As I did in the budget debate, I support the general thrust of the measures taken in the budget and welcome the details outlined in the Finance Bill. Having listened to the debate and some of the comments made by the Opposition Members, it appears they see the budget in the context of one year and the review of the decisions taken either in the budget or the Finance Bill, but it has to be viewed over the lifetime of a Government and the programme set out.
Since the programme set out in 1997, enormous changes have taken place in the economy and many people have benefited significantly across the social spectrum as a result of the budget decisions taken. I commend the Minister, Deputy McCreevy, on the initiatives he has taken in every budget since 1997.
In managing any of our finances, we have to be prudent and understand the amount of money we are taking in and the amount left over to spend. It is the same in terms of the Department of Finance. We must target the spend and ensure we get value for money, and it is in that context that I want to address the issues in the Finance Bill.
Revenue set about collecting taxes in an equitable way, as detailed by the Minister for Finance and as stated in the policy of the coalition Government since 1997. Revenue has been extremely successful, not only in collecting the taxes due in an efficient way, including on-line — it is to the fore in that respect — but it has also looked back historically on the amount of taxes due to the State and set about collecting those taxes. We regularly see newspaper reports of that. Reports coming before the finance committee and the other commentary made to the Committee of Public Accounts gives us a clear indication that Revenue is very diligent in its work of collecting taxes due.
On the political side, the policy is fair. We have a low tax economy which is extremely attractive to outside investors and to our own home-grown businesses, and it is fair also to the people who pay those taxes.
On the other side of that budget line is the issue of how we spend that money. I take issue with the way some of it is spent and question whether we get value for money. There is a need now for every Department to examine its methodology in terms of how it achieves a full spend in any one year and to question whether it gets value for money, a phrase that is used often and perhaps it is a little worn at this stage. We are concerned with getting value for the taxpayer, ensuring a fair spend and that the money is spent as diligently as it is collected.
The evidence in terms of whether we get value for money is not good because every week in the Committee of Public Accounts, of which I am a member, we have examples of Departments that do not achieve value for money. There are huge overspends in many areas. For example, enormous overspends on information technology projects in Departments have been recorded. There are enormous overspends on the delivery of the transport and roads infrastructure throughout the country. Departments must take steps to ensure those overspends are stopped. There is a need for greater scrutiny by Departments to ensure projects are delivered on time and within budget, but we hear about the exact opposite every week in the Committee of Public Accounts. Whatever the contractual arrangements are, they have to be changed and each Department should have a section that will ensure we get value for money and projects delivered on time. If that were to happen, judging on the past 18 months, we would have saved a good deal of money which could have been redirected to areas in greater need, or more could be spent on the projects in hand.
Departments that go about their business correctly, trim their sails during the year and achieve savings on the various projects should be rewarded in some way. They have a budget within which they have to live. If they achieve a saving they should be allowed retain that saving and spend the money within the Department on services at the coalface where the public can feel its benefit and, perhaps, fulfil some policy other than what was originally set out in the budget for that year. That would encourage people to look at the various projects and to achieve savings. Given the amount of money spent by Government every year I see no reason that type of saving could not be achieved. It is incumbent on each Department to put in place measures to achieve value for money, efficiency of spend and greater monitoring of the money spent.
Something should be done at national level in regard to the employment of consultants. In each local authority and health board massive sums are spent on consultants of one kind or another, relative to particular capital projects. Within the various Departments there should be the ability to provide consultants at a much lower cost than that being paid on a one-to-one basis by individual local authorities and individual health boards. If a pool of consultants were set up through the various Departments we would achieve value for money in this area. We need to look beyond what is happening within the Departments at national level and look at what is happening within every local authority and every health board.
I note from the Committee of Public Accounts that enormous amounts of money have been returned to the Exchequer. For example, under the urban renewal scheme, up to €80 million was returned in one particular year. Where money is set down to be spent on projects, there are many local public representatives who could identify how it could be spent in the context of the local authority and local projects. That it should be returned when projects are not completed is frustrating. There is a need to examine how those allocations are decided and how best to introduce corrective measures to ensure that does not happen in the future.
On the other side of the budget, particular projects and issues relative to social justice should be taken up to ensure an all-inclusive society so that when the economy improves all boats are lifted. There is a need to look at social enterprise and the initiatives taken to date which have been successful but which need to be expanded and funded in a better way. For example, the various family resource centres throughout the country have proven to be great value for money and of great benefit to local communities. The services housed within those family resource centres are being expanded due to the the demand. To break the cycle that keeps people in a marginalised position we need to look at that success story and understand how it was achieved and how better the money can be spent in that direction in the future. The whole issue of those family resource centres, homework clubs and the various other schemes undertaken by them, through the Department of Social and Family Affairs, needs to be examined and supported given their positive impact on local communities.
Information technology was mentioned in the context of section 8 and the relief provided. There is a need to provide further relief for social enterprise given that the family resource centres are now becoming enterprise centres for marginalised communities. They create jobs on the back of much needed projects within their communities and use information technology in some cases to achieve this. That being the case, more funds should be directed into those community projects to ensure they grow and prosper.
Not enough is being done in the area of information technology and commerce. Section 8 spells out certain reliefs. In the last Administration, the Oireachtas Committee on Enterprise and Small Businesses prepared a report stating that one of the initiatives to be taken was some form of personal tax relief on computers purchased on a once-off basis or upgraded. It recommended that tax relief be put in place. The sooner the better PCs and a broadband connection are in every home because that is the way forward.
Likewise, in terms of Government and e-procurement, millions of euro could be saved in that area if we get up to speed and on-line ahead of our European partners as soon as possible. The only way to achieve this is by direct Government intervention in the context of some form of tax relief to encourage people.
We saw in Ennis, Castlebar, Kerry and in Kilkenny how the community responded to the Eircom information age project and how an information base community can attract its own form of jobs simply because it has a community interested in information technology and willing to use it in the context of their lives, work and the creation of new jobs.
Many jobs can be created if Ireland puts itself to the fore of what is happening within Europe and beyond. For example, Ireland is now well ahead of America in terms of putting new software products on the market. I would like to see a design centre for that activity, such as existed in Kilkenny for the textile business, which would become the central location within Europe for the design and distribution of software. We have the population of interested people to achieve that. What is needed to kick start it and move it forward is other tax incentives built on the back of section 8.
I presented to the Minister an initiative in Kilkenny City around the Maltings buildings, an enterprise centre dealing with training and information technology employment. We should look at initiatives such as that with a view to supporting them, be it through Enterprise Ireland or by direct grant assistance. Where it is proved to have a major positive impact on a local community, particularly those with high levels of unemployment, the Government should intervene. That is part of a social justice programme that could be planned and supported and could result in sustainable employment in a huge growth industry across the globe.
I highlight Kilkenny Industrial Development Company which is non-profit making and provides enterprise units on an IDA industrial park. That is the type of enterprise project that is real and tangible and which the Government should support. There is every reason for it to do that.
In the context of employment I express my disappointment on an aspect of the general package before us in the Finance Bill. I thought a particular issue regarding County Kilkenny, which was raised in the House, would have been addressed. A Leas-Cheann Comhairle, you were involved in the debate on the Comerama factory closure in Kilkenny. Efforts should have been made in this Bill regarding the commitments entered into by the Tánaiste with the delegation representing the unions and employees of Comerama. The amount of money due to the workers of that enterprise is not significant. They are now out of work and the factory is gone but the commitment was given and must be honoured. Perhaps the Finance Bill is the vehicle which should be used to ensure that the cost of the commitment is catered for on a once-off basis. I appeal again to the Tánaiste to consider what was said and the commitment given, and to examine the matter with the Minister for Finance and the unions. This could be done on a once-off basis, to see if the commitment can be honoured in some manner in the context of this Bill in order to deal with what is considered a serious issue at local level in Kilkenny, and which is as yet unresolved.
Regarding the Bill's treatment of housing, much earlier discussion concerned the rent subsidy. I recall a debate in 1997 or 1998 in which it was said that the costs of rent subsidy were in the region of €5 million per year at that time. I would hate to think of the cost now because it has snowballed and is a huge drain on the Exchequer. I take issue with the Bill not in regard to rent subsidy, which is a must and is now part and parcel of the delivery of accommodation to people throughout the country, but because the great housing success stories were the housing estates constructed by local authorities in the 1950s and 1960s.
Members will canvass such estates during the forthcoming local election campaign and will see that they are success stories in their own right. They brought far greater success to the housing issues of that time than the voluntary housing schemes currently in operation. Due to the demand on housing lists, there is need for the House to re-examine housing policy so that the money committed in this regard in the Bill would, over a period, enhance that area of housing, and could be redirected to full-blown local authority based housing projects.
I realise that the policy was changed and that we moved slowly from our previous to our current position in regard to the delivery of local authority houses. However, there is an argument for a return to the position pertaining in the days when large-scale local authority housing projects were constructed. Perhaps funding could be redirected into the many housing schemes which are now being built in the private sector to allow local authorities greater freedom to purchase more houses in order to satisfy those on housing lists.
I urge the Minister to consider this because times change. We now consider budgets not on a one year basis but on a rolling basis across five years or so, and the Minister has delivered every budget since 1997. There is no harm, therefore, in considering the policies in those budgets to find whether we can achieve better results, greater efficiency of spend and greater value for money. That is simply to be pragmatic with the money collected and spent on behalf of the taxpayer. We should examine again the policies in this area in order to satisfy the demands of those on housing lists by perhaps encouraging local authorities to return to an old but very successful policy.
I am glad to see the Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children, Deputy Callely, in the House. He might consider the point I wish to make regarding care for the elderly. Every health policy should be, if you like, elderly proofed to ensure that the best deal possible is obtained in regard to care of the elderly.