The indemnity—

Deputy Shortall, that is not a point of order. I ask you to resume your seat. The Deputy is not entitled to contribute on Leaders' Questions because she is not the leader of her party.

All the information and facts were in the public domain. It is quite clear that if the Government did not act as it did throughout all of this, those who were abused and suffered in the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, and until the Kennedy report of 1970 which recommended closure of industrial schools, would not have been dealt with. The Government made a decision that we should find a way to fast track these cases and not make each individual in the courts go through the trauma of decades, as CORI and the religious orders wanted. The Government stood up for these people, as no Government had bothered to do for 40 years. The Government is proud of its action.

(Interruptions).

Unfortunately, yesterday Deputy Rabbitte mixed up the issue. He thought he was having a "go" at the Cardinal and the church. He did not realise the distinction with the religious orders.

I did not mix up the issue. The Taoiseach abused the taxpayers.

The fact is that those who lodged preliminary claims are being dealt with by the courts. It is right they should get the money and, despite the efforts of the Labour Party to stop them getting their money, they will get it.

(Interruptions).

I call Deputy Higgins.

Yesterday yet another tax for Dublin city was highlighted, this time a fire tax. A call-out charge of €400 was set for the owner of a car that might, unfortunately, go on fire, or perhaps even be stolen and set on fire by vandals, or on work or business premises fires. Will the Taoiseach agree that anything that might cause somebody to hesitate to call the fire brigade, as the fire tax will, is reckless and irresponsible? Does he agree that it may cost lives, lead to damage to property—

We pay it down the country all the time.

—and should be prohibited?

We pay the tax in the country.

Allow Deputy Higgins to speak without interruption, please.

There is a small fire burning behind the Taoiseach but I will put it out in a minute. Does the Taoiseach agree that fire tax carries the regime of local and parallel taxation, driven by his Government, to an extreme degree? Does he acknowledge that double taxation, taxation by stealth, has become an intolerable burden on working people under his leadership? Bin taxes are as much as €350 in many local authority areas and are a potential €520 per year in the extreme case of Sligo. The Minister for the Environment and Local Government, Deputy Cullen, is considering bullyboy legislative tactics to force boycotting households to pay, but that will not work.

It is because people like the Deputy will not make a decision.

The Taoiseach has slapped fees of €700 on students trying to get third level education. Local authorities have sharply increased rents for tenants in many cases. Families and friends of the sick have to pay a tax on their visits to an increasing number of hospitals as a result of the imposition of car parking charges.

Has the Deputy a question?

In 2003, the Government will hand €1,000 million to big business in corporation tax reductions. When will the regime of double taxation end?

The Deputy's two minutes have concluded.

Where will the Government draw the line? Will it continue dishonestly to allow the parallel tier of local taxation and taxation by stealth? On budget day, the Minister for Finance dishonestly pretended that he was doing PAYE workers a favour by not increasing taxes, but he has got them every other way.

Expenditure relating to the operation of the fire services is a matter for local authorities in the context of the determination of their annual budgets. The Minister for the Environment and Local Government has no function whatever in the matter. Under the Fire Services Act 1981, a fire authority is entitled to charge users or beneficiaries of a fire service for the services it provides. Each of the 33 fire authorities must decide whether to charge fees for fire services. I understand that many local authorities have charged such fees for many years. Information supplied by fire authorities indicates that most charge for attendance at fires and other emergencies, and such charges vary from authority to authority. Over the years, local authorities have endeavoured to use the charge as a deterrent, to encourage people to take safety measures to prevent chimney fires etc. – I do not refer to accidental fires. Fire authorities have been advised that while the decision to charge is a matter for them, the imposition of charges should not deter anyone from calling a brigade to a fire, no matter how small, or any other emergency. Charges should be kept under review in light of experience. The position I have outlined has been the case since the enactment of the 1981 Act.

If I believed in reincarnation, I would say that the Taoiseach had a previous life as a spider, as he weaves webs of words behind which to hide.

I have given the facts.

The Deputy does not want to listen to the facts.

The Taoiseach has not answered the key question I put to him.

He has explained the 1981 Act.

Perhaps the Taoiseach is also Pontius Pilate—

The Deputy is not bad at coming up with clichés.

—because he wants to divest his personal responsibility onto every other agency.

It is the law.

The Taoiseach is the Prime Minister of this country and is responsible for legislation—

Deputy Higgins wants to pay for nothing.

Allow Deputy Higgins to speak without interruption, please.

—and the legislative regime that allows stealth taxes, which are not usually on wealth, to be imposed on ordinary working people. Such taxes are the responsibility of the Taoiseach and he has the power to stop them.

Will the Taoiseach allow this imposition to continue, causing growing hardship to ordinary working people and poor people?

The Deputy knows that ordinary people pay less taxes, work more and receive better benefits as a result of the actions of this Government and its predecessor.

Deputies

Hear, hear.

As I pointed out to the Deputy – he did not seem to understand, but I will say it again – a fire authority is entitled, under section 35(3) of the Fire Services Act 1981, to charge users and beneficiaries of a fire service for the services it provides. I hope that is clear. Many local authorities have imposed the charge since the Act was introduced 22 years ago.

What about the other charges?

The Deputy asked about fire charges.

I asked about many other charges.

Allow the Taoiseach to conclude.

Deputy Higgins is beaten.

For the information of Deputy Higgins, the Government's level of capital grants to the fire services increased significantly in recent years. Expenditure on the fire services has been virtually doubled – over €66 million has been provided. Over 130 new appliances were approved in the past five years, representing almost half of the front-line appliances fleet nationally. It is obvious that the fire service is improving. I reiterate that everybody, regardless of whether they have been paying the fire charge for 20 years, should contact the fire services in the case of an emergency. Local authorities were told to keep this aspect of the matter under review.