I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Michael Ahern, to the House. This debate is important in terms of our economy and people's confidence in it. Nobody can deny that the economy has done well and we are all proud of how well the country has done over the past number of years. However, we want to ensure the economy continues to grow and that growth is sustained through good infrastructure. We must put systems in place through legislation on the built environment that will make the economy work well for the business person, employers and consumers.
I wish to mention a number of areas where our competitiveness is not as it should be or where there is room for improvement. We need much work on our infrastructure. I live in a part of Fingal which has seen tremendous growth over the past number of years, due in no small part to Dublin Airport, of which we are proud. It has brought inward investment to the Fingal area, the eastern region and Ireland generally. It is important we make the necessary changes and improvements to Dublin Airport to ensure its competitiveness is maintained. Monopolies do not help competitiveness. When we talk about redevelopments or improvements at Dublin Airport and the provision of a second terminal, we must ensure that through our decisions we provide a competitive environment and do not maintain the current monopoly.
We should also look at our public private partnership arrangements which deliver major infrastructure to the country. We need to ensure that they work properly and that structures are put in place to ensure they will deliver the best infrastructure possible. Improvements can be made in this area.
We must also examine our communications system. It is not delivering a competitive environment. Take, for example, the position of broadband. In November 2004 broadband was in only 6% of our homes. This falls way behind the European average. We should be near the top of the league in this respect and should ensure we are to the fore with our communications. We are falling behind. There are many companies that would be more competitive and better equipped if they had broadband. Many people who work from home, whether for pleasure or business, should be connected to broadband. The sooner we tackle that problem and provide broadband nationwide, the better it will be for us all in ensuring we can be a competitive nation.
The phrase "rip-off Ireland" has been well used and is well deserved. Ireland has reached a stage where it is very expensive to do even the simplest things. To move about and to purchase even the basic necessities costs more than elsewhere in Europe. Between 2001 and 2002, Ireland overtook the United Kingdom and Sweden to become the third most expensive country in the European Union for consumer goods and services. By 2003, Ireland was almost on a par with Finland as the most expensive country within the eurozone. Both countries were significantly more expensive than the next group of eurozone countries.
Dublin is now the 21st most expensive city in the world, a placing that does not give us any reason to be proud. The capital city is more expensive than Los Angeles, Miami, Singapore, Honolulu, Vienna, Helsinki and Abu Dhabi. Dublin is the fourth most expensive capital in the European Union, behind only London, Paris and Copenhagen. This situation does not provide for competitiveness. We are falling behind. We need to tackle the impediments to our competitiveness and provide rights to our consumers so that they have confidence in the economy.
The National Competitiveness Council said Irish prices rose 22% more than those in other EU countries in the years 1999 to 2003. Mr. Jim Power, the chief economist with Friends First, has stated: "Irish competitiveness has been seriously eroded by a sharp increase in the overall cost base, which will not be reversible." That does not inspire confidence in the consumer and the Government's response has not been adequate.
Budget 2005 was the latest opportunity the Government had to tackle increased prices and taxes and competitiveness. Since the last election, the Government has hit the taxpayer 34 times with new and increased taxes and charges. For example, in 2002 VAT increased by 8%; the drug refund scheme threshold increased by 31%; bank card charges increased by 108%; ESB bills soared by 13%; bus fares increased by 9%; VHI charges increased by 8.5%; and many other charges were increased, including those for accident and emergency department visits and waste disposal. Many stealth taxes are being imposed on the consumer and his or her final tax bill does not reflect the total tax he or she has paid when stealth taxes are taken into account. The increases in such taxes in recent years is worrying. They sneak up on people. Many people do not even realise the amount of additional tax they pay. This leads to high inflation. Is it sustainable? How far can the Government go?
Ireland has fallen in the World Economic Forum's global competitiveness report from fourth in 2002 to 32nd, due mainly to the Government's failure to control prices. A great deal needs to be done to tackle increasing costs. If the Government fails to do so, many businesses will close and jobs will be lost. Traffic congestion in Dublin and other cities is costing employers heavily as employees experience delays getting to and from work. Many people who live outside Dublin but work in the city centre spend two hours commuting in each direction daily. What a waste of money. Dublin Chamber of Commerce regularly comments on how much traffic congestion costs the economy. If the Government took decisions on infrastructure quickly, the competitiveness issue would be tackled. We need a Government that will take such decisions to put the infrastructure in place and, for example, reopen the rail line between Navan and Dublin all the way to Navan and not only to Dunboyne, provide more buses and expand the Luas. Other countries less well off than Ireland have such infrastructure in place. These decisions need to be taken quickly or the economy will suffer and jobs will be lost. American companies, in particular, cannot understand why decisions are not being taken to tackle the congestion on our roads. I ask the Minister of State to address that as soon as possible.