Leaders’ Questions.

The report of the commission on electronic voting has highlighted the arrogance and incompetence of the Government and was a devastating indictment of the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. The commission was given narrow terms of reference, which covered just three issues: accuracy, secrecy and testing. The Government's proposal was found inadequate in all three.

This expensive fiasco represents gross incompetence by the Government collectively and by the Minister, Deputy Cullen, on an individual basis. The Government would not listen to appeals from the Opposition for more debate and would not listen to the members of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Environment and Local Government, when Deputy Allen tried to have these issues discussed with outside experts. It would not listen to the advice given by independent IT experts, who expressed serious reservations about its plans. We all have to endure political charge. However the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Cullen, disgracefully attacked many of those independent experts as Luddites and anti-globalisation agitators.

The Government is now adopting a classic ostrich-like approach to this report and trying to pretend that the commission was only concerned with a few minor technical points, which can easily be resolved. Would the Taoiseach now accept his proposal for electronic voting is dead in the water? Will the Government now drop the Electoral (Amendment) Bill from the Order Paper and agree to introduce a fully independent electoral commission to be responsible for the running of all future elections, including the introduction of an electronic voting system, which would enjoy complete public trust and support?

Has the Taoiseach received or sought an offer of resignation from the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Cullen——

The Minister should resign.

——following this expensive fiasco reflecting the kind arrogance and incompetence I have not seen for some time?

A €50 million fiasco.

The Minister should have listened.

The commission on electronic voting, which reported to you, a Cheann Comhairle, last Friday confirmed that the selected system for electronic voting could accurately and consistently record voter preferences. The commission also stated that experts retained by the commission confirmed that the system accurately and consistently counted votes at the pilot elections, which have already been carried out. The commission concluded that there was not sufficient time to carry out comprehensive additional testing to provide sufficient positive assurance on the system before the June elections.

For that reason the Government decided that we should not continue to pursue the matter for the June elections, that we would continue the operation of this system, that we would abide by what the commission put forward, we would follow its recommendations, work on its suggestions and continue with the project. As Deputy Kenny knows well the capital investment in this project has a lifespan of more than 20 years.

That is 20 years unused. They should be stored at Punchestown.

What kind of computer has such a lifespan?

The Government should not be allowed to buy dishwashers.

It is six weeks to 11 June, and I am sure not even Deputy Kenny would argue that delaying its use beyond six weeks would affect a machine with a lifespan of 20 years. I do not think he is saying that. The accurate recording and counting of votes are fundamental to the operation of an electronic voting system. The commission's report points to the capability of the Nedap-Powervote system to perform the functions asked of it.

The Government is trying to get away with it.

The investment in the system is, therefore, not in any way compromised. The commission emphasised that its conclusion against recommending the system in June is not based on any finding that the present system will not work, but on the desirability of allowing time for further testing and quality assurance, and we will provide that time.

It is a fiddle.

The Taoiseach is well aware that the Commission on Electronic Voting was established only in response to a motion in this House which was tabled by Fine Gael, Labour and the Green Party. Had it not been for that motion and the pressure on the Government, the Taoiseach would have pressed ahead with a flawed system of voting in the June elections. During the debate on that motion, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Cullen, said, "I stress that the electronic voting system is secure, reliable and can be trusted by the people," but the commission said that was not the case. The Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy, stated that this would be the most accurate and, therefore, the most democratic system we have ever had. He stated that the system is secure, reliable and can be trusted by the people, but the commission thought otherwise.

The Minister should resign.

The Taoiseach said he was sure that if he put his head into the middle of an ATM machine for six weeks, he would probably be convinced that it was robbing him of his money. The commission thought otherwise.

The Government is robbing the taxpayers.

Deputy Kenny, without interruption.

Last week, the Taoiseach was commendably forthright in condemning the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Noel Dempsey, and the Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Fahey, for their extravagance and abuse of public privilege. That forthrightness has not lasted very long when he dismisses this kind of expenditure as being of a minor order. While it may not be very much to the Taoiseach, €52 million would buy 60,000 computers for schools, build 64 teacher schools and remove many thousands from waiting lists. How can the Taoiseach have confidence in the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government——

He has none.

——who, if he did the same in a private company, would be sacked forthwith? He is now sandwiched between the Taoiseach and the Minister for Defence.

It is time to turn the gun on him.

How can the Taoiseach have confidence in a Minister who has flagrantly abused the public purse to the detriment of €52 million?

I ask the Deputy to give way.

That is not true and the Deputy knows it.

Fingal County Council budgeted €30,000 for electronic voting but will now incur costs of €250,000.

The Deputy has spoken for twice as long as he was entitled to.

The Minister, Deputy Cullen, has no credibility as a Minister and should be removed from office forthwith.

Deputies

Hear, hear.

There is a time limit on questions and Deputy Kenny has gone well beyond it.

There is a limit on the Minister, Deputy Cullen.

The Minister should do the decent thing.

Deputy Kenny contends that the commission has stated that the system is flawed and cannot carry out electronic voting, but the commission has not stated that.

Did the Taoiseach read paragraph 4 of its report?

It stated that more time should be provided to carry out further pilot studies at which point we will see if there is anything wrong with the system.

There is something wrong with the Government.

As we have said many times, the system has been tested internationally, and there is a French contract in place. If the work that has gone on here over the past two months shows that anything is wrong, I will be surprised, but I will accept it. If the engineers, the technicians and the software developers who have been involved for 15 years in designing the system are found in two months to have created a major flaw, I will accept it. If a flaw is found, the commission will be able to state that it has found something which will be noted internationally. At this stage, the commission is merely seeking additional time. I do not accept that Ireland should run away from introducing a modern and far more accurate system and maintain old practices given that it is one of the most modern countries technologically.

We need a traceable, checkable system.

There is a constitutional right to secrecy of ballots.

Electronic voting was debated for five years. There are some in this House who love to condemn the United States of America, but it was only in mid-January when a row started about electronic voting there that people in this country tried to argue that we should change the system.

That is wrong.

The Taoiseach should check the minutes of the Committee on the Environment and Local Government.

It is wrong to run away from methods of making our country more modern. We should use technology rather than being dragged away from it by old styles, old parties and old rants which go on in this House.

(Interruptions).

Taxpayers, €52 million of whose euro has gone down the drain, would be amazed if they could see the flippant manner in which the Taoiseach's motley doughnut regards this issue.

That is not true.

The Taoiseach sometimes convinces me that if he had been around at the time of the Wall Street crash, he would have come into the House to say it was good for the economy. We know what is in the commission's report. Not alone is this ill-fated, arrogant and incompetent experiment buried for 11 June, but these machines are buried forever. The Taoiseach is wrong when he says there is a flaw in the machine. There is no flaw in the machine, the flaw is in the Government that required that the machine be constructed to specification. It is not the machine that is wrong, it is the manner in which the Government went about introducing the system.

The commission found no flaw in the machine.

The Minister said that two months ago.

The Minister is the flaw.

The Minister should resign.

The machine was constructed according to an incorrect specification and it cannot be re-engineered.

That is incorrect.

The Minister should allow Deputy Rabbitte to speak without interruption.

Not only have the views of the Opposition and various academic and information technology experts been dismissed, but ridicule and scorn have been poured on their heads by, among others, the Taoiseach. The Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy, came to the House to say he thought the Opposition was suggesting there were little Fianna Fáil leprechauns — if that is not a tautology, which is something to which the Minister is not unaccustomed — inside the machines. It turns out that there were no Fianna Fáil leprechauns inside the machines, but there were Fianna Fáil leprechauns in charge of them.

I am glad I had a shave.

The result is that €52 million has gone down the drain.

That is not true.

(Interruptions).

Is there any incompetence——

Before you conclude, Deputy Rabbitte, I wish to make a point. You are entitled to make your presentation without interruption from the Government side of the House. The Taoiseach is entitled to reply and you are entitled to have your question answered in a way that you can hear it without interruption. Deputy Rabbitte should be allowed speak without interruption until his time has concluded and the Taoiseach should then reply without interruption.

Does the Taoiseach agree that this is the most scandalous, unnecessary waste of taxpayers' money since Abbotstown? Is there any incompetence, bungling, administration or abuse of public funds that would cause a Minister in this Government to resign? Is it not the case that the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Cullen, ought to do the decent thing?

Hear, hear.

At a time when the Minister for Health and Children is leaking memos to the press to the effect that he is attempting to obtain €50 million from the Minister for Finance, the Government has wasted €52 million on a system of electronic voting for which nobody asked. This was the bright idea of the absent Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey. We have no shortage of tallypersons, yet the Government wastes this money and considers it a laughing matter. The taxpayers do not think it is a laughing matter. It is incompetence and arrogance of the highest order.

No money has been wasted on this project.

The Taoiseach should read the report.

A great deal of time has been wasted.

Deputy McCormack, this is a Labour Party question and Deputy Rabbitte is entitled to hear the answer without interruption.

That is hard on me.

The commission has stated that its experts have been involved in carrying out testing. It has examined the voting machines and the counting software, including the parallel testing and can confirm that the system can accurately and concisely record voter preferences. The commission has not been able, within the timeframe of its report, to satisfy itself sufficiently as to the accuracy and secrecy of the system to be deployed in June for three reasons: the count and management software has been updated many times during the past three years and the impact of these successive modifications cannot be fully tested in the period set out; it has not been possible for it to obtain access to the full system source code — a matter which has since been dealt with; and, the system has not been certified as being suitable to use in the Irish context by an accredited testing and certification authority.

For those reasons, additional time for testing of the system is required. The company involved is an internationally tested, reputable company which must convince the commission of the validity of all its operations. That will take some months. In the meantime, the system will not be used in the forthcoming elections. The Government will ensure all issues raised by the commission and its advisers will be satisfactorily dealt with. It is unfortunate the system will not be used in the forthcoming elections. However, elections come and go and the machines, when rectified to the commission's satisfaction, will be used in subsequent elections.

The system can never again be trusted.

I do not think Parliament can function in circumstances where, in a matter as straightforward as this, the Taoiseach can say with a straight face that no money has been wasted. There is no point in our continuing if he continues to treat the House in that manner. What does he mean when he says no money has been wasted? We know from a reply to a parliamentary question last week that €52 million has now gone down the drain.

We also know that the Taoiseach, from the summary he gave the House, misrepresents the electoral commission's findings. It clearly stated that the Government was prepared to proceed with a system the accuracy of which nobody could certify following exposure that the software version proposed has not yet been finalised. It also stated that the tests exposed in error could lead to incorrect distribution of surpluses — scarcely a minor matter — and that further tests might expose other errors.

(Interruptions).

The Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Noel Ahern, has enough to deal with in terms of the disappearance of the RAPID scheme without dipping his nose into something about which he told Vincent Browne he knew nothing.

The Minister of State should be quiet.

At least he was honest.

He is a disgrace.

He should stick to matters relating to housing.

Electronic houses.

The commission also stated that the system could introduce the possibility of new errors in the use by electors of the voting system and that interference was possible in certain circumstances. What is the point of misrepresenting the commission's findings——

Deputy Rabbitte should give way to the Taoiseach.

——and making statements to the effect that no money has been wasted? The Government spent €157 million clearing the site at Abbotstown and €52 million on electronic voting machines. It treats public money like confetti at a time when the Minister for Social and Family Affairs saves €52 million off the backs of the most vulnerable in society and when hospitals require €50 million to provide extra beds.

It is disgraceful.

Deputy Rabbitte should give way to the Taoiseach in fairness to other Leaders who stay within Standing Orders.

All we get from Ministers is ridicule, arrogance and incompetence.

The point raised by Deputy Rabbitte is dealt within the report.

I thank the Taoiseach for acknowledging that.

The Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government raised the issue, not the commission.

The Taoiseach should keep digging.

Does that make it all right?

The commission stated the surplus was infinitesimal in that it was to a degree of 0.001. On accuracy, the commission, where it states that certain of its tests identified an error in the count software which could lead to incorrect distribution of surpluses, stated it did so to a degree of 0.001.

So the commission was wrong?

The error would not have made any difference. The matter was identified by the Department, brought to the attention of the commission and rectified. No great finding is involved.

Why not use the system then?

I cannot come into this House and state that the system has been ridiculed, as already stated in the House, and can never be used again. That is not what the commission report states.

The secrecy of the ballot is not secure.

The commission report states that all the tests and pilot studies it would like to carry out cannot be done in the time available.

There is no provision for a voter trail.

I listened to Deputy Rabbitte.

Deputy Rabbitte should allow the Taoiseach to continue without interruption.

The Government stole the €52 million from the social welfare Vote.

The commission has little to say about the machines. The machines have a 20 year life span.

How much will it cost to store them?

The commission report deals with the software involved. If, along the road, the commission identifies and proves a problem with the software, we will then consider the matter.The software is regularly changed and amended.We will await the outcome of the pilot tests. The Government is allowing time for the undertaking of the tests and it is right that it should do so.

The Government should sell the machines and put the money into the health service.

Work on the testing will continue during the next couple of months.

I call Deputy Ó Caoláin.

(Interruptions).

Allow Deputy Ó Caoláin speak without interruption, please.

How much would the Government get for the machines now?

Deputy McCormack should allow Deputy Ó Caoláin to speak.

Will the Taoiseach confirm the authenticity of the leaked Cabinet memos which reveal the shambles that is now the Government's so-called health policy? Has he initiated a full investigation of the leaks? Is it the case that they confirm dissent and disgruntlement within the Department of Health and Children at the continued lack of financial support and embargo on recruitment forced on it by the Department of Finance?

Will the Taoiseach confirm that the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Martin, has written to his Cabinet colleagues stating that some €400 million in capital funding has been spent on projects throughout the State and that these facilities are lying idle and are not fulfilling the task for which they were built? Will the Taoiseach confirm that if these units are not opened in 2004, the capital investment therein will not be properly utilised and they will not fulfil their real potential? What amount has been spent on unused capital investment projects and empty facilities? Can the Taoiseach confirm that the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Martin, is seeking an additional €50 million to provide properly for the facilities required by these capital investments, which is €2 million less than what the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Cullen, and the Cabinet have wasted in public moneys on the e-voting project?

Will the Taoiseach indicate what will be the Cabinet response to the Minister for Health and Children's request? Will he accept that request, as I urge him to do, in order that these important capital projects are properly resourced and that people in the respective communities receive the services intended?

The Minister for Health and Children will, under the National Development Plan 2000-2006, oversee the spending of some €2 billion for the provision of infrastructure in the hospital system. It is an ongoing matter for the Minister not only to provide for buildings and equipment but also to cater for running costs in the years ahead. This issue is ongoing in several hospitals. The Minister must, from the €2 billion being spent on health infrastructure, continue to provide resources for the non-pay side in terms of full staffing and non-pay costs for the year ahead.

That is what this memo was about. The question of the memo being leaked is a matter for the Departments of Health and Children and Finance, and that matter is under discussion. It is to the advantage of the country's infrastructure that so many major and minor infrastructural projects are under way. Many of these are being commissioned this year and many others will be commissioned next year. The related equipment, staffing and non-pay costs must be built into them. This is an ongoing issue between the Departments of Health and Children and Finance.

What are the Taoiseach's intentions regarding the request of the Minister for Health and Children? It is the collective view of the House that the Taoiseach and the Department of Finance should respond positively to the Minister's request. Can the Taoiseach not accept the public cynicism at the continual utterances of Government representatives in the weeks remaining before the local and European elections on 11 June, given all we have heard regarding this and other matters?

Would the Taoiseach not also accept that this matter exposes the absence of coherence in the Government's health policy? We have a significant investment of €400 million in capital projects but we are not prepared to resource them in order to see them open and giving the services for which they were intended.

In response to a question I asked him last week, the Taoiseach indicated that he welcomed the fact that fewer people had medical cards as an indication of a decrease in unemployment. At the same time he went on to say he would like to see more people having medical cards. Can the Taoiseach clarify whether or not he accepts the existence of real suffering, particularly among families with children, and the urgent need to increase the threshold for qualification for medical cards?

Deputy Ó Caoláin asks if resources are likely to be allocated. In the last seven years the health budget has increased by 20% per year. There has been an increase of 188% in the health budget since 1997. The health service is extraordinarily well resourced. The Government now spends €10.5 billion on health. This has nothing to do with what will happen in the next six weeks. The Minister for Health and Children is planning the opening, equipping and staffing of units in 2005 and an ongoing programme of major infrastructural development involving approximately 20 large projects throughout the country. This is an ongoing task.

It is the Government's ongoing intention to increase the number of medical cards during the life of this Government when resources permit.