I am grateful for this opportunity to reflect on our work to legislate effectively and apply the best thinking to public policy.
I am accompanied by my colleague, Mr. Martin Fraser, Secretary General. As part of the programme for Government and the commitment to strengthening Cabinet accountability, it was agreed that all Ministers would appear before their relevant Oireachtas committees and that the Taoiseach would appear before this working group to discuss matters of public policy. This meeting serves as a useful purpose because it is an opportunity to hear about what committees are working on, the issues of concern to chairpersons and, also, it is an occasion for me to comment on what Government is doing.
I want to acknowledge the role committees play in scrutinising the work of Government and its agencies, in examining legislation and in advising on policy issues. During the 2011 election, which we all remember so well, which was during the time of the financial crisis, there was a huge demand for political reform in Ireland, a sense that the political system had let people down and was part of the reason for that crisis, and calls for a democratic revolution. Since then, a lot has been done to reform our politics, much of which is unrecognised, but there is more yet to be done. Among the changes that have been made which I think are of significance, is the use of pre-legislative scrutiny by committees in giving Oireachtas members much more input into significant policy matters and legislation before it is drafted by Departments.
There has also been the introduction of the Committee on Budgetary Oversight, albeit still in its early days, which gives the Oireachtas a stronger role in budgetary matters and provision of specialist resources, such as staffing for the new parliamentary budget office, which provides financial and budgetary expertise for Oireachtas members. There has been a major reduction in the use of the guillotine. The Seanad reform implementation group is up and running. We now have scrutiny of the appointments of chairmen of State bodies by committees. Also, the fact that we have a minority Government means more Private Members' Bills have been accepted, five of which have now become law, and we have had to take on the views of Opposition more frequently than perhaps was done in the past. It is also fair to say that there is now greater communication between Ministers and their Departments and Opposition spokespeople and Oireachtas committee chairpersons and members, although I appreciate this is still not always satisfactory.
When the current minority coalition of Fine Gael, the Independent Alliance and Independents was formed in May 2016, expectations were limited. Few thought it would last but the record of the past two years tells a different tale. Facilitated by the confidence and supply agreement with Fianna Fáil it has proven possible for the minority Government to do more than just survive or muddle through. We have been able to refresh ourselves, act decisively and govern and deal with major issues not dealt within the past by majority Governments. In total, 65 Bills have been enacted, five of which were originally published as Private Members' Bills. A further 18 Government Bills are currently before the Dáil and seven Government Bills are currently before the Seanad, which means 30 to 35 pieces of legislation each year become law, which under a majority Government, was approximately 40. This shows that minority Governments can get legislation enacted.
The past two years have seen the benefits of the country's economic recovery spread across the country. In every county, employment is up and incomes and living standards have risen. The Government's books have been brought into balance. Last year, for the first time in ten years, we had a small budget surplus, although it was flattered by the sale shares in AIB. Our debt, although falling as a percentage of GDP, remains high at €45,000 per person. When we entered the financial crisis ten years ago it was €15,000 per person, such that our debt burden presents a major vulnerability into the future.
The last decade has been a lost decade for many of our citizens. We cannot risk returning to those days. Therefore, management of public finances will be based on what is right for the economy. We will not adopt pro-cyclical policies that jeopardise our public finances and our future living standards. Instead, we will aim for sustainable progress both economic and social. Unlike previous Governments in our position, we will not place greater priority on the electoral cycle than the long-term interests of the Irish people. We have plenty of problems and the country faces enormous challenges but overall we are on the right track. This morning, I want to reflect on some of the work done by Government since the election of the 32nd Dáil, touching on important work by the committees. This is not an opportunity to list successes, nor is that my intention in being here. Rather, it is an opportunity to look at what we need to do better into the future.
On housing, we all acknowledge that homelessness is a stain on our society. The Government is determined to reduce the number of people, particularly children, who are living in emergency accommodation. The causes of homelessness are complex and include issues that are related to issues other than housing, including health, mental health and justice. However, the increase in homelessness is linked to the collapse in our house building sector and the severe shortage of supply associated with it. Last year, 4,000 families exited homelessness into secure tenancies. Unfortunately, the number of people who entered emergency accommodation is greater than the number who left it. We are working hard to better understand the factors that are driving this increase and responding appropriately. We have introduced measures such as the special homeless housing assistance payment and the homeless housing assistance payment place finder service, which are available across the country. We have also significantly extended legal protections for tenants, among a suite of broader measures. This work will continue. However, the housing crisis we face can only be understood by reference to the lost decade and the collapse in housing supply. With a growing population we need at least 25,000 new homes each year in normal circumstances. The crash of a decade ago destroyed our home building sector and it has not yet recovered. Approximately 18,000 new homes commenced construction in the past 12 months, which is more than were constructed in any year in the last seven years, but we are still in deficit. We need to get to approximately 25,000 new homes next year and higher again in 2020.
Social housing provision is also recovering in tandem with the overall improvements in housing supply. In 2017, through various mechanisms, over 7,000 homes were added to the social housing stock while a further 40,000 will be added over the next three years. Project Ireland 2040 provides for 110,000 homes to be added to the social housing stock over the next ten years. The question of affordability is increasingly pressing. The average age of a person buying their first home has risen from 28-29 to 35, which means people, particularly couples, are paying rent for six or seven years more than would have been the case in the past or are living with their parents for a prolonged period, neither of which is desirable. As a Government, it is our desire to make home ownership a realistic objective again for people in their 20s. Most people do not want or qualify for social housing. They want to be able to save for and buy their own home. We need to assist them in doing so.
The price of zoned, appropriately located land rather than construction costs is the major obstacle to affordability. We propose to establish a new land development agency, a major part of Project Ireland 2040. This will be the most decisive intervention by the State in land management since the introduction of land zoning decades ago. It will ensure that we have a sustainable supply of serviced land for housing at prices that are affordable and in places where housing is needed. We have learned the lessons of the property boom and crash of the 2000s and we need to ensure it does not happen again. As a Government, we will not shy away from other actions required to ensure that the aspiration of home ownership is a real one.
I also very much welcome the views of committees on health care. The priority attached to health by this Government can be seen in the level of expenditure committed. Over €15 billion is provided for health expenditure in 2018, representing the highest ever level of expenditure and one of the highest per head anywhere in the world. Currently, Irish health spend is above the OECD average, as has been the case in the past 20 years, including during the recession. It is obvious that we do not have the health service that this level of spend should provide. There are too many people waiting too long to see a specialist or for the treatment they need. While we can, and are, making incremental improvements across the health service - there are many examples of this - the fundamental changes required are beyond the lifetime of any one government. This is recognised in the Sláintecare report, which presents a broad framework for the future development of Irish health services. Shortly, the Government will publish its implementation programme. This will be complemented by the €10.9 billion infrastructure investment in health care set out in Project Ireland 2040. This is much needed investment in buildings, equipment and IT, adding to the 114 primary care centres already operating, the three hospitals now under construction, with a fourth to go to tender later this year.
I cannot talk about health without referring to the debate that has dominated recent days and weeks. Serious questions have been raised about the governance, communications and performance of our health service, and the HSE in particular. Confidence has once again been severely damaged. The scoping inquiry into CervicalCheck screening, set up by the Government, will examine the specific issues that arose with respect to CervicalCheck, as well as other screening programmes. It will specifically examine the issue of non-disclosure. The Minister for Health, Deputy Simon Harris, has brought plans to Cabinet for mandatory open disclosure. That will build on reforms we have already made in respect of open voluntary disclosure. We will shortly bring forward legislation to provide for the appointment of a new HSE board to enhance accountability.
There are many good aspects of our health service and it has achieved many successes in respect of prevention, patient experience and approved outcomes. That is often lost in the midst of a crisis, such as the one we are now experiencing. We should find some space to acknowledge that more than 85% of patients say their experience of our health service is good or very good. Life expectancy is continuing to rise and cancer survival rates are continuing to improve. We have also had major improvements in areas, such as stroke and cystic fibrosis, CF, as well as reduced charges and increased access to things like free general practitioner, GP, care and prescription charges.
We are also making considerable investment in education. It is central to our ambitions as a nation. It breaks down cycles of disadvantage and supports the development of a strong growing economy. The Government has set the ambitious target of making the Irish education and training service the best in Europe by 2026. To that end, we have increased the overall education budget to more than €10 billion - the highest ever. This is only made possible by our prudent economic management. The investment allowed us to recruit 5,000 extra teachers and 2,000 more special needs assistants over the past two years. In September 2018, the primary school pupil-teacher ratio will be at its lowest point ever. We will continue this investment in education in the years ahead.
For the first time in our country's history, we have a long-term plan for the country's future development. Project Ireland 2040 sets out a vision for how our country can grow in a way that will accommodate expected population growth of 1 million people over the next 20 years. The Government has set out a long term ambitious planning framework and has backed it up with a ten year national development plan. The money follows the plan. We want to achieve balanced regional development by targeting population growth of least 50% in Cork, Limerick and Galway and also population growth centres in Athlone, Letterkenny and Dundalk-Drogheda.
Project Ireland 2040 also sets out how rural Ireland can grow and prosper over the next 20 years with provision for an extra 200,000 people to live in our small towns and villages in rural areas by 2040. We are also focused as a Government on supporting sustainable rural communities, job creation, culture and tourism, facilitating rural connectivity, access to services and making rural Ireland a good place to live, work, raise a family and set up a business. We want to ensure that the recovery and growth that Ireland is experiencing is felt evenly throughout the country. Employment outside of the Dublin region increased by 56,000 and accounted for 84% of the overall national increase in employment between the second quarter of 2016 and the second quarter of 2017. Real, on the ground, investment is being delivered locally through a range of schemes and programmes. Hundreds of communities are benefitting from these investments. I believe the €1 billion rural development and regeneration fund under Project Ireland 2040 will ensure that Government delivers on its commitment of further strengthening rural economies and communities.
The most decisive intervention the Government will make for rural Ireland is the delivery of our national broadband plan. It will ensure high speed broadband access to all premises in Ireland regardless of location. Since this Government came to office, almost 400,000 additional premises have gained access to high speed broadband. By the end of this year, nearly eight out of ten premises will have access. The Government is now in a formal procurement process to select a company that will roll out a new high speed broadband network in areas which will not get high speed broadband service from the private sector. Procurement is now in its final stages and its conclusion and delivery is a Government priority.
Brexit is one issue that I am sure all of the committees have considered because it has the potential to touch on so many aspects of Government policy and the lives of our citizens. For us, of course, the situation in Northern Ireland is inextricably linked to any discussion on Brexit. European Council guidelines say that negotiations can only progress as long as all commitments undertaken so far are respected in full. That includes the UK's commitments on the backstop. We share Prime Minister May's preference to resolve all of these issues through a wider agreement on the EU's future relationship with the UK. The Government has consistently affirmed its unwavering agreement to the Good Friday Agreement and our determination, as co-guarantor of that Agreement, to secure the effective operation of all of its institutions. We will continue to engage with the British Government to give full effect to that commitment.
I could say much more about the work of each of the committees but I appreciate that I am over time. I will finish up, hear the thoughts and concerns of the Chairs for the remainder of the meeting and engage with them on those specific issues. I look forward to continuing the dialogue in this session.