Appropriation Act 2004: Statements.

I am happy to return to the Seanad to resume discussion of the Appropriation Act 2004. Since the matter was last debated in December 2004, the Bill was enacted giving statutory effect to the departmental Estimates for supply services for 2004.

Regarding the budgetary outturn for 2004, economic growth on a GDP basis in 2004 was estimated at 5.3%. This excellent performance confirms Ireland weathered the international recession of 2001-02 better than most and emerged in good shape to take advantage of the international economic upturn. The outcome of the 2004 budget was also excellent. The projected general Government deficit was €1.6 billion, but the estimated outturn was a surplus of approximately €1.4 billion. The projected Exchequer borrowing requirement was a deficit of €2.8 billion, but the outturn was a surplus of €33 million. While this good performance benefited from once-off tax receipts of €695 million, the overall economic and budgetary outturn is testament to the Government's continuing excellent management of the economy in good times and bad.

The Government's successful management of the public finances and the economy has resulted in a major reduction in the debt burden, with the general Government debt falling from a level close to 100% of GDP in the early 1990s to its current level of approximately 30% of GDP. Good government and sound policies mean that the prospects for the economy are positive for the next several years. They have generated the resources to enable the Government to continue to target the needy and to spend more on addressing economic and social needs.

The Government's approach to expenditure in 2004 was to continue it at sustainable levels to promote sustainable economic growth, while continuing the policy of targeting resources to the greatest areas of need. Gross expenditure on the public services was over €41 billion in 2004, an increase of 7.1% over 2003. The Government continued to give priority to social welfare, health, education and infrastructure. Health, education and social welfare spending in 2004 accounted for 68% of total voted spending. This expenditure continued the Government's policy since 1997 of investment in public services. This increased level of investment has delivered real improvements in services.

Expenditure on health amounted to over €10 billion in 2004. Between 1997 and 2004, gross expenditure on health increased by €6.4 billion, or 177%. Over 98,000 staff were employed last year in providing health services compared to 68,000 in 1997. During this time, an additional 6,000 nurses have been recruited, amounting to 20% of the total increase. A further 9,000 people, 30% of the increase, have been recruited to the medical, dental and health and social care professional grades. This investment has seen real improvements in the delivery of frontline health services. Greater throughput in hospitals has seen a 30% increase since 1997 in the number of patients treated in hospitals as inpatient or day-care patients. With reductions in waiting lists, 80% of patients now wait less than one year. The elective surgery rate in public hospitals increased by 85% between 1995 and 2002.

Spending on education in 2004 amounted to €6.6 billion, a doubling of expenditure since 1997. This level of spending has funded significant improvements in frontline education services. By the end of 2004, approximately 2,500 resource teachers and 1,530 learning support teachers were employed in the primary system to enable children with special educational needs receive a proper level of educational services. Over 5,500 special needs assistants are now employed in first and second level schools to ensure that children with special educational needs in mainstream classes receive necessary educational supports. This represents a massive increase in resources for special needs compared to a base of 400 in 1999. The pupil-teacher ratio at both primary and second levels has improved. At primary level, the ratio has fallen from 22.2:1 in the 1996-7 school year to 18:1 in the 2002-03 school year. In the same period, at second level the ratio has fallen from 16:1 to 13.6:1.

The 2004 allocation for social welfare was almost €11.3 billion with spending on social welfare increasing by over €5.5 billion since 1997. Over the same period, the unemployment rate was halved from 10.3% to less than 5%. Over the period 1997 to 2004, the old age contributory pension increased by 69%, an increase of 32% in real terms. The increase in the non-contributory pension was even greater at 80%, an increase of 41 % in real terms. The lowest social welfare rate, the supplementary welfare allowance, increased by 62% over the same period, an increase of 27% in real terms.

Exchequer-funded public service pay and pensions amounted to €14.2 billion in 2004, an increase of €1.2 billion or 9% in 2003. This rate of increase in the pay bill is lower than the rate of increase in any of the preceding four years. This expenditure allowed payment of the general round increases under Sustaining Progress, amounting to €540 million, the 2004 increases arising from benchmarking, amounting to €305 million, and other pay provisions, amounting to €280 million. The €280 million of the additional pay cost was due to the payment of the increase arising from the application of the part-time work legislation in education, an increased provision for the EU Presidency, increments, an extra pay day for some staff in 2004 and an increase in pensioner numbers. Payment of the benchmarking increases and the provision for the general rounds was on the basis of verifiable progress by the performance verification groups on the conditions outlined in the agreement. Service improvements for taxpayers are therefore being secured in return for this expenditure through the achievement of the modernisation objectives.

Since 1997 the Exchequer has invested €33 billion in capital expenditure. Capital investment in recent years has been approximately twice the EU average. Progress continues to be made in addressing the country's infrastructural deficit under the national development plan. Exchequer capital expenditure was €5.5 billion in 2004. Capital investment in the transport area amounted to €1.6 billion, an increase of €1.3 billion or 417% over 1997 levels. Of this, €1 billion was for road investment and €0.3 billion for public transport. This is delivering real improvements in services on the ground. Our interurban road routes and public transport capacity have been significantly enhanced. The 2004 Exchequer spend on housing capital was over €1 billion. This was supplemented by over €700 million of non-voted capital investment by the local authorities. Some 5,000 local authority houses were built in 2004. Between 1997 and 2004, over 35,000 local authority, voluntary and co-operative houses have been provided.

In the 2004 budget, the then Minister for Finance, Mr. McCreevy, announced capital investment would operate on a five-year, multi-annual allocation basis. A key innovation under this framework was the introduction of a facility allowing Departments to carry over capital savings from one year to the next. The capital envelopes and the facility to carry over gives Departments and implementing agencies more flexibility, allowing them to plan, manage and implement programmes and projects more efficiently and effectively. Provision was made in the Appropriation Act 2004 for the carryover at Vote level of some €237 million from 2004 into 2005, some 4% of total voted capital for 2004. This €237 million carryover relates mainly to €75.6 million for the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government for priorities such as local authority and social housing, €50 million for the Department of Education and Science for the school building programme, €42.7 million for the Department of Transport, mainly for road improvements, and just over €34 million for the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment to fund capital grants to industry, science and technology and FÁS capital.

Under the capital carryover legislation, the capital carryover cannot be spent until the Minister for Finance makes an order specifying the capital subheads in each of the Votes concerned against which the money will be spent. As soon as the order is made, the carryover amounts become a first charge against the subheads concerned. This order must be made before 31 March. The draft order will be submitted to the Dáil for approval shortly.

Some commentators have not appreciated the significance of this carryover facility. Their focus on the €237 million carryover has been on the fact that Departments and implementing agencies did not spend these resources in 2004 rather than the fact that under the old annual system this money would have been lost to the capital programme or, perhaps worse, spent on less meritorious projects at end year in a scramble to avoid surrendering the funds to the Exchequer. The initiation of the carryover facility is an important vehicle to better assist the planning and management of capital programmes and to ensure against less than optimal spending of valuable capital resources or the unnecessary loss of resources for programmes.

While the Appropriation Act 2004 relates to expenditure in 2004 it is important for this House to reflect on the expenditure provisions of the 2005 budget. Additional spending of over €3.7 billion more than 2004 was provided for in the 2005 budget bringing the gross spending for 2005 to almost €45 billion, an increase of 9.1%. An additional €334 million in Exchequer capital was provided for which, together with the capital carryover of €237 million, will mean that almost €6.3 billion in Exchequer capital will be available this year under the 2005-09 capital envelopes for addressing infrastructural priorities. The budget also provided for improvements in social welfare payments worth €874 million. For example, the old age pension was increased by €12 per week or 7% bringing the old age contributory pension to €179.30 per week. The Government is well on the way to achieving the programme for Government commitment to increase the State pension to €200 per week by 2007.

Further evidence of the Government's commitment to meeting social needs was the introduction of a multi-annual funding programme with a total value of close to €900 million for people with a disability. The funding is being dedicated for the period until 2009 to ensure delivery of high priority disability services. The package includes guaranteed additional current spending of almost €600 million. Some €2.8 billion overall is being provided in 2005 specifically for people with disabilities. This represents an increase of €290 million or 11% on the 2004 figure.

The bulk of the new funding package will go to the health sector where it will be invested in services for persons with an intellectual disability and those with autism, services for persons with physical or sensory disabilities and mental health services. It will focus in particular on the provision of extra residential, respite and day places, extra home support and personal assistance and extra places in community-based mental health facilities. Together with the 2005 funding, it is estimated that, by the end of 2009, over 4,500 extra residential, respite and day places will be provided for persons with an intellectual, physical or sensory disability or autism, about 600 persons with intellectual disability or autism will be transferred out of psychiatric hospitals and other inappropriate placements, about 1.2 million extra hours of home support and personal assistance will be provided for persons with physical or sensory disabilities and 400 new places will be provided in community-based mental health facilities.

The balance of the 2006-09 disability funding package is being allocated between four other Departments or offices. These resources will be used to enhance education services for adults with disabilities and expand pre-school provision, support projects which demonstrate an innovative and cost effective approach to service provision and improve accessibility to public buildings and amenities.

The Government is strongly committed to securing better value for money from public expenditure so that we get the maximum return from the high levels of investment. I have already referred to the merits in this regard of the new multi-annual capital envelopes framework. One of the conditions of the Department of Finance sanction to incurring expenditure under the capital envelopes requires Departments and their agencies to comply with the 1994 Department of Finance guidelines for the appraisal and management of public expenditure in all cases. Consultations with Departments on revising the existing guidelines are now complete. Revised guidelines will shortly be circulated to Departments and implementing agencies.

There are also reforms planned in the area of public sector contracts for construction and construction related services. The reforms will involve the amendment and introduction of new standard forms of construction contracts which will transfer appropriate risks to contractors where they are best placed to manage them. These initiatives seek to reduce the potential for project cost overruns and provide better value for money for the State. Consultation with the construction industry on the contract related material will commence shortly. Work has been ongoing within Departments and offices generally on developing performance indicators in the context of the roll-out of their management information frameworks. Departments have put cross-divisional arrangements in place to develop and improve their use of performance indicators. A pilot project under the chairmanship of the Department of Finance and involving the Department of the Taoiseach and the pilot Departments — Transport, Agriculture and Food and Social and Family Affairs — is examining ways of improving the links between departmental business planning, resource allocation as in the Estimates and output reporting. The report on the pilot project and the pilot models is being finalised in light of the views last September of the financial management sub-group of Secretaries General and they will be submitted to the Minister shortly.

In his 2005 budget the Minister for Finance signalled his intention to consider reform of the budget policy formulation process. He is currently examining a number of options for change which could be implemented in the short and medium term. Any changes to current practices would need to meet best practice, improve both the quality of debate and the data available to the Dáil on the budget, meet our obligations to the EU and be capable of being delivered within the existing budget timetable. He has indicated his intention to discuss the possibilities for change shortly with the Government and at that stage to bring forward proposals for discussion.

The Government's successful management of the public finances has meant that it continues to promote sustainable economic development and to generate the necessary resources to target key economic and social priorities. The 2004 expenditure and the allocations for public services as set out in the Estimates and the 2005 budget will ensure that we continue to make real economic and social progress.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Parlon, to the House and I am glad we have an opportunity to discuss the Appropriation Act. It was passed in both Houses before Christmas but there was not much debate because of the lack of time. I am delighted the Leader has found time to hold the debate today.

I have looked back on some past discussions on appropriations and the Appropriation Acts of previous years. They were always used as an opportunity at the end of each year for Government and Opposition Members to debate how the public finances are being managed and minded. The Opposition is used to hearing lectures from the Government about how everything seems to have started in 1997, without reference to what happened before that point. Some things have happened in the management of this Government since 1997 which deserve examination. I am glad to have the opportunity today to discuss a few of the increases in spending that have occurred over that eight-year period.

Calculated overall, the tax take in this country from each individual has doubled over the period in question. The annual tax take by the Department of Finance is now €44.5 billion compared to €21.7 billion in 1997. There are a number of reasons for that. Clearly more people are working and earning more money, but that does not explain the doubling of the tax take. Employment numbers over the period have not doubled. The Government regularly promotes the notion that Ireland is a low-tax country but that is not the case. The method of tax collection has changed. Income tax levels have decreased but new charges have come in across the board in different areas. That is something the Government also conveniently failed to recognise or admit, but it is a fact. A doubling of the tax take in the eight-year period during which the coalition has been in Government is certainly indicative of our not living in the low-tax economy that we are sometimes led to believe. An additional €8,800 per year per household has been taken in tax since the governing parties first took power in 1997. That is certainly not indicative of a low-tax regime.

The Minister of State himself has gone through several areas where spending has increased, and we recognise the massive increases in health spending in recent years. We have seen a trebling over the period, yet, if anything, there has been a significant disimprovement in health services. I welcome the appointment of the new Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney. Perhaps she can do something to shake up that Department as something needs to be done to ensure we get value for money. I am glad the Minister of State, Deputy Parlon, mentioned that in his opening remarks.

Government actions over the past eight years have not done much to instil in me or anyone else the notion that it is conscious of the concept of value for money. If the Government was a public company, it would be in serious difficulties by now, given the reckless spending, particularly in the run-up to the last general election in 2002. Immediately thereafter, we saw a clawback. However, in recent months we have begun to see something of a splurge again. The Minister of State outlined several areas where extra money has been spent. I have noticed significant extra amounts going on a number of areas over the past seven or eight years without our seeing any improvement. Some €500 million more is being spent on the criminal justice system than in 1997, yet detection rates are down by 6%. Drugs seizures have fallen by approximately 43% over the past year. Assaults causing harm are up by574%, and public order offences by over 90% over the seven-year period; yet we are spending €500 million more on the criminal justice system.

We have not yet seen or heard from the 2,000 extra gardaí who were supposed to be appointed and who we were told before Christmas by the Minister of State, Deputy Parlon, would come on stream in the near future. I will believe that when I see it. We have seen no Garda efforts on the ground to provide facilities to train the additional gardaí. If there are to be 2,000 more, they will have to be trained somewhere. As matters stand, the Templemore facility cannot cope with the proposed provision.

Despite what the Minister of State and other Government spokespersons might say, Government expenditure on public services between 1997 and 2004 increased by 71% in total; yet across many areas, including education, health and criminal justice, the service has disimproved if anything. I make particular reference to what Deputy Parlon and previous speakers have said on such matters as the pupil-teacher ratio, which comes under the auspices of Department of Education and Science. No one seems to recognise, realise or admit when making such comments that there are fewer students in schools now than in 1997, and that is the primary reason that the ratio has fallen. It has very little to do with any action taken by the Government.

This year we will have more than 1 million students.

There are fewer students in primary education than in 1997, and that is why the pupil-teacher ratio has fallen. It has nothing to do with the Government spending extra money.

The one noteworthy aspect of the budget this year was the provision of extra resources for disability. I welcomed it when we had our debate that night, and I still welcome it. However, I was confronted last week with an example of how unyielding the system can be regarding those with disabilities. A Kilkenny man in his 30s is physically disabled but can drive a car and is working on a FÁS scheme in an institution in the town. However, he has been told that his place no longer exists and that he must pack his bags and go home. There is no other comparable FÁS position anywhere in the county that might fulfil his needs, yet he has been trying to do something for himself and is no real burden on the State. He is not reliant on any State care. He is still living at home with his family but finds that he has been kicked in the teeth, even after the budget announcement of extra provision for people with disabilities. Government spokespersons all too often fail to mention that aspect when they get the opportunity.

The Minister of State, Deputy Parlon, also mentioned the increase in employment in the public services. Health is the primary area where we have seen dramatic increases. There has been a 46% rise in those employed in the health services since 1997, when these low spenders and taxers entered Government. However, of those extra staff only 22% are doctors or nurses. The other 78% are administrators of some shape or form. They push pens and fill in forms. I know that many do valuable work, but one has to question whether we need that amount of bureaucracy in the health service.

I have said that here before, and I do not suggest that we could go back to the system that prevailed in the past where one had one or two nuns running every hospital. That system is obviously in the dim and distant past and will not return. However, if 50 years ago one or two nuns could run a hospital in Kilkenny, I cannot see why one needs an army of public servants running around the corridors of hospitals trying to manage the medical service. It is being run into the ground by the degree of needless bureaucracy involved in the sector. Rather than the cutback in bureaucracy that we were promised by the Health Service Executive, we are seeing an extra layer added to the existing health board structure. We are seeing more positions created rather than an attempt by the Government to streamline the health services and ensure we get better value for money across Government spending.

I also note that spending under the heading "hospitals" has more than doubled from just under €2 billion to €4.2 billion in the seven years that the Government has been in office. That is a staggering increase, yet we all have daily experience of the fact that such problems persist in the health services. An annual event occurs most acutely in Dublin but also up and down the country in hospital accident and emergency facilities whereby people end up on trolleys for days. Sometimes they are lucky if they get a chair. My own secretary had the misfortune of being ill before Christmas and was in a chair with a drip for almost a day in a Dublin hospital. Hers was not an exceptional case. We have heard of people finding themselves in similar positions, most notably in Dublin.

I am also interested that the Minister of State seems to exemplify the new-found devotion among members of the Government to cutting back waste and ensuring that money is better spent. In his own Department, €48 million was spent on the new drainage scheme in my own city of Kilkenny which was badly needed. That job was originally projected to cost €14 million but went up to over three times the original estimate. A few weeks ago the salmon could not get back up the river, despite the fact that €48 million had been spent on the new scheme. A weir was put in that did not allow the fish to get back up the river. It is a joke that such a development would take place and that an urgently-needed flood relief scheme would run so wildly over budget and be so badly designed that it did not take into account the fact that there were fish in the river. At least we still have fish in the river in Kilkenny.

Was there any flooding?

There was no flooding. There has not been much rain.

A total of 99.9% of the fish went up the river.

Did they get up the river?

People in Clonmel would be very happy to have the scheme they have in Kilkenny, and they would not be overly concerned about half a dozen fish.

Senator Phelan, without interruption.

In fairness, there was more than half a dozen fish. It is used as an example.

That is all the evidence I saw.

It is used as an example, but there was a lot more than half a dozen fish. Perhaps the Minister of State does not care about environmental issues.

I like to deal with facts.

There was a lot more than half a dozen fish.

I have seen no evidence of any more.

I do not want to get side-tracked on an issue like that. We all have examples of infrastructural investments, particularly regarding transport and roads, of schemes that were budgeted to cost a certain amount but ended up costing multiples of the original budget. Nobody seems to be prepared to take the rap for the fact that serious miscalculations took place on the Government's behalf with regard to the original drawing up of these schemes. It would not be appropriate if this concern was run on a profit-making basis but because it is public funds the Government can throw them around willy-nilly, like it has done in several parts of the country. I will not go into other particular——

The Senator knows that if it was on a profit-making basis, Kilkenny would never have had its flood relief scheme.

I do not want to get bogged down in the Kilkenny flood relief scheme.

The Senator is the one who raised it and created a big issue about six fish.

There were a lot more than that. There were scores.

I understand the Minister of State is not familiar with Kilkenny——

I spent the day there yesterday.

Senator Phelan, without interruption.

He could have brought down the digger to Kilkenny and fixed the weir that the boys put in at a cost of €48 million and which does not do the job it was designed to do.

Some modification has been carried out——

I am led to believe the modification will not serve the purpose for which it was intended. That only compounds the problem. The Minister of State can cynically use the fish issue to detract from the point I am trying to make. The principal point is that a Government project that was originally estimated to cost €14 million ended up costing more than three times that amount, and it did not serve one of the jobs it was originally set up to do. Whether we are talking about fish, humans or anything else, it did not do what it said on the tin, to borrow a phrase from a popular advertisement.

If people are saved from flooding, it will have done what it said on the tin.

We are talking about six fish.

A Senator

Sick fish.

There were a lot of sick fish there when they could not get through.

Senator Phelan, without interruption.

The point I am trying to make still stands, despite the distractions from the Minister of State, Deputy Parlon. We have seen dramatic increases in spending over the past seven or eight years. The Minister of State has acknowledged that, as have I. We are all familiar with those increases but we have not seen corresponding increases in the standards of public services provided. That is the nub of the issue. If the Minister of State wants to make little of that, that is his business, but the ordinary punter on the street is familiar with examples of public money being wasted on a daily basis. Unless the Minister of State and his colleagues are prepared to take this issue seriously and try to do something about it, passing remarks in the House about their new-found commitment to fiscal rectitude will not have much effect on the ground. In the course of the eight years we have seen——

Where is the evidence?

——umpteen examples of wastage but I see no commitment from the Government on any level to address that problem.

I am a little disappointed with the Minister of State's remarks about the Kilkenny scheme and his use of that as an example but, sadly, I have come to expect little else over the past few years. The job he is charged with is a very serious one, and he has failed to take his role sufficiently seriously. He should choose his words a little more carefully when he comes into this Chamber to speak on any issue.

Which ones were those?

The ones about the six fish in Kilkenny.

That is the only evidence I have seen. A Deputy in the other House gathered them together one day and got a photograph taken of them.

I am disappointed with the Minister of State's comments. He has outlined the increases in spending that have taken place but he did not outline any improvements in services or real conversion among the Government parties to a new sense of value for money that the ordinary members of the public want. I hope that over the course of the debate he will have his eyes opened somewhat by other Members if he is not prepared to listen to what I have to say.

I wonder if this debate will go down in the annals of the Seanad as the "six fish debate". This is a technical Bill which we passed before Christmas. I welcome the Minister of State and his officials, and I welcome his contribution which gives an illustration of some of the worthwhile achievements that have been attained with the increases in public expenditure over the past few years.

A remark was made earlier about efficiency. Ireland is regarded internationally as running an exceptionally successful economy and having exceptionally successful public finances. I welcome the fact that both the public finances and the economy remain exceptionally healthy. If I were a Department of Finance official over the past 20 years, one would feel very proud of what has been achieved over that period, which is nothing our history had led us to expect. There was a history of the Department of Finance written some 30 years ago, which was a very mixed review over the early decades of independence but the past 20 years has been an exceptional period.

One of the illustrations of that is the way the general Government debt to GDP ratio has been reduced to around 30% and is still falling. It is the second lowest in the euro zone bar Luxembourg. It is no accident that Luxembourg, which has the lowest such ratio, is also easily the wealthiest country in the European Union. Tax revenue buoyancy is continuing, and this includes both the direct and indirect effects of special investigations. I note that apart from the good outturn last year the Exchequer returns show a 9.5% increase in tax revenue in the first month of the year as against an anticipated projection of about 5%. The budgetary stance is expansionary but not imprudently so. The ESRI, in its latest quarterly, commented that the volume of Government consumption increased in 2004 by 2.7% in real terms and that that was less than the rise in output. In addition, inflation is back in line.

I read the Commission working paper on the second implementation report on the 2003-05 broad economic policy guidelines and what it had to say about Ireland. The report states:

After one and a half years of implementation, Ireland has in general made good progress in addressing the policy challenge that was identified in the country-specific part of the BEPGs, regarding the achievement of a smooth transition to lower, sustainable growth levels in the years ahead. In particular, further efforts have been made to improve control and efficiency of public expenditure, especially by extending multi-annual budgeting and by reforms in the health sector. As regards wage developments, relatively moderate provisions were agreed by the social partners in June 2004 in the new 18-month national wage agreement.

It is correct that the Minister of State and other speakers should stress the importance of value for money. The Minister of State made a particular point about the contribution that will be made by the carryover facility for capital expenditure and stated that money will neither be lost to the programme nor spent on something of secondary importance.

I wish to comment on the recommendation issued in the past 24 hours that the Dunboyne rail link should be reopened. Most of the cost of this project — over €100 million — will come about as a result of land acquisition. In contrast, the Midleton line, which is approximately the same length as the Dunboyne line, will cost only €45 million. I presume that virtually the entire difference in these figures comprises land acquisition costs. This highlights the importance of not urging or requiring State companies such as CIE to sell off land or State assets which might be needed in the future and which then have to be bought back at some vast cost. There should be a general rule that old rail lines should, at worst, be leased and should not be sold off.

The Quigley report, which was published last week, raised certain general issues on which I wish to comment. Many responsible Ministers and the Taoiseach face a battle to keep down the size of delegations that travel abroad. The difficulty is that in the case, for example, of technical conferences or matters involving various committees and working groups, experts with experience in many different areas are needed. While Ministers can give general directions and on occasion engage in a hands-on approach, Secretaries General of Departments — who are, after all, Accounting Officers — and senior civil servants have a responsibility to see that the numbers making up delegations are kept within reasonable limits.

It is clear that tighter controls are needed in respect of consultancy arrangements of all types and that, in all probability, fewer consultancies should be awarded. There is a sneaking feeling — I refer here to what has happened with successive Governments during the past 25 years — that while it is necessary to employ consultants to provide expert advice in certain circumstances, there is sometimes an element of patronage involved. The latter must also be seen in the context that there is quite an amount of expertise available in the public service. I am not convinced that it is necessary to spend as much on consultancies as is currently the case.

The money spent on consultancy contracts is a source of ammunition for Opposition parties. When I first worked in Opposition with Charlie Haughey and the Book of Estimates was published, he directed me to look at the figure for consultancies. The latter is always good for scoring points. Leaving the politics aside, however, there is a serious point to be made, namely, if we are concerned with value for money, is it being obtained by employing so many consultants? I should be the last person to denigrate the advisory system which, within limits, is good but on which a tight rein must be kept. Under the current Government and its predecessor, many of the programme managers have been permanent civil servants. Working as programme managers has been good experience for these individuals.

The main economic concerns at present revolve around matters such as the easing of the housing market. If that market is easing, it is doing so only very gently. I am not certain, therefore, that there is an immediate cause for concern. However, the issue of indebtedness does arise. People probably feel that low interest rates will be here forever but more prudence is perhaps required. The Central Bank places considerable stress on that point.

There is then the issue of competitiveness. In a report in early January, Deloitte stated that Ireland remains one of the least expensive EU countries for employers. There are huge add-on costs — involving forms of social contributions — in countries such as France and Germany. At the same time, there is a significant gap between Ireland and the Mediterranean countries and the new accession states, the costs in which are lower again.

Fine Gael has made much of the so-called rip-off culture. However, one can have varied experiences. I visited Senator Coghlan's home town of Killarney——

What a delightful place.

——on Saturday on my way to address a conference in west Kerry. I travelled by train from Tipperary to Killarney because I did not want to drive the entire way to the conference and hired a car on my arrival. Travelling from Killarney to the conference and back, I drove around most of the Ring of Kerry.

The Senator must have seen all our beauty and splendour.

The cost of the car hire was €108, which was quite steep.

I should have been there to greet the Senator because it would not then have cost him as much.

Yes but ordinary punters and visitors do not have the benefit of special advice from Senator Coghlan. On returning home, I developed a puncture in one of the wheels on my own car.

No, it was caused by a thorn in my driveway. I changed the wheel and took the punctured one to be repaired.

Was the Senator preparing for the driving test?

Something like that.

Did he look under the bonnet or hoot his horn first?

I was astonished by the bill with which I was presented for the puncture repair. It was all done very efficiently within 15 minutes and cost only €5. There may be a difference between Tipperary and Killarney as regards certain charges but perhaps Senator Coghlan might like to comment.

I must visit Tipperary.

A point highlighted by the ESRI is that there is a difference — I am not sure political rhetoric has caught up in this regard — between the budgets introduced in the years 2001 to 2005 and some of the Government's earlier budgets dating to 1997 and that most of the gains have been directed towards those at the lower levels in society.

There has been a great deal of additional expenditure on health. I agree that we are not satisfied with the results but this does not mean there has been a disimprovement. On my visit to west Kerry I spoke to the manager of a hospital who informed me that in his experience — he spoke mainly about accident and emergency departments——

The Senator did not find one of those in Dingle.

He said the problem is that far too many people who should be receiving primary care come to hospitals — the point can be made that primary care has not yet been developed in the way it should have been — and that, at the other end of the system, there are insufficient step-down facilities. A new health administration system is being introduced this year and it is hoped that this will give rise to more efficiencies.

In the area of education, the intake in primary schools is rising quite sharply. On capital investment, while there were problems with escalating costs, many commentators have conceded that the improvements introduced are making a real impact with all the different roads opened, the Luas and so on. People see a difference.

I will deal briefly with three points made by Senator Phelan. I believe he took a leaf out of Deputy Richard Bruton's book in talking about the increase in the tax take. However, this whole approach is fallacious. If incomes are rising sharply, the absolute amount of tax will rise also. Is Fine Gael suggesting that this should not be so? Therefore, people at work, if they are much better off, are paying a higher absolute amount of tax than they were seven or eight years ago. I see nothing wrong with that; public services have to be funded.

There have been constant references to reckless spending since 2001. There was a Government surplus of €4.5 billion. The point has often been made by former Deputy McCreevy as to whether that surplus should have been €6 billion or €7 billion. It is difficult to defend accumulating vast quantities of money and not spending it where it was needed. It might be argued that the action taken in 2003 and 2004 to ensure that confidence was maintained was something of an overreaction. I do not know, but investor confidence was consolidated and we are back at a 5% growth rate, which I believe is very satisfactory.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Parlon. The Kilkenny fish issue strikes me as a misnomer since, as I understand it, the Nore rises in the Minister of State's constituency. They should properly be referred to, therefore, as Laois fish.

They could not get back to Laois.

I trust the Minister of State treats his human constituents rather better than the fish elements of his constituency. As Senator Phelan said, it is not just a matter of piscatorial convenience.

Value for money is a serious issue and I was struck by the lengthy passage in the Minister of State's contribution on this point. Senator Phelan rightly quoted at length from the very worthy Fine Gael document on the issue, which sets out increases in expenditure in graphic detail and asks what we have got for it. It is always important to have a sense of balance and there are many good examples of where money has been well spent. The Minister of State outlined one of them in the course of his contribution when he referred to pupil-teacher ratios and specifically the additional provisions made for resource and special needs teachers and so on. It is important to say that money has been well spent in that regard.

Another area where it has also been well spent — I am struck by the commitment of the Minister for Finance, Deputy Cowen — is disability, where the approach is absolutely bang on. A serious assessment of need has been done over a period of years in conjunction with the interest groups that represent people with disabilities. We have a fairly good idea of what is represented in terms of respite, day-care, residential care places and so on. The Minister has made a multi-annual commitment to meet that need. This is in stark contrast to the way matters were dealt with frequently in the past. By and large, they are still dealt with in that way. We look at the figures on annual basis, find out what money is available and decide to spend it as quickly as possible. I very much favour the use of multi-annual envelopes.

The way we tried to do it in the 1990s simply did not work. Good progress has been made in terms of, for example, the roads budget, the proposals for disability and overseas development aid, although I do not agree with the actual numbers in this case. These are in stark contrast to the way we normally deal with matters which, frankly, is not efficient. An enormous amount still has to be done, however, in terms of assuring value for money. One great example over the years was the way in which we dealt with EU Structural Funds. As the Minister of State knows, a unit, either in his Department or loosely connected with it, was responsible, in conjunction with the Commission, for looking at the manner in which we spent such funds. It is accepted not just by us, but internationally, that it did a good job. I understand this unit is at risk of being broken up by virtue of one of the Minister's other pet projects, namely, decentralisation. I believe he wants to pocket it and bring it down to his constituency or somewhere close to it, which would be a great pity.

We need to build on that experience by introducing a unit which reviews all Departments, not just EU Structural Funds. It should look at all expenditure programmes and not just the ones that are funded by money from other than Irish taxpayers. It appears to me an uncontroversial proposal and one that has been kicking around for a long time. I would like progress made on it.

The truth is that we have not succeeded in planning expenditure when we had money. The experience of 2001-02 was disastrous. Most famously, we ended up building health facilities we could not use because we had not projected for the ongoing current cost of staffing them. I gather this has just about been rectified, but the problem is nonetheless stark.

When Departments are given money at short notice and do not have plans on how to use it, the best and wisest course is not followed. Regrettably, this has happened a good deal during the time when we have had resources beyond compare over the past five or six years. For that reason, if no other, many of the resources available were simply wasted or at least not used to the optimal degree.

Deputy Ruairí Quinn, when he was Minister for Finance, around 1996, introduced a series of expenditure reviews. They ran into the sand, to tell the truth. I read some of them and, by and large, they were turgid. Some of them were good while others were not so good. However, the programme was well-intentioned. I am not sure whether it has been wound up at this stage. If it has not, it has not gone very far. We need something with more teeth that is current and public, where we can engage with those who run programmes and assess publicly whether they meet the needs.

I was struck by the Minister of State's comments on the budgetary process. The budget is a charade. Virtually any of us who has been even tangentially involved in this process knows that is the case. It suits the aims of those within the Department who wish to keep everything under wraps for as long as possible and then announce matters in a declaratory fashion on budget day. By and large, however, it is a charade. We are spending a great amount of taxpayers' money. Announcements are made after decisions have already effectively been taken without giving committees of the Oireachtas, or outside bodies for that matter, a chance to look at whether the expenditure plans are good or match the aims, as stated.

We need a period of discussion, running from September or whenever the Dáil resumes in the autumn, for a period of two months. During that time expenditure proposals, Estimates for the following year and taxation plans should be on the table and discussed by all relevant committees so that we can tease out in public how taxpayers' money is being spent.

However, I welcome the commitment made by the Minister on budget day, which I believe he repeated in the Dáil last week, to change the budgetary format. I presume the Minister of State in his comments today meant it as a caveat when he said it had to be done in the context of the current budgetary timetable. I am not sure whether that is intended to restrict the nature of any reforms to be made because the major problem is the timetable. If that is the case, it would be very disappointing.

Senator Mansergh referred to the Central Bank report which makes for interesting reading. It projects, as the Minister of State knows, an approximate increase of 4.75% in GNP next year, in comparison to a likely outturn of 5% this year. It points to some potential problems, however, which perhaps we should highlight and ask the Minister of State to comment on. I was struck by the contribution the construction sector is now making to the economy. The figure of 220,000 employed in the sector is given in the report, which is equivalent to about one in eight workers employed in the economy as a whole. It might be argued that this is a measure of success rather than a potential problem. As long as employment can be sustained at that level, it is good and healthy because, by and large, the sector is indigenous and gives a good deal of employment. However, it is also a very cyclical sector. We are building almost twice as many houses as we were only a couple of years ago. Therefore, it is prone to reductions as well as increases in employment. We have to be a little wary of this aspect.

The bank also points to our increasing reliance on the competitive elements of our export-led economy, which are the foreign-owned sectors of the economy. In particular, it mentions chemical and pharmaceutical industries, as well as information and communications technology. This is a feature that has been intensified over the years.

It is also worrying as the flip side is that the indigenous sector is becoming less competitive. We have less of a comparative advantage when it comes to exporting goods that we manufacture here. That will cause us trouble in the future. I read the enterprise strategy report which was produced last year for the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment. In effect, it argues that we should accelerate that process. The areas of growth that it targets are increasingly likely to be foreign owned. We have to approach this in a fashion which ensures a reasonable prospect that foreign-owned companies stay here.

The emphasis in the report on research and development is very important. Even with the tax breaks that have been introduced in recent years, I am not sure we have done enough to encourage Irish-based multinationals to carry out research and development here, nor have we done enough to make it viable for third-level institutions to carry out research and development here. We have to do more to ensure that we continue to attract foreign direct investment and that we keep it. Our reliance on foreign-owned companies in the trading sector is increasing to worrying levels.

An interesting area of the bank's report was that which dealt with credit. While the bank makes the point that credit is now at a very high level, it also notes that the number of credit transactions last year was down and that consumer confidence is not as high as one might expect in an economy that is growing 5% year-on-year. The reason seems to be that domestic demand is still pretty low. To put it another way, the growth in the economy is not being driven by people in Ireland demanding more goods and services, but by exports. It is being driven by foreign-owned companies producing products in which we have a comparative advantage and exporting them. We are living comfortably, but nonetheless not too far from the edge of a cliff. We are very reliant on industry that we do not own and that is mainly producing goods for export. While it has been a fine foundation on which to base our boom for the past ten years, I am not sure we can afford to be as reliant on those sectors in the future.

What has happened to public private partnerships? There was a great fanfare about this a few years ago. I was one of those who expressed a certain cautious optimism that they could make a contribution. The Government made a capital resource allocation for PPP projects a couple of years ago, which has since been scaled back. The word on the ground is that the programme is running into the ground. It is not delivering anything remotely close to what we thought it would deliver. I do not know whether this is because the common form of contract to which the Department would like to work is not satisfactory to the financial institutions or to the private sector investors that it would like to bring in. It may be because we overestimated the attractiveness of the projects to the private sector in the first place. Many of those companies would not be Irish based in the first place. It may be that we have just got it wrong. We may have been over-enthusiastic about it and perhaps it is time to recognise that it is too expensive and that we should finance it directly from the State. I would be interested in hearing the Minister's reflections because the great white hope of four or five years ago is no longer what it was.

A few weeks ago, the CSO published a disturbing report on the levels of poverty in this country. We congratulate ourselves regularly about double digit growth, but we forget that there are still shameful levels of poverty in this country. These are levels of relative and consistent poverty. The CSO report points to a level of consistent poverty of almost 5%. While it is fair to say that that has reduced from the level of ten years ago, it nonetheless represents one in 20 people. These are households that cannot afford to buy a roast once a week, that cannot afford to buy new clothes, that have difficulty in repairing utensils and suffer arrears in rent and electricity. These are the very basics of everyday living, yet one in 20 people in this country cannot afford such basics. At a time when we have the levels of economic growth that we have, that is simply intolerable. There is no excuse for having any level of consistent poverty beyond 1.5%.

The reality is that we are no longer dealing with that issue. We are still a one-trick economy. The philosophy of the Minister of State's party and that of the Government as a whole is that the way out of poverty is through getting a job. For many people, that is the case. However, those who are now poor are only tangentially attached to the labour market. They are people who are disabled. They are lone parents. Some of them may not be able to work for whatever reason, some of them may not be able to find work. They are people with a drug addiction problem, or formerly with a drug addiction problem. Some of them are ex-offenders. They are people who have difficulties above and beyond the simple fact that they do not have the skills to go out and get a job. These people need to be directly targeted by interventions which are tailored for their needs. This is a classic case where rising tides will not raise all boats.

Without particular assistance or targeted measures, these people are very unlikely to have a job. In some cases they will never have a job. Some disabled people will never be able to work, or will only be able to work part time. For them, the State has to make particular provision. We ask people on invalidity benefit to live on less than €200 per week. To tell someone who is temporarily unemployed that he or she will have to live on €200 per week is all well and good. Saying it to someone who is disabled and who may very well never work again is quite a different proposition. Frankly, it is a proposition that beggars belief. The Government has done a reasonable job in dealing with the issue of unemployment. No one would begrudge it that; it has taken many people out of consistent poverty. The one in 20 that are still in such poverty require specific interventions. That issue must be addressed and it is not being addressed by current Government policy.

There are a number of myths about Irish economic policy. One which was mentioned by Senator Phelan was that the boom started in 1997. Any objective analysis would suggest that it started a good deal earlier.

That is correct.

We all agreed that it started in 1994, or possibly even earlier. The second myth is the notion that tax cuts stimulated or were responsible for the boom. In many respects, they were the product of the boom. The major income tax cuts occurred in the late 1990s and not in the early 1990s. I do not think one can claim, as the Minister of State's party does, that income tax cuts gave rise to the boom. They did not.

The third myth is taking root at the moment. It is the notion that the Government has suddenly changed direction. I want to enter a note of caution. We have seen last December's spending before. We even have had far higher rates of spending than that which we saw last December. We had such rates in the two years preceding the 2002 general election.

As one swallow does not make a summer, one half decent budget does not make the Minister for Finance a socialist. I believe very strongly that had we seen consistently over the past seven years budgets approximate to the last one, the country would be a much better place in which to live. Before those of us who look at things from the perspective I do start heaping plaudits on the Minister, we must see a great deal more evidence of a change in direction.

I recommend the current ESRI report to the Senator.

This debate is an opportunity to consider how, where and why the Government spends taxpayers' money and to establish how effectively it is targeting areas of need nationally. We must assess whether spending is reaching areas of need or falling short. If it is falling short, we must establish to what extent. These issues have been teased out all evening with strong statements from Senator John Paul Phelan in which he contended that while a great deal of money was being provided, it was being spent recklessly and irresponsibly. I do not intend to do the Senator an injustice as he is not here to correct me if I am wrong. I wish he were, but I gleaned from his comments——

The Senator knows the rule of the House that a speaker should not refer to a Member who is absent.

He will treat him kindly.

I take back my comments. Successive Governments have made significant advances in the manner in which spending is managed. I do not cite any particular Administration in that regard. As I listened to remarks about rates of spending, I cast my mind back to the 1980s when I had to chair a sub-committee on cost overruns in the public service. At the time, cost overruns involved multiples rather than percentages of original estimates. I remember a Fine Gael representative, who remains a very prominent Member of the Dáil, and members of my own party pushing the idea at the time of multi-annual capital envelopes to which the Minister of State referred today. The issue surfaced in the 1980s, continued to be considered in the 1990s and now constitutes a central element of Government policy and planning. I welcome multi-annual capital envelopes as an important development in the context of control mechanisms and improved planning, co-ordination and ongoing action.

Many of the decisions of the current and previous Ministers for Finance have had positive effects in the management of success and bode well for future generations. The national pensions fund was an excellent initiative and I have referred to it as such a number of times in the House. I make no apology for referring to it again. The originator of the initiative will go down in history as far-seeing in making a wise decision and sticking to his guns in the face of pressure due to the downturn in the world economy over the past few years. I backed the Minister all the way as did the Government. He was right, wise and far-seeing whereas others wanted him to dip into the fund to finance one-off infrastructural capital projects. While many of the ideas were very good, their champions failed to take a number of factors into account. The primary objection to using the fund in that way was that if one started dipping into it at all, one would continue to find excuses to do so in each of the following years. I congratulate the former Minister, former Deputy McCreevy, and the Government which backed him for standing by his excellent decision.

The decision to reduce our foreign debt was another excellent contribution to the prudent management of our success. The servicing of the debt was a phenomenal burden and drain on tax revenue. It undermined the ability of successive Governments to address and target areas of acute need. In taking on the issue of foreign debt against the advice of a number of people, the former Minister made a very wise decision. I commend him for it today just as strongly as I did at the time. When economic historians look back, they will consider that Minister and the Government who supported him to have done well.

That is a long way off.

The Government had the money to splurge had it chosen to do so. It did not. To have embarked on a spending splurge would have been irresponsible, highly inflationary and anathema to the Government's philosophy. A very short-sighted boom would have undermined our competitiveness and been followed by a bust. The Government has chosen not to adopt that approach to spending.

We have spoken about taxation policy as the generator of the income Government spends on services. While the House had an excellent debate on taxation before Christmas, it is a very relevant factor in spending. The Government's approach to taxation has been prudent, wise and far-seeing. The level at which corporation tax is set has been identified as one of the key contributors to our economic success, despite the contrary advice of critics and ideologues. I do not necessarily refer to Fine Gael in that context. According to some, to reduce corporation tax was to let fat cats off the hook and ensure the State would have far less income to spend on the poor. The opposite has been true. It took courage for the Government to stick to its guns and maintain a low rate of corporation tax.

I remember past budgets formulated in the context of economic downturns which screwed the corporate sector in the first instance and, having done so, proceeded to screw PAYE taxpayers. Strangely, this Government did not take that course. It did not set out to screw the corporate sector or the PAYE worker. I am open to contradiction in suggesting the current rate of income taxation is the lowest in the history of the State. While it may be that a lower rate obtained in the dim and distant past, the current rates have provided significant incentives to PAYE workers. It is a mark of the sound judgment of the Government that despite a dip in the international economy which impacted on Ireland and required belt-tightening, there was no frantic, reckless and irresponsible short-term dash to penalise any sector. The Government kept its cool. A reduction in the rate of increase in the level of provision to services across the board was characterised in loud terms as "cutbacks" but it was of short-term duration and constituted a prudent, necessary policy which has paid dividends. It was a clearly thought-out mechanism to manage transition responsibly and it has succeeded.

To be fair to Senator McDowell, he acknowledged that although there have been problems, which he articulated very well, Government activity has resulted in successes in many areas. There has been useful, prudent and effective management of the improvement of services. The results are evident. Senator McDowell cited education provision as a specific success. I draw to the attention of Members three independent organisations, one of which is home-based, which reflected on the Irish economy over the past few years in various reviews produced before Christmas.

The ESRI reports are a useful guide to Government spending and how the economy is performing. The organisation published an overview of the economy prior to Christmas, in which it confirmed that Ireland is one of the fastest growing economies in the developed world. The overview does not reflect an economy in which there is massive and reckless mismanagement of spending. The ESRI further stated that, over the past decade, which includes the period the rainbow coalition was in office, "unprecedented economic growth has seen the level of real Irish GDP almost double in size".

The ESRI advanced a number of reasons for Ireland's success, including its membership of the EU and the Single Market, its low corporation tax regime and a significant multinational presence. If we have such a presence, money must have been spent reasonably wisely to attract companies. If they are deemed to be playing such a major role in Ireland's success, something must be right. The ESRI also identified sustained investment in education and training and the significant role it has played, co-ordinated social partnership agreements and stable public finances. These hardly support criticism of the Government for engaging in reckless public spending.

The OECD also carried out a study on the economy, in which it stated domestic living standards had increased significantly over the past decade. Ireland is fourth in the league of developed countries in GDP per capita. However, the GDP measurement is faulty and can hide various deficiencies and weaknesses. If a GNP ratio is used instead of GDP, there will be a less favourable result. The repatriation of funds by multinationals makes up the difference. Nevertheless it is better to be fourth than lower in the league table.

I accept that, although major advances have been made in public services, a number of areas have been neglected. While living standards have improved significantly throughout the State, some people have not been lifted by the rising tide. Seán Lemass used to say a rising tide lifts all boats. He was universally acknowledged as a visionary but perhaps that is not as true today as it was in his time, notwithstanding the success that has been achieved.

The IMF commended the continued impressive performance of Ireland's economy, "which is based on sound economic policies providing useful lessons for other countries". I am sure we did not get at the IMF and that it made an independent, objective assessment. The views of the organisations I have mentioned are interesting and challenging for those whose stance is that the Government is spending recklessly and not managing spending well. I invite them to challenge the views of these independent organisations when they comment on the quality of Government spending over the past number of years.

Spending has been maintained within the guidelines set in Sustaining Progress and the social partners concur in this regard. However, I reject the attitude of the elite in the health service. It smacks of an arrogance with which I cannot go along. The Sustaining Progress agreement is in place and the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children has played her part since taking up the portfolio to ensure it continues. The highly-paid elite in the health service has significant power but it has launched a pre-emptive strike. These professionals pose no threat to the Minister who is more than capable of taking them on and I wish her well in doing so, but I resent the threat they pose to sick people. It is unnecessary and unwarranted. They should sit around the table in a responsible manner in the spirit of Sustaining Progress and its predecessors, which have underpinned the success of the economy since 1987. I call on them not to strike.

Social inclusion has been targeted in the past few years with substantial increases in excess of the average spend across Departments. There is much comment on questionable decisions regarding investment in capital projects but the way in which a Government targets spending towards social inclusion and reaching out speaks volumes about its performance. The pattern of increases in Government spending has been biased towards social inclusion measures in the areas of health, education and social welfare while this year people with disabilities and those living in disadvantaged areas have been targeted. There has been a significant bias towards social inclusion measures.

Health spending has increased by 9%. The allocation of 200,000 doctor-only medical cards has been heavily criticised but I could not disagree more. Every Minister is constrained by his or her allocation, even if it has been increased by 100% from one year to next, because each Department has many priorities. A programme that sets out to reach the greatest number of people must be commended and supported. I support the decision of the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children in this regard.

I am compelled to challenge the validity of a number of statements made by the Minister of State and a number of his actions in the area of public expenditure. He stated he has generated resources to enable the Government to continue to target the needy. However, the Government has reduced the funding available to the Community Workers Co-operative, which has been dropped from the anti-poverty programme. This cutback most affects the needy. I do not know how the Minister of State can reconcile that reality with his earlier statement.

The CWC claims it is being punished for its role in providing a critical voice to the most disadvantaged in our society. By making this decision, the Government is saying to disadvantaged communities that it will support them as long as they do not question its policies, which reflects its arrogance over the past few years. The Minister of State should put that in the context of a situation where €500,000 was given to five community organisations last month by the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Ó Cuív, without going through the normal procedures laid down for the disbursement of grant aid. There was no public call for the proposal, no formal application process and no published selection criteria.

I do not know whether the Minister of State, Deputy Parlon, was in the House previously when I said the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs would take the dormant accounts fund and use it as a slush fund. If proof was required that this is what is going on, this is it. I do not know how it can be allowed to continue. We have been told by a spokesperson for the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs that if at the end of the year moneys are lying around, the Minister has the discretion to use them and disburse them as he wishes, without reference to proper selection criteria with regard to need. If that is the response to the needy of the country, Lord deliver us from the continuation of such a policy.

If the Minister of State is satisfied with that form of transparency in terms of the spending policy of this Government, let him state again he agrees with it. I am sure there are other examples, but they have not been highlighted. This practice would continue if it had not been highlighted by the Community Workers Co-operative when it was cut off from funding simply because it expressed a view critical of certain actions taken by Ministers with regard to how grant aid was provided to certain groups in need.

Deputy Parlon was challenged recently with regard to funding made available to a south Galway drainage scheme some years ago. The Minister of State launched that initiative twice or more. He was like a serial launcher in south Galway when he returned time and again to launch it, most times in the heat of an election. He endorsed the initiative as a great idea in his previous incarnation and complained not enough was provided.

I never launched a flood scheme in south Galway.

The Minister of State must be hurting, that is the reality.

The Senator should stick to the facts.

I will stick to the facts. The money was provided, but never spent apart from approximately €250,000 of the allocation of €2.5 million. That was taken back. Deputy Parlon said it was not returned to the Department of Finance, but of course it was and reallocated elsewhere under other schemes. Perhaps the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs has had a hand in spending some of it. The reality is that not a shovel was lifted to start drainage work in south Galway, despite the fact that Deputy Parlon insisted the criteria for spending the money would be adhered to. Schemes were identified under the cost benefit analysis demanded and would have benefited, but the Minister of State walked away from them and said they could not be done because if the water was removed from one place it would lodge elsewhere. The Department could have rectified that if it wanted, but it did not do so. It shelved the money and the scheme. No doubt it will promise it again before the 2007 election. Deputy Parlon will probably promise to drain the Shannon on that occasion if he is still in his current position.

The Senator is misrepresenting the facts of that scheme.

The Minister of State misrepresented the facts on Galway Bay FM when challenged by the local member of the liaison committee. He walked away and left more questions unanswered by his statements than before, which says something.

Correction, I challenged the other spokesman.

We have heard there has been significant spending on education. However, with regard to the National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, we were supposed to have a full service as a result of the legislation dealing with education for those with special needs, but we have had no improvement in the service. We are back to a situation where parents must get their children privately assessed. Those assessments are often not accepted by the Department of Education and Science. This situation continues 12 months after the legislation, despite the fanfare with regard to the improvements that would follow its introduction.

There are groups assembling in Dublin tonight to challenge the commitment of the Government and its ability to bring in a proper Disability Bill. We know what happened with the previous Bill. In the area of special needs nothing has changed. Delays are the same or worse than heretofore despite the commitments given to the various representative groups. Concerned parents of children with special needs are once more forgotten. The legislation goes through and the people are forgotten. The attitude is let it work its way through and it will find its depth. We provide the legislation and, supposedly, provide the funding, but it is not manifest on the ground.

Another area of concern is the promise regarding school attendance officers. Some 300 were promised, but less than 100 have been appointed, the majority of whom are in Dublin. What about the rest of the country? These officers are not on the ground and it seems likely they will not be in the foreseeable future. What happened to that promise? I would like to hear the Minister of State's response.

We have been told the pupil-teacher ratio is now 17:1. However, if one goes to any area in the country, one will find people with special needs in classes of 30 or more. How can the Minister of State say we have such an average class size when we know there are people with special needs in classes of 30 or more? One does not need to travel far from this House to find such a situation, yet the Government applauds itself on its great achievement. We could go on.

Senator Fitzgerald said the Government had spent 9% more in the area of health. What has it to show for it? Accident and emergency units are becoming areas to be avoided, regardless of the urgent need for treatment. Some people now stay home and suffer rather than attend an accident and emergency unit, because if they attend they suffer twice as much by having to wait. I attended the accident and emergency unit in University College Hospital, Galway, last December. I went at 12 noon but left at 3 p.m. when the person with me decided we had had enough and should go home. An old aged pensioner from Ballindine, County Mayo, was there with a dislocated shoulder. He had been there from 11 a.m., yet nobody had come near him by 1 p.m. He telephoned his relations to come and collect him and left the accident and emergency unit with his shoulder still dislocated to return to Mayo. He had not had a morsel to eat or a drink in the intervening period. If the Minister of State is happy to preside over such situations and thinks this Government is doing a good job, he should reflect again. That is the reality of life for many in this country who are trying to access health services.

The Tánaiste recently went on a fact-finding mission to the west. Many people would have thought that at a time of great resources a new Minister would give some indication of her commitment to improved resources and facilities at ground level. However, the Minister said she was on a fact-finding mission and would not be speaking to people. She created enemies in two institutions she visited in Galway. She walked through the accident and emergency unit in University College Hospital without acknowledging the nursing staff who work at the coalface. She turned on her heel and walked off. She also visited St. Brendan's Hospital in Loughrea. She went into one ward, turned on her heel and walked out. All she did was take part in a photo call in the company of a Deputy and a recently elected local councillor. That was grand, but the reality is——

The Senator obviously was not invited.

I want to put on record how shabby that Department is under the Progressive Democrats.

That sounds like sour grapes.

I will give the Minister of State, Deputy Parlon, the facts now that he has provoked me into doing so. I contacted the Secretary General of the Department of Health and Children, as I knew of the planned visit. When a Minister visits a constituency he or she usually notifies local Oireachtas Members as a matter of courtesy. I stayed away in protest as that was the height of discourtesy to elected representatives. The Minister of State does not have to lecture me. We are used to it.

If the Senator was not there he should not tell me about it.

We are used to the Government's arrogance.

The Senator should not tell me about the Tánaiste turning on her heel if he was not there. He knows nothing about what took place. He did not have the good manners to attend.

The Minister of State is not listening to me. I told him what happened. The people who were there felt hurt. I was not a bit hurt. I did not want to be part of that charade.

The Senator sounds very hurt to me.

As I already said, the Minister of State is wrong. It is an indication of the depth of his sincerity when he says, "Welcome to Parlon country", and other such clichés. We know the depth of sincerity that is inherent in such statements. Civil servants also know a great deal about this matter.

We have been told there will be an even distribution of infrastructure within the BMW region although we can clearly see that is not the case. The NRA intends placing tolls on roads west of the Shannon. That is an impediment to industrial development in the west. A toll of €10 has been mooted for travel between Galway and Dublin andvice versa. That would be an impediment to progress and balanced regional development.

If the Minister of State does one thing, he should ensure that we do not have tolled roads west of the Shannon in areas of disadvantage. These places need encouragement which they have not yet received. Some 1,300 jobs have been lost in the town of Ballinasloe. We have been told the infrastructure there is inadequate and potential industrialists are not interested in locating in such areas. If tolls are added to this equation they would further add to the difficulty of encouraging industrial development to locate in this area.

Statistics announced yesterday pointed to a significant increase in the number of unemployed people in County Galway. The same towns that were frequently mentioned in the darkest days of unemployment are now re-emerging as trouble spots — Ballinasloe, Tuam, Loughrea and Gort. How can the Minister of State consider this good Government? Where is the allocation of funding to targeted areas evident? I felt it incumbent on me to challenge some of the statements made by the Minister in the House.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Parlon, to the House. I am pleased to have an opportunity to speak on the Appropriation Act. However, before I do so, I wish to respond to some of the comments made by Senator Ulick Burke.

I attended the accident and emergency unit in Sligo General Hospital on the Saturday before Christmas with my brother who had fractured his ankle. Saturday morning is a busy morning in accident and emergency units everywhere. We went there at 11 a.m. and my brother was seen by a doctor within 45 minutes. He had an X-ray and we were on the way home at 1.30 p.m. I have attended the accident and emergency unit in Sligo General Hospital with my family, sometimes late at night because of cases which were of a serious nature. The treatment and service we received was second to none. The facts can be checked if anybody wishes to do so. I can only speak of my own hospital; I do not know what is going on in the accident and emergency unit of Galway University Hospital.

As a politician and a regular visitor to hospitals in my area I meet people receiving hospital treatment. I usually ask them how they are being treated and if they are happy with the services they receive. In general people are happy and satisfied with the service they receive. I accept there may be problems in certain areas, but there is no problem in Sligo General Hospital.

Senator Ulick Burke also referred to the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Éamon Ó Cuív. I commend him on the introduction of the CLÁR and RAPID programmes. The CLÁR programme was introduced in areas that suffered severe depopulation in the past 30 or 40 years. Specific funding was targeted at RAPID areas that were affected by serious social problems. My area has benefited from funding under the CLÁR programme. People living on boreens and local community centres have felt the benefits of the matched funding provided by the CLÁR programme which has helped these areas to thrive and expand.

I welcome the Minister's budget announcement that he has decided to review all tax break schemes. I accept that some schemes have probably gone past their sell-by date. The urban renewal schemes have proved to be of enormous benefit in Dublin, Cork, Sligo and other places. My experience is mostly of Sligo. The centre of Sligo town was in total dereliction. It was an embarrassment. It is wonderful to see the difference that scheme has made to the town, especially between the three bridges along the Garavogue River. The tax break has been of great benefit to this area. The rural renewal scheme has been a fantastic success in south Sligo, Leitrim and Roscommon. One need only drive through Carrick-on-Shannon to see the difference it has made and the benefits which have accrued to the area, of which the Acting Chairman, Senator Mooney, is aware, being from Leitrim.

There is no question that Roscommon has thrived and the benefits to south Sligo are plain to be seen. The area I know best, Ballymote, is a small rural town in which I do not think a single house was built for 20 years until seven or eight years ago. The number of businesses which improved the standard of their premises in the past four or five years has made a tremendous difference to the town with the result that there is not one derelict site in the town.

In the past five years, 200 new homes have been built as a result of the rural renewal tax incentive scheme. Under the scheme, another 100 houses are under construction and a further 150 are at planning stage with a view to their being built, I hope, in the next two or three years. The effect of the rural renewal scheme is reflected across south Sligo and into Roscommon and Leitrim.

Some 150 planning applications were made to Sligo County Council in November 2004, while in December 2004 the figure was 400. This is significant when one considers that the normal number of applications to Sligo County Council in a year does not exceed 1,000, yet some 550 came before the council in the last two months of 2004. The reason for this is that applications for the rural renewal scheme needed to be submitted by 31 December 2004, after which one has until 30 June 2006 to complete the project. Massive amounts of development are due to take place but there is no way in the world that it will be finished by 30 June 2006.

In that context, while the review of tax breaks and incentive schemes is welcome as some schemes have passed their sell-by date, it is important that when the review examines the rural renewal scheme the economic development of the eligible areas continues. While I do not request an extension of the scheme itself, I request an extension of the deadline for the projects to be completed because of the amount of employment it has generated. For example, blocklayers, bricklayers, plasterers, carpenters and builders providers have all benefited to a phenomenal extent and many young people are employed in the building industry.

The scheme should be examined favourably during the proposed review and the timescale for the completion of the developments should be extended, even if just for one year. Specifically, I am aware of a number of schemes of 40 or 50 houses at planning stage at present which will, I have no doubt, be granted but it may be May or June of this year before they are commenced and there is no way they will be finished by the end of June 2006. I ask that the Minister of State look favourably on such an extension.

The price of a three bedroom, semi-detached house in my area is €155,000. In the early stages of the rural renewal scheme a number of investors came on board but I have noticed in the past year or so that most of the people buying in my area are young couples starting out. They are probably moving from Sligo town into the rural areas because of the price difference, which is good for those areas and will help to keep them thriving into the next 20 or 30 years.

I wish to share time with Senator Paddy Burke.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

The Minister of State may be a gas man but he is no fisherman judging by his comments about the fish kill in Kilkenny. I was in Kilkenny last Friday week and Saturday morning visiting a friend who lives at Lacken on the Dublin Road opposite the weir to which the Minister of State referred and which he passes six times a day on his way to and from his place of business in High Street. Given that the issue was in the news at the time, I raised it with my friend. I know Lacken Way from my own childhood, some of which was spent in Kilkenny, where I received my early education.

My friend told me he thought the incident was disgraceful. Although I do not project myself as an authority on the subject, he told me he saw scores of fish which had expired because they could not get through the weir. Perhaps the Minister of State wishes to consult one of his officials before he responds but can he tell the House how long the fish were left there? Was it days or weeks? I will not put a number on the amount of fish involved but it was not six.

I was interested in the Minister of State's comments as we are all naturally concerned about providing value for money with taxpayers' funds and we are with the Minister of State in regard to everything the Government does in attempting to achieve just that. We often have to deal with semi-State bodies but they seem to be beyond us in that we cannot get at them at all. I do not want to refer to PR budgets and so on as there is a natural tightening-up as a result of the Quigley report, which we welcome. However, I question the size of some of the semi-State bodies' budgets as well as their use and the arrogance of some of the officials. In that context, I often wonder about the semi-State bodies' responsiveness to Ministers. I am worried about the value for money aspect of some of the projects with which some semi-State bodies are involved.

I was very enthused when the Minister of State embarked on his programme of creating an inventory of State assets, to which I referred to in the House on a number of occasions. This is necessary because the State, in its many guises, has a great deal of land and property in every county. I do not refer to the national parks and properties which we cannot touch but there is a great deal of land which could be put to much better use for State purposes or for housing. Will the Minister of State inform the House of the position on this inventory when he responds to the statements as I have not encountered any information in that regard recently? It is important work which is not finished as far as I am concerned or, if it is, I have not yet heard so.

I am sorry I was not aware of his visit to Kerry because, if I had been, I could have met and greeted Senator Mansergh and heard of his unfortunate experience and the rip-off to which he referred. I trust that it did not spoil the Senator's enjoyment of the majesty and magnificent beauty of the famous Ring of Kerry.

I think the puncture was the bigger upset to the Senator.

I hope that is the case, that the beauty appealed to him and that he will return. I understand the Senator was in the county on a speaking engagement, which I hope was successful for him and that he enjoyed the company of the people he met there.

Although I do not necessarily refer to this Administration, a mistake was made at Government level in regard to the issue of Killarney National Park, which is close to my heart. I never believed it should have been taken out of the control of the OPW and given over to Dúchas. I did not cry over the demise of Dúchas. However, it does not belong in the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, where it is simply a spare wheel.

The output of social housing has increased from 3,200 to 6,100. However, the share of social housing in the total number of houses built has grown modestly from 7.6% to 8.8%, well short of historical levels. Local authority housing lists have increased by an estimated 18,000 families, up 60%, as social housing building has not matched the number of new families presenting each year with serious housing needs. The average cost of building a local authority housing unit rose by €55,000, an increase of over two thirds. This represented a rate of increase which was 25% higher than the house building costs index published by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. It raises questions about the efficiency of local authority house building contracts.

Even the most partisan Member will admit that many mistakes have been made in spending vast sums of taxpayers' money. If the Government does not acknowledge these failings, the public is doomed to see these mistakes repeated for the remaining years of the Government's term. The Fine Gael Party is determined to institute a programme of reform of financial procedures in the delivery of public services. A radical programme of public service reform is vital. To deliver improved services, the key objectives must be as follows: to get the best possible results from investments in public services; to strengthen the transfer of best practice into public services; to improve client power within the public service delivery system; and to enhance the devolution of decision making closer to the community.

I thank Senator Coghlan for sharing time. I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Parlon, to the House. While the Government has made great play in recent years over public private partnerships and design, build and operate projects, I was surprised the Minister of State did not refer to them. The Ministers for Transport, Environment, Heritage and Local Government and Education and Science and the Taoiseach have championed public private partnerships. Massive infrastructural projects are being developed through these partnerships. Examples include the Mullingar-Dublin road, the Ringsend waste water plant, the proposed N3 road and several schools building projects. The taxpayers want to know how these partnerships are proceeding and are operated but the Minister did not refer to them.

Members have read how these partnerships have operated in England over the past ten years and that some have been disasters. The former Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Cullen, informed the House that the Ringsend waste water treatment unit would be the be-all and end-all of treatment plants and an exemplary package for all towns.

Last week, I raised with the current Minister, Deputy Roche, the funding of these public private partnerships. The Government, including the then Minister for Finance, Mr. McCreevy, in the 2004 budget, made great play of decentralisation and the development of hub towns in the national spatial strategy. However, some towns, including Castlebar, are at a crossroads concerning the provision of infrastructure. The waste water treatment unit for Castlebar will cost €50 million. The Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government is compelling the local authority to raise 20% of this figure. The Mayo county manager must now locate between €10 million to €13 million for this scheme to commence under a public private partnership. While the contracts are soon to be signed, the Department will notify the county manager shortly whether he can proceed with the scheme. Where will he find €13 million from a small rates base such as Castlebar's? Castlebar is not the only town in this type of quandary. The Department claims criteria are laid down in the partnership scheme for all towns to secure funding in these schemes. I ask the Minister of State, Deputy Parlon, to call on the Ministers for Finance and the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to resolve this issue.

No local authority of the size of Mayo or Clare can secure such funding. Other major schemes saw local authorities, such as Galway's and Limerick's, having to secure only 4% to 6% of funding in their public private partnership schemes. The business community in areas such as Castlebar will have to cough up. Not all towns are being treated equally in this regard. Any non-domestic users, such as businesses, of the waste water scheme will have to pay for the capital aspect of its development. While this holds back developments in the regions, cities such as Dublin become clogged up. The Taoiseach has admitted that yet another outer relief road is required for Dublin city. Other Members demand transport infrastructure such as trams and rail lines for Dublin city. Why not, as Dublin is sucking it all in? The regions are being victimised with no decisions being made on projects and many regional towns falling behind as a result. I would welcome a response from the Minister of State on this matter. I am disappointed that while these schemes are going ahead in the environment, transport and education areas, he did not refer to them. Are the partnerships being put on the back-burner?

I join my colleagues in welcoming the Minister of State, Deputy Parlon, to the House. Any slogan that has "country" in it is quite all right with me.

Keep it country.

I support my friend and colleague, Senator Scanlon, in his plea for consideration to be given to extending the rural renewal scheme, not in terms of fresh applications but to complete works under way. It would be a pity having come this far and taken so much trouble that schemes would not be completed for reasons outside the control of builders, such as lack of workers, resources or whatever. I echo what Senator Scanlon said about his experience in Leitrim County Council which up to the end of December received 800 applications and expects to have them all completed and through the system by the end of this month in order to permit those who are building to carry on. That figure is astonishing. I do not have the average statistics for Leitrim but figures would not normally have reached 800 over five years, never mind one year. It is an indication of the success of the scheme.

I rarely like to engage in political points scoring in this House or outside it. However, when it becomes slightly personal, or one knows the person who is the target of a political charge, it is incumbent to set the record straight, as Senator Scanlon said, in his own experience of where he comes from. In my experience, Deputy Harney, whom I know well for a long time, could be accused of many things politically but inside or outside this House she should not be accused of lacking compassion and humanity. They are among the many qualities she has brought to bear and I am sure her party colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Parlon, will have an opportunity in his own way to rebut allegations which are exaggerated.

I could not believe, nor will I ever accept, that Deputy Harney as Minister for Health and Children or in her private capacity would go into an accident and emergency wing of any hospital and turn to a coterie of photographers who are there purely for a photocall. That accusation does her a great disservice and demeans the person who made the charge. I am sorry he is not here. I have great respect for him and I appreciate that he was making political charges to which I am sure the Minister of State will respond in his own inimitable manner.

I will make a plea regarding the Appropriation Act 2005. We are hoping that before too long there will be a Department of Agriculture and Food office in Drumshanbo, County Leitrim. I know it has been the bane of the life of the Minister of State who has been approached not by myself but by several of my Oireachtas colleagues of all parties over the past few years. It is frustrating that according to the latest information I have, Leitrim County Council wrote to the Office of Public Works several weeks ago asking it to provide further information. That information has not been provided to date. I would be grateful if the Minister of State would use his good offices to ensure that at least some clarity was brought to the issue by way of a response.

I appreciate that by their nature, Departments move slowly but this has now become a political football in my county. It is being used by those who for reasons best known to themselves are making charges and allegations that this represents a Government fudge. A Fine Gael councillor has alleged that no Government action would be taken and he will repeat that allegation until he sees the light. I hope that in the interests of clarity, the Minster of State will take a personal interest in the matter to ensure the planning process goes smoothly so we can then fight whatever battle comes next. I would hate to think the matter would be continually clogged up by red tape and bureaucracy.

I am glad that Senator Scanlon raised the following matter. The Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Ó Cuív, has provided a lifeline for the people of the west of Ireland in his ministerial portfolio. The CLÁR initiative which he introduced has proven to be one of the greatest advances for the west of Ireland, the midlands and all the other parts of the country designated as CLÁR areas. It was a stroke of genius, a simple but very effective concept to focus limited resources on areas of greatest need. Not only has the financial injection to those areas proven to be beneficial but as Senator Scanlon will testify, the initiative has had a psychological impact on those rural communities which felt neglected for so long.

I regularly refer to an experience I had early on in the CLÁR programme when I attended the opening of a bridge over a river in a rural part of County Leitrim at the back end of Ballinamore. In national terms it meant nothing but people living on both sides of that river took great pride in it. Previously they had to travel three to four miles to cross the river because the old bridge was rickety and unsafe, and could not be used by modern traffic or farm machinery. The people took great pride that day when they saw that state-of-the-art bridge. It was nothing more than a bridge but it brought great pride to that community and a sense of belonging to a community previously divided by that rickety old bridge which was there since Famine times. No doubt there are many other examples of the CLÁR programme and how it has worked but that one sticks in my mind.

I also urge Deputy Parlon in his capacity as a Minister of State at the Department of Finance to support efforts being made to develop better infrastructure in the BMW region, of which his constituency is a part. I know this matter is close to his heart and that I am pushing an open door. However, there are persistent nagging doubts that somehow, somebody has a bag of money in Merrion Square and is not quite releasing it in the way intended in terms of the Objective One in transition status.

Not as far as lovely Leitrim at any rate.

To change tack, it is extraordinary that this is one of these rare occasions on which neither I nor Senator Scanlon are complaining about Government neglect. It is a bit like the scene in Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar" except that we come to praise the Minister of State rather than to bury him.

The Senator should not go too far with that analogy.

The facts are there. I am being very restrained, as was Senator Scanlon, in embracing the wonderful efforts this Government has made in the past five years. I do not want this to sound like a party political broadcast but as Senator Scanlon said, one has only to look at the towns and villages of counties Leitrim and Sligo, as well as north Roscommon, west Cavan and County Longford, also part of the tax incentive area, to see the transformation not only in people's lives and in infrastructure but in terms of the growing affluence. There is also the psychological impact with regard to CLÁR. That has been the greatest single improvement as it has given people an extra spring in their step. Hangdog attitudes no longer exist in County Leitrim and we no longer feel we are left out of the loop. The Minister of State, who travels in that area, will testify to that fact.

I am speaking of the overall expenditure in the BMW region. Let us consider the ongoing debate about the reopening of a railway line from Sligo to Limerick. There is a growing lobby to reopen a portion of the line from Tuam to Galway. Surely a start could be made on that, particularly when one sees in today's newspapers the amount of coverage given to a transportation study which urges the reopening of the portion of the railway line from Clonsilla to Dunboyne. With all due respect, is that area the centre of the universe?

There is a by-election coming up in the centre of the universe.

Senator Mooney without interruption.

A transportation study was prepared. I am a strong supporter of public transport and the development of infrastructure. Perhaps I get that from my late father who stood in this House for many years, in that he grew up beside the railway line. I have a lifelong love affair with trains and I wish we had more trains and more public transport. It is a sad reality that very few new lines have been opened since the Brits left. It is extraordinary. We sold off all the land along the Clonsilla-Dunboyne line, which is another argument about what happened way back in the bad old days.

Boxcar Paschal.

Poor old Boxcar Willie went to his eternal reward singing his songs. Senator Norris is a great fan of Nashville and of country music.

We were talking earlier of how important it is to "keep it country" and that has been the theme of this contribution. It comes from a country perspective, to ensure that we receive our fair share. It would, however, be churlish not to acknowledge that great strides have been made over the past ten years. Great credit is due to all those who devised the schemes which have helped to lift the people out of the mire they were in, which goes back to Famine times and that old psychological negativity which surrounded much of our childhood.

It is an extraordinary testament to modern Ireland that a town such as Ballymote, to which I so well remember going with my father for childhood meetings, does not have a derelict house. There are many such instances. I lend my support to the Minister and hope that he will continue to fight the good fight in providing and developing more resources for infrastructural development in the BMW region. The one issue that is now a major stumbling block to our continued development is the peripheral nature of many counties in the area. They are really suffering from a competition point of view and that is why a great deal of development is being sucked into the east. It is inevitable and people are settling there. They want to do so because they have Luas, public transport, new rail lines, ring roads and orbital motorways. There must be a balance and I have every confidence in the Minister, considering where he comes from and especially his background as a champion of the small farmer for so many years. I know that I am pushing an open door in this regard.

Senator Norris has four minutes.

I do not wish to speak. I came to join my colleague, Senator Ross, in his Adjournment matter. We knew that Senator Mooney had the first matter on the Adjournment, so when we saw him popping up on the screen——

They panicked.

Yes, we panicked.

I thank all the Senators for their contributions. In the main, they were positive, though there was at least one exception. Senator John Paul Phelan referred to the tax bill, an issue taken up by Senator Mansergh. The fact that we have the lowest unemployment rate in Europe and that wages have almost doubled contributes to the extremely substantial tax take we now enjoy. Despite the massive sums spent on health, the Senator also made much of the extra expenditure on administrative staff in the Department of Health and Children. I concede that it may be an issue. However, there are 1,800 extra medical and dental staff, 6,400 extra nurses and 555 extra consultants, as well as substantially increased numbers of occupational and speech therapists. Therefore, it is an unfair slight, although there is a great deal more to do on health.

The Senator mentioned the facilities regarding the promised extra 2,000 gardaí. Over Christmas he may have missed the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy McDowell, visiting Templemore, where he turned the sod on the new training facility. The OPW is a long way towards acquiring temporary accommodation for the in-service training of gardaí and the plan for the extra 2,000 officers is in train and will begin to manifest itself very soon.

The Kilkenny flood scheme and the famous fish have arisen several times. I believe that it was Senator McDowell who said that one swallow never made a summer. One or two dead fish do not really make a bad flood relief scheme either. I accept, as Senator Coghlan said, that there were some deficits in the fish pass at Lacken Weir. I was there yesterday, having taken a keen interest in the topic. I met many people who said that the problem was grossly exaggerated, although not all the fish got up through the pass. It has recently been modified and the vast bulk——

Will they get up to Laois and the upper reaches of the Nore?

One hopes so. They may even get right up into the Slieve Blooms.

Not if it rains as heavily as it did for a while.

I do not want to get into this issue in too much depth, but the pass was designed with the best expertise of the Central Fisheries Board and the OPW. It has been found somewhat deficient and every effort is being made to sort that out. However, having visited it yesterday, I must say that the main reason that such a great deal of money was expended was to avoid flooding. I hope that Kilkenny will never have a flood again. If it does, the rest of the country will be deluged. It is a superb and extremely attractive scheme. It had to take into account that Kilkenny is a very famous medieval city and that we disturbed some extremely dangerous PCBs in the river bed that had to be dealt with very carefully, something that happened to most people's satisfaction. I know that people in Clonmel would immediately embrace a scheme such as that in Kilkenny. We hope to be able to move forward with that before the end of the year.

Senator McDowell was generally very positive and acknowledged the work done by the Government. Along with some other speakers, he mentioned PPPs. There is provision for PPP investment to the tune of €3.7 billion in the 2005 to 2009 envelopes. The Government is fully committed to the PPP process. It has taken longer than anticipated to open up the entire flow of PPPs. It is a new form of procurement for the Department and the private sector has some suspicions. Four of the biggest decentralisation projects are to be part of PPPs and I believe that the national conference centre is in the final stage of such a contest. We will see that manifest itself a great deal more.

I regret that Senator Ulick Burke always finds the glass totally empty. He made a very strong attack and it was interesting to hear the contrast with a Senator from Sligo who lives on the same side of the Shannon. It was as if they were on different continents, not to mention in the west——

They are in different parties. That is the essential difference.

The Senator referred to the south Galway flooding. I had personal experience when I was a lobbyist for farmers in the area and more recently as Minister of State with responsibility for the OPW. I did not initiate the schemes and was never down there launching any of them; I must correct the Senator on that point.

However, the three main criteria for any flood scheme are that engineering must offer a solution to the difficulty; that it must be environmentally friendly; and that it must be cost effective. There must be a cost-benefit ratio. Unfortunately, only one of the schemes in the area fulfilled all those criteria and some fellow Galway constituents downstream, who, perhaps like the Senator, choose to raise major objections despite the view of the OPW experts, will cause us grief. Their concerns were sufficiently strong to cause the scheme not to go ahead. That is the unfortunate reality and there was very little more that I could do.

I was upset that the Senator chose to make a personal attack on the Tánaiste, Deputy Harney, and I am delighted that Senator Mooney supported her. I spent time in her company on those visits and the lengths to which she went to meet practically all the patients and staff throughout the hospitals were extreme. She got a great deal of good feedback and mine was very positive too. It is unfortunate that the Senator took such a vitriolic view.

Senator Coghlan referred once again to the importance of value for money in the inventory of State assets. That is ongoing and the OPW sold over €100 million in property last year. This year it is our target to sell off another €100 million in property superfluous to normal use by the State. I agree with the Senator's comments on Killarney National Park. I would like it to be my political responsibility, but that is an issue for better heads. Perhaps common sense will prevail in that case.

Senator Paddy Burke also referred to PPPs. They are not on the back-burner and will be implemented. We are moving forward and will have several of them. Roads suit PPPs where tolls are a feature, but the decentralised offices and headquarters of the Department of Education and Science, the Department of Agriculture and Food, the Department of Social and Family Affairs and the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government will all be PPPs too. As I said, the national conference centre is reaching the final stages of competition.

What about water and sewerage schemes?

It is open to all the local authorities to pursue a PPP. It is up to Castlebar Town Council. One of the issues is that one needs a certain scale of operation to justify the extra costs involved. I believe the Senator mentioned a figure of €50 million. It would certainly need to be in that range.

It has been selected for a PPP, but the €13 million contribution from the local authority is the problem.

Senator Mooney referred to the famous Department of Agriculture and Food building in Drumshanbo. For a long time, Leitrim and Wicklow were the only two counties without their own district veterinary office. The Wicklow case has been sorted out and Drumshanbo is promised an office, the OPW having bought the site. I regret to say that I did not realise that was the case. I give the Senator a commitment to inquire about that immediately because it is a commitment the Government and the Department of Agriculture and Food made and it is only right that it be carried out. We did not get to hear from Senator Norris, unfortunately, but I know he would have been very complimentary about the issue with which we are dealing.

When the Bill was dealt with in the House before Christmas, there was not much time to debate the issue. It was important that we got agreement from the House and that was forthcoming from all sides. We undertook to come back to the House to debate the issues, and we have had a lively debate.

The Government is doing a successful job in managing the public finances. It is clear there are many challenges ahead, many of which have been outlined in the debate. I believe the budget we will set out in 2005 will continue to make real economic and social progress. I thank the Chair and Members for their attention.

Will the Minister of State comment on the extension of the scheme referred to by a number of speakers?

I will take that issue up with the Senator later.

When is it proposed to sit again?

At 10.30 a.m. tomorrow.