Leaders’ Questions.

The House will have an opportunity tomorrow to discuss the current position regarding Northern Ireland so I will not raise that issue today.

At the close of the Order of Business last Thursday, the Tánaiste made a significant announcement to the House about the dropping of charges in public nursing homes for people aged 70 and over. The House had no opportunity to debate that matter or discuss it further with the Tánaiste after she made her announcement.

I understand the Government is now considering the introduction of draft legislation on this matter today. Will the Taoiseach say if legislation has been approved and if so, when it will be published? Why was this issue not addressed by the Department in the first instance and by the previous Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Martin, in 2002, when it was first raised? What was indicated by the legal opinion obtained by the health boards and provided by the Department of Health and Children in 2003? What did it say? Does the Government intend to repay the charges drawn down illegally? Given the Tánaiste's statements that these charges would cost the health boards approximately €8 million per month, does this mean that the cost of repaying the illegal charges of approximately €300 million could be much greater than has been estimated to date? If the new legislation is to be drafted or introduced, will it make any reference to the treatment of patients in private nursing homes?

The Government has discussed this matter at some length. The Tánaiste has been working on the matter over the short period since the Attorney General gave his advice. We have to bring forward new legislation immediately to deal with the issue. The Attorney General's advice was that it requires legislation. It can be argued whether this goes back to the 1976 Supreme Court judgment, to other judgments since then or to the legal advice given in more recent years. Whatever about that argument, legislation is now required to deal with the matter. Deputy Kenny has raised this matter with me a number of times over the past five or six weeks. It is the intention of the Tánaiste and the Chief Whip to discuss the matter with the Whips and the spokespersons. Our advice is that we should deal with the matter urgently. If I recall correctly, the figure involved is more than €10 million monthly.

The proposals have been considered today and the Government has decided to outline its strategy to the spokespersons. We have detailed advice from the Attorney General. He has incorporated his advice into the proposals. I hope we will be in a position to go through that legislation in detail later with the health spokespersons to try to process the legislation as quickly as possible.

The Taoiseach said the other day that negotiations should start from a basis of truth. I accept that the Tánaiste had no knowledge of this situation when she was appointed Minister for Health and Children. I assume she had not. However, it is not clear whether her predecessor as Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Martin, had any knowledge of the issue and did nothing about it. The Government's claim that this was an inadvertent consequence of the 2001 Act just does not stand up. If that was the case, why did the Government not do anything about it before this? It is a matter for the Government to introduce primary legislation and to oversee its consequences. It is not good enough to say it is waiting on a health board to seek legal advice. One cannot have a situation where advice given to a health board means that a charge in its area is illegal while being legal in another health board's area which had not opted to take legal advice. Neither may one have a situation similar to that involving AIB where it was asserted that what was good enough in respect of that bank should be good enough for Government.

Will the Taoiseach outline the nature of the legislation to be introduced? Can he confirm that the patients from whom contributions were taken since 2001-02 will be repaid that money and, if so, when may they expect to get it? Will they have it before Christmas if the legislation is to be drafted so quickly? What arrangement does the Government intend to make in respect of the ongoing charge of €10 million a month? From what source will this be funded?

On the first issue, as Deputy Kenny knows, there was advice from one of the health boards. A number of health boards deal with these issues in different ways. Some charge and some do not. They charge in different ways as their systems are dissimilar and that has always been the case. On the basis of the legislation for the imposition of charges on all persons in respect of inpatient services in long-term care in health board institutions, the Attorney General's advice was that the Government did not have this power and primary legislation was required to introduce it.

The Attorney General's advice is that the Government does not have to go back over the period in question. It is not even clear what period would have to be reviewed. Some argue that the first time this was raised was in a 1976 case of the Supreme Court. Others say it was when one of the health boards received its legal advice. The view of the Department and that of successive Ministers for Health and Children is that there should be a payment for care in health boards. In any event, the Attorney General has ended that argument. His firm view is that the legislation to grant the power to have a charge does not exist. That is the issue which must be dealt with in the legislation. The Government would like to deal with this issue immediately. We will outline the details of the proposed legislation to the health spokespersons later today.

What steps does the Taoiseach propose to take to investigate the circumstances surrounding the appointment of a media co-ordinator by the previous Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government? I am sure the Taoiseach will agree that taxpayers will wonder why this question has not been raised with the Taoiseach and why he has not commented on it, given the extent of public concern over the manner of this particular appointment.

It would appear the appointment was made in such a fashion to deliberately avoid the regulations governing the appointment of a political adviser. Whereas I have no objection to the appointment of a political adviser, it seems that this was deliberately done so that the normal obligations governing a political adviser would not apply and neither would the restrictions on remuneration.

The person seems to have been recruited because the Minister needed someone in a hurry. Once in situ, the matter was then properly put to tender. Although one of the longest established companies providing this type of service in the city apparently tendered at half the price, it was unsuccessful. Another long-established and successful company in the city, which was providing services with regard to the spatial strategy, for example, was apparently dislocated.

I am not casting any aspersions on the person concerned and the current Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government said he was immensely impressed by her professionalism and that she was capable of rendering complex phenomena intelligible to the public. I understand why a Minister might find that an extraordinary concept. It is, however, an unusual way to recruit a close political confidante based in the Minister's constituency and pay her €3,600 for a three-day week.

We would all like to have someone minding the constituency for us while we are in the House trying to do the best we can. I am sure we would all like if the taxpayer paid that person €3,600 for a three-day week. If the rainbow Government had made such an appointment, the Taoiseach and especially the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Dermot Ahern, who had a record for this kind of thing——

The Deputy's time is concluded.

——would be up on his hind-legs——

Deputy Rabbitte would do well to remember——

I ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs to allow Deputy Rabbitte to conclude. He has already exceeded his time.

Former Deputy De Rossa appointed five and advertised these positions in the Democratic Left party's own paper. Does Deputy Rabbitte remember that party?

The Minister would be the first to allege political cronyism against anybody who would have made an appointment such as this. Will the Taoiseach say——

The Deputy's time is long since finished.

——if he is prepared to put in place any investigation of this by someone such as the Ombudsman, a former Cabinet Secretary or someone of that calibre to establish whether there are reasonable or any answers to the questions on this issue being adduced in the media?

I remember well the issue referred to by Deputy Rabbitte.

And I remember the Deputy.

He raised it 47 times in one day.

The Deputy had to withdraw.

I had the good grace to do so. The Minister never withdrew anything.

The Taoiseach will speak, without interruption.

I never made these allegations against the Deputy.

The Minister for Foreign Affairs must allow Leaders' Questions to proceed.

In reply to Deputy Rabbitte, it is already agreed, I understand, that the Committee of Public Accounts will examine this issue. If it does not, I have no problem with it being investigated by another forum. That is not an unreasonable suggestion since there has been considerable interest in the matter. This individual was retained on a six-month short-term communications contract by the Department in July 2002 following a single tender process which was overseen by Department officials.

What is a single tender process?

The individual was informed of the duration of the contract and that the Department would be undertaking a full tendering procedure at the end of the contract. On this occasion, a single tender approach was taken because of the pressing communication demands on the Department at the time of her arrival. In November, five months later, three firms were invited to tender for the longer-term communications consultancy contract. The selection process was again overseen by officials of the Department and the same individual was recommended and commissioned. Before that, the individual had been retained by the Office of Public Works in December 2001, where the Minister then was, to act as a project information co-ordinator on projects in Waterford and the south east. The individual was retained by the OPW until July 2003 and was involved in a number of other projects. I accept the point Deputy Rabbitte made and I am not talking about the competence of the individual. If the procedure at the outset had not been a single tender contract, if there had been three names involved from the start, it would not look the way that it does. The explanation the Minister and the Department have given is that they were looking for someone.

The individual has been involved in a number of other works during the Presidency and ine-voting and other projects. When the three firms were invited to tender for the longer-term communications consultancy contract, the selection process was overseen. It was based upon a fee of €800 per day at 12 days per month, excluding VAT at 21%. I do not have a difficulty. Perhaps it would be better if I agreed with Deputy Rabbitte's point that if the Committee of Public Accounts will not look at the papers, someone else should do so. I would not object to that.

I do not want to speak for the Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts as he is not looking at it. In the normal course of events, the committee will only cover the context of the annual report from the Comptroller and Auditor General. That is likely to be a long way down the road. I do not want to cast aspersions on anyone, but this issue will not go away. It would be better if it were investigated by someone like the Ombudsman or some former eminent civil servant. We are talking about a close political confidante who is a fundraiser for the Minister, someone who shored up the constituency for the Minister, someone who reported to the communications unit during the last general election and who is a political adviser. The Department is well catered for with its own press unit. If the Minister wanted to retain a political adviser who would be subject to the rules that apply for such persons, why did he not do so? I read this morning in theIrish Independent that this person had no PR experience whatsoever. Rather than let it fester, the Taoiseach should agree to have the circumstances surrounding the person’s recruitment and appointment investigated and deal with the questions that are in the public domain.

As I understand it, the individual was not involved in any fundraising activity during the period the Minister, Deputy Cullen, was in the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. The individual was a member of a voluntary committee which organised an event recently in the constituency. This was done in an open and transparent way. The individual does not hold any contract with the Department. I have been told that the individual has shown good experience and knowledge in dealing with a range of public relations and other issues. However, I am not against the point. Deputy Rabbitte is right that this will not go away and I am not against finding someone to look at these papers.

What is the Taoiseach's view of the purchase of 11 acres of building land in south Dublin for €32 million and its resale for €85 million a few weeks ago, a breathtaking speculative profit of €53 million after just four years? As a result of this speculation by a cabal of wealthy legal business and medical personnel, the site price for each one of the 478 apartments will average €200,000 before a single brick is laid on top of a brick. This means that young working people who are first-time buyers will spend 20 to 30 years under huge pressure to make draconian repayments on massive loans so that a few pillars of the establishment can reap obscene wealth and swan around in Barbados, buy villas in the Mediterranean or do whatever the fruits of their greed lead them to do. Does the Taoiseach find it perverse that pillars of the establishment who indulge in this orgy of speculation, which intensifies the misery of those suffering from the housing crisis, should be lionised in sections of the media as canny businessmen and the like? Would it not be more accurate to describe them as anti-social parasites who prey on the community?

Does the Taoiseach think it appropriate that a person up to his neck in such speculation should be appointed by Ministers to be chairman of the Irish Aviation Authority and the National Pensions Reserve Fund, which are two State bodies? Is this not a fundamental conflict of interest between the community and private greed? It may well put the management buy-out controversy at Aer Lingus in the shade. That is just one example in Dublin. Speaking to Independent Deputies in Clare, Mayo, Cavan-Monaghan, Galway and Tipperary, exactly the same thing is happening elsewhere. Is this not a glaring and shameful failure by the Taoiseach to have stood by for seven and a half years while a handful of spivs obscenely profited from a basic human need to the detriment of ordinary people? He stood with the speculators and allowed them to enrich themselves at the cost of ordinary people, which is shameful. At this late stage, can he offer any words of comfort to those young people needing and hoping to purchase a home?

I suggest to the Deputy that he be a little more temperate in describing people who are not in a position to defend themselves in this House and who are identifiable outside the House.

I would be very happy to debate publicly with any of them at any time and to give them the right to reply.

It is not right to use the House to speak of people who-——

That is my view of them.

The Deputy has raised a number of issues, including social and affordable housing and speculators. The Government has been working on policies on all fronts. We are now in a position where 30,000 houses are being built every year. We have got the supply side of housing in order, where 80,000 houses are now being built. It took a few years to complete the planning and development issues, serviced land initiatives and other initiatives, and we are now building an enormous number of houses. This year in the range of 450,000 houses will be built. The vast majority of these houses are going to young people, people who are able to buy in the areas where they wish. Depending on the areas, prices and demand vary, and we have continued to press for that.

On social housing, we are delivering the highest level of local authority completions and on affordable housing we have provided over 10,000 sites. The report was issued yesterday on the housing initiative. Local authorities will provide houses built by private builders without land costs to assist young people in getting houses at prices that are at a more attractive level. Those criteria have been agreed under the special initiative of social partnership. We already have the Oireachtas committee report and the NESC report will be published this week. We said we would examine what else can be done about speculative land on the basis of these reports and whether that could be done through legislation. That will help somewhat.

However, we now have the highest rate of private house building in the European Union. It is far higher than the rate in the UK. Changes in costs, supply and demand will follow. We cannot regulate the prices. I agree that prices are expensive in some areas. Yesterday, I saw that a garage is for sale for €15 million. Houses are very costly in some areas. We will have to try to continue to provide for the demand.

I do not believe the points made by the Deputy are fair to the people in the business. If people were sitting on land banks, the point arises, but in many cases it is straightforward construction of new homes, which we need to provide accommodation for young people.

Am I correct that the Taoiseach has no problem with a group of business people purchasing land speculatively, sitting on it for four years without lifting a finger or adding to the wealth or well being of the community and then selling it for a profit of €53 million? That is fine as far as the Taoiseach is concerned. That is shameful. It explains the fact that the Taoiseach has not lifted a finger to control the price of building land in seven and a half years.

Will legislation ever be introduced to control the price of building land or will the Taoiseach allow this type of obscene speculation to continue? Will he compound it, given that the Tánaiste has ordered a review of land held by health boards with a view to selling it on the open market? The State is proposing to cash in on the speculation as well. What is the Taoiseach's legislative intention with regard to controlling the activities of speculators and giving some comfort to those who will have mortgages around their necks for most of the rest of their days if this continues?

There has been a range of measures to improve supply in the market. These have included serviced land initiatives and providing the necessary infrastructure. As a result, 450,000 houses have been built in a relatively short period. Obviously, there are cases where building land changes hands and is left dormant. However, reports in the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government show that it is not as common as it was previously. Nobody likes it that speculators can acquire valuable land and get astronomical prices for it. Neither I, Deputy Higgins nor any other Member supports that. Whether it can be legislated out of existence is a matter which has been debated extensively in the Oireachtas committee report, which includes some suggestions in this regard. We will also shortly see the conclusions of the NESC report.

The Government will continue, in whatever way it can, to provide affordable housing. The Tánaiste has allocated a large amount of land towards the provision of more than 10,000 sites. This will help the people who are not among the 80,000 to 90,000 people per year who can buy houses — an enormous number — to get affordable housing. There is also the voluntary co-operative housing sector, which is growing rapidly, as well as our social housing programme. We will continue to work on these areas.

We look forward to receiving the NESC report and, taking it in conjunction with the Oireachtas committee's report, we will take the necessary legislative action on that basis.