Leaders’ Questions.

It is becoming increasingly obvious that this Government is on its last legs. As the Taoiseach heads to his Fianna Fáil Ard-Fheis at the weekend, I am sure he will be looking back on ten years of promises, and maybe he will make a few more. Given that we will not have the opportunity presented to us this morning again, perhaps he will reflect on a few of the promises he made before he makes any new ones.

The Deputy should ask one topical question.

(Interruptions).

Broken promises.

He will probably start in 1950.

That was a very timely intervention, a Cheann Comhairle. I have no intention of reading out the Government's programme for 2002 but I recall the former Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Martin, saying on 6 May 2002 that the Government would permanently end waiting lists in our hospitals within two years. One should remember that promise.

I remember the promise on prisons and crime to the effect that the Government would avoid overcrowding and reopening the revolving door. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform is not even present.

He is the revolving door.

On class sizes, it was promised that the average pupil-teacher ratio in classes for children under nine would be below 20:1 by 2007. This was the third promise. In respect of the transport chaos on the M50, the Taoiseach said he would develop the metro for Dublin, achieving a link to Dublin Airport by 2007. Let us not forget the memorable words of the former Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Cullen, that the €52 million investment by this Government on behalf of taxpayers is absolutely secure and that we would see those machines used.

They are secure in warehouses.

Absolutely stored.

Again, I draw the Deputy's attention to the Standing Order. There is a limit on the time allowed for questions.

It is a matter of broken promises.

A brief question on one matter is allowed.

If there were only one, he would be brief.

A Deputy

One matter is the failure of the Government.

It is hard to be brief on broken promises.

In fairness to the Taoiseach, he responded for 20 minutes yesterday. I have mentioned five of the promises he made in the past ten years.

What about the 100 Deputy Kenny did not deliver on?

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Michael Ahern. Will the Taoiseach tell me, man to man, whether any of those five promises, on which he really would like to have delivered, keeps him awake at night? Will he answer this in the House before we hear the de Róiste judgment at the weekend?

I will try to reply to the Deputy's questions in the order in which he asked them, although I know he was meant to ask only one question.

On prisons, we have reformed the prison system and built new prisons.

And closed a few.

No, we got away from the revolving door that existed when the Deputy's party was last in government——

He escaped.

——when nobody served his time and when prisons were just holiday camps. Offenders were imprisoned for just a few days and then let out again; that is the way it was.

There were 3,000 early releases last year.

(Interruptions).

Allow the Taoiseach to reply without interruption.

On class sizes, we have employed 8,000 extra teachers in primary schools since 1997 and the pupil-teacher ratio is now down to 27:1 or 28:1. There has been an enormous improvement in respect of disadvantaged children and the class size in this respect is 13 in secondary school. This is as good as any international standard.

We have the second largest class sizes in Europe.

What about primary schools?

A considerable number of primary schools have under 20 per class.

There are many with over 35.

There is one teacher for every 28 pupils.

The voting machines——

They are safely stored.

——worked quite well in the last election — they worked excellently. Fine Gael is afraid of them and wants to return to paper and pencils. Even though we are a country of technology, Fine Gael would rather go back to the old way — a haon, a dó, a trí and use the pencils. Ireland is the largest exporter of technology and everybody is using it with their bank cards, etc. Fine Gael wants us to use pens and peann luaidhes again. That is its policy and if we keep going in that direction we will all be unemployed again.

We could use them as ATMs.

We might be unemployed——

(Interruptions).

Allow the Taoiseach to reply without interruption.

Which one did I miss?

The M50.

The whole lot.

Was it the 600,000 extra jobs or was it delivering our tax policies? Was it bringing almost full employment to the country or having the best economy in the world?

Hospitals.

What about the waiting lists?

Waiting lists.

Was it cutting the national debt to 25%?

Hold it now——

(Interruptions).

The Taoiseach to continue without interruption.

Deputy Ring should leave Deputy Kenny alone in Mayo and not be hassling him.

Sometimes the Taoiseach is fallible also. I will take his points in the order in which he made them.

What did he say?

Allow Deputy Kenny to speak without interruption.

The Taoiseach said he ended the revolving door and sorted out all the business concerning crime and justice. Last year 470 prisoners were released early from Cork jail to make way for new inmates. Is this not an indication that the revolving door is still alive and well? There are 110,000 children in classes of 30 or more, despite the Taoiseach's assertion that the pupil-teacher ratio is now reduced to 28:1. It took some pressure from this side of the House to force a change within the Department of Education and Science to provide language support teachers in the numbers required.

The Taoiseach said the electronic voting machines worked "quite well". The population is waiting to dispatch this Government with their "peann luaidhes" when they get the opportunity. I remind the Taoiseach of Deputy Cullen's statement that the money is absolutely secure and that the machines will be used. I suppose the Taoiseach will get up at the weekend and say they will be used some other time.

They will be used. Deputy Kenny wanted to use on-line voting.

Where will they be used?

The Minister, Deputy Cullen, should hang his head in shame.

Voters can play with them as they are stuck on the M50.

They will not be used in the lifetime of the next Government.

The €750 million car park that is the M50 and the port tunnel were blocked this morning, causing chaos for hundreds of thousands of commuters. The virtual metro is supposed to be in operation this year.

There were 40,000 operations cancelled and 29,000 people are waiting to see a consultant. Why must four out of five patients wait at least 12 weeks to see a consultant or have endoscopy investigations carried out? I pointed out yesterday the seriousness of the situation where a GP in Kildare said the system had effectively killed a patient and a consultant in Tralee said that patients die while on the waiting list for endoscopy investigations. I pointed out what is happening in hospital after hospital.

After making those five promises, do any of them keep the Taoiseach awake at night? If he could go back over the past ten years, given the economic strength brought about by the workers of Ireland, which of them would he deliver on? Will the Taoiseach admit that his much vaunted promises have ended in failure? He promised a lot but there is still a lot to be done.

I was going to say that Deputy O'Connor's posters caused the rumpus on the M50 this morning but obviously that is not the case.

It was not the millions the Deputy spent on posters.

I have answered the issue of prisoners. We had a major problem with early releases but now we do not have that problem — the statistics and facts back that up.

There were 3,000 early releases last year.

I know Deputy Kenny admitted last week that if he has the opportunity he will do away with remission for prisoners. I do not know if the Labour Party would support that if it is ever with him in government, but prisoners will note that remission for ordinary prisoners will be taken away if Deputy Kenny has an opportunity to do so.

They will vote for Fianna Fáil.

On class size, there are almost 5,000 more primary school teachers than in 2002 and 8,000 more teachers. Class sizes have reduced dramatically, with the average primary class size falling to 24. With the unprecedented increases in support staff, there is now one teacher for every 17 primary school children, down from one for every 22.

We have the second largest class sizes in Europe.

There are 10,000 children in classes of more than 40.

Children who need extra help are getting more support than ever before and the majority of extra teachers hired have been targeted, rightly, to provide extra support for children with special needs, those in disadvantaged areas and those who need help with their English. Not only have these additional teachers made an immeasurable difference in the lives of all these children, they provide vital back-up in the classrooms. The policies we have implemented have helped, with more than 1,200 extra teachers in primary schools in the past few years.

At second level, there is now one teacher for every 13 students. That is a considerable reduction on the figure in 1997. Those are the facts.

There are 100,000 children in classes of 30 or more.

As I said yesterday, as in every health service in the world, there are clearly some difficulties in some areas of health, although not in a large proportion of areas. I acknowledge what has been achieved: a 7% increase in day care cases to over 590,000, an increase in outpatient attendances to more than 2.766 million, over 1.2 million attendances at accident and emergency departments and substantially reduced waiting times. Treatment is provided for 150,000 cancer patients and treatment is provided for 17,000 inpatients and appointments have been arranged for 9,000 outpatients under the National Treatment Purchase Fund.

People must wait four months for essential cancer treatment.

There are 780,000 extra home care hours, bringing the total to 11.8 million, additional home care packages and additional day care packages. Every day there are new announcements and new movements helping the health service.

Is that the Taoiseach's speech for this weekend?

Deputy Kenny asked about the voting machines. I must remind him that he promised not alone that we would have voting machines——

Machines that would work.

His party wants to go back to pencils——

Peann luaidhe.

Peann luaidhe, which he does not believe in and is ridiculous. He promised at University College Galway that he would bring in voting on the Internet. That is what he said.

No, I did not.

His party wants pencils. I wanted voting machines and he wanted to use the Internet so he should not accuse me.

It is a broken down system from a broken down Government.

I can confirm that those voting machines will not be used in the lifetime of our Government.

Deputy Kenny had his chance so he should sit down. I admit in the national Parliament today that there was a delay on the M50. A van ran into a truck so I am very sorry that it disrupted people.

A Deputy

The Taoiseach was not driving.

I was not driving.

The Taoiseach does not have a licence.

It shows the huge success of the tunnel in only a few months that as soon as there was a delay everything happened. I was waiting since Christmas to see what day would the Opposition stand up, but it had to wait, because it is a huge success, another massive part of the planning infrastructure of the Government.

It can only carry 12,000 cars a day at full capacity.

Because a van ran into a truck, the only thing the Opposition can raise in the national Parliament is that a van ran into a truck.

What make was the truck?

The M50 is the largest car park in Europe.

I remind Members of the House that it is Leaders' Questions and only the leaders of the parties are entitled to submit a question and a member of the Government responds. I ask Members to behave in some reasonable manner so the Member submitting the question and the Taoiseach replying can do so in silence.

If the Taoiseach keeps this up, he can be his own warm-up man for the jamboree at the weekend.

Yesterday I asked, and the Taoiseach refused to answer, how many tens of millions of euro of taxpayers' money will be bestowed on the lads from the tent at the Galway Races to build private hospitals on the public grounds of our existing hospitals. This morning, I would like to raise another public expenditure decision, related to the subject matter of a parliamentary question on 22 February, where the questioners were advised that it was expected to identify the preferred bidder for the prison at Thornton Hall by the end of February 2007. Was the preferred bidder identified by the end of February, as pledged, and will the Taoiseach tell us who it is?

How does he propose to protect taxpayers' money in the contract, given the record on this site? The Comptroller and Auditor General, in his report for the year 2005, published in September 2006, deplored the manner of purchase of the lands at Thornton Hall and said that at least twice the market value was paid for them. He went on to say: "In the circumstances, a well managed, confidential, third party approach might have allowed the Prison Service to procure suitable land at a much lower price than was paid for the land at Thornton."

Mr. Purcell, although working in the abstract, turned out to be right. At the weekend we learned that the adjacent site, which was inspected by the perceptive Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy McDowell, at the time as a possible alternative, was sold recently for €100,000 per acre, whereas the Minister paid €200,000 per acre for the site at Thornton Hall. This is the man who lectures those on this side of the House on economics and hard decision taking. They say a fool and his money is easily parted but the Minister is no fool and the money he was parted from was taxpayers' money doled out in the most foolish purchase because, as the Comptroller and Auditor General said, they saw him coming. Imagine putting it around that one had €30 million to spend and asking if anyone could come up with a site. What does he expect in those circumstances? This is the most profligate waste of taxpayers' money by a blundering Minister that rivals——

Deputy, your time has concluded.

——anything Deputy Kenny has instanced about the other decisions on which the Taoiseach wasted so much money during the lifetime of this Government. What guarantees can the Taoiseach give the taxpayer that this pattern on the Thornton Hall project will not continue? I notice the Minister forgot to factor in an access to the site. The Lord knows how much he will pay for the roadway in because they know he is coming now. He appears to be an easy touch but he is paying with taxpayers' money, yet the Taoiseach boasts about the progress made on the prisons. This is a laughable decision by an incompetent Government.

That is Deputy Rabbitte's view.

It is the Comptroller and Auditor General's view.

Some will say it is the common view.

The Government's view is that we wanted to build a modern prison that had all the facilities unlike some of our prisons that have deplorable facilities and bad sanitary facilities, which have been highlighted in the yearly reports from the prison inspectorate. We wanted to build a state-of-the-art prison on a large site that could accommodate a large prison, with all the ancillary facilities, on the outskirts of the city. A number of sites were checked. This site was sourced. The contracts were prepared. Deputy Rabbitte said we should not have made public the figure. When we were dealing with the metro a few weeks ago Deputy Rabbitte demanded of me that we should make public the figure. He now says we should not have made public the figure. In the other case he wanted the figures published. It is an inconsistency in his argument. The Government's position is that we want to build a modern prison on a substantive site that has all the facilities for prisoners in the 21st century, with proper security and access. Controversies will always arise when a prison is being built although having been involved in a different Ministry some years ago when the prison in Castlerea was opened, people were glad of a prison in their area from an employment and security point of view. This is the site we opted for and the one on which we will build a prison. That is the Government's position.

It is not my view. It is the view of the Comptroller and Auditor General. It is the view of experts who saw the sale of the adjacent site at the weekend. It is not akin to Castlerea. If the Taoiseach believes the people at Killsallaghan have the same view as the people of Castlerea, he should make one of his flying visits to the area. He moves around the country faster than the MRSA bug. The Taoiseach claims to defend this decision, which is such a manifest waste of money he can send out his very sincere Minister for Social and Family Affairs yesterday to lecture this side of the House on public expenditure decisions. This is the same Minister, Deputy Seamus Brennan, who went to Cork and told the people he would give them an airport debt free.

A Deputy

They are still waiting.

This is the same Minister who said Mary Robinson would not be right for the Park——

This is the same Minister who——

This is the same Minister who delivered social welfare——

Minister, allow Deputy Rabbitte to speak. Deputy Rabbitte, your time has concluded.

——because it would cause a flight of capital. This is the same Minister, Deputy Seamus Brennan, who was the architect of the 1977 package of proposals and who puts on his very sincere face and tells the Opposition that their proposals will cost too much. I wonder in that instance what he thinks of the proposals of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy McDowell——

Deputy Rabbitte, your time has concluded.

He is the Minister who delivered for pensioners.

Minister, allow Deputy Rabbitte to conclude.

——who promised to spend €6.8 billion at his party conference. The Taoiseach is in no position to lecture about value for money and waste of public money when he stands over a decision like Thornton Hall. It has been a waste of money. It did not meet valuation criteria. It was embarked on in the manner that has been rigorously criticised not by me but by the Comptroller and Auditor General, yet the Taoiseach tells this House and says he wants a leading prison. So what? Why did he not buy one or build one and get value for money rather than giving away tens of millions of taxpayers' money in this fashion that has been indicted by people who know what they are talking about? The adjacent site sold for half of the value. The Comptroller and Auditor General said the evaluation criteria was not followed and now we are stuck with it.

The Tánaiste and Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform has given full documents and details to the Comptroller and Auditor General and I will not go into that debate here. I should have said to Deputy Rabbitte that the evaluation has been completed and I understand the preferred bidder will be announced by Easter. We required a modern, stand alone large prison on a secure site that had adequate facilities.

With no road access.

Deputy Burton, you are not the leader of your party. I ask you to allow your leader to hear the answer.

That was the priority of Government.

The dearest farm in Europe.

It is the same old story with the Opposition. They criticise existing facilities but we are trying to improve the lot of unfortunate people in society who require proper facilities when they are incarcerated. That is a fair approach.

They are a crowd of wasters.

(Interruptions).

I ask the Minister to allow the Taoiseach to answer without interruption.

The issues of planning, design and all of those matters will be resolved as is always the case. To continue having prisons in confined sites is not a good idea.

That is not what we are saying.

What sites?

In sites like the Central Mental Hospital in Dundrum——

That is an enormous site.

——and Mountjoy. I am talking about sites that are ancient and where it is not possible to turn them into modern facilities for people.

Why did the Taoiseach waste €30 million?

I am surprised at the members of the Labour Party. If my colleague, Deputy Joe Costello, who is the leader of the prisoners' rights organisation, were here he would be appalled to hear the Labour Party Members opposing prisons.

The Taoiseach is getting his local campaign going.

In fairness to him he has been consistent. He always wanted them all out, but I want to put them in good facilities.

The Taoiseach wants them all in.

They would be all out if the Government did not build unconfined prisons.

It is unreasonable of the Labour Party not to want to provide proper facilities.

They would let them all out.

I want to put them into decent facilities and not do what Deputy Costello wanted or what the Labour Party is calling for now, which is to keep them in facilities that are 150 or 200 years old.

The women's prison was built only a decade ago.

I call Deputy Ó Caoláin.

So now we will have prisons that are not confined.

When those opposite were in power they were all walking out the doors.

Sorry, Deputy Rabbitte, you asked your question. Deputy Ó Caoláin, without interruption.

Is the Taoiseach aware that many thousands of medical card holders are being deprived of dental treatment to which they are entitled because dentists have felt compelled to withdraw from the dental service treatment scheme? Is he further aware that this situation is set to worsen as the Irish Dental Association is in the course of a ballot of its members to withdraw from the scheme in protest at the failure of the Health Service Executive and the Department of Health and Children to engage with the association and complete a thorough review of the scheme? Is the Taoiseach aware that because of this and the impending result of that ballot, medical card holders are now being denied access to critical dental treatment through the general medical services scheme upon which they are totally dependent? Would the Taoiseach not agree that the scheme is far from comprehensive? However, we are now faced with its total collapse. Can the Taoiseach confirm that part of the reason for the current impasse is the advice received by the HSE and the Department of Health and Children from the Attorney General claiming that they cannot negotiate fees for this scheme with the Irish Dental Association because of the Competition Act? Is this the same advice that has been given regarding the role of the Irish Pharmaceutical Union in representing its membership?

The Deputy's time has concluded.

Whatever the legal position, does the Taoiseach realise that if this problem is not resolved the scheme will collapse and many people will be left without the treatment to which they are entitled? Will he urge the Minister for Health and Children to immediately intervene and use her offices to facilitate the recommencement of direct engagement with the Irish Dental Association to stave off the worst-case scenario that I indicated earlier?

The dental service that operates at the moment is a very good service and we certainly do not want a disruption of that service. The private dentists who operate the system are a hugely valuable part of providing the services for medical card patients. This issue, like the pharmacy issue, has gone on for some considerable time. The negotiations have been ongoing in one form or another for several years. However, the Government must keep the dentists as part of the system because otherwise we would not be able to run the service. At the same time we must protect public expenditure and taxpayers' interest in it. It is the intention of the Minister, the Department of Health and Children and all of us to ensure the service continues. There is ongoing attention. The negotiations between the Irish Dental Association and the Department have been quite a long-running saga.

I thank the Taoiseach for his reply. However, he has not indicated whether he will use his position as Taoiseach to impress on the Minister the importance of her immediately intervening to break the logjam. Now is the time to do it, in advance of any decision by the members of the Irish Dental Association. As the Taoiseach should know dentists have been pulling——

Pulling teeth.

——out of this scheme in ever increasing numbers from as far back as 2005. Dental treatment is supposed to be a key element of primary care provision, something to which the Taoiseach and his Government are allegedly committed — another one of the promises referred to already this morning. In reality we do not have the network of primary care centres including dental providers, both dentists and the various skilled people across that discipline, providing this service, all of which was promised within the health strategy. Why has all this been dropped? What is the Taoiseach now prepared to do to rescue the situation——

The Deputy's time has concluded.

——particularly for those who are dependent on medical cards for access to the whole raft of health care services including dental services? These are the people who will now suffer most from a further deterioration of the situation between the Irish Dental Association, the HSE and the Department of Health and Children. Ultimately the buck stops with the Taoiseach. What is he now prepared to do about it?

I will not intervene in a process that has been ongoing for some time. The negotiations are going on. The service has improved. The Deputy is incorrect. The dental service has improved in schools and for the general public through community medicine and the primary care teams. These are industrial relations negotiations about the fee and remuneration dentists will receive. Obviously the Government supports trying to reach a conclusion to that. We value the professionalism of our dentists who operate the scheme for medical card holders. As in any industrial relations issue, we need to ensure we negotiate a package that is fair to all sides.