Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Thursday, 12 Jun 2003

Vol. 568 No. 3

National Economic and Social Development Office Bill 2002: Second Stage (Resumed).

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

There have, thankfully, been significant improvements in this country, but those of us who represent less-developed areas have an obligation to push for further inward investment and the economic development which is so important. Thankfully, emigration has stopped and people are returning to live in rural areas. We see a turn around in rural areas such as Cavan-Monaghan which suffered immensely due to the Troubles in the North of Ireland and depopulation. We want the necessary infrastructure to be put in place as quickly as possible to ensure that we promote further investment and job creation. This legislation is important in that it will provide a means of co-ordinating and linking the work of the National Economic and Social Council, the National Economic and Social Forum and the National Centre for Partnership and Performance.

I have been concerned in recent years by the growth of new organisations and bodies. The Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Ó Cuív, is right to streamline many of the various organisations which have been established at national and local levels. There is enough public money being spent, but it should be better targeted. There is too much duplication at local development level and in community and voluntary sector support.

I mentioned in this House some months ago that many of the executives and administrators of the community and voluntary groups supported by the State have much greater resources and backup than Oireachtas Members. I instanced that day the case of Opposition Front Bench spokespersons who have that additional responsibility apart from their work as Deputies. They do not have the resources they should have. Those of us who have been here for a few years appreciate the improvements there have been in recent years in support services provided to Dáil and Seanad Members.

We need further research and support services. Many of the people who are employed in local development and who may be in charge of community or resource centres will have a plethora of staff to help them. Oireachtas Members, who represent huge numbers of constituents, do not have that support. Their support consists of just one secretary each. All Members could contribute more handsomely to the ongoing discussions of bodies such as the National Economic and Social Forum if we had the time to do the necessary research or if research facilities and services were available to us.

In the Border region there have been many worthwhile schemes of financial assistance for regenerating areas that suffered immensely over the years, for rural regeneration and to wipe out urban blight. In many instances, however, the funding could be better directed and targeted at the people who should be the recipients. There is duplication and overlapping and the intended recipients do not always receive the benefits which were intended for them when the scheme was initiated. I hope the council to be established by this legislation will have some role in curtailing this type of organisation growth.

There has been a welcome increase in expenditure on infrastructure, such as water and sewerage schemes, in our towns and villages. That investment is enabling local authorities and private developers to provide additional housing in these areas, which has helped to ease pressure on the housing market in larger urban centres. In many instances, smaller towns and villages in rural areas have the necessary infrastructure of shops, schools, churches and community centres. Indeed, until recently that infrastructure would not have been utilised fully because of the low population. The decision to improve the water and sewerage infrastructure in these areas is particularly important for ensuring a better spread of population and better balance in economic growth.

I hope this council will have links with similar organisations in Northern Ireland. Since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 there has been increased co-operation at all levels between North and South. If it is not already provided for in the legislation, the remit of this body should be extended to facilitate working in close co-operation with similar bodies north of the Border. This island is too small to be divided and seen as two different economies. Significant benefits can be gained from researching projects and planning for the future on an all-island basis, rather than planning on a 26 county and six county basis.

The national spatial strategy demonstrates this forward thinking in that both Letterkenny and Derry contribute to the classification of one gateway centre. That is the right way to go. Similarly, Monaghan as a hub town is linked with Armagh while Cavan town is linked with Enniskillen. That is realistic planning. The towns of Armagh and Enniskillen are practically sister towns of Monaghan and Cavan and the growth of one will enhance the potential for the other towns to grow as well.

I hope the Government will be in a position to advance the decentralisation programme quickly. In this era of rapid telecommunications and important technological advances there should be no deterrent to entire Departments being decentralised to provincial centres. Members who live within 75 miles of Dublin are aware of neighbours who commute to Dublin each day to work, primarily in the public service. That burden on employees cannot enhance their lifestyles. Most provincial centres could cater adequately for a decentralised Department. The Government should make radical decisions in the decentralisation programme. The opportunity to do so exists because of technological advances.

The decentralisation of 150 or 200 civil servants to a provincial town would have a significant impact on the local economy. Towns the size of Cavan or Monaghan are particularly anxious to be considered for decentralised Departments. The Government, in considering decentralisation, should give particular recognition to the needs of the Border area, which has had particular difficulties for 30 years. Given the Good Friday Agreement and the need to regenerate the Ulster economy, the Government should bring public service employment to centres in the Border region. That is essential and I hope positive decisions will be made in that regard.

The new council should work in tandem with the all-Ireland bodies which have already been established as a result of the Good Friday Agreement. Waterways Ireland is one such body, as is InterTradeIreland, the special EU programmes body. Even though the political institutions in Northern Ireland are in suspension, the daily work of those bodies continues. The personnel employed in the bodies are drawn from north and south of the Border and they are continuing their daily work dealing with the issues of the day. The real benefit of the Good Friday Agreement is that these bodies are working well. It is a positive sign, especially when one hears so much negative talk about the political situation in Northern Ireland, to have these bodies working efficiently on an all-island basis and contributing to the economy.

I am delighted to have an opportunity to speak on this Bill. I will first comment on the three bodies concerned in putting together the National Economic and Social Development Office. The National Centre for Partnership and Performance has finalised its strategy and operational plan, which includes research into identifying best practices and developing new national strategies for partnership in the workplace.

The National Economic and Social Council was established in 1973. Its main task was to advise the Government on the development of the national economy and the achievement of social justice. Until 1997, the social partners represented on the NESC were the trade unions, the business and employer organisations and the agriculture and farming organisations. Since 1998 the community and voluntary sectors have also had representations on the council, and I understand that the Government also nominates civil servants and other independent members to the NESC.

The National Economic and Social Forum was set up in 1993 for the purpose of achieving consensus on major economic and social issues. Since 1998 the forum's work has focused on the evaluation and implementation of policies dealing with equality and social inclusion. The purpose of the Bill is to make provision for the establishment of a body known as the National Economic and Social Development Office, comprising the National Economic and Social Council, the National Economic and Social Forum and the National Centre for Partnership and Performance. These bodies will now form the new office and will continue to pursue their own distinct agendas.

The main provisions of the Bill include its function, which is covered in section 8, its composition, which is covered in sections 13 to 16, inclusive, the nomination procedures for ordinary membership of each of the bodies and the term of office of both the chairperson and the ordinary members of the various bodies. Most provisions of the Bill deal with the operating arrangements for the office and put into place on a statutory basis structures to ensure that the complementary roles of the three bodies are acknowledged and developed to support the country's economic and social fabric.

In principle, the Fine Gael Party is in favour of partnership but we feel that changes need to be made to the present arrangements. The first partnership agreement was signed back in 1987. I am sure the Minister of State will recall that there was a very high unemployment rate at the time of about 17.5%. There was also mass emigration. Over a five-year period about 160,000 people left the country. Not that many women were employed in the labour force either. Ireland has come a long way since the 1980s, when the country was hit by many economic disasters. Perhaps the model we have is outdated in a modern Ireland with a much more educated workforce, a country that has achieved a lot over the last 20 years. Modern technology and telecommunications have changed the workplace and the workforce.

Membership of the European Union has also had a direct effect on the social fabric of the country. We have to comply with much more EU legislation, which has changed our society. With the imminent enlargement of the European Union to embrace many former eastern bloc countries, that fabric will change even more. There will be much greater movement of people throughout the European Union. We have seen the effect this has had in Ireland in recent times, with many foreign workers coming here to work in hotels and other industries throughout the country.

The recent downturn in the economy resulting in many job losses is a worrying trend. We currently have one of the highest inflation rates in Europe, and families now find it much more difficult to meet their financial commitments. About two weeks ago I watched on the news on RTE a comparison of two shopping baskets, one in Dublin and one in Brussels. The basket in Brussels was much cheaper then the one in Dublin. Brussels used to be known as the home of the Eurocrats and was always supposed to be much more expensive, but a basket of groceries is now much dearer in Dublin than in Brussels. The introduction of the euro has magnified this trend.

We can also see the effects of Deputy McCreevy's budget of December 2002, and the significant increases in VAT, fuel prices, health charges, third level registration fees and insurance costs, which have had a detrimental effect in many industries. We all know many small companies that have had to close their doors because insurance costs have driven them out of business. All of these factors are having an effect on people's salaries, together with the job losses that are being announced almost on a daily basis in various parts of the country

In my own constituency of Clare, the number of light industrial jobs lost in the last two years is fast approaching 500. That is worrying in a town like Ennis, which was designated as an information age town in the 1990s. People in Ennis thought that with information-age technology and every home having a computer, the area would be a magnet for that type of industry. Unfortunately that has not occurred and there have been many job losses in recent times.

The dwindling number of Ennis industrialists have spent the last two years watching their neighbours leave unchecked with virtually no replacement of jobs in the light industrial sector. There has also been an increase of about 12% in the numbers on the live register in Ennis over the last 12 months, so in real terms unemployment in Ennis has increased by 40% in the last two years. Very little has been done by this Government to attract new industry into the Ennis area. In fact, only last week two companies announced job losses in Shannon. The Minister of State, Deputy Tim O'Malley, will be aware of that. Lufthansa Technologies is shedding 29 jobs in the aviation business in Shannon over the next few months. We also had notification from Sifa, a company in the Shannon industrial estate, of about 65 job losses.

These are small numbers but this is happening on a regular basis. These job losses often go unnoticed by the media, but when one adds up the figures over a period of years they do amount to quite a lot of job losses. My colleague, Deputy Ring, spoke of the Shannon stopover. I point out to the House that there is no such thing as the Shannon stopover. We in the mid-west call it the Shannon gateway. This has been in place since 1947, and to call the Shannon gateway the Shannon stopover is a misrepresentation.

Jobs around the mid-west area are very dependent on Shannon Airport. I was disappointed last week that the Minister for Transport allowed his partners in the European Union the freedom to negotiate a new EU-US agreement without putting the case for Shannon before the Council of Ministers. I am a firm believer that what one has one keeps – and I am talking about the current bilateral arrangements with the US – until one gets something better. I am disappointed in that as I believe our case has been weakened in Europe, an issue of which I urge the Minister to take note. I am pleased to see that my constituency colleague, Deputy Killeen, has joined the debate. He is aware of the importance of Shannon Airport to the local economy, especially in the interest of balanced regional development and the national spatial strategy, launched last year, which designated Shannon as a gateway and Ennis as a hub.

Deputy O'Connor spoke about Tallaght in his constituency having almost every facility. By contrast, the IDA Ireland report for 2002, published last week, indicates that the west and mid-west were the worst performing regions in terms of the number of IDA Ireland job losses, despite the fact that the western region has Objective One status. It is an appalling situation given the decline in development in the region. IDA Ireland states the deficit is due to the easing of pressure in the Dublin region, which is causing more firms to invest in the capital rather than considering relocation to the regions.

Every flight lost to Shannon Airport has an attendant loss in terms of cargo facilities, which is very important for the region, including the western seaboard area. The region will not develop unless the necessary infrastructure is put in place. It is hoped that work on the Ennis bypass will commence in 2004, but further delays may be experienced in view of the slow implementation of the national development plan. Even the Institute of Engineers of Ireland main tains that it could take until 2016 to complete projects under the plan. I hope the money for the bypass will be put in place to allow work to commence in 2004. This three year project is needed, not only for Shannon Airport but as a gateway for the west. At present, many passengers travel to Dublin Airport because of the traffic jams at Gort and Ennis.

I hope the Minister for Finance will be in a position to approve Kilrush, Listowel and Newcastlewest as centres for decentralisation. These towns have been included in the ISDN application. Decentralisation will mean so much to a place like Kilrush, which has suffered depopulation and job losses. The relocation of one Department to the town would be the equivalent to the creation of 10,000 jobs in the greater Dublin area.

While Fine Gael does not want partnership at any price, we must develop a model to suit the workforce and employers. We do not want measures that will create rigidities in the economy or hurt workers or small business people. It would be better to have no agreement than one that will be detrimental to the economy.

Small businesses are not represented at partnership negotiations. Workers in large businesses or corporations have totally different concerns from those involved in small industries, yet small businesses must abide by the parameters of the partnership agreement. This can restrict their activities and sometimes drive them out of business. In my constituency of Clare, small businesses constitute the backbone of the economy in the county.

The challenge for social partnership is inclusion for all sectors of society, not only for the few with vested interests. I welcome the establishment of the National Economic and Social Development Office as it will provide for accountability to the Dáil. I hope the problems I have highlighted can be addressed.

Farming organisations are represented on the bodies concerned. Commissioner Fischler's proposals are subject to ongoing negotiations in Luxembourg this afternoon. I have a copy of a press release issued today by Clare ICMSA which indicates that if decoupling is introduced, Clare farmers could lose approximately €2.4 million. This would be a significant loss for farming in the county, especially in west Clare where farmer numbers have dwindled.

I welcome the National Economic and Social Development Office Bill. The office has as its constituent bodies the National Economic and Social Council, the National Economic and Social Forum and the National Centre for Partnership and Performance. The Bill puts these offices on a statutory footing for the first time, which will be a surprise to a number of people, especially to those who have tried to pay some attention to the reports of these offices, particularly those issued by the council and the forum. The reports of both bodies have had a considerable impact on public policy and I welcome the fact that they will be drawn together under this new office and that there may be greater integration between them.

The NESC has operated for 30 years and has played a central role in examining strategic issues around the development of the economy and the pursuit of social justice. The establishment of the office 30 years ago was an innovative development, especially in the Irish context. Even in the international context, it was a step forward. The council has produced a number of important strategic reports which have been highly rated. It has also made an important and valuable contribution, particularly since 1987, when it was effectively charged with drawing up the framework for the various national agreements.

The Ceann Comhairle will recall that 1987 was a very difficult time economically. The involvement of the NESC in the first of the series of national agreements that year was a great step forward and also a step into the unknown. It is difficult for us today to comprehend the serious economic crisis of the mid-1980s which forced the 1987 programme for national recovery. As we know it was a consensus between the trade unions, farming bodies, business organisations and the Government that focused almost exclusively on ensuring there would be an economic recovery. Many of the experts at the time who focused on the problems and possible solutions argued that the NESC and the Government was setting itself an impossible agenda. Fortunately, it has turned out to be very successful and the consensus and partnership achieved then has been built on in several other agreements.

The Taoiseach had a particular responsibility in that area at that time when, as a Minister, he expended enormous amounts of energy and made a tremendous commitment to the establishment of partnership and to ensuring that what was needed to facilitate national economic recovery and resurgence was done. That the NESC had been in place for some time prior to this provided a useful framework which helped to create the consensus and political will to deliver from a very difficult situation.

The subsequent agreements have accommodated a wider economic and social agenda, including unemployment, inequality and social inclusion as well as the central consideration of economic policy. The last strategy document which was produced set the agenda for the most recent talks on social partnership. The NESC has also carried out an important role in national affairs to the benefit of the nation.

The establishment of the National Economic and Social Forum in 1993 broadened the social partnership process and sought to achieve a consensus across a broad base on major social and economic issues. I recall at the time several commentators saying that the forum was either unnecessary or a duplication in terms of the remit of the council. The forum has managed to set its own agenda and area of responsibility and particularly over the last five years, it has focused on evaluating the implementation of policies mainly in the areas of equality and social inclusion and has done so with a great deal of gusto. It has produced many reports and in general the focus has been on the delivery of service and the perception of consumers about the quality of that service.

The most recent of the bodies is the National Centre for Partnership and Performance, which was set up in 2001 to support and drive change in the workplace. It is the least well-known partly because it is the newest but also I believe because its role is less clearly understood, although it is important for Ireland in the future. It is charged with helping public and private ventures to respond to change, to improve net and national competitiveness, to ensure better public services, higher living standards and a better quality of life. In a rapidly changing environment this slightly different focus has been useful. Recently I looked back at a 1992 NESC report on the association between economic growth and employment growth in Ireland. It is interesting to see the focus in that report as opposed to some of the more recent ones. At that stage we were probably beginning to believe as a nation that the difficulties of the mid-1980s had been successfully addressed, at least to some extent, and that report examined the links between output growth and employment growth at individual establishment level. It quoted quite liberally from a report by Keating and Keane on the period from 1979 to 1985 which found that most firms which increased output also increased employment, although some firms managed to fairly dramatically increase output with fewer people employed.

The jobless growth was pronounced among Irish firms and in the low-tech sectors in manufacturing, and far less so in the area of the overseas dominated high-tech sectors. That will have been in direct contrast with what many people believed because it was commonly thought at the time that many of the IDA supported firms which came in from abroad, and in many instances received considerable grant aid, would have worked for a while then disappeared. On the contrary, this report found that many of these newer firms, particularly those in the high-tech sector, with a strong international connection, were the ones which managed to increase employment and simultaneously, in most cases, to increase output. We need to recall that was an era of almost mass unemployment and mass emigration and the council at the time focused on the difficulties and particularly on finding solutions to them. That was one of the reports which had a substantial impact on subsequent public policy, one that almost anybody who approached it in a fair-minded fashion would consider to be positive.

I looked then at report No. 104 of 1999, entitled Opportunities, Challenges and Capacities for Choice to find that the emphasis has changed dramatically and it reaches several conclusions on poverty. The report lays less emphasis on mass unemployment though it does draw attention to the fact that a reduction in poverty levels is closely associated with an increase in employment levels. The Government's policy of trying to ensure that the conditions are right for the creation and maintenance of high numbers in employment is important. One point proved in several of these reports, and elsewhere, is that high rates of taxation on employment are among the factors most detrimental to employment. One of the great achievements over the last five or six years is the consistent improvement in expenditure in services in all the main areas while the Government has managed simultaneously to keep down the burden of taxation on the individual worker. That is one of the key factors in progressing our economy and nation. I hope that we will not see in the coming years a change in that policy to a high rate of taxation on employment because it would be detrimental.

The NESC produced two reports in late 2002, No. 110, Achieving Quality Outcomes: The Management of Public Expenditure, which was timely and influential, and No. 109, An Investment in Quality: Services, Inclusion and Enterprise. When that report was delivered I had a quick look through it, and like many of my colleagues in the House, I wished that I had somebody who would be in a position to go through it, evaluate it and give me a précis of its main findings and impact.

Just now I heard a committee division bell which I presume is for the Oireachtas Select Committee on Finance and the Public Service, which coincidentally is considering the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission Bill and the kind of resources that should be made available to Members of the House. Some of us, including the Acting Chairman, have worked in that area over the last four or five years. Anyone who has looked at the experience of other parliaments has to be aware that the kind of support that is available for Members of this House is simply not good enough. A great deal of work could be done, and a valuable contribution made to debate in the House, if we had access to the kind of support that would make us top quality representatives of the people but that is another issue. The bell reminded me that that was the case.

Report No. 109 looks carefully at issues such as multi-annual budgeting, the fairly frothy area of accountability for results and the introduction of an evaluation culture. Many people would say that is the kind of thing we can take for granted and surely we have been doing that all along? To some extent we have but not in the focused and professional way that we should have been doing it, particularly in the public sector. Private sector firms by and large have been forced to embrace a new culture of evaluation and accountability because of competition but in the public sector it is much more difficult to set out criteria and to evaluate in a reasonable and fair manner. That was one of the areas on which report No. 109 concentrated. It is an interesting document which makes many recommendations and looks in considerable detail at our experience over many years and where we should be advancing.

The other report looked at strategies for ensuring that investment takes place and at the delivery of quality infrastructure, planning and regulations. Sometimes the experience of many of us in the House is that the delivery of quality infrastructure is quite frequently undermined, especially by the level of regulation and the quite bizarre planning requirements in certain regards. While the Planning Act 2001 has improved the position somewhat, we must face up to the fact that there are constraints in the system which work against the provision of quality public infrastructure and certainly make the opportunities for investment much more difficult than necessary for many in the private sector, without in any way improving the quality of the outcome. I have no difficulty whatsoever with planning and regulation, provided that its effect is positive and that it is not operated in such a bureaucratic manner that everyone loses patience and occasions arise when the potential investor walks away or is driven off. That is one of the areas examined in that report, although perhaps not in the detail or with the focus one might wish. However, we must face up to it as we move forward.

The functions of the council are outlined in sections 9 to 11 of the Bill. I was very pleased to see that the council will be required to report to the Taoiseach on all strategic matters. There is a co-ordinating role regarding the work of the various Departments, sometimes where there is an overlapping responsibility and sometimes where there are quite divergent or even conflicting ones. The council, working on the experience of the three constituent bodies and on the broad range of interests represented across them, will be hugely important to the economic growth of the country as we move forward.

My colleague, Deputy Breen, referred to issues arising from the broad area covered by the Bill regarding our constituency in Clare and, in general terms, across Government policy. Perhaps he was not aware of the substantial drop in the inflation rate for last month, which was announced today. It illustrates the success of the Government's strategy in this area. We also continue to enjoy the highest growth rates in our own band and are clearly beginning to see success in addressing the economic downturn. It is very difficult in a small, open economy to contend and deal with all the negative factors which exist, particularly in the huge international economies, more particularly when we are so dependent on a very high level of exports. However, I believe the Government's strategy is addressing the various issues as far as that is possible in an open economy.

My colleague mentioned regional policy, which in many respects is quite closely bound up with what one would see as the role of the council. The area has not really been explored very specifically, except in so far as it is done in the national spatial strategy to which there are very positive aspects. There are many things with which one could disagree if one really wanted to, but no one could reasonably argue against the overall general strategy.

However, concerns are emerging that the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, which is charged as the lead Department, does not have the influence to ensure that other Departments follow policies accommodating the aspirations and practical requirements of the national spatial strategy. Deputy Breen referred to the proposed changes arising from the EU taking over various responsibilities regarding Shannon Airport. First, we must all accept and face up to the fact that changes will occur and we must do so in the context of rulings from the Court of Justice of the European Communities and the outcome of various EU treaties. However, we also have a responsibility to seek to manage that change and an opportunity to do so.

Dr. Ed Walsh of the University of Limerick wrote a very interesting and inspiring article in last Saturday's edition of The Irish Times in which he referred to a western technopolis encompassing the area of Galway, Limerick and Cork as a counterbalance to Dublin; he argued the case very cogently in a very brief article. That is the kind of direction we must take. In doing so, we must manage whatever changes in regulation we may make to ensure that the activities of the Department of Transport, for example, do not undermine the aspirations or will of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government in this instance.

There is no doubt that there is a commitment to the strategy, but there is a need for consideration of the impact of various policy changes regarding its delivery. One of the areas where there has been considerable success right across the country has been the decentralisation of Government offices, and a further programme is expected. County Clare has offices in Ennis and Shannon, and there are others not far away in adjoining counties – Nenagh in Tipperary and in Limerick. They have played an important role in spreading the State's involvement, infrastructure, jobs and economic advantages to peripheral regions.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill. I am sure many Deputies have taken the same approach as I propose to and broadened discussion of its provisions. My colleagues have drawn out some of the problems in the detail of the structure of the NESC, particularly the lack of any environmental input into its considerations, for example, input from NGOs or environmental groups, an issue we feel is a major failing in a Government which is avowedly seeking to combine environmental protection with economic and social development.

The criticism made by my colleague, Deputy Boyle, that this Bill is a rationalisation of the NESC structures, is correct. Given that he was a member of the board for four years, I am quite happy to allow him his say on that. Before entering the Chamber, I said to him that when I examine the NESC, its role and the broad analysis it is able to take, I cannot understand what he is doing in this House, since he would be much better off back in his job there where he had a far more interesting time and an interesting view of everything. As Deputy Killeen said, sometimes Deputies find it slightly difficult to take reports coming from the NESC, such is the wisdom and breadth of experience and knowledge therein. I wondered whether it was not a demotion for Deputy Boyle when he was elected and had to leave it behind.

In examining the history of the three-yearly reports in which the NESC has been engaged over a 20 year period, I almost see it as a mirror image of my adult and working life. The first report in 1986 was entitled A Strategy for Development. The titles and broad content of each report since then have mirrored what has happened in Irish society and the NESC had a very positive and profound influence in that development. I very much welcome the concept and existence of such a body. I remember how, prior to 1986, in the really grim years of the early 1980s, its role was filled by a plethora of various economists who happened to have the ear of the Taoiseach or the Minister for Finance at the time. They seemed to walk across from the UCD campus at Belfield into RTE and pontificate about what was really wrong with the country, which continued deeper into the mire, despite what those economic wizards had told us. The NESC, in the broader analysis that it has brought to our economic and social issues, has been very successful and welcome.

Reviewing those 20 years of development, I date the incredible growth of the Irish economy to a particular day and time – the day the Dublin millennium milk bottle landed on my breakfast table in front of my packet of cornflakes. The country changed around that time. I do not know if it was the millennium, or the "aluminium" as we called it, the football team doing well in Gelsenkirchen or the wheel of fortune turning for our economic circumstances. There was finally an end to that grim, desperate period of the mid-1980s, when the only question was whether anyone would be left here.

Suddenly my consciousness and the collective consciousness turned – there was a way forward and hope that we could develop jobs for Ireland. It is important to recognise that that sense of collective consciousness in a nation does have an effect and helps to steer the country's direction. It took a while for that to lead through to direct jobs – as Deputy Killeen said, there was jobless growth from the early to mid-1990s – but the foundations were being formed then. Many of my friends and acquaintances went through the same experience – they left Ireland in the mid-1980s with a good education and came back in the late 1980s to start up small businesses. Looking around in my business life it is amazing to see the number of people who followed that experience. They returned to Ireland in the late 1980s and set up small businesses which, ten or 12 years on, are now substantial and doing well.

Our economic success is difficult to analyse but the NESC helped to direct that and to steer our path as a nation. That is why it is apt to debate the structures of the NESC and its latest three-yearly report, An Investment in Quality: Services, Inclusion and Enterprise. That report comes to the conclusion that, in the collective consciousness, most people intuitively believe that things have gone wrong and are off the rails. The gears of the wheels that keep an economy motoring, which were turning in the same direction in the 1990s, have now ground together. Page 41 of the NESC report states that Ireland's current economic situation can be understood by noting that several of the vulnerabilities listed have arrived together – we have lost competitiveness, our exchange rate changes are going to make our lack of competitiveness all the more apparent and there are significant unresolved internal issues, particularly regarding land, housing and settlement. The report goes on to point out the sharp deterioration in the public finances and the insufficient delivery of many public services, the expensive and slow progress in infrastructural developments and the growing pressure on the environment from several sources.

That is neither my view as a member of the Green Party nor that of the Opposition. It is the view of the NESC and it is correct. People know that and that is why there is concern among the public. The Taoiseach did well in 1988. I do not know if he was responsible for the millennium milk bottles but he milked the praise and adulation as Lord Mayor. Listening to the Taoiseach as a new Deputy reminds me of the mid-1980s when it was great fun to listen in to Radio Moscow for the statistics of the Russian Government. Everything was bright and rosy in the Russian economy – tractor production numbers were up 50,000 and house construction figures were up 50%. In reality, the structure beneath that propaganda was cracking. Week in, week out I hear the Taoiseach respond to questions here by saying all is well with the world, with Garda numbers increasing 60% in the last six years, health spending increasing by 120% and so on. He is right and all those figures are true. However, what he is neither admitting nor addressing is the fact that the gears of the economy, the wheels that keep us working together positively, have got stuck and are blocked.

In many ways it is the Government which removed the oil and broke that process with its pro-cyclical policy, as pointed out by the NESC said. The 1999 NESC report, Opportunities, Challenges and Capacities for Choice, highlighted the issue of current expenditure. It stated that over the three years to 2002 the real increase in public expenditure – current expenditure – should, at a maximum, correspond to the real growth rate of GNP. That was sound economic advice provided by the NESC but it was ignored by the Government, which decided to go on a spending jamboree for the two years coming up the election. Instead of having spending growth of 7%, 8% or even 10%, which given our phenomenal growth we might have managed, the Government pumped it up by 20%, which blew the gasket in our economy. We are all going to pay the price for that.

That is not the only issue. I would not blame everything on the Government. There is also an international downturn and the inevitability that we would run into difficulties given the growth we had. However, the Government should not shirk the blame – it should accept some of the responsibility for our present problems and stop parroting out statistics about how everything is going well, how spending has increased and how everything is fine. It is not fine. The boom is over and we need to start changing our tactics for a different world.

There is a subtle process involved in doing so. We should adopt an agenda of green, environmental economics. I know Deputies opposite and the Minister of State are great for hoots of laughter anytime someone mentions green economics.

That is untrue and unfair.

It is true. I have heard the Minister of State on occasions—

The Deputy should name them.

He usually says in a joke that green economics is something to be laughed at. I will come back to him with the particular reference if I can.

Does the Minister of State support the 52-acre infill of Dublin Bay?

One speaker, please.

The Minister of State should answer the question.

Acting Chairman

Deputy Eamon Ryan has the floor.

No, I do not.

So he is against Government policy.

Acting Chairman

Deputy Eamon Ryan has the floor.

We have choices to make to move us on from our current situation and to free up the economy from its present poor state. At least Deputy Harney is honest when she comes out with a different model. She says we can go towards Berlin or Boston and she clearly plants her flag on the Boston model. That is not necessarily the best way to develop the economy; sole reliance on the market system to solve our problems is clearly not working. It was partly responsible for some of the difficulties we have. When we look at where to go it is important to provide alternatives and that is what the Opposition should be doing. Deputy Killeen made a valid point when he said it can be difficult for the man in the street – or a Deputy – to grasp fully all the details of these national economic reports. It is the role of politicians to distil those details down and to communicate alternatives. We should give ownership of reports like this to the general public so we can start working collectively and positively again. Some Opposition proposals are the right way forward and will lead to a better balance between our economy, our environment and our society.

Last week the Government asked the Opposition for suggestions as to what it would do differently, rather than just criticising the current impasse. Our policies fit in with the vision currently espoused by the NESC. One relates to the need for an energy tax; the Government has talked about this for five years without introducing it. I agree with Deputy Killeen and most other speakers that we should not go back towards high taxation of labour. It did not work and once one takes over 50% of someone's pay packet there is a serious disincentive to enterprise and labour. We do not want that.

The introduction of an energy tax allows a broadening of the tax base which is not as regressive as the VAT system or other direct taxes but which also has positive environmental effects. The sooner we grasp that nettle and move in that direction, the better for the long-term development of the economy.

We have also said – again it goes against the thinking of most other parties in the House – that we can afford a slightly higher corporation tax rate combined with tax breaks for companies engaged in research and development because what is clearly coming out of the report from NESC and others is that it is those high value added research-based businesses which will benefit our economy over the next 15 to 20 years. We cannot rely on being an assembly or a processing location for multinational companies because we are too expensive to be effective in that function. There are cheaper countries to the east which can do this with much lower wage rates, with better, or certainly equal, infrastructure and with the same low corporation tax, so we will not compete at that level. While that policy has been successful over the last 20 or 30 years, it is time we moved on and recognised we need to do something different. It is perfectly valid on that basis and if we are going to move towards a higher value business model and a higher value research-based one, that we should target our corporation tax towards that by saying one will have a slightly higher corporation tax rate, although still lower than the one we suggest, but slightly higher than the rate after last year's budget. We should match it with research and development grants to try to encourage that type of economic development. That would be a positive step forward and one which would fit into the current NESC vision.

The other main areas concern infrastructure and spending. When things are going wrong and when the spending we have made has not brought results, we need to go back to the basics. If I have a machine which is broken, I tend to try to break it down to its constituent parts and to go back to the basics. We need to change the basic fundamentals of what we are doing. In that regard, our spending priorities in the main spending areas should go back to the basic services we provide, including the primary health care and primary education systems, to make sure they are working properly and work up from there. In the long run, it is an investment which will pay off best for our society. That is what we espoused last week.

In regard to other infrastructural spending, we have a vision as to what our economy needs over the next 20 years which is different from that which the Government parties and many of the Opposition parties seem to have. We do not believe building motorways, which can provide capacity for 60,000 passenger vehicles per day when there will only ever be a projected demand of 10,000 or 15,000 passenger vehicles per day, makes economic sense. We believe that in the 21st century, we will move ideas, digital information and high quality, low volume and high priced products. For that we do not need motorways. We need to be able to move people around effectively and we need cities and urban and rural areas which work, so that we can encourage investment into high-quality centres with good education, a good telecommunications infrastructure, good homes, good living conditions and good entertainment and all the other services which make up an attractive city or town. We do not need to spend all our money on massive motorways servicing yesterday's industries rather than tomorrow's, which is effectively what we are doing at the moment.

I have criticisms of the NESC and the way it works. I criticise the selective and still narrow voices heard within the NESC. They come through when reading the latest reports on whatever area one cares to mention, whether child care or others. Often what one sees is a compromise being reached. Where one member of the NESC has a particularly strong view in an area, it tends to come through strongly.

In many of the other ancillary areas, I do not believe it is providing a balanced view of what and how Irish society should develop. That is the role of the politicians. We need to be careful we do not abdicate that role. I have a fear that the Government, in its slavish devotion to the partnership process, has ignored this House and the wisdom which comes from 166 people giving their assessment of the collective wisdom. If, over the last five or six years, the Government had not only listened to IBEC or ICTU, which tend to be the dominant forces within the NESC, or certainly on the partnership side, and had listened a little more to politicians and people on the street, it might have heard a message which would have saved us from many of the economic and investment mistakes and would have prevented a lot of money being wasted over the last five years.

Organisations such as the NESC are useful and the partnership process has served us well in many ways. However, exclusive use of it as the Government's sounding board, which, effectively, it is, to get a sense of what the wrong thing to do is, is not giving the Government the right answer. I listened to the Government Chief Whip, Deputy Hanafin, on the radio last Saturday morning and she made a point which perhaps captured the situation. In regard to Government spending on health and other areas over the last two or three years, she said the Government did what it was told – it threw money at the problem. However, the money was wasted because it was not targeted in the right direction. While it is laudable that the money was spent, it was badly spent and the Government must learn a lesson from that and we must reappraise where we are going collec tively as a people. If we do that, we will have a successful economic future which will be based on green enterprise and technologies which are the technologies of the 21st century. That is where we should be concentrating our economic, social and environmental efforts. I hope the Government will recognise that by putting a much greater environmental slant into the evolving NESC committee.

Generally speaking, the Bill is welcome in so far as it will place the National Economic and Social Development Office on a statutory footing. It will comprise three bodies – the National Economic and Social Council, the National Economic and Social Form and the National Centre for Partnership and Performance. This, in itself, will provide some element of accountability to the Dáil.

This Bill gives us the opportunity to examine the question of social partnership. We are now in our sixth social partnership. The names of the six programmes over the last 16 years indicate some of the key concerns of the time and they included words such as "recovery", "progress", "work", "competitiveness", "partnership", "prosperity", "fairness" and "sustainability". The notion of fairness came into focus more strongly in recent years but there is a big question mark over the contribution social partnership has made to a just society.

One of the great failures of the social partnership agreements is the failure of the social partners to force the Government to spread development into the regions. Disadvantage is rampant in the more deprived regions. In a study carried out by UCC, the region from which I come, Duhallow, was identified as one of the most disadvantaged regions in the country, second only to the Inishowen Peninsula in County Donegal, yet Duhallow is in the eastern and southern region and does not have the advantages areas in the BMW region have. The Government had indicated it would try to identify areas in the southern and eastern region as blackspots which would get special priority for consideration in line with the incentives being given to the BMW region. What is worrying is that in the IDA report published recently, the chief executive clearly indicated that he finds it difficult and the IDA will continue to find it difficult to encourage industry into the peripheral regions. I have believed for a long time that the IDA and, to a certain extent, Enterprise Ireland do not have the ability or the enthusiasm to spread industry into the region.

Ireland is a relatively small country and most of the industry we attract is from the United States. Anywhere in Ireland would be considered close to the main population centres in a United States context, so it is hard to understand the IDA's reasoning and its failure to locate proper and good industries in the regions.

We are all aware that farming is in decline and that industry is not being established. Young people are leaving rural areas in droves. It seems that the social partners, like the farming organisations and community groups, do not receive the hearing and attention they deserve.

Even though decentralisation has continually been promised, absolutely no progress has been made in the areas most in need. Task forces have been set up in various areas where jobs have been lost and have achieved very few results.

One of the greatest disasters of recent times was the failure of the Government to provide jobs in Macroom. We have repeatedly heard the commitments of the Taoiseach and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, made one week prior to the general election, guaranteeing that there would be new industry for the town. However, despite our best efforts, no progress has been made.

The stronger organisations in the social partnership, such as the unions and businesses, seem to have all the clout. However, there is no doubt that most observers believe that social partnership laid the basis for the economic boom of the past five years. The 1980s were a disaster for the economy and various groups with vested interests in improving it, mainly the employers and trade unions, felt there must be a better way. Out of this social partnership emerged a consensus that there should be a trade-off between reasonable wage demands and job creation. This was facilitated by the promise of income tax cuts. On balance, the system has worked well. The economy and country as a whole benefited and jobs were created.

However, as in any deal struck, the strongest tended to be the big winners. Those with good jobs did well, the public service did reasonably well and, generally speaking, business prospered. The problem arose among the weaker sections of our community, which included low-paid, unskilled workers, social welfare recipients, the unemployed and people who had the weakest case at the negotiating table. This was exacerbated by the fact that for the past six years we have had by far the most right wing Government the country has ever seen.

Everything was done to promote business, keep costs down and increase the labour force by encouraging women back in to work. Some would say that Government policies forced women back into the workplace. The failure of Government to control house prices forced both partners in relationships to work in order to be able to afford a mortgage.

The national wealth created by social partnerships was evident in budget surplus after budget surplus over the past five years. Had the Government had the good sense to restructure local government and the health services, as well as address properly the needs of the disadvantaged, the process of social partnership would have been a great success. Week after week, we hear that the programmes that helped the weakest in our society are being cut the most. There were drastic cuts in the community employment schemes last year, which affected communities working for young people and the handicapped. The health services are in total disarray and there is no funding for the special educational needs of the disadvantaged. Basic needs, such as home help and essential repairs for the elderly and the disabled person's grant, have all disappeared.

The findings are clear. The unemployed and low-income groups did not benefit to any extent compared to employers and those in strong employment. CORI cites a study that shows the gap between the top and bottom 20% of households widening over the past eight years. We had and still have a high proportion of low-paid workers, relative to other OECD countries, which has increased from 18% in 1987 to 21% in 1994. Ireland has made some progress in the areas of poverty and general standards of living but it has not reduced the inequalities that have always existed or improved its position in comparison to other western countries.

How do we really evaluate the real economic advantages of social partnership? D'Art and Turner presented a set of economic indicators that show a continual and rapid growth in the Irish economy since 1987. Real national incomes increased by 54% between 1987 and 1996, compared to an increase of 7% between 1980 and 1987. Unemployment levels reduced from 17.5% in 1987 to 6.2% in 1999. The workforce increased by 41% between 1987 and 1998 and gross average earnings increased by 17%. Looking at these figures alone, there is no doubt that there has been a remarkable improvement in the economy. However, the same report makes it clear that the increase in national wealth is not reflected in an easing of the economic burden for many people.

Social partnership still involves pronounced inequalities, no change in the status quo and no redistribution of industrial surplus in favour of profits over wages, inflation and increased house prices, the latter being fuelled by redistribution of wealth in favour of the already well off. Social partnership did well in contributing to national wealth and, had there been a socially minded Government for the past six years, the most deserving people and services would have benefited. However, we have a long way to go before we create a just society and I fear we will never do so under a right-wing Government such as that which we now have.

I welcome the debate on the important National Economic and Social Development Office Bill 2002, particularly given that we are at a crossroads in terms of our economic and social development. We seem to be taking the wrong road on strategies to develop our economy, society and the country as a whole.

I listened carefully to the contributions of other Deputies and learned much about rural and economic disadvantage; many people seem to focus on urban disadvantage. Ireland is predicted to be the most expensive country in the euro zone by the year's end. One need only consider the rate of inflation. Our ESB bills have increased by €72 and motor tax by 12%. An extra charge of €69.50 has been imposed in respect of ATM and laser cards, €40 has been added to our gas bills and there has been an approved increase of 18% in VHI premia. This is the reality and I hope this debate will generate new ideas to deal with it.

We need measures to curb consumer price increases. People do not mind paying reasonable prices for quality services. However, they are sick to the teeth of being ripped off each day while the fat cats seem to be laughing all the way to the bank. We need consumer rights and, above all, fairness in prices.

We must face the reality that we have a major crisis in the area of training and development, and we need new resources for community initiatives. There are fewer places on community employment schemes, budget cuts in FÁS training programmes, the great RAPID programme seems to be under threat and the back-to-work allowance is restricted. The new national economic and social development office will have to take a radical and creative look at these issues and come up with a detailed response based on helping the most needy.

The purpose of this Bill is as follows: To make provision for the establishment of a body to be known as the national economic and social development office comprising three bodies to be known as the National Economic and Social Council, the National Economic and Social Forum, the National Centre for Partnership and Performance and such other bodies as the Taoiseach may, by order, establish and to define their functions; to dissolve the National Economic and Social Council, the National Economic and Social Forum and the National Centre for Partnership and Performance; and to provide for related matters.

Section 7 deals with the establishment of other bodies within the office and the powers which the Taoiseach has in this regard. We seem to have consensus on this section but we also need decisive leadership. The Taoiseach needs to organise the Cabinet quickly and to set a clear direction on social and economic issues. We need to develop radical strategies to do something about economic and social development.

Section 8 of the Bill sets out the function of the office regarding the role on advising the Taoiseach on strategic matters relevant to economic and social development in the State and how it shall perform these functions. Here we are basically talking about job creation. We need to tap into and see, understand and target resources at the areas of most need. I talk particularly of areas in my own constituency that need investment. Parts of Coolock in Dublin North-Central urgently need investment and new job creation policies.

As regards strategic matters and social development in the State, the Government should not only listen to the different partners but also pay particular attention to the disability sector? It should hear it and listen to its radical and new ideas, and implement its proposals. For example, let us listen to groups like NAMHI which should be part of this national economic and social development debate. We should listen to its demands for the publication of a rights-based disability Bill. We should agree funding to meet the shortfalls in intellectual disability services this year. We should prioritise funding for disability services with multi-annual budgeting and we should support its demand for the publication of the national intellectual disability database reports immediately. Finally, we should also agree to eliminate waiting lists for services over the next three years.

These are issues which should be linked to this debate. When looking for funding we should not be afraid to consider serious options. Yesterday I put down a question to the Minister for Finance asking how much revenue would be collected in one year if 50 cent was put on a packet of cigarettes. His answer was €130 million. Yesterday we had protests, and more today, from the disability sector which is seeking a budget in the region of €35 million. We could obtain revenue of €130 million by putting 50 cent on a packet of cigarettes. This kind of idea should be looked at and, in the interest of people who need services, we should not run away from making tough decisions.

Section 16 sets out the composition of the centre and the bodies who can nominate the ordinary members of the centre. Let us have more trade union people, more women and a strong community sector involvement. Many people working in the community sector have progressive and creative ideas in regard to social and economic development. As Deputy Eamon Ryan commented earlier, the Government seems only to listen to major groups like IBEC and to exclude other groups. We should listen to all the groups and particularly people on the ground.

Section 17 sets out the conditions of membership of the various bodies including term of office, designation of chairperson, expenses and reasons a member of a body should be disqualified from being such a member. We need accountability and transparency. Therefore, this is an important section because the question of expenses, etc., must come before taxpayers. This section also states that, in so far as is practicable, the Taoiseach shall ensure an equitable balance between men and women in the composition of a body.

Section 18 states that a body shall hold as many meetings as may be necessary for the performance of its functions. I add a word of caution. This should not end up as another talking shop where we have meeting after meeting and talks about talks. We need efficiency and new ideas to develop those which will come from the council.

Section 17 is an opportunity to develop and show we are serious about the equality issue. I have concerns about the phrase "as far as practicable". The Taoiseach must be decisive and show leadership on this issue. Equality between men and women is no longer an aspiration but a reality and we need to be proactive on this issue.

Section 20 outlines the right of the bodies to establish committees and to advise them regarding the performance of any of their functions. Section 22 relates to a prohibition on the disclosure of information save as otherwise provided by law. This states that a person shall not, without the consent of the relevant body, disclose any confidential information obtained by him or her while performing, or as a result of having performed, duties as a member of the body. I stress the importance of confidentiality and respect which are essential to this section. Also, as I mentioned earlier, we must have the quality of professionalism. We need good quality public services but must also have professionalism at all times in dealing with these issues.

Section 23 relates to the appointment of an officer to be known as the chief officer of the office, and the roles and the duties which this person shall carry out. This is an important position and we need the right calibre of person for it. We have many talented people in the country with the ability to carry out the functions regarding section 23.

Section 25 refers to the appointment of office staff. The office may, in consultation with the bodies concerned, appoint such a number of persons to be members of the staff of the office as it may determine with the consent of the Taoiseach and the Minister for Finance. Again I stress the need to be cautious as the record of the Minister of Finance seems at times to stop our economic and social development.

Section 27 states that the office, at the request of a body, may from time to time engage consultants and advisers as it may consider necessary for the performance of its functions. We should not get carried away by the words "advisers" and "consultants". Many people now seem to feel that we must have a consultant and adviser. It is essential that we use the talents we have here which do not necessarily have to come at a high price. Consultancy seems to be the new buzzword regarding economic and social development but let us not get carried away on the issue. Let us have common sense but at the same time let us target quality people and bring them into the public service.

Section 32 outlines the fact that the office should prepare and submit to the Taoiseach for approval, a strategic plan not later than six months after the establishment day of the office and every three years from the submission date of the first statement. The Taoiseach shall, as soon as is practicable after a strategic plan under this section has been approved by him or her, cause a copy of the plan to be laid before each House of the Oireachtas. I welcome this section which shows respect for democracy and the Houses of the Oireachtas.

Section 33 relates to the requirement of the office to make a report to the Taoiseach at the end of each financial year on its activities during the year and the Taoiseach shall cause copies of the report to be laid before each House of the Oireachtas. Each report shall contain information on the activities of the other bodies in the office. The office shall also furnish to the Taoiseach such information regarding income and expenditure in such a form as he or she may from time to time require.

Section 34 allows that the Taoiseach may dissolve the council, the forum or the centre or any body established under section 7, after consultation with the office and any Minister of the Government who has representation on the body. It is important that the Taoiseach discusses these decisions with the relevant Ministers because in regard to social and economic development, it is important that we have the best people, the people directly involved and the Minister directly concerned. This is covered in section 31.

Section 41 refers to the transfer of staff and sets out that every person who, on the day immediately before the establishment day, is a member of the staff of a dissolved body shall, on that day, be transferred to and become a member of the staff of the office and in particular, be appointed to serve in the body where previously assigned, unless otherwise agreed. We must have respect for staff and ensure that the right people are put in the right place.

We need to examine carefully the issue of social partnership because we have taken our eye off the ball in regard to some parts of the community and voluntary sector. There has been much talk about social inclusion but the reality for many has been social exclusion. Despite the fact that there was a major recent debate on disadvantage, there are still many disadvantaged pupils in the inner cities and other parts of the country who feel totally excluded. It is up to us to ensure they get all necessary support. The Government should take such views on board.

While we are a great nation for talking – an Irish gift – we must return to the idea of doing and being actively involved, particularly in regard to the debate on disadvantage. I have seen recent cases of wonderful breakfast clubs in very disadvantaged areas on the north side of Dublin. However, due to problems relating to the threatened community employment schemes, the good quality people looking after and feeding the children concerned are to be moved out of the projects on 30 June, which will ruin the flow of the service. I urge the Government to consider such situations when discussing social and economic development.

Wonderful programmes such as Early Start, Giving Children an Even Break and others are ongoing in our primary schools. If we intend to continue the economic development of the country, we must develop such programmes. We must also address the massive level of drop-outs at second level. Young people, many very talented, are dropping out and are not being allowed to develop their full potential and make a contribution to our society. I wish to praise many of those who work in this area, particularly resource teachers who work with children at risk and in disadvantaged areas. As I mentioned during a recent Adjournment debate, we should pay such people well and look after them because they are performing a magnificent public service. This must be taken on board in the planning of our economy and society.

Overall, we must face up to these realities because some in this society appear to be less equal than others. It really sticks in my gut when I hear the phrase "it's the economy, stupid", because most of the major political parties in this House have gone down that road. We seem to get carried away with that American phrase. It is not the economy, stupid; it is society, stupid – it is people. That is what running a country is about and is the way forward in this debate. When people refer to Ireland, they are not talking about an economy but a society. When one talks about social partnership, it is more than a pay deal or Senator Joe O'Toole's agreement, as many people would feel. It must include economic and social development for the most disadvantaged in our society.

In our discussion on the Bill, we have taken our eye off the ball in regard to poverty and a more detailed analysis must be carried out of the disability factor. The one thing that all people with disabilities in Ireland have in common is the considerable risk that they will experience a high level of poverty. For example, 54.4% of all households headed by an ill or disabled person are living at or below the 60% poverty line. The national rate of unemployment is 4.6%, yet it is estimated that at least 70% of people with a disability are unemployed, an unacceptable situa tion. The extra costs of having a disability are met by people with disabilities themselves.

Poverty and disability remain linked in Ireland. Tackling this will involve improving the income supports available to people with disabilities. The disability allowance is currently €124.80 per week, while the average industrial wage is €524.92 per week. To make matters more difficult for people with disabilities, inflation was 5% in the first quarter of this year, although I welcome today's figures recording a drop in inflation.

I call for the disability allowance to become 50% of the average national industrial wage. As a first step towards this goal, disability allowance should be brought into line with the contributory old age pension. Budget 2003 increased the risk of people with disabilities living in poverty. It resulted in a €10 increase to the contributory old age pension and just €6 extra to the disability allowance. As with budget 2002, disability allowance has slipped further away from the old age pension.

The Government anticipates the annual inflation rate for 2003 to be 4.8%. This will consume €5.70 of the €6 increase, leaving just 30 cent to the person dependent upon disability allowance. However, this 30 cent will be easily consumed by the 1% increase in VAT which will result in an increase in electricity, oil and gas costs. There is no evidence that the budget was either disability or poverty proofed. Budget 2003 strengthened the relationship between disability and poverty.

When discussing this Bill, we should reflect on the use of our resources. If there is a downturn in the economy, as appears to be the case, we must target our resources to the most needy in our society. The debate on this legislation gives us the opportunity to present radical new ideas to look after the weaker sections of Irish society.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on this Bill, with which I am quite disappointed. It is a technical Bill, the only purpose of which seems to be the setting up on a statutory basis of three agencies already in situ. The Bill contains nothing new, no vision and no Government view for the future. The Taoiseach's speech on the Bill did not inspire me in any way because there was nothing new in it. The Bill is, however, full of warnings of dire consequences. If the Government does not mend its ways, although the Taoiseach did not say this, we are heading for the rocks.

The Taoiseach stated that "On the domestic front, economic growth has slowed this year", a fact of which we are aware. Unfortunately, he did not take any responsibility for this, although many commentators would say that the Government's actions have led to many of the difficulties in which we find ourselves. The Taoiseach said that if we do not take action, the consequences are evident in the context of our economic past, most notably the early to mid-1980s. While I agree that action must be taken, I do not see any action being taken except, as the previous speaker said, to impact upon and hurt the weakest in society by cutbacks, as happened in the 1980s.

People with disabilities protested outside this Parliament today – people in wheelchairs, people whose legs have been amputated and who have had strokes. Due to Government action and inaction, such people will lose many of the essential services and supports to which they had access. No Minister has yet come forward to say why the Government is cutting the community employment schemes and removing people who are providing a vital service.

The Taoiseach also said that the issue of competitiveness is absolutely basic and that unless we are competitive, the economy will not thrive. That is self-evident. However, while I am thankful that inflation is reducing slightly, it has in large part been caused by Government action. It would be useful if some Government spokesperson admitted that in order that we could proceed from there. Instead, Ministers are hiding their heads in the sand and pretending that the situation has nothing to do with them and that they are totally innocent. They say that the current situation came about unknown to them, because of what is happening in the US, Europe and elsewhere, and that they are not the cause of it.

The Government and its predecessor have been in power of six years, therefore, it must take responsibility for the difficulties we have. The Taoiseach goes on to outline the history of the various bodies which have been in existence and addresses the different sections of the Bill. However, there is no vision, nothing new and nothing to inspire people. I call on the Government to take note of that, because people are waiting for real leadership and it is not forthcoming.

The three bodies which are to be amalgamated under this Bill, although they will remain as sub-bodies, will have to submit reports to the Oireachtas and may have to come before committees and report to the Taoiseach. However, some Government backbenchers have said they have no real input into this. All of which leads one to sometimes wonder what this Parliament is for. We have discussion and debate but no input. The general debate has centred more and more around the economy, partnership and competitiveness, all of which are important. However, the focus is not sufficiently wide and does not look far enough into the future.

I welcome the recent establishment of the forum on the workplace of the future by the National Centre for Partnership and Performance, which will commence in the autumn in order to facilitate national discussion with international contributions on how workplaces can best adapt to competitive pressures, improve service delivery and respond to employees' changing needs and preferences. This is important development. However, it does not go far enough because it focuses solely on the workplace. We must broaden it out to take in all of society, as opposed to the workplace alone.

We must look at the demographics of our population and see what Ireland will be like in 20 years' time and what will be the challenges. No one can realistically say what they will be, but the Finnish Parliament has established a committee for the future. I suggest to the Minister of State, in her role as Government Chief Whip, to consider establishing such a committee, comprising Members of this House and the Seanad. The committee could engage with the National Council for Partnership and Performance and its constituent bodies and invite submissions from experts nationally and internationally. It could have a broad remit and submit a special report on the future to the Dáil, under the Taoiseach's authority, once or twice a term. We are still not looking far enough or wide enough.

Many contributions to this debate have dwelled on what has happened, with both sides defending their records or attacking those of others. They have also focused on what is happening now and what may happen in the short-term. However, we are not looking far enough ahead and are facing huge changes. We have an ageing population and the numbers in this cohort are increasing because, thankfully, people are living longer. However, this will create huge difficulties for us. A debate has started in some countries about whether people should be given the option of working longer if they wish. Sometimes, when people are asked to remove themselves from the workforce at 65 years, they do not want to do so. It is a wrench and they would prefer to ease themselves out in a graduated manner.

Looking after older people will be a huge challenge for our society. It is something we must address and we should be talking about it now. If, for instance, we had examined our traffic problems properly 15 or 20 years ago, we would have been able to plan properly for now, but we did not – it is all short-term thinking. Even now, it seems there is the potential for a major problem at the Red Cow roundabout. We are not even looking that far ahead.

The Minister for State has a great personal interest and expertise in the information society, which has the potential to change the way we work, act and interact and is doing so already. The Government plans to increase the information society initiative and have national broadband access. There are many other developments which we cannot yet imagine which will require change. However, we could have a major digital divide between those who can use information technology and those who cannot. We must examine this issue because, if we are not careful, we could create a new poor. Information and intelligence, in the sense of knowledge versus competence, will be extremely important.

I ask the Minister of State to examine the initiatives of the Finnish Government. Perhaps, while this Bill is before the House, she might have a discussion with the Taoiseach and set about establishing an Oireachtas committee which would have a broad remit. It would not consider legislation, but would act as a think tank. There would be a political input into the deliberations of many esteemed bodies and agencies, one of which would be that proposed by this Bill. It would not be sufficient for this group to interact with the Oireachtas once a year, just by coming in for a cosy chat. We need to do more than that. During the passage of many Bills, I have stated that there is a danger that the House could become almost redundant – a mere rubber stamp for legislation.

There are difficulties with the social partnership model, some of which the Fine Gael Party leader, Deputy Kenny, highlighted in his speech. The model has been advantageous, but we must examine it to see if there are better ways and see if it has outlived its usefulness.

We need to involve younger people even more in the work of the national economic and social development office. I caution against the office becoming remote. We receive numerous reports, many of which we do not have time to read, analyse or assess. I ask that the reports be made as concise as possible and that long-winded verbiage is cut out. Let us get to the meat of it, the nitty-gritty and the basic points.

Will the Minister for State outline in detail what the three constituent parts – the council, forum and centre – will actually do? The Bill is vague about their functions and I would like to see them spelled out in far greater detail – perhaps even in the Bill itself – without being too restrictive. Perhaps the Minister of State will give us an overview of the duties of these three bodies and how they will operate.

More young people should be involved in the board of this body. There could be an age quota, similar to a gender quota. There are, however, arguments for and against quotas. People should be appointed to boards because they are competent more than anything else. We should, however, involve young people because we are planning for their future and they have a vision for it that we do not have.

I am disappointed with the Government's lack of provision of funding for the implementation of the Youth Work Act 2000. The Minister of State was concerned about this but the Act has been starved of funds and, as a result, many people in the youth work sector are becoming disillusioned. In Australia, great value is placed on the input young people can make to policy and there should be a formal avenue here whereby young people can make an input into the National Economic and Social Development Office. Older people should also be involved.

There is more to society than just the economy. We must recognise that we are dealing with people. The Government concentrates on economics and spends too much time looking at statistics and figures. Before the election it promised too much money to get re-elected and now it is cutting back. We were told there would be no cuts but now we find the opposite is true and the Government knew that at the time. The weakest are suffering as a result.

The establishment of the National Economic and Social Development Office should be a good thing. The people who are already in it have been working hard but I would like to see their remit widened and a parliamentary committee established to support them in their work. That would bring the office into the political arena so it can be discussed and it would help us to look further into the future to see what society will need in 20 years' time. It has been done successfully in Finland and we should consider doing the same here.

I look forward to seeing the amendments that will be made to the Bill. It is good that this debate is taking place and that so many Deputies are interested in contributing to it. This office will have a major impact on social development and it is only right to give the Bill proper consideration. It will be influential but we need political input into it. There should be greater oversight by and interaction with the political sphere. The partnership model has excluded the political arena from the debate. Many of the decisions are made behind closed doors and this House has no role. Parliaments are established to debate issues in public so that the public can have an input. When policies are discussed behind closed doors, the public is excluded and democracy is at risk.

The Minister of State at the Department of the Taoiseach should look at reform of this House and how it conducts its business. The Ceann Comhairle hints at this everyday and says that if Members bring forward proposals, he will implement them. I believe that he feels that our procedures are archaic and out of date. We need to change the way we do business. Before the last election a package of reforms was agreed and it should be discussed to see how we can improve the operation of the House. If this House becomes irrelevant, fewer people will vote.

Tá an Bille seo faoi chúram Roinn an Taoisigh, tá an díospóireacht ag dul ar aghaidh anois le uaireanta fada, tá ceisteanna tábhachtacha and tromchúisesacha ag teacht chun cinn agus ba cheart go mbeadh an Taoiseach anseo chun éisteacht leo seachas bheith ag feacht asaoícht timpeall na tíre fé mar a dhéanann sé gach Déardaoin.

The Taoiseach today is in Estonia and Finland and as Minister of State at the Department of the Taoiseach I am happy to represent him.

Ba cheart go mbeadh an Taoiseach anseo nuair atá Parlaimint na tíre ag plé ceisteanna atá faoina chúram.

Tá an Bille seo ag rá gur cheart oifig náisiúnta d'fhorbairt eacnamaíoch agus shóisialach a chur ar bhun oifigiúil. Ar eagla go mbeadh aon mhíthuiscint ann, níl aon bhaint ag an mbille seo leis an sóisialachas. Tríd an Bhille, cuirfear ar aon-bhun An Comhairle Eacnamaíoch agus Sóisialach, an Fóram Náisiúnta Eacnamaíoch agus Sóisialach agus an tIonad Náisiúnta Comhpháirtíochta agus Feidhmíochta.

Tá mé faoi mhíbhuntáiste cionn is nach bhfuil leagan Gaeilge den Bhille ar fáil go fóill.

Níor stop sé sin riamh an Teachta.

Déanfaimid ár ndícheall ach go háirithe. Áfach, nuair a bhíonn duine ag iarraidh aistriúchán a dhéanamh agus smaointí a chur faoi bhráid na Dála ag an am gcéanna, déanann sé an obair níos deacra.

Tógfaimid an fóram féin mar shampla. In alt 10, 'siad feidhmeanna an fhóraim chun comhairle a thabhairt don dTaoiseach maidir le polasaithe comhionannais agus in aghaidh eisiamh sóisialta. Rinne an fóram fé mar atá i láthair na huaire staidéar ar chúrsaí sóisialta sa tír seo agus ina dhiaidh sin chuir sé tuairiscí suimiúla amach. Bhí scrúdú amháin déanta faoi daoine óga ag fágáil na scoile ró-luath. Chomh maith leis sin, chuir an fóram tuairiscí tréimhsiúla amach ar fhadhbanna eacnamaíochta agus sóisialta an lae.

An fhadhb atá ann ná go mbréagnaíonn gníomhartha an Rialtais an méid atá in an-chuid de na tuairiscí seo. Má tá an rud céanna le titim amach nuair a théann an Bille seo tríd an Dáil agus má chuirfear na heagraíochtaí seo ar bun, má tá an rud céanna le tarlú, cén tairbhe go mbeadh sé ina Acht ar chor ar bith?

Má thógaimid ceann de na nithe a chur an fóram eacnamaíochta agus sóisialta amach, luaigh sé fadhbanna le tithíocht agus tithíocht ar chíos ar phraghas réasúnta. Tugann sé le fios sa bhliain 2000, agus é ag lua na deacrachtaí ag daoine le lóistín, go raibh 20% dóibh siúd a bhí ag brath ar tíarnaí talúin ag caitheamh 35% den ioncam a bhí acu ar chíos amháin. Cad é a dhéanann an Rialtas? Tugann sé isteach an Bille um Thionóntachtaí Cónaithe 2003. Ní chuireann an Bille seo srian ar bith ar leibhéal na gcíosanna céanna.

Cuirfidh sé srian ar chíosanna ag leibhéal an mhargaidh.

Go díreach – 'sé an margadh a chruthaigh an fhadhb, is de bharr an mhargaidh go bhfuil daoine ag íoc 35% den ioncam do thiarnaí talúin. Déanann an Bille seo go leanfaidh sin ar aghaidh.

Tugann sé cosaint nach raibh riamh ann.

Ní thugann. Tiocfaimid chuig an Bille nuair a bheidh sé os comhair na Dála agus déanfaimid díospóireacht air cinnte ach ar an bpointe seo tá na tuairiscí ós na heagraíochtaí seo sa Bhille an-mhaith ach más rud nach ndéanfaidh an Rialtas Acht chun rudaí a chur i bhfeidhm atá sna tuairiscí ar mhaithe le gnáthdaoine, tá muid ag cur ár gcuid amú.

Labhraíonn an fóram arís ar phraghas tithíochta agus tugann sé le fios go gceapann sé gur cheart go gcuirfí srian ar phraghas talúin le tógáil tithe. Tá an Rialtas ann le sé bhliain anois gan mhéar ardaithe chun srian a chur ar phraghas talúin do tithíocht. Tá an tuairisc ón Bhreiteamh Kenny ann le 30 bliain agus ní dhéarna sé faic faoi ar chor ar bith. Más rud é go mbeidh aon tairbhe le baint as an reachtaíocht seo, caithfidh an Rialtas aird a thabhairt ar cad é tá le rá ag daoine atá ag déanamh staidéir ar na fadhbanna atá ag lucht oibre, gnáthdaoine agus daoine óga agus ansin a rá go gcíallaíonn seo go gcaithfidh an Rialtas dul in aghaidh lucht mór an rachmais a thugann tacaíocht agus airgead dó. Caithfidh sé gníomh a dhéanamh ar na fadhbanna má tá aon réiteach le fáil orthu.

The problem with this Bill is that it is organised around what is called partnership. Partnership is a fraud from start to finish and has been a fraud since 1987 when it was first institutionalised. Partnership is a misuse of the English language just like those going to war in different circumstances misused the English language by covering up their crimes with fancy words. Partnership is not partnership at all. The figures I received from the Central Statistics Office, to which I alluded previously, show clearly the fraud that partnership is because it is nothing more than an arrangement to hold wages and salaries to a very restricted level of increase but imposes no restrictions whatsoever on rent interest, profit and speculative gain. Therefore is it any wonder that in the cold light of day we find that in 1987 the amount of the gross national product spent on wages and salaries, in other words going to the working class, was 59% and profits and rents accounted for 41%. Some 14 years later in 1981, the amount going to the workers had fallen to 46% while the amount going to the capitalists and the rack-renters had risen to 54%.

Under cover of partnership there was a huge shift of wealth from the working people to the corporate sector, the finance sector and speculators. Therefore this elaborate Bill which will bring together three organisations within this national office covers up the reality. While it is true that the National Economic and Social Forum, which is being dissolved in this Bill but presumably will take on new life in the new arrangement, has done some useful studies on the economic and social realities for working people and poor people, unfortunately when its recommendations are somewhat radical the Government decides to ignore them and carry on with its usual policies.

When it came to one of the running sores in society, that of the accommodation crisis, which is considered a basic human right, and the measures proposed in reports emanating from the forum, for example, to tackle the price of building land to cut across speculation, the Government did not lift a finger. During the six years in which it has been in office the price of a home in Dublin has trebled and quadrupled in some cases. The question that comes to mind is whether the organisations being set up under the ambit of the National Economic and Social Development Office will be merely window-dressing affairs in order that the Government can give the illusion of partnership while continuing the Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats policy where the wealth continues to shift from the workers to the minority who controls the corporate sector.

Debate adjourned.