Government's Priorities for the Year Ahead: Statements (Resumed)

Ministers say we need to stimulate activity in the construction sector, a policy I support particularly in metropolitan areas as there is a severe need for three-bedroom family homes. However, this will not deliver social housing, an area in which there is a significant need. According to media reports, the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government plans to amend Part V of the Planning and Development Act 2000, which stipulates that 20% of units in new developments have to be social or affordable housing. The previous Fianna Fáil Government eviscerated that Act when it allowed local authorities to take cash in lieu of such provision. The Government needs to explain how it will deliver social housing.

I, along with other Members, have called on the National Asset Management Agency, NAMA, to provide a social dividend through social housing. So far, what it has offered is derisory and the units that have come on stream have been unsuitable for families. The real challenge facing Dublin city and other parts of the country is how to provide long-term housing solutions for families. They are the ones at risk of becoming homeless as they are rack-rented out of their homes. Meanwhile, there is not a sufficient supply of social housing to accommodate these families.

Ministers refer all the time to “my Department”. That sort of trench warfare going on within government is not how one runs a public and social policy that is effective, efficient and equitable. Health, housing, education, the environment and children’s rights are linked together. Unfortunately, it appears individual Ministers are only concerned about their own line budgets, as well as their reputations in the mainstream media and their public relations presentation, rather than about actually developing a cohesive and fair social and economic policy.

I believe in a dynamic economy and support foreign direct investment. My constituency is at the forefront in attracting American and other companies into Ireland. At the same time, one needs an equal and just society going hand in hand with the economy. Over the Government’s three years in office, objective research has shown that our society has become more unequal. Cuts have been implemented across the board in areas such as child benefit and the respite care grant while the Government refuses even to examine very detailed proposals put forward by Tasc and others for a wealth tax and for those earning more than €100,000 a year to contribute more in this national emergency. The retrospective recapitalisation of the banks - the game-changer talked about by the Taoiseach and Tánaiste - has never happened. The Government’s record is one of failure and it needs to be challenged.

I am grateful for this opportunity to contribute to the debate on the Government's priorities for the year ahead. I welcome the publication of the document outlining those very priorities. As we all know, the only way out of a recession is through job creation. If we do not have people back in work, the tax yield will be down and the Government will not have the income to spend on much-needed projects. The Government has designated 2014 to be the year for jobs. Will it consider job sustainability as well in all sectors of our economy?

I am concerned about the plight of micro-businesses and small and medium-sized enterprises, SMEs, in general. Coming from a SME business background, I have first-hand knowledge of this area in the economy. I wish to highlight the current plight of this sector in particular and urge the Government to make this a priority for the year ahead. The essential core and spirit of our country is based on community. Local community is the fabric of our nation. That is what makes us different from others. That is what we Irish are. We must never forget we are a nation first, an economy second. Based on parish, sport, the credit union movement and various local community co-operative groups, every district has its own identity and supports its own. To sustain and keep our communities viable, we need to support and protect local jobs in those communities. These local communities are the real heartbeat of Ireland. It will mainly be through their spirit that our country will recover. We cannot let them die for want of local employment.

Small businesses are located in every town across the country, the majority employing fewer than ten people. However, it may be forgotten that these businesses make up over 70% of the national employment register - seven out of every ten employees. This is not only urban-based but also necessary to regional employment throughout the whole country. This, in turn, is helping to support other regional jobs in the services and retail sector. If these jobs are lost, they will be very difficult to replace. The onus is on the Government to support these jobs in every way possible. We always hear the welcome major announcements from multinationals about creating jobs, but the small businesses must be remembered too. They are the backbone of our economy. As the Minister of State with responsibility for small business acknowledged, SMEs are the lifeblood of our economy, with approximately 200,000 companies supporting over 800,000 people in employment. That indicates just how important the sector is to national employment and the future recovery of our economy.

One concern for the SME sector is the difficulties it experiences in the operation of the public procurement process. I am glad the Minister of State with responsibility for this area, Deputy Brian Hayes, is in the Chamber. When one sees that this area of government expenditure alone amounted to an estimated €14 billion in 2011, it is imperative that as much scope as possible be offered to the SME sector now to participate in this business. I am particularly concerned about micro-businesses and their difficulties with the public procurement scheme. Will the tendering process for supplying government bodies such as schools and local authorities be reviewed? For example, under the system, government bodies have been instructed to purchase all stationery, paper and office supplies from a single supplier and not from local shops, as was the case in the past. A company must have a turnover of at least €3 million per annum before it can even tender to supply goods to government bodies, schools or local authorities, which effectively rules out most small businesses which are operating throughout the country. Small companies are paying rates to their local councils but are precluded from supplying them with any goods and services.

That is not true. They can.

Yes, but they must have a turnover of over €3 million before they can tender.

I will explain it later.

I hope the Minister of State can supply me with information on this process. The fact that small companies cannot tender gives an unfair advantage to multinationals while, at the same time, stymieing the growth of such small companies and putting jobs in towns and local communities at risk. Meanwhile, non-Irish-based companies are supplying these goods and sending profits abroad. I recently took a price list for stationery items procured by a school in Galway and compared the prices in a local stationery shop. The goods were €200 more expensive than the same products from the local supply shop. I will pass the details on to the Minister of State later for him to examine.

The threshold of a €3 million turnover per annum to qualify for tendering to supply government bodies is completely unrealistic in the current economic climate and needs to be significantly lowered, particularly for small-scale projects. For example, if the local stationery shop, which pays rates to its local county council, wishes to supply that council with envelopes, it would have to prove its business was operating with a turnover in excess of €3 million before it could tender.

That is what it says.

How ridiculous is that figure in the current financial climate? The requirements set down need to be proportionate to the risk and the products or services being delivered. I look forward to the Minister of State's clarification, but this is the information I have been given. I accept that specific criteria are required but SMEs have identified a number of problems in this area, such as requirements relating to previous experience in the public sector, turnover, insurance cover, and the need for a level playing field, thereby affording them a better chance than they may have had previously to secure contracts.

In addition, joint bidding should be made easier. Small businesses should be supported in doing this through the setting up of forums in which companies could collaborate and jointly bid for specific projects. For example, the enterprise boards organise events for industries. The process should be simplified. Complex requirements make it difficult for small companies that do not have the experience or manpower to spend time preparing tender documents. The time a small company must take to go through a tendering document and put in a bid is a major issue. It cost a company I know that employs nine or ten people almost €3,000 to tender for a project and the owner said it was a waste of time because the contract was won by a multinational in Dublin.

What was the project?

To supply furniture to a college. I will give the Minister of State the details and I would appreciate it if he could examine the case.

A mechanism should be provided for companies to engage with contracting authorities, which would also ensure that pre-qualification criteria are not too onerous and are proportionate to the contract in question. An appeals mechanism should be put in place to allow SMEs to contest and challenge decisions in a fair and transparent way. A policy should be introduced to deal with risk aversion among public sector purchasing officers to encourage diversification and the opening up of new supply lines. Where the Government supports local suppliers, local people keep their jobs and additional jobs might be created in the supply companies. This leads to the desired effect of indirect job creation in the wider domestic economy. As current Government policy is very much to stimulate domestic spending to refloat our economy, this is the most desirable consequence for everybody and means a positive outcome for all.

Regarding unfair competition, large companies create a monopoly effect, and this makes participation impossible for small businesses. The consolidation of purchasing power normally results in monopoly suppliers, and this always has an adverse impact on the smaller supplier.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this important debate. Some Opposition Members have been critical of the debate and the Government's proposals, but it provides us with the opportunity to discuss policy and throw out new ideas and thinking on issues. As a Parliament we need to facilitate new thinking and ideas anyway because without that Ireland will not have the ability to change or reform. That is vitally important if we are to curb the current emigration rate of 1,000 people per week. It is important that under our Constitution the Government is the board of directors of Ireland Inc., and it makes the day-to-day decisions, but decisions on laws and developing and teasing out policy should be the responsibility of the House. At the end of the day, the Dáil holds the cheque book and should hold the Government to account.

On the basis of the debate so far, the Government seems to believe it has a God-given right to be correct on every occasion and that the Opposition is always wrong, and vice versa if one is on the Opposition benches. It is imperative that there be constructive opposition on both sides of this Dáil and that we should all act as catalysts for change. This is not necessarily about controlling power but about controlling the decision-making mechanisms to facilitate change, which will result in the development of an economy and a society that can give people a hand up rather than a hand out. That is the responsibility of all of us and not just the members of the Government.

I would like to put a few constructive ideas to the Minister of State, and I am glad he is present because my first proposal comes within his competence. Currently, approximately one in eight people has a disability. The administration of disability organisations is a hot political topic nowadays. Will the Minister of State consider bringing all the section 38 and 39 organisations, particularly the smaller ones, together in one building? This could be called Ability House and it would significantly reduce the overall administration costs of the organisations. Many publicly owned buildings will become surplus to requirements as we downsize government. The one that springs to mind is Holles Street Hospital. The hospital, along with the two adjoining properties at 65 and 66 Lower Mount Street, would be an ideal location for Ability House to bring all the disability organisations together. It is a wheelchair-accessible building in Dublin city centre and is easily accessible by public transport. The State spends approximately €1.6 billion per annum on the disability sector and hundreds of organisations receive funding. The value for money audit of the sector found that 10% of the funding goes into administration and salaries. While all of that cannot be eliminated, some can be by bringing groups together.

How much of the 10% relates to property?

I cannot get a figure for that, but this is not just about the property and rental costs. Finance, human resources and procurement costs could also be reduced by housing all these bodies in one building.

Shared services.

The same concept has been used in Brussels by women's organisations. They are all under the one roof and that has significantly reduced the administrative costs for those organisations, but, more important, co-operation and synergies have developed between them. Bringing all the organisations under one roof to work together and develop synergies would benefit service users and reduce bureaucracy and administration. Services would not be duplicated because organisations could see what each of them does and decide which provides the most effective service - for example, in the area of home help for children with disabilities. They could dovetail their services.

Families are frustrated when they see large corporate buildings being used by disability groups for administration, yet no money is available to provide an additional hour of home help for a child with a disability. Holles Street Hospital will become surplus to requirements in a few years and the building is not designated for any purpose in the short term. Disability organisations could be given temporary accommodation in existing premises that the State is leasing and then be relocated when the hospital becomes vacant.

I have raised on a number of occasions the need to overhaul the administration of the child benefit system. Based on figures supplied by the Department of Social Protection, the State could save between €100 million and €135 million a year while continuing to make an equivalent payment to every family if child benefit for school-going children were abolished and replaced with a school attendance payment. This would immediately eradicate fraud, which costs between €10.5 million and €26 million per year.

We would save approximately €5 million per year on overpayments and €13 million that is being issued to children who are not resident in Ireland. Significantly, we would save between €75 million and €85 million on what the Department calls control savings. The Department of Social Protection issues 600,000 letters per year to families asking them to verify that their son or daughter is still in this country and attending school.

By law a child is not supposed to receive child benefit unless the child is in the education system, yet significant numbers of children - up to one in six - of school-going age are missing from school more than 20 days. If we suspended that payment pending those children's return to school it would act as an incentive to some families to get the child into school on a regular basis. I am not talking about removing that payment because the savings can be made without doing that. It would help to address truancy problems. On top of that it would make a significant saving on a major element of fraud and deception in the existing social welfare child benefit system.

The UK Government has developed a very successful interest-free carbon loan incentive scheme north of the Border and in Wales. If one can show that one can reduce one's carbon consumption, one is given an interest-free loan against that. The calculation is that one receives £1,000 for every one and a half tonnes of carbon saved annually. One can use that money to buy equipment that can reduce one's carbon footprint. A company in my constituency could increase its workforce by 16% if a similar loan scheme were available in this jurisdiction, as in the North. It is a no-brainer because the Irish Government will have to buy carbon credits because we are not meeting our targets set by the EU. Here is a mechanism by which we can reduce that and incentivise employment for high energy users and sustain and, hopefully, develop existing employment. I asked the Minister to investigate the feasibility of introducing such a loan scheme on this side of the Border in line with what is happening in Northern Ireland and Wales. This would level the playing field in the interest of creating additional jobs here.

This week marks the third anniversary of the formation of this Government and the beginning of this Dáil. While many challenges remain, and many of the Deputies in this House have touched on them, there are clear signs of strong and durable progress that has been made in many areas. In this contribution I want to provide an emphasis on what has been achieved by particularly focusing on the role of our Government in Europe and the achievements of our recent Presidency of the European Union. I will touch on what was achieved under our Presidency and refer to progress that has been made and work in the areas of developing Oireachtas scrutiny and oversight of EU legislation and the ways in which we are seeking to improve and deepen our understanding of Europe and its institutions at home. I will conclude with some observations on the main challenges that await the Government within Europe during our next two years in office.

When we came into office, as Deputies will be aware, Ireland had officially become a programme country. We were availing of financial assistance from the European Central Bank, the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund, IMF. This occurred after many weeks of speculation as to how the IMF would arrive and whether it was here. With our international reputation on the floor, we were faced with the very significant job of renegotiating a poor deal with the troika and of achieving a better outcome for Ireland.

The situation when we arrived in office was grim and extremely difficult. Every day, news came in of more factories to close, more businesses going bust and an unemployment figure that went up month after month. Our banks were a mess. Our young homeowners were being strangled by personal debt. Any hope of a brighter future seemed very distant. I am not suggesting that our new Government coming in provided the solution to all of these difficulties. However, with the determination and energy the Government has shown, which mirrored what the Irish people have shown across the same period, progress has been made, achievements have been delivered and we have set out to right some of the wrongs of the previous 14 years and deal with many of he difficulties we faced.

In our time in government we have stemmed the flow of job losses that was crippling our country and sending too many of our young people away. We have put measures in place to give those with jobs certainty about their take-home pay, and for those who do not have jobs we have put great effort in to improve their chances of getting work and a better future. I am still aware of how much more needs to be done in this area, but during our term of office progress has been made. Initiatives such as the Action Plan for Jobs, Pathways to Work, JobBridge and Springboard have helped our country move to a point where it has harnessed and supported the entrepreneurship and creativity of Irish people from a situation where we were losing 7,000 jobs a month to one where 61,000 new jobs were created last year. That is a significant change for a lot of people and families but there are many more who need help.

Our unemployment rate has gone from 15.1% to just over 12% with the live register falling for over 20 months. We must continue to build on this progress. The Government’s commitment to getting that figure down below 10% by 2016 and the country back to full employment by 2020 shows how much more needs to be done. Across that period, the sacrifices made by the Irish people have ensured that although our country was the second to enter into a bailout programme, we were the first to leave. Our bond yields have decreased from well over 14% to under 4%. The Anglo Irish promissory notes have been torn up and we have seen major progress in the cost, efficiency and delivery of public services.

Much of this has been achieved through remaining at the heart of Europe. We have maintained our political engagement and our influence by our willingness to send out a loud and clear message that the Ireland of the recent past is not the Ireland of the future and that both Ireland and Europe must change to achieve a positive and secure future. Last year, much of this was achieved during our seventh Presidency of the Council of the European Union. Under Ireland’s term in that office, agreement was reached on the €960 billion multi-annual financial framework, MFF, which enabled and supported many of the plans that are targeted at dealing with lack of growth and the crisis of unemployment.

The focus on youth employment and the need to ensure training and support for our young people saw the agreement of the youth guarantee, funded through this European budget. It has delivered across Europe an €8 billion package dedicated to tackling the issue of those without a job, training or apprenticeship opportunity, ensuring that is available for them, particularly for people under the age of 24.

In a bid to make Ireland the best small country in the world in which to do business, we have been developing and progressing trade links overseas, including an historic EU-US transatlantic trade and investment partnership, the TTIP programme. Negotiations on this were launched under our Presidency of the Council of the European Union and it has the potential to make a huge change to trade and investment between the European Union and the United States of America. The changed mandate of the European Investment Bank, allowing it to provide support to projects such as the Grangegorman campus, in my constituency of Dublin Central, will provide and has provided direct employment to many local communities and strategically important infrastructure projects. Finally, the delivery of a more robust banking union, through the single supervisory mechanism, will facilitate renewed confidence in the financial system across the eurozone. Early agreement on the single resolution mechanism, SRM, will allow us to resolve issues with our banks in the same way as we monitor them, centrally. These developments also bring us a step closer to dealing with Ireland’s legacy debt issues.

In the same way that our banks must demonstrate transparency, greater transparency is also required in regard to the work of the Oireachtas and its engagement in the work of the Government on European affairs. The Oireachtas must also be allowed engage directly in European affairs and politics. As Members will know from their work on various Oireachtas joint committees, significant changes have been made to deliver more effective parliamentary engagement with EU legislation and policy. Enhanced EU scrutiny by relevant committees ensures that legislative proposals published by the Commission are considered by Oireachtas Members with expertise in the relevant policy area. This is a notable change from the past.

The old European scrutiny committee had responsibility for overseeing policy initiatives, directives and statutory instruments across every area of Government policy. This has changed and now every Oireachtas committee will have the opportunity to understand the proposals and directives and engage in the work from the Commission in their area. This new approach also includes regular committee engagement with Ministers prior to meetings of the Council. For example, Deputy McGrath will be aware that if the Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan, has an engagement with ECOFIN or the Eurogroup, he will brief the committee of which Deputy McGrath is a member on the work and allow the members to put their views. This is an initiative that is taking place across most Oireachtas committees. If the Minister has an engagement with his or her relevant Council of Ministers, he or she will brief the committee and hear the views of committee members on that engagement.

However, there is room for improvement. Scrutiny systems in general should be seen as a work in progress. While we have made changes, and I believe they are working better than in the past, I must make clear that we are examining the current system with a view to improving it during the lifetime of this Dáil. Supporting early and focused engagement by Oireachtas committees in the EU legislative process will address issues of duplication or inefficiency, make it easier and more effective for the Oireachtas and its staff to report on legislative initiatives and changes, and allow better scrutiny and implementation of EU law. I want to examine further how we can allow Deputies and Senators to have an earlier opportunity to become aware of initiatives being undertaken within the European Union. This will allow the Houses to become more aware of their capacity under the Lisbon treaty and give them a better opportunity to exercise those roles and increased powers.

Consulting Departments through the interdepartmental committee on EU engagement, ICEE, which I chair, is also key to ensuring a more integrated role for the Oireachtas in the policy decisions taken at European level. At this stage, I have written to all Oireachtas committees and asked them to provide me with an evaluation and assessment of how they believe these changes are working, whether they are working well and what further changes, if any, they would recommend. While some committees have responded, not all of them have. I look forward to receiving a full update from all of them. I then propose to make suggested changes to committees in the context of work that may arise over the next two years. I will build on the good changes that have been made and deal with the frustrations I am aware Members still have regarding how we conduct this area of our business.

In a bid to deepen the understanding of Europe and bring EU institutions closer to home, a number of initiatives have been undertaken. Through the Blue Star primary schools programme, our young children are taught the benefits of the diversity that comes with membership of the European Union. I hope that learning about other member states - their geography, culture, history, art and languages - will give our young children a better understanding of what it means to be part of the European family and will allow them, at some future point, to have a stronger connection with the European Union.

Another initiative under way is the EU jobs campaign, which is being led by the Department of the Taoiseach and which aims to educate our graduates about the benefits of a career in the Commission, the Parliament or the Council. Ireland has always been very well represented in the EU institutions, but this could change in the coming years due to the fact that a significant number of people face imminent retirement or may move on to other careers. We are now putting measures in place to make Irish graduates more aware of the opportunities and to support them if they decide to apply for these jobs. We will also work within our Civil Service and public services to provide them with opportunities and help to avail of career opportunities within the European institutions. With this in mind, I have been visiting a number of our third level universities, talking to students and reminding them of the opportunities open to them. I have also been explaining the help the Government will provide as they make their way through the recruitment process in a bid to achieve jobs within these institutions. I will continue that work next week in visits to DCU, DIT, the University of Limerick and NUI Maynooth.

The adoption of Europe Week also provides further opportunities for debate on Europe and the work being done there by dedicating a week in May to allow the Dáil to debate European Union priorities for Ireland and by allowing the discussion of legislation and examination of relevant EU issues. This change in how we do business will, hopefully, allow Members, political parties and Independent Members the opportunity to express their views on what is happening within Europe and our engagement with it and provide an opportunity for further debate and engagement.

Looking to the future, we must ensure the jobs and growth agenda remains central to all of our activity at EU level. If the first three years in Government were about restoring stability, the next two - until the end of the Dáil term - are about prosperity and progress and how these can be best achieved to further jobs and growth. To achieve this, we must focus on three priorities. First, we must ensure that an emphasis on job creation and the restoration of economic growth remains strong at European level. We can do this by sustaining the economic recovery, increasing employment and addressing the social dimension. Europe and all of its institutions have a vital role in this through completion of the banking union, through maintaining and developing the role of bodies such as the European Investment Bank and through completion and deepening of the Single Market to allow Irish companies, employees and those who want to gain work the best opportunity possible to access markets abroad and ensure our goods and services can be sold on a level playing field. This must be supported by the other measures, to which the Taoiseach and Tánaiste have referred, in the context of supporting and developing a domestic economy and indigenous companies to ensure they too have greater opportunities to avail of increasing domestic demand at home and deliver more jobs.

Second, we must continue our engagement in the eurozone semester process, which Ireland will participate in for the first time this year, through the Oireachtas and the Government. Stability in the eurozone and the EU financial sector is key. Having a banking system in place that has the confidence of the people, is properly regulated and has the capacity to lend to all kinds of companies, particularly small and medium-sized businesses, is central to increasing the number of jobs at home and getting our people back to work.

Finally, we must advance Irish interests in the wake of many changes that will take place in the second half of this year in the aftermath of the election of a new European Parliament and the appointment of a new Commission. We have to continue to promote an understanding of the EU and to address the concerns felt by the public on issues that matter to them. There will be much change in the institutions involved in all of this work in the second half of the year, and we have to be vigilant and positive in promoting and advocating Irish interests in this period.

This month, in a survey of democracy, The Economist quotes the founders of modern democracy in America, James Madison and John Stuart Mill, one of the leading thinkers in the work to establish representative democracy hundreds of years ago, who regarded the democratic process as "a powerful but imperfect mechanism: something that needed to be [...] constantly oiled, adjusted and worked upon." The European Union is no different. The Government is resolute in its work in this area. We are unwavering in our determination to build on the progress we have made so far in restoring Ireland and building a stronger European Union, one in which Ireland remains at the very heart.

I reiterate the point made by Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, about the importance of accelerating the growth agenda central to the 28 member states and especially the 18 members of the eurozone. The Purchasing Managers' Index, PMI, is one of the key indicators in the eurozone of whether we are beginning to see the emergence of a strong recovery. Today the PMI highlights that the 18 eurozone members have reached a 32-month record for accelerated and strong growth. That is crucial to this country. If ever there was an internationalised economy within the eurozone, it is this one. No country is more privatised, deleveraged and dependent on the success of the eurozone project and of increasing market share. The only yardstick on which this Government should be judged, after three years or five years in government, is whether it is providing for our people a way back to normal work and opportunity. Today's figures show that there are fewer than 400,000 people on the live register - still far too many, but significant progress has been made in the past 12 and 24 months to give opportunities to people who are out of work.

There is renewed confidence in the eurozone as a result of the retrofitting of its economy, although it took a long time to happen. The building blocks of confidence exist, whether it be the banking union, the six-pack, the two-pack or the essential ingredient of the fiscal treaty towards progress. We are beginning to see the emergence of that progress. Long may it continue, because this country depends on it.

I do not intend to use my time to talk much about the Government. The debate this morning was pretty much "as you were". This is a good opportunity for the Opposition to prosecute the Government on what it wants to do for the next 12 months. That requires people on both sides being honest and open. I do not direct that at Deputies Ó Caoláin and Michael McGrath; on the contrary, they are some of the more constructive Members of the House and of their respective parties. There is a need for people to be honest about what we want to do. When people talk about Dáil reform they do not really mean reform; they mean a continuation of the daily Punch and Judy performance. We need fewer theatrics and more substantial work on prosecuting the Government on a range of policy options. Tonight, the Government will accept Deputy Michael McGrath's Private Members' motion. This is the third Private Members' Bill we have accepted. The Government is willing to meet the Opposition halfway and beyond to make solutions the key priority.

Everyone agrees these past few years have been very difficult for the people. We are beginning to see the strong roots of an economic recovery take hold. As long as more people return to work and there is growing confidence in the economy, there is no reason not to believe that better days lie ahead, especially with the confidence that will result from the emergence of the eurozone economy from this very difficult period.

I will go through some of the issues I have worked on in property management, procurement and shared services, and in the Office of Public Works, OPW, which will give colleagues the opportunity to question me about what I will do this year. Property is the third biggest cost for the Government and the OPW has the central role in its management. Three years ago the total amount spent on renting property was €131 million. I am pleased to announce that the cost of property rental last year was €97.5 million. As we get out of leases and encourage the central State property section to put different agencies into one premises, as Deputy Naughten suggested, we can make great savings. That is an example of the reforms we have introduced. We are also taking a whole-of-Government approach and making sure a mandate is in place to deliver this effective reform in office accommodation.

We have focused on procurement. Of the €14 billion spent, we can address approximately €9 billion by way of procurement. We have set up the Office of Government Procurement, OGP, which has a mandate to save €500 million over the next three years by way of better procurement. We are relentlessly pursuing that plan. The objective is to obtain €127 million in savings this year. I am confident that we can obtain much greater savings in procurement by centralising it. The SME sector, which gets the lion's share of this work, could get a bigger share by coming together, having a more sensible approach to insurance and turnover, and making sure it is available to the State by way of e-tenders and better legal documentation. The Government will relentlessly pursue the public procurement agenda over the next few years.

By bringing central Government HR together we have saved over €13 million, or 17% of the total cost of the HR shared service component.

That is the blueprint every other public sector user outside of central government needs to employ. Enormous savings have been introduced in shared services. We are introducing a new payroll shared service centre which will centralise pay and pensions delivery for central government and work is progressing on better financial management capacity across the system. We believe savings of more than €6 million can be obtained by this approach. If we relentlessly pursue our objectives on shared services and procurement, there is no reason we cannot achieve even greater savings.

The total cost of the Irish Presidency of the European Union in 2004 was €110 million. The Government spent a total of €42 million on Ireland's most recent Presidency in 2013. It is largely accepted internationally and domestically that we did a good job during that Presidency. This is an example of the kind of savings that can be achieved when we put our minds to it.

I am happy to report that in terms of the OPW's heritage services, we have done things differently. The first Wednesday initiative has helped to increase visitor numbers by 6% year on year. We have greater involvement with community initiatives across the country. I have asked the private sector to provide funding for concession opportunities and we have received 42 expressions of interest. I will shortly be announcing a list of historical sites that can be used for civil ceremonies. These initiatives will help to generate additional funds that we can invest in second-tier sites around the country. The OPW is doing things entirely differently as a shared service provider for other Departments. An example of this is the provision of Intreo offices on behalf of the Department of Social Protection and the Irish youth justice facility at Oberstown. The OPW is implementing the shared service model across the property and projects portfolio for central government.

It is absolutely right that the Government should be prosecuted on its policies, but it is wide of the mark to suggest we have not fundamentally changed the way in which we deliver public services in a context in which we have taken out 18% of the cost and 30,000 civil servants. Enormous changes have occurred and it is only right that our policies should be prosecuted by way of Opposition engagement in this House.

The Minister of State will be glad to hear that I will do my best to prosecute the Government in a fair and transparent manner. As an Opposition Deputy, I believe in acknowledging where genuine progress has been made. The Government will hold up the exit from the troika programme as an achievement. In implementing the programme for several years, it certainly helped the markets to gain further confidence in Ireland. I submit that the actions of the new President of the ECB, Mario Draghi, in respect of the outright monetary transactions, OMT initiative, were also highly influential in bringing down the cost of borrowing. The Government should take credit for fulfilling a programme that it inherited to allow the country to exit on time and in the manner originally envisaged.

The second major campaign for the Government is on the jobs front. The Minister of State spoke about the progress made in job creation. I warmly welcome the significant increase of 60,000 in the number of people at work over a 12-month period. I leave it to independent commentators and those who are creating the jobs to comment on whether they are the direct result of Government policy, part of the economic cycle or in spite of Government policy. I was delighted to hear the announcement today that a further 150 jobs were to be created in Cork. All of us want to see people return to work because unemployment remains far too high. In addition to the 400,000 on the live register, more than 80,000 people are participating in various activation programmes and cannot be regarded as fully employed. Thousands of people who were formerly self-employed have failed means tests and as a result, are not recorded by the State as being out of work. Tens of thousands have left our shores for economic reasons. I hope many of them will have opportunities to return to the country to rebuild their lives here. It is a shame that we have lost so many young people, albeit I hope for only a short period. Their loss is felt in communities around the country, particularly in rural communities for which they are the lifeblood of community groups and sports clubs. The Government could be doing better on the main measures of employment. There is a lack of action on issues that affect businesses, SMEs in particular, such as local authority rates, climbing rents, spiralling energy costs, red tape and the lack of credit. The Government needs to do more work on all of these issues because they are barriers to employment.

For several weeks the Government has suggested income tax will be reduced as early as the next budget. The inescapable conclusion from recent announcements and the debate in the last two days is that the Government is firmly in election mode, with an initial focus on the European and local elections on 23 May and an eye on the next general election. What makes me cynical about the promise to reduce income tax is not the substance of the proposal because we all would welcome any reduction in the income tax burden, particularly on young families, but the fact that the Taoiseach made the promise before the decision to take €2,500 out of the pockets of single parents by way of an income tax hike had taken effect. Nobody in this House can predict with certainty whether the State will have the financial capacity to deliver on that promise in October. There will be a further adjustment of €2 billion in the next budget, but this carrot was being dangled before the measures announced last October had even taken effect.

The Government claims that it has not increased income tax rates. It has largely but not entirely honoured its promise in respect of income tax bands, credits and rates; however, it has increased the tax take in a sneaky way by implementing 13 separate increases in the taxation of income. These include the universal social charge being put on a cumulative basis, an increase in DIRT to 41%, maternity benefit being taxed, the abolition of the PRSI allowance, an increase in minimum PRSI for the self-employed, the abolition of the PRSI block exemption for income from trade or professions, the restriction of the one parent tax credit to the principal carer, the restriction of tax relief on medical insurance premiums and the abolition of top slicing relief.

Those are merely some of the measures, and the way in which the Government has taken a greater amount of tax from people's income, albeit not directly in relation to tax rates, bands or credits, except in the case of single parents, many of whom have lost up to €2,500 a year.

DIRT tax, while not a tax on employment income, is an income tax and the massive hike, from 33% to 41%, in budget 2014 is another example of short-term and shortsighted action on the part of the Minister. While the aim of reducing income tax is laudable, when it comes from a Government which is committed to taking a further €2 billion out of the economy in October's budget the people will listen to those promises with a pinch of salt. The truth is that nobody knows for sure whether the capacity will be there to deliver on that commitment.

The local property tax has been a direct hit on those families the Government claims it wants to help. The Government doubled the local property tax while at the same time reneging on its commitment to ensure that 80% of the funds raised are spent locally.

The Government has so far introduced three regressive budgets. The last budget, in particular, targeted older people and young people who are out of work. It has been a consistent pattern of the Government that those with the least capacity to carry the burden have been the hardest hit through the measures that have been implemented.

The medium-term economic strategy set goals in areas, including debt sustainability, financing and labour market policy, but was short on specifics. The Government proceeded with the sale of Bord Gáis, in my opinion, massively undervaluing it, but the projects the privatisation programme are supposed to fund, such as the children's hospital, are stalled. The private medical insurance market is disintegrating directly as a result of Government taxes and charges.

The personal insolvency regime is not dealing with anywhere near the number of cases that it was intended to deal with because of the way in which it was established. The social dividend which was promised from NAMA is not being delivered because more than half of the properties it identified for social housing have been turned down by local authorities.

The legacy bank debt issue dates back to the June 2012 summit. The Government needs to work much harder to bring about the implementation of its outcome, which was heralded at the time by the Tánaiste as a game changer for this country. My party wants to see the retroactive recapitalisation of Irish banks proceed in line with the agreement that has been reached and there are important questions that need to be answered in that respect.

The Government promised, but has so far singularly failed, to deliver a strategic investment bank which would be focused on lending to enterprises, especially SMEs, in this country. According to Central Bank statistics, the amount of lending to SMEs and those wishing to buy a home for the first time continues to decline. In the banking sector, there is a dearth of competition and a far greater effort needs to be made to introduce additional competition. My party has called for a White Paper on the banking sector so that we can have some sense of an overall strategy and what sources of credit SMEs and individuals can realistically tap into.

The speeches delivered by the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste yesterday were remarkable for their lack of any vision for a more equal Ireland and for a fairer society. There was a recital of dubious statistics and assertions, repeated over and over to try to convince themselves and the public that there is a difference between the Government's so-called recovery strategy and that pursued by the Fianna Fáil Government before it. The Fine Gael-Labour Government is trying to sell a spurious narrative that the austerity programme it adopted when it came to office is not essentially the same austerity programme imposed by Fianna Fáil before it left office. Of course, it is a false narrative. Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Labour Party are the Irish troika, the parties of austerity.

In my first contribution to the 31st Dáil, I asked what was the timeframe the Fine Gael and Labour drafters had in mind when they drew up the programme for Government. Their eyes were not fixed on the next five years, let alone the next generation. Their target was Sunday afternoon, 6 March 2011, exactly three years ago tomorrow, when they had to get the document carried at the Labour Party conference. In my view, and the view of many others politically involved and observers of politics generally, that was a day of shame for the Labour Party.

The people voted for change, but Fine Gael and Labour were at one with the outgoing Government on their basic flawed economic strategy, they put it into the programme for Government and then they had the brass neck to call this "a democratic revolution".

Where are we after three years of this so-called "democratic revolution"? We are living in a country and a society deeply damaged by mass unemployment and mass emigration, by crippling household debt, by persistent poverty for a large section of our people, by a dire shortage of social housing, and by the deliberate erosion and downgrading of public services, especially health services.

Behind all the bluster from the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste about jobs is the sordid reality of what is now on offer to the young unemployed - €20 per week on top of one's dole for working 19 hours per week for a local authority Gateway scheme. This is called activation. The term "activation" is insulting in this instance because it suggests that the unemployed are somehow inactive and not actively seeking and desperately needing real work for real wages. I do not believe that is the case.

One of the ways young people get activated is in education and training, but the Government has put up barriers to education and training. The education Minister, Deputy Quinn, has broken his pledge not to increase college fees. Worse than that, he is now penalising young apprentices with his imposition of student service charges on them. Only this week, a colleague of mine was contacted by a father whose son has nearly completed his four-year apprenticeship and is ready to sit his final exams, but he will receive no qualification if he does not come up with the €1,400 charge now imposed by the Minister, and this family simply cannot afford it.

Of course, this is only one of many broken pledges from Fine Gael and Labour. Most notoriously, Labour pledged to protect child benefit and then proceeded to cut it. Fine Gael pledged to reduce the tax burden on struggling families and individuals, but has heaped more on them.

The real Tánaiste in this Government is not the Labour leader, Deputy Gilmore, but the Taoiseach's fixer and party bouncer - he may even relish the terms - the Minister, Deputy Hogan. He has presided over the imposition of the household charge and the so-called "local" property tax. Of course, it is not local because the funds are being retained by the central Government, and it is deeply unfair because it targets the family home with no regard whatsoever for ability to pay.

The Government takes the people for fools. It is waiting until after the local and European elections on 23 May before sending out the bills for water charges. Before we even know what the charges for householders will be, the Minister, Deputy Hogan, has poured millions of euro into the Uisce Éireann quango, complete with overpaid executives and massive fees for consultants. I believe the electorate will give Deputy Hogan and the Government their answer in no uncertain terms on 23 May. That is the real poll that we all now face.

Speaking earlier today in this debate, the Minister for Health, Deputy Reilly, promised public consultation on his plans for universal health insurance. It seems now that the row between Deputy Reilly and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, has resulted in the can being kicked down the road yet again.

The programme for Government states:

A White Paper on Financing UHI will be published early in the Government's first term and will review cost-effective pricing and funding mechanisms for care and care to be covered under UHI.

We are over half way through the Government's term of office and there is no White Paper published.

It should be noted also that the Government now refers to the White Paper on universal health insurance, and "funding" has been taken out of the title. From what has emerged during the war of leaks between the Minister for Health, Deputy Reilly, and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, it seems the White Paper contains no costings or estimates. In all of this, the general public and their elected representatives have been treated with contempt by the Government. The White Paper, or elements or versions of it, have been extensively leaked. Some journalists have obviously seen or obtained copies yet we are still denied access and the White Paper remains unpublished.

It is reported in a news article in The Irish Times today that the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children will hold public hearings on UHI. I am a member of the committee, as is the Acting Chairman, Deputy Catherine Byrne, and this is the first I have heard of any such proposal for public hearings of our committee. At least to the time of this contribution, our committee has received no communication from the Minister or the Department. The same news article states that a proposal for a citizens' assembly to facilitate consultation on health reform – another proposal that we have not seen – has been shelved yet the same paper’s editorial states the opposite. Are we looking at a scenario where the Minister and the Department will ask the Oireachtas committee to do their work for them and shield them from direct contact with the public whom the Minister allegedly wishes to consult?

To add insult to injury, the outcome of the public consultation has already been predetermined. The public consultation is not to consider whether the proposal of the Minister, Deputy Reilly, for UHI based on competing private for-profit health insurance companies is the appropriate way to reform and fund our health system. Instead the agenda has, apparently, already been set and it is to determine what will be in the so-called basket of care covered under UHI. I take this opportunity to demand of this Minister and this Government the immediate publication of the White Paper on universal health insurance, the publication of estimated costings for UHI, real public consultation not confined to the Oireachtas health committee but including a citizens' health assembly which would receive the views and input of people throughout the country, and for consultation not to be confined to options within the Minister’s proposed UHI scheme, but to examine other options of reforming and funding our health care system.

In Sinn Féin we are very clear what we bring to the debate about health care reform. We demand an end to the savage health cuts that are causing misery in our health system. We want to see the development of a decent health service based on fairness and on the rights of all to the best possible health care that we, as a society, can provide. We strongly advocate a universal health care system with equal access for all based on need and need alone. We want to see the two-tier public-private system abolished so that no sick person can be left behind. The Minister’s fundamentally flawed private insurance based model will not achieve that. The current system is both inequitable and inefficient. Many people are paying on the double for health services through tax, PRSI and private health insurance. Many are paying through direct fees to GPs and hospitals because they do not qualify for the medical card. Many very ill people are losing or being denied a medical card. The public health system is carrying the subsidised private system on its back and what we need is a new beginning in health care.

Narcissus was a vain young man in Greek mythology who fell in love with his own reflected image in a pool of water.

That sounds like a politician on the Opposition side.

So overcome was he with admiration that he gazed, enraptured, into the pool hour after endless hour. Our very own political Narcissus, the Fine Gael-Labour Party Government, has set aside no fewer than three days in Parliament to gaze upon, and marvel at, its own image but when our Irish Narcissus describes an image of great beauty we realise just how deluded and disingenuous he is. Unfortunately for the Irish people, between the reality of what this Government represents and the distorted image of what the Government says it represents, falls a huge shadow.

Narcissism is a psychological condition and it involves an excessive self focus, and lack of empathy for others, haughty body language and a tendency to brag and exaggerate achievements. These are some of the undesirable characteristics I have read in the literature. The Government is deeply affected by the condition of political narcissism. Far from the heroic characters they have painted themselves to be, the Fine Gael-Labour Party coalition has for three years capitulated in the most cowardly fashion in front of the threats and demands of European finance capital as represented by the troika of the European Union, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund. They represent world capitalism and particularly finance capitalism. The Fine Gael-Labour Party Government has capitulated utterly to the sharks of European financial markets that dictate that the catastrophic private debts of banks, speculators and bondholders be landed on the shoulders of working people, the pensioners and the poor in this State.

The resulting austerity policy has brought us mass unemployment, mass emigration and a raft of debilitating austerity taxes that have wreaked havoc on people's living standards and on the domestic economy generally yet we have been subjected for some time to an orgy of spin and media manipulation to give the impression that economic recovery is thriving and that the corner has been turned. We have promises made by Government Ministers of tax cuts in the next period. The impression being given, that life has changed, is palpably false. Yesterday, in spite of himself, the Taoiseach got it right when he stated that too many people do not feel any improvement in their daily lives. That is the reality of the daily struggle for many working class people. There are 90,000 families on the housing list, with scarcely a new home being built by the Government, yet Fine Gael and Labour throw those needing homes to the cruel mercies of the landlords. Families facing homelessness and finding no places to rent, with whatever is available being completely out of their reach and cuts to rent supplement, are enduring suffering, pressure and hardship.

The Minister of State, Deputy Hayes, referred to having the most privatised economy in Europe. He seemed to think that is something to boast about. In fact, the neoconservative policies have given us a situation of immense suffering for our people, not least in the housing sector. An emergency programme of good quality State homes built in proper places is essential. When we analyse the job figures that are being spun, we will find a weak basis. We want to see massive job creation but investment is still in a state of collapse and the Government refuses to invest by taxing the wealthy. This would create the type of jobs we need. Instead, we have the shameful exploitation of young people on a range of exploitative schemes.

Tax cuts are being promised, as they have been loudly by Ministers in recent days, while new taxes are being piled on, including on people's homes through the so-called property tax and the new water tax that the Government wants to charge from October. That is deeply cynical. However, people will see through it. In the local and European Parliament elections on 23 May, the parties of austerity must be harshly punished by working-class people. The Anti-Austerity Alliance, of which the Socialist Party is a part, will run more than 40 candidates. In the Dublin constituency, Socialist Party candidate Paul Murphy will be a champion against austerity. He and other genuine anti-austerity candidates must be supported to teach a very harsh lesson to the Government. The election of a significant number of anti-austerity candidates to councils and the European Parliament will serve as a platform for a new campaign against the worst and ongoing effects of austerity. An objective is to end the new attack of water charges – for example, by a mass campaign of peaceful civil disobedience, of non-payment, as happened in the 1980s and 1990s, thus forcing the then Fine Gael–Labour Party Government to abolish the charges in question – in favour of a shift towards progressive taxation on super wealth and major corporations, in addition to investment to reboot an economy that has been devastated by austerity. This would create hundreds of thousands of jobs and the wealth with which our services could be repaired and developed, thereby resulting in a decent life for our people.

Capitalism is increasingly a diseased system on a European basis. If it were not, there would not be 26 million people unemployed, including millions of youths, within the European Union. The right-wing neoconservative policies, the right-wing social democrats and the bureaucratised trade union leaders have all failed by capitulating to this system. Therefore, a massive change and a new socialist alternative are required whereby wealth, the financial institutions and manufacturing would be publicly owned and democratically run to create the millions of jobs that are needed throughout Europe.

Mar fhocal scoir, táimid i lár trí lá d'éirí in airde agus féinmholadh ón Rialtas maidir leis na polasaithe atá á gcur i gcrích acu. Is í fhírinne an scéil seo, i ndáiríre, ná gur tubaiste mhór do mhuintir na hÉireann iad na polasaithe déine atá curtha i bhfeidhm le cúig bliana anuas - le trí bliana anuas i gcás an Rialtais seo - agus atá freagrach as an dífhostaíocht, an imirce agus an deacracht atá sa saol náisiúnta. Caithfear athrú pholasaí a chur i gcrích, deireadh a chur leis an déine agus feachtais in aghaidh na déine agus na gcánacha nua a eagrú. Ba cheart athrú eacnamaíochta agus polaitíochta a chur i bhfeidhm ar mhaithe le tromlach na ndaoine, seachas lucht na mbannaí agus na baincéirí móra faoi mar atá i láthair na huaire.

I intend to address my justice brief first and thereafter defence. As Deputies will know, the programme for Government sets out a substantial and broad agenda for reform in the area of justice and equality. We have made great progress in implementing this agenda in the first three years of the Government's term of office and we have achieved unprecedented reform in that time. It is my aim, with the enormous support I receive from the officials in my Department and the Attorney General and her officials, to continue with this momentum this year and into 2015. In the time I have available today it will not be possible to detail all of my priorities for the year ahead, so I will confine myself to what I believe would be regarded as our major initiatives.

The first issue I want to turn to is the court of appeal. One of my Department's core priorities is to facilitate access to justice for all citizens. Currently, all cases appealed from the High Court must go directly to the Supreme Court, and this has long been a cause of concern, particularly in the civil law area, where there has been an exponential growth in litigation. The Supreme Court's caseload has become increasingly unsustainable and there is a growing backlog. Although considerable efforts are being made to manage the waiting time, the number of appeals dealt with in the final quarter of 2013 by comparison with the same period in 2012 was up by almost 50%, and the average waiting time for a case to be heard by the Supreme Court is currently approximately four years. This delay is harmful to the interests of individual litigants, does the international reputation of the State no favours and has negative economic implications.

In last October's referendum, the people gave their overwhelming approval to the establishment of a court of appeal. Last week, Government approval was obtained for the drafting, as a priority, of the necessary legislation and the General Scheme of the Bill was published. It was agreed that Mr. Justice Seán Ryan should be named as president-designate of the new court. A Courts Service team is in place to ensure that all of the essential supports, such as staffing, accommodation and ICT, will be in place when the court is operational, which I hope will be by October this year.

The creation of a court of appeal will be one of the most significant developments in the justice area since the foundation of the State. It will lead to a significant and long-overdue reform of our courts system.

I will now reference the children and family relationships Bill. The Government committed to modernising and reforming outdated elements of family law. This is a matter of great personal interest to me as a practitioner in the field over many years, and one that is of tremendous social importance. In January of this year, I published the general scheme of the Bill. The overriding principle and ethos of the Bill is to protect the best interests of the child and to ensure we have a legal architecture that prescribes clear rules to determine a child's legal parentage.

I will outline the components of my legislative proposals. The first is assigning parentage in relation to children born through assisted reproduction. These children should have the same security in their legal relationships with their parents as all other children have with their biological parents. Children born through surrogacy should also have absolute clarity as to their legal parentage. The Bill will provide for this.

The second component concerns recognising surrogacy, subject to certain conditions. I intend to provide for altruistic surrogacy and provide a legal framework protecting all the parties to an arrangement.

The third is updating and overhauling the law on guardianship of children. It will ensure that non-marital fathers cohabiting with the mother of their child will automatically be guardians of their children. It is worth noting, from the most recent statistics published, that 20% of children currently born in the State are born to cohabiting unmarried couples. Overall the number of children born outside marriage is 35%. Adults in loco parentis to a child, such as a step-parent or a parent's civil partner, may, under the Bill’s provisions, seek guardianship of a child to reflect the reality of their parenting role.

The fourth is simplifying and extending access applications. When parents split up, unfortunately major difficulties can arise concerning children maintaining relationships with members of the extended family, in particular on the side of the non-custodial parent. Members of a child's wider family, such as grandparents, who wish to seek access to the child through the courts must currently undertake a cumbersome two-stage application process. My proposals will streamline this so only a single application will be required, and it will extend to other family members.

The fifth is ensuring compliance with access arrangements. The Bill provides the courts with new remedies where a parent refuses, without good reason, to comply with court-ordered access. My focus is on the rights of the child, where feasible, to care and association with both parents.

Sixth is extending maintenance obligations to certain persons who have been in loco parentis to the child and have previously contributed to maintaining the child. This would include, for example, a cohabitant or civil partner of a child's parent who has lived with the child and had a strong parental role. The extension of court powers to make lump sum orders to the benefit of children so that all children, regardless of the circumstances of their birth, will be treated equally will be addressed in the Bill.

The last is changing the law on adoption so that a civil-partnered couple may apply to adopt a child jointly in the same way a married couple may currently apply. Up to now, single individuals have been able to adopt children as individuals irrespective of sexual orientation, but a gay couple currently cannot do so jointly as civil partners. This makes no sense and it is not in the interest of a child that only one of the persons truly parenting it has parental legal rights and obligations. Of course, eligibility to adopt does not confer a right to adopt a child as the suitability of eligible applicants must be assessed.

I have referred the draft Bill to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality for further consultation and have asked its members to report by the Easter recess. I intend to proceed with the legislation as quickly as possible given the extensive scope of the reforms planned, and my aim is to have it enacted within the year.

The next issue I wish to discuss is the review of judicial appointments. The current judicial appointments process has been in place since the enactment of the Courts and Court Officers Act 1995. Having closely observed over the last three years how the existing system of judicial appointments is operating, I have formed the view that reforms and improvements can be made. These will render the system more transparent and accountable, while also ensuring the independence of the Judiciary is fully protected. In December 2013, as a first step, I initiated a public consultation process and submissions were invited on the judicial appointments process. I was concerned that the consultation process should involve not only members of the Judiciary and the legal profession generally but also engage the broader public who benefit daily in innumerable ways from the protection of an independent Judiciary. The review is also examining how judicial appointments are made in other similar jurisdictions.

I believe the current statute under which the Judicial Appointments Advisory Board operates requires change and that the Government should get greater assistance in the making of judicial appointments. For reasons of political accountability, I am satisfied that the current constitutional arrangements which require that ultimately it is the responsibility of the Government to recommend to the President those to be appointed to the Judiciary should remain as they are. They have stood the test of time and are very much in the public interest. This position is both informed and supported by previous work undertaken by the Constitution Review Group and this House on judicial appointments.

The review is at an early stage, but in considering reform we should think outside the box. For example, should legal academics, among others, be included in the Judicial Appointments Advisory Board? Should there be more non-legal members of the board? Should academic lawyers teaching at the highest level in third level institutions who are not practising barristers or solicitors be eligible for judicial appointment? What steps should be considered if we are serious about promoting equality and diversity in the Judiciary? Is there a need to revise the composition, role and remit of the Judicial Appointments Advisory Board? Should the board be required to interview judicial applicants before recommending individuals to the Government or should an interview remain a discretionary option? Many of these questions are addressed in the submissions I have received to date and they are now under consideration in my Department. I intend to bring forward proposals, including legislative changes, when the review is completed.

The Legal Services Regulation Bill has completed Committee Stage. Work continues in preparation for Report Stage with a view to the Bill's early enactment and the establishment of the new legal services regulatory authority by the end of the year. The Bill now contains enhanced provisions which will ensure the independence of the new regulatory authority in terms of its functions and appointment through nominating bodies. It also contains strengthened provisions relating to the regulation of new legal business structures which will provide more competitively priced options for consumers of legal services. A far more transparent legal costs regime is provided for, augmented by a modernised office of legal costs adjudicators which will replace the Office of the Taxing Master. The new regulatory authority will deal independently with complaints about professional misconduct of solicitors or barristers and those found to be engaged in serious misconduct will also be made amenable to the new legal practitioners disciplinary tribunal.

As someone who for many years campaigned for the introduction of a DNA database, on assuming office I made it a priority to introduce comprehensive legislation to facilitate the greater use of DNA in the fight against crime and secure the resources to establish the required DNA database. The Criminal Justice (Forensic Evidence and DNA Database System) Bill 2013 fulfils the commitment in the programme for Government to provide for the establishment of a DNA database and replaces the existing legal framework for the collection of forensic evidence from suspects, putting it on a statute-only footing. I believe this is the most important Bill that will be brought before the House during the lifetime of the Government in terms of the provision of assistance for An Garda Síochána in the investigation of serious crime and identifying serial offenders across a broad range of areas, including homicide, rape, sexual and other serious assaults and burglary. It will also assist in finding and identifying missing or unknown persons. In cases in which there is an alleged miscarriage of justice, it might provide crucial information to assist in determining whether an individual has been wrongly convicted. The passage of the Bill will facilitate the State in meeting its obligations under EU law and any international agreement which requires the State to maintain DNA and fingerprint databases for criminal investigation purposes. Importantly, it will facilitate co-operation with other police forces regarding criminals who travel from one country to another to engage in criminality.

The DNA database will be managed and maintained by the Forensic Science Laboratory which will be renamed Forensic Science Ireland. It is intended that all the resources and infrastructure required to establish it will be in place by the time the Bill is enacted. The Bill provides for the establishment of an independent DNA database system oversight committee which will oversee the management and operation of the system. Committee Stage will be taken next week and I hope the Bill will receive continued support, with a view to having it enacted as soon as possible.

I will briefly reference matters relating to An Garda Síochána. It is of crucial importance that public confidence be maintained in An Garda Síochána and the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, GSOC. As Members are aware, the Cabinet took a decision on 18 February to request the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality to review the effectiveness of the legislation related to oversight of An Garda Síochána, as I advised the Dáil last week. I have written to the committee Chairman to ask that he include this very important matter in the committee's work programme. I expect the committee to hold such hearings as it deems necessary and that I will be advised, in due course, of any change it may recommend to the current legislation. I look forward to receiving its recommendations in this matter. Of course, a major priority for 2014 is recruitment of new members to the Garda and I look forward to the first new recruits in five years entering the Garda College in Templemore by next July.

I turn now to the common travel area between Ireland and the United Kingdom. Priority will continue to be given to the development and enhancement of the common travel area arrangement between Ireland and the United Kingdom. Work is well advanced on the development of reciprocal short-stay common travel area visa arrangements which will allow tourists and business visitors to travel to the common travel area, with first arrival in either jurisdiction, and thereafter to travel freely between Ireland and the United Kingdom on the basis of a single visa. The new visa arrangements, planned to commence later this year, will represent a fundamental change in the operation of the common travel area with the potential to attract many thousands of additional visitors to Ireland.

Preparation for the publication of a new immigration, residence and protection Bill is under way in conjunction with the offices of the Attorney General and the Parliamentary Counsel. The Bill will be different from its predecessors, taking account of current Government policy, developments since the publication of the 2010 Bill and also relevant court judgments. It is my intention to obtain Cabinet agreement for publication of the Bill later this year. The Bill will, among other things, provide for the introduction of a single application procedure for the investigation of all grounds for protection and any other ground presented by applicants seeking to remain in the State. This will provide protection for applicants with a final decision on their application in a more straightforward and timely fashion and, I hope, substantially reduce the number of applications to the courts for judicial review and reduce the length of time people spend in direct provision accommodation. The Bill will also provide for an independent appeals process for immigration cases.

The Constitutional Convention reported in July 2013 with a strong recommendation in favour of amending the Constitution to make explicit provision for same-sex marriage. The Government decided on 5 November 2013 that a referendum on same-sex marriage would be held in the first half of 2015. The respectful and open manner in which the Constitutional Convention debated the question of whether same-sex marriage should be provided for in the Constitution was notable. Work is under way within my Department and in consultation with the Attorney General in preparing the wording for the proposed constitutional amendment required. I welcome the overwhelming support at my party's Ard-Fheis last Saturday for this fundamentally important constitutional change. I also welcome indications given to date that it will have substantial support from Members on all sides of the House. It is my hope that in the period leading up to the holding of the referendum we will have a considered, measured, informed and calm public debate.

There is a commitment in the programme for Government to the establishment of a distinct, separate and integrated system of family courts aimed at streamlining family law court processes, making them more efficient and less costly and encouraging the use of alternative dispute resolution mechanisms, where possible, to resolve issues of family conflict. Work is being undertaken to develop a concept for the family court which utilises the existing court structure, while ending the current jurisdictional fragmentation and providing for a unified and comprehensive approach. It envisages the exercise of an ex parte and-or emergency jurisdiction at District Court level to ensure ready accessibility, together with the District Court possibly dealing with straightforward and non-contentious applications that require court orders, with the main bulk of family law substantive cases, including those relating to contested divorce and separation, at Circuit Court level and more complex cases being dealt with at family High Court level. I envisage a single point of entry to the family court at all levels, with the use of standard documentation and electronic filing mechanisms, where possible, and, overall, a substantial reduction in legal costs incurred across a broad range of contested family disputes that require court resolution.

It is intended that there will be a cohort of family law judges who will have substantial expertise in this area of law and access to ongoing professional development in the area. I also envisage integrated family court offices at regional level which will have ancillary facilities for the assistance of litigants, including ready access to alternative dispute resolution.

It was originally anticipated that a referendum would be required to establish the new family court structure. From work we have undertaken, it appears this may now not be necessary and that we may be able to establish the new court as a separate and independent court structure within the parameters of the existing Article 34 of the Constitution. We are fully exploring this option and I believe it is likely that provision for the new family court structure will be prescribed by way of legislation rather than requiring constitutional amendment. Work will be advanced, in consultation with the Judiciary and the Attorney General, with the aim of publishing a general scheme for the family law courts Bill in the autumn and of enacting the Bill in the first half of 2015. If, ultimately, it is considered that a referendum is required, it is envisaged that it would take place in 2015, in view of the Government's decision that 2014 should be a referendum-free year.

I now turn to the Department of Defence and our Defence Forces. The Department of Defence and the Defence Forces continue to deliver a broad range of outputs at home and overseas. On a day-to-day basis the Defence Forces undertake a wide range of essential operations ranging from sea fishery protection to cash escorts and from providing an air ambulance service to conducting explosive disposals. This is work that frequently goes unseen, but this should not detract from its importance. Defence Forces capabilities are also utilised to provide a range of contingent supports to the civil authority, such as during the recent severe weather events.

Defence Forces personnel are serving in 14 different missions throughout the world, and participation in all overseas missions is reviewed on an ongoing basis. Last week I secured Cabinet approval for the continued deployment of members of the Permanent Defence Force to the European Union Training Mission in Mali, EUTM Mali, for a further period of 12 months. This is subject to an appropriate decision of the Council of the European Union extending the mission beyond its current mandate and subject to ongoing review. The mission's current mandate expires in May 2014.

The continuing priority will be to ensure the Defence Forces retain the capabilities to fulfil all roles assigned by Government at home and overseas. In recent years there have been a number of key initiatives, all of which have contributed to maintaining the Defence Forces' operational capabilities to the greatest extent possible within a reduced resource envelope. In 2014, there will be continued recruitment to the Permanent Defence Force to maintain strength levels within a ceiling of 9,500 personnel. There will also be recruitment to the Reserve Defence Force within its revised strength ceiling of 4,069 personnel. Announcements and advertisements for recruitment for both the Permanent Defence Force and the Reserve Defence Force will be formally announced this Friday.

The replacement of key major equipment for the Permanent Defence Force remains a priority. The provision of two new offshore patrol vessels is well advanced, with the first ship, to be named the Samuel Beckett, due for delivery in the coming weeks. The second, to be named the James Joyce, is scheduled for delivery in 2015. These modern new vessels, combined with a continuous process of refurbishment and repair on the other vessels in the fleet, will ensure the Naval Service continues to meet the required operational capability. Within available funding, decisions to replace other equipment across the Defence Forces will prioritise the maintenance of required operational outputs.

I wish to briefly mention international peace and security matters. In relation to the EU Common Security and Defence Policy, the Heads of State and Government, at their meeting in December 2013, set out an ambitious programme of work to enhance the capacity of the EU to uphold the rule of law and to support the UN. A discussion on the implementation of this programme took place approximately ten days ago at a meeting of EU defence Ministers in Athens in which I participated. My Department and the Defence Forces will work in collaboration with partners and with the institutions of the EU to advance the agenda set by the Heads of State and Government. The maintenance of capability and interoperability with partners on UN missions is supported through our participation in the Partnership for Peace. Priorities in this regard will be reflected in our partnership goals for 2014.

The preparation of a new White Paper on defence is a key priority for the coming year. This will shape and underpin defence provision for the next decade. The Green Paper on Defence, published in July 2013, initiated a public consultation process which recently concluded. As part of this process 122 written submissions were received and a number of individuals and organisations were invited to meet civil and military representatives of the Department and the Defence Forces to discuss matters of interest in their particular submissions. There has also been engagement with Departments and international organisations with a particular emphasis on future defence and security challenges.

There will be ongoing engagement with Departments over the coming months. The White Paper must ensure that in the medium and longer term there is a deeper understanding of Ireland's participation in the collective security response to emerging challenges to our security. Also, it must ensure that Ireland has effective capabilities to deal with the range of defence roles required by Government, having regard to potential challenges to our security as these may emerge into the future. I intend to bring a draft White Paper to Government for consideration in the latter half of this year.

The Department of Defence and the Defence Forces have pursued an ambitious reform agenda within the defence sector, which has ensured the continued delivery of defence outputs during a period of significant resource constraints. I would like to acknowledge the hard work and dedication of personnel across the defence organisation who have made this possible and who continue to work towards improving service delivery. In this context, the Department of Defence is playing a central role in the broader public service modernisation agenda, with the Department's office in Renmore having been selected as a centre for payroll shared services and financial shared services. The Department is also fully engaging with the next phase of the Civil Service finance management shared services project, and the Department of Defence will transition to HR shared services between June and October this year.

It is hard to believe it has been three years since we took office. Over that time we have witnessed the transformation of the economy from a basket case to one which has one of the highest growth projections for this year in Europe. Where 7,000 jobs a month were being lost, 5,000 are now being created. Getting here certainly was not easy. The damage done by the previous Administration necessitated years of relentless work and sacrifices, which will continue. The sacrifices and struggles many Irish families have had to endure over recent years can never be understated.

Getting a country out of effective bankruptcy is never an easy task, and I take this opportunity to acknowledge those responsible for the recovery, namely, the Irish people. They gave the Government a mandate, but it has been Irish entrepreneurs, innovators, retailers, union leaders, public servants and others who have shown leadership, innovation and courage in some of our darkest days.

The work continues, and this is not the time for self-congratulations or mutual backslapping; let us not forget there is a lot more ahead of us. Along with economic progress, we are reshaping Ireland socially. We have to build a fair Ireland where wealth levels will not determine a person's right to access education and health care. The first step will be free GP care, eventually leading to universal health insurance. Added to this, the Constitutional Convention is preparing a programme of socially progressive legislation. Next year I look forward to campaigning and winning a referendum concerning the rights of gay men and women to marry. I know it will not be easy and there will be those who will stand in our way, but if the past three years have taught me anything it is that by sticking to one's guns, remaining focused and ignoring the supposed day-to-day crises, one can effect real change and make this country a better, fairer place. This is the true measure of any Government.

There are other areas in which we must progress. The insolvency regime was recently established, but it has yet to make the impact on the mortgage and debt crisis that is needed. Too many Irish people are still suffering under the financial and psychological weight of unaffordable mortgage repayments and negative equity. I come from that generation.

Long-term unemployment remains too high; too many of our people have left the country. However, unemployment figures are heading in the right direction. Figures today show the live register is below 400,000 and at its lowest level since May 2009. l can list endless statistics showing how the country's fortunes have improved, but our ambition is to make these more than just statistics in the news, and to improve in tangible ways people's confidence in their local economy, increase retail spending, bring about a revival in the retail and construction sectors, continue to attract foreign direct investment and continue to revive the tourism sector.

I will now speak about the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport and those elements directly under my brief. I am delighted to tell the House that all of the commitments on public transport in the programme for Government have been honoured. Detailed programmes of reform are well under way in taxi regulation, cycling policy, rural transport provision and improving the commuting experience through smart technology. We have been living through one of the greatest financial crises public transport has ever seen in this country. This is neither a dramatic nor headline-catching statement; it is simply a fact. I had to introduce legislation to increase CIE's borrowing ceiling and the company has faced serious, crippling issues. We are still far from out of the woods on this front but we have made huge progress.

However, by targeting investment at real, tangible, technological achievements and advances, the Government has transformed the public transport experience and signs of growth are re-emerging every day as a result of all these initiatives.

This will be the first Government to rebalance transport policy to favour public transport and sustainable transport. The priorities under the current public transport capital framework plan to 2016 are to protect investment made to date, to maintain safety standards and to make targeted investments in affordable projects that can deliver a good return. The Government has set real, achievable targets, as opposed to investing time and money in grand visions that will never be achieved. The Luas cross-city link is just one example of this. One way in which the Government has increased public transport use is by using smarter technologies to make the public transport experience more responsive and passenger-friendly. A sustained programme of new, cost-effective integration initiatives with a focus on customer requirements, which include the Leap card, real-time passenger information and journey planning apps, has been introduced to promote and integrate public transport provision in Ireland. The ambition this year is to ensure 5 million more people use public transport than was the case last year and I believe this is achievable. The roll-out of the Leap card was one of my key priorities as Minister of State when I was given this area of responsibility and I was delighted to finally launch it in December 2011. Leap card sales continue to grow and now stand at considerably more than 430,000. Additional Leap card sales of 150,000 are expected in 2014, including 80,000 student cards, and more than 36 million journeys have been made using these cards since their introduction. The Leap card eventually will be extended nationally. The system will be rolled out in Cork in the coming months and will be extended to Galway later this year, followed by the other cities. Real-time passenger information, RTPI, provides real-time signs at bus stops throughout the cities, which removes the uncertainty of arrival times of buses. This has dramatically increased public confidence in public transport, and each day hundreds of thousands of people use these services.

Of course, it is not enough simply to have accessible information about public transport, as the services need to be accessible. The Government is committed to increasing the accessibility levels of all public transport modes. I am proud to report that 100% of the Dublin Bus and city fleets now are wheelchair-accessible, as is 56% of the Bus Éireann coach fleet. All of Irish Rail's intercity, DART and commuter rolling stock, as well as Luas trams, also are accessible. In addition to the public service obligation, PSO, bus services provided by Dublin Bus and Bus Éireann, the National Transport Authority, NTA, provides funding for local bus services provided under the rural transport programme, RTP. I am dedicated to this programme, having announced a new structure for the delivery of rural transport last year. As a firm believer in the provision of rural transport, I noted that the old structures put limits on what could be achieved, and 18 transport co-ordination units are being established to manage rural transport services within their local authority areas in the coming months. This new system will integrate RTP services with the rest of the public transport network and will co-ordinate requirements for access to employment, health, social and education opportunities, thereby protecting the provision of rural transport services and ensuring the programme is permanently embedded as a sustainable part of the public transport system.

The programme for Government committed the Government to carrying out a review of the regulation of the taxi sector. This review which I chaired was completed and has led to 46 separate actions, the majority of which have been progressed, culminating in the passage of the Taxi Regulation Act 2013, which I brought through these Houses. The Act lays a solid foundation for radical change in the industry, change for consumers through better quality services, change for honest and hardworking taxi drivers who can be assured the rules will be rigidly enforced, and change for non-compliant operators who in future will find it impossible to continue to operate with impunity. I am determined to make that happen. Passenger safety and welfare are at the core of the Act, particularly in the provisions dealing with consideration of the suitability of small public service vehicle, SPSV, drivers. The taxi market relies on consumer confidence in a safe, reliable and high quality SPSV service. The regulatory changes being implemented through the commencement of the Act in the coming months are intended to ensure consumers will have the requisite confidence in the industry. New enforcement measures provided for in the Act also will be commenced shortly and these will bring about a new approach to enforcement that has never previously been seen in Ireland, with a trebling of the number of enforcement officers in the taxi industry. The Government also has established a rural area hackney licence. This new licence, designed to facilitate low-cost entry into the taxi sector, is specific to rural areas and now is in place. The new category of licence is being introduced on a pilot basis, but in time will serve to tackle rural isolation. It acts as a reminder that transport is not just an urban issue and that the transport deficit in rural areas, where market failures exist, must be dealt with. It is about time someone did so.

In addition to my responsibilities for public transport, I am responsible for the development and delivery of the Government's sustainable transport agenda. I put in place a programme with a €65 million multi-annual budget specifically to address cycling, walking and other infrastructural deficits. This funding has allowed for the expansion of the Dublinbikes scheme, almost tripling its size. A total of 58 new bike stations and 950 bikes will be in place by July 2014, bringing the total to 102 bike stations and 1,500 bikes. Bike rental schemes are being rolled out in Limerick, Cork and Galway and will be in place by the summer of 2014, in line with a commitment in the programme for Government. While many people did not believe it would be possible to deliver these schemes, I always thought it was. These bike schemes are being sponsored by Coca Cola under the Coke Zero brand and will be up and running before the end of the summer. Securing this sponsorship was one of the most significant achievements of my time in this role. In the coming weeks, I intend to announce the development of more flagship greenways nationwide, which will be developed between the present and 2016. Progress also is being planned in respect of electric cars, and a significant Government plan in this field also will be announced.

While there have been major achievements, now is not the time to stop. It is just as it was when the Government started this programme of reform and recovery in 2011, when the statement of common purpose then concluded, "There isn't a moment to be lost". It is on that note that I proudly report to colleagues the progress on the programme for Government, as well as the commitments in my area of responsibility within the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport for the coming year.

I am grateful for the opportunity to address some areas under the justice brief which falls within my remit as Fianna Fáil spokesperson on justice. I regret that the Minister for Justice and Equality did not remain in the Chamber to hear my reply because I am about to pay him a compliment. He has been described by some as a reforming Minister, with which I will not disagree. However, I will qualify this description by noting that he is no more reforming than any previous Minister for Justice because the law constantly requires updating and reformation and, while he is doing that, so too did all of his predecessors, to all of whom credit also is due. The mantra that the Minister is the only one to have engaged in reform simply is not the case. However, he is engaged in reform, which is to his credit.

This week's exercise in having statements on Government priorities has been quite curious. It is not good enough that Members have no Government-sponsored legislation to process through the Houses of the Oireachtas this week. The only legislation that is being taken is in Private Members' time, which this week happens to be the turn of Fianna Fáil. When the Government parties were on this side of the House, one heard plenty of criticism from them about the lack of legislation being progressed from time to time by the previous Administration. However, this week, in which no legislation is coming through, simply is not good enough and smacks of hypocrisy in respect of political reform.

Speaking of political reform, the Government has objectively failed in this regard. One classic example of the optics of political reform in which the Government has engaged concerns the Friday sittings. I have described the Friday sittings previously as a sham and will continue to so describe them. I have attended most such sittings and on most occasions the Minister responsible for the Bill that is being sponsored by a Private Member is not present to respond. It happened on the previous first Friday, as well as on the first Friday before that, and I was present in both cases. I note that on the last occasion the Minister for Justice and Equality had an informal engagement, but it was not a formal engagement. The proof of the pudding is that no Opposition Bill that has not been voted down by the Government - in other words, that has been accepted in principle by the Government - has progressed beyond Second Stage. This is the proof that the Government's intent in respect of political reform is all optics. While it will facilitate one so far, it will not follow it through. The referendum on the Seanad was a fundamental attack on our democratic institutions and the people of Ireland rightly voted down the Government proposal to abolish the Seanad. In other areas of political reform, one can see that the Taoiseach now is available to answer questions in the Chamber for less time than any of his predecessors. I refer to the accumulated time between Tuesdays and Wednesdays, as he is not present on Thursdays.

If one adds up the amount of time he is here, it is less than any of his predecessors.

I mention some of the legislation processed under the justice brief. The personal insolvency legislation was a huge disappointment because it gave the banks a veto in terms of negotiating with distressed borrowers. It put the banks at the centre of the decision-making process and all reasonable commentators asked that the banks would not have a veto and that there would be an independent arbitrator and an independent appeals office built into the process. The statistics beginning to come out of the Insolvency Service of Ireland are quite disappointing and back up what we pointed out when the legislation was going through this House that it would not be the success the Government was heralding it to be. My party put forward proposals, through my colleague, Deputy Michael McGrath, to establish an independent statutorily-based debt settlement office which would have the powers to back it up as an independent office. The Government should have taken that on board and acted on it.

The Land and Conveyancing Law Reform Act was a huge disappointment which put more power into the hands of the banks to evict people and to effect home repossessions. The Government should look at it as a priority and consider repealing some of the draconian powers conferred on the banks to undertake home repossessions.

I heard what the Minister said about his reform proposals in regard to the Judiciary. The Government needs to mend fences with the Judiciary. We must have a separation of powers but, unfortunately, we had a very unseemly argument between the Minister and the Judiciary a number of months ago which could have been quite serious. Thankfully, that was averted.

We had a very lengthy debate on the closure of the 139 Garda stations. Communities felt very let down by the Minister, the Government, the Labour Party and Government backbenchers depriving them of their community-based members of An Garda Síochána, We were promised that they would be replaced by Garda clinics but they were not. I have asked the Minister on a number of occasions about the roll-out of the replacement Garda clinics but he was unable to tell me anything, which is not good enough.

The Garda recruitment campaign was mentioned. Many people have an interest in it, in particular members of the Garda Reserve who feel disappointed and let down that they were not given priority. Something quite interesting was pointed out to me yesterday in regard to the online examination for the recruitment campaign. Apparently, applicants are getting other people to do the online examination for them and I have written to the Minister in that regard.

This Government should do the right thing by people. Our colleague, Deputy Mick Wallace, was treated disgracefully on national television by the Minister who still has to own up to his role in using private privileged and confidential information he got in a briefing to seek to discredit the Deputy. The Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission was treated appallingly by the Minister. The Taoiseach and the Minister sought to undermine it, which we discussed in the House, and they need to own up to their part in trying to undermine the independent office of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission.

Sergeant Maurice McCabe is owed an apology by the Minister and the Government for the way he has been treated and for the way the Minister spoke in this House about his alleged non-co-operation with the O'Mahoney inquiry. Yesterday, the former confidential recipient, Mr. Oliver Connolly, issued a statement. The Taoiseach has said he hopes he will co-operate with the Guerin inquiry. The Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality will seek Mr. Connolly's attendance in due course, but he did not address the elephant in the room in his four page statement, namely, his comments to Sergeant McCabe that the Minister would seek to get him and finish him if he continued with what he was doing.

On the social agenda, I will be an enthusiastic supporter of the referendum on marriage equality. I noted that the Government stated 2014 would be a referendum-free year, which is nonsense. The local and European Parliament elections will be held this year and there is no reason a referendum on the establishment of the family law court or on marriage equality could not be held alongside them given that it costs the State anywhere between €16 million and €20 million to stage a referendum. The Government has a knack of losing referendums but it can thank my party and other parties for assisting it in passing the referendum on the court of appeal. The Minister was quick to take a bit of the credit for that but other parties in this House campaigned for a successful result in the referendum on the court of appeal. We will also campaign for a successful result in the referendum on marriage equality.

If the Government was to have one priority for the remainder of this Dáil, it should be to treat people equitably and fairly in its policies. Unfortunately, we have not seen that so far. Independent commentators - for example, the ESRI - have concluded and reported on many occasions that this Government and its policies are exceptionally regressive in that they affect the most vulnerable and the people who can least afford to pay the most. The Government needs to prioritise equity and fairness.

A constituent of mine was featured on the front of the Irish Examiner in October 2013. She is a cancer patient who had her medical card taken from her. She went through the machinery of the State and I raised the issue in the Dáil. It was only yesterday, following an appeal, that she got her medical card back from the HSE appeals office in County Donegal, the county in which Deputy Pádraig Mac Lochlainn resides and which he represents. For a cancer patient going through all the associated treatment who has had a double mastectomy to have to go through that in order to hold on to a medical card is disgraceful. I raised the issue with the Minister of State, Deputy Alex White, at the time but, unfortunately, she had to go through the wringer to get a medical card, which is not good enough. Equity and fairness should be a priority of the Government but we have not seen this.

Last week at Question Time, the Minister for Justice and Equality treated the Opposition and this House with utter contempt in the way he responded to questions. He came into the House today and read a speech but he should saved it for the Fine Gael Ard-Fheis. This nonsense where the business of the Dáil has been suspended for a three-day plethora of speeches by Ministers patting themselves on the back shows they are completely out of touch with the public. If they want to have a moment of self-congratulation, it is for an Ard-Fheis or an annual conference. The Labour Party had its annual conference a number of weeks ago and Fine Gael had its Ard-Fheis last weekend at which the Minister for Justice and Equality received a standing ovation which was completely out of keeping with the public mindset. That is Fine Gael's internal business but to bring it into this House is ridiculous. Unfortunately, we must engage with it and give our response.

The Minister for Justice and Equality has treated us contemptibly again today. He came into the House, delivered a speech which was a load of nonsense and then walked out before any of us had a chance to respond.

He had to attend a meeting.

That is the respect he has for this House. It was a load of bloody nonsense. If Ministers can schedule three days to make congratulatory speeches, they can listen to the responses from the Opposition following their nonsense speeches.

There are three Ministers in the Department of Justice and Equality, but not one of them is here to engage with us. It is an absolute farce. However, I will use my eight minutes to rebut the rubbish we heard yet again from the Minister for Justice and Equality today.

Let us talk about immigration. I could not believe he mentioned immigration when we have the shameful direct provision centres in the State in which people from various cultures throughout the world are locked up for years, as if they were convicts, because of our archaic asylum system and must also eat food which is not applicable to their cultures. The Minister had the audacity to even mention it in his self-congratulatory speech.

There was also the issue of judicial appointments.

It has reached the stage at which the judges themselves, through the Judicial Appointments Review Committee, led by the Chief Justice, Ms Susan Denham, have said the political appointments system has to end. That committee has recommended that the Judicial Appointments Advisory Board draw up a short list of three candidates, with the Government choosing a judge and publishing the reasons for its choice. That is in keeping with various Bills prepared by Deputies Niall Collins and Shane Ross and me. A range of Opposition Deputies have tried to have this issue addressed but the Minister has kicked it to touch again with another review. This is nonsense and I cannot believe he had the audacity to include it in his speech.

The Minister also referred to the Legal Services Regulation Bill. What a brass neck he has. That Bill has dragged on for three years and the main agenda of the Minister is to bring in multidisciplinary practices or one-stop shops for big business. Such practices are excluded in almost every other European country and are clearly not seen as the way to go, but our Minister wants to bring them in here. Whose agenda is being served here? The main issue of concern to Joe and Josephine Public is the cost when one tries to get justice in the State. When one goes to a solicitor and tries to get justice, it costs one a fortune. Even family law cases and civil court cases cost a fortune. Is that issue, the most important one, being dealt with in the Bill? Absolutely not. The Bill has been dragging on for three years and the whole thing is a nonsense.

Deputy Niall Collins was spot on in what he said earlier. We often give the Minister credit for being a hard worker and for bringing forward progressive and reforming legislation, but that is what a Minister for Justice and Equality does. The Minister is in charge of the law and the law has to change. Things happen, issues are on the agenda for many years and whoever is the Minister for Justice and Equality can rightly claim to be reforming because that is his or her bloody job. The Minister has introduced some legislation with which we agree and that is fair enough. However, there is a list of really important issues that he has not addressed, including white-collar crime. People are rightly furious that those who presided over the disaster that saw our State bankrupted - namely, big bankers, greedy developers and many others who screwed the State and the people - have not been brought to account. Where is the legislation to deal with that? Where is the promised legislation that would deal with that issue effectively and would send a clear message to the public that white collar crime will be punished? The Minister has no problem locking people up for not paying their bills, putting people behind bars for not paying for their television licences or incarcerating people who come from the wrong side of the street, who have never had a chance in life. When it comes to the big knobs, however, the ones with whom the Minister wines and dines, who flatter him and who have backed him up over the years, it seems that they cannot be brought to justice. These are the things that matter to people. These are the things I would like to have seen in the speech from the Minister rather than listening to something more suited to the Fine Gael Ard-Fheis.

The next issue is equality and social protection. This blows me away. The programme for Government states the following: "This Government is committed to tackling Ireland's economic crisis in a way that is fair, balanced, and which recognises the need for social solidarity". While that sounds lovely, it is clearly not the case. Last year my party and others introduced the Equal Status (Amendment) Bill which sought to amend the existing legislation to provide for equality-proofing of Government policies and budgets and of public bodies through equality impact assessments. Had that Bill been accepted and passed, it would have ensured Governments and public bodies exercised their functions in a way that was designed to reduce the inequalities of outcome that result from socioeconomic disadvantage. This Government came into office on a wave of promises in 2011, but soon afterwards it became apparent that many of its plans involved taking from some of the most vulnerable. The Government rejected the Equal Status (Amendment) Bill even though it was Labour Party policy, agreed by its own members. The Bill was rejected, and two nights in a row the Government sent in Ministers from the Labour Party - not from Fine Gael - to rebut legislation that would have taken away the reliance on election promises, as famously referred to by Deputy Pat Rabbitte, and actually made sure budgets were drawn up on the basis of equality impact assessments. The Government did not want to know when it came to the crunch.

The vindication of victims' rights was another aspiration of the 2011 document, but we learned today during the Order of Business that there is no date for that legislation; it is not going to happen. We arrive now at the most profound failure - policing. If one listens to the Minister, Deputy Shatter, and to his pal the Garda Commissioner, one hears terms such as "modernisation" and claims that we have had tremendous success in combating crime. Everything is hunky-dory now because we have modernisation. We have "smart" policing now, where we had stupid policing in the past. It is "smart" today; we are really smart. How did the Minister do this? He cut Garda numbers by 10% across the State, he closed 140 Garda stations, he did not replace Garda vehicles and he amalgamated rural Garda districts. If one asks any garda, whether at the front gate of Leinster House or in one's constituency, in a supermarket or at a football match, what is his or her view of the Minister for Justice and Equality and the Garda Commissioner - who has sadly become his mouthpiece in defending the cutbacks - one finds a sheer lack of confidence in them and often one finds anger. Gardaí are angry that the Minister and the Commissioner are incapable of doing the job they have been asked to do. We have a situation whereby every time Opposition Members speak about An Garda Síochána, they are accused of being anti-Garda. Deputies Mick Wallace and Clare Daly, in particular, get that all the time. It is claimed that they are against the Garda and hate them, which is nonsense. Everything they have proposed, with proposals from me and Deputy Niall Collins, would actually strengthen the Garda, boost morale and restore public confidence.

We have seen various debacles recently, including the controversy surrounding the Garda confidential recipient, allegations that the offices of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission were bugged, the penalty points fiasco and the profound issue of the treatment of Garda whistleblowers. All of these matters have hugely undermined public confidence in the administration of justice. Deputy Alan Shatter's presiding over all of that has been a disaster. The Minister should have resigned by now, or he should have been kicked out by the Labour Party, but for whatever reason, the party does not want to do that. We had to sit and listen to the Minister treating us with utter contempt last week, refusing to answer question after question. He delivered his self-congratulatory Fine Gael Ard-Fheis speech here today and then scooted off out the door so that he would not have to listen to the rebuttals. The Minister may think it is okay to walk out of this Chamber today and to treat us with contempt, but it is not going to work. We are not going to go away. We are going to continue to try to make An Garda Síochána a stronger organisation, to provide for stronger oversight and to restore full public confidence in the crucial organs of our democracy and the administration of justice. We will keep doing our job and keep challenging the Minister. As long as he is in his role, he must face the reality that we will not hide away or back down. We are going to do our job to the best of our ability.

This week has been a difficult one for many people in Ireland. The manner in which the Government has set about congratulating itself so much is very difficult for a lot of people to listen to. I would say more than half of the people of Ireland are struggling to pay their household bills. More than half of our people are in a difficult place and a large proportion of them are probably wondering how they are going to continue to make ends meet. This morning I spoke to very good friend of mine from a place called Ballindaggin in Wexford. He worked as a carpenter and started serving his time at 15. He retired a few months ago at 65 years of age and he told me his cost of living was nearly double his pension. He is eating into his meagre savings and wondering what the future holds for him. My mother is 90 this year. She fell in the kitchen at home about four weeks ago. She went to the hospital in Wexford for an X-ray and spent over eight hours on a trolley there. My sister had to get a coat for her to keep her warm. She has reared 12 children and is not the most demanding of women, but I think she is entitled to a little more than that. She was eventually moved to Waterford Regional Hospital.

I have been there on four occasions since and have been shocked at how hard the nurses have to work. They are literally running. I do not understand the Government’s philosophy in dealing with nursing recruitment. A recent European study published in The Lancet stated, “the assumption that hospital nurse staffing can be reduced to save money without adversely affecting patient outcomes may be misguided at best, and fatal at worst”. The moratorium on public sector recruitment also makes no economic sense given that millions of euro are spent on agency nurses. It has been estimated the Health Service Executive, HSE, would save €23 million if current agency staff were converted into direct employment. I do not understand why the Government has taken this stand. People are losing their lives because there are not enough health staff to look after them in the system.

I am disappointed the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Alan Shatter, is not in the Chamber. I would need three hours to go through all the areas in which I found him to have behaved poorly in the past 18 months. Is the Minister concerned at the allegations made by one of the Garda whistleblowers that 40 Traveller families were entered on the Garda PULSE, police using leading systems effectively, system, including a baby only 16 days old and that these registrations were made without any proper foundation, criminal or otherwise? The Irish Traveller Movement has issued a statement demanding these claims be thoroughly and immediately investigated, alongside the allegations that form the basis of Sean Guerin's review. Will the Minister confirm that he will extend the terms of reference into the whistleblower allegations to include these allegations?

Although I am well aware that not all entries on PULSE are necessarily criminal ones, the whistleblower’s allegations clearly and specifically allege these entries were made in a criminal context and that a criminal intelligence number was ascribed to Travellers as a matter of course. He also alleged that senior gardaí encouraged these practices and that prejudice against Travellers is endemic in the Garda Síochána. I assume the Minister for Justice and Equality is concerned by such allegations. I note, however, that in December 2012, when Maurice McCabe sent the Minister an e-mail stating innocent children were recorded as suspects and as criminals, he wrote back five days later stating there was no evidence of this. Clearly, he had no intention of investigating the issue just in case some evidence did appear.

Will the Minister seek out confirmation from the Garda Commissioner as to whether a PULSE file was created on a Traveller child 16 days old and this child was ascribed a criminal intelligence number separate from a parent or guardian? Will he find out whether other Traveller children or adults have been assigned separate criminal intelligence PULSE numbers on a similarly casual basis and without any proper foundation? Will he check as to whether this is as a result of any prejudicial or racial profiling attitudes or practices in the Garda Síochána?

Although the Minister has set out previously in the House that he is satisfied with the Garda Commissioner's assurances that racial profiling does not exist in the Garda Síochána, the evidence is mounting that this is not the case. For example, ENAR Ireland, European Network against Racism, and its website iReport.ie, a racist incident recording system, has logged a number of incidents which strongly suggest racial profiling and outright racism by members of An Garda Síochána. Its first quarterly report details some alarming incidents indicating prejudicial Garda attitudes particularly with Travellers. It concludes it is clear "there is some work for the Garda in promptly addressing issues of racist victimisation and recognising the impact of poor communication on victims".

In this context and in the light of the findings regarding racial profiling in the Garda as outlined last February in the report of the European Commission on Racism and Intolerance, a Council of Europe body, and similar concerns about Garda racial profiling as set out in the last report from the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, it is all the more surprising the Minister did not ask the Ombudsman for Children, Ms Emily Logan, to inquire into whether racial or ethnic profiling was a factor in the Garda decision last October to forcibly remove two Roma children from their families. Will the Minister now consider extending these terms of reference? It would seem that whether racial profiling impacted on Garda conduct is the central issue in that controversy. This inquiry could also be extended to examine the wider question of whether there are racial profiling practices in the Garda Síochána and to make recommendations in this regard. Will the Minister confirm that he will consider this extension to the terms of reference and that he will allow Emily Logan independent access to PULSE to assist such an inquiry?

In the past 18 months, the Minister has continuously refused to use the best legislation available to him, preferring instead to rubbish any allegations that question his authority and choosing to minimise and dismiss rather than help to throw light on the issues. In a reply to a parliamentary question in February, the Minister stated, “I believe it is of crucial importance that whistleblowers are treated with respect and their allegations taken seriously.” Anyone who would have taken the time to read the transcript of the conversation between the whistleblower and Oliver Connolly, the Garda confidential recipient, will come to the conclusion that he took the whistleblower more seriously than either the Minister or Garda Commissioner. The confidential recipient’s statement made yesterday was strange. His inability to deal satisfactorily with Maurice McCabe's allegations had much more to do with the dysfunctional structures presided over by the Minister and the Garda Commissioner. I can only presume that it was some loyalty to the Minister that prevented him throwing his pointless job back at him, a loyalty the Minister did not reciprocate.

The Government has defended the Minister for Justice and Equality 100%. It had to make a call on it. I believe it will regret making that call, however. The Minister has done little to seek out the truth about the series of allegations that have come before him over the past 18 months. It is nothing short of frightening the number of people who have contacted my office, as well as Deputy Clare Daly’s and Deputy Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan’s, in the past month. There are so many allegations of Garda malpractice and corruption, we are finding it difficult to respond to all of them. Yet the Minister does not want to know about it. When we will get an independent pubic inquiry into these allegations? Why does the Minister keep postponing it? The dogs on the street know we are not going to get the truth until there is an independent public inquiry. The dogs on the street also realise the Minister and the Garda Commissioner have long proved they are unfit for office. I find it incredible that the Labour Party has stuck with him. It is not good for the coalition Government.

I wish to share time with the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Joe Costello.

I welcome the opportunity to outline to the House some priorities for which I have responsibility, which are critical to the economic and social well-being of citizens and businesses across the State. The fundamental objectives of energy policy are the security, sustainability and competitiveness of energy supply. The programme for Government set clear objectives in a range of areas, including retrofit, network development and renewables. I am pleased to report significant progress to date, as well as work which is ongoing.

Last year we reached the significant milestone of having provided energy efficiency measures for 250,000 homes under the Better Energy programme, which represents approximately one in six of all homes. Between 2011 and 2013, more than 87,000 homes received energy upgrades, disbursing close to €100 million in Government grants. This year the Government is committed to spending an additional €57 million on the Better Energy programme which will deliver upgrades to a further 32,000 homes and support 3,500 jobs in the retrofit industry.

Government policy on energy affordability is founded on the principle that everyone should be able to afford to adequately light and heat his or her home. Our energy affordability strategy, Warmer Homes, has identified three key factors which dictate whether someone falls into energy poverty: costs, income and thermal efficiency. We will continue to ensure those on low incomes are supported through the household benefits package and specifically through measures such as the electricity and gas allowance and the fuel allowance. However, the most meaningful measure we can take is to improve the thermal efficiency of homes and, thereby, permanently reduce people's exposure to increasing energy costs. Extensive grants are available to cover the cost of retrofitting homes under the Better Energy-Warmer Homes scheme. Since its launch, more than 105,000 households have received free energy efficiency upgrades. This year alone 12,000 low-income homes will receive a free upgrade.

A protocol is in place to minimise the number of energy disconnections. Where vulnerable customers subscribe to a payment plan with the supplier or have a pay-as-you-go meter installed, they may not be disconnected. I am delighted Deputy Michael Colreavy is in the House, as otherwise for the first time in the history of Dáil Éireann I would be speaking to myself. I have been in discussions with the supply companies and the Commission for Energy Regulation to agree further steps to deal fairly with and, in so far as is reasonable, protect these customers. I will make an announcement in this regard soon.

I published a national energy services framework in December 2013. It sets out a roadmap to develop an energy efficiency market for the non-domestic sector. A total of 21 exemplar projects have been selected to test and provide feedback on approach, tools and structures. These demonstration projects will potentially result in up to €54 million being invested in energy efficiency measures, with a target of delivering €7 million in savings annually. A sum of €9 million will be spent over three years on an energy conservation programme for the public sector. This new programme will target more than 500 large buildings, aiming to achieve energy savings of 18% once the programme is fully rolled out.

The Government has also committed up to €35 million for investment in an energy efficiency fund, with a view to building up a fund in excess of €70 million, including matching investment from the private sector. This fund will enhance the level of finance available to support the clear opportunities provided in the public and commercial sectors. We have identified a preferred bidder to manage the fund and, subject to finalisation of terms, expect to open for business shortly.

Transition to a sustainable low-carbon energy system is central to Government policy. Implementation of this policy, as well as delivering substantial environmental benefits, is securing significant economic benefits for the State and citizens. The 2009 renewable energy directive set Ireland a target of 16% of total energy requirements being met from renewable resources by 2020. To achieve this target, we are committed to meeting a figure of 40% of electricity from renewable resources by 2020. To date, wind energy has been the largest driver of growth in electricity generation. The wind energy sector directly employs approximately 3,400 people. In addition, the SEAI estimates that €255 million worth of gas imports was avoided by wind energy production in 2012 alone. Renewables will continue to play a key role in the transition towards a competitive, secure and sustainable energy system. The European Commission recently outlined ambitious plans to reduce carbon emissions in the European Union by 40% below the 1990 level by 2030. It also proposes to increase the share of renewables in meeting at least 27% of the European Union's energy consumption by 2030. Yesterday Energy Ministers had their first opportunity to consider the Commission's paper and negotiations will be progressed on the framework this year.

Modern industry places a high premium on the availability of water, energy and high quality communications. Taken together with our climate change obligations, the need to ensure a fit-for-purpose transmission grid is essential. The Government approved my proposal to put in place a process, the integrity of which is overseen by an independent panel chaired by a former Supreme Court judge, to progress implementation of elements of Grid 25. No matter how frequently I explain that improvements to the grid are necessary to meet domestic requirements, some wish to conflate it with the examination under way of the potential for green energy exports. Whether the export project happens, the transmission grid will still have to be refurbished. Many times inside and outside the House I have explained that there cannot be a wind energy export project without an intergovernmental agreement and emphasised that there can only be such an agreement if significant economic and employment benefits accrue to Ireland. The Government will not conclude an agreement with the United Kingdom unless we are satisfied with the economic benefits that will redound to Ireland. However, the bottom line is that it is simply misleading to try to persuade people that the need to build out the grid would go away if only wind energy exports were stopped.

Ireland has a landmass of approximately 90,000 sq. km but a sea area approximately ten times that size. Our position on the Atlantic edge of Europe gives us almost unparalleled offshore energy resources. I launched the offshore renewable energy development plan last month. This will facilitate the development of offshore renewable energy projects across three key pillars - environmental sustainability, technical feasibility and commercial viability - by co-ordinating action across relevant Departments. My Department supports ocean energy production through the work of the SEAI in administering the prototype development fund, developing the Atlantic marine energy test site off County Mayo and through its funding of the Integrated Marine Energy Research Centre, a partnership between University College Cork, Cork Institute of Technology and the Naval Service. In total, my Department has allocated €26.3 million for ocean energy projects during the period 2013 to 2016.

Last December I announced the selection of a preferred bidder for Bord Gáis Energy. A consortium comprising Centrica plc, Brookfield Renewable Power Inc. and iCON Infrastructure has been selected as the preferred bidder. Its bid values the enterprise at approximately €1.12 billion. Each consortium member brings with it deep industry experience and significant financial strength to support continued investment in the business. The arrival into our energy market of international strategic investors is a strong vote of confidence in the market, the energy economy and the Bord Gáis Energy business and its employees. Proceeds from this sale, when they become available later this year, will be used to support stimulus measures in the short term, with 50% to be used in the longer term to retire debt. This will enable investment in new infrastructure and job creation.

The energy policy landscape has changed considerably since the last energy White Paper in 2007. Recognising this, I am preparing a new energy Green Paper, identifying issues that need to be considered in developing energy policy to meet future challenges. Competitiveness, security of supply and sustainability, as well as the potential to support economic growth and job creation, will be the key objectives of the Green Paper which I expect to publish by the middle of this year.

The programme for Government set clear, forward-looking objectives for communications development, focusing on enhancing capacity and speeds and on providing world-class broadband technology in schools. The Government's national broadband plan aims radically to change the broadband landscape by ensuring high-speed broadband is available to all citizens and businesses. This will be achieved by providing a policy and regulatory framework that assists in accelerating and incentivising commercial investment and State-led investment for areas where it is not commercial for the market to invest. Since publication of the plan, significant progress has been made in the commercial deployment of high-speed broadband services. Telecommunications providers are investing in services and coverage that significantly exceed their original targets.

The Government is committed to intervening in areas where there is no case for commercial investment. Progress is being made in defining the scope of this intervention, including a major mapping process to identify the precise areas in which commercial investment will take place and those areas that will not benefit from such investment. These latter areas will be the target for intervention. Next week I will conclude debate on the ESB (Electronic Communications Networks) Bill 2013 which, when enacted, will enable the ESB to use its distribution network to provide high-speed telecommunications services. The potential to use the ESB's considerable network to deploy fibre will contribute significantly to the commercial deployment of high speed broadband.

We made a commitment in the programme for Government to incorporate ICT in teaching and learning across the curriculum. The 100 Mbps connectivity to schools broadband programme is a principal driver in meeting that commitment. The 2012 phase of the project saw broadband installed in all post-primary schools in 14 western and midlands counties, covering 202 schools. In 2013, 234 second-level schools in Dublin, Kildare and Meath were identified for connection to the high speed network. All remaining second level schools, approximately 269, in counties across the south and south east of the country will have high speed broadband installed by the end of September.

Phase one of the national digital strategy was published in July 2013. It focuses on three strands: citizen engagement, business and digital entrepreneurship and e-learning. One of the main goals of the strategy is to reduce by half the number of people who are not online by 2016. I introduced a grant scheme to provide digital skills training to people in danger of being left behind, including unemployed people, older people and people with disabilities. The scheme aims to train over 24,000 people. The business strand of the strategy aims to get 10,000 businesses online and a further 2,000 businesses trading online within two years. I have set aside a €5 million fund in 2014 to develop an online trading voucher scheme to help small firms develop an online trading presence.

The programme for Government commits to transforming the existing TV licence into a public service broadcasting charge, to be applied to all occupied households and businesses. The charge will replace the existing TV licence. It will not cost any more than the current TV licence, will be imposed on all eligible households and businesses and will not be dependent on ownership of any particular device. The purpose of public service broadcasting is to provide a full range of services and content catering for all interests in society, giving a platform for the expression of Irish language and culture. Everyone benefits from these services and therefore the cost should be borne by society.

We had the opportunity in this House last week to debate over two nights the future of the post office network. The post office has a unique standing in Irish life and is trusted and highly respected by the people. Apart entirely from its significant economic contribution over the years, the post office network has evolved a social role which is highly valued by local communities. As a shareholder, I have a strong interest in and concern for the future sustainability of the network and the company. This is backed up by the commitment in the programme for Government to ensure the sustainability of the post office network. The Government has agreed to a whole-of-government consideration, encompassing central and local government and the wider public service, of the nature and extent of services that can be provided to the public using the post office network as a front office of Government. This whole-of-government analysis is being undertaken in the first instance by the Cabinet committee on social policy.

I must repeat, however, that An Post is a commercial State company that earns its own keep and receives no Exchequer subsidy. My colleagues and I cannot arrange a hidden subsidy for it by dictating that all or even any Government business is automatically given to An Post. These are commercial contracts that must, under EU and Irish public procurement law, go out to competitive public tender between all interested parties. All stakeholders need to collaborate to achieve our shared objective of securing opportunities for new business and maintaining the post office network at the heart of national and local community life. That means the postmasters, as proprietors of independent commercial enterprises, must also by their own initiative develop an enhanced range of services and contribute to an increase in customer numbers.

Late last year the Government approved the development, roll-out and operation of a national postcode system following conclusion of the public procurement process in 2013. Householders will be informed of their postcodes in 2015, when the system will come into operation. In the meantime the groundwork of designing the code and updating private and public sector databases to accommodate the new postcode system is under way. This is a critical programme of work, which will, when completed, bring significant benefits across a range of areas. It will enable organisations to improve existing services and develop new service offerings. It will deliver improved efficiencies in logistics, including emergency service response. It will act as a strong support for the development of digital applications in the Irish economy and support better planning and analysis capabilities across public and private sectors.

In November 2013 I established an Internet content governance advisory group. This specialist working group, including experts in child safety and online behaviour, as well as technical and industry experts, will consider emerging issues in the area of online content and its general impact on the lives of children and young people. The group will take submissions from the public and interested groups and will report by the end of May. I asked the group to produce specific recommendations on the appropriateness of existing regulatory and legislative frameworks around electronic communications, Internet governance and the sharing of material online and as to the most appropriate relationship between ISPs, online service providers, the State and citizens regarding access to legal material and bullying and harassment online.

Regarding the perennial matter of striking the correct balance between attracting investment and maximising returns to the Exchequer from our natural resources, I am announcing today the selection of international experts to advise on what fiscal terms should apply. Following a public procurement process, international oil and gas expert Wood Mackenzie has been selected to advise on the fitness for purpose of Ireland's current oil and gas fiscal terms. This will ensure regulatory certainty in advance of the next oil and gas exploration licensing round in June this year.

In the programme for Government three years ago we expressed our determination to restore Ireland's standing as a respected and influential member of the European Union and as part of the wider international community. We also recognised the importance of our embassy network and committed to use that resource to repair our reputation overseas. The results of our work are clear. We have regained access to international bond markets and the confidence of international investors. Export levels are higher than they were before the economic crisis.

Net job creation from inward investment and our small and medium-sized exporting companies was higher in 2013 than it had been for ten years. Ireland is now ranked by Forbes magazine as the best country in the world for business. Much of this has been achieved owing to a renewed emphasis on economic diplomacy, using every opportunity to highlight Ireland's economic strengths and potential to international audiences. Ireland's embassy network has been working tirelessly to advance the Government's economic objectives and support Irish jobs. In 2013 alone our embassies organised 734 engagements to facilitate trade and investment, undertook engagements with 1,152 representatives of international media to promote Ireland's profile and global reputation and ensured the presentation of key economic messages about Ireland in articles and interviews in the international media, reaching an audience of more than 53 million people. Embassies also supported 28 ministerial-led trade missions and trade events during 2013, securing significant trade deals and investment for Ireland. These included a major trade mission to South Africa and Nigeria which I led, during which deals expected to be worth over €7 million to Irish companies were secured.

In the programme for Government we committed to implementing the Government's trade, tourism and investment strategy. My Department has recently completed a short, focused review of the strategy to ensure the resources of the State, including the embassy network and State agencies, are positioned to take full advantage of new opportunities in key emerging markets and keep delivering in our established markets. The programme for Government also committed us to develop better trade relationships and stronger cultural and diplomatic links with emerging economies. The five new embassies and three new consulates general recently announced will provide a platform for the further promotion of Irish exports, investment, tourism and education in key locations across South-East Asia, Europe, the Americas and Africa. As part of this expansion of our embassy network, we are reopening an embassy in Nairobi, Kenya. This will support Ireland's aid programme and help to accelerate the planned transition from "aid to trade" in Africa.

Irish people have always had a vision for the sort of world we want to be part of, an equitable, just and sustainable world where there are opportunities for all to live their lives free from hunger, fear, violence and discrimination and where all people have the right to peace and security, education, health, decent work and democratic and accountable government. The Government's new international development policy - One World One Future - responds to this vision of a sustainable and just world. It focuses particularly on the poorest countries and communities in sub-Saharan Africa and sets out three goals: reduced hunger and stronger resilience; sustainable development and inclusive economic growth; and better governance, human rights and accountability.

The Irish Aid programme is not some kind of add-on to Irish foreign policy but central to it. That is why the Government has worked hard since February 2011 to protect the overseas development aid budget to the maximum possible extent. I am not going to suggest it has not been reduced, as quite clearly it has. However, in the past three years the Government has managed to stabilise the ODA budget in order that, when economic circumstances allow, we will have solid foundations on which to begin again to move towards achieving the UN target of 0.7% of GNP. For the years 2011, 2012 and 2013, we provided overall budgets for development assistance of €657 million, €629 million and €622 million, respectively. For 2014, the Government has again managed to allocate almost €600 million in ODA. On current estimates, this should amount to some 0.43% of GNP. In current circumstances this represents a significant achievement, reflecting the commitment of the people to the fight to end extreme poverty and hunger.

Ireland has been engaged at a Government level in sub-Saharan Africa for 40 years. Today we have high quality programmes in nine key partner countries, involving bilateral funding this year of €155 million. This funding is aimed at reducing poverty and vulnerability and building state capacity. In the past two years I have visited a number of our key partner countries, including Mozambique, Uganda, Ethiopia, Sierra Leone and Liberia, and seen at first hand how we are improving the lives of some of the poorest and most marginalised people in these countries. I also took the opportunity during these visits to explore ways in which Ireland could assist our African partners to grow their economies and exit from aid dependency. Many of these countries are succeeding in reaching some of the highest levels of economic growth in the world. While maintaining our strong poverty focus, we are responding to this changing context and working strategically with our partner countries to advance inclusive economic growth and sustainable development. The economic, trade and political objectives of the Department's Africa strategy - launched in 2011 - are complemented by initiatives to promote an enabling environment for business and investment such as support for business licensing and registration in Mozambique.

We have had to make some strategic and tough decisions in the past few years, including closing our representative office in Timor Leste. This year we will see the closure, after 40 years, of our mission in Lesotho. On the other hand, we are also seeing some new initiatives. A new embassy will be established in Kenya and we are also deepening our engagement in Sierra Leone and Liberia. Sierra Leone has become the newest of Ireland's key partner countries.

Irish Aid now spends and is committed to continue spending over 20% of its budget on activities that directly reduce hunger, delivering on the target set by Ireland's hunger task force in 2008. We support poor smallholder farmers to sustainably increase food production in Tanzania, Malawi, Ethiopia and Zambia. We particularly target women farmers who carry out a large portion of work on African farms but who rarely have equal access to land or services. Our programmes include investment in agricultural research, support for farmer training programmes, improving small farmers' access to high quality seeds and supporting farmers in diversifying to more nutritious crops. The Irish Aid programme also supports a wide range of nutrition programmes in our key partner countries, particularly focusing on pregnant women and infants to the age of two years.

Recognising the strong link between nutrition and health, we also prioritise access to adequate health care across the aid programme. Our support to the global fund to fight AIDS, TB and malaria has been particularly effective, with deaths associated with these diseases plummeting. Between 2002 and 2012, some 8.7 million lives were saved, with the global fund directly responsible for assisting 3.6 million people to receive anti-retroviral therapy for HIV infection and 9.3 million people to receive TB treatment and funding 270 million insecticide-treated anti-malaria bed nets. Despite these successes, global efforts in poverty reduction are increasingly being undermined by the devastating effects of climate change. To address this, we are working to ensure all of our programmes are designed with climate change in mind. To help developing countries to address the effects of climate change, Ireland pledged and met our commitment to provide fast start finance to help developing countries to adapt to and mitigate the effects of climate change.

Humanitarian relief is another vitally important aspect of Ireland's aid programme. The budget for Irish Aid's emergency humanitarian assistance fund for 2014 is €57.5 million. This enables us to provide flexible and timely funding for our UN and Irish NGO partners to deliver effective humanitarian assistance in response to clear and identified needs on the ground. Irish Aid also dedicates resources - close to €30 million this year - to emergency preparedness, recovery activities, peace building and a rapid response initiative which provides essential supplies and personnel to various hot spots throughout the world.

We will soon be entering the fourth year of one of the most appalling humanitarian emergencies the world has seen in decades. An estimated 140,000 Syrian people have died since the uprising began in March 2011, with over 2 million refugees in neighbouring countries. Irish humanitarian assistance will continue to be focused on meeting the needs of beleaguered populations both within Syria and in neighbouring countries. Irish Aid also pays particular attention to so-called "forgotten emergencies", or those situations where a crisis continues but no longer commands the attention of the world's media. For example, last week the Tánaiste and I announced €6.5 million in funding to support UN life-saving work in Sudan, South Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo and Somalia, where the continuing deterioration of the humanitarian crisis is a cause of grave concern.

As we approach the deadline for achieving the millennium development goals in 2015, the international community has been ratcheting up its consideration of the shape of the post-2015 development framework. Our EU Presidency in the first half of 2013 came at a crucial stage. The post-2015 agenda was starting to dominate global development discussions and preparations were being made for the global review of the millennium development goals at the UN high level event in New York in September 2013. A key priority for Ireland's EU Presidency was to facilitate the development of a co-ordinated, coherent and credible EU position in advance of the UN special event.

In this we received full support from our EU partners at an informal meeting of EU Development Ministers which I chaired in Dublin in February 2013 and which saw the first substantive political level discussion in the European Union on the post-2015 framework.

In April 2013 the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, in conjunction with the Mary Robinson Foundation, Climate Justice, organised an international conference in Dublin Castle on the inter-linked themes of hunger, nutrition and the impact of climate change. The key messages from that conference have informed discussions, including within the European Union, on a successor framework to the millennium development goals. We continue to play an active role in these vitally important discussions, including through our membership of the open working group on sustainable development, on which we share a seat with Norway and Denmark.

Aid is not charity. It is not given as an act of benevolence by the wealthy to the less fortunate. It is much more than this. It involves putting our money where our mouth is, backing up our vision for the sort of world we want to be part of with the actions necessary to achieve this, recognising that the best way to defeat hunger is to overcome poverty, helping those countries and people that need a helping hand to begin to generate their own sustainable future, and investing in a better future for us all.

Two things came to mind as I watched the debate during the past two days. One was a sketch in a local play of a politician making a speech before an election. When he says he will open a creamery at the cross, there is tremendous applause and he follows it by saying he will open two creameries at the cross. The other was a "Hall's Pictorial Weekly" sketch about the installation of telephones by a former Minister, Albert Reynolds. Every time he said he would install 100,000 telephones there was an applause button instead of an audience applauding. The Government should have brought an applause machine into the Chamber to be played after every Minister's speech to add to the chaos of the past couple of days.

For many years Irish Aid has delivered huge projects around the globe. I have had a personal involvement through my late uncle, Denis Cronin, who was a Redemptorist missionary for 51 years in Brazil, where his order did tremendous work. We were involved in trying to get aid for the people in Uganda during the genocide in 1994.

I welcome the opportunity to review the performance of the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources and the commitments made in the programme for Government and by the Minister in his speech. The Department has done continual battle with communities in disputes over pylons, turbines, post offices and broadband services. Communities feel as though it does not listen to them at all.

No one disagrees with the Government's goal to reinforce the national electricity grid to secure future energy supplies in Ireland. We all see this goal as important and necessary. Fianna Fáil is disappointed, however, at the lack of a fully independent review of the Grid Link and Grid West projects, despite the 35,000 submissions received by EirGrid. While we welcomed the appointment of Mrs. Justice Catherine McGuinness and an expert panel to oversee the quality of the route options presented by EirGrid, we criticised the fact that EirGrid would be the body responsible for carrying out the studies of the possibility of fully undergrounding power lines for the Grid Link and Grid West projects. We criticise the fact that the new committee initially did not propose to examine the health concerns surrounding the location of pylons or the other EirGrid projects in Ireland, in particular the North-South interconnector. Thankfully, the Minister seems to have seen the light in this regard. There should be a complete moratorium on, or cessation of, development until there is a proper, fully independent international review of this issue, taking into account every aspect of it, environmental, tourism and health, everything of concern to communities, including the value of their property, noise levels and so forth. Every international expert should contribute to a report in order that nobody will be able to say it was half-baked.

Communities across Ireland had to organise large protest campaigns and lobby groups in order to assert their right to be heard by EirGrid and the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources. As a result, there is now great suspicion surrounding any plan coming from either of these parties. The Minister must take some responsibility for the suspicion and fear which have engulfed communities in the affected areas. That a review is taking place shows how misguided was the original strategy for the EirGrid plan. We in Fianna Fáil recognised the difficulties arising in communities across the country when last November we tabled a Private Member's motion calling for an independent international assessment of the EirGrid proposals. Despite some support from the Government backbenches for the motion, the Whip prevailed and our proposal for an independent assessment was defeated. The Government then claimed that the new review was an independent assessment, although EirGrid was being asked to examine the routes it had already approved. This seems like a bizarre move which will certainly not put communities' minds at ease. The Minister has tried to kick this issue to touch in order that it does not interfere with the local election results of the two Government parties. Having visited many communities across the country, I can assure him and the Government that the fears and concerns of communities about this issue have not gone away.

Another issue causing great concern across Ireland is wind farm planning. The regulatory guidelines in this regard are far behind where they should be. Fianna Fáil firmly believes renewable energy is part of the solution to reduce Ireland's massive dependence on energy imports. The pursuit of renewable energy in Ireland offers the potential to shield it from ever rising oil and gas prices and help to reduce our CO2 emissions. It is vital, however, that renewable energy projects are developed in a manner that is sensitive to their environment and that they benefit local communities. The increasing number of planning applications for wind farms means that legislative guidelines must be introduced to protect local communities from dramatic intrusion on their properties and give certainty to planners. The construction of larger, technologically advanced wind farms must be conducted in line with international best practice. Fianna Fáil advocates the adoption of Danish-style planning rules for these projects.

We are committed to the development of renewable energy projects in Ireland where proper planning guidelines are laid down in legislation. We see the development of renewable energy projects as a mechanism to reduce our dependence on energy imports, while also being a conduit for increasing prosperity in rural Ireland. We have proposed that there be a minimum distance of six times the height of a wind turbine between the turbine and any residential dwelling. This would ensure current regulations did not become outdated, as the size and scale of wind turbines increase over time. This proposal would ensure residents and communities were protected from undue intrusion by wind farms. It would also provide clarity for future planners of wind farms as to where they had the potential to construct new turbines. I ask the Minister to consider this proposal.

Another innovative proposal which the Minister might consider is the introduction of community benefits from wind energy farms. Fianna Fáil believes communities should be given the option of benefiting from the presence of local wind energy resources. Communities should be offered the option to purchase a minimum of 20% of the proposed wind energy project in their area in order that they could share in the wealth the project would create. The developer would advertise locally shares equal to a minimum of 20% of the project value at cost price. Any citizen aged at least 18 years and living within eight times the height of a new turbine would be eligible and have priority entitlement to buy into the local project. The shareholder would share the profits, risk and costs on an equal footing with the developer.

Remaining shares not bought by citizens within the original radius would be offered to permanent residents in the rest of the county. This would provide a new wealth creation mechanism for rural Ireland and ensure wealth created in an area benefited that area. It is similar to an approach employed in Denmark and could easily be adopted here. This provision could provide the basis for a sustainable and prosperous rural Ireland.

Rural Ireland also needs a secure and high quality connection to broadband if we are to prevent a two-tier economic recovery between urban and rural areas. I am glad that the Minister for Education and Skills in the Chamber because a number of primary schools still do not have access to broadband.

Do the communities in which they are located have access to broadband?

No, there is no access to it. One can imagine the disadvantages these children will face when they proceed to secondary level. They are Irish citizens who live in rural communities and attend schools which have provided education services for generations. One such school is in Milford in north Cork and it has no broadband service.

Last week we debated a motion calling on the Government to secure the viability of An Post. However, the Government voted down the motion, even though it was not controversial. The ESB is statutorily required to maintain electricity networks for all communities. The memorandum of understanding with An Post should be changed because the only way of ensuring the security of post offices is by requiring a postal network in every village and community in the country. An Post would then be forced to go after the business that would make post offices viable. I know the applause machine will not be in the Chamber when I sit down, but I ask the House to consider the points I have made.

In the north west of Ireland we use the phrase "a poisoned pup" which is referred to as a "poisoned chalice" in the rest of the country to describe a gift that does harm instead of good. Just over three years ago the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources was handed a poisoned pup when he took over his brief. The previous Fianna Fáil and Green Party Government had bequeathed a communications privatisation agenda that left us in the dark ages in terms of Internet access and usage, an energy agenda that allowed companies and their shareholders to run rings around the Government and the people and a natural resources agenda dominated by vested interests, secrecy and inept handling. Our natural resources were handed over to multinational conglomerates with few, if any, benefits for the people.

I will examine how much has changed under the Minister and, to paraphrase the previous Government, how much remains to be done. I believe the Minister genuinely wants to make significant improvements in his areas of responsibility and do the right thing by the people. I commend him on his initiatives to roll out broadband and his recent announcement that he would publish a Green Paper outlining the Government's vision for the future of energy supply in this country. Less than one hour ago he announced the establishment of a panel of international experts to advise him on the fiscal terms that should apply to oil and gas exploration. I look forward to learning the composition of the panel and hope the experts will not all be oil industry insiders. However, in the continuing absence of a coherent strategy for natural resources, the winners from policy decisions will be energy company investors and well placed political lobbyists and insiders. There will be a new golden circle. Without clear direction, incorrect decisions will be made and in ten years' time we will be holding inquiries into the basis of these decisions. We need a clear and coherent strategy for ensuring the people will benefit from energy and natural resources.

The Government has signed a memorandum of understanding with the British Government on exporting a renewable energy supplies from Ireland to Britain. In effect, this will turn Ireland into an offshore wind farm for the British grid. In order to satisfy the needs of the British energy market, it is proposed to erect wind turbines across the midlands, despite massive opposition from local residents who rightly believe they are being burdened with turbines to produce electricity that will not be used on the Irish grid. To add insult to injury, the lack of proper regulations for the erection of turbines is causing distress for many families. Sinn Féin will be introducing legislation to the House to provide for minimum set-back distances, suspending the memorandum of understanding and requiring Irish renewable energy supplies to be sufficient to meet Irish consumer demands before they can be exported. I find the claim that the Irish and British Governments have not discussed financial arrangements to be incredible. If that is true, it is crazy.

In regard to post offices and the wider issue of rural sustainability, last week we had a debate on the future of the post office network. The programme for Government committed the Administration to maintaining the network of post offices and ensuring communities had access to adequate postal services. However, the Minister stated last week that commercial and trading businesses were moving out of small rural towns into supermarkets based in larger county and provincial centres. Any business on the high street in rural towns and villages should be concerned that the Government is resigned to the running down of rural areas. Where is the Government's strategy for ensuring the sustainability of rural areas? It most certainly was not set out in the Minister's comments.

I applaud the Minister for his efforts in the roll-out of broadband services. The ESB (Electronic Communications Networks) Bill 2013 is a positive measure that will help to bring the broadband network up to speed. The privatisation of Telecom Éireann in the late 1990s resulted in Ireland having the lowest rate of availability of high-speed broadband in the European Union until recently because of a lack of investment in broadband infrastructure. I am glad that the Government is making an attempt to rectify the connection problems, but the philosophy of privatisation has not gone away.

Under the Government, we have witnessed the privatisation of Bord Gáis Energy and very nearly witnessed the privatisation of Coillte which was only stopped by protest. The Government needs to move away from the ideology of privatisation and I worry that down the line the fibre optic network for broadband being rolled out will be privatised and that we will suffer the mistakes of Telecom Éireann all over again. The Minister has stated - I accept his word - that he has no intention of selling the broadband network, but, as I said to him, he will not always be Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources and that this statement should be explicitly included in the legislation going through the House.

In the term of the Government a report was produced on Ireland's offshore oil and gas resources. The report which was authored by members of all parties made a number of recommendations. Among them was the recommendation that there be staged taxation, whereby petroleum companies would pay 80% on large finds, 60% on medium finds and 40% on small finds. Under the 1992 and 2007 licensing terms, a tax rate of 20% on net profits is applicable. However, oil and gas companies can write-off against tax 100% of their costs, including costs incurred up to 25 years before production begins and the cost of drilling unsuccessful wells anywhere in Irish waters in that 25 year period. As I stated, the Minister has today announced that he is setting up an international panel. We must ensure we stop giving away our oil and gas.

It would be remiss of me not to talk about something that is of deep concern in my constituency, that is, fracking. There are some measures that should not even be considered. For example - this is not the responsibility of the Minister, Deputy Ruairí Quinn - there was a report circulating in HSE West stating maternity services might be reduced or withdrawn from Sligo Regional Hospital. That matter should not be under consideration. Fracking in the north west should not be under consideration either. We should not even consider the possibility of turning the beautiful north west and the west, into an industrial and, possibly, a poisoned wasteland by permitting fracking that would only benefit energy company investors. It is wrong and should not be on the agenda. We should not be wasting taxpayers' money on an Environmental Protection Agency study of fracking. We should say it is not going to happen. I plead with the Minister, Deputy Ruairí Quinn, to ensure this is done.

I will concentrate on the EirGrid project. Despite being the head of communications in this country, the Minister has failed abjectly to communicate a clear and comprehensive account of the Government's involvement in the project. I am not saying this is intentional, but the feeling outside the House and among many of us here is that such is the case. The Government has stood idly by while EirGrid has displayed what I can only describe as heinous arrogance towards local communities. With the local elections looming, no doubt Government Members are being made aware by their colleagues at all levels of the unrest across the country over the proposed Grid Link and Grid West projects. Despite making a significant proportion of the 35,000 submissions received by EirGrid, we are still left with unanswered questions.

The issue of costs has been clung onto by the Government on many occasions. There have been significantly varying estimates of the cost, for instance, of undergrounding, an issue I will go through carefully. At one point the Minister stated it would treble the cost of the project. Elsewhere he was quoted as saying it would add 3% annually to energy costs. The Taoiseach offered a figure of €600 million, yet the renowned Professor Denis Henshaw who has worked in the area for 20 years suggests burying cables would cost everybody in the country a mere €4 a year over the lifetime of the pylons. One can understand how people are confused. Many politicians are confused. Many believe the way forward is to bury the cables, yet we are given confusing estimates of the cost by various Departments. In fairness to the Opposition and those on the ground, we need to know, for once and for all, what the cost would be of putting the cables underground. We do not want one Department to give one figure and the Taoiseach to give another, with a professor providing a different one. I am especially disappointed, given the understandable concerns being expressed in many rural areas, not to mention in the aforementioned 35,000 submissions, that the Government has failed to order a full independent review of the project. Where is the credibility in appointing a so-called independent panel which will only be able to examine studies produced by EirGrid? That is not independent and not fair.

Given the significant legitimate health concerns being expressed, particularly by the parents of young children, why has no health expert been brought in? I am not a health expert and accept that some of the findings are controversial. I also accept that some of them may well be dubious. However, the World Health Organization, if one looks back over a number of years, has made various recommendations. It is important, if the project is to go ahead, that we at least conduct some health study. If the Government was to do so, we would be able to say Ireland had initiated an independent health study. It would only be to the benefit of the Government if it was to state it was initiating such a study. Let us not go with what the World Health Organization or some health expert in England or Scotland is saying; we need to initiate our own study which would allay the fears of many. Many people do not want the pylons, but there are fears that there is a health issue and we have done nothing to allay them.

I also want to know if the Government can clarify whether the remit of the independent panel will include the North-South interconnector and whether an extension of the review has been granted for this purpose. We need to know if this is the case. Will the cost of repairs and maintenance, the cost of repairing the damage done to health, the cost to tourism, the cost in terms of property devaluation and the damage done to the view all be considered by the body being put in place? I note that a new report by the London School of Economics has revealed that the presence of wind farms can reduce property values by as much as 11%. This independent and extensive report was initiated by an all-party group in England. It examined over 1 million sales of property located close to wind farms over a 12 year period. Given this consistent pattern and the fact that so many in this country are drowning in negative equity, surely property devaluation should be central to the Government's review. I earnestly ask the Minister, Deputy Ruairí Quinn, to look at this comprehensive report produced by the London School of Economics. I have read it and there has been no criticism of it in England by any of the British Government parties. Incidentally, those involved travelled as far as France and stated conclusively that properties had been devalued by a figure of 11%. Regardless of the findings of the independent commission, there will be no tangible change to the policy of not placing high voltage electric cables underground.

The Minister has previously admitted his own failure to explain the separate nature of the pylon and wind farm projects which has contributed to the ongoing controversy. I ask him to state at some stage what portion of the electricity to be transported via the proposed pylons will be destined for essential use in Ireland.

This is something we must explain to the people. We are told the pylons are required for domestic supplies only, yet power usage in Ireland at the height of the boom was 25% higher than at present and there were no outages and shortages. This must be explained clearly. Various Deputies in various constituencies are saying we need the power supply and that we will not export supplies. People do not believe this because we have heard experts on the "Today with Sean O'Rourke" programme saying we do not and will not need it for years to come. Can we foresee a situation where new pylons will facilitate proposed wind farms in the midlands? Can the Minister categorically state any electricity to be transported along the pylons is not intended for export from private wind farm companies? People are not fools and are beginning to wise up in terms of the power supplies we will need in the coming ten to 15 years. It would, therefore, be advisable to tell them the truth. If we are going to export power supplies and make money from it, the Government should say so. We should remember the cost in so doing.

The Government is failing to communicate a clear message on how pylons will facilitate job creation and curb emigration. Are we talking about jobs in and emigration from the regions the pylons will plough through? We do not know because there is no provision for an electricity supply to the dozens of rural areas through which the pylons will pass. Many of us have gone to meet EirGrid representatives who have stonewalled Deputies, as some Deputies on the Government side have acknowledged. They are unable to give us statistics and facts and how they treat people is outrageous. They set up meetings in hotels around the country, but they tell us very little. I am not here to run down the Minister, Deputy Pat Rabbitte, because I like him, but he is doing himself an injustice in not providing the answers to questions other Deputies and I have asked in the past few months. If we were honest with people and carried out an investigation into health issues, including examining the studies conducted in London and France, we could see how we should push forward on this matter. This would be preferable to backing up what EirGrid is doing and accepting everything it states to the public, which is very little. We owe this to hundreds of thousands of people.

It is easy to use expletives, but people are outraged. I have attended three meetings in Waterford, one of which was attended by almost 1,000 people, even though it was lashing rain outside. They brought along their children and said they would not accept the proposals made. They do not have proper information and are being treated appallingly by EirGrid. I made a submission to it and it took months to get an answer to it. It treats politicians with contempt, as well as the general public. I did not come here to criticise the Minister, but we must be more informative in dealing with the public and find out whether we need the pylons proposed.

I do not want to insult the Minister for Education and Skills, but I will be unable to remain in the Chamber when he speaks, as I have to attend another meeting.

I propose to share time with the Minister of State, Deputy Tom Hayes.

I am pleased to have the opportunity to participate in this debate on the Government's priorities for the year ahead. I acknowledge and welcome the presence in the Chamber of the Sinn Féin parliamentary spokesperson on education and skills. When we entered government, I spoke about how Fianna Fáil had lost our economic sovereignty. When we exited the bailout last December, I felt for the first time that our sovereignty had been regained because of the actions of the Government. In the past three years we have taken many decisions, some of which have been difficult, but we have been committed and determined to make progress, day by day, week by week, to deliver real recovery. We resolved the promissory note issue and put an end to the bank guarantee. Instead of losing jobs, we created them - over 60,000 net new jobs last year alone. Unemployment is now at its lowest level since May 2009. We restored the national minimum wage and reinstated the joint labour committees, JLCs, which had been abolished by Fianna Fáil. The economy is now growing and steady progress is being made to reduce the number out of work. It is impossible to overstate the challenge that faced the Government when it entered office three years ago. Dire predictions were made - many of them by Members on the Opposition side of the House - that Ireland would have to default, that we would implement massive cuts to core welfare payments and that hundreds of schools and post offices would close. These and many other predictions proved to be wrong. Three years on, we have exited the bailout and are delivering real recovery for all of the people.

Not all of our achievements have been economic. Our record on social reforms is also one of which I am proud. After the failure of six successive Governments to legislate for the judgment in the X case, the Government had the courage to legislate to protect the lives of pregnant women. Our determination to focus on the real needs of children in society was shown by the creation of a new Department of Children and Youth Affairs and the Child and Family Support Agency. Gender quotas are being introduced to increase the number of women in the Oireachtas and we will fight and win a referendum on same-sex marriage to deliver equality for gay and lesbian couples.

In the world of education I am proud of the progress we have made since taking office. Five items of primary legislation have been completed in the past three years. FÁS no longer exists, having been replaced by SOLAS, an organisation that will oversee the modernisation and reform of the further education and training sector. A key objective of the sector will be to meet the education and training needs of the unemployed, providing high quality pathways to work. Some 33 VECs have been amalgamated into 16 local education and training boards, each with the scale and capacity to improve the opportunities offered to those out of work. We have created Caranua, the Residential Institutions Statutory Fund, to ensure the survivors of institutional abuse receive the care and services they need to live dignified lives. The various qualifications and quality assurance agencies have been merged to create Quality and Qualifications Ireland, QQI, an initiative that was started by the previous Administration.

Many reforms have been undertaken within existing legislation. A national literacy and numeracy strategy is being funded and implemented and is making steady improvements to the literacy and numeracy levels of children and young people. The introduction of Project Maths, together with bonus points for honours mathematics, has seen a rise of over 60% in the number of leaving certificate students taking the higher level paper. Since 2012, 50% of the marks are now allocated for oral and aural Irish language skills at leaving certificate level. This has also led to a steady increase in the number of students studying at higher level.

A forum on patronage and pluralism in the primary sector was established just after I came into office and reported within one year. The parents of children in 43 towns have since been consulted on the types of school they would like to see available. In 28 areas where the population was static and there was no growth parents said they wanted more choice. I am working with the Catholic Church to make this a reality.

Other members of the Government have provided detail of many of our priorities for 2014 that will help to deliver real recovery. The Taoiseach and the Tánaiste have spoken about our determination to continue driving job creation and ensuring the recovery delivers for all of the people. The Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Joan Burton, has outlined our ongoing commitment to creating pathways to work for all of the people and making sure those in work earn a living wage. The Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Richard Bruton, has explained how the Government's jobs action plan will continue to create the opportunities necessary to deliver full employment.

The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform has spoken about the need during the next phase of our recovery to focus on improving the outcomes of public services, in addition to delivering improved efficiencies and accountability. The Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children, Deputy Alex White, as well as the Minister for Health, Deputy James Reilly, will deliver free GP care for all children under the age of six years during the term of the Government. The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, and I will determine how preschool quality can be improved. All of these reforms and many more will be delivered in 2014.

Let me turn to my field of responsibility, education. My priorities for 2014 can be summarised under three themes: improving quality and accountability in schools; supporting inclusion and diversity; and creating opportunities for adults. I want to summarise some of the key policy developments I expect to deliver during 2014.

The junior certificate is being abolished and replaced with the junior cycle student award, JCSA, involving a new system that will see less of a focus on examinations and rote learning. It will provide for young people the skills they need for life and learning. These many skills include team work, communication skills, being creative and managing information. The implementation of the JCSA will begin this coming September in all 750 second-level schools.

Of course, reform of the curriculum is but one element of improving quality in schools. Equally important is ensuring high-quality teaching in all classrooms. Earlier this year I commenced section 30 of the Teaching Council Act 2001 which ensured only qualified teachers could be paid to teach children. This will ensure the 87,000 teachers on the payroll are properly qualified by their own professional organisation, the Teaching Council. This year we will amend the vetting legislation to ensure anyone working in a school will be vetted by the Garda. I will be amending the Teaching Council Act later this year. This will give the Teaching Council a broader range of actions to prevent below-standard teaching. These changes will supplement the improvements to initial teacher education which I have discussed in this House previously.

A key mechanism for continually improving the quality of schools is increasing the accountability of schools to their communities. We have already ensured parents receive a detailed end-of-year report on their children's progress, including the results of standardised tests in literacy and numeracy. We will extend this assessment and reporting into secondary school as the new junior cycle arrangements are introduced. We have increased the frequency of school inspections and ensured that, for the first time, parents' and students' views are fully incorporated into inspections. The chief inspector has published national analyses of inspection findings, providing more detail than has ever been previously available. Since 2012, schools have been working to implement a model of school self-evaluation, SSE, which allows them to reflect on their own performance and requires them to produce a school self-evaluation report and school improvement plan by the end of the current school year. By June this year, each school will provide a short summary of its self-evaluation report and improvement plan for parents. For the first time, parents will be provided with details of how schools are seeking to make improvements to their practice. This is how we will empower parents and make schools accountable to their communities.

As we all know, Ireland has changed significantly in recent decades. It is now more diverse than ever before. It is essential that schools reflect that diversity, which is why I will focus on supporting inclusion and diversity in the coming year, as I have done in the past. I have mentioned my determination to work with the Catholic Church to ensure a wider range of schools are available to communities. This year will also see the publication of a White Paper on patronage and pluralism which will help to confirm that all schools, regardless of ethos, are welcoming, inclusive spaces.

Today the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education and Social Protection provided me with its pre-legislative report on the admissions to schools legislation. The Bill will support parents by requiring that open, fair and transparent enrolment processes are in place in all schools, both primary and post-primary.

During 2014 a parents' and learners' charter will be created and underpinned by legislation. The charter will put the voices of parents and learners even more at the heart of the operation of schools. As a first step in that regard, schools have just concluded ballots among parents on school uniform policies to allow parents a say on one of the biggest back-to-school costs they face.

Allowing for the diversity in society and putting the voices of citizens at the heart of schools are essential elements of creating inclusive schools. Equally important is the question of how we can better support children with special educational needs. In the coming weeks the National Council for Special Education will publish a proposal for a new model for teacher allocations to support children with special needs. This new model will allow us to improve equity within the system and I look forward to discussing it with Members of the House in greater detail when it is available. Also in 2014 we will build on the continuously encouraging results from DEIS - the action plan for educational disadvantage. We now have clear evidence that this programme is working and is a positive force in tackling educational disadvantage.

The final theme on which I wish to focus is the question of how we can best create opportunities for adults in Ireland. As I mentioned, the Government has supported over 60,000 people in returning to employment in the past year. However, an unemployment rate of 12% still demands that we focus relentlessly on providing people with pathways to and back to work. The creation of SOLAS and the local education and training boards, ETBs, was necessary to allow for reforms in this area. By 1 July this year, the transfer of all remaining training centres to the ETBs will be completed. This will conclude the consolidation of the delivery of all further education and training places in these local boards. I congratulate and thank all those who have assisted in this massive logistical exercise which has been very successful, due no doubt to their co-operation.

By the end of this month, SOLAS will submit to me the first ever five-year strategy for the consolidated further education and training sector. SOLAS will be to that sector what the Higher Education Authority is to the 39 higher education institutes across the country. It will co-ordinate and communicate and, in many cases, fund the provision of further education. Unlike its predecessor, FÁS, it will not be a direct provider. The strategy will set out how further education and training can support the Pathways to Work strategy. It will also show our ambition to improve adult literacy and numeracy, community education, etc.

Within the next few months I will be publishing an implementation plan for reform of the apprenticeship system. The reporting body, chaired by Mr. Kevin Duffy, the current chairman of the Labour Court, submitted its report to me just prior to Christmas. It sets out how we can have a modern apprenticeship system fit for the 21st century. I hope the response from the partners examining the report will be positive and constructive. The objective is to allow more people to gain access to high-quality apprenticeships across a much broader range of sectors.

In the higher education sector we need to keep developing the regional clusters that will allow for inefficiencies and unnecessary duplication to be removed from the system. New legislation, currently with the Oireachtas education committee, will improve the governance of the institutes of technology. In line with the programme for Government commitment, this legislation will allow for the creation of technological universities, thus creating clear pathways for institutes in the south-east, south and Dublin regions. First, they will be able to come together, as required in the legislation, and move down the necessary path of improved performance and capacity such that they will be deemed to qualify for technological university status. That status will not be determined by me or any other politician but adjudicated upon by an international group of experts. It will report to the HEA objectively on the standards achieved by the applicant institutions.

I have focused today on three themes: quality and accountability in schools; supporting inclusion and diversity; and creating the right opportunities for adults. These themes summarise my approach to reform. However, they do not capture all of the reforms under way. I wish to mention a few other areas for the record of the House.

First, I have not made any reference to school buildings, although 2014 will see a €100 million increase in expenditure over 2013. The replacement of prefabricated accommodation and the roll-out of a summer works scheme will also bring significant improvements to our schools this year and will provide very welcome employment in the areas where those schools are situated.

The legislation to preserve the records relating to child abuse will ensure that the most shameful part of our history is never forgotten. The 18 religious congregations only consented to participate in the process on condition that the records would be destroyed. I have written to the congregations and informed them of my intention to preserve those records through legislation passed with the consent of this House. The records would be locked away for an acceptable period of time, which would be for the House to decide, such as for over 70 years. Nobody who is alive or anybody related to them should be identifiable in any way if they choose not to be and if they entered into the process on the understanding that the records would be destroyed. It would be a criminal act against history to destroy such records. Future generations must have access to them to understand that never again can this Republic do such damage to people as happened in the past. The legislation is quite important and I am glad that, so far, I have received positive responses from the people directly involved.

The implementation of the action plan on bullying will be continued, with a budget of €500,000 during 2014. We will continue to work to reduce the pressure on leaving certificate students by making changes to the transition between school and third level education. I will explain what I mean. Twelve years ago young people who were preparing for their mock examinations, if they had not already done them, and for the last lap before doing their leaving certificate examinations would have completed their Central Applications Office, CAO, forms by this stage. In completing that form they would have had a choice of approximately 400 courses from the 39 third level institutions. Now, students are beset with an amazing 900 courses. There has not been an increase in course provision per se in terms of overall capacity; there has just been a mix-and-match of a great deal of what was already available. It is very difficult and confusing for students and their parents and advisers to navigate that landscape. We have therefore asked the institutions and the State Examinations Commission to deal with the issue because it is very stressful for our young people.

Where do we go next? Across all of the Government and in education, it is clear that real and substantial progress has been made over our three years in office. Now we have a chance to look to the future, a better future. It is a future where our economy is stable and sustainable, where the recovery is shared by all of our people, where all of our people leave school with the skills they need for work and for life, where the financial burden of school costs on parents has been eased a little and where we return to full employment for all those seeking work, but where we do not subsequently throw it all away.

The new legislation currently with the education committee will improve the governance of our institutes of technology.

In conclusion, I commend the actions this Government has taken. We have not always been right. I certainly have not, and I have made mistakes. When one is making decisions one makes mistakes, but if I got eight out of ten right I think I am way ahead of the posse. When we make mistakes, the first thing we must do is to listen to the Opposition and Members of the House and, where it is clearly established that mistakes have been made, we should be capable of saying we got this thing wrong and we will repair it within the budgetary framework. We have done that on this side of the House. I invite the parties and Members on the other side of the House to reflect on all the advice they gave and all the accusations they made to us three years ago, to look at how far we have travelled and to take stock of the progress we have made, despite their worst or best projections.

I am pleased to report to the House on the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and its agencies, which are responsible for 23 recommendations in the programme for Government, and on the substantive progress that has been made on virtually all of these recommendations.

My Department's actions under the programme for Government cover a wider range of activities, including achieving good outcomes from EU and international negotiations; developing the meat, dairy, food, aquaculture and sea fisheries sectors; progressing Food Harvest 2020 and specifically developing a brand image for Irish agrifood; supporting young farmers, the environment and animal welfare; and assisting integrated marine policy. I will summarise the position on each of these areas.

With regard to EU negotiations, our main priorities over the past year were to achieve financial and policy clarity on the multi-annual financial framework, MFF, and to achieve nationally desirable outcomes on the review of the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, and the Common Fisheries Policy, CFP. Deputies will recall that the EU seven-year budget was agreed last year with guaranteed funding of €1.5 billion per year for Ireland. The CAP agreement was delivered under the Irish Presidency in June. It was hugely significant and provides a sound policy framework for the sustainable development of the agriculture sector up to 2020 and beyond. The key aspects of the reformed CAP are as follows. There is a continuation of a redeveloped single farm payment system which benefits active farmers, supports farm incomes and provides a direct payment ceiling for Ireland of over €1.2 billion per year. The system agreed included an option of a partial convergence model. This was developed by the Irish Presidency and agreed by the Commission, and in our view it provides for a fairer and more equitable system than that originally proposed by the Commission. In 2013, more than €1.18 billion was paid on foot of almost 130,000 applications under the single farm payment scheme and a further €200 million under the disadvantaged areas scheme. There is a new rural development regulation which sets the parameters for Ireland's rural development programme, greater market orientation allied to safety net provisions in case of severe market disturbance and flexibility for member states to adapt policy measures to deal with specific challenges.

Reform of the Common Fisheries Policy was also secured during the Irish Presidency. This included higher fish quotas, the retention of fish quotas as a public asset and the phasing out of fish discards at sea. Political agreement on the common organisation of the markets regulation was also reached. Both initiatives placed sustainability at the core of fisheries policy and strengthened the competitiveness of the EU industry. Quotas of 270,000 tonnes were secured for Irish fishermen for 2014. This is worth €260 million to the fishing industry and is an increase of 2% on last year.

Further major initiatives are planned under the new rural development programme. Approximately €4 billion in national and EU funding will be made available under this programme for rural development over the seven-year period. A draft programme has already been developed. This has a strong emphasis on sustainability and is also strategically aligned with the Food Harvest 2020 environmental assessment report.

The Department is assessing the many submissions received under the recent public consultation process, and our intention is to submit the final draft to the European Commission by the end of June. Proposals under consideration include a substantial new agri-environment and climate scheme, GLAS; continued strong support for disadvantaged areas; incentives for on-farm capital investment; knowledge transfer and innovation measures; and a new beef data and genomics measure.

Internationally, on foot of technical and diplomatic activities, ministerial-led trade missions and extensive trade negotiations, a series of valuable new market and trade outlets for Irish produce were gained in 2013. These include the first steps in opening of the US market to EU beef; opening the prestigious Japanese market to Irish beef, which will be worth approximately €12 million to €15 million annually; opening the UAE market for sheepmeat; opening the Libyan market for livestock; opening the Australian market for pigmeat; opening the Iranian market for beef; opening the Canadian market for sheepmeat; opening the Chinese market for salmon; and being permitted access to the Russian market for meat products previously excluded.

In 2014 we will build on these achievements. Expansion and innovation in the meat, dairy, food, aquaculture and sea fisheries sectors are key priorities for Food Harvest 2020. In preparation for the dairy-quota-free environment, the Department is providing a range of supports to assist farmers to exploit fully their potential for expansion and development. Dairy supports encompass the new entrants to dairying scheme and the dairy efficiency and development programmes, which are designed to encourage the adoption of best practice management and production methods on Irish farms.

Beef farmers are assisted by the beef technology adoption programme, BTAP, the suckler cow welfare scheme, the beef data programme and the BETTER farm programme. All of these schemes are geared towards improving the performance of beef enterprises by sharing knowledge, improving breeding data, and expanding expertise, technical and financial advice. In 2013, €10 million was provided for the beef data programme and 6,200 farmers received payments amounting to €5.1 million under the 2013 BTAP programme. In addition, the new 2014 beef genomics scheme, with a budget of €23 million, will improve the quality of suckler calves in participating herds and will develop a training population to allow for further genetic improvements in the national beef herd.

On the processing side, the dairy sector has already planned for increased processing capacity post-2015 and key global players, in conjunction with Enterprise Ireland, are committing to significant new capital investments. To plan for a 60% increase in milk production, Glanbia has committed to a €150 million capital investment in a new major dairy processing unit; Dairygold is investing in its Mitchelstown plant and is proposing a €90 million investment for a new dryer in Mallow; and Kerry Co-op is developing its Charleville plant to enhance its infant formula project with Beingmate, its Chinese partner. In addition, the Irish Dairy Board announced a €20 million investment in a Saudi dairy company and Kerry Foods has opened a new development centre to cater for specific customer tastes in the Middle East. Both of these projects will lead to increased exports of Irish milk powders.

The food industry's contribution to the Irish economy is very significant, as more than three quarters of its expenditure is on Irish goods and services. It will deal with unemployment issues throughout rural Ireland. We have taken a strong stand on all aspects of agriculture, including organic and green farming and supporting young farmers throughout the country. I am very pleased to support what the Government is doing with regard to harnessing the potential of rural Ireland, particularly with regard to food and agriculture.

Deputy Robert Troy will share time with Deputies Jonathan O'Brien and Catherine Murphy.

I am disappointed that Opposition spokespersons do not have an opportunity to speak to the Minister they shadow. The way the Government tabled the agenda of the House is a retrograde step. That being said, I am delighted to have an opportunity to speak about the Department of Education and Skills and the Minister, Deputy Quinn. I am disappointed he is not here because he stated that he welcomes criticism and an opportunity to admit where he has gone wrong. I will give him a hand to refresh his memory on where he has gone wrong in recent years as we see it.

Fianna Fáil believes a high-quality education is a basic right for all of our people and that prioritisation and development of our education system must also be at the core of our drive to strengthen and rebuild our economy. Throughout the 31st Dáil, the Fianna Fáil party has put the education of our children front and centre. Our first Dáil motion in opposition debated education and called on the Government to protect the education budget and front-line services. Our very first policy conference after the election in 2011 was devoted to education. Our budget submissions for 2012 and 2013 committed to protecting education and our submission for budget 2014 reiterated this commitment.

I want to acknowledge some positive measures the Minister has taken since assuming office. The establishment of Quality and Qualifications Ireland is a welcome move in streamlining our qualifications and quality assurance framework for further and higher education and one which my party fully supported. I also commend the Minister on progressing plans to reform the further education and training sector by merging the training side of FÁS with our VECs through the passage of the Education and Training Boards Act and the establishment of SOLAS. These are progressive moves which my party fully supported and on which work had been started by the previous Government. I also commend the Minister on initiating work on a schools admissions Bill, which will help bring clarity to school admissions policies throughout the country.

However, on the whole the Minister's performance and track record bear little resemblance to the picture consistently painted in his rhetoric. The Minister likes to portray himself as delivering change and a break with the past in our education system. He has delivered change and a break with the past, especially with regard to his own past commitments. We saw change with the most flagrant breaking of a promise not to increase the third level contribution. This is what change has too often meant with the Minister - changing his mind and breaking his election commitments. The Minister, Deputy Quinn, must take responsibility for the decisions he has taken and explain to the students of Ireland why he is systematically breaking his promise not to increase the student contribution fee. Blaming the previous Government for these decisions simply does not wash. We are not the ones who signed public pledges not to introduce further fee increases in the days leading up to the general election. The Government was elected based on promises it had no intention of keeping. During the election campaign the Labour Party pledged to reverse the €500 increase in the student services charge and the €200 charge for post-leaving certificate courses which had been introduced by Fianna Fáil. In February 2011, the Tánaiste, Deputy Eamon Gilmore, stated that the Labour Party was opposed to third level fees by either the front or the back door. These promises were made in full knowledge of the fiscal situation. Fine Gael and the Labour Party were consistently opposed to increasing the student contribution while in opposition, stating it was unfair on students. Not only did the Minister, Deputy Quinn, break his election pledge, but he has gone much further and will have increased the contribution a total of four times by 2015.

The fact is the Minister, Deputy Quinn, is overseeing the largest increase in student fees of any Minister for Education and Skills.

Sadly it would appear the Minister has no similar intention of reversing his decision to hike the pupil-teacher ratio in small schools. The protection of small schools is a critical issue for Fianna Fáil and we believe that Government changes announced in budget 2012 unfairly targeted rural communities. His policy of introducing phased staffing cuts in small schools with under five teachers is a cause of serious concern in many local communities. The local national school is at the heart of many rural communities across Ireland. Even more than a post office or a sports club, it is where parents, children and families meet five days a week during the school year. It is invaluable in terms of building a sense of community. For a small school to retain a second teacher in September 2014, it will need 20 pupils, an increase of eight pupils or a 66.6% increase on the position that obtained in 2011. A 14% increase is needed to retain a third teacher and a 7% increase is needed to retain a fourth teacher. This is clear evidence the Government is consciously and deliberately targeting small schools. As this attack on small schools is being combined with a hike in school transport costs, not only is the Government seeking to make children travel further to school, it will charge them more for transport as well.

In the decade before 2010, there was a substantial increase in the resources provided to small schools in respect of teacher numbers, teaching support staff and the physical infrastructure, with new or upgraded classrooms and ancillary accommodation. These decisions were made and that investment was made because Fianna Fáil perceives local primary schools as an irreplaceable part of community life. The Government's attack on small schools is a source of great concern, particularly for those from minority faiths. For example, nearly half of Protestant primary schools have fewer than 56 pupils. As Fine Gael and the Labour Party cannot be unaware of this, surely the only conclusion to be drawn is they place a diminished value in comparison to previous Governments on protecting the rights of minorities in the Republic. Rural schools must be given greater flexibility. They are much more vulnerable to changes. A small school's viability could be threatened by the decision of just one family with three children to move house. There also are signs of a double jeopardy effect whereby parents who fear their child will not be able to spend eight years in the same school decide to go elsewhere and it then turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy. The loss of a school has a dispiriting effect on a community and a detrimental economic effect and jobs also will be lost. Consequently, to protect rural Ireland, communities, jobs and minorities, one must support the smaller schools and Fianna Fáil calls for the reversal of these changes.

I wish to touch on another issue that means a lot to primary schools and the families that attend them, that is, the supports the Government provides towards the cost of book rental schemes. Sadly, the Government appears to have no intention of reversing its highly discriminatory policy of excluding schools that already have commenced a book rental scheme from a new State-supported initiative. The Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Quinn, announced funding for school book rental schemes amid great fanfare in the recent budget. However, it now turns out that 76% of primary schools, which had the foresight to begin their own book rental schemes, will not see a cent. At the time of the announcement, the Minister neglected to state that he only will provide funding to those schools that have no scheme at present. He will not compensate schools that made sacrifices, cut their budget elsewhere or fund-raised heavily to establish their own book rental schemes. It means that schools that took the initiative in seeking to ease the cost of the school books bill for parents now are being penalised by the Minister, Deputy Quinn. This discrimination also extends to schools that are due to have growing pupil numbers and will need to invest in expanding their book rental schemes. They too will not have access to the new State funding and will be obliged to fund-raise to make the necessary changes to their own scheme. If the Minister truly believes in the value of this policy, he must start to show some flexibility in its operation. Schools that need to make improvements or extend their school book rental programmes must be supported by the State in so doing. Moreover, many of the schools that took the initiative in this regard were those catering for children of families with lower incomes in which the school management, principal and staff realised the cost of school books was placing an undue burden on such families and took the initiative to fund-raise. These are the families which are being discriminated against the most. It was not schools in well-off areas that introduced school book schemes. What kind of message does it send out to schools and parents who take the initiative to improve the facilities for students off their own bat? The actions of the Minister, Deputy Quinn, will discourage such initiative by schools in the future.

I have other-----

I apologise to the Deputy but I must call Deputy O'Brien as we are out of time.

I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle and will conclude on that point.

I call Deputy O'Brien and note we are going into Private Members' time at 7.30 p.m.

This debate will adjourn at 7.30 p.m.

While the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Quinn, is not in the Chamber, he will read back the Official Report of the debate and consequently, I will focus on education although the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, is present. I wish to touch on some of the issues the Minister raised in his contribution. I will be the first to recognise that due to the economic situation in which we found ourselves and in which the current Government found itself on entering office, huge challenges existed, particularly in respect of the bigger portfolios such as social protection and education. Moreover, given that the budgets have been cut on an annual basis since the Government took office, these challenges have been compounded by that fact. That said, I have put on record previously that some decisions taken by the Minister probably have led to some of the most radical and reforming legislation this House has ever seen in the area of education. I refer to the policy and legislation he has brought forward with regard to Quality and Qualifications Ireland, QQI, the establishment of the education and training boards and the Further Education and Training Act 2013, on which I commend the Minister. Moreover, I pledge my continuing support for what he is doing, particularly in respect of further education and higher education and what he is trying to achieve for adult learners.

However, he also took some decisions that neither I nor my party would have taken had we been in his position. The position with regard to career guidance counsellors and removing the ex quota allocation was a retrograde step. Moreover, the evidence now is beginning to back up that analysis, when one notes the number of one-to-one consultations by students on career guidance is falling consistently. This will have a detrimental impact on student welfare and the longer this goes unchanged or not reversed, the greater that impact will be. The Minister has made a personal mission of junior cycle reform. It is a highly difficult area and I can understand from where the Minister is coming and what he is trying to achieve. However, the way he has gone about it has created a situation in which he now has difficulties in trying to implement what he set out to achieve. For all his good intentions, I believe he got off on the wrong foot when he completely disregarded the recommendations from the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, NCCA, and went on a solo run. Moreover, the lack of consultation at the very outset now has come back to haunt the Minister and the difficulties he is encountering in trying to implement this particular policy now are evident. I note that discussions are under way with both teaching unions to try to resolve some of those outstanding issues and one awaits the outcome of these discussions.

The Minister touched on three areas in his contribution and I wish to refer briefly to a couple of them before this debate is adjourned for Private Members' business. The first pertains to SOLAS and I am aware the Minister will take delivery of a five-year strategy from SOLAS in the coming weeks. That strategy will be highly important in respect of the provision of further education and training in this State. This strategy document will face huge challenges because if one considers the objectives of SOLAS, on the face of it a number of them are contradictory.