I would like to share my time with Deputies Cowley, Finian McGrath, Twomey, Connolly, Boyle, Eamon Ryan andÓ Caoláin.
Management of Public Funds: Motion.
Is that agreed? Agreed.
That Dáil Éireann—
—that the Government has squandered up to €60 million of taxpayers' money on the electronic voting fiasco;
—that the Government has squandered up to €199.8 million on the clearing of the site at Abbotstown;
—that hundreds of millions of euro in taxation is forgone due to exemptions granted by Government to wealthy tax exiles, stud farm owners, mega-rich rock stars and authors;
—that the Government has squandered up to €15 million on the Punchestown Equestrian Centre;
—that the Government has squandered up to €100 million due to its failure to address the excessive fees paid to the legal profession in the tribunals of inquiry;
—the two recent budgets where tax reductions on the profits of major corporations resulted in a loss of €634 million each year to the Exchequer; and
—the mismanagement by the Government causing massive cost over-runs on the Luas project;
—in the context of the accumulated loss of up to €1 billion by Government mismanagement and reckless policies, further notes:
—the failure of the Government to address the rich-poor gap in Ireland which is the widest in the EU, while the Government has reneged on its own commitment to raise the lowest social welfare rate to an adequate level to address poverty;
—the failure of the Government to address health apartheid with continuing poor access to services and ongoing crises in public accident and emergency hospitals while private hospitals thrive on massive tax breaks;
—the failure of the Government to address the spiralling housing waiting lists, which have now grown to 48,000 households;
—the continuing neglect of disadvantage in education and the failure to address appalling conditions in schools;
—the failure of the Government to introduce a rights based disability Bill;
—the refusal of the Government to honour the task force recommendation to provide €18 million for care of elderly emigrants in Britain; and
—the dramatic reduction by the Government of community employment scheme places from 40,000 to 20,000 with the subsequent reduction or elimination of essential community services;
—an equitable taxation and improved social welfare system to reverse the widening rich-poor gap;
—the ending of the two tier health system, the proper funding of a health service providing guaranteed comprehensive health care for all with access based on need, an end to waiting lists, the granting of the additional 200,000 medical cards, the immediate provision of a dedicated inter-hospital helicopter emergency medical service and an effective ground ambulance system;
—an emergency programme of social-affordable homes while imposing controls on speculation and profiteering in housing development land giving rise to unacceptably high house prices;
—the immediate introduction of a rights based disability Bill;
—the allocation in 2004 of the full €18 million for care of elderly emigrants;
—the restoration of the lost community employment places to restore essential community services and the mainstreaming of community employment in the health services; and
—calls on the Irish people to turn out in overwhelming numbers in the local and European elections on 11 June to reject this Government's squandering and mismanagement of public funds at the expense of workers, the poor and the disabled.
It is soul destroying to come here tonight to talk about the abuse of taxpayers' money by this Government. The real tragedy is that those wasted billions of euros could have done so much for people whom we have an obligation to help, whose need is urgent, and who are suffering severe deprivation. The shame for that belongs to those responsible — our Government, which has officiated over the squandering of those scarce resources. The fiasco of Abbotstown cost €199.8 million. The cost of Luas has gone from some €466 million in 1999 to €764 million in 2001 and €775 million in 2002. The Government could give €15 million to Punchestown while denying our worthy and forgotten emigrants the same amount, as recommended by its own report from the task force on emigrants, but that is not all. There are 48,000 households on our growing housing waiting list while the Government wastes €52 million on electronic voting and €12 million on an asylum centre which is no longer needed in leafy Donnybrook.
All the while people lie on trolleys because there are no hospital beds. People cannot afford to get sick, since they cannot get access to a GP because they do not have medical cards. There are brand-new medical units which cannot open because of lack of funding, while private hospitals get large tax breaks. People are dying because of health cuts — so say the medical consultants — and cancer patients are not receiving optimum treatment. A thousand people wait for six years to get an appointment, and one will be seen in a few weeks if one has cancer. Arthritics wait for four years for a first rheumatology appointment with the sole rheumatologist in the west. He attended the Joint Committee on Health and Children a year ago, and nothing has changed since. He is looking after the entire Western Health Board area and additional counties.
We need proper investment in our ground ambulances and ambulance stations, but we also need a helicopter emergency medical service. The Beaumont story of 2000 showed us the farce that has been provided by the Aer Corps. They call it an air ambulance service, but people desperately ill wait for 12.25 hours for the Aer Corps helicopter to turn up. It is not a dedicated service, so it is no fault of the Aer Corps. The fault lies with the Government. The Aer Corps spends more time carrying Ministers from A to B than on mercy missions, and it is based in Dublin. Some helicopters are not available when they are wanted. My patient lay on the ground and is now paralysed for life in a wheelchair because of the failure of the Aer Corps to turn up owing to lack of availability.
We need a dedicated helicopter service to deal with the 400 to 600 transfer cases that must be catered for every year. In 1997 the Aer Corps made just over 200 transfers, and in 2001 the figure was 86. That was certainly not enough. The answer lies in the recently published feasibility study report into an all-Ireland helicopter emergency medical service. That report was two years overdue. The cost of such a service is €12 million plus an annual charge of €4 million. That includes the cost of building the helipad at Beaumont Hospital. Surely the Government should agree to that as an urgent priority as do our ground ambulance workers and emergency medical technicians. A baby with meningitis cannot wait 12.25 hours. The Government indicated the need for six new Aer Corps helicopters five months ago to mind President Bush at Shannon and Dromoland. The tenders are now being issued. Why not give the go-ahead for HEMS? It gave a dedicated helicopter to the Garda to fight crime, so why not look after people who are desperately ill and need this service?
I am thankful for the opportunity to present this motion with my Independent colleagues in Dáil Éireann. Before I enter the details of the debate, perhaps I might put to bed the notion that there is no real opposition to Government policies in this House. This motion clearly shows we have a group of Deputies prepared to stand up and be counted when dealing with real issues affecting our people. Those issues are the key policy areas on which we were elected, and we intend standing up for them in this debate. I urge all Deputies in this House to support us and, above all, support the important needs of our citizens. The issues are the squandering of public money, the rich-poor gap in Ireland, the needs of our health service, the delay in the publication of the disability Bill, the housing waiting list, educational disadvantage, the care of the elderly, and the urgent need for a just society based on equality.
In our motion, we raised the issue of the disability Bill. Perhaps I might bury some of the negative comments made over the past 24 hours regarding that legislation, particularly those coming from the Government side. People from the disabled community want rights-based legislation because they have been let down by successive Governments and left at the back of the queue for services and a better quality of life. It is necessary for people to trust new legislation. That is the key. They must be confident that it will take their genuine needs into account. Therefore they must be sure that Governments, now and in the future, are obliged by legislation to do this. There is an awareness that the Government and in particular the Department of Finance and the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform fear rights-based legislation because they believe it will have the effect of opening the financial floodgates, but I reject this. We do not agree that rights-based legislation would have this effect. However, it is time for people to listen to the disability groups.
As regards costs we have the scandal of hundreds of thousands in taxpayers' money being spent every second week on legal cases against families that have children and adults with disabilities. On the broader issue of housing, there are 48,000 households on waiting lists. The national housing needs assessment compiled by local authorities completely underestimates the number of people with disabilities in need of housing. Only 423 were assessed. Local authorities have to respond. We need to build more houses. The disabled person's grant is now at a maximum of €20,000, and many people get less than that. There are 120,000 people with disabilities dependent on social welfare payments, which are insufficient to get a loan or mortgage. Will the Minister say how they can do this? People with a mental illness are still stuck in hospitals and locked away. This is not an option. So what do we do? We build more houses. We look at examples of good practice. The whole question of funding needs to be looked at and we have presented ideas of economic reaction to the housing crisis in our motion tonight.
Other strategies are required. The Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government needs to get its act together with the Department of Health and Children and they should work together on a national accommodation plan for housing people with disabilities. The disabled person's grant should cover 100% of the cost of the approved building work. That is the way forward. Local authorities have to work with voluntary and State agencies. We need an action plan, not more talk or more reports. We need a dedicated actions officer in local authorities. This would make a major contribution for all people with disabilities.
The Disability Federation of Ireland needs to be a recognised body at county and city level to facilitate the disabilities sector in local government. In accordance with section 48 of the Local Government Act 2001, the requirement to ensure the disabilities sector is represented on strategic policy committees is the way forward. The Minister should look at section 48. There are too many people on the fringes of our communities. There are too many people being neglected. I urge all Deputies to support our motion, support people with disabilities, our health service, reform and investment, people on housing waiting lists and, above all, the sensible spending of public money on worthwhile projects.
I would like to speak on two parts of tonight's motion. One is in regard to the cost of tribunals. The cost of tribunals mirrors the cost of legal services in this country. I look forward to the time when the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Harney, will publish the reports on competitiveness in the legal system, because so much money is being spent in legal fees covering all aspects of Government business. Tribunal costs in particular look scandalous in the eyes of the public. We throw out figures here such as €100 million. Only recently we witnessed the case of anau pair who had a difference with her employer and who took the issue to the High Court. That will cost her €300,000 in legal fees or more. It will probably take her a lifetime to pay it off. I am surprised the Government has not tackled the anti-competitive nature of legal costs.
The Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Dermot Ahern, takes every opportunity to have a snipe or a go at what general practitioners earn. A GP would need to see 100 private patients in a day to earn the fees of one of the senior counsels at the tribunals. The same GP would need to look after more than 5,000 patients to earn the fees of junior barristers in the tribunals. That figure of 5,000 people is equivalent to the population of a big town. This is something to be urgently tackled by the Government rather than simply having a go at other professions in this House.
As regards the health service, which again is included in tonight's motion, naturally there is a crisis because of the state it is in. There is poor access to services for those who need them. In some health boards services are non-existent. For some services such as neurology, it might as well be non-existent it takes people so long to get access. Patients wait three and four years to be seen by an ear, nose and throat consultant or for an out-patient's orthopaedic appointment. That is simply unacceptable in this day and age. Time prevents me from expanding on these issues, but I am sure the Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy, well understands the position from the crisis in accident and emergency departments caused by a bottleneck in bed availability in hospitals.
The reason for the crisis is that there is little or no management of beds in the acute hospital services. Beds are being closed. Patients who should be in other facilities are not being moved on because of the warped thinking which concludes it is easier to pay €2,500 for them to be looked after in an acute hospital rather than the €700 it would cost to care for them in a nursing home. The thinking is that if the bed is made available the €2,500 will have to be paid anyway. That is the sort of foolish thinking that is currently running the health services and it is causing many problems.
Many other aspects of the motion will be debated by other members of the Independent group. Even if we do not have time to discuss them all, I hope the Government will take on board what we are saying. What is needed is more accountability and transparency.
I welcome the opportunity to speak to the motion. It gives us an opportunity to look at the magnitude of mismanagement of the finances of our country on an ongoing basis. Not having money is one thing, having it and squandering it is another. Some time ago, anyone who had to borrow money was aware of how much every citizen owed. We were told everyone owed £2,000 or £3,000 or whatever it was. I wonder if any thought has been given to finding out how much has been squandered on our behalf. It appears that more and more hundreds of millions are being squandered daily. We are harking back to the days of the Celtic tiger, when the country was awash with funds. Perhaps Ministers feel they are immune from having to answer for such spending, that there is plenty of money there so we should move on. I am often asked what makes a Minister of this Government different from an ordinary man in the street.
Absolutely, that is right.
The only conclusion I can come to is that if the ordinary man in the street, working for a private company, made similar mistakes, or mistakes of much less magnitude, he would be expected to do the decent thing, go in front of his board of directors and hand in his resignation. If he did not do that, he would certainly be given the sack.
I agree with the Deputy, he would be fired.
The Minister agrees with that. He should have done the decent thing. Maybe he will do it.
For what purpose?
For the purpose of better men there. If he wastes €56 million and he feels so arrogant about it, he should resign. It is taxpayers' money he is squandering and he is still arrogant about it. There is no sign of remorse whatever. That is what is annoying the people.
The public have copped on to it as well.
They copped on long ago. The reason the Minister is so arrogant is that his managing director-——
——squandered €160 million trying to clear us out to Abbotstown. That is why. That is why I believe he cannot control the rest of the Cabinet. If the Minister makes a mistake of one third of that magnitude——
We will be using electronic voting, do not worry.
That is what has happened. The Minister has made a mistake, and the Taoiseach has made a mistake. The Government has lost the run of the thing. The Minister has lost the plot, as has the Taoiseach. We are wasting billions here and not one head has rolled as yet. The Taoiseach has not asked one individual Minister to hand in his or her portfolio. Maybe he should have handed his in as well, I do not really know. There is arrogance and no sign of remorse.
ReadThe Irish Times today, where it says that over 600 million in India can hold elections with electronic voting
Grudgingly, the Minister came into the House to attempt to give an answer. Apart from that, he attempted to explain away €52 million or €40 million, or whatever it was — we have lost count because no two reports carry the same amount, it was €40 million that was wasted on one occasion and €52 million on another. There are ongoing costs involved.
Listening to the Independent group, it is a wonder we can hold elections at all.
At times I believe Ministers are treating Government like a game of monopoly. I really believe that the figures do not mean anything to Ministers any more.
In fairness, the Minister, Deputy Cullen, is not the only Minister to make mistakes. Others are making mistakes of the same magnitude. The Minister for Health and Children spent €400 million on building facilities around the country, which are welcome. However, there is no staff to man these buildings. There is a cost involved in maintaining the facilities but no money to commission or man them. As Deputy Twomey said, beds are lying idle in nursing homes.
I thank the Independent Deputies for the chance to debate this issue, the key to which is squandering money. While there are many examples of money being squandered by the Government, we have present the Minister who is single-handedly responsible for the most spectacular loss of €52 million that has ever occurred in our history.
That is pie in the sky.
The Minister was arrogant before that decision but the fact that he sits here proudly after he blew that money is remarkable.
The Deputy is confusing arrogance with determination.
In my five minute contribution to the debate on the electronic voting system on which the Minister squandered our money——
That must have been illuminating for all of us.
——the Minister spoke for about two and a half minutes accusing me of telling untruths. In a rabid response he accused me of losing the plot and not knowing what I was talking about when I said that we should go for a system that had open source software, not the private unverifiable software that he had purchased. He took serious umbrage at that and accused me of telling lies and so on.
Who has said we should do anything different now?
The Minister got it wrong, like the Waterford hurling team on Sunday.
I have not heard an apology from the Minister. If he would care to listen to me——
I played rugby and that is a tougher game.
The Minister played rugby.
I took down the biggest and the best.
He took down the biggest and the best.
I hope he played better than the hurling team.
I do not know what the Minister's rugby playing career and the fact that he took down the biggest and the best on the pitch have to do with this debate. During the debate on the Electoral (Amendment) Bill 2004, I asked the Minister if, when this was concluded, he would come back and acknowledge that we were right and that it was proper and correct for us to use an open source software.
The commission has not said that.
The Minister's arrogant refusal to accept that the people on this side of the House were speaking sense was remarkable, but when the independent commission backed up our argument, his continued arrogant refusal to acknowledge this and apologise——
Arrogance is the only word in the Opposition Deputies' collective vocabulary. Can they not be a little more imaginative?
No. We want an apology and an admission that the Minister was wrong.
There is only one word to describe the Minister.
All I seek from the Minister is an apology and an admission that he got it wrong.
I did not.
The independent commission thinks so.
The commission has not said that.
The commission is wrong. Somebody must be wrong.
The Minister should sack the commission.
The Minister for Environment, Heritage and Local Government might concentrate on his job of trying to protect the environment. How could he better spend the €52 million that he blew? Given the approaching problem of climate change and the significant reduction we must make in our carbon dioxide emissions, research projects would be the best use of that sum. It is not a large amount in the context of overall Government spending, but if the Minister spent €52 million on biomass, biofuse, wind, wave or tidal power technology to make Ireland a world expert in one of those areas rather than always lagging behind, that would have been a much better use of the money he squandered. It would be useful if the Minister started learning from those lessons. If the word "arrogant" arises frequently in the context of the Minister's actions he might pause to wonder why.
It is surprising that the Minister for Environment, Heritage and Local Government is present. Possibly this is because the €52 million lost to date on electronic voting is cited in the motion, but the motion is about public spending in general, and the Minister for Finance might have been better placed to explain Government policy in this area. Perhaps the Minister's Cabinet colleagues have decided that he must remain in purgatory a bit longer——
It is more like hell for his prospects.
I am happy to be present for this kind of debate.
——because the €52 million is only the cost to date. Now that the commission is about to be placed on a statutory footing, we await its full report. Many of us fear that will open the State to legal challenge for contracts into which the Minister entered without being properly informed.
That will happen only if the commission finds that we were wrong.
This happened not only because of his arrogance, but because of his vanity, pride, and any adjective the Minister chooses to apply to what can only be described in political terms as "Cullenesque". There is a style of debate and political behaviour that the Minister typifies and that does no good to the practice of politics. It is not only amazing that he remains a member of the Cabinet but retains the position of Fianna Fáil director elections for the local and European elections. The master of profligacy must be exposed for the fool that he is.
The Deputy is being very personal now.
This is the man who asks that election spending limits be extended even further and who, as Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, has put no cap on candidates' spending in the forthcoming elections. He is the director of elections who is not willing to put on public record the money spent to date by his party, and its candidates, in seeking to put "placemen" on local councils to practice the type of Government we have seen at national level and which has done the country no good. This motion is self-evident.
I agree it is self-evident. It shows the shallowness of the Opposition.
Not only has there been wasteful spending which could have been put to use to cure our ailing health service, or establish an education service that does not depend on where one lives and how much one is prepared to pay, or a housing policy that meets citizens' accommodation needs and does not encourage housing as an area of speculation and means of enrichment for the people who supported the Minister and continue to support his party. Housing is a basic need and right and members of the Government and Deputies on that side of the House must begin to understand the need of the 40,000 for social housing.
What is the Green Party's policy?
The Government is building 70,000 houses but who is getting those houses? Why are there 40,000 people on local authority housing lists?
What is the Green Party's policy?
We launched it last week. The Minister can see it on our website,www.greenparty.ie.
Regardless of the Government that we have after July and the Department in which the Minister finds himself placed or not, the Government should be taken to task not only for the wanton abuse of money on electronic voting, vanity projects such as Punchestown and overspending on infrastructure projects. According to the first edition of Sky News Ireland, it is only now, after seven years in office, that the Government is willing to rectify that by putting fixed contract costs in place. This Government also forgoes tax receipts by its tax expenditure and the money it gives away in the form of allowances. This benefits the wealthy, distorts their tax payments and places the burden of tax payments for maintaining public services on the middle and low income earners.
That will be the legacy of the Government. Not only is it reckless and greedy, it has failed to take the opportunity of the world economic environment to make this a better off country which, although it feels less at ease with itself, has begun to come to terms with its contradictions, such as the imbalance between rich and poor and between those who have all they need and those who cannot access basic services.
No Government has done more to close that gap.
It has done the opposite.
The Deputy should read the OECD report.
Does the Minister want an OECD statistic? We have the lowest rate of social protection expenditure in Europe. We have the greatest gap between wealth and poverty in Europe.
We do not.
The Minister will not be transferred to the Department of Finance.
We have a different view of Ireland than the Deputy.
The Minister may like to see himself as a Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment or a Minister for Finance who just happens to be the Minister for Environment, Heritage and Local Government, but he has responsibilities he ignores because he sees an economic picture that benefits the few. If the House in its wisdom — although I question the wisdom of many on the Government side of the House — chooses to accept this well-worded and pertinent motion, it will for once reflect the concerns of those who elected us to express those concerns and ensure they are properly addressed in future.
On behalf of Sinn Féin, I fully support the Private Members' motion in the name of the Independent Deputies. It covers a wide range of issues, but at its heart is the economic mismanagement of the State by the Government since taking office in 1997. This was a period of unprecedented economic growth and commendations are in order for the successes of the past seven years. However, the Government has no right to take credit or to commend itself, as it does in the amendment to the motion.
The people who deserve thanks are the hard-working people of Ireland whose labour in industry, agriculture, the service sector, public services, health and education is the basis for economic progress. The question must be asked as to why so many of those hard-working people are not benefiting as they should from the wealth created by their labour. Most working people have not benefited to near the extent they should from the economic growth which they brought about. They have not benefited in financial terms in an economy where we still have a serious problem with low pay, especially in the service sector. They have certainly not benefited in terms of quality of life at a time when people are working longer hours, spending less time with their families and devoting less energy to recreational pursuits and voluntary work in their communities.
Above all, people are not benefiting in terms of improved public services in health, education, public transport and physical infrastructure. When these issues are raised, the Taoiseach and Ministers immediately pull out the departmental script and provide lists of raw spending figures. They choose to ignore the other end of the equation, the actual delivery or non-delivery of services, the inequity which permeates the system, the dire needs which are neglected and the marginalised people who are kept on the margins.
At the root of the Government's mismanagement of the economy is not just incompetence, although there is plenty of that, but a fundamentally flawed view of the role and function of the economy. The Government's philosophy is to look after the market in the mistaken view that the market will look after people's needs. This is epitomised in its disastrous housing policy, which has been alluded to by previous speakers, that has pushed the cost of homes even beyond the reach of people on average incomes. It has made millionaires and billionaires of property speculators and developers, the friends of Fianna Fáil, and turned every acre of land zoned for housing into a gold mine. It has forced people into mortgage slavery so that now, as never before, people work ever longer hours to pay off loans to banks and building societies, so that these institutions and the developers and speculators can enjoy bloated profits. It is likely that people will face more difficult times if the interest rate forecast is correct.
The people slaving to pay mortgages are the lucky ones. The less fortunate are the 130,000 people — 48,000 housing units — awaiting social housing from local authorities. As a proportion of overall housing output, we have the lowest level of social housing in the history of the State.
That is not true.
There is a definite move away from social housing provision, a point which I put to the Taoiseach this afternoon. The Minister should make no mistake about it, some who are entrusted with the management of local authorities have also said this, which gives the lie to what the Minister just said in the Chamber.
I wish they would draw down the money I made available.
They are saying it and they are feeding the concern that exists. The statistics I quoted also point in that direction. The Minister cannot walk away from this. As always, it is those most in need who lose out, those on social welfare, the low paid, single parents, the elderly and people with disabilities.
With other colleagues, I attended a seminar today organised by the Disability Federation of Ireland to launch a programme for local government focused on the housing needs of people with disabilities. There was anger at the delay in the publication of the disability Bill, which is referred to in the motion. If that Bill is not rights-based, people with disabilities will once again have been betrayed.
Since my election to the House in 1997, I have never ceased to challenge the two-tier health system. That fundamentally unequal system is at the root of the many and complex problems plaguing our health services. It is both grossly inequitable and grossly inefficient. There is no need to recite again all the Government's broken promises on health. However, I will return to the promise on waiting lists.
Nobody has been fooled by the statistical exercise by the Minister for Health and Children designed to disguise the true level of hospital waiting lists. I tabled a parliamentary question to him today inquiring if there were estimates of the number of patients awaiting appointments with hospital consultants, in other words, those who are on a waiting list to get on a hospital waiting list. These are people referred to consultants by their GPs in the expectation that they will almost certainly require surgery. In his reply, the Minister stated the Department does not collect or collate such information and has no intention of doing so. The hidden waiting list will remain hidden, most conveniently for a Government that promised to permanently end hospital waiting lists by this month.
I remind the Government of another parliamentary question I asked of the Minister for Finance regarding the cost to the Exchequer of the range of massive tax breaks to hoteliers, developers of holiday homes, multi-storey car parks and sports injury clinics, to name but a few. The Minister was unable to quantify the cost. The people's money is being given away in these and many other tax breaks and the Minister cannot even tell us what it is costing.
He does not know.
Yet when we call for the reversal of cuts to community employment schemes or rent allowance restrictions, we are told it cannot be done because of budgetary restrictions. There is no problem costing those. Multi-millionaire tax exiles are protected and rewarded by the Government while the most vulnerable continue to suffer. This is a Government which prefers to house horses in Punchestown than to provide a proper disabled person's housing grant to allow people with disabilities to adapt their homes.
The Deputy should tell us what he wants to do. He should spell it out.
The Minister did not like the reference to Punchestown. He should at least absorb the fact that what is required is a disabled person's housing grant that will offer an opportunity to the disabled to undertake remedial works to adapt their homes to their needs. That is not happening. As Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, the Minister is aware that local authorities are constrained in what they can provide. For each euro they generate, the Minister provides two euro.
The funding provided by the rainbow Government was £5 million, it is now €80 million.
They do not have own resources financing and, therefore, they are limited in what they can provide.
Some are very responsible.
That is the reality.
Where good Fianna Fáil councillors are involved, it is good, but where councillors from parties in Opposition are involved, it is bad.
Some may have a tremendous rate base, and it is lucky for those that have and can provide more, but I assure the Minister that small rural counties such as those I represent are limited in terms of what they can offer. They barely have the potential to direct 3% of their annual budget — the other 97% of it is predetermined. That is the reality in which councillors are working. We need fundamental reform of the disabled person's housing grant.
I am doing it, but the Deputy will not like the outcome.
I am not listening to the Minister's interruptions. With respect, I will leave aside the word "arrogant", and point out that this Government has proceeded bull-headed with its flawed electronic voting system; and this at a cost well in excess of what the Minister for Health and Children, in his leaked memo to Cabinet, estimates it would cost to open the idle health facilities provided at a capital investment of €400 million but still lying unused because of spending restrictions. Where is the prudent financial management in the contradiction between the Minister's wasteful bull-headed approach to e-voting and the needs of communities awaiting the opening of those essential health service units at some 20 locations throughout this State?
The Deputy is eating into my time.
It is an awful record and the Minister should be truly ashamed.
What will be the Minister's next mistake?
I move amendment No. 1:
To delete all words after "Dáil Éireann" and substitute the following:
"commends the Government for its continuing prudent management of the economy and the public finances since 1997;
congratulates the Government for:
—the creation of 300,000 new jobs;
—reducing unemployment dramatically, from 10.9% to 4.4% at present;
—exempting nearly 700,000 low paid from the tax net;
—tackling tax evasion and tax dodges in a vigorous manner;
—further developing and enhancing our public services;
—record levels of expenditure on the schools capital programme;
—the weekly increase of €10 in social welfare rates in Budget 2004, three and a half times the projected rate of inflation in 2004;
—the introduction of a national minimum wage which is now €7 per hour;
—co-operating with the Commission on Electronic Voting in completing the further recommended testing programme while noting that the many benefits of electronic voting have been acknowledged by the commission and that this approach will safeguard the investment in the system;
—investing historically high levels of funds in public infrastructure, specifically noting that Luas is being completed within the approved cost; and
—building record levels of new housing for our people; and
supports and welcomes the Government's determination to continue implementing its economic programme to the benefit of all."
I wish to share my time with Deputy Conor Lenihan.
That is agreed.
There are many ways in which the Opposition can try to approach Private Members' business. There was a time when it was used to promote alternative policies and set new agendas. Deputy Gregory would remember such days. However, over the past two years, we have seen this habit die out.
Four Bills have been brought forward.
As a result, every week we are faced with another shallow and hysterical denunciation.
That is not true.
What we never hear is even a basic attempt to detail specific alternatives. The Opposition has no interest in engaging in a policy debate.
Even though we now have one of the most diverse Oppositions ever, the tactics are shared by the different elements. The names on the motion change every week, but the refusal to propose an alternative remains the same.
We still have no answers.
What also always remains the same is a weekly lecture on democracy. Certain members of the Technical Group are more distinguished in this than others. Their opening day publicity stunt in the House when the Green Party members wore gags is probably the last time they allowed someone to speak uninterrupted.
We did not and the Minister should know about that.
The Technical Group came together as a marriage of convenience——
The Minister should talk; he should practise what he preaches.
——designed to give its members greater access to support and the ability to contribute to the agenda of the House.
Why will the Minister not talk about the issues?
The Minister should withdraw that remark.
The motion they have proposed tonight shows that they have no intention of using these extra resources for any constructive purpose.
We have a record of substantial achievement which we have no problem defending. We have a detailed programme in regard to every area of public policy. The public is fully aware of what our objectives are and how they are to be paid for. Let there be a debate, but there cannot be a real debate if only one side has any policies to put forward, and that is the Government side.
The squandering of public money is the issue.
The record shows that this House has entered its third year without any Opposition party or Deputy publishing a detailed budget proposal. The Opposition has retreated to vague generalities. It has opposed every specific measure to raise extra income in favour of a wide range of extra spending at the same time as promising something its Members call "equitable taxation" and something for everyone in the audience.
The Opposition lives in a world without choices to be faced. It does all it can to avoid answering the specific questions of how much it will cost and who will pay for it.
Has the Minister answered those questions?
Deputy Rabbitte has gone further than abandoning the publication of detailed budget alternatives. He has scrapped the only detailed policy document Labour issued in the past seven years. Deputy McManus travelled the country telling everyone——
This motion is tabled by the Independents.
——how she had a compulsory private insurance health policy which would cure all our ills, but it has now disappeared. Instead, a policy of opportunistic scaremongering has been adopted. The Labour Party's local elections manifesto issued today confirms yet again that the party's policy cupboard is as empty as its leader's soundbites. Its new slogan is: "Stop thinking and vote Labour."
This week Labour and Fine Gael will again join the Green Party and Sinn Féin in the vote on this motion. They will once again be a coalition which cares about everything but promoting alternative policies.
Sinn Féin has the distinction of being the only party in this House which has never in its history published a detailed alternative budget.
With respect, every year I present the Minister for Finance with a free budget submission.
This fits fully in line with its policy in local government of voting against every budget but never proposing an alternative, something which it will continue to do if it has some of its people elected to local government for the next few years.
We are proud of our presentation——
The motion's attack on the Government's fiscal and economic record is remarkable. Let us get some facts straight. Ireland has one of the lowest unemployment rates in Europe and one of the strongest public finances in Europe. We have emerged from the longest and deepest international recession in 20 years stronger than most and as good as the best. At the same time, record increases in funding for pensions, school buildings and health have been implemented. This is a situation which the Opposition is asking the House to condemn.
People still cannot get a hospital bed.
We know already that the Sinn Féin element of the Technical Group has never had any problem claiming that black is white. It has long believed that facts are an inconvenience which can easily be ignored, whether they be laws or acts of violence.
It has an ability to keep a straight face when denying the truth, which is a tribute to its propaganda department. However, more should be expected from the other parties which support this motion. Glib and facile comments to the effect that the economy is working but the Government is not simply do not wash. Every year for seven years we have heard the Opposition doing its Chicken Licken impersonation telling us that the sky is about to fall in. It has opposed tax reductions. It has said we were spending too much and at the same time that we are spending too little.
It is how the money is spent that is important.
If it was being honest, it would admit that great gains have been made over the past seven years. It would acknowledge the extra jobs, the lower taxes, the higher welfare benefits and the expansion in public services.
Is it the €54 million in cuts to which the Minister is referring?
One cannot take these things for granted. Consolidating dramatic gains is often just as tricky as the original struggle to get progress. There are times when sacrifices must be made to deliver long-term and sustainable progress. We have ignored the Opposition's call to implement irresponsible policies and this involved some tough decisions. For the short term, there is no doubt that this hurts, but for the long term there is no doubt that there is no alternative.
To suggest that this list, which purports to be a coherent motion, is a shot in the dark is to give it credit it does not deserve. It is irresponsible, ill-thought out, uncosted, socially regressive and fails to come anywhere near recognising reality.
Just like the Minister's proposals.
The Members opposite should take the truth when it is coming at them. I am sorry to embarrass them.
The single most effective way of addressing issues of socially inequality is through the creation and maintenance of employment.
Did Hans Christian Andersen write this script for the Minister?
Since 1997, we have created more than 300,000 new jobs in the economy. No longer are we exporting our greatest asset — our people. Now we are exporting to every corner of the world the goods and services being produced in every corner of the country.
The on the hoof approach of the Opposition puts all these gains at risk.
That Minister is not speaking to the motion.
The three master chefs of the Technical Group — Deputies Ó Caoláin, Sargent and Higgins — come from the "can't cook, won't cook" school of catering. It is a pinch of Sinn Féin borrowing here, a dash of Green taxation there and a splash of indigestible Trotskyite madness for flavour.
The Minister is reading the wrong speech. This is tomorrow's speech.
We have encouraged and facilitated prosperity and the creation of wealth in every sector of the economy, not only among the privileged few, as some opposite would have one believe. Levels of consistent poverty have fallen dramatically in recent years.
What about relative poverty? It has increased.
This is something which the Opposition likes to dismiss and to point to other measures. Its approach to this is interesting because it involves dismissing its own so-called policies. The poverty targets we have worked to meet were set out not by us but by the Labour-Fine Gael Government in 1996. It was the then leader of the Democratic Left who was in charge of the process of defining the targets. We signed up to the targets in Opposition and worked to them in Government. We achieved them a couple of years before the target dates set by the Opposition.
As defined by the Opposition in Government, poverty has fallen and the ability of people to participate in society has improved. We have met and exceeded its targets, yet it wants to condemn us. The sheer audacity of those opposite to talk about more equitable taxation and improved social welfare is truly breathtaking. The low tax policy pursued by us has paid huge dividends.
The facts show that Ireland has the lowest tax wedge in the EU for the average single worker.
Some people do not pay any tax——
That is the independent conclusion of the OECD. Reports repeatedly show that we have raised the pay of low paid workers and reduced their taxes.
People still cannot get a hospital bed.
We have removed almost 300,000 income earners from the tax net, while at the same time reducing both rates of income tax by six percentage points. Some 35% of income earners are now exempt from tax compared with 25% in 1997. No one on PAYE pays tax at less than €246 per week as opposed to €98 per week in 1997-98.
If Opposition Deputies want to be taken seriously on tax, they should tell us who will pay more and who will pay less under their so-called equitable alternative.
People on minimum income will pay less.
I know it is painful, but the Deputies must listen. As regards social welfare payments, I remind them of the facts. At a time when the unemployment rate has more than halved, social welfare spending has almost doubled since 1997. The majority of this additional funding has gone to increase the rates of social welfare payments. For example, the lowest weekly social welfare rate was approximately €83 in 1997 compared with more than €134 per week today. The money to fund these record increases is available because of a balanced economic policy which recognises that one must generate resources before one can spend them.
It is still below the target.
In respect of public expenditure policy, I will offer one more irrefutable fact, namely, that 68% of total voted expenditure this year is accounted for by health, education and social welfare. Are these the actions of a Government whose own citizens are not its primary concern? The equivalent of every cent and more paid in income tax is invested in the health service.
Let us no longer hear the other popular throw-away line that it has "all disappeared". If those opposite want to know where the money is, it is paying the salaries of extra doctors, nurses, teachers and other staff. It is also providing new facilities, including the largest building and renovations programmes in the history of our health and education systems. The impact of this is seen in the treatment of more than 100,000 additional people each year and the lowest class sizes in our history.
People still cannot get hospital beds.
No more than any of my colleagues in Government, I have no difficulty facing criticism and defending our record. However, Deputy Finian McGrath must recognise that such a debate demands honesty.
We live in the real world.
The motion tabled by the Technical Group does not provide that honesty. It typically tries to have the best of both worlds. It fails to demonstrate how additional health spending, more new housing starts and the provision of extra community employment places will be paid for. There is no more than a vague reference to equitable taxation in the motion. What exactly does this mean? Does it mean increasing personal taxation and, if so, at what level and at what rate? Does it mean increasing business taxes and, if so, which taxes? Is it proposed to abandon the policies which have served us so well during the past seven years?
These are serious and legitimate questions which require honest answers. Ireland has created a thriving enterprise culture where the creation and maintenance of work is encouraged and facilitated. We have all worked hard to create that climate, it is the legacy of the Celtic tiger and one which we are duty-bound to foster and protect. We cannot afford to allow irresponsible policies that jeopardise this lasting legacy which is envied throughout the world and which serves as a model to be emulated by many of our new European partners.
We have built a new Ireland during the past seven years to which young people have returned in their thousands and thankfully so. The modern Ireland is a country of opportunity. It is a better place in which to live and work. We have identified our priorities and, as resources allow, we have persevered with those policies to the benefit of all our citizens.
People still cannot get hospital beds.
Notwithstanding the difficulties associated with the global economic slowdown of recent years, we have continued to invest record amounts of money in health, education and welfare. Our young, our sick and our most vulnerable continue to be our priority. It is worth reiterating that this year we will spend the equivalent of every cent we collect in income tax on our health services. That is more than €10 billion or €2,500 for every man, woman and child here. Just as we continue to invest in the present, we are also investing in the future.
We have established the National Pensions Reserve Fund——
It has not made a penny.
——made huge strides in reducing the national debt and are committed to investing record amounts in addressing our infrastructural deficit. These measures are aimed at the future. They will reduce the burden which would inevitably have had to be carried by the next generation of Irish taxpayers. We owe that to them.
We are fortunate to have favourable demographics and we need only look at the difficulties experienced in Germany, France and Austria in terms of pensions reform to see how quickly matters can change. We cannot afford to ignore the realities and abdicate our long-term responsibilities and we will not do so. The initiatives we have taken will be of great benefit in a generation and they demonstrate this Government's capacity to take the longer view and eschew the short-term populist opportunism which is so obvious in the terms of the motion put before the House by the Technical Group, that wonderful party, the Greens, and Sinn Féin, the members of which could obviously not stomach what I had to say and left.
Members of Fianna Fáil would never do that.
The Government has every reason to be proud of its record in investing in new school buildings as well as refurbishing and extending schools. This has been achieved through consistently high levels of funding and a planned, measured programme of action. This year alone, educational infrastructural spending at first and second level will have increased since 1997 by 424% to €388 million. This year's schools capital programme is sufficient to illustrate the impact of sustained Government investment.
The Minister should tell that to the students in Whitehall.
More than €200 million will be invested in primary school projects, with a further €187 million for post-primary projects. This will deliver: in excess of 260 significant new projects at or going to construction during 2004; more than 400 smaller scale projects under the €31 million summer works scheme; site purchases for new schools; up to €16 million investment in science equipment; a €15 million investment in furniture and equipment for schools; and the continuation of the asbestos, dust and radon remediation programmes. This is just the 2004 programme.
Between 1998 and the end of 2004, almost €2 billion will have been invested and in the region of 7,500 large and small projects will have been completed in schools. This includes 130 brand new schools and 510 large-scale refurbishment and-or extensions. Contrast this to the efforts of the rainbow Government when only 42 school building projects were under way.
The motion was tabled by the Independents, not the parties which made up the rainbow. The Minister has not read it.
Building on this investment, the Government's decision to provide a €3 billion multi-annual capital funding envelope for education is proof of its continued commitment to modernising school buildings.
The Government's prudent management of the public finances has allowed for a record allocation of €11.26 billion this year to provide real increases in social welfare payments. This level of expenditure is a clear demonstration of the Government's commitment to addressing the needs of the elderly, widowed persons, carers, the unemployed and the disadvantaged.
Commitment to widows. Is the Minister joking?
It represents year-on-year increases under this Government in social welfare spending focused on improving the rates of payment in line with Government commitments. In budget 2004, a €10 per week increase was provided in the rate of the lowest social welfare payments. This is more than 3.5 times the projected rate of inflation in 2004. An estimated 970,000 people on average are expected to claim weekly social welfare payments this year and almost 1.5 million people, including dependants — or two out of every five people in the State — will benefit from these payments.
These real improvements in social welfare in recent years have led to a significant reduction in the consistent poverty measure. The success of Government policies in tackling consistent poverty is reflected in the sharp decreases observed in respect of this indicator in recent years. According to the latest figures available, it is down from 15% in 1994 to some 5.2% in 2001.
What about rent allowance?
We have heard it all before. The Deputy should stop bleating.
The €11.26 billion committed by the Government in 2004 to social welfare will have a meaningful impact on poverty rates by reducing consistent poverty further and is indicative of the Government's priority to protect the living standards of social welfare recipients.
The Government is committed to continuing to protect and support the weak and vulnerable in our society and to safeguard the progress made in building social inclusion.
The Government also introduced the National Minimum Wage Act 2000. When it came into effect on 1 April 2000 the national minimum hourly rate of pay was set at £4.40. Since its introduction there have been three increases to the rate, bringing it to the current rate of €7.00 per hour from 1 February 2004.
On which people pay tax.
This rate is one of the highest rates in the EU and demonstrates our commitment to improving the living standards of all sections of society. Many low paid workers have benefited from the introduction of the minimum wage, particularly women, young people and part-time workers. That is something those opposite would not have bought into.
The Opposition motion criticises the Government for wasting money on the investment in a modern electronic voting system.
Despite the desire of those opposite to see the money wasted, that has not been the case.
Explain the outlay of €52 million.
The Minister is displaying supreme arrogance.
The report of the Commission on Electronic Voting envisages that electronic voting should be progressed for all forms of elections in Ireland, subject to a further testing programme.
The Minister, having wasted €52 million in taxpayers' money, should be ashamed to come before the House.
The Deputy may wish to believe that but the sad reality is that he knows the money was not wasted.
The Commission in its recommendations has provided a clear route map to enable this to be achieved. The use of electronic voting continues to gain in strength around the globe, from sophisticated and developed European countries, such as the Netherlands, to developing countries such as India, with its enormous population and diverse circumstances. I hope the Opposition Deputies hung their heads in shame when they read the reports from India today.
What about the machine that would not work in the demonstration? What kind of machine would not work then? The Minister should be ashamed of himself. It failed five times in one week.
Like the major investment which we are making in road, rail and other infrastructure at present, I am confident that, working with the Commission on Electronic Voting, the benefits of electronic voting will soon be made available to the full Irish electorate.
The Minister is impervious to the views of the electorate.
In years to come, the investment which we have made in the Irish voting system will be seen, in spite of the bleatings of the Opposition, to be a wise one.
I am surprised the Opposition motion criticises the Luas project. Luas will be the first major public transport infrastructure to be constructed in Dublin since the DART was built 20 years ago.
The most expensive in the world.
The Railway Procurement Agency, the body with responsibility for the construction of Luas, has advised that passenger services will commence this June for the Sandyford to St. Stephen's Green line and the end of August 2004 for the Tallaght to Connolly Street line. The agency has also advised the Department of Transport that the final cost of the project will be within the approved budget of €691 million plus contingency of €84 million as advised to Government in December 2002.
That was not in the original budget, and the Minister knows that.
It was in the original budget. Do not mind the speculation, there is no budget until the contract is signed and the money has to be paid. When the contract is agreed, the budget is known. All the speculation leading up to a final figure is irrelevant. What matters is the budget price and whether we deliver on budget. Luas will be delivered on budget.
The Minister lost the envelope.
The Government understands that the provision of housing at affordable prices continues to be one of the major concerns of young working people and their parents. The success of our economic policies in creating almost three quarters of a million extra jobs since 1990 has put unprecedented demands on the Irish housing market. The approach of the Government has been to tackle this issue with a wide range of initiatives. In particular, we recognise that housing supply is the key to holding down house prices and helping people to become homeowners. This approach is clearly working. We are now building almost 70,000 houses per annum in Ireland — three times the levels of ten years ago, three times the output per head of population of the EU average and five times the UK output.
The Department is not building them.
Over 5,500 households have benefited under the shared ownership and affordable housing schemes in the past three years——
There are 48,000 people on the housing lists.
—— and the supply of affordable housing is now being boosted by the coming on stream of houses provided under Part V of the Planning Act.
What is the percentage?
The Government has maintained and developed strong social housing programmes to meet the needs of those not in a position to provide for their housing needs from their own resources.
The Minister may as well dream here as in bed.
We are spending €1.8 billion per annum on a range of social and voluntary housing programmes. We are delivering the highest level of local authority completions for 16 years, with output from all social and affordable housing measures enabling the needs of 13,000 households per annum.
The Government has also taken radical measures to ensure that developers who have done well out of the housing boom return some of their profits to the local community.
What about the levies?
The Deputy wanted a lot more.
A €20,000 levy is a nice boost to the housing market.
By enacting Part 5 of the Planning Act we have required developers to provide a percentage of houses below market value so that young people in employment have a better chance of purchasing their first home.
The Government continues to prioritise policies to increase the supply of affordable housing by accelerating the production of housing under Part 5 and by implementing the affordable housing initiative agreed with the social partners under the Sustaining Progress agreement.
The reality is that most young couples in Dublin cannot afford to buy their own home.
I reject the short-term views of the Members opposite. I reject the accusations and assertions of squandering and mismanagement.
The Minister should apologise to the people for what he did.
In just over four weeks the Irish people will vote in European and local elections. If I agree with the Opposition on one thing, it is with the call for the Irish people to turn out in overwhelming numbers. If the Opposition and the Technical Group want to have a debate, let us have a real debate.
Yes, let us have real debate.
There have never been greater resources available to Opposition Deputies and parties to support them in their work. Through the Estimates process and parliamentary questions they have fully comprehensive information about programme costs. I challenge them to put aside the empty rhetoric and hysterical denunciations and publish detailed policy alternatives. I urge them not to cherry-pick or isolate a few areas and pretend that is the same as producing an alternative.
Do not embarrass the Minister.
If the Opposition is willing to propose programme-by-programme spending proposals and detailed tax proposals, I will certainly support providing extra time in this House to debate them. That would be an honest debate showing the people the alternatives and allowing them to make a choice. In the absence of the Opposition publishing such proposals, we will continue to return here each week for another empty attack on the Government and refusal to debate the substance of Ireland's economic and fiscal situation.
Marie Antoinette was like that Minister.
I find it somewhat bizarre that one of the Opposition Deputies asks the impossible of the Minister and complains that the Minister has not addressed the motion. The motion is signed by a number of Independent Deputies, of somewhat dubious and diverse talents.
Did the Deputy ever look at his own party?
If I was to be kind, I would describe this as an omnibus motion.
Be kind to the poor man in front, he is very sensitive at the moment.
In real and substantive terms it is a motion which adopts the scattergun approach of a completely scatterbrained Opposition.
Deputy Durkan is, perhaps, the most scatterbrained of these Opposition Deputies with his bellicose noises from offstage.
Speaking of scatterbrains, the Deputy need not look far.
I have a serious question for the Independent Deputies. They have framed a motion which is all-embracing and covers many diverse and eclectic topics of their choosing. Why was this motion not signed by Fine Gael, the Labour Party or the Green Party? The Independent Deputies are pushing this motion alone. They should face reality, the plans are ready and prepared for their abolition.
They are certainly prepared, but for the abolition of the Government.
The Labour Party, Fine Gael and the Green Party plan to provide an alternative to the Government, but that alternative is based on an explicit exclusion of the Independent Deputies and Sinn Féin.
We support each other, we do not go to the plinth to undermine each other.
However, Fine Gael, the Labour Party and Sinn Féin have the brass necks to come into this House and support this scatterbrained motion. They support it because they have nothing left to do in this House. If one goes anywhere in Europe or reads any journal commenting on economic and social matters, one sees that Ireland is example A of how one should do things if one wants to improve one's country.
The Deputy is deluding himself.
International journals of repute,The Economist, the Financial Times and various periodicals and journals have pointed out that over the past seven years this country has been transformed in terms of its membership of the European Union and how it treats its people. We have transformed the economic and social landscape of this country.
How does it treat the homeless?
This motion looks serious at the start, but not at the end. When one reads the last line, there is a plaintive call to the Irish people to turn out in overwhelming numbers in the local and European elections and to reject the Government's squandering and mismanagement of public funds.
That is an excellent call.
In the last line of the motion the cat is out of the bag. The Opposition is trying tonight, and has been trying unsuccessfully for the best part of seven years, to get people to come out and vote against the Government.
They will come out but will not vote electronically. They will vote in the old-fashioned way and we will be able to count and check the results.
The evidence of the general elections of 1997 and 2002, the local elections of 1999 and the presidential election which elected Mary McAleese is that the people reject the blandishments and nonsense presented by the Opposition. The harsh reality the Opposition, particularly Fine Gael, refuses to recognise is that it lost the election. That was never as true as in 2002.
The Deputy knows what will happen next time.
Fine Gael continues to lose and to render itself meaningless through its support of scatterbrain, scattergun motions of this kind. It is a nonsense. It inverts, inAlice in Wonderland fashion, the truth as we know it, which is one of unrivalled growth and lower taxes both for corporate bodies and the individual citizen. This is a period unique in political history where there are both social democratic and Christian democratic values riding side by side in the one Government.
The Deputy forgot Thatcherism.
What we have is a Government that is increasing spending and cutting taxes at the same time. This has never been done before in Ireland.
That is right. The Government cut services while the Minister has €52 million worth of surplus material that nobody will buy from him.
Historically this will never be done again by any Government, including our own. We have set a new line in the sand behind which we will not fall. We have decided as a country to grow up and away from the kind of infantile posturing that is presented as an Opposition motion but is only signed by Independent Deputies who have voted themselves out of power. Compare the current group of Independents to the mighty Healy-Rae, the mighty Mildred Fox and the mighty Harry Blaney.
They are building an invisible monument to him.
Those three Independents achieved more in five years than any of the Independents in this Dáil will achieve over five, seven or ten years.
I do not believe the Deputy was meant to say that. That was not in his script.
Those Independents had the sense to know that anyone who wants to be part of progress and achievement in this country joins and works with Fianna Fáil. All the parties are growing in terms of realising this basic political fact. I wonder now how cohesive the Labour-Green-Fine Gael coalition will be.
The Deputy has exceeded his time.
I reckon that when the votes are counted after the next general election, at least two of those three will be trying to get into Government with Fianna Fáil.
Before calling Deputy Bruton I must point out to the Deputy that it is not in order to introduce the name of the President into any debate in the House.
I mentioned not the President but the presidential candidate in the coming election.
The Deputy has exceeded his time by three minutes.
I apologise if what I said was misinterpreted. What I am stating is that President Mary McAleese was a presidential candidate nominated and supported by Fianna Fáil.
The Deputy should not introduce the name of the President into any debate because it could lead to controversy.
I propose to share my time with Deputy Bernard Durkan. The Minister is leaving which, perhaps, is timely because I was about to refer to some of his remarks. It strikes me that the Government is so high on its own arrogance that it has lost touch with what is happening in the real world. The Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children, Deputy Callely, is one of the few Ministers who still has his feet on the ground, and Ministers like him must surely know that the product of rampant false promises made before the last election is to be seen now in the cruel cutbacks in areas for which he is responsible. We are scraping the barrel to try to keep home help services going. Elderly people in need of care are being squeezed for the scarce hour a week or hour a day home help to try to accommodate someone else. Where does that fit into the great Christian democratic ideal which was praised by Deputy Conor Lenihan, who did not stay to hear the rest of the debate? The Government is driven by electoral need. That is the one thing the Government understands.
It is timely that the Technical Group has brought up this huge array of white elephants that has emerged from the stable opposite during recent years. Even this week, in trying to provide for the European Union Presidency when there will be 30 meetings and Ministers will tramp up and down the streets of the country trying to show Ireland and themselves in a good light to their ministerial colleagues, they failed to observe any of the procedures that were put in place to deal with public procurement. This is a gross failing and it comes right from the heart of the Department of Finance and the Progressive Democrats Minister of State, Deputy Parlon, who ought to ensure that we use money responsibly.
There is something seriously awry — and the rhetoric of the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Cullen, does not address it — when in regard to the Punchestown equine centre we saw no tenders or evaluation and decisions by Ministers made without any proper procedure to double the money within seven days when the original Estimate was not enough. That is not how we expect financial management to be done. This is Ministers treating taxpayers' money as if it was their own to be used on a whim to try to curry favour with small groups within their constituency.
It is interesting that Deputy Conor Lenihan referred to Deputy Jackie Healy-Rae. The high point of Fianna Fáil cynicism regarding public spending must surely have come with the marina in Kenmare. Not only were all procedures ignored but the Department of the Taoiseach wrote letters to be signed by another Minster to override all need for evaluation. That happened under the eyes of the Government which has the audacity to tell the people the key issues for it in the next election will be accountability and value for money. That marina was demolished because it did not have planning permission. The Taoiseach signed off on that without proper procedure and taxpayers' money not only went down the drain but ended up as rubble.
We have seen that sort of approach also regarding Stadium and Sports Campus Ireland, another castle in the sky that the Taoiseach wanted to build for himself. The consequence of his arrogance on that issue is that we now have no stadium, the opportunity for the FAI to produce a stadium has been scuppered and we have stalled the opening of Croke Park to other sports. Again we have seen the familiar pattern of a Government unwilling to use public money according to a certain code and to insist on proper procedures and evaluation, and unwilling to accept that it is acting on trust for the people and that it is supposed to defend their interests.
Time and again we see the opposite occurring. It is no accident that there are vacant asylum facilities, vacant hospitals in Mullingar and vacant units in Blanchardstown acquired by the Government at great expense. That is the consequence of not putting proper financial procedures in place and of not anticipating what happens when certain decisions are made. When a decision is made to build a hospital, it must be staffed. If the Government does not think that far down the road, it is not fit to govern.
If it is decided to extend medical cards to people who are 70 years of age and over, one must have an accurate assessment of how many people will be involved, negotiate with doctors and assess the consequences of extending free treatment to all those over 70 years of age. None of that was done and, as a consequence, the taxpayer has paid ten times more than the Minister estimated for that concession.
That is not true.
If the Minister of State wants to check that, he should read the report of the Comptroller and Auditor General on the subject. It came in as an Estimate of €5 million and ended up as an Estimate of €50 million. The same is true of other "goodies" that have been brought in by Ministers trying to sweeten the pill at budget time. We have reached the stage where the budget is a charade. In the hands of the Government, it has become a vehicle for short-term opportunism.
The greatest rabbit produced out of the hat this year was when decentralisation was announced to screen a budget that was otherwise siphoning money out of people's pockets through stealth taxes. That was covered up by producing the idea of decentralisation like a rabbit out of a hat. With decentralisation everyone would have a slice of Government coming to their town soon. It was a cynical move.
We need regional reform to drive regional development. The way to do that is within the context of the spatial plan with a well-planned policy that anticipates what will happen to the quality of service and plans for that, and where there are talks with staff to ensure that they can make this change efficiently. None of that was done. Electoral needs drove everything. Any sensible analysis or assessments were rejected. It became a short-term political spree over which Government and Ministers scrambled like so many hyenas over a carcass. That is not the way to treat the public service which has been a valued asset to this country. It deserves to be treated with the seriousness it has earned over many years. It is lamentable to see Ministers coming here to try to defend decentralisation when none of them thought about how they would make it work or how it would deliver improvements.
Unfortunately, we have blown a massive opportunity to do good. When I was Fine Gael's education spokesman a few years ago, the key issue we faced was ensuring that more people stay in school. We needed to find ways of stopping people from dropping out of school early, without qualifications. After six years of the greatest bonanza this country has seen, it is pathetic that the same number of children continue to drop out of school without literacy abilities of the standard we need. It is still the case that one in six children leaves school without being able to understand the instructions on the side of an aspirin packet. Such a fact is at odds with the great Christian democratic ideal that Deputy Conor Lenihan said was being delivered on by the Government.
We see discrimination every day. I am sure the Minister of State, Deputy Callely, meets many people in private rented accommodation, just as I do. Many such people are badly paid but are trying to better themselves. What support do they get from the State to support them in trying to meet the cost of their rent? The sum total of what the Government will concede to them is €4.99, despite the fact that the Celtic tiger was built on their backs. It is unfair treatment. If they were unemployed and in receipt of rent supplement, they would be given €200 per week. If they were living in a local authority house on a differential rent, they would get €200 per week. They would also receive substantial support if they were getting a mortgage. The Government treats people with contempt and discrimination, however. They cannot get any of those things because they are in the private rented sector. Government Members are too blind to see what is happening under their eyes.
It makes me sad that Ministers come to the House to pretend that everything is rosy in the garden when there are problems everywhere. It is time for a radical Cabinet reshuffle, at least so that people who understand what it is to struggle and to try to get by can be introduced from the backbenches of Fianna Fáil. The current Cabinet has grown increasingly out of touch. The Progressive Democrats Members have become more like Fianna Fáil Members as time has gone by. There is no distinction between the parties. A prominent Progressive Democrats Deputy climbed up poles to say "One-Party Government — No Thanks", but it was just a slick trick to get to the top of the greasy pole, as Benjamin Disraeli described it when he became Prime Minister in the UK. The Progressive Democrats continue to be driven by such motives — they are not driven by a need for reform.
The House must address the issue of serious reform. We are a joke as a House. We are not holding the Government to account to a sufficient extent as we do not have the powers, resources or parliamentary means of doing so. It is time for the Government's procedures to change so that those who sponsored the over-70s medical card, for example, will have to come to the House to be held responsible. The Minister who introduced the system should take the rap for the fact that it is ten times over budget. Like any other chief executive who gets it wrong, he should sacrifice his position. We need such accountability. If that is what the Taoiseach means by accountability, it would be a great thing, but it is not what he means. His focus groups have come up with the idea that he is seen as indecisive, that he does not sufficiently derive value for money and that he is not sufficiently accountable. He has tried to address such problems by producing language to suggest that this is what he is all about. Such a ploy is skin deep and will not con the people anymore.
This timely motion encompasses many of the things we have been saying in the House since the last general election, although it would take a much longer motion to encompass fully all the failures of the present Administration. The motion refers to the various overruns in almost every Department. The cost overruns in the Government's procurements, sales and contracts are of such serious magnitude that we are prompted to ask what is really happening. What is happening in respect of the various public contracts that makes them not seem to add up? Every other country in the world seems to have a system that can be measured fairly accurately when it comes to public procurement and contracts, but it seems to go on and on forever here. An overrun of €50 million, €60 million or €100 million is relatively nothing here. The clear impression has been given that the Government does not care. It is sad.
The neck of the Minister, Deputy Cullen, who addressed the House tonight, is in a very healthy condition. He must have a very healthy neck to allow him to come to the House after wasting €52 million of taxpayers' money. The money went down the tubes as he attempted to pursue his dream and that of his predecessor. In theory, the dream was pursued so that the voting system could be modernised. Having tried everything else, the Government has decided to turn its hand to modernising democracy. What worries me most about the Minister is that he is totally impervious to criticism. He believes he is doing the right thing. He defiantly said to the House tonight: "Wait until you see; this system is going to be in whether you like it or not." That is a rather peculiar thing to say. It is the first time I have heard something like it in this House. The Minister's negligence and bad management have resulted in the loss of almost €60 million of taxpayers' money. Not only has he forgotten to say sorry, but he has refused to accept that he was wrong. It is a serious problem.
Another serious problem is starting to affect those on the Government benches, both Fianna Fáil and Progressive Democrats. Poor Deputy Conor Lenihan was showing signs of delirium this evening. He considers that the Government's loss of €52 million on the electronic voting project represents the achievement of a great objective. He thinks that it was a major achievement. He cited as a shining example the monument to Deputy Healy-Rae, which was constructed without planning permission. The fact that the monument is not near water is a problem, when one considers that it is a marina. It took a fair amount of imagination for a Deputy of some years' standing to suggest that it was a great idea and a major achievement. It is sad that such an attitude was expressed in the House tonight in support of the unsupportable.
Deputy Richard Bruton referred to the Tarzan-like feats that were performed by certain members of the Progressive Democrats on top of telegraph poles in the centre of the city. The Progressive Democrats set themselves up as watchdogs in government which, in turn, indicates that there was a need for watchdogs. Having laid down with the enemy, however, the Progressive Democrats are quite happy to sup at the same table and to walk away contentedly. There is not a single word of demur from them at present and there will not be, because they are happy to be buried in the bosom of Fianna Fáil and smothered within a Government that is engaging in a spending splurge that has continued, with one or two exceptions, since the Government came into office.
Deputy Conor Lenihan also mentioned the Government's great achievement in cutting taxes, but it is obvious that he forgot to mention that it has also cut services. The two matters are linked. The real cuts have taken place in the major areas of housing, health, education and crime prevention. Everybody is affected by these cuts. The Government believes it does not have the wherewithal to win another election if it does not save money at the public's expense to create a war chest over the next two and a half years. It hopes that such a fund will allow it to cod the public into giving it support that it does not deserve.
In days gone by, Ministers would put their hands up and say, "We got it wrong, I am sorry, we shouldn't have done that," before quietly walking away. The current Government is involved in a different ball game. These guys are actually proud of their performance and they keep repeating it again and again. Every time somebody on the Opposition side points out the Government's inadequacies, the Government Members bluster and tell us about all the good they have done. However, that is no more than the spending splurge in which they have indulged to endear them to the public, they hope, when the next general election comes. They are currently worried. They are putting before the people their candidates for the European and local elections.
We have again run out of time, and I regret that the Deputy sitting opposite has eroded our time.
I did not.
I refer not to Deputy Callely but to the Deputy who sat opposite to me earlier on. I support the motion. It is timely, and identifies the inadequacies of this Government, which must now either apologise individually and collectively to the Opposition and the people, or continue in the manner of Marie Antoinette, fooling itself and everyone else. That will not go on forever.