Finance Bill 2006: Second Stage (Resumed).

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

In my remaining minute of speaking time, I draw attention to two aspects of the Finance Bill, the first being the environmental aspects of the Minister's proposals. He is seeking plaudits for his proposal on biodiesel. The original proposal was made by his predecessor in his budget speech of 2004 but was not implemented until mid-2005. The Minister is now proposing in this Bill to issue a ministerial order at some time in the future. As my party leader stated in the House recently, the Government is addicted to economic policy fuelled by oil which is becoming a diminishing resource. The Minister has the most vested interest of all because of the amount of taxation he collects at the highest level, not income or corporation tax but value-added tax.

As referred to on today's Order of Business, I protest at the intention to extend tax reliefs to the health service in general but to private hospitals and private mental hospitals in particular. This proposal will be assiduously examined and opposed by this side of the House on Committee Stage.

The Finance Bill reaches the floor of the Dáil in the wake of the latest National Economic and Social Forum report published on Monday. The report confirms in the starkest of terms the gross inequality in this society after over a decade of the Celtic tiger and nearly a decade of continuous Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats Governments.

The NESF makes clear we now have a wealthier but more unequal society than before. The richest 20% of the working age population is earning 12 times as much as the poorest 20%, one of the highest levels of income inequality among OECD countries. That is a shameful level of inequality, especially in a small country such as ours. Extravagant wealth and avoidable poverty are living side by side on this small island, and it is little wonder given the revelations in the review of tax reliefs also published on Monday. That report reinforces everything that has been said, not least by Sinn Féin, in identifying the use of tax reliefs by the Government to further enrich those prospering most in this economy.

The review of tax reliefs is a catalogue of daylight robbery of the ordinary PAYE taxpayer and of those on or below the poverty line. It is robbery of the poor by the rich facilitated by this Government. Reading the report is like assessing one's losses after the burglars have left one's house; it is too late to do anything about it. The robbers have fled with the loot, cheered on by former Minister for Finance, Charlie McCreevy, whose echoes are still going around this Chamber.

What we have in the review of tax reliefs are three substantial volumes cataloguing the amount of tax revenue squandered on a plethora of tax breaks that has primarily benefited the highest earners. In the case of pension reliefs, the biggest beneficiaries have been able to stash away pension funds of up to €100 million and enjoy the tax benefits, in one case withdrawing a bounty of €25 million tax free. This has been going on for years.

These tax breaks have rewarded developers and speculators and were introduced and continued without any cost-benefit analysis. Only now are we getting an estimate of their cost. It is scandalous that after years of these schemes the report should have to make the following recommendations: first, all tax incentive schemes should require full disclosures of key information to the Exchequer by investors/promoters via a certification scheme or other mechanism to enable the full cost and impact of the schemes to be monitored; and second, the decision to introduce any new tax incentives should be informed by a formal assessment of the likely costs and benefits.

Most ordinary taxpayers must be incredulous that tax relief schemes which bestowed such massive sums on wealthy individuals were not subject to such basic requirements as disclosure of information and analysis of cost and benefit. The report makes clear that these tax reliefs have been seen primarily as incentives for the construction industry. However, they have poured public money into a booming private sector for developments that would have happened anyway, as is clear from the report. This is public money that should have been spent directly on providing the infrastructure and social services we need. Instead, it has mostly benefited individuals who, the report estimates, earn at least €100,000 per year.

The general recommendations of the review also include the following: "Where there is justification for Government incentives the option of direct public expenditure as an alternative to tax incentives should be considered". The option of direct public expenditure should have been the approach with regard to child care facilities. While the report contends that the relief for child care facilities contributed to increasing the supply of places, it did nothing to make those places more accessible or affordable.

The social impact is not considered in the report and the lack of social impact analysis across the range of reliefs is one of its major flaws. However, we know that private child care facilities, subsidised by tax breaks, follow the money. Like general practitioners, there are many more of them in wealthier urban areas while poorer areas suffer a lack of child care places or, where places exist, they are not affordable for many people.

The Finance Bill promises to bring many tax reliefs to a close, with an extension to 2008, but others remain open or are being extended. The Bill sees the Minister cleaning out the trough after most of the pigs have eaten their fill but for others there is more swill to come. It is disgraceful and totally unacceptable that in this Finance Bill tax relief for developers of private hospitals and nursing homes is to be consolidated and extended. This is a huge subsidy to the thriving private health business that needs such support least. Profit-driven operators are being rewarded again at a time when all State spending on health should be invested in public health and social services that care for everyone based on need alone and not on ability to pay and the profit motive.

The extension of the tax relief to those providing private mental health services is perverse, as spending on publicly-provided mental health services is still totally inadequate. Are we now to have a profit-driven mental health care sector which provides privileged care to those able to pay for it, while patients dependent on the public system continue to suffer?

Some €37 million has been spent on tax breaks for private hospitals so far, rewarding wealthy operators of the thriving private health industry and reinforcing the two-tier public-private system. No public money should have been spent on such private hospitals, yet the Finance Bill actually extends this tax relief. Taking just one set of reliefs, almost €330 million in tax reliefs has been given to developers of private hospitals, private nursing homes, hotels, holiday cottages and multi-storey car parks. While the review of reliefs pulls its punches, it can only be read as a damning indictment of Government policy when it recommends, as I have pointed out, that "The decision to introduce any new tax incentives should be informed by a formal assessment of the likely costs and benefits".

One of the key points about these reliefs is that they were pocketed by developers and speculators and no benefit was passed on to the consumer. In the context of child care, places increased but accessibility and affordability did not. The property-based tax reliefs have fuelled the spiralling price of residential property and have contributed to the housing crisis for so many people on average or above-average incomes who cannot afford a mortgage. It is an obscenity that developers of massive shopping centres and luxury apartments have benefited hugely from these tax breaks. Meanwhile there are 43,600 families on local authority waiting lists. This equates to more than 100,000 of our citizens.

The Minister has made much of his scheme in this Bill to encourage SSIA account holders on low incomes to invest in pensions. This is a modest measure and it is almost laughable when one considers the massive sums awarded to the highest earners through pension fund relief as highlighted in the tax review. The SSIA itself was kinked in favour of higher earners who could put more money into these accounts. What is to be done for those workers who could not afford to take out SSIA accounts? What proposals does the Minister have for those workers in his overall package? What is to be done for their pension provision? There are no answers to those questions that I can see in the Bill.

Yesterday, I listened to the Taoiseach talking during Leaders' Questions about the issue of tax reliefs and he was totally disingenuous. He portrayed those tax reliefs as old-fashioned measures dating back to an era before the Celtic tiger, putting money into disadvantaged areas and promoting development that would not otherwise have taken place. That is a compete misrepresentation. This Finance Bill does nothing to disturb the night's sleep of those who have pocketed plenty over the years from these reliefs.

Hear, hear.

This Finance Bill adopts a softly, softly and somewhat tentative approach in the clear and certain knowledge that the electorate will be the final arbiters on the Government's stewardship in a relatively short space of time. The decision to abolish the favourable remittance basis of income tax was long overdue. Under this system, foreign managers and nationals were only required to pay tax on that portion of income they used to live on in Ireland, and it was open to widespread abuse.

In recent years, Ireland acquired the reputation for being a tax haven for technology multinationals and Irish operations have been used to manage and repatriate funds. In recent months, some threatening noises have been made about far-reaching consequences for Ireland if US companies pulled out as a result of this measure. I welcome the decision to face down the multinational lobby which sought to reverse the measure to end the remittance tax system. It goes without saying that a minimum contribution to Irish society would be due from those who avail of and benefit from our country.

The measures to encourage low earners to put a portion of their SSIA savings into pensions will be welcomed by many people. It is of no interest to those poor people who cannot afford it. It will also be a major disappointment for those who took out SSIAs but were unable to maintain payments. Had they known this additional benefit would come down the line, they would possibly have held on to their SSIAs or made a greater effort to do so. Nevertheless, this measure appears somewhat restricted and very limited in scope to improve the position of low-income pensioners. There are many borderline cases between the standard rate of income tax and the 42% rate, many of whom would welcome the opportunity to have €2,500 put towards their €7,500 SSIAs.

We saw the alarming figure announced by the Central Statistics Office that almost 50% of the population has no form of pension cover. This is a frightening statistic, particularly with an ageing population and the implications for workers in years to come. The CSO also noted that half of those with SSIAs had never saved before the scheme was introduced four years ago, so it would be logical for these funds to be directed towards pensions and would give them a major boost. Those targeted should specifically be those on lower incomes with inadequate pension provision. The SSIA pension investment measure could be made infinitely more attractive for those on lower incomes if the Minister were to match the SSIA investments on a euro per euro basis. We are talking of the lowest income earners and those with no pension provisions.

One sector which needs a boost is business tourism, which involves conferences and major corporate meetings. Many of our hotels have expanded in recent years to include top class conference facilities, yet the Irish hotel VAT rate of 13.5% is the second highest in Europe, second only to that of Germany which has a rate of perhaps 16%. Colleagues in Northern Ireland get tax rebates on any VAT paid in excess of 10% and we should consider that to make ourselves more competitive. Ireland needs to be in a competitive position to avail of the €40 billion world conference market and we should set our sights on that.

The Finance Bill further tightens the noose around tax evasion and avoidance and it is to be hoped it will contribute towards everyone paying a fair share of tax. That is what it should be about. However, the flip side should involve securing value for taxpayers' money as a prerequisite of Government expenditure. For example, in the renting or leasing of properties for the various Departments throughout the country, the judicious expenditure of taxpayers' money should be paramount. Several Departments and the Health Service Executive have quite a number of properties leased and lying idle. Questions should be asked about whether we are getting value for taxpayers' money. We must ask if it logical to spend money leasing property and have nothing at the end of the year or at the end of ten or 20 years. This would not work in terms of a private property business.

Like other Deputies, I received three large volumes yesterday morning related to the review of tax schemes. Most of us expected these schemes to be discontinued well before now, but the Finance Bill states a number of times that July 2008 is the cut-off date for some. Where there is no contractual agreement, why can such schemes not be discontinued this summer rather than in two years' time? Essentially they provide subsidies or supports for a sector which clearly does not need them. We need to divert those funds towards areas of genuine need.

I do not know if the Minister of State feels ashamed when he goes outside the gates of Leinster House and sees people across the road sleeping in cardboard boxes. People are sleeping rough on the streets of the city every night. That area needs to be targeted and needs support more than developers do. Others who need support include children whose life chances are affected because they are on waiting lists for speech therapy, and people on housing waiting lists who have had no chance. In effect they must wait until 2008 by virtue of the subsidy being postponed to that date.

Section 13 of the Finance Bill involves the exemption of €10,000 tax for childminders. It is appropriate that I should address my comments in this regard to the Minister of State with special responsibility for children, Deputy Brian Lenihan. If one minds up to three children, the exemption allows one earn up to €195 weekly. If one earns 50 cent over that, one loses the entire exemption. I asked a number of childminders known to me what they thought of this and if it would encourage them to enter the scheme. The most frequent response was: "Is that all they think I am worth?" They also asked who would work for €195 weekly and what had happened to the minimum wage. That would come to €300 per week, yet childminders are being asked to accept a limit of €195. They feel the value placed by the Government on their work is nothing like the value they attach to it. They may not be well rewarded in monetary terms but this exemption, with a cut-off point of €10,000, will not have people queueing up to avail of it because those working in the area see such a cut-off figure as an insult.

The HSE is supposed to have a co-ordinating role in this area but anyone involved must have everything authenticated by the HSE. In Kildare and west Wicklow there is one co-ordinator who looks after networking, improving skills and organising courses. It now looks as if co-ordinators will be redeployed to hand out letters to people to tell them they qualify for the tax exemption. That is not child-centred and needs to be re-examined. It needs substantial amendment.

Section 8 relates to bin taxes. Essentially the amount one can claim back will be reduced. Many people are not even paying tax, so they cannot claim anything back. The "polluter pays" principle has circumvented the principle of the ability to pay in this area of service charges. The Combat Poverty Agency has flagged this as one of the key issues which needs to be addressed. The cutback in this area, for people who essentially are the working poor, needs to be re-examined.

The final issue I wish to deal with may seem unimportant. It relates to ATM machines and the card tax of €20. Numerous elderly people have told me they would not use such cards and have cut them up, because of the €20 charge, despite making only a small number of transactions. Such people need to have their money in financial institutions rather than in tin boxes in their houses. They could well be given exemption from this tax. They often do not have to pay tax in another sphere and I do not see why they should have to pay it in this area. There is a protection issue for the particular people involved.

I wish to share my time with Deputy Kelly.

I am pleased to address the House and I welcome the provisions of the Finance Bill 2006 which give effect to many of the initiatives announced by the Minister for Finance, Deputy Cowen, in the budget for 2006. As Minister of State with special responsibility for children, I especially welcomed the decision announced in the budget to introduce a new child care strategy spanning the years 2006 to 2010 and the subsequent announcement by the Taoiseach of the establishment of the new office of the Minister with responsibility for children. My responsibilities include the issues of child welfare and protection, early childhood care and education and youth justice. The office has been staffed with key officials from each of these areas, thus bringing together their expertise. Housing together all these issues in one vision of care, protection and provision for children will empower me to make real change and progress on these vital issues. As Minister of State with special responsibility for children, I am honoured with the unprecedented opportunity to develop and deliver policies and programmes which will help ensure the well-being of all our children.

Since 1997, child care has been to the forefront of Government policy. Deputies are aware of the significant achievements made under the equal opportunities child care programme, which ran from 2000 to this year. A general agreement had emerged and the time had come to take a long-term view of current child care policies with a view to adopting a more strategic approach to the delivery of services and meeting the current demands of parents. The recent Government decisions relating to child care represent a comprehensive response to the call from the child care sector, parents in particular, for greater funding to be made available for child care and the adoption of a more cohesive approach to the delivery of child care services.

The Government has adopted a new child care strategy for the period 2006-10. It is a comprehensive strategic approach by the Government to the emerging needs of future development of the sector. One of its key elements is the national child care investment programme, which is effective from 1 January 2006 and supersedes the previous programme. Unlike its predecessor, the new programme is entirely Exchequer funded and the Government has committed €575 million to it over the five year term.

The decision by the Government to create a major new five year investment programme immediately rather than waiting until the equal opportunities programme expired is evidence of our commitment to the provision of quality child care. The programme aims to provide a response to the development of quality child care supports and services, which are grounded in an understanding of local needs. It will build on the existing programme and incorporate a number of key objectives, such as the creation of 50,000 additional child care places, including 5,000 after-school places and 10,000 pre-school places aimed at three to four year olds. It aims at improving the quality of early childhood care and education, including part-time full day care, school age child care and child minding, supporting families in breaking the cycle of disadvantage and supporting a co-ordinated approach to the delivery of child care, which is centred on the needs of the child.

The Government has set ambitious targets for the next five years, including the creation of 17,000 additional trained child care personnel. I am committed to ensuring that we meet these targets and objectives in a way that takes account of the need for pre-school child care, school age child care and wrap around services that meet the specific needs of parents and their children. It will require careful planning and incremental development but I am confident that I have been given the necessary tools and resources to deliver on them.

The availability of the additional capital funding announced in the budget will enable me to allocate capital grant assistance to groups that address significant child care service gaps. The maximum capital grants available for the building or expansion of child care facilities will be €1 million per facility for community based not-for-profit providers. There will be a strong focus on private provider applications, with a maximum capital grant of €100,000 per facility and a maximum of €500,000 per provider in the case of multiple services in different catchment areas.

The new national child care investment programme will continue to assist with staffing and other operating costs in community facilities that cannot meet the full costs on fee income alone. Staffing grant assistance under the previous programme will be continued until the end of 2007 to ensure that there will be no break in the momentum built up and the transition to the new programme is a smooth one.

A key element of the new programme is the decision to deliver it at local level through the city and county child care committees, which were established under the previous investment programme and have been an active force at local level. They identify and meet local child care needs and facilitate greater flexibility in our responsiveness to those needs. This will involve building closer links between infrastructural development and the planning regulations under the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. I propose to work closely with that Department to strengthen the links at national and local levels between the relevant players, including the planning authorities, the county development boards and the city and county child care committees.

The legislative provision for the new early child care supplement will be provided for in the forthcoming Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2005. It is worth commenting on it today as it forms an important part of the child care package. It is an additional payment of €1,000 in a full calendar year in respect of all children aged under six years. The payment will be effective from 1 April and be a direct non-taxable payment of €250 paid per quarter year in respect of each eligible child.

When will it be paid?

I will come to that in a moment. As a new payment affecting some 350,000 children, it is evident that a new system of administrative arrangements must be established to give effect to the supplement. As with any other payment scheme, care is taken at the planning stage to ensure it will operate in a streamlined way, which is done to facilitate the recipients of the payment so that, for example, they can have their payments paid directly into bank accounts or through post offices if that is preferred.

I assure the House that, having decided that the Department of Social and Family Affairs will be the agency through which my office will administer the early child care supplement, officials from my office have been in contact with the relevant officials in that Department since the supplement was announced in budget 2006. At this stage, plans for the introduction of the scheme are well in hand, as is the draft legislative provision, which I expect will be published shortly in the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2005.

I take this opportunity to clarify the position regarding when the first payments of the supplement will be made. It is my understanding — it has been confirmed to me by the Department of Social and Family Affairs — that the Department will be in a position to make the first early child care supplement payment on behalf of my office in late August 2006, with the second payment, which is due in September 2006, being paid at that time. To put it simply, for the sound reasons I have outlined, the first payment is expected to be made in August rather than June. I hope this statement clarifies the issue.

As the Taoiseach and I have said in recent days, the early child care supplement makes no distinction as to the income or employment status of the parents. This is deliberate. Some may be critical of this feature but the Government believes it is right that parents have a choice when it comes to child care. It is not the role of the State to tell parents which child care arrangements are best suited to their families. Rather, it is for the State to support them in such arrangements as are appropriate. Budget 2006 also included significant increases in child benefit and there will be a further opportunity for discussion on this matter in the context of the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2005.

On the question of childminders, which was raised by Deputy Catherine Murphy, childminders are an important sector of our child care services and, for many parents, are the preferred option. It is important that we recognise and support this resource. In this regard, the Government has introduced a new child-minding relief, legislative provision for which is set out in section 13 of the Finance Bill 2006. As a result, where an individual minds up to three children in the minder's own home, no tax will be payable on the child-minding earnings provided the amount is less than €10,000 per annum. Following the rent-a-room scheme model, if child-minding income exceeds €10,000, the total amount will be taxable as normal under self-assessment. To avail of the exemption, an individual will be obliged to make an annual tax return on the child-minding income and notify his or her city or county child care committee of the service.

While I appreciate Deputy Catherine Murphy's point about the HSE's role in the co-ordination and support of child-minding service, it has no specific assigned role in the context of this provision. The notification requirement is to the city or county child care committee, not the HSE. Regarding the overall figure arrived at, opinions can clearly differ as to what is appropriate but the cost and affordability of child care was a significant element in the debate that arose. In selecting a figure, I take it that the Minister for Finance was prudent not to further increase the cost of child-minding. The payment is only available to those who fall outside the current pre-school regulations. The new regulations I am about to promulgate will not affect the numbers involved, as it is up to a maximum of three other than children of the child-minder.

I would not expect a stamp to be paid.

That is a matter that can be examined and monitored.

This is only the beginning of a very ambitious child care strategy embarked upon by the Minister for Finance and the Government in the budget. A number of initiatives are being taken. I would have liked to mention another number but, for reasons of time, I am constrained from doing so. It is important to bear in mind that this is a multi-annual strategy. It is a clear commitment by the Government to tackle this area and make progress upon it.

I offer my congratulations to the Minister for Finance, Deputy Cowen, on his record in his political career before and since becoming the Minister for Finance and on his recent budget, which is widely recognised as one of the best budgets ever.

Every budget is the best budget ever.

I have not met anybody outside the House who did not ask me to pass on their good wishes to the Minister for Finance on probably the best budget in the history of the State.

Hear, hear. Come on the old conventions around Mullingar.

To those of us who know the Minister, his appointment was no surprise and the country is very fortunate to have a caring and compassionate family man in Government. In any walk of life, including politics, it is a duty and obligation on people in posts of responsibility to mind the finances in the interests of all.

The Deputy is right about that.

The success of our country is due to the combination of Government policy and the hard work and genius of the Irish people. We should have learned that the only way forward is the way we got here, with partnership and people working together towards a common goal, namely, the promotion of our country for all people.

Our people are well educated and hard working, and nobody can question that. Optimism is the present and the future, with pessimism put to one side. Pessimistic attitudes and negative ideas are not in the best interests of the majority of our people.

The Ministers in front are getting embarrassed. Deputy Kelly is making them blush with all the accolades.

Perhaps the less said the better. Perhaps Deputy Durkan was blushing during a previous debate today.

I refer to the rural tax scheme. Some people in this House, who are not from my constituency, were not in favour of the tax scheme. I invite Deputies to visit Longford and speak to the people to understand how the rural tax scheme is working. Longford people must be encouraged to work with the Government and improve the lot of people. The people in my constituency wanted the rural tax scheme and welcomed it. Our main concern was that couples would be able to build or buy their own house by working hard and availing of this tax relief scheme. Many jobs have been created in Longford and the better our economy, the better our social services.

I am not sure about that. When we did not have it, we spent it better.

It is factual. If the economy is not successful and we have no money, how can we spend what we have not got? In 2006 funding is needed to finance schemes and all parties in the Dáil seek more money for everything. I have heard no one stating that money does not count. Why does everyone seek more money if there is a better way of proceeding?

I will bring Deputy Durkan on a quick tour of County Longford.

Hear, hear.

The county contains Abbeylara, Granard, Aughnacliffe, Ballinamuck, Drumlish, Newtownforbes, Clondra, Killashee, Lanesborough, Ballymahon, Kenagh, Moydow, Abbeyshrule, Legan, Mostrim, Moyne, Legga and Longford town.

Deputy Kelly left out a few.

Major development is taking place in all these towns and they have been transformed. Everybody is pleased with the transformation taking place under the Government. They are delighted and happy.

The Government will know if people are happy on election day.

One can visit rural areas of Longford where people did not think they would see development. People who had to emigrate in the 1950s and 1960s are now returning and are proud of the progress made in their absence.

We welcome people who came to Longford as a result of the rural tax scheme. The many new businesses and families are more than welcome. We are delighted to see the end of derelict sites and the difference development makes. I am at one with the people of my constituency, who want clean, new, environmentally friendly buildings rather than derelict sites. This has been the result of the scheme.

We have a major asset in the River Shannon, which needed to be improved. I listened to Opposition speeches on tourism, an industry that does well in Longford, with natural resources and people. The scheme helped to promote tourism, which was needed. Apart from the rural tax scheme, the greatest asset is the friendliness of our people — Longford is the friendliest county in Ireland.

This Bill will give effect to measures announced in the budget. We must support sustained economic growth and promote improved quality and opportunity for all. This requires the development of a knowledge-based Irish economy, supported by sound fiscal policies that deliver value for money to the taxpayer. The Government has radically restructured the tax system in the past eight years. The challenge is to implement policies that support growth and employment and that are seen as fair and equitable. Previous budgets have worked towards that and if the Opposition think this budget is good, it should hear the next budget.

We have no doubt about that. We are waiting with bated breath, and it is not only our breath that will be bated.

Deputy Kelly has the floor. Deputy Durkan will have the opportunity to respond shortly.

I thank the Acting Chairman for his protection.

Deputy Kelly needs protection.

The Government has done a great job in removing those on the minimum wage from the tax net. Workers on the average industrial wage are excluded from the higher tax rate.

I am pleased to note the success of the film industry. I do not know how any member of any political party could disagree with tax relief for the film industry as it sought this measure last year.

We are artistic people.

Relief rates have been raised to 80% and the ceiling has been raised from €15 million to €35 million. The tourism and film businesses are important to our economy and Ireland has been noted for its actors and actresses outside this House.

There are some inside the House also. Has Deputy Kelly sought the Equity card?

Deputy Kelly is not doing badly.

I am glad to note there are some actors in the House. With the expansion of the film industry some of us will never be out of a job.

It was unfortunate that the budget debate disappeared from the clár very quickly, denying some of us an opportunity to speak. I am worried by the failure to correctly identify the total amount accruing from Revenue towards year end. As a result, ten days after the budget we discovered the Government was much better off — in the region of €1.8 billion — than we thought it was. If the figures accruing to Revenue are out by €1.8 billion, the calculations are not correct. For the integrity of the Department of Finance and its advisers we must examine the implications of this episode. There was a time in this country when a miscalculation of that nature would have caused serious rumbles across the entire financial services area. While the Government may rejoice in the fact that it had more money that it thought, it does not go down well in international circles where it is questioned how good are our systems and our great administration. If they do not stand up to international scrutiny, they do not stand up at all. Far from patting themselves on the back, the members of the Government should take full account of the need to be as near as possible to dead reckoning.

I remember an occasion some years ago when the budgetary outturns were miscalculated or wrong to the extent of £40 million. There was a public outcry and absolute uproar. It does not happen any more because so many billions fall off the table that a billion here and a billion there does not matter. If that is the attitude of Government, I assure the Minister of State that the time is coming when the end of the runway will be in sight. It could be brought about as a result of the Government's hype and inability.

Dream on.

Part of the budgetary system is to be able to identify and judge with reasonable attitude where one is going, how one has performed and how one is likely to perform for the next 12 months. Every other country in the world does it well. I do not know of any other country in the European Union, including those that recently joined, where one can be that far out and still have credibility.

The Deputy does not know any others that have surpluses like ours either.

It could just as easily have been a deficit. I do not know whether the Government would be fully aware of whether it was a surplus or a deficit. The major difference between a surplus of €1.8 billion and a deficit is certain. If the Minister of State happens to have the two in the one year he will find out all about it.

A Progressive Democrats-Fianna Fáil Government is the difference.

I will deal with that in more detail in a minute. There are some contradictions which are of great concern to me and which were referred to by a number of other people. We will come to those in a moment.

I want to discuss matters for which I have responsibility — energy and communications. I do not know what has gone wrong in the communications area. The Government's delivery of modern telecommunications is miles short of what it promised. The Finance Bill and the budget contain nothing to improve on it. Utility services now take the place of financial investment houses. Anyone who wants to make money should be advised to buy either a toll road or a telecommunications sector. Therein lies the secret of making much more money by way of dividend than can be made by investment in any financial house.

I will ask the much-vaunted two parties in Government, which have such great policies, a question regarding a comparison with other European countries in telecommunications areas such as broadband and developing state-of-the-art technology. Ten years ago this country was one of the leading five countries in Europe in those areas. We are now in the last two and falling rapidly. Some countries in Europe which have only barely come on stage in these issues are well ahead of us and rapidly going out of sight. Despite all of the ingenuity congregated between the combined masses of intelligence of the two parties in Government, they have failed miserably in this area. They will fail even further. Not only do they fail themselves, they fail to deliver on promises and projections and they fail the people and this economy. No area has more influence on a developing economy at present than the telecommunications area.

I will now speak on energy. It is true that in this budget the Minister made some concessions in the area of excise duty on renewable oils and that is welcome. However, why in heaven's name did it take so long? How did this Government with such massive foresight and, according to itself, the confidence of all the people miss that until now? Why did it not recognise that to develop a proper energy policy, adequate research and development is required, all of which has been and still is being sadly neglected?

Despite the manifestations from the other side of the House, nothing has happened that will in any way bolster the people's or industry's confidence in continuity and security of supply. We know from last week and the week before that in a few moments people ran scared because of difficulties with the supply of gas from Russia. Our economy depends heavily on energy and will depend on it to a much greater extent in years to come. It is an appalling indictment of the Government and an example of its inaction and inability to read the signs before it that so little has been done for so long. It should know that this area is fundamental to the development of the economy.

Far from being a case of a lot done and more to do, it is all to do and the Government has done nothing so far. As for buying credits for carbon emissions, I do not know whether the Government realises that the millions set aside for that purpose do not do anything for the atmosphere or the ozone layer. While members of the Government might feel reassured when they go home at the weekend that they have done something for the environment, they have in fact done nothing for it. They spend €20 million buying credits from elsewhere which does nothing for the atmosphere.

I wish to discuss a few other areas. Much has been said about the need for carers for older people and for their importance to be recognised. It is important to have adequate carers to cater for the ageing population given that we live in a society where both partners in a relationship must work because it is otherwise no longer possible to pay a mortgage. The Government can take full credit for that. It increased house prices tenfold during the past seven or eight years. Members of the Government should be ashamed of themselves. It has already been indicated and it never shows up on the consumer price index because it was never intended to show up that way. The real inflation rate has never been tapped into. Nobody has recognised it and I give the Government full credit for it. The Government conned the people and it did so effectively.

It is a good thing the Deputy read theIrish Independent today.

I read everything. The Minister of State should not be concerned. I also read that which he may not want me to read.

Another concern is that those who need care have already worked for 45 or in some cases 50 years. They paid PRSI and huge sums in interest at times when interest rates were excessively high and reached levels of 22% or 23%. They struggled through all that and bought their houses. Now the Minister for Finance, the Revenue Commissioners and the accompanying gurus state that if those people require carers, they will face a severe means test to make the system as stringent as possible. Grants and tax incentives are available to build nursing homes but to enter one is much more difficult. If a carer is not available or the person does not pass the means test and must enter a nursing home, those now in need of care and support must sell the houses they worked and strove for, paid tax on and struggled to keep. How dare their families suggest they should qualify, despite the fact their parents worked all their lives and shed blood sweat and tears during the most difficult times in this economy. After all that, they are thanked and told they must sell their houses which will be taken and distributed to others.

Debate adjourned.
Sitting suspended at 1.30 p.m. and resumed at 2.30 p.m.