Order of Business.

It is proposed to take No. 1, Ombudsman for Children Bill, 2001 – Second Stage. It is proposed, notwithstanding anything in Standing Orders, that Second Stage of No. 1, if not previously concluded, shall be brought to a conclusion at 7 p.m. Private Members' Business shall be No. 74, Road Traffic (Joyriding) Bill, 2002 – Second Stage and the proceedings on the Second Stage thereof shall, if not previously concluded, be brought to a conclusion at 8.30 p.m. on Wednesday, 24 April 2002.

There are two proposals to put to the House. Is the proposal for dealing with No. 1 agreed? Agreed. Is the proposal for dealing with Private Members' Business agreed? Agreed. We now move on to leaders' questions.

Has the Taoiseach read this Administration's obituary, published yesterday by the ESRI, which says that, already, the Government's budgetary position is €1 billion off target, that we are facing a budgetary deficit of €2 billion and that there is a risk next year of the Government breaching the fiscal guidelines laid down in the Maastricht treaty and the stability and growth pact? It states that our inflation rate is the highest in Europe, that there is a danger to competitiveness and that, in effect, under the present Administration pursuing the present policies, the party is over, the kitty is empty and the next Government is going to be left to pick up the pieces.

In addition to the questions posed by the Leader of the Fine Gael Party, having regard to what has been published by the ESRI and the fact that the Taoiseach's Department had access to preliminary data in the Department of Finance, was his speech to the Fianna Fáil Ard Fheis some weeks ago an exercise in total fiction or was he, in effect, trying to say to people that they could have all things without having to pay for them? In that speech he said all the things promised would be achieved without recourse to borrowing or without any increase in taxation. However, in a subsequent interview the Minister for Health and Children admitted that borrowing for capital purposes in respect of health would be required and he thought there was no difficulty in regard to borrowing. As recently as this morning the Minister for Finance finally put the nail in the coffin of his own Ard Fheis speech by stating borrowing would be necessary. Can we take it that the official position of the Fianna Fáil Party as enunciated with regard to economic strategy at the Fianna Fáil Ard Fheis has now been overtaken by events and can be properly binned?

I welcome the ESRI's quarterly economic commentary which accords with the budget figures. I am pleased the country is moving towards a position of just under 4% growth this year and it will probably move to 5% or 6% growth next year when we will clearly be back into a growth cycle. The report indicates that fundamentally the economy is not just performing well but is out-performing most countries in the European Union and in the OECD, which is welcome. It indicates that employment growth continues to grow, that there will be a general Government surplus this year and, if it goes into decline next year, it will not be by a significant amount, that the debt GDP ratio and debt GNP ratio will be at an all time low of 36% from the former high rates we suffered and €1 billion in interest payments have been saved in the past five years. It also indicates that we must continue to manage the economy well and watch carefully wage increases and wage inflation. These are issues to which I have subscribed for the past 15 years.

I put it to the Taoiseach that all fiscal management ceased approximately 18 months ago, expenditure has increased over the past two years by 40%, current expenditure continues to increase by in excess of 20% and whatever cutbacks are being made by the Government have been made on the capital side. This is a totally incorrect prioritisation because while one grows current expenditure one is cutting the capital expenditure to be invested in the infrastructure necessary to keep growth rates going forward. The Taoiseach knows, not just as Taoiseach but as a former Minister for Finance, this is totally unsustainable. What are his intentions in the dying days of the Government? What signal will he give the Irish people in respect of public expenditure which is totally out of control?

I do not subscribe to most of what Deputy Noonan said. If we look back over the past few years and what happened last year as a result of the foot and mouth disease outbreak and the slow down in the ICT sector following 11 September, revenue decreased even though economic growth was still healthy enough. All the figures for this year indicate that growth will be close to 4%.

The ESRI indicates it will be 3.2%.

I am optimistic about growth—

It will be close.

The Taoiseach without interruption.

We will get back to the order of 6%. It is clear the next Administration must ensure it will continue to manage matters as was done during the life of this Administration.

We hope not.

We have moved to a position where we were able to spend extra on public expenditure. We were able to do so because in the past five years we decreased the general Government debt GDP ratio from 65% to 35%. That 30% decrease meant €1 billion less in interest payments which allowed us to spend the money on health, education and other services and to manage the economy effectively. We have the lowest debt in Europe while still reducing unemployment. The ESRI report put down two health warnings, including the fact that we must continue to manage public expenditure, which we do.

The argument about whether it is current or capital expenditure does not matter in European terms or in our overall figures.

Statistically it does not but in the economy—

Statistically we are spending approximately £5.4 billion on the capital programme. These are unheard of figures. If we said a few years ago we would spend anything more than £1 billion people would have been out drinking champagne.

We were told to do that.

(Interruptions.)

The Taoiseach, without interruption.

We have an NDP programme of £52 billion. The fact is that Deputy Noonan, who has been responsible in regard to finance, wishes to congratulate me on the way I managed the country in the past five years.

(Interruptions.)

I call Deputy Quinn on another question.

I suspect this may be the last leader's question in this Dáil, therefore I will ask the Taoiseach the following question as succinctly as I can. Having regard to the importance of electricity to the knowledge-based economy as a primary source of energy, does the Taoiseach agree the ESB should be retained within the strategic ownership of the State? Is he of the view that there should be no proposal to privatise the ESB having regard to the necessity to ensure the sovereignty of this State relates also to the management of the economy? Does he agree the ownership and control of the ESB within that context is of strategic national importance?

The Taoiseach knows the Tánaiste, Deputy Harney. Is this the same Tánaiste who 12 months ago upscuttled the ESB's plans to invest in Poland because, as she put it, it needed to get its own house in order before it invested in Poland? Have things changed so radically in the ESB that it is now a candidate for sale, in the middle of deregulation, with less progress made in the deregulation of electricity supply in this country than anywhere else in Europe? Surely this is nonsense proposed by the Tánaiste to try to put clear blue water between herself and the Taoiseach's failed Administration.

Does the Taoiseach think it is a dimwit proposal?

I do not have any ideological objection to equity investment in State companies generally. As I said on many occasions during my time in the Departments of Labour and Finance, as Taoiseach and as Leader of the Opposition, every case must be taken on its merits and strategies, taking into account some of the issues Deputy Quinn has mentioned, including the interest of the country and its staff and the benefits for the country. We have gone through that process with a number of State companies and a number of others have been looked at. There is already ESB generation competition, participation of the staff in ESB equity and a desire to continue down that road. These issues can only take place with the agreement of the staff and the strategic use of the company into the future.

What is the Taoiseach's answer?

The Deputy should listen.

As this is a leader's question, only the leader is entitled to ask a question.

The Deputy is continually undermining his leader. He might come back as leader, but he is not yet leader and I do not think he will be when we come back.

Since the Taoiseach moved my office—

Bring back the president.

The Taoiseach without interruption, please.

The Taoiseach is mixing his positives and negatives.

You will not lose—

Deputy Reynolds, please.

Any State company must be looked at on a case by case basis in conjunction with the staff representatives and the boards of such companies. The ESB is not in that position.

Do I take it from what the Taoiseach finally said that he shares my view that State ownership of the ESB, shared in part by the 14.9% equities held by the workforce within the ESB, is a matter of strategic importance central to the sovereignty of this nation state and its ability to manage its own economy within the European Union and that he does not share the view that it should be sold? Is that an accurate statement of the Taoiseach's position?

As I said, and not for the first time – I published a document on this some years ago – the sale of any State company must be looked at on a case by case basis with the agreement of the board and staff.

Look at the ESB.

The ESB is not, as of now, in that position. What position it will be in in a number of years is a different matter.

We now move to questions on the Order of Business.

I read that the Taoiseach was embarrassed at the Irish football team having to play on water-logged pitches. Is he embarrassed that children needing speech therapy have to wait four years—

That matter does not arise on the Order of Business.

Please give me a moment.

The Deputy is entitled to ask a question appropriate to the Order of Business.

I wish to ask about the disability Bill. May I ask my question?

Thank you. I wish to ask about the disability Bill which the Government had to ignominiously withdraw. Does the Taoiseach believe that children with a disability should have, as a matter of legal right, an entitlement to speech therapy services?

That matter does not arise. The Deputy knows he is being disorderly.

As I stated last week, discussions with the relevant Minister are ongoing.

(Dublin West): Was the Taoiseach, when he referred yesterday to the Tánaiste as a nitwit, referring—

That matter does not arise on the Order of Business.

(Dublin West): —to the Abbotstown project and the Progressive Democrats' objection to it or was he objecting to their swindling privatisation programme and the annihilation of the public sector?

The Deputy must ask a question appropriate to the Order of Business. I call Deputy Owen.

That is one of the more important questions.

The question is not appropriate to the Order of Business.

Perhaps the Taoiseach will tell us if he proposes to introduce legislation to provide for the use of words such as those he used to describe his coalition partner?

(Dublin West): The Taoiseach should clarify his remarks.

I will try to stay in order because I know what I am about to ask cuts to the heart of our democracy and the right of people to vote. It will happen in your constituency, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle, as in any other.

As long as it is appropriate to the Order of Business, you are very welcome, Deputy.

I wish to raise a question regarding the Electoral (Amendment) Bill, 2002. It seems a little unreal to ask about proposed legislation given that the Dáil is to be dissolved tomorrow. There are serious concerns about people's right to vote in Dublin North, Dublin West and—

That does not arise on the Order of Business. I call Deputy Gilmore.

I have no other way of raising the matter. The roadshow that has gone around did not give a proper demonstration.

The Deputy will have to find another way of raising it. The matter has been ruled out of order by the Ceann Comhairle under Standing Order 31.

It is not possible for most people to see how the system works. When the three constituencies are disenfranchised, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle, you will be sorry you did not allow this issue to be discussed here.

The Chair has to implement Standing Orders. There is no provision for asking such questions on the Order of Business.

I realise that. Will the Taoiseach consider rushing through the Dáil tomorrow the Electoral (Amendment) Bill, 2002, in order to remove electronic voting so that the people in the three constituencies named will be able to cast their votes in a way that will stand up?

That question was dealt with last week. I call Deputy Gilmore. Deputy Owen, please resume your seat and allow Deputy Gilmore to speak. I will move to the Order of Business proper if the Deputy does not resume her seat.

We are the guinea pigs in Dublin West, Meath and Dublin North. Supposing we all lose our seats—

(Interruptions.)

Deputy Owen's colleague left the House last week having been disorderly on the same question. The Ceann Comhairle will facilitate the Deputy if she too wishes to leave the House.

If the Leas-Cheann Comhairle is going to throw Deputy Owen out of the House, he may have to throw me out also as I wish to raise the same question.

I want to make sure that the 75,000 people in my constituency will be able to vote properly in the election. I am glad I had a chance to raise this matter and I hope something will be done about it.

Deputy Owen is being disorderly and she knows it. I call Deputy Gilmore.

The long promised Housing (Private Rented Sector) Bill has not yet been published. Will the Taoiseach say if it will not now be published and that the only thing the Government has done for tenants in the private rented sector over the past five years is to raise their rents and allow them to be evicted?

The heads of the Bill have been drafted and the Bill is currently being drafted.

I welcome electronic voting which indicates that one will cast one's vote by pressing a green button—

Deputy Sargent, I would prefer if you did not raise this matter again. It is totally out of order on the Order of Business.

This matter needs more clarification. On the Order of Business, given that the Tánaiste has already announced the general election, is it appropriate to ask about the Campus Stadium (Ireland) Bill, 2002, or does that fall with the Tánaiste's press conference?

The heads of the Bill have been approved and the Bill is being drafted. It will be passed in the next session.

It will become known as the nitwit Bill.

When will the land commission Bill to allow us to discuss the high level of interest being paid on land be introduced? Three years ago, the Minister for Finance—

The Deputy cannot make a Second Stage speech on the matter.

Three years ago, the Minister for Finance guaranteed assistance for those on high interest county council loans but nothing has, as yet, happened.

The Bill has not yet been introduced but the Deputy is making a Second Stage speech on it.

The heads of the Bill were passed in February and a Bill to deal with the issue raised is currently being drafted.