Leaders’ Questions.

Yesterday the Committee of Public Accounts published its report regarding Punchestown, to which an allocation of €15 million was made for an equestrian centre and other facilities. Four questions were examined by the committee: was the project properly evaluated; was the State's interest properly protected; to what extent have the facilities benefited the racecourse and racing in general; and did the project represent good value for money? The Tánaiste made it clear in her election literature on behalf of the Progressive Democrats that sound public finances were essential to good management of the country, and everyone would support that. Has the Tánaiste read the report or synopsis from the Committee of Public Accounts? Does she agree that, in this situation, it appears that the project came about because of discussions between the Minister for Agriculture and Food and the Minister for Finance?

The 1994 guidelines laid down by the Department of Finance were bypassed and, regarding the four questions asked and considered by the Committee of Public Accounts, it was critical in every case of the procedure followed in the allocation of almost €15 million of public money. Is the Tánaiste embarrassed by this report? Does she now accept that this kind of standard has also become that of the Progressive Democrats? If the situation continued, would it require her to walk away from the Government? Does she consider that the project represents good value for money for the taxpayer?

We must certainly learn lessons from the report of the Comptroller and Auditor General regarding the evaluation procedure for capital projects and the processes that we have in place in Departments.

What lessons can the Progressive Democrats learn from the report of the Committee of Public Accounts? Does it mean that the Tánaiste is now setting down a standard whereby such activity will no longer be allowed to continue within Government? Does she accept that political and collective responsibility is shared between the Minister for Agriculture and Food and the Minister for Finance in this instance and that the report of the Committee of Public Accounts is clear and highly critical of the procedure followed in this case? No evaluation was carried out on this project, which cost three times the saving made by the cutback in widows' contributory pensions. The benefits to the racecourse and racing in general have been slight, and Santa's Kingdom seems to have had a greater impact than indoor equestrian events.

Is the Tánaiste happy to sit at the Cabinet table in the knowledge that such a procedure has been followed by the Cabinet and that €15 million was expended on such a project without any evaluation? The Committee of Public Accounts, the watchdog of public expenditure, is critical of the carry-on in this case. Does the Tánaiste accept that it represents Progressive Democrats standards regarding sound management of the public finances?

When this matter came before the House, the facility was warmly welcomed — I have the quotations here — by Deputy Dukes on 13 June, Deputy Penrose on 17 May, and Deputy Wall on 23 November. However, as I said, we must ensure that our evaluation procedures in Departments for the expenditure of money on such capital projects——

They have been in place since 1994.

——are reviewed in the light of the Comptroller and Auditor General's report. We all expect that to happen now.

The watchdog has lost her bark.

It appears that, after all her years in this House and in Government, the Tánaiste does not understand the difference between there being evaluation procedures and their not being applied. There is nothing wrong with the evaluation procedures. The point is that they were not applied in this case. The Minister for Agriculture and Food, Deputy Walsh, wrote to his racing friend, the Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy, and with a turnaround of less than seven days, the latter gave 100% approval for €6.9 million for a pony centre at Punchestown. Then, when the applicants got over the shock of a 100% grant, they decided that they would come back for the same again and bring the cost to €12.8 million in what Deputy Seán Ardagh, a member of the Committee of Public Accounts, described as the cowboys finding that they could come back to town to raid the bank a second time. That is what happened. There was no observance of existing financial or evaluation procedures. It was a ready-up between two Ministers, the Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy, and the Minister for Agriculture and Food, Deputy Walsh.

Are there any circumstances in which the Tánaiste might have more than a few lines to say about this matter? When she represented the same constituency as I, in June 1999, the health centre at Millbrook Lawns burned down with the loss of nine rooms. They have still not been rebuilt. The cost is €1 million. At the same time, a 100% grant totalling €14.9 million can be given to a pony centre that the Committee of Public Accounts found had no events in year one and now, as Deputy Kenny says, seems to be reduced to housing Santa's Kingdom and ECOFIN Ministers who might easily have been taken somewhere else. Is that the way to do business? Is the Tánaiste herself not conscious of the marked contrast in her approach now and her high-minded attitude when she was in Opposition?

Is there any Deputy in this House who has not had an experience like I have instanced regarding the Millbrook Lawns health centre involving €1 million to provide pre-natal and essential social services for the people in that area? However, that cannot be done. According to the health board, the best use of the site would involve spending €8 million to build a new primary care centre, such as the Minister for the Health and Children goes on about all the time. That cannot be done but €15 million can be turned around in a deal between one Minister and another, while the evaluation procedures are avoided. It is a disgrace. It is also a disgrace that the Tánaiste should seem to stand over it.

On a point of order——

No point of order may be raised during Leaders' Questions, except from the leader who submitted the question or the Minister who is replying.

I will speak to the Ceann Comhairle afterwards.

That is something for the Ceann Comhairle to look forward to.

Deputy Gormley is in a threatening frame of mind this morning. As I said earlier, when this matter was before the House, which happened on eight occasions, it was warmly welcomed by two Deputies in Deputy Rabbitte's own party and indeed by——

That is rubbish.

It is a fact.

They were not involved in evaluating the site.

That is a spineless response.

The provision of the facility was described as essential and important. I can cite the quotations. For Deputy Rabbitte to now say that this is opposed——

The Tánaiste must be allowed to speak without interruption.

What was it meant to do?

Is the Deputy telling the House the concept was important? Nobody can stand over what is outlined in the Comptroller and Auditor General's report. We have to ensure that the findings of that report are implemented. That is a fact.

What actions does the Tánaiste intend to cause the Government to take arising from that fact? In any other jurisdiction at least one Minister would go as a result of this. However, the Tánaiste has sat at the Cabinet table and not just on this. This is just symptomatic of the arrogant decisions taken by a remote Government. She has sat at the Cabinet table while the same Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy, spent €157 million of taxpayers' money in clearing the park at Abbotstown in order to relocate the research laboratories to his own constituency at Backweston. After all of that we still do not have a football stadium. This is the scandalous, profligate waste of public money that has gone on. Two Ministers can meet at the races and ready up a project for 100% grant of taxpayers' money for a pony centre where no worthwhile activity has taken place. If the facility is worthwhile, this is not the way to do it and yet, it is a matter for smirking, as between the two Ministers. It is simply not acceptable that the Tánaiste should treat the taxpayer, about which she professes to be so concerned, in this fashion. What action is she going to cause to happen as a result of the indictment in the Public Accounts Committee's report?

This Government and its predecessor have done more for the taxpayer than Deputy Rabbitte and his party ever did in Government.

What about the pensioners and the widows?

He knows perfectly well that this is not a resignation issue, so let us have a few facts.

Of course it is.

All Members of the House wanted the facility, some more enthusiastically than others. One should read what former Deputy Alan Dukes said and what Deputies Crawford and Wall said——


The Tánaiste, without interruptions.

She is finished. She has no more to say.

A Cheann Comhairle, will you not let the Tánaiste answer the last question?

Members should stop playing games.

Deputy Crawford did not know——

The Tánaiste is hiding behind Opposition backbenchers. It is a spineless report.

The Chair will have to deal with Deputy Allen, if he continues.

She is finished.

Why did she not answer the question?

The Chair did its utmost to allow the Tánaiste to answer the question, but could not control the interruptions.

The Tánaiste is just back from Killarney. We do not know whether she took a jaunting car around the lakes, but she certainly took the whip to some of her favourite targets, especially public services and public service workers. She attacked again, by implication, workers in An Post who are under the cosh of a ruthless management with the Government on its side, as well as employees in Aer Rianta, Aer Lingus and Dublin Bus. Why is it that the people the Tánaiste invariably targets are always on or around the average industrial wage, or on the wrong side of it? Why do we never hear her attack at her conferences some of the biggest cartels in Irish society.

The Irish Examiner this morning again highlights the relentless rise in the price of an average home. In seven years the Tánaiste has not raised a finger to wag at the ruthless profiteering in housing. She has watched the speculators throttle the housing hopes of young working people. She has watched those who have got onto the ladder with great difficulty squeezed on the treadmill of exorbitant mortgages between the developers, speculators and the financial institutions, not to mention those at the mercy of the rack-renting section of the landlord class.

At the Public Accounts Committee yesterday the exorbitant fees paid to barristers were again highlighted, €42 million for the current tribunals up to some time ago. However, the Tánaiste sought to attack working people in the public service at her conference, and her Government sought to attack the widow's mite. A massive amount of €5 million was taken from widows and widowers but there was not a word about the real cartels in Irish society. The Taoiseach and the Tánaiste have been swanning around the EU for the last three months as if they were the king and queen of Europe, preaching competitiveness. However, this is obviously competitiveness for a few. The attack is against working people, their wages and pension rights, but the landed speculators and the privileged barristers flourish under their reign. It is not just the Progressive Democrats. Fianna Fáil would like to hide behind the Tánaiste's right-wing philosophy. It shares it and puts it into effect, just as well.

I can confirm to Deputy Higgins that I was not on a jaunting car. I would not inflict that punishment on any poor horse. I am also not into the royals, whether the Freddie Mercury kind or any other. Since the Progressive Democrats and Fianna Fáil came back to Government in 1997, 1,000 new jobs a week have been created on average. That is a fact. My comments at the weekend were to encourage competition in order to grow employment, services, tourism and the regions in this country. Anywhere where competition has been introduced, as the Deputy might acknowledge, there has been more employment, better value for money and improved services for consumers. I know Deputy Higgins had his party conference at the weekend as well. I did not get an opportunity to observe it too closely, but I have a copy of his script which I intend to read later today. I look forward to reading it, because it is good for me to read what somebody on the extreme side has to say from time to time.

The Tánaiste should not worry. I have no hope of converting her at this stage. Competition is, of course, the code word behind which lurks privatisation and the driving down of the wages, working conditions and security of tenure for ordinary working people. The Tánaiste did not answer as regards the privileged cartels, two of which I specified, namely, those in the housing and legal areas. Fingal County Council paid a senior counsel €7,500 for three hours on his feet in the High Court on 17 September 2003 to get an interlocutory injunction against decent taxpayers, a fairly run of the mill procedure. Two days later the same gentleman was on his feet for less than three hours, sending myself and my colleague, Claire Daly, to jail. He was paid €7,500 again. A few days later he was on his feet for less than an hour to enjoin Alan Lee as a defendant to proceedings, for €3,000. That is €18,000 for a senior counsel for less than seven hours work. If VAT is put on top of that it comes to €22,000. After seven years, does the Tánaiste stand over this type of profiteering by that profession? How can working people buy justice in this State? The Tánaiste's talk of competitiveness is hypocrisy when it comes to working people being squeezed in this way by cartels which the Tánaiste never attacks.

There are more people working in Ireland today than ever before.

I ask the Tánaiste to address the issue.

Using Deputy Higgins's model, we would probably have the 20% unemployment rate of many eastern European countries. I do not stand over legal fees. I agree with much of what the Deputy says regarding them.

What is the Tánaiste doing about them?

That is why, in our insurance programme, the establishment of the Personal Injuries Assessment Board will take barristers out of most personal injury cases. They are currently involved in 70% of such cases in Ireland compared to 4% in the UK. We are doing a lot to reduce legal costs.

There is no insurance involved here.

The Deputy is talking of the fees. Barristers and other lawyers are earning a great deal of money in personal injury cases. The new Personal Injuries Assessment Board is being established with a view to removing lawyers as far as possible from personal injuries cases.